It was a sort of happenstance for Elizabeth Greene.
She was working on a project about the role of women in the ancient Roman army when she saw them, hiding in plain sight. Greene wasn’t looking for them, but there they were – women, depicted in at least four scenes on Trajan’s column, a triumphal monument in Rome, commemorating emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars.
Up until this point, no one had noticed these women, said the Western Classical Studies professor. But in at least four, and maybe six, scenes carved into the column, women are obviously present.
“I was looking closely, and found women in the religious scenes, and I was trying to figure out why we never talk about these women. I had never heard about them, ever,” Greene said.
But you won’t find what you’re not looking for, she noted. Roman soldiers were legally prohibited from marrying, so, for centuries, it was essentially assumed women played no part in Roman military life. No legitimate part, anyhow.
“The reason why no one has talked about them before is because they were previously identified as feminized boys,” Greene explained.
But the women she identified on Trajan’s column are obviously women, she said.
“There were these religious attendants that hold sacrifices and they were traditionally boys, but these (images) are very much women, in elite 2nd century female garb,” she continued.
“I’m basically re-identifying figures on Trajan’s column.”
If archaeological evidence from the Roman military presented evidence of women present, it was assumed it came from prostitutes, Greene added. It was always assumed the military had some sort of “camp followers” who tagged along. But no one dared to claim women were, at any point, an integral part of Roman military life.
Greene is working to remedy that perception, looking at who the women were and what their role was.
“Here, you’ve got women who are very much legitimate parts of the community. For a good 20 years, it was just about proving they were there,” she said.
“Only now are we actually saying, ‘What are they doing there? What are their roles in the community?’ Up until now, they were just on the back burner; nobody wanted to talk about them, nobody wanted to think about them, or about what women and families were doing in the Roman military.”
Brushing off women as prostitutes or camp followers is too simple, and it’s derogatory, Greene continued.
“It’s saying they had nothing legitimate to do but really, you had families, you had daughters and sisters of soldiers, marrying soldiers. You’ve got this whole community of women that’s an important aspect of what life would have been like in the Roman military, and also how the military functions.”
“If you look at early modern comparisons, you see military couldn’t have functioned without the women and families – whether it be through clothes washing or making small crafts, fixing shoes or clothes – just keeping the society that is the military going. It’s about rehabilitating what the women were doing there.”
The women Greene has identified on Trajan’s column obviously played some religious role for the Roman soldiers, and she speculates they could have been priestesses. They were certainly never part of battle, but they were there. What roles they played, she’s still working to find out.
“Evidence shows women are taking important and active roles in the Roman army. They’re not just these ancillary figures, playing second fiddle,” she said.
“They weren’t fighting, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have an important role within the community of the military.”