Ancient Rome, an utterly patriarchal society that fiend for combat and war, incorporated few women into their government or regime. Historians have speculated that some Roman women acted as a political counsel to their husbands, but this was mostly done behind closed doors. In the past fifty years, women of ancient Rome have fascinated many and left us with a plethora of questions considering the portrayal of Roman women in media has widely diverged from primary sources The discrepancies between our surviving primary sources and the media we consume today ultimately reflects how our society mainly views women as sexual, carnal beings.
The Contrasting Sides of HBO’S Rome: Female Dominance vs. Male Immodesty
I. Female Dominance
The HBO series Rome (2005-2007) is an acute demonstration of the misconstrued interpretations of the lives and roles of Roman women. Rome received rather impressive ratings from viewers, but it should be noted the show was widely produced for dramatization and is not wholly based on historical events like a documentary.
HBO released an introductory video for the women of Rome and their impact on their husbands, family, and even the politics of the state. Some of the show is centered around the wives of prominent men in Rome, in particular the life of Katya who was described as scandalous and “the polar opposite of all the traditional virtues of New Roman matrons.” She is characterized as forceful, driven, and extremely manipulative, yet director Bruno Heller describes that she “personifies that strange secret shadow role that women took in Roman society.” While it is true that some women were shadows to prominent men and were in fact powerful in terms of ancient Rome’s standards, by no means would Katya’s character be particularly liked or ‘worshipped’ in historical ancient Rome. In one scene, a man carries Katya’s son away for battle and she states “Bring him back safe or I’ll use the eyes of your children for beads.” This gruesome comment likely would have presented a lot of trouble for Katya in the real ancient Rome, but in Rome it only furthers her dominance over men.
In ancient Rome, Katya would probably have been considered needy and egotistical, as some considered Livia, one of the most influential women in the historical Roman Empire, to be as well. She was married to the Emperor Augustus and many of the surviving letters between her and her husband demonstrate the “shadow role” that Heller discusses in which Livia offers counsel and guidance to her husband in how to govern his empire. Although her husband Augustus seemed to appreciate this guidance, her son Tiberius had differing views and supposedly described his mother’s help and advice as bossy and domineering (Berger, 2018). Livia and Katya both had a more political oriented relationship with their husbands but according to surviving primary sources, Livia’s counsel was eventually undervalued while Katya’s was appreciated in Rome.
Although many would consider a forceful, driven female character a rather progressive suggestion, the feminist movement actually critiques this notion. The ‘strong’ female character actually sabotages feminist intent because instead the focus is on “self-transformation rather than social transformation” (Deborah Rhode, 1995, quoted by Southard, 2008, p.154). The character traits of forceful and driven that are demonstrated in Katya are not for the benefit of anyone but herself and her family; Katya made virtually no societal changes that would result in her aiding other lower class women. This furthers the prejudice of women being greedy and self-serving, which unfortunately our media still advances in shows like Rome.
II. Male Immodesty
Although Rome features ‘strong’, ’empowered’ women, there is a contrasting perspective from the men of the show. In many scenes, there are degrading and undignified comments from the men like in season 1 when Titus Pullo states “Of course, your best method for pleasing a woman is the warm beating heart of an enemy. I mean, women will say they don’t like it but they do.” There are several other immature comments from the men of the show in which they discuss the ‘pleasures’ of Roman women and they are often entirely mislead and showcase how women were treated merely as sex objects during this time.
The Hyper-sexualization of Roman Women
I. Cleopatra in Rome
Cleopatra was renowned for her extensive role in Roman politics and her relationship with Marc Antony and Julius Cesar. Cleopatra is featured in HBO’s Rome as a rather independent, confident woman. Perhaps the most paramount scene of her dominance is one opening scene in which she is laying on the floor, covered in cloth and sits up, wipes the dust off herself and offers her hand to Caesar. While rather hackneyed, this modern-day twist to the original story can appear, at face value, as ‘progressive,’ she does not require a man to help her, she can clean herself up. However independent and confident Cleopatra might seem in certain scenes, critics of Rome have varying opinions. One critic states
Cleopatra is portrayed as a a “drug-addled sex addict who sees the main chance in her manipulation of first Caesar, then Antony, and finally Octavian.” (Topping, 2019). This portrayal of an ancient Roman woman as iconic as Cleopatra, whether accurate or not, completely undermines her independence and power. Instead of viewers focusing on her lasting impression on Roman politics, Rome seeks to further her ‘sex addict’ personality which in today’s society, simply might entice more viewers.
II. Female Gladiators
Although widely debated by classical scholars for years, modern day consensus agrees that female Roman gladiators did exist in various capacities. One of the major examples for women gladiators is from a second century relief of two gladiators, Achillia and Amazon, who likely reenacted the myth of Achilles fighting the Amazonian queen Penthesilea. Above the relief is “they were freed,” which leads the viewer to speculate they received some sort of freedom from their service within the arena from their fight (McCullough, 2008).
As portrayed in the relief, the women appear to be fully dressed in protective armor and shields. However, modern day examples of what female gladiators were like in ancient Rome completely disregards the surviving primary sources. The 1974 movie The Arena and its 2001 remake explore the subject of female gladiators, but both completely fail at offering any sort of historical relevance and only further the hyper-sexualization of women that is constantly seen in modern day media. In both movies, although they are almost thirty years apart, the film posters depict beautiful women with extremely raunchy outfits. Particularly in the 1974 make, the women appear to be wearing some sort of bondage, heavily sensual outfit and a small caption states “See Wild Women Fight to the Death!” (see Figure 3, left). This movie seems entirely produced for the pleasure of men, and not for any historical impact of female gladiators; Instead, the women in The Arena are subject to intense hyper-sexualization. The Arena remake of this film in 2001 not only features bikini-clad women, but the leading actresses are Playboy Playmates. Both films completely digress from the historical accounts of female gladiators to an entirely demoralized version in which the women of the films are subject to near pornographic content for the pleasure of today’s media.
The Male Gaze
The ‘male gaze’ can be defined as “the idea that when we look at images in art or on screen, we are seeing them as a man might—even if we are women— because those images are constructed to be seen by men.” (Zeisler, 2008, p. 8). The male gaze is painfully obvious in both The Arena films, but not so much in Rome. However, it is important to first consider the male influence behind Rome as out of the main 24 crew members, only two were women. There were various rather sensual scenes throughout Rome and can be described best by an Entertainment Weekly review, “Sword fights and war, along with copious nudity and sex.” The women of Rome, in their own way, reflect this male gaze in some of their forceful sexualized manners.
The incessant hyper-sexualization of women in media not only is prevalent in modern-day content, but also in the portrayal of classical Roman women. The strong and independent female character featured in Rome and other shows that is praised for feminist intent can actually have the opposite effect in which the “strong” woman persona is only feeding into the male predetermined notion that women are inherently greedy and self-serving. A majority of Rome also featured various nudity and sex scenes in which the focus was noticeably more towards the women of the show. Like Rome, The Arena films reflect the concept of male gaze in which all movies were primarily written by men, for men.
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