In this special episode we sit down with Dr Emma Southon to discuss her brand new book A History of the Roman Empire in 21 Women.
This is the Roman antidote to all those fabulous reimagining of Greek myth by delving into the very real and very fascinating lives of some of the women who lived under the Romans.
Special Episode – A History of the Roman Empire in 21 Women with Dr Emma Southon
We discuss the choices Emma made about who to include and who to leave out as well as consider some of the women who stood out for us when reading the book.
If you have a history-minded people to consider at certain upcoming celebrations that may or may not resemble the Saturnalia, this book is worthy of your consideration. Not only is Emma erudite, but she has a great understanding of just how quirky the Romans were.
Things to tune in for
- The challenges of ancient evidence (a perennial topic on our podcast!)
- The amazing life of Turia
- ‘Manus’ marriage – an ancient form of Roman marriage which saw a wife come under the direct power of her husband (or his paterfamilias)
- The enterprises of Julia Felix
- *The conquests and political power plays of Zenobia
- The very particular approach to Christianity of Melania the Elder
We firmly recommend checking out Dr Southon’s work, which can be found on her website: https://www.emmasouthon.com/
If you’re interested in her latest book, here are links to where to buy online:
- Australia – Booktopia
- UK – Bookshop.org
- US – Please note the US title is A Rome of One’s Own: The Forgotten Women of the Roman Empire – Bookshop.org
Emma is the co-host of the History is Sexy podcast and can also be found on Instagram. Emma is a great friend of the show and you’re most welcome to check out our other conversations on Agrippina the Younger and murder in ancient Rome.
Just look at those glorious book covers! Despite the title difference, these are the SAME book. The US release is known as A Rome of One’s Own while the UK version is entitled A History of the Roman Empire in 21 Women.
Our music was composed by Bettina Joy de Guzman.
Lightly edited for clarity!
Dr Rad 0:12
Welcome to The Partial Historians. We explore all the details of ancient Rome. Everything from political scandals to love affairs, the battles waged and when citizens turn against each other. I’m Dr. Read.
Dr G 0:30
And I’m Dr. G. We consider Rome as the Romans saw it by reading different ancient authors and comparing their accounts.
Dr Rad 0:41
Join us as we trace the journey of Rome from the founding of the city. Welcome to a special episode of The Partial Historians, I am one of your hosts, Dr. Rad.
Dr G 1:08
And I am Dr. G.
Dr Rad 1:10
And this is a special episode because we are talking to someone extremely exciting. Dr. G. Dare I say? scintillating?
Dr G 1:19
I think you should say scintillating. Yeah, we are thrilled to welcome Dr. Emma Southon back to the show. Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr Emma Southon 1:28
Thank you so much for having me back. I just feel extra special when I get invited back like I didn’t do something monstrous last time.
Dr Rad 1:35
Exactly, exactly. So, Dr Emma Southon, for those of you who haven’t caused our previous episodes is one of our favorite guests for three reasons. Number one, she likes RuPaul’s Drag Race and therefore will understand my random references to it unlike Dr. G. Number two, she likes women in history. And number three, she shares our outlook on the ancient Romans, which is that they are unintentionally hilarious and weird. Now to be a bit more specific, Dr. Southon is renowned a smarty pants and here’s why. Aside from the obvious title before her name, she is the co host of the history comedy podcast ‘History is Sexy’, along with our Kiwi cousin, Janina Mathewson. She’s also the author of some of our favorite history books, including ‘Agrippina, Empress, Exile, Hustler Whore’, autobuy autobiography, a biography of the most extraordinary woman in the Roman world, and ‘A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’. However, we have already had the pleasure of talking to her about these books. And today, we get to talk to her about another exciting volume that has just been released ‘A History of the Roman Empire in 21 Women: How Women Transformed the Empire’.
Dr G 2:53
Dr Emma Southon 2:56
Dr Rad 2:58
Well, I will say this, you don’t like a short title. I don’t like a short title.
Dr Emma Southon 3:03
And you think I’d learn but that people struggle to remember short titles, but But yeah, I don’t know. They end up being really long. In America, this book is called ‘A Rome of One’s Own’, which is snappier.
Dr Rad 3:18
Dr G 3:18
I do like that. I saw that on Amazon. And I was like, Oh, that is sweet. I enjoyed the pun.
Dr Emma Southon 3:25
It’s yeah, I have friends who have much better puns than I am. And they come up with these great puns. And I’m like, right, well, that’s my title. Thank you.
Dr Rad 3:34
Now you cover a staggering array of women in this book. And I have to say up front, we’re not going to talk about the Regal period at all, because quite frankly, we can’t talk about it any more. We’ve talked about it so much. The only thing I will say is, I think in a second edition, you’re going to have to amend your chapter on Tanaquil, where you say that there are no popular histories that mentioned Tanaquil.
Dr Emma Southon 4:03
Yes, that’s true, because you have now finally written one.
Dr Rad 4:07
Yeah, we both have we both had.
Dr Emma Southon 4:09
Yeah. But it is. I don’t know. It was just so like, I went through as many as I could find, like all of them for like books of like a history of the Roman Empire. And like that I have kind of lying around in my house and reflect through the ones I could see. And they just skip right over her. They skip over the regnal period, like a lot like the whole, the kings are just kind of coughed over fairly often. But still, I was like, this is such a good story.
I know. I know.
Why would you not want to like go out of your way to include this. So yeah, so second edition paperback edition will have a specific reference to The Partial Historians.
Dr Rad 4:48
Yeah, thank you very much. So we feel okay now, we can calm down and talk about your book.
Dr G 4:53
Okay, the interview can happen now.
Dr Emma Southon 4:55
When I finally – because your book came out just before my end like a couple of months ago, where mine had already gone off like, and I wasn’t allowed to change it anymore. And I was like, no, I could I could have done this with this so much. And I have thoroughly enjoyed it. So everybody should buy it.
Dr G 5:13
Oh, thank you
Dr Rad 5:13
Ahh thank you. Well, we definitely felt that way about your book. And so we’d love to ask you some general questions to start off with about the style of your book. So your last book was about murder in ancient Rome. Why did you decide to, you know, change tack and go for a history of Rome, using the lives of women as your next project?
Dr Emma Southon 5:35
It’s partly spite. So my other thing that I do during my days is I work in a book shop, and you will have noticed, it’s impossible not to have noticed and moment that there is a been in the past two years ish, like a really big spike in interest in Greek goddesses, like retelling Greek myth, specifically, like retellings of female stories and Greek myth, which is great for, you know, ancient history in general, kind of, but also, you, as you will know, when you’re a Roman historian, you think that Romans are the best. Yeah. And it’s constant, like, oh, yeah, I mean, I guess the Greeks are fine. But Romans are better because they’re funnier. It’s so I kind of out of spite, when it’d be like, Yeah, but Roman women exist, too, and that they’re better because they’re real. And they don’t like turn into spiders, or like, they’re not goddesses, they’re bad. So that makes them better. And so, a 50%, out of spite that I wanted people to also be reading about Romans. And to know that Romans are better than Greeks, and 50%, because I just feel like so much of like, popular Roman history is talking about men and like the, the standard narrative of Roman history of the store of the story of Roman history is so much just war and politics, basically, which is the sphere of men, which women are explicitly excluded from, and I thought it would be fun to kind of disrupt that a little bit and be like, one, there is a history of the Roman Empire that doesn’t have any politics in it really, or has a limited amount of politics. And there is a, there is a history, which is more than just politics, it can also be what it is like to live in the Roman Empire at various times as various people. And it’s more interesting to tell that story through women than it is through men and to show that women are always kind of around about and I realized quite early on into writing it that as kind of a historian of my age, I am really only the second generation of historians writing about women in the ancient world, like my supervisor, for my PhD, who is still working was like one of the first generation of people to do her PhD on women. And like, people like Amy Richlin and Suzanne Dixon, who are still around and wrote those first books about women in the Roman Empire are like, they’re still teaching. They’re still they’re still at conferences like this. They’re you know, they’re older. But as we all know, historians never retire. So they’re still around, they’re still alive. Like they. This isn’t like an old discipline women in Rome, or women in the ancient world at all. It’s very, very new. And so, yeah, so it’s time to bring it to their, the popular imagination out of the academy and start talking about it.
Dr G 8:45
I think you’re doing a great service, particularly to readers who have become hooked on ancient Greek myths, because there is so much more to the ancient world than just, you know, having your tongue taken out or turning into a monster or
Dr Emma Southon 9:02
And like it not to be like everybody loves the Greek myths, and they love them for a reason. But a lot of them are victimized women, and there are but there are stories which from a kind of feminist perspective, I have minor issues with like stories of perpetually victimized women and womanhood as being perpetually victimized. So it’s nice to tell stories about ancient women that were not like being turned into spiders or having their tongue taken out or being held into the sea or like or have to be literal goddesses in order to be able to do anything.
Dr Rad 9:36
Yeah, and as as we can definitely testify, we realized once we started focusing on the early republic, that he’d have literally been years of episodes sometimes before we mentioned a woman, we suddenly realized when a woman would come up as you say in your book, like a Vestal Virgin or were like God, it’s been like five years since about women at all.
Dr Emma Southon 9:58
Yeah, yeah. And it’s so easy to fall into that and to be like, oh, all of the important stories are the ones that the Romans thought were important. But the Romans can’t be trusted, because they have bad opinions about a lot of stuff.
Dr G 10:12
So true. So true. And I think this leads nicely into thinking about like, how did you come to the decision about which women to focus on because it seems like you’ve hinted already, in some sense, it’s about availability of evidence. But there must be other criteria as well.
Dr Emma Southon 10:28
So in that early period, a lot of it is availability of evidence up until the later of because the archaeology is so limited, and you are kind of trapped with texts, particularly for like the Regal period, and then the early and middle Republic before their epigraphic habit kicked in. It was about who can I find, basically, and finding stuff for the very earliest period when they basically mythical was easier than I thought it would be like those early bits of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. So so you’ve got Hersilia and you’ve got Tullia, like, there were more women than I thought. And so I just included all of them, because why not?
Dr Rad 11:15
Yeah, that’s what we were surprised by as well. We started writing about the kings were like, actually, we get it like it’s a it’s a dynastic situation. It’s not a dynastic situation, it’s a family situation. So women have more of an opportunity to get sort of, you know, get a bit of soft power.
Dr Emma Southon 11:34
Yeah, exactly. As soon as you have a situation where one person is in charge, you have wives, and you have children. And when you’ve got children, you’ve got daughters in law, grandchildren, and then you have women who can do things like murder, their husbands marry their brother in law, who’s also their cousin, murder their father running over,
Dr Rad 11:54
as you do as you do,
Dr Emma Southon 11:56
as you do, and can, they can do all of this really fun stuff. So that was fun. The Republican period is harder. And that was tough work, like finding women that you can include. Because they only appear at points of crisis. And very often, they only get a couple of lines to illustrate how terrible crisis is. But once you get into the Empire, like once things really start to kick off evidence wise, so late Republic, going into the Empire, and then coming like the later empire, there’s so many women that it became a part of like, what story do I want to tell, and what women kind of will tell that story. So always wanted it to be not the women who are already included in books. So for women already had a biography about her, I kind of was like, No, and that kind of easily cut out all the emphasis. And I didn’t want it to be a book about politics, and to tell the story that we already know. So I didn’t want it to have you know, Livia and Agrippina. All of the kind of big women that we already know about, I wanted it to be women that you’ve probably not really heard of, or that tell a story that is more about what it is like to live in the empire than to rule the Empire. There are some exceptions, just because I like the stories like Julia Maesa and Julia Mamaea. I include because I just think that Julia Maesa is so cool.
Dr Rad 13:24
Look most people wouldn’t have heard of them?
Dr Emma Southon 13:26
I don’t think yeah, no, yeah, they’re not women that you have heard of very often. And I wanted people from around the Empire. So I wanted to leave Rome at the point when the Empire becomes Imperial, and talk about women from around so that anytime that it was a choice between a woman that was in Rome, or a woman that was outside, I picked somebody who was somewhere else, basically just to because I wanted that empire to feel expansive. And I basically kind of had the time line almost and wanted it to be so we’ve got someone from every century, we’ve got someone pits people from various different parts of the empire, we’ve got different types of evidence. So we’ve got epigraphic evidence, you have archaeological evidence, we have text, different types of texts. And so if I have people that overlapped, I would cut them out. So I had at one point, there’s a woman in Nero’s like court, who is the keeper of his wardrobe. And then when Nero is overthrown, she goes to Egypt and blockades Alexandria, in an attempt to basically force Rome to put Nero back on the throne before he kills himself, which is a cool story, but also one, it’s just the story of Rome. And two, it’s a bit of political story, and it’s would be so I chose instead for that period to tell the story of women living or on the frontier in England, and having birthday parties and writing letters to each other, which is a story that people don’t know, everybody already knows that Nero was overthrown. So basically, when it came down to a choice of like, who in this period, this kind of like, middle of the first entry period is the lesser known, more interesting, more expansive story to tell? So that was like the criteria that I had.
Dr G 15:27
Fantastic. And I think this, I think you’ve also hit upon some of the potential challenges that come up with writing a history like this using women, because you, obviously that selection criteria allows you to sort of embody the expansiveness of Rome in a way that wouldn’t be possible, as you say, if you follow through that sort of imperial line, and imperial women. Are there additional challenges that come along with those sorts of choices, though?
Dr Emma Southon 15:56
Yes. Many, I mean, the writing about women is always a challenge, because you’re so rarely writing about the wear them as they present themselves, like women are so very rarely given this low their text don’t survive, basically. And when you do have texts that they wrote, like, like the like birthday party letters from the, from Vindolanda, which are delightful, but is like, four sentence. It’s, and you’re like that, I mean, that’s I’m so delighted to have these four sentences, but you’re not a lot to work from. And so, or Julia Balbilla, who’s like one of my favorites, who is in the court of Hadrian, and wrote four poems, which survive because she very, very cleverly had engraved on the bottom of an ancient Egyptian statue.
Dr G 16:53
Very clever, very clever.
Dr Emma Southon 16:55
And even better, because she was clearly very smart included her name in every single one of them.
Dr G 17:02
She knew somehow
Dr Emma Southon 17:04
She knew, and I feel like there must have been something where by like, life as a female poet, or like a woman who writes poetry must have already been that annoying thing where people were like, do you know you get that thing? Oh, well, she didn’t really write it, like maybe Propertius wrote it and just pretended to be a woman like, yeah, obviously. That’s it thing that men do. So she yeah, she included like, but you get so little. And so much of it has to be extrapolation. And, like, trying to add context from external things, which is tough work. And it’s why people don’t do it as much. But I think makes for more interesting stories in the end, because as it turns out, like when you start digging into archaeology matches, I find it hilarious to make fun of archaeologists out of like, minor jealousy. You know, there’s so much in archaeology and ethnography that you can illuminate the world that they lived in that is just not available in the in the text like Tacitus can only give you so much. And then when you start to Look at the archaeology, like the archaeology of forts for example, when you start to Look at it, you’re like, oh, wow, like life here was completely different to the way it is presented in the text like it was vibrant and semi luxurious for some people. And like learning that forts were rebuilt every time a different legion turned up to be so that it was specifically fit that legion, like, that’s amazing.
Dr G 18:40
I just need to redecorate this place it’s not speaking to me.
Dr Emma Southon 18:43
Yeah, basically they’d be like, Right Well, the last Legion that was here like had like, you know, eight units of cavalry, but we’ve got 12. So we’re just going to like build on an extra section for that. We’re not going to like feel like a lot like now you’d be like, well, we would just cram them in, like stick them in. But that no, we’re gonna knock down the whole thing and rebuild it. And you can see that in the archaeological record and then you can tell how big the legion was that was there is delightful.
All the mosaics must go.
Yeah, exactly. Like I hate this. This does not speak to me. I need a Medusa.
Dr Rad 19:15
Yeah, exactly. A merman? Who are they kidding?
Dr Emma Southon 19:18
Yeah. Also delightful from the Vindolanda, just like if you sit down and read, they’re just how much bureaucracy was going on in the Roman Empire. This is also delightful. Like, goddamn they love a list. They are just listing everything.
Dr Rad 19:32
Funnily enough, we were just talking about early quaestors and how the Romans wanted them for paperwork.
Dr G 19:40
Somebody needs to do the paperwork and it can’t be me because I’m too big and important.
Dr Emma Southon 19:44
Yeah, exactly. The two things that Romans loved one is beating up other people than the other one is just making lists about it like just paperwork. And it is devastating but we don’t have it.
Dr Rad 19:56
Hilarious. Now segwaying away from just this book, but thinking about your work as a whole, you’re obviously an academic, but you have recently been choosing to write for more of a popular audience. And in order to do that, effectively, you’ve adopted quite a distinctive style as a historian, which is obviously really resonating with readers, I know that I absolutely adore your books. I read them faster than anything else. Can you talk a little bit about your journey as a historian and how you got here?
Dr Emma Southon 20:29
Yeah, well, I realized this is this year has been 10 years since I like left academia. Because I left pretty much straight after my PhD, I did a bit of teaching afterwards. But because my department, I did my PhD and got closed down. And it was also the year that I turned 30. And I thought, at the time, academia in the UK looked really terrible. And it’s worse now. And I thought, do I want to do to eight to 10 years of short term contracts, and working at lots of universities. And my advisor for my PhD, he was Ray Lawrence, who’s now over there with you in Australia. And he once told me that he worked at five universities simultaneously when he graduated his PhD, and like, was teaching and just traveling around the country. I thought, do I want to do that? Or am I 30, and I don’t. And, like and it is, you know, is nine month contracts, it’s not having any job security for longer than that nine months, it’s not having to have three part time jobs on top of it. And honestly, I was not willing to do that as
Dr Rad 21:48
You make it sound so tempting, I don’t understand!
Dr Emma Southon 21:50
I know and also, then you have to be writing constantly, they brought in the REF. That was the year that they brought in the REF as well. We’re here the Research Excellence Framework, where you have to be writing constantly and trying to get points based, like literally trying to get points for your research, which is wild. And so I was like, do – do I want to be writing for points in a culture that is mean? Or do I just want to be not doing that. So I was actually teaching academic writing, is what I went into, and I was teaching mostly people doing vocational things like nurses and engineers, and allied health care professionals like working with them on their writing, which really made me a better writer, because working on people who don’t have any background in writing, or a lot of people coming to writing as late career changes and things like that, who will find writing to be terrifying, and then being like, No, it’s not, it’s fine. It’s okay, we can do this. Made writing more fun for me because it like, broke it down. And then I honestly accidentally became a writer for popular audiences, because I pitched Agrippina the book to a friend of a friend because he had an open pitching session. And he thought it sounded fun. And then I wrote the book that I would want to read. Because by that time, I had been out of academia for like, five years, and I had a job a full time job and a life and do not sit down and read like big chunky history books that are 600 pages long that feel like I have been told like intoned or lectured at, I also wrote a book that I would want to be in bed, or on the train commuting to my job, like, what’s the book that I want to read, I want to read the book that tells me the story in the most entertaining way. And it helps that I find the Romans to be hilariously pompous and deluded about themselves. And to the disconnect between how the Romans see themselves and how they actually are is inherently very funny to me. And so yeah, so basically, my thing is, I love history, and I left because academic history sucks, not because I was fed up with like, the process of academia and I, the thing that I love about history is being what my friend calls a time detective, like you have the evidence, and then you’re like a little poro, like trying to put that evidence together into make it make sense in some way. And you come up with a little hypothesis, and then somebody else goes, Oh, that’s interesting. What if the hypothesis was this and then you kind of have a bit of a chat about it. And so I’ve just been a time detective in a fun way now.
Dr G 24:55
Look, that sounds great. And I feel like that’s a pretty good description of what Dr. Rad and I I do as well. And it’s like, we hold up our little magnifying glasses and we gaze very closely at things. We’re like, you know, what, wouldn’t it be exciting if this was what was based on what we’ve seen here?
Dr Emma Southon 25:10
Dr Rad 25:11
When people ask me, how did you get started in history? I always say Nancy Drew.
Dr Emma Southon 25:15
Yeah. I mean that. Yeah, it’s basically. And I, you know, I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that I also love mystery novels.
Dr Rad 25:24
Dr G 25:24
Like, are you saying there’s a Venn diagram that could be a circle?
Dr Emma Southon 25:30
I think so. Yeah, I think you would find, like, especially people who love like the historiography part of like, the bit where you’re like, oh, cool, like the story of Lucretia. There’s like five different versions, and they’re told at different times. And when you put them all together, you realize that they’re actually like, emphasizing different parts of it. And they’re telling a story that speaks to themselves. And actually, this is just a fairy story that tells us more about the writer than it does about their actual events. And
Dr Rad 26:00
A creepy creepy fairy story.
Dr Emma Southon 26:04
As all fairy stories are like, if you read Grimm stories
Dr Rad 26:07
That’s true. That’s true. Yeah.
Dr Emma Southon 26:09
But yeah, I think that people who like that side and people who like Poirot books, there’s a significant overlap.
Dr Rad 26:17
Dr G 26:19
All right, well, let us think about the content of the book for a moment, we want to whet the reader’s appetite, because everybody is obviously going to listen to this podcast and then immediately go out and purchase your book. Because of course, we’ve both read it and we love it. We’re giving it five stars. But I’m interested in first of all, like, before we get into like some of the women that we really enjoyed, which of the women that you’ve looked at, were you less familiar with when you started writing? And if it’s not too big enough, do you have a favorite?
Dr Emma Southon 26:54
I am quite a few of them kind of middle ones. So Turia I had only kind of vaguely like I knew of the ‘laudatio Turiae’, but never really read it. So she is the late Republican Woman who is the subject of the biggest, private inscription that we have from the Roman Empire, which is very cool. And Julia Felix, who was also my favorite, I think, I came across, it was Sophie Hay, Dr. Sophie. Hey, who works at Pompeii, who told me about her and she also told Elodie Harper, who wrote ‘The Wolf Den’ trilogy about her so she’s in that trilogy as well. And Sophie Hay is doing God’s work telling the world about Julia Felix, is based in Pompeii, like her complex that she runs. So those were probably the ones like anybody who came from archaeology, because my background is text was somebody that I had a really good time delving into and learning about completely, and being like, Oh, wow, you can Look at all these women all over the place, living their lives, being brilliant.
Dr G 28:04
Look at them go.
Dr Emma Southon 28:05
Dr Rad 28:06
Well, I have to agree that I had heard of, obviously, quite a few of the women that you’ve mentioned before. But like you, Dr. G, and I are very much text based people. We don’t often don’t an Indiana Jones outfit and go out into the wild. So
Dr G 28:22
Although maybe we should
Dr Rad 28:23
Probably but Turia was definitely one of the ones that piqued my interest the most especially coming from a time period that’s actually probably one of the better documented ones in terms of what we’ve got. But yet I had really not heard very much about Turia. So can you tell us a little bit more about her?
Dr Emma Southon 28:41
Yeah, so she is she’s a clearly of like, she is a woman of senatorial rank, definitely of consular rank, her husband is a consul. And she is so we know about her from this huge inscription that was found in five parts. When, during the, like 18th 19th century, Europeans went all over, like, putting together their big corpus of Latin inscriptions, and God bless them for doing but they found the four sections they put together, we don’t actually know that her name was Turia because there’s two bits that are missing. And both of them are the bits with the names. Which feels
Dr G 29:26
Roman history, jesus!
Dr Emma Southon 29:28
Doesn’t it feel like like just emblematic of history? We just, we just lost her name. But this inscription was found and it tells it’s written by her husband because she died before him. And it tells the story of her life, starting from when they get engaged, basically, or at least the bit that we have starts from when she gets engaged. It starts with her family being murdered during the war between Caesar and Pompey and her entire family is murdered on that in the villa. Bye Somebody, and he praises her for single handedly in the middle of a war, identifying and prosecuting the murderers.
Dr Rad 30:08
So she is Miss Marple.
Speaker 3 30:10
She is Miss Marple, and she successfully prosecutes them which is, you know, impressive. And then she is subject to a what is quite fascinating like little insight, somebody tries to claim her as part of their gens so that they can take guardianship of her, because she’s not yet married. And her father is now dead so that they can take control of the state that she has inherited from her murdered family. And she has to go to court and prove basically that she is not part of this gens that she is part of a different and therefore these people have no claim over her, which is fascinating, like thing that must have happened all the time. But it’s not in any text, because obviously that’s not interesting. But basically, her husband says like she just made it so much trouble for them. And she just kept fighting it so much that they gave up and went off to find an easier job. And he is not there to protect her during this time. And they’re not yet married because he has sided with Pompey and it’s off fighting with Pompey. And then when Pompey dies, and the war is over, she both sends him money and sends him resources and sends him enslaved people to help him out lest he ever suffer a moment of discomfort, and also personally talks to Caesar to get him pardoned, basically, so that he can come back to Rome. So she manages to rescue him from his bad decision of picking Pompey. He comes back to Rome and immediately joins the wrong side again, and is on the side of the killers of Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar. And
Dr G 32:01
I don’t know if she’s picked a winner.
Dr Rad 32:02
It’s really her patience that’s the amazing thing.
Dr Emma Southon 32:04
Yeah. So he says she immediately throws in his luck with Brutus and Cassius. And then during the wars between Octavian and Cassius and Brutus, he is fighting with them, and he goes off again, he is then put on the prescriptions list. So when the troit Second Triumvirate comes in, and they are putting together the prescriptions list to kill off lots of people who are considered to be enemies, because Octavian and Antony are significantly less lenient than Caesar ever was a he’s put on that list, which makes him basically prey it means that there is anybody can kill him, and there is a bounty on his head, you get money if you kill him, which opens up a whole way that you can talk about what the proscriptions were like and what that period was like in Rome, where people were literally just being murdered in the street constantly and lots of terrify stories. This is why we think that she may or may not have been called Turia, because there is a story and Appian who has a litany of these stories about a woman who hides her husband in an attic, which is also what the woman in the inscription does. He says she hit me in an attic, her and her sister hit me in an attic and then personally went to Octavian and then went to Lepidus and begged and begged and begged until they got him off the prescriptions list. So she protects him. She keeps him get manages to get him off of the list, manages to save him, manages to make it so that he can continue living his life. During that period, she also they’re living in Milo’s ex-house, the demagogic gang leader. He was exiled and so when Milo’s was exiled for doing a murder, he, his house was sold and they bought it beer so they were very, very rich and moved into it and then Milo’s supporters tried to take it back. So they literally invade her house while her husband is way and so she fights them off with her mother in law, she’s extremely great during all of this period, she saves him multiple times as she protects him from his series of bad decisions and she’s also obviously very you know, they have up to meet sympathies like in every situation they are against the popularity so and she’s and they also talk a lot about mixing their property as a romantic act which is really fascinating because the the story of marriage and women’s rights always says that oh elite women stopped doing ‘manus’ marriage and stopped mixing property and that is how they got more power. But so they talk a lot about how she they mix their property and she handed it all over to him and she didn’t run it herself as like this really romantic act. So they’re obviously like quite conservative couple. And then when things settled down, he continues to tell her story. So you also get the story not only of this woman who is like very politically engaged and politically active, but they can’t have children, it turns out that they try for years and years. And this is a bit where you’re like, oh, wow, you’re really telling the world everything about your wife.
Dr Rad 35:22
Airing it for everyone to read.
Dr Emma Southon 35:23
Yeah, yeah, just putting it on a like two meter high things. say she’s like, she tries everything to have children. And she’s like, but she can’t. And so she comes to him and says, obviously, the point of marriage is to have children and I can’t give them to you. And so what I’m going to do, my plan is I propose that we will get divorced. And I’ll find you a fertile wife. So that you can have as you can have children and continue your family name. And I’ll stick around and we’ll keep our property mixed. So we’ll still be like, kind of married in a way. But you will be able to have children and then I’ll be like, the third person in your relationship, and I’ll raise them like a sister in law, basically.
Dr G 36:06
Is this woman even real? Goodness!
Dr Rad 36:11
‘Stand by Your Man’ was clearly written about her.
Dr Emma Southon 36:15
They do and they are super sweet because they do really seem to love each other. Like the way he writes about her at the end of like, you know, she, like, you know, I can’t I don’t know how I’m going to live without her. Like, shoot, my life is never going to know happiness again, that I’m like, so heartbroken. Everything is I should have died first. This isn’t fair. Like she was so good. And I am so rubbish.
Dr Rad 36:35
He’s right about that, he should have died a number of times!
Dr Emma Southon 36:39
I mean, if it hadn’t been for her, he would have died several times. But he, yeah, but he says, basically, he’s like, Absolutely not like I would never dishonour you that way. I would never make you like a kind of concubine to me like you’re my wife. I married you. I love you. This is no way marriage is more than just having kids, which is, again as a way that you don’t see marriage, Roman marriage, especially elite Roman marriage written about that much like it’s so rarely described as a meeting of hearts or something that is romantic. And so they, yeah, so they stay married for 50 years. They don’t have children. They are aunts and uncles to her. She has a sister who has children and so and then she dies when she’s in her 60s and he is bereft and writes this funeral oration and then inscribes it on two meter high monoliths and puts them on the Via Appia. And there they stay were presumably to his mind forever, so that everybody walking along Via Appia will know how much he loved his wife and how good she was and how she had all of these amazing qualities. And it’s so delightful because it’s such a it’s so emotional, in the way that they love each other, and also in the way that they like they talk about, or he talks about her in this such a beautiful way. But she or doesn’t come across in the way their love women do in a picker feed. Like when you’re reading women’s stories when men are writing about them after they’ve died very often. It’s like she was the most chaste woman and all she did was spend her time weaving wool, and she breastfed her children and she that’s how perfect she was like, okay, so she just had no personality at all she like she just wove wool for you and was chaste. But she has such a personality and this that it’s captivating.
Dr Rad 38:39
It is. So I’m actually exhausted just after I listen to that story. I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to live her life. But I kind of wish that she’d you know, being prepared for his clearly inevitable death. That we had her side of things where she’s like, Oh, my God, you’ll never guess who I married. And what he made me put up with.
Dr Emma Southon 38:59
But the thing is, she really seems to love him.
Dr Rad 39:01
I know. That’s the story that he tells though, right?
Dr Emma Southon 39:04
Yeah. But she does do all this stuff for him.
Dr Rad 39:07
Dr Emma Southon 39:09
And so I feel like, you know, everybody,
Dr Rad 39:12
She must have she must have.
Dr Emma Southon 39:13
There’s like a point I feel like it’s a bit like, you know, Marge and Homer.
Dr Rad 39:18
It must be because otherwise, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to walk away.
Dr Emma Southon 39:22
She’s like, is he a bit useless? Yes. Do I adore him with all my being? Yes.
Dr G 39:30
Oh, oh, Look, she’s a great character. And it’s just so impressive that we have, like the epigraphy is the is the thing that gives us insight into this – into her life at all. And this is where thinking about different types of evidence becomes really important because obviously like when we’re thinking about written sources, it’s very much that elite male perspective. And the prioritization of subject matter, it really shows. And so this more expansive Look at what Rome could be like and what life was like is becomes really important. And you mentioned Julia Felix before, and she’s one of the figures that I really enjoyed reading about. And obviously Pompeii stands out in people’s imaginations as well as this sort of landmark site and the eruption sort of put to a whole sort of like, how can I say without making it sound terrible?
Dr Rad 40:27
Dr G 40:29
It kind of creates a time capsule? Yeah.
Dr Emma Southon 40:34
Yeah, it’s a it’s a terrible tragedy, but after 2000 years, suddenly becomes a historians blessing. Their way like, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, that happened, but also, at least something good came out of it.
Dr Rad 40:45
Yeah, the silver lining. It’s the silver lining.
Dr Emma Southon 40:47
Yeah. Yeah. After two millennia you, you’re like, Okay, everybody’s dead now. I guess. So we can,
Dr Rad 40:54
we can move on.
Dr Emma Southon 40:55
Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, Pompeii is amazing by Julia Felix’s complex is one of the most amazing things. I think the things that people think of when they think of Pompeii, are the theater and then also the like the big houses the villas, which are the story of Rome, that we kind of know like the big impressive houses. And for a while, that’s what people thought Julia Felix’s complex was when they excavated thought was just a kind of a big, weird villa. But outside of it, there is a inscription which was attached to the wall, which said what it actually was, and it says “Julia Felix, daughter Spurius, offers for rent her leisure complex, which contains shops, baths fitted out for the well to do apartments and gardens for a period of five years, Inquire within.” and all of a sudden, archeologists could look at it and go, Oh, it’s a it’s a space where people can go to hang out, it’s not like a private location, because what it is is to was to two houses that have been knocked together. And she moved a road like you can see where a road was redirected, so that she could knock through walls through to expand it, which is amazing. And so it’s got a hot food bar. And in the book, I take you on a we like tour of it so you can see up it’s got a hot food bar outside, which appears to up added on because five years ish prior to the eruption, there was an earthquake in Pompeii, like little warning sign, and that knocked out most of the original leisure district and meant that people coming from the amphitheater, when after games had to go down different roads, and one of them was the road that Julie Felix’s thing was on and so she popped in a hot food bar in order to take advantage of foot traffic, which is brilliant. So it’s got a hot food bar, and it’s got baths, which are very fancy, but very like boutique. So they’re like a little like you can only fit about eight in the toilets, you can fit eight people which is small for a Roman public toilet. And then it has this at the entrance way has a really unusual, almost unique painting – fresco – of not of mythological characters, not of like garden scenes, or of scenes of religious character. But of an every day scene from Pompeii is forum on market day. And has ordinary people doing ordinary things which is so unusual and it’s got like people buying cloth and a person making shoes and horses with inexplicably enormous penises and and like children in school and a person giving a penny to a beggar. And like all of these just like normal activities of like basically the kind of middle classes of Rome. And then inside it has these gardens with little fish ponds and little bridges and a little dining room like a tiny little trick scenario where you can recline and dine. So you have the three couches, and you can do upper class elite dining where you recline on your arm and then people bring you tiny little things of food and it’s got a water feature in the room. And it’s basically a fancy restaurant, for people to go and have a fancy meal out for a fancy occasion and then have a walk around a private garden where there will not be a million other people like in the forum.
Dr G 44:51
I kind of love this where it’s like, I can’t afford my own villa, but what I can afford is I can afford to rent this fancy dining room and we’ll have the lead experience without having to
Dr Rad 45:01
Like a spa day with a lovely meal at the end.
Dr Emma Southon 45:04
Exactly. You know, and it’s like I always imagined it as a kind of thing that you would do for like a special occasion. So like for my birthday, I go to, you know, a Michelin starred restaurant for one meal. And it’s like a big splash out thing where I spend lots of money, but I get like this experience or Yeah, going for a spa day where you do not normally have the leisure time to spend an entire day having, like just basking in steam, but for that one day you can. And that’s basically what seems that Julia Felix’s complex is, it is a space where people can go and have the experience of luxury of time of being served of quiet and privacy, which is something that is so rare in an urban environment, and they can splash out for it, or they can pay for it because it is not something like people like Cicero, and the rich guys are like the Villa of the Silver Wedding or whatever, they can have that all day every day, because privacy and silence and quiet and lush greenery are things that are only available to those who can afford it above you, apparently there was a market for people to be to buy that for one day, or buy that for one evening and to experience it as a luxury, which is and that kind of middle class of Rome of the Roman Empire is so invisible. And it’s so nice to know that that happened and that there were people who would, you know, come in for a birthday or for an anniversary or for, you know, a special little treat and recline and be fed fix instead of having porridge on the street like we normally do.
Dr Rad 46:51
Because you want to eat porridge when you’re on the move, of course, yeah.
Dr Emma Southon 46:55
You know, some you know, sometimes you’re running through the street, you get a big bowl of stew and a bit of wine on a quick go. But sometimes you want to sit down and take your time.
Dr Rad 47:04
She is fascinating, because the very fact that she’s obviously involved in business and her name as well. Julia Felix, it obviously hints at someone who truly is a self made person. And obviously, yeah, obviously does not come from the elite herself.
Dr Emma Southon 47:16
Yeah. And like I said, She’s the daughter of Spurius. So people have suggested that maybe she’s illegitimate, or she doesn’t know who her father is. But she has a citizen. And she, you know, doesn’t mention her husband. And then she has like in the back rooms. There’s her space where she lives through a door. That is a tiny little like villa with an office and where she does her work. And the office walls are covered in paintings of food and money.
My favorite things, yeah.
Which for someone who was apparently making her money serving food, I think it’s great.
Dr G 47:59
Just really embracing everything about how far she’s come and how she’s made it.
Dr Emma Southon 48:02
Yeah exactly. And then she’s got to this point, apparently, in 79, where she’s like, Okay, I’m ready to let someone else run this, and I’m going to rent it out. And you know, I’m still the owner, but I’ll make making my money from rents, and I’m gonna go and maybe she’s gonna go and live a life of luxury somewhere. Or maybe she’s got a new business that she wants to start. But she’s like, at that point. She is she’s ready to let somebody else do the day to day.
Dr G 48:29
I think that’s really cool. It’s like it gives you such an insight into Pompeii, and how Roman life is actually working. And I imagine this is not the only place where this kind of thing is happening at all.
Dr Emma Southon 48:39
Yeah, it’s just the only one we can definitely identify like, because it is the only one that has a sign.
Dr G 48:47
Very clear signage. Very handy.
Dr Emma Southon 48:49
Yeah, put more signs on things, people.
Dr G 48:52
Come on, guys. Come on guys. For history.
Dr Emma Southon 48:54
Yeah, ideally, you must really inscribed them in stone. Because yeah, inscribing stuff in stone is the way to make sure that things last.
Dr G 49:03
We’ll keep that in mind. I want to turn your mind now to like a really later period and sort of getting towards the the edges of the Roman world in a different way. And the figure of Zenobia, who is a figure that maybe people have heard of, but maybe don’t know much of the story about, but she’s also a very intriguing figure in her own right.
Dr Emma Southon 49:24
She is and she’s quite not controversial, but like the interpretation of her is quite contentious, I think. So Zenobia is a woman who is known as a Syrian kind of invader, I think is probably the way that she is often described. If you know any kind of Syrian history. She is a symbol of Syrian identity to a lot of people and she used to be on Syrian banknotes, and the way that she is often described as as a woman who ran an empire in Syria that is somehow outside of the Roman Empire. And the way that I interpret her is as a woman who did the exact same thing as like every general in the third century did which is declare herself and Augustus, and attempted to take over the Roman Empire. Because she, to me is a Roman woman within the Roman Empire, who uses an army to attempt to rule the Roman Empire, which makes her more interesting. So she is the wife of a guy called Odaenathus, who is a kind of weird liminal figure on the edge of the Empire during the third century. So the period when the Empire is fragmented, and there’s about 50 people who claim to be emperor in a 30 year period. And it’s kind of militarily and politically chaotic, whereby nobody knows and prayers don’t really seem to last more than 20 minutes, almost all of them die of being murdered, except for one guy who’s hit by lightning. And it and nobody has the kind of combined military power and personal power to be able to get more than two legions to follow them. And at the time, like basically, a lot of keeping the borders happy. Keeping them secure, is to outsource to people who are big men in their area. And he is one of those guys on the border in Syria with the Persian Empire, the Parthian Empire, and the Parthian Empire at the time is on the rise and is encroaching on Armenia, as it always is. But it’s and this is after Rome is going right the way down into Mesopotamia. So Roman power goes all the way down into Iraq and Iran at this stuff at this time. And so they are charged with basically keeping Mesopotamia as a province and Syria. And he is described in a way that is either means that he is a kind of ko emperor, or it’s just a kind of honorary title. And you can argue about it for the rest of your life. But there’s no real answer to it. But he is running Roman legions, and he is a power down there. And he’s given consular power. And he’s very important, and they have a son together. And then he is murdered by one of his men, because he allegedly he, he takes away this guy’s horse, and this guy is so furious about it, that he murders him.
Dr G 52:41
That’s it. That’s the last straw, you cannot have my horse.
Dr Emma Southon 52:44
Exactly. And so. But what Zenobia does, which is kind of on Roman, but makes sense is, she goes, Okay, and we’re so he had all of these titles and names, and we. And so now my son has all of those titles and names. And so she just kind of gives her son who is like eight, all of the titles that her husband had, and then start ruling as his regent. So she just takes over the role that her husband had running the armies being the face of power in that whole region of Syria and Mesopotamia, she seems to do some military stuff down in Mesopotamia, which we only know because there are some thoughts that are built down there, which have her name on them. So she’s doing something. And then at a certain point, she turns around, declares herself Augusta declares her son to be Augustus, and invades Egypt.
Dr G 53:48
Dr Emma Southon 53:50
And this is a point where everyone’s like, Oh, hang on, so she destroys a legion in Arabia, then she invades Egypt goes right the way down to Alexandria, and chases out the governor there and sends him on his way, kills a bunch of people, and then settles in and she starts producing coins, and she starts producing lots and lots of bureaucracy. Because where the bureaucracy does survive is in Egypt, because the papyrus survives really well.
Dr Rad 54:18
And the climate.
Dr Emma Southon 54:19
Yeah, yeah. And so what we have is loads and loads of documents, which suddenly start saying, oh, in the year of the reign, like year two of the rain of Iranian and year one of the rain of my son and she basically declares him co emperor of the Roman Empire, which are ralien, who was now emperor and he’s kind of dealing with stuff with the Goths over in the West, he is less keen on this idea, because he’s like, hang on, Who the fuck are you? Who the fuck is that?
Dr G 54:54
Also, what are you doing in the breadbasket of Rome? Get out! Get out, now!
Dr Emma Southon 54:57
Please, you are stressing me out in the breadbasket of Rome! Exactly. And so he pivots very hard away and kind of abandons the situation with the Goths and comes charging into Egypt and fights her. As it turns out, she picked the wrong person to declare herself co Emperor with because if it had been one of the rubbish ones like a Claudius Gothicus or something, he probably would have left it. But Aurelian is the least rubbish and is the person as it turns out, who has the political and military power, and the charm and the ability and the kind of profound balance of being interested in paperwork and being nice to his his soldiers to pull the Emperor back together under one person? So he turns around and blasts into Egypt to fight her she withdraws from Egypt and is like, oh, no, it’s okay. Maybe I’ll just stay.
Dr Rad 55:50
You have it. You have it back.
Dr G 55:52
Dr Emma Southon 55:54
But she is still producing coins. And she has, like, we have all these coins from Syria where she’s like, it’s Zenobia on one side, and Juno on the other. And it has her son on one side and Jupiter on the other end, like they’re Roman coins, and they she’s calling them Augustus, and she calls herself an Augusta. And she very clearly is wants to be a part like is a Roman person being a part of the Roman Empire. And they have a bunch of battles. And eventually she is defeated, in in Antioch. And she tries to allegedly, possibly maybe tries to flee on a camel and is caught. But which may be it seems like the kind of story that Romans in Rome would tell about like a woman from the east like, Oh, she just got on a camel, you know what they’re like,
Dr Rad 56:39
She hopped on a magic carpet, and she was out of there.
Dr Emma Southon 56:42
Exactly like but, but it’s a good story. So and she has captured but Aurelian has a bit of Julius Caesar in him. So he lets her live. And he takes her to Rome. And then she lives the rest of her life in Rome, and apparently has more children.
Dr Rad 56:55
Mind blowing, I thought for sure she’d end up dead.
Dr Emma Southon 56:58
Yeah. Yeah. And so she, she is very often presented as someone who tries to invade the Roman Empire. But to me it is very clear that she is someone who wants to rule the Roman Empire and who was like, all these other rubbish guys are doing it. Like she herself puts down another person who tries to declare himself emperor and his children Emperor’s in Syria, and everybody else is doing I don’t see why I can’t get involved.
Dr Rad 57:25
It’s hashtag trending guys.
Dr Emma Southon 57:27
Exactly, like jumping on that bandwagon. And like thinks that she has a real chance. And she you know, she does. She’s the only person who ever invades Egypt, which is impressive, all by itself. And so I think she’s really interesting, both as in the way that we and the way the Romans themselves, but the way that we talk about Romanness, like what about her means that we don’t call her Roman, but also the way that we talked about the Roman Empire and like, at particularly at this period, like when it is all kinds of fragmenting around what gets does still be included in the Roman Empire, and what certainly gets written off from what from thing because this is happening at the same time that the Gallic Empire succeeds. And a guy over in Gaul takes Britain bit of Spain and declares it’s no longer part of the Roman Empire that he is doing his own thing.
Dr G 58:21
We’re independent now. Yeah, it’s been long enough, it’s time to go it alone.
Dr Emma Southon 58:26
It’s like, No, I want my own little empire. And they did. They’re doing their own little kind of situation over there. And but it seems that Zenobia was going to basically keep going, like, be fun to see what she had done had had she had a rubbish Emperor against her rather than gigachad Aurelian.
Dr G 58:51
Yeah, certainly, this seems like the possibility for it to politically work out, actually, yeah, she can hold those regions. And the emperor in Rome is also like, well, I can’t take them back necessarily, let’s make a deal. Then all of a sudden, you’d have something very different going on there in terms of what’s happening with her career and how it pans out for her son as well.
Dr Emma Southon 59:13
Exactly. Because this is the time when the situation with the Goths is really like a problem. And for a good few decades, there emperors have been tied up just desperately trying to keep the gods out, even though all the gods want is to be Roman. And had they been like right, they would have resolved that situation immediately. But they they have been tied up fighting Gods on the Danube and so our ralien is smart enough as a military leader that he takes a tactical loss in order to take Egypt under his own personal control again, but had you had a less tactical one who was like, oh, no, this is the more kind of threatening thing I need to stay here. I can leave the guards and had let her stay in Egypt then you might have a very different – there’s a novel that somebody could write about that counterfactual.
Dr Rad 1:00:04
I love it. Well, so far, the women that we’ve talked about are all what we would loosely describe as pagan because of course, for the vast majority of Rome’s history, the religion that is followed is made up of many gods, etc, etc. However, right at the end a bit of a plot twist of Christianity becoming a major religion, if not the religion of the Roman Empire. And that leads us to the final woman that we thought we quickly discuss, who is Melania the Elder?
Speaker 3 1:00:36
Yeah, who is on this kind of cusp. She lives in a world where Christianity wasn’t legal than it was. And she kind of exemplifies this time when Roman elite women could be Christian out loud, kind of for the first time, but is a woman who does not want to leave behind the benefits of a life as a Roman. And so she is one of the first women who can call herself a Roman Christian, basically. So most of the women before that you have to or most Christians really, before Constantine, you have to choose whether you are a Roman or a Christian. And a lot of you know, the line that that is in all of the trial transcripts and lives that we have for Christian martyrs is that they say no, I am a Christian ‘Christianus sum’ or ‘Christianus sum’, some rather than ‘Romanus sum’. and you cannot be both like and that is why they are persecuted because they won’t sacrifice to the Emperor. Because there seems to be undermining and eventually, they’re, like, constantly in caves. And it’s like fine, we’ve managed to do here is make you stronger. And so she is one of the first people who can say I am a Roman Christian, and she can exist in the Roman world as an elite woman who owns huge amounts of land like she is she actually descends from Marc Anthony’s family line. And she owns as part of her family, enormous swathes of Europe, and is taking income from that. And she she grows up in Spain, and then she moves with her son to Rome after she is widowed. And this being the ancient world, she’s like 23. And she’s widowed, she has already lost two children. And she goes to Rome, where she sets him up as the urban prefect and then spent 10 years living in Rome, preparing her son to be the prefect. And what you have to do is do the games like the big games of the year, and you have to save up for like a decade to do that. So they declare who the prefect is going to be 10 years in advance, so that they have time to save up to the
Dr Rad 1:02:58
Like the Olympics.
Dr Emma Southon 1:02:59
Yeah, exactly. So you have time to prepare. And so she she does actually spent 10 years living in Rome, and then her son comes of age, she becomes a prefect, she does the games. And then she immediately leaves Rome, sells all of her like personal possessions, and then takes huge amount of money and goes to Egypt, because the monastic I was gonna say trend for like, monastic life is kicking off in Egypt at this time, this is a fourth century, kind of mid late fourth century. And she goes off to Egypt to go and visit all of the desert mothers and fathers and ingratiate herself in life in Christian Egypt. And she goes around all of these people and talk to them. And like, these are people who have walled themselves up into their tombs so that they can live there and people who are like, it’s a, it’s a great period of Christian history and history in the Roman Empire, where people were doing deeply odd, like, exercises of stamina and endurance, and of deprivation, like Simon Stylites is, is standing on a, he’s just standing on a pole. And people come and see him and the more people that come see him, the higher his pole gets, but that’s what he does. He just stands on a pole all day, every day, and people are going off into the desert and not masturbating and crying about it a lot. And there’s some great stories about like men, like like thinking about killing themselves, because they’re just constantly tormented by visions of women and young boys and they
Dr Rad 1:04:41
What a life. What a life.
Speaker 3 1:04:43
yeah, but they’re not allows to touch it. And women walling themselves into tombs, or like, you know, these really intense aesthetic practices. And she goes around and visits them all and then kind of decides that she’s not that’s not the life for her because what she enjoys is the life of a patroness. And so she goes to Jerusalem and starts a nunnery. And with her friend, she opens a, they open, open a nunnery, a monastery next to each other where women can come and live monastic lives. And she dedicates herself to a life of very performative asceticism whereby she sort of refuses to wash and then borates people who do, like, rich, she has a huge amount of money, and which she continues to get because her son is now running all of her states, the family estates, and he is sending her money. So she is still benefiting from all of the states that she previously had. And she is pouring all of that money into building up Jerusalem as a Christian space and planting Christianity all over Jerusalem and kind of tamping down the Judaism because they, after Helena, they really want Jerusalem to be the home of Christianity and to shove out the Jews. And she is popular enough there and doing a good enough job that they give her a bit of the True Cross.
Dr G 1:06:13
Dr Rad 1:06:14
This sounds very much like a case of her being able to have her cake and eat it too.
Dr Emma Southon 1:06:18
Yeah, it’s very much a case of a woman who chooses to present as poor while not ever being actually poor. So she, they give her a bit of the True Cross. And then she goes back to visit her family in Rome. One of whom is a quite famous bishop in Italy, where she does a lot of marching around triumphantly, basically. But in the most part, so her family, like go on a visit. And they, they all turn up in like golden carriages wearing purple and red and whatever. And she turns up riding a donkey dressed in rags, holding a bit of the True Cross.
Dr G 1:07:02
Dr Rad 1:07:04
And just like Jesus before her.
Dr Emma Southon 1:07:05
Exactly and you just feel like rolling your eyes so hard, like, like pretending to be poor and so silly. But anyway, she gives a bit this bit of true cross away. And then she gets into a bunch of fights with St. Jerome, who she hates, and he hates her, which is fair, because he’s awful. And she is possibly in Rome, just before the sack of Rome in 410, or she has left. But she inspires her daughter, Melania the Younger, who is potentially the more famous to also become an aesthetic woman, and her and her husband decide that they’re going to sell all of their land free all of their enslaved people, give away everything and become genuinely poor. Which Melania the elder and her son are appalled by and they write to the Emperor.
Dr G 1:08:02
You’ve taken it too far!
Dr Emma Southon 1:08:03
Yeah, exactly. No, no, the thing is, we pretend to be poor, like we’re not actually poor.
Dr Rad 1:08:08
We get to turn it on and off. It’s like a switch.
Dr Emma Southon 1:08:11
Like if I need to have a nice bed, then I need the nice bed like we don’t like and I don’t need to use this money to buy influence and power like I don’t. It’s not what how else, okay, will take me here. Yeah, I need to be purchasing it. Otherwise, because what you have at this time, like, Jerome’s Paula starts her own monastery as well in, in, in Jerusalem, and she is very famous for basically giving over her daughters to Jerome, who He then proceeds to starve to death. But she starts her own monastery and and they’re they have a very specific hierarchy depending on how much money you bring into the monastery with you. So if you want your your social status is outside of the monastery, you there is a hierarchy within the monetary and so the trappings of the world outside Do not leave you when you go and become a nun, you can absolutely go and become a nun and still be a rich, or still be treated as rich and even if you’re pretending that you’re not, but Melania the younger is like no, no, no, I’m gonna give it all away. That’s what Jesus said. And they genuinely try to get the Emperor to stop her, but they can’t. So she sells off everything frees 8000 people, and then goes off to live a genuinely aesthetic. Much to the horror of the rest of her family and then Romans sacked and everything changes. But she she is so fascinating at this point at which Christianity has become legal and so Romans can kind of paste the trappings of a kind of, I suppose, like secular life on to Christianity and can and it’s stops being a thing that you actually have to die for. And you genuinely have to suffer. You can kind of choose to suffer in a way that you can opt out of that.
Dr G 1:10:12
Wait a minute, performative Christianity?
Dr Emma Southon 1:10:15
Yeah. But like they still desperately want to suffer, because that has become part of Christianity. But they don’t. It’s only impressive if you’re choosing to suffer. Like it’s only impressive if you are a rich person who is choosing to wear scratchy rags. If you’re just a poor person who is wearing scratchy rags, you can then that that’s not impressive, like, no, that’s just having a shit life. But being a very rich person who could be wearing silk and who is surrounded by people who are wearing silk, but you’re riding a donkey and wearing scratchy things, that everybody’s like, Oh, my God, what a wonderful.
Dr G 1:10:59
The sacrifice, the sacrifice
Speaker 3 1:11:01
Exactly. And all of a sudden, the fate of Christianity changes and becomes something that people can compete over in a way that you couldn’t really do before. And you’ve the first inklings of what a Christian Roman Empire is going to look like start to appear. And it’s, it’s fascinating.
Dr Rad 1:11:24
I must admit, it’s been a while since I looked at this period, so I was glad to be reminded that the Romans was still unintentionally hilarious. Mostly, yeah, mostly when they were trying to be really serious, even when they became Christian doesn’t make a difference. Doesn’t matter what religion it doesn’t Yeah.
Dr Emma Southon 1:11:41
The more serious the Romans try to be, very often the funnier they are. And there’s this story, like Melania is always surrounded by men who are writing. And so there’s a couple of stories like stories that run about, and there’s this great one about her traveling, she’s moving a new nun from Jerusalem to Egypt, and then traveling across Egypt and cranker, traveling across the desert. So as a little group, and one guy who’s with them, who’s a bishop, they get to their resting place, it’s the desert, they’re in Egypt, it’s hot, and he washes his hands and face and Melania loses her mind, and like, berate him as like, I never wash my face, and I have never laid on anything softer than the hard ground. And even though I’m in my 60s, you will never see me do anything so decadent as to wash my hands, even though doctors say that I might actually be less ill if I did. I still like, Oh, my God, wash woman. But yes, she just loves to be grubby. And just so that she can one up people.
Dr Rad 1:12:47
Well, you know, I actually made her a bit of my own patron saint when I went to school camp and could not wash for several days.
Dr Emma Southon 1:12:57
See, this, incidentally, is why I never became an archaeologist, because I could never deal with the grubby hands.
Dr Rad 1:13:04
Yeah, I get that, I get that. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of those amazing stories, people definitely need to go out and grab your book because it is filled with so many more. So can you please tell us where can people buy the book? And where can people find you.
Dr Emma Southon 1:13:21
So you can you can buy the book hopefully in any good bookshop. You so it’s called ‘A History of the Roman Empire in 21 Women’. And it should be hopefully available anyway. You can go to my website, which is emmasouthon.com. Then there are links to places that you can bite there, you can also find me at ‘History is Sexy’, which is historyissexy.com. As long as your adult filters don’t filter out the name, because apparently they sometimes do. But you can find it on all good podcast feeds. And we answer questions that people don’t want to spend two days researching themselves. So and you can ask us questions there. And yeah, I think that’s all the places and you can find me on Instagram at ‘Nuclearteeth’, where I put links to things when I remember. And you can also see many, many, many pictures of my cat.
Dr G 1:14:16
Oh, Look, thank you so much for spending this time with us. We really appreciate it. And reading this book has been a real thrill and pleasure. And we can only imagine that people listening to this episode will feel the energy and the vibrancy of the women coming through in this conversation because the whole book is like this. It’s full of great stuff. As a final question, Would you have any hints about what’s to come in your writing world?
Dr Emma Southon 1:14:45
The next book that I am currently writing is a children’s book with Greg Jenner who used to be the historical consultant for Horrible Histories and now does the ‘You’re Dead to Me’ podcast on the BBC. And we are writing a children’s book about Roman Britain, which is an introduction to historiography for kids.
Dr G 1:15:08
Fantastic. That sounds really, really exciting.
Dr Rad 1:15:11
Sounds like another winner. Well, we as we cannot thank you enough for coming back, back, back back back again – which only you will find funny – and we hope very much to be able to chat to you when that next one comes out.
Dr Emma Southon 1:15:25
Thank you. I’m always here to chat to you.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai