Damn Whores or God’s Police by Elisabeth Storrs

Posted by on Feb 15, 2014 in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Historical Tidbits | 6 comments

Maravot tomb_leopard

One of the main themes of my Tales of Ancient Rome series is the exploration of the lives of women in the ancient world through the characters of various women from different cultures. In The Wedding Shroud my protagonist, Caecilia, is an insular Roman girl thrust into the liberal world of Etruria after being married to an enemy Etruscan nobleman to seal a truce.

She arrives in the Etruscan city of Veii as a treaty bride determined to remain true to Roman ‘virtues’ but instead grapples with conflicting moralities as she is slowly seduced by the freedoms offered to her by her husband. Her eyes are opened to differing attitudes through her friendship with a Greek slave woman, Cretan courtesan and Etruscan matron. In the sequel, The Golden Dice, Caecilia is joined by two other strong female characters – Pinna, the Roman tomb whore, and Semni, an Etruscan artisan forced into servitude.

So what was the status and role of these women in classical times? In both Greece and Rome they were chattels possessed by men. Athenian women were cloistered within women’s quarters and were restricted to household duties. In Rome they were second class citizens without the right to vote or hold property. What’s more, Roman women rarely ate with their men and could be killed with impunity by their husbands or fathers for adultery or drinking wine. In both cultures a woman’s primary purpose was to bear children in order to ensure the continuation of her husband’s bloodline. Their identities were defined by their relationship as either daughter or wife. Roman women were only known by one name, that of their father’s surname in feminine form. In death their remains were placed in a man’s tomb and they were not commemorated.

Furthermore, while wives weren’t given the opportunity for education and social freedom – in Athens, courtesans were. These hetairae were allowed to dine with men and drink wine at banquets while discussing politics, philosophy, literature and enjoying entertainments. Of course they also provided sexual favours to the patrons who owned them. In comparison, the life of a Roman prostitute was grim and repressed as I’ve explored in this post She wolves, hens and night moths – the prostitutes of Ancient Rome on Fly High litblog.

Discovering the lives of ancient women, however, made me realize that gender inequality is still prevalent today and varies only by degree. Many rights that women of the western world take for granted such as education, suffrage and property ownership have only been acquired in relatively recent times. Certainly the concept of women being either ‘damn whores or god’s police’ is still held by many cultures.

In contrast, Etruscan women were believed to hold positions as high priestesses and even conduct businesses. They could share their husband’s dining couch and drink wine. They had two names denoting both paternal and maternal bloodlines. Some accounts also state that wives had sexual freedom and may even have been able to claim their illegitimate children in their own right.

In writing fiction, it is tempting to try and create historical female characters who have ‘modern’ attitudes or can transcend the constraints placed upon them. I have tried to avoid this in my books and present women who are defined by the attitudes of their cultures and times. However, in doing so I realized that customs, laws and religious beliefs may have been very different in past societies but emotions and motivations don’t vary between modern and ancient man. Power, love and duty remain eternal.

For more information on Tales of Ancient Rome you can visit my blog to learn about Caecilia’s journey in The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice. And from 18-21 February, 2014,  The Wedding Shroud will be available for 99c in a Kindle Count Down promotion on the US Kindle and UK Kindle stores.

The image is on a banqueting scene from the Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, Italy, 5th BCE. It depicts a husband and wife sharing a dining couch being served wine by a naked slave boy. The woman’s skin is pale compared to the ruddy skin of her husband ( an artistic convention of that time). Her hair is fair which may be a realistic detail. The both wear myrtle wreathes. Bright bordered mantles cover the semi naked body of the man and the chiton of the woman. There is an account from a contemporary Greek traveller to Etruria that Etruscan women not only drank wine and share their dining couches with men but also were known to raise toasts. Shocking!

Elisabeth Storrs, February 15, 2014




  1. A good view of how women suffer and have suffered through the ages, but don’t relax your guard because women have more freedom today in Europe, China and North America.

    There are forces in the US (religious and political—mostly in the GOP) who would reverse this trend if given the political power. For instance, the states that haven’t ratified the Equal Rights Amendment are all dominated by and ruled over by the Republican Party.

    And an old (but former) friend of mine I’ve known for almost sixty years once told me that my wife’s property and money were mine and not hers because the man should lead a family (I married my wife in 1999 and she was earning a living on her own with money saved in the bank and a house paid for from decades of hard work). He quoted scripture to support this advice.

    His advice clearly reveals that there are men in this world who still think of women as chattel, in the Biblical sense of the Old Testament.

    And this old friend is a conservative, libertarian, born again fundamentalist evangelical Christian who supports right wing political and religious agendas with the conviction of an old world guru.

  2. Well-researched article, Elisabeth. I’ve always seen the historic end of the power of the feminine occurred in AD 391 when the zealot christian leaders including the Coptic pope Theophilus in Alexandria fomented riot among their illiterate adherents. They sacked and burned the Great Library and killed the last great observed female curator. The leaders were afraid of any power that flowed from anywhere except the doctrines they spewed, especially if they were of an Hellenic origin. While solidifying their hold on moral life through doctrine, they also destroyed the vestiges of more than ten thousand years of gathered, recorded knowledge. That for me, was truly the beginning of the Dark Ages, although the library was first “burned and looted” by Julius Caesar in 48BCE. The Muslims did it again in 642. Just to make sure, I guess.

    • Tyrants fear the free flow of information that sprouts truth and ideas that may reveal who they really are. Even today, these tyrants are at work. If you have been following Diane Ravtich’s Blog about the war on public education in the United States, you would see this in action as a group of billionaires buy up the traditional media one way or another and use it to subvert truth and ideas.

      What happens when a country that has democratically run public schools suddenly loses those schools to private corporations that have the power to take kids from parents and teach them anything and anyway they want without any public control over the education process?

      It’s happening in the US right now. The public schools are at risk of just that. In the few states where these billionaire autocrats have been successful, they are now in control of what young minds learn. In fact, in the south there are not private sector schools supported by taxpayer money that are teaching creationism and no science of evolution. In those states, public schools are being sold off to corporations at bargain prices and the kids forced to go to corporate schools where the parents have no say at all in what their children learn and how they are treated—even corporal punishment. Defy the corporation and your children could be kicked out of the only schools close to your home.

  3. There appear to be 4 people on the couch. Which one is the husband and which the wife, and who are the other 2? And where does the expression ‘God’s police’ come from and what does it mean? JJ

  4. Sorry, I meant to saw “There are now private sector schools” Not “not”

  5. Richard and Lloyd – thanks for dropping by. What you’re saying is very scary and sobering. As an ‘old’ feminist it horrifies me how the pendulum is swinging back to conservatism towards women. More frightening than anything is that women (who have been empowered) are allowing this to happen in western countries. When I researched my novels I was very conscious that many cultures in the modern world are still not as enlightened as the Etruscans regarding women’s rights although I doubt Etruscan women would have been enfranchised. There just isn’t enough sources available to establish this. Roman women were ‘citizens’ but could not vote.