Egeria – fl. 380s – Hispania or Gaul – Jerusalem

Constantinople, France

Egeria

Egeria, also known as Etheria or Aetheria made an incredible journey during the fourth century which she later wrote about in detail – making her one of the earliest authors of a travel book.

Far from being a leisure guide, Egeria’s work describes a pilgrimage taken over a number of years from the western reaches of the Roman empire to the heart of the Christian holy land. Scholars believe she may have been a nun.

As the beginning and the end of the Itinerarium Egeriae (‘Travels of Egeria’) are missing, there is no consensus on where she began her journey, though the most likely suggestions are Hispania (modern day Spain) or Gaul (France).

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Mount Sinai (source)

It is likely that Egeria took notes as she travelled before compiling the final text at the end of her pilgrimage. The Iterarium Egeriae is written in the form of a letter to the women in her home town – she refers to them as ‘dear ladies’ and ‘sisters’ – it is not clear whether this means Egeria was a nun writing to the other women in her convent, or whether ‘sister’ is simply meant as a term of endearment.

The surviving text begins with her approach to Mount Sinai in Egypt, then her journey to Constantinople (in Turkey). Egeria spent three years in Jerusalem making various trips outwards to see a number of biblical and religious sites, including the tomb of Job (in Syria), the burial place of Haran (the brother of Abraham) and Saint Thecla’s shrine.

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Constantinople (source)

As well as documenting her travels, Egeria took the time to detail religious services and practices during her time in Jerusalem. Her work remains helpful to liturgical scholars as she noted various celebrations and observances first hand, such as the date and celebration of Palm Sunday, Lent and even Christmas prior to its modern date of 25th December.

Egeria’s text also provides useful grammatical context for the development of Vulgar Latin during the 4th century, revealing the origin of the definite article used in modern Latin languages (e.g. Spanish, Italian).

Egeria’s letter home has become a fascinating snapshot of history as she managed to document so much of the changing world around her.


Note:

Later publishers of Egeria’s book mistakenly attributed her work to Sylvia of Aquitaine and the empress Galla Placidia.


References:

The Egeria Project

The Pilgimage of EgeriaThe Pilgimage of Egeria – Translation by M.L. McClure and C.L. Feltoe

On Wikipedia:

Egeria

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Faltonia Betitia Proba – c. 306/c. 315 – c. 353/c. 366 – Rome

Ancient Rome

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Faltonia Betitia Proba was an early Christian Roman woman who was inspired by her faith to create one of the most influential poems of late antiquity (4th – 6th Centuries).

Born into a wealthy and noble family, Proba was the daughter of a Roman consul. She was clearly highly educated and made a politically useful marriage to the Prefect Clodius Celsinus Adelphus in 351.

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Faltonia Betitia Proba teaching the history of the world since the creation through her Cento Vergilanius de laudibus Christi. From a 15th Century manuscipt of the De muliberibus claris by Giovanni Boccaccio. (Source)

Though she had been raised in the Roman pagan religion, at some point during adulthood Proba converted to Christianity, a relatively new cult which was increasing in popularity in Rome at this time. Devout in her beliefs, Proba influenced her husband and two sons to convert as well.

There are two poems attributed to Proba, the first of which is believed to have been written before her conversion. Known as Constantini bellum adversus Magnentium, it told the story of the war between emperor Constantius II and the usurper Magnentius. This poem no longer exists, and some scholars think that Proba may have personally had it destroyed due to its pagan themes.

Following her conversion, Proba completed her master work; the  Cento vergilianus de laudibus Christi.

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An image of Faltonia Betitia Proba holding a scroll. Underneath is the beginning of her Cento. (Source)

A cento is a poem which is entirely composed of verses or passages taken from other authors, reworked to tell a different story. Proba used verses by the ancient poet Virgil combined with biblical passages to create an epic style poem about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In 694 lines, Proba tells the story of the bible, from the Old Testament stories of creation, the fall of man, the great flood and the story of Moses, to the New Testament and teachings of Jesus.

De Laudibus Christi was hugely popular upon publication. It was written in a style which was accessible and entertaining, which led to the work being shared and taught in schools. Faltonia Betitia Proba was praised well into the medieval period for her work.


References:

Early Christian Women Writers: The Interesting Lives and Works of Faltonia Betitia Proba and Athenais-Eudocia – Cătălina Mărmureanu, Gianina Cernescu, Laura Lixandru 

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. By various writers. Edited by Sir William Smith

On Wikipedia:

 

Cai Wenji 蔡琰 – fl. 207 – Han Dynasty China

Ancient China, China

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Cai Wenji’s life could almost be straight from a fairy tale. She was the intelligent, accomplished only daughter of Cai Yong, a scholar from Yu County (modern day Qi County, Kaifeng, Henan).

畫麗珠萃秀_Gathering_Gems_of_Beauty_(漢蔡文姬)_2She married her first husband at a young age and was widowed before the marriage produced any children.

At some time between 194 and 195, Cai was kidnapped by Xiongnu nomads who had invaded Han territory. She was taken to the north as a prisoner and married to Liu Bao, the nomads’ chieftain.

Cai Wenji lived as a captive wife in the northern lands for twelve years, and gave birth to two sons. As well as being a scholar and an articulate speaker, Cai Wenji was a highly thought of calligrapher, as her father had been. She wrote two famous poems about her years as a captive, both named Poem of Sorrow and Anger:

My dwelling is often covered by frost and snow,
The foreign winds bring again spring and summer;

They gently blow into my robes,
And chillingly shrill into my ear;

Emotions stirred, I think of my parents,
Whilst I draw a long sigh of endless sorrows.

Whenever guests visit from afar,
I would often make joy of their tidings;

I lost no time in throwing eager questions,
Only to find that the guests were not from my home town.

Finally, Cao Cao, the Han Chancellor paid a large ransom for her return. By this time her father had died, and she was the last surviving member of her family due to Cao Cao’s struggles for power. He ransomed her purely to placate her ancestors, in case they became vengeful and haunted Cao Cao himself.

Cai Wenji left her children behind in enemy territory and made the journey back to her homeland. There she was re-married to a government official named Dong Si.

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‘Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland’, painting dating from the Southern Song dynasty depicting Cai Wenji and her Xiongnu husband. They are riding their horses along, each holding one of their sons.

Upon her return she also found that the 4000 volumes of ancient texts she had inherited from her father had been destroyed in the same war that had wiped out her family. Amazingly, Cai wenji was able to recite 400 of the books from memory, and wrote them down at Cao Cao’s request.

When her new husband later committed a capital crime, Cai Wenji was so distressed at losing someone else close to her that she interrupted a banquet being held by Cao Cao to plead for her husband’s life. She asked if he would procure her yet another husband after she lost this one – Cao Cao took pity and pardoned Dong Si.


In fiction:

  • Guo Moruo wrote a play on her life in 1959.
  • Cai Wenji appears as a playable character in Koei’s Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce 2 and Dynasty Warriors 7 (her debut as a playable character in North American and European ports).
  • She also appears in Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game series and in Dynasty Warriors 6: Empires as a non-playable character.
  • She is also a playable character in Warriors Orochi 3.

In science:

  • In 1976, a crater on Mercury was named Ts’ai Wen-chi after Cai Wenji.
  • In 1994, a crater on Venus was named Caiwenji after Cai Wenji.

 

References:

Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and CriticismKang-i Sun Chang, Haun Saussy, Charles Yim-tze Kwong

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

By Identified as He Dazi (赫達資) – Selections. The Art and Aesthetics of Form: Selections from the History of Chinese Painting (exhibit). Taipei: National Palace Museum., Public Domain

Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland By Unknown – CHINA Art Pic Stock (China Artistic Publisher, Beijing Panoramic Visual Pic LTD) Cat:p127, CD41:img0158, (purchased and donated by Kosi Gramatikoff User:kosigrim., Public Domain

 

 

Ban Zhao 班昭 – 45 – c.116 – Anling, China

Ancient China, China

Ban Zhou

Ban Zhao was the first known Chinese woman historian and China’s best known female scholar.

Born in Shaanxi province, Ban Zhao already had a strong female role model in the form of her great aunt, Consort Ban, who had famously saved herself from persecution by using her education and gift for reasoning. Zhao’s father, Ban Biao, and her brother, Ban Gu were also well known historians – so the importance of education was instilled from a young age.

Like many women of this era, Ban Zhao married very young, at fourteen. This meant that she was still young when her husband died, leaving her a widow with two children. Rather than re-marry, Ban Zhao chose to devote the rest of her life to scholarly pursuits.

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The Book of Han

She loved history and poetry, but also took an interest in astronomy and mathematics. When her brother, Ban Gu, was executed for political reasons in 92, he left an unfinished book on the history of the Western Han, which Ban Zhao chose to complete. She finished the work, known as The Book of Han and added her own touches – a treatise on astronomy, as well as a genealogy of the emperor’s mother.

Ban Zhao’s next great work was Lessons for Women, a guide for women’s conduct heavily influenced by Confucian morality. While the book urged women to be obedient and subservient to their husbands and fathers, it also advocated education for women and was dedicated to the daughters of the Ban family. Lessons for Women remained popular in China for centuries.

The book quickly gained the attention of the Emperor, who requested that Ban Zhao be Banzhaoinstalled as the royal librarian, and that she teach his concubines and chief wife Empress Deng Sui – who was to become a lifelong friend.

Ban Zhao quickly became known as the gifted one by the women at court, and Deng Sui had such respect for her that she made her a Lady-in-waiting – a high status position.

Ban Zhao’s rise continued as her sons were given positions as court officials. Deng Sui often asked for Ban Zhou’s advice in political matters, particularly when the Empress became regent on behalf of her infant son.

It seems that Ban Zhou’s only aspiration for herself was scholarship. She threw herself into her role as a royal librarian, managing the library assistants who worked to copy out manuscripts onto bamboo, silk and paper (which was a recent invention). In addition, Ban Zhou worked on expanding and editing Biographies of Eminent Women by Liu Xiang.

Ban Zhao lived to a great age, dying around 116 CE. When the Empress Dowager Deng Sui heard about her friend’s death, she dressed all in white as a symbol of mourning.

After her death, Ban Zhao’s daughter-in-law, gathered her works in the three-volume Collected Works of Ban Zhao, most of which is unfortunately now lost.


 

In Science:

The Ban Zhao crater on Venus is named after her.


References:

http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/9.1/lee.html

Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century – Barbara Bennet Peterson

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Banzhao” by http://www.ancestryimages.com/proddetail.php?prod=g6393 – Mémoires concernant l’histoire, les sciences, les arts, les mœurs, les usages, etc., des Chinois, par les missionaires de Pé-kin.

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Ming Dynasty wood carving books in Tian Yi Chamber colllection” by Gisling – Own work.

Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

 

 

Consort Ban (班婕妤) – c. 48 BCE – 6 BCE – Chang’an, China

Ancient China, China

BanJieyu

Consort Ban (also known as Ban Jieyu 婕妤 or Lady Ban) was the title of a woman who was a third-ranking wife to Emperor Chengdi in Han Dynasty China. We do not know her personal name.

She began palace life as a junior maid (similar to the later European position of lady-in-waiting), and became a concubine to the emperor, a more prominent position.

Consort Ban was admired as a great scholar who was able to recite beautifully from the Shi Jing (the Chinese classic poetry). She was also very demure, and famously refused to ride in a palanquin (a covered litter) with Chengdi as she did not want to distract him from matters of state.

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Consort Ban declining to ride with Emperor Cheng on his palanquin. The painting is from the bottom panel of a Northern Wei screen.

However, her poetry and modesty were not enough to secure her position with the emperor. Though she bore him two sons, both of them died shortly after birth. As the Empress Xu, Chendi’s first wife, had not produced an heir either, his mother the Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun asked him to take more concubines.

In around 19 BCE, the Emperor was visiting Princess Yang’a when he first saw her dancing girls, sisters Zhao Feiyan and Zhao Hede. He at once became infatuated with them and had the sisters brought back to his palace where he made them concubines.

Feiyan and Hede soon became Chengdi’s favourites, and he became less and less interested in Empress Xu and Consort Ban.

In 18 BCE the Zhou sisters accused both the empress and Consort Ban of witchcraft.

The empress was deposed from court and placed under house arrest, but Consort Ban took a stand. She made a speech before the emperor to plead her case, using citations from her studies of Confucius. The speech so impressed Chengdi that he permitted her to stay at court.

Not happy to remain in the palace which had now been taken over by the sisters who persecuted her, Consort Ban chose to become lady in waiting to the Empress Dowager instead. Another story tells of Consort Ban saving her brother Ban Zhi, father of the Chinese historian Ban Biao, from a charge of treason.

Two well-known Chinese poems are credited to Consort Ban and she was included in Liu Xiang’s Biography of Exemplary Women.


References:

Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism – Kang-i Sun Chang, Haun Saussy, Charles Yim-tze Kwong

Autumn in the Han PalaceMa Zhiyuan

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Consort Ban and Emperor Cheng, Northern Wei painted screen” by Michael Sullivan’s The Arts of China (1999).

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

 

 

Cornificia – c.85 – 40 BCE – Roman Republic

Ancient Rome

“Not satisfied with excelling in such a splendid art, inspired by the sacred Muses, she rejected the distaff and turned her hands, skilled in the use of the quill, to writing Heliconian verses… With her genius and labor she rose above her sex, and with her splendid work she acquired a perpetual fame.”

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Cornificia was born into a family of wealth, status and talent.

Her brother, Cornificius was both a praetor and an augur for the Roman Republic, as well as a poet. This upbringing likely afforded Cornificia a good education which inspired her own love of poetry.

Unfortunately, as happens too often, Cornificia’s work has all been lost. Her work is described as ‘distinguished’ by St Jerome in the 4th Century CE, inferring that the poet’s work did survive and was read for four hundred years after her death.

Cornificia and her brother were immortalised by a monument in Rome which still stands today. She was also praised by early feminist renaissance writer Laura Cereta who passionately wrote:

“Add also Cornificia, the sister of the poet Cornificius, whose devotion to literature bore such a fruit that she was said to have been nurtured on the milk of the Castalian Muses and who wrote epigrams in which every phrase was graced with Heliconian flowers.”


Notes:

The opening quote of this post is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (De mulieribus claris)

praetor was a magistrate and/or military commander, while an augur was a priest whose task was to ‘take the auspices’, interpreting the will of the gods by studying the activities of birds.


References:

Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth CenturyJane Stevenson

Famous Women Giovanni Boccaccio, Virginia Brown

On Wikipedia:

Elephantis – fl. late 1st Century BCE – Greece

Ancient Greece

Content warning: Sex, erotic art, sex work.

Writer, physician, midwife and author of an infamous sex manual…

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Elephantis was a woman with many talents. She was likely a sex worker, and is also noted by Pliny to have been a capable midwife (perhaps a useful skill in her line of work).

Elephantis shared her knowledge, authoring a manual on cosmetics, and another on abortive methods. But she is most notorious for her sex manual.

Her birth name is unknown; it was common for courtesans in classical times to take animal names as pseudonyms for their clients to know them by. It is even possible that there was more than one woman named Elephantis.

None of her works have survived, though they are referenced in other ancient texts. Roman historian Suetonius mentions that the Emperor Tiberius owned a complete set of Elephantis’ works – said to be written as poetry – as part of his extensive ‘erotic library’.

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Ancient Roman erotic art fresco from a brothel in Pompeii

A poem in the Priapeia also refers to Elephantis’ sex manual:

“Lalage dedicates a votive offering to Priapus, bringing shameless pictures from the books of Elephantis, and begs him to try and imitate with her the variety of intercourse of the figures in the illustrations.”

There is a further epigram by the Roman poet Martial which reads:

“Such verses as neither the daughters of Didymus know, nor the debauched books of Elephantis, in which are set out new forms of lovemaking.”

Notes:

  • The Priapeia is a collection of ninety-five poems in various meters on subjects pertaining to the phallic god Priapus.
  • “Novae figurae” has been read as “novem figurae” (i.e., “nine forms” of lovemaking, rather than “new forms” of lovemaking), and so some commentators have inferred that Elephantis listed nine different sexual positions.

References:

The Twelve Caesars (Tiberius 43:2)Seutonius

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Pompeii-wall painting” by ancient artist, User:Okc~commonswiki – Own work photograph.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Anyte – fl. 3Rd Century BCE – Tegea, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Anyte was a famous writer in her own time, well known for her epitaphs and epigrams. She was one of the first to describe nature and landscapes in her work.

She is considered unusual as rather than writing of masculine triumphs and achievements, Anyte’s work expresses sorrow for the deaths of young women. She is the first poet to write epitaphs for animals.

Fellow poet Antipater of Thessalonica named Anyte as one of the nine ‘earthly muses’ and we have more complete poems by Anyte than by any other Greek woman.

Anyte’s striking descriptions of nature are clear in the following epigram, which speaks of a statue of Aphrodite (often known as the “Cyprian”):

This is the site of the Cyprian, since it is agreeable to her

to look ever from the mainland upon the bright sea

that she may make the voyage good for sailors.

Around her the sea trembles looking upon her polished image.”

"Aphrodites Rock". Licensed via Commons

“Aphrodites Rock”. Licensed via Commons

According to some sources, Anyte led a school of poetry and literature on Peloponnesus, which also included the poet Leonidas of Tarentum.


References:

Translation and notes by Marilyn B. Skinner

On Wikipedia:

Nossis – c.300 BCE – Locri, Italy

Italy

How tenderly she stands! See how greatly her charm blooms!
May she fare well: her way of life is blameless.

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Nossis made her living writing epigrams (memorable statements) to be inscribed on votive offerings at the temple in Locri, southern Italy. Her patrons were almost exclusively women from various walks of life including wealthy matrons, new brides and sex workers.

The poem below commemorates the donation of a robe to the goddess Hera on the occasion of a woman’s wedding:

Most reverend Hera, you who often descending from heaven

behold your Lacinian shrine fragrant with incense

receive the linen wrap that with her noble child Nossis

Theophilis daughter of Cleocha wove for you.

 

Roman statue of Aphrodite, circa 4th Century BCE

Roman statue of Aphrodite, circa 4th Century BCE

Twelve of Nossis’ epigrams (one of which may not have been written by her) survive in the Greek Anthology. Meleager of Gadara, in his Garland, includes her among the most distinguished Greek poets and Antipater of Thessalonica ranked her among the nine poets who deserved the honor to compete with the Muses.

Not only were Nossis’ poems dedicated to female goddesses and paid for by women, they were also intended for a female audience, unlike most Greek poetry. In the following poem, she invites other women to go and see a gilded statue commissioned by the hetaera (courtesan) Polyarchis in the temple of Aphrodite:

Let us go to Aphrodite’s temple to see her statue,
how finely it is embellished with gold.
Polyarchis dedicated it, having made a great fortune
out of the splendor of her own body.

The fact that she is giving other women – particularly historically marginalized women – a voice makes Nossis very special. She writes with warmth and honesty, refusing to hide the pride many of these women feel in their professional successes.


References:

12 Epigrams of Nossis – Locri Epizephrii’s Historical Figures

Nossis and Women’s Cult at LocriMarilyn B. Skinner

Epigrams by Women from the Greek AnthologyMarilyn B. Skinner

On Wikipedia:

 

Moero – 3rd Century BCE – Byzantium, Greek Empire

Ancient Greece

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Moero (sometimes Myro) was a poet from the city of Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul). Antipater of Thessalonica included her in his list of famous women poets. Little remains of Moero’s work, but we know she wrote epic and lyric poetry as well as eulogies.

She is mentioned a number of times in the Suda (an ancient encyclopaedia), which states that she married a man named Andromachus and had a son who also wrote poetry.

Moero was also mentioned in The Deipnosophists by Anthenaeus, where her poetry is praised and quoted:

“Myro the Byzantian admirably caught the feeling of Homeric poems saying in her poem titled ‘Memory’ that the Pleiades convey ambrosia to Jupiter.”

(Pleiades – Seven Sisters consellation)


References:

The Suda entry on Moero

The Deipnosophists, or, Banquet of the learned of Athenæus
volume II Book XI – Athenaeus of Naucratis

On Wikipedia: