Bad Girls of the Ancient World: Expanded Edition
by Stephanie DrayI recently co-authored a piece about bad girls in the ancient world with Jeannie Lin, author of historical fiction set in Tang Dynasty China. Together, Jeannie and I discussed how women who have been vilified in history share a few common traits whether they hail from western or eastern culture. These women were usually warriors, seductresses, or sorceresses. Sometimes, all three.
Today I’m taking on this subject solo to introduce you to the ancient bad girls of Western Civilization--those women who defied social convention and sometimes changed the world as a result. These women are fascinating and in the context of my forthcoming novel, Lily of the Nile, they also served to inspire my heroine, Cleopatra Selene.
The historic Selene was born into a dangerous political world, a civilization on the brink of change, and one that may have embraced a more egalitarian view of women if her parents had won their struggle with Octavian. Instead, the independence and power of Selene’s mother as a ruler became a pretext for war, and the misogyny of the Augustan Age took root.
It’s taken us more than two-thousand years to move away from the attitudes towards women that were fostered in Selene’s time, so let’s talk about those bad girls who inspire us and serve as everlasting examples of how ancient attitudes about women still influence us today.
Dido -- Queen of the Carthaginians
by Christophe Cochet
She was a politician who not only shaped her own fate but created a new civilization. She was also, apparently, so highly religious that she is often equated with her goddess, the Carthaginian Tanit. And when she faced political domination by a neighboring country that wanted to force her into marriage, Dido stabbed herself to death and threw herself upon a funeral pyre.
But why did she come to be thought of as a bad girl in the ancient world?
Because the Romans and the Carthaginians would go on to battle each other in a series of wars for more than one hundred years, the Roman hostility towards a civilization founded by a powerful woman helped forge the Roman character and its attitude towards women. Virgil’s Aeneid, the quintessential propaganda epic of the Augustan Age, immortalizes Dido as a temptress who quite nearly dissuaded the upright Aeneas from his duty to found Rome. (Historically, it’s unlikely that Dido and Aeneas could have ever crossed paths, but a Roman historical fiction writer like Virgil couldn’t resist the temptation to imagine their failed love affair!)
For the Romans, Dido was a woman who should have submitted to her brother’s rule and never taken it upon herself to build a new city or refuse marriage to another man. And because the Romans defeated the Carthaginians, it’s their attitudes that we have inherited through history.
Sophonisba -- Carthaginian Princess and Patriot
by Giovanni Francesco Caroto
But Sophonisba’s jilted groom didn’t forget her. Perhaps as much from injured pride as for political reasons, Massinissa defeated Syphax and claimed Sophonisba as his bride. She married him, but tried to use his love for her to turn him against the Romans.
Sophonisba never took up arms against the Romans; she wasn’t a political enemy in the conventional sense. However, the Romans were threatened by women who used their sexuality for political gain. Marking her for an enemy, the Romans demanded that she be handed over and marched in a triumph through Rome as a captured slave. Sophonisba drank a cup of poison instead.
As a young North African queen and wife of Juba II who was himself a descendant of Massinissa, Selene must have heard this story; it’s difficult to imagine that it didn’t remind her of her own mother.
Olympias -- Mother of Alexander the Great
Fortuitously--and perhaps not coincidentally--her husband was assassinated shortly thereafter. Olympias was able to install her son Alexander on the throne and he would go on to become ruler of the known world. But Olympias didn’t simply fade into the woodwork; she was an active participant in Alexander’s political regime. After her son’s death, though she was in her fifties, Olympias commanded an army in the field to preserve the throne for her baby grandson. What’s more, she won. For a short time, she was the mistress of Macedonia, at the zenith of her power. Eventually, she was defeated by Cassander and executed, thought to be far too dangerous to leave alive, but she leaves behind the archetype of a fiercely protective mother.
As a descendant of Alexander’s Macedonian general, Ptolemy, Selene was a kinswoman to Olympias and probably learned about her exploits.
In the aftermath of Alexandria’s tragic fall, Princess Selene is taken from Egypt, the only home she’s ever known. Along with her two surviving brothers, she’s put on display as a war trophy in Rome. Selene’s captors mock her royalty and drag her through the streets in chains, but on the brink of death, the children are spared as a favor to the emperor’s sister, who takes them to live as hostages in the so-called lamentable embassy of royal orphans.
Now trapped in a Roman court of intrigue that reviles her heritage and suspects her faith, Selene can’t hide the hieroglyphics that carve themselves into her flesh. Nor can she stop the emperor from using her for his own political ends. But faced with a new and ruthless Caesar who is obsessed with having a Cleopatra of his very own, Selene is determined honor her mother’s lost legacy. The magic of Egypt and Isis remain within her. But can she succeed where her mother failed? And what will it cost her in a political game where the only rule is win or die?
Stephanie graduated from Smith, a small women’s college in Massachusetts where–to the consternation of her devoted professors–she was unable to master Latin. However, her focus on Middle Eastern Studies gave her a deeper understanding of the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion.