Non-Fiction, Reviews

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore by Emma Southon (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I was particularly excited to read this biography of Agrippina the Younger for a couple of reasons: I had only vaguely heard of her and was keen to know more about a real Roman woman, and I also pledged to support this book on its publisher’s website. As you may know, Unbound is a crowd-funding publisher where readers can pledge towards a particular book, and in exchange you get a copy of it and your name printed inside. I was really intrigued by the premise of this book and pledged as soon as I read about it – and was very pleased to finally receive my copy of the paperback a couple of weeks ago. I started reading straight away.

Now, I knew that Agrippina was not going to be an ‘academic’ book, despite the author Emma Southon being a Dr, because I knew she has left academia. And I knew that Unbound are an unconventional publisher, and they might not be as rigid as some of the bigger presses when it comes to the books they publish. But somehow I was entirely unprepared for the style of this book.

I totally get that Southon wanted to write a more ‘popular’ style of book on the Romans, and I think that is a good thing, especially as she actively seeks to demolish old-fashioned ideas about them, and makes a point of highlighting how women were treated in the Roman period and in the historical record. Throughout the book Southon demonstrates how hard it is to put together a biography of someone about whom we have very few sources of information left. This is very admirable and very interesting, and initially I liked that Southon was clearly rejecting the stiff academic style of historical biography, and that she makes a point of trying to make her characters seem more human and relatable, especially when trying to understand what happened and why.

However – perhaps it’s just me, but I found the writing almost too casual and chatty, and I found this hard to get along with. As Southon points out, a lot of the characters in her story had the same or very similar names, and everyone in the Julio-Claudian dynasty was related in complicated ways, and it can be hard to keep track. But I found the chatty and casual style made it even harder to keep track of this, because the conversational tone meant that it was a bit stream-of-consciousness and meandering.

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Agrippina the Younger (image: britannica.com)

Despite my issues with the style – and the over-the-top swearing and gratuitous graphic phrasing – the story of Agrippina’s life is undoubtedly fascinating and engaging. Her position in the dynasty meant that her life was full of high drama, including exile to an island, a few possible murder plots, affairs, death, divorce, political intrigue, revenge… and that’s just in the first couple of chapters. I loved reading about such a courageous and defiant woman who lived in an age when women had basically no rights and, as Southon points out, did not matter unless they were attached to a man. It was fascinating to see how Agrippina’s position and status changed along with the men in her life, and how interconnected and fragile the structure of Roman high society was. Everyone’s lives were intertwined and very involved, and everyone was constantly vying for power and status. Women had so little of both these things, so they often seemed the most desperate. Southon succeeds in depicting the women in this story as fully-formed people as well as possible, given the limited source material. She also succeeds at acknowledging both the flaws and importance of these sources – such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio.

Agrippina is a very engaging read, and I am very glad that Unbound made it possible for this book to be published. The world always needs more books about the women of the ancient world, especially such influential and intriguing women like Agrippina. This biography helpfully includes a list of further reading, which I will definitely be mining for inspiration. It has also reminded me that I need to do much more Classical reading! I work on the subject in my job, so I often forget just how much I love reading about the Classical world outside of work. Agrippina is a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about women in the Roman world in a less formal way, and I’m sure a lot of people will love this book.

*

Published in 2018 by Unbound. I received my copy as part of the crowdfunding scheme.

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I saw this book at a conference last year, and it sat on my reading list for months until I received it for my birthday in January. I was a bit apprehensive about reading it as I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a light read, and the paperback is 429 pages (not counting the appendix, notes, and bibliography). But once I had a copy myself, I knew I had to just go for it, which is often the best option for long or intimidating books (for me at least).

I have been keen to read more classics stuff outside of work (where I work on classics books), but wanted to avoid feeling like I was working, which is why I chose a non-academic book like this one. It is written by a professor, and published by a university, but it is not a textbook. In the introduction the author describes it as a sort of encyclopaedia, which sort of makes sense, though it reads like a biography or history. The encyclopaedic aspect comes through in the sheer volume of information and the huge amount and range of sources that are cited, from myth, history, and archaeology.

The latter is crucial to Mayor’s argument that there really were women who were like the mythical Amazons – equal to men in combat and status, riding horses, fighting and going out to battle, etc. Mayor carefully defines the difference between the Amazons of Greek myth, that we see in their art and literature, and real women across the ancient world who lived Amazon-like lives. The real women that Mayor discusses were from the lands north and east of Greece, covering what is now south-east Europe, parts of Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and over into Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. It is a huge area – hence the huge book.

Mayor assumes that her reader has a good base of knowledge about ancient Greek society and gender roles, and uses this as a starting point to compare the women of these various regions with women in Greece, as well as the Amazon women in Greek myths. Mayor points out that there are some classicists who theorise that the Amazons were purely something from Greek myth and not based on any real people – and she disputes this. There is plenty of historical and archaeological evidence for ‘warrior women’ in multiple tribes, peoples, and places throughout the regions mentioned, and Mayor catalogues many of this in detail. This cataloguing can get a bit overwhelming, but it’s worth the effort for the incredible stories of these warrior women and the lives they lead.

As someone who only studied classics up to A-Level, it was fascinating to learn about more of the ancient world outside of Greece and Rome. I loved hearing about these women who lived like men, rode into battle, and yet still formed families, had children, and lived full lives. Greece starts to look like the anomaly instead of the norm, with its women confined to the house for all their lives, never having any freedom or choice.

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(image: pinterest.com)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the consideration of how ancient Greek people, both men and women, would relate to the warrior women of the east – whether mythical or actual. The common mythical trope was that the Greek hero and the Amazon would be more or less equal in combat, their fighting charged with potential sexual tension, but ultimately the hero would overpower and kill the Amazon. The most famous (and earliest) piece of Greek art to feature an Amazon is Exekias’ vase showing Achilles and Penthesilea at the moment that they lock eyes and fall in love, exactly as his spear enters her chest and he kills her (see right). Penthesilea was a mythical Amazon queen who led her band of female warriors to Troy to help defend the city against the invading Greeks. They managed to kill plenty of soldiers until Achilles and his band of men attacked, and the women were all killed. The story was immortalised by Exekias, and the Greeks loved this interplay of sex and death on the battlefield, in the Greeks’ most famous victory over their eastern neighbours.

The Greeks seemed to have a weird fixation on Amazons as ‘wild’ women who must be overpowered by heroes; they held a certain fascination as both ‘manly’ and strangely alluring. Mayor details several Greek myths in which the sexual tension between the Greek hero and the Amazon is a very important factor, included in all versions. This fascination with Amazons meant they were included in huge amounts of ancient Greek art and literature.

Mayor argues that the Amazons of myth were based on real women encountered by ancient Greek travellers and historians, most famously Herodotus (I have just bought myself a copy of Tom Holland’s translation of his Histories). Having read her book, I completely agree with this. So many tribes throughout Scythia, the lands around the Black Sea, and over towards China, contained women who lived almost exactly like men – or who at least knew how to ride, shoot arrows, and fight to some degree – that it is impossible to refute the notion that mythical and legendary Amazons were based on real women.

The Amazons is a wonderful blend of mythical stories, histories, art, literature, and archaeology all being discussed and analysed, giving a broad overview of the lives of women outside Greece in the ancient world. While it is a dense and sometimes heavy-going book, it is also fascinating, engaging, and ultimately very rewarding. It is one of the most authoritative books I have read on the ancient world, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the lives of women in antiquity.

*

Published by Princeton University Press in 2014 (hardback) and 2016 (paperback). I read the paperback edition, pictured above.

 

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