Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guest Author, Stephanie Dray - Bad Girls of the Ancient World: Expanded Edition

Today on History Undressed, I'm thrilled to present to you a new author, Stephanie Dray.  I first met Stephanie earlier this year at a local writing chapter meeting.  I stared admiringly and somewhat covetously at the paper thin laptop she was using for an hour--mine is quite large--(my apologies to the speaker!) and then introduced myself. She is an up and coming author of historical fiction, her debut Lily of the Nile, a novel about Cleopatra's daughter, will release in January 2011.  In the meantime, she has presented me with a tantalizing and fun historical article.  Enjoy!

Bad Girls of the Ancient World: Expanded Edition
by Stephanie Dray
I 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
Though some have argued that Dido is only a mythological figure, it seems more likely that she was a real historical figure--a Princess of Tyre, granted the right to rule jointly with her brother. However, her brother wasn’t keen on sharing power so he murdered Dido’s wealthy husband with the intention of taking over the palace. What Dido did next set her apart from most other women of known history--she didn’t seek out shelter in another kingdom as a wealthy exile, nor did she try to re-marry a powerful king to help her recover the rulership of Tyre. Instead, Queen Dido led a group of settlers and government officials who remained loyal to her and founded the city of Carthage in North Africa.

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
  There are a number of stories about proud Carthaginian women who chose death as an alternative to being ruled by men, or by Rome. Sophonisba is another of them. The legend surrounding her is that she was a fiercely patriotic princess who was betrothed to Massinissa of Numidia. But when her intended groom allied with Rome and wouldn’t stay faithful to Carthage, she decided to marry the Numidian leader Syphax instead.

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

from Promptuarii
Iconum Insigniorum
This Greek princess and supposed descendant of Achilles met her husband, Philip II of Macedon, while being initiated into the mysteries of an ancient cult. She was always suspected, ever after, of sorcery and congress with serpents. Though she was the fourth of Phillip’s wives, he claimed it was a love match, and she appears to have believed him until he started marrying other women. When Philip married a seventh time and drunkenly accused Olympias of infidelity, she packed up her things and left Macedon.

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.

Cleopatra -- The Most Powerful Woman in the History of the World

Marble Bust of Cleopatra
Dating from 30-40 BC
As the consort of not one, but two Roman generals, Cleopatra earned a reputation as a seductress. Though she was a Hellenistic Queen, the Romans thought of her as foreign and exotic. Because she respected older Egyptian traditions, the Romans disdained her for worshipping all manner of strange gods. What’s more, her enemies believed she was capable of wielding magic. And if that weren’t bad enough, Cleopatra was also a warrior queen, capable of commanding her own warships.

She’s come down to us as a familiar and iconic image. Everyone has heard about the infamous Queen of the Nile, and there’s a good reason for it. She was, and remains, the most powerful woman in the history of the world. Though we’ve since had powerful queens, the geographic scope of their authority has been smaller. We’ve also had women serve as prime ministers of important countries, but their powers have been limited and sharply circumscribed. Cleopatra was not only the queen of Egypt in her own right, but in concert with her Roman husband, the biddable Marcus Antonius, she wielded unprecedented power. Until the Battle of Actium, she was poised to rule the entire world. But for some bad weather and a wildly successful propaganda campaign against her, the world might be a much different place today.

It’s difficult to wonder what lessons Cleopatra’s daughter Selene must have taken from her rise and fall. Selene herself was born in Ptolemaic Egypt, the best possible place to be born a woman in the ancient world. Raised in Alexandria, she would never have lacked for strong female role models.

Nonetheless, Cleopatra Selene was not a bad girl of history; she managed, somehow, to wield great political power and religious influence without ever falling afoul of the patriarchy. This may be because no sexual scandal touched her during her twenty-year marriage to Juba II or because she never took up arms on a battlefield.

Even so, she never forgot the important women in her life or in her legacy and neither should we.


With her parents dead, the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony is left at the mercy of her Roman captors. Heir to one empire and prisoner of another, it falls to Princess Selene to save her brothers and reclaim what is rightfully hers…

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.

Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.  Visit Stephanie at http://www.stephaniedray.com/


Anonymous said...

Your insights actually make history interesting! (Something MY college professors failed to do...) Can't wait to read Lily!


Christi Barth said...

Love the rundown of the bad girls. But I'm kind of stuck on the photo of Dido's statue...I'm picturing a marble statue of Queen Elizabeth 1,000 years from now, also with breasts bared. Now it is all I can think about.....

Stephanie Dray said...

Thanks Beth! That's one of the highest compliments I can be paid. I love to bring history alive for people...after all, its our collective story!

Hee, Christi, hopefully our own Queen Elizabeth will not stab herself :P

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks for visiting Stephanie! Fascinating post! I always love to learn about women throughout history who were powerful, smart, and there were many. Funny that even today, men become agitated when a woman gains power. Looking forward to reading LILY OF THE NILE.

Julia Drake said...

Wonderful post. These women and their struggles are timeless and inspiring. Makes me want to start the day with a battle cry:-)

Stephanie Dray said...

Thanks everybody!

Jamie Michele said...

Sat in a freezing-cold room for way too long because I got sucked into reading this and couldn't stop!

Another thing we have in common: not mastering Latin. I spent two years translating Caesar's Gallic Wars and can't recall a thing.

dolleygurl said...

I can't wait to read this book. A fascinating post - there are so many women in history that really could have done great things if men weren't so afraid of the power that they had. It is unfortunate that we are still trying to get out of this today.