Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Taking passengers

Ancient Rome has little to do with Iceland aside from the fact that it enters history classrooms in our schools and occasionally the big or small screen via Hollywood. It passed by my house last night in the form of a speech on Tiberius that my daughter had to prepare for class.

I must say it is good to be reminded how lucky one is not to have been born a Roman emperor or anyone in such a persons close circle. The ever-present drama, poisonings and all of the bloody coins they seem to have had minted.

Since my knowledge of Tiberius has somewhat decayed from my student days I read up on him in order to be of assistance – I am now officially an assistant student since my daughter started junior college. Reading through the same texts as I had thirty years ago it struck me is how amazingly differently history strikes me now that I am an adult. I write it down to wisdom. Can’t anything be else. Maybe my newfound farsightedness.

One of the things that is as clear as the sun in the summer sky is that a lot of what I studied in my teens, believing it to be the one true version of events, is not so at all. Some of it is clearly conjecture, some biased by those who ended up writing it all down, some influenced by the arts – a phenomenon that has through the ages been fixated on dramatics and making things epic. Another thing of note is the parts provided women by the original historians and their followers. Why is my daughter studying text that states that Julia, the daughter of the first emperor of Rome, Augustus, was so promiscuous that she chose to prostitute herself? Bullshit. There is no better word for it.

By studying just this one guy Tiberius, I met all of the stereotypes provided women in history: the whore (Julia), the schemer/poisoner (Livilla), the martyr (Vispania) and dutiful wife (Agrippina). All were doomed and none seemed to have any real influence over the turning of events – even the schemers.

I know I am not being fair, there are others although they did not turn up in the Tiberius articles: the pious woman (Heloise*), the silly woman (Marie Antoinette), the warrior (Jean De Arc) and the heir-maker/mother (the wife of Charlemagne – does not seem to have a name although his horse Tencendur does). Funny thing is that I cannot think of a single female historical figure that would fit another category I would have thought existed, i.e. the maiden – loads of such characters in old stories and tales but none I can recall from history. Hmmm.

*Heloise is perhaps not the best example of a pious female figure but she is the most interesting one from this category that I could think of – perhaps Cara will tell us her tragic French story and that of her lover Abelard one of these days. It is a bit uncomfortable to read actually so if she does consider yourself warned.

This is Encyclopedia Brittanica’s intro regarding women in history: For millennia, women have left their mark on the world, at times changing the course of history and at other times influencing small but significant spheres of life. I cannot comment on this – I would risk being thrown out by blogger. To me “at times” implies “very occasionally” and the “small but significant spheres of life” needs some explaining.

The men in history can also be categorized. This difference is that they had influence so they can fill two categories each: the wise conqueror (Alexander the great), the philandering king (Henry II), the brooding emperor (Tiberius) and so on. Historical men also have two categories women do not fill in droves: evil and mad. Can’t win ‘em all guys.

I have no problem with the fact that women had lesser power in historical times. It is a situation of old and almost over and done with in at least parts of the world. I do have a problem with my daughter reading about the daughter of an emperor working as a prostitute of her own free will in her spare time. This is just plain stupid.

However I did like a quote provided this same character Julia, when asked how she managed to have all of these dalliances while managing to always bear children that so resembled her husband (first husband): I never take on passengers unless the boat is full.  

Finally, with regards to prostitution – if it is the oldest profession, with what did the first client pay with?

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Yrsa, I love you more than ever! History seems always to blame the women, from Adam and Eve onwards. Evil-doing men should not be blamed for their deeds; they strayed from their nobel natures only because scheming women or nasty mothers drove them to it. BALONEY! Cherchez la femme, my foot! I will quote your last line often, with proper credit to you.

  2. Annamaria - looking forward to catching up in Bristol! Feel free to use the quote, I have been annoyed by the reference to prostitution as the oldest profession bla bla for years. It is so spiteful somehow.

  3. I agree with every word, Yrsa (and Annamaria). Mama (a woman deserving of a true golden place in history) didn't raise no fool!