Brides, Mourners, Bacchae: Q&A with author Vassiliki Panoussi

Why did you write Brides, Mourners, Bacchae: Women’s Rituals in Roman Literature?

Although I had researched women’s roles in literature in my previous work, I wanted to take a closer look at women’s roles as represented in the broader spectrum of Roman literature. I wanted to ask: how did women carve out a place for themselves in a society dominated by men? This new book explores the traditional, and not so traditional, ways that women claimed power in that patriarchal society. I present the first large-scale analysis of this body of evidence from a feminist perspective.

The book examines both poetry and prose from the first century BCE to the end of the first century CE to explore women's place in weddings, funerals, Bacchic rites, and women-only rituals and what they tell us about the many ways women exercised influence, and even power.

From poems describing brides’ resistance to getting married to the story of a former slave and prostitute helping to uncover a tremendous religious scandal, ancient literature provides many examples of the complexity of women’s influence on the society.

What was the most surprising thing you learned through your writing or research?

One of the most surprising discoveries occurred early on: most literary texts devote long portions of the narrative to women performing their religious duties. During those narratives, women do some really remarkable things and take center stage in the action. One of the questions I wanted to answer was why these male authors chose women as the protagonists in these episodes. They were definitely not doing this because they cared about women’s rights or women’s agency and subjectivity. I wanted to find out their real agenda.

What is new in Brides, Mourners, Bacchae?

Roman women figure prominently in many works of Roman literature, but no one has really shed light into the intersection of gender, ideology, and ritual in these stories. I thought this would be a good thing to do, and it would help explain the important roles women play in Latin texts.

The approach is new because it brings together these different perspectives, that of religion, feminism, and politics. It’s often hard for people to understand how what classics scholars do is new, because the materials we study are very old and have been around for thousands of years. But they are a lot more complex and modern than people think.

Every generation of scholars is influenced by, obviously, the issues that are important to the society in which the scholar lives. And so each generation asks different questions of these texts. At the same time, the theoretical frameworks that are available to us through advances in psychology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, religion, change too. All of these factors help us re-evaluate and reassess those really old texts.

So it is not surprising that someone would have questions about the agency of women now, when more contemporary theoretical work on agency, as defined by feminism or relational sociology, makes us look differently at things that we thought we knew.

Why did you decide to study literature?

Women in ancient Rome didn’t really have official positions. Feminist scholarship has shown the many ways patriarchy worked in ancient Rome and in Roman literature. What I’m proposing is to move beyond that and look into the ways in which at least the literary texts show women able to exercise authority and power — and religion was one of those areas where women were able to do that.

The women in the texts that I studied exercise considerable agency and take on areas that are traditionally male. But they do so within the context of religious activity. For example, the princess Hypsipyle is able to rescue her father the king by performing a fake burial. She gets away with it, precisely because as a daughter she was responsible for burying her father. In the end, she becomes the ruler of her country.

I believe my contribution is that I show for the first time the ways in which women have been able to maintain or assert their agency, their identity, and to make their own contributions to the social fabric. And literature is a place where they could do that, whereas the historical record cannot always show us that.

What is the most important fact that your book helps to reveal?

That women’s religious roles were a lot more important than people realize. And that literature can be an important factor in our understanding of that agency.

All of the texts that I examine in this book have long been studied. But I propose that only if we look at the combined frameworks of religion, agency, and ideology, can we appreciate the magnitude of the empowerment that women claimed in ancient Rome.

How do you envision the lasting impact of Brides, Mourners, Bacchae?

For years, up until very recently actually, most historians of religion thought that Roman women had no significant roles even in religion. But one of the arguments I make is that in fact in the literature we have proof that this was not the case. Quite the contrary, women were not excluded from religious life, but were in fact vital players in this arena. I suggest a place and a way to look for female empowerment in Roman society.

Although what I say has implications for Roman society, the focus of my book is on the ways in which male authors manipulate female agency in order to talk about what they want to talk about, which is ideology, power, politics, identity, things like that.

I hope that my book will be a starting point for a new conversation on the complexity of women’s agency and power in patriarchal settings.

What do you hope people will take away from your work?

Women’s religious roles and rituals are linked to questions of power and state power in particular. So very often the actions of women in literature directly affect the public domain. Whether there’s a war and they show resistance to authority, whether they’re punished for their actions, or whether they’re triumphant, whenever they venture into the public arena, it’s because they are clashing with power.

When they do that, they claim agency through their religious roles, as priestesses, as presiding over ceremonies, as wives or as mourners.

My work then focuses on women and other social groups that were not privileged, that were oppressed or obviously did not occupy the upper echelons of power. In this way, we can actually get a sense of their subjectivity, how they felt. Even if many of these narratives show that women were eventually oppressed, their resistance or point of view is also recorded. And I think that is something that gives us an insight not only into how ideology works in Roman society, but also into how ideologies are shaped in our own society.

Vassiliki Panoussi is a professor of classical studies at William & Mary. She is the author of Brides, Mourners, Bacchae: Women’s Rituals in Roman Literature and Vergil's "Aeneid" and Greek Tragedy: Ritual, Empire, and Intertext.