Bloomsbury Academic (2020) h/b 336pp £95 (ISBN 9781350050105)
This volume explores how ancient women from antiquity have been portrayed and re-imagined in the arts. The collection features thirteen essays from different contributors, largely from the field of ancient history. It examines the reception of powerful women from the ancient world through the lens of contemporary theory and covers areas including gender studies, sociology, history of art and media studies amongst others. The forms of media explored include examples from both the ancient and modern, and encompass diverse forms ranging from video games, opera, graphic novels, television and even fanfiction. The essays incorporate some of the current discourse around Orientalism, gender, the Eastern gaze and feminism.
The collection is tightly focused and encapsulates a wide range of both real-life and legendary women from antiquity, ranging from the well-known to the more obscure. As well as chapters relating to women such as Cleopatra and Dido, there are also chapters on women such as Galla Placidia, Drypetis and Zenobia. The essays are enhanced by supporting imagery from the recent and distant past throughout the volume.
A key thread running through this collection is the argument that the interpretation of powerful women from antiquity is heavily influenced by Orientalist stereotypes e.g. the popular framing of Cleopatra as an Orientalised femme fatale, despite her Macedonian heritage. The dichotomy between the seductive, dissolute ‘other’ Oriental woman and the pious and virtuous Occidental woman is returned to throughout the volume. Essentially, when a personification is positive it is often coded as Western, and when negative, Eastern. The suggestion that the perception of powerful women in the current day continues to be similarly influenced by these stereotypes is also explored, although perhaps not as successfully as the latter argument.
In Chapter 2 Irene Berti discusses the various receptions of Artemisia I and II. Berti explores the stereotypes of Eastern women in film through past portrayals of women as ‘damsels in distress’, to the more empowered female characters of recent years. Of particular interest is Berti’s exploration of Artemisia I’s character in 300: Rise of an Empire, a characterisation which endeavoured to portray Artemisia as a strong feminist protagonist, albeit a heavily sexualised one. Artemisia’s real power is portrayed not as her strategic military skills, but her sex appeal, which Berti argues is ultimately no more progressive than her portrayals in previous media incarnations.
In Chapter 13 Beate Wagner-Hasel proposes some intriguing and surprisingly adversarial arguments. Of particularly interest was the argument in which they propose that ‘only by equating power with physical strength is it possible to claim that women had no power in antiquity’. This raises some interesting questions as to what we mean by power. Did women have power if they were able to command their servants and slaves? Wagner-Hasel appears to suggest that this is the case, but would many consider this to be a meaningful manifestation of power?
A collection of this scope necessitates the exploration of a variety of different themes and I think this is largely accomplished with this volume. There is nothing radically new here in terms of the key arguments made by the authors, but the diversity of the ancient women explored (albeit all influential and powerful women in their time), and the range of media examples explored, resulted in an illuminating and thought-provoking read.