Ancient Near East

This article will discuss the role of gender in the political leadership of the first millennium B.C.E. Near East during the rule of the two large empires: the Neo-Assyrian Empire (934–612) and the Neo-Babylonian Empire (612–539). All dates in the article are B.C.E. Political leadership is here viewed on two levels: (1) social reality and the process of governmental and institutional decision making and (2) the construction of imagined reality regarding gender and kingship, in other words gender ideology and royal ideology.

There is an interesting discrepancy between imagined reality and what actually took place in the Neo-Assyrian court. Quantitatively speaking, arenas relating to writing were masculine spheres of action—the majority of persons appearing in the texts are men. However, there is little qualitative difference in the ways in which elite women and men acted in the palace administration. Ideologically, femininity was seen as silent and subservient, but when we look at the evidence from the palaces this is not at all the image we get.

Social rank influenced a person’s responsibilities more than gender. Overall, it seems that the ties between political power and the construction of gender were fluid in first-millennium Mesopotamia. In other words, rules were different for elite women such as queens. Iconography portrayed them as politically powerful as well as feminine. This portrayal is unequivocally supported by the textual evidence describing the social reality.

The imagined reality of masculinity—vocal and martial—was closely linked to royal ideology. An important part of depicting the king was depicting him as a warrior, which in turn had a very clear connection to masculinity. How strong the connection was to the actual social reality (i.e., a king’s actual actions) is, of course, difficult to assess. Certainly, on a more general level, such portrayals of idealized masculinity seem to have been in accord with the social reality.


Regarding the Neo-Assyrian Empire, most of our textual evidence dates to the Sargonid dynasty (721–612). The palace archives from Nineveh (mostly published in the State Archives of Assyria series, hereafter SAA) include such genres as letters, treaties, loyalty oaths, oracular queries, legal transactions, administrative records, astrological reports, and literary texts. Royal inscriptions (most recently published in the Royal Inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian Period series) as well as archives from the administrative centers of the provinces (e.g., Kalhu, published in the Cuneiform Texts from Nimrud series) are preserved as well. We have only a few private or temple archives.

Much of southern Mesopotamia was intermittently controlled by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 747–626. Throughout this period, the male—and possibly even female—elite of certain long-established cities (e.g., Sippar, Babylon, Borsippa, and Nippur) enjoyed special privileges that apparently even the Neo-Assyrian monarch was expected to honor. A successful rebellion ended Assyrian control and by 626 Nabopolassar had secured the Babylonian throne. After a decade of fighting, in 616, he launched an attack against Assyria. Medes joined in and Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, was sacked in 612. The last resistance was overcome in 608.

There is also a wealth of evidence from the Neo-Babylonian era (612–539). The majority of Neo-Babylonian archives have been recovered either from the temple of Šamaš in Sippar or from Ištar’s temple in Uruk. Many texts come from private archives of the Babylonian elite, but a state archive has also been found. Babylonian royal inscriptions and the so-called Babylonian Chronicles (ca. 744–549) offer a glimpse of historical events. Babylonian archives often extend into the Achaemenid period in Mesopotamia (with the language form changing from Neo- to Late Babylonian), attesting to continuity in the area.

Most spheres of life that are documented were male dominated, which means that women appear rarely in the sources. Of approximately 50,000 names in Neo- and Late Babylonian texts, roughly 2 percent are feminine (approximately three quarters of these belong to slaves). Consequently, less than 5 percent (ca. 700) of Neo-Assyrian individuals known by name are female. Nonetheless, women do appear in most kinds of text genres and in many roles. There are few text genres that exist in both empires in sufficient quantities to enable direct comparison between Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian eras. Regarding financial transactions, there is some comparable evidence, but as far as political leadership is concerned, most of our first-millennium evidence is Neo-Assyrian.

Naturally, our evidence mostly documents the actions of the elite: the officials in palaces and temples and the members of wealthy families. Both men and women of the elite bought, sold, leased, borrowed, lent, and traded both land and other commodities during the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian eras. Generally speaking, both men and women had full legal rights, although autonomy in the modern sense should not be posited. Individuals practically always acted for a family, which was usually headed by a male. However, there is no evidence that women would have needed explicit permission from a male guardian to engage in financial transactions. As was common throughout Mesopotamian history, sons inherited more of the family’s assets, whereas daughters were given dowries by their family. In addition to financial transactions, both men and women could have official duties in the administration of the empire or the temples. As in texts describing financial transactions, men form the overwhelming majority in the evidence regarding administration and temple positions. At the same time, most married women had concerns that men did not: child care, organization of the household, and maintenance of domestic religious practices, as well as possible involvement in the production of goods for the family or the family business (e.g., textiles). A sphere of action that was particularly masculine was warfare. From a gender perspective, questions of why and how some women do enter male arenas are crucial and connect gender to other factors, such as status.

Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Royal Families and High Dignitaries.

Much of our evidence regarding Neo-Assyrian royal offspring relates to the crown prince. He needed to demonstrate ability as well as descent from the male line of royal family, although he did not need to be a direct descendant of the ruling king. In the “Succession Palace” he was schooled and prepared for his eventual kingship. The crown prince had his own staff and, depending on his age and experience, could lead armed forces and take care of varied administrative and cultic duties as well. He was still working under the supervision of the king, but (like the queen) he was an important asset for controlling the realm. The wife of the crown prince, designated “Lady of the House,” had a household as well. She, the crown prince, and apparently other members of the royal family (both male and female) received at least a basic education in scribal arts.

Neo-Assyrian royal daughters and other female members of the royal family (not including the queens) are known from 30 texts, 19 of which mention daughters. The earliest of these is a dedication to Ištar of Kidmuri by the sister of Ashurnaṣirpal II (883–859). The most prominent figure among these royal daughters is šeru’a-eṭirat, the daughter of Esarhaddon, best known for her letter to the wife of the crown prince (SAA 16 28). Royal daughters were involved in rituals and financial transactions and are mentioned in administrative texts and letters. If they remained in court, they could exert considerable influence, but their involvement in foreign policy was limited to marriages to foreign leaders.

More than seventy texts also attest to the existence of female administrative staff, some of whom—especially the female administrator of the queen (šakintu)—wielded considerable influence in the running of the palaces. However, women in administrative offices are heavily outnumbered by men and none of the “magnates,” the most important officials of the realm, was female.

From the Neo-Assyrian period, there is also evidence regarding female tribal leaders. Numerous Chaldean, Aramaean, and Arabic tribes wielded considerable influence in Mesopotamia during the first millennium. Some of these tribes had female leaders (šarratu, literally “queen”). There are altogether nineteen references to them, most of which appear in the annals of Assyrian kings, citing their position as vassals or military opponents.

Compared with the Neo-Assyrian Empire, there is little information regarding the royal family and high officials in the political sphere of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, mainly because much of the material still remains unpublished and palace archives are rare. Three of the daughters of Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562) are known to us. The best-known is Kaššaya, whose name appears in six texts, whereas Innin-eṭirat and Ba’u-asitu are both attested only once each. Nebuchadnezzar’s son ruled only for two years, after which he was supplanted by his brother-in-law, Neriglissar. Some circumstantial evidence suggests that Kaššaya was the daughter married to Neriglissar. This marriage alliance would have been important for Neriglissar, first as a way to gain support for his coup and later for legitimation of his rule.

Neriglissar’s daughter Gigitu was in turn given in marriage by her father to a certain Nabû-šum-ukin, who belonged to the highest echelons of the priestly elite in the city of Borsippa. The urban elite of Babylonian cities had become important political players under the rule of the Neo-Assyrian kings. Therefore, the marriage constituted a beneficial alliance for both families. Since the marriage agreement (the only known document that mentions Gigitu) is dated to the first day of the first month of the reign of Neriglissar, one is even tempted to speculate that the marriage was a reward for aiding Neriglissar’s coup.

The last Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus (555–539), had no blood ties with the previous royal families. In the second year of his reign, he installed his own daughter as the ēntu priestess in the temple of the moon-god Sîn in Ur. It seems possible that this nomination, an almost forgotten custom in the Neo-Babylonian period, was part of Nabonidus’s effort to elevate the cult of the moon-god (as shown below, this objective is also evident in his mother’s pseudo-biography), which was traditionally eclipsed in Babylonia by the cult of the national god Marduk. It was also a time-honored tradition in Mesopotamia to place relatives in positions of power to bolster the influence of the dynasty. Some archival texts from Sippar and one from Uruk refer to other daughters of Nabonidus, two of whom are known by name: Ina-Esagil-rimat and Akkubuzaba.

The royal daughters of the Neo-Babylonian period played similar roles to their Neo-Assyrian counterparts. They appear as landowners and as contributors to the temple of Ištar of Uruk, the goddess Nanaya, and the Ebabbar temple in Sippar. From the point of view of political leadership, their marriages served to cement strategic alliances. However, whereas the Neo-Assyrians married foreign kings, the Neo-Babylonian kings used their daughters to solidify internal alliances, perhaps because of the relative turbulence of the Neo-Babylonian period. The establishment of Nabonidus’s daughter as the ēntu of Ur can be seen as part of the same trend.

Neo-Assyrian Queens and Mothers of Kings.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire was led by the king, the vice regent of the national god Aššur. Ideologically at least, all political power flowed from the king and he was responsible for all aspects of cultic, military, and administrative activities. On practical terms, however, the highest officials of the country, the magnates, played a key role in managing the administration of Assyrian provinces and the army. Additionally, scholars receiving the patronage of the king offered him advice based on interpretation of divine signs, which indicated the will of the gods. A separate category was formed by the queen (literally “the woman of the palace,” Mí.é.GAL, sēgallu) and the crown prince (literally “the son of the king,” mār šarri). Their households were closest to the king and highest in court hierarchy. Other members of the royal family could be influential as well, but these two are the only family members with a constant tradition of a full branch of administration working under their supervision.

The queen’s household had extensive land holdings and offices throughout the empire, employing hundreds of people. This household was not the personal property of the woman herself; it was the title of queen that carried with it a large governmental office. Cited as the highest-ranking member of the court after the king, the queen supported the temple institutions, engaged in cultic activities, and was involved in making political decisions. After the rule of Sennacherib, the queen also came to have her own military units. Staff headed by a female administrator (šakintu) was employed by the queen. The queen’s household resembled the households of the magnates as far as administrative and economical activities were concerned.

There are only a few depictions of Neo-Assyrian queens. Queens are portrayed with a mirror, which was a feminine symbol. A specifically Neo-Assyrian symbol carried by queens was the mural crown. This represented political dominion. Furthermore, queens are depicted in texts and iconography as enthroned, generally a sign of reverence in Mesopotamian imagery. This is a clear indication of their importance. The symbology of the throne and mural crown must be interpreted in context of texts that describe the social reality: Neo-Assyrian queens were deeply involved in the governing of the state, as can be seen from the wide economic and administrative reach of their households, the specific vocabulary related to them, and their involvement in political decisions. It would seem that the queens appropriated symbols of rulership that were usually used by males. Such symbols and actions expanded the sphere of political power, extending it into the queen’s realm.

The queen is mentioned in about 120 texts. As a general rule, it seems that there was only one queen in the Neo-Assyrian realm at any given time, yet circumstantial evidence suggests that the queen may have continued as the head of the queen’s household even after her spouse was replaced by a new king. The strongest evidence for this is seen with Queen Naqi’a, also known by her Akkadian name as Zakûtu. She was the head of the queen’s household during the reigns of three consecutive kings: Sennacherib (704–681), Esarhaddon (680–669), and Ashurbanipal (668–ca. 630). During the reign of her son Esarhaddon, Ešarra-ḫammat (the spouse of Esarhaddon) assumed the title until her death in 672. After that, Naqi’a took over again and carried out the duties of the queen at least until the early part of her grandson Ashurbanipal’s reign.

Naqi’a is perhaps best known from the text known as the “Treaty of Zakûtu.” It states that Naqi’a/Zakûtu bound Ashurbanipal’s brothers, the whole court, and even the whole nation in unswerving loyalty to the new king Ashurbanipal, who is called her “favorite grandson” in the text (SAA 2 8). This is unique in Mesopotamia and although it is not the only evidence we have regarding Naqi’a’s important role in governmental decision making, it is certainly the clearest. Naqi’a’s extraordinary authority in the Neo-Assyrian court might have been part of Esarhaddon’s plan to bolster his mother’s status to enable her to smooth the road for the kingship of Ashurbanipal. Although Naqi’a stands out from the body of Neo-Assyrian evidence, she is not alone. There is still debate whether Sammu-ramat, the mother of King Adad-Nirari III (810–783), was a co-regent with her son. In any case, however, she did go on a military campaign with him, and together they erected a monument to commemorate their victory.

The body of textual and iconographical evidence on the Neo-Assyrian queen suggests that her position was important throughout that era. Queens like Naqi’a and Sammu-ramat are easily highlighted as exceptions. Perhaps because of a specific historical situation or their own personalities, they were able to extend their influence further than other queens, but their activities were qualitatively the same as those of other, lesser-known, queens. For although Neo-Assyrian queens engaged in financial and administrative duties, both the vocabulary and the content of texts—as well as iconography—also associate them with political power.

Additionally, the queen, the mother of the king, and the crown prince were important for royal ideology. Hints of this can be observed especially in the portrayal of the queens in public monuments and rituals, as well as in their role as guarantors of legitimate succession (e.g., Treaty of Zakûtu). On the other hand, their absence from most royal inscriptions and narratives probably relates to the masculine nature of Mesopotamian kingship.

Adad-Guppi and the Legitimization of Kingship.

The reverence of Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus for the moon-god Sîn is emphasized in the pseudo-biography of his mother Adad-Guppi, which was composed after her death in 574 and inscribed on a stele as part of the restoration project of the temple of Eḫulḫul, dedicated to the god Sîn, in the city of Harran. The text does not include any reference to the father of the king, although Nabonidus mentions him in his inscriptions.

All in all, the text exalts Adad-Guppi’s piety in serving the moon-god in Harran. Sîn’s decision to return to Harran and restore the Eḫulḫul temple is portrayed as a just reward for Adad-Guppi. She is described as a loyal worshipper of Sîn, for which the god selected her son for kingship and granted her the longevity of a centenarian. It seems that she was part of the Babylonian court, attending both Nebuchadnezzar and Neriglissar. The text also says that she introduced her son to these kings and that he served them well, although no specific position is mentioned. The funeral inscription further recounts how Nabonidus in turn promoted his mother in court and how Nebuchadnezzar and Neriglissar exalted her “as though [she] had been a daughter born of their loins” (Beaulieu, 1989, p. 69). Interestingly, immediately after this passage the text proceeds to recount the deaths of Nebuchadnezzar and Neriglissar, with nobody performing the proper offerings for the deceased until Adad-Guppi took charge. Since funerary offerings were traditionally the responsibility of the direct descendants of the deceased, it is possible that the author intended to present Adad-Guppi as the adopted daughter of the kings.

An age-old tradition in Mesopotamia was to legitimate kingship through blood relationship to previous kings. It seems clear that Nabonidus’s father was not mentioned for a reason: Nabonidus’s attempt to legitimize his claim for kingship was specifically through his mother, who was portrayed as a worthy king’s mother on two counts, her daughter-like relationship to the previous kings and her piety.

The mother-son relationship between Nabonidus and Adad-Guppi has an explicit connection with Neo-Assyrian royal ideology. In the Neo-Assyrian tradition, mothers were portrayed as the guarantors of legitimate succession because of their great piety. The significant difference here, of course, is that Adad-Guppi is not presented as the queen of the previous king. Instead, she is portrayed as their adopted daughter. There are also other points of connection with Neo-Assyrian queens. Like Neo-Assyrian queens, Adad-Guppi appears in a literary genre usually reserved for kings and she acted in ways that were commonly the province of the king alone. In this context, it is not insignificant that Nabonidus himself apparently saw his rule as part of the great continuum of Mesopotamian rulers, including the last great Assyrian kings.

In the case of Sammu-ramat and Naqi’a, in addition to the legitimization of their sons’ rule, they played a part in the politics of the country. Whether Adad-Guppi also wielded power in the Neo-Babylonian social reality remains an unanswered question.


Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian source materials differ, but there are some common trends that can be identified. In this essay, political leadership is viewed both from the perspective of social reality and from the ideological perspective. Contrasting “ideology” with “social reality” is too simplistic a methodological approach, but here it serves as a useful departure point since portrayals of kingship, femininity, and masculinity can hardly be accepted at face value.

The imagined masculine gender—militant and vocal—is well represented in the texts describing social reality. The majority of evidence relates to activities of individuals grammatically identified as male. Men form the bulk of office holders, are the sole holders of the highest administrative positions, and dominate military affairs.

This evidence on social reality supports the Assyrian ideological construction of femininity as timid, obedient, and silent. However, when examined more closely, it becomes apparent that women of high social rank acted in similar ways as men of high social rank. Their financial activities were similar and both could hold offices in palaces or temples. Female officials and female members of the royal family—most prominently the queen—could have an authoritative role in the making of political and institutional decisions.

Finally, a few words on the royal ideology are needed. Kingship was portrayed with strong ties to masculinity and warfare. The head of state was always male and royal women are mostly absent from royal narratives of warfare and building endeavors. Nonetheless, occasionally women (especially the king’s mother) could appear in the royal narratives as vocal and decisive agents, jarring the gender ideology. Most often this break in gender ideology related to legitimization of kingship; in other words, the actions of women were important to the legitimatizing narrative of kingship. Even the Babylonian Creation Epic can be interpreted from this point of view, as a cautionary tale of a queen (the deity Tiamat) who attempts to oust her children from kingship, introducing her spouse as the new king. In the social reality of the first millennium, queen as king-maker was a recurring trope. It was expected and appropriate to make one’s son a king, but illegitimate and wrong to elevate one’s spouse.




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Saana Svärd

Hebrew Bible

The question of evidence troubles discussions of women’s political roles in antiquity. What evidence of female political leadership do biblical texts provide? Does such evidence attest to female exclusion or to the biases of the writers? Should female figures such as prophetesses and queens be understood as representative of women in ancient history? Can we read between the lines or excavate countertraditions that suggest greater political autonomy for women prior to state formation and the consolidation of its justifying narrative? Does a female oral tradition at times interrupt the stories of male covenant and heroism? Is evidence itself a gendered concept?

Biblical evidence is of a textual nature. Although the texts are not attributed to authors and are arranged according to a loose plot of progress, decline, and revival, many biblical scholars are deeply committed to ideas of authorship and the notion of competing or, at least, different sources comprising the Hebrew Bible. Assuming such an approach, one can assess how specific sources treat the question of female political leadership.

Harold Bloom suggested that a woman wrote the J source and conferred considerable social authority to female characters. Although biblical scholars have questioned Bloom’s literary analysis of the evidence, Carol Meyers, in a reading informed by the archaeological record, has shown how the early J source represents female participation and equality in labor and household leadership.

The Nation in Priestly Texts.

In Priestly texts, women are expressly or tacitly addressed by purity laws, but it seems that the very definition of Israel as a nation is predicated on the effacement of the female. The category of the female is a component part of the Priestly creation story—“male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27 JPS) and women also contribute to the establishment of the Tabernacle, a sacred event long recognized as a reflex of creation.

The sacred space of the Tabernacle constitutes the center of the nation in the opening of the Priestly book of Numbers. Because the tribes are arranged in fixed positions along the circumference of the Tabernacle, they appear as constituent parts of a larger unified whole. The national configuration is clarified as Moses conducts a census, which, according to divine command, is to encompass all of Israel. The heads of everyone in the entire community of Israel are to be counted and situated according to clan, ancestral house, and individual (Num 1:2). The individual is singled out according to the male exclusive term zakhar, which lacks the female analog neqevah present at creation. This means that “the entire community of Israel” that becomes manifest through the census contains no women (Num 1:2).

The opening census of the book of Numbers is based on the effacement of women, but it is the encroachment of a woman that motivates the book’s closing census. At Shittim on the East Bank of the Jordan a figure from well outside the Priestly schema is brought into the sphere of the Israelites at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (Num 25:6). A Midianite woman named Cozbi daughter of Zur with a pedigree within the tribal structure of Midian is escorted to the Israelite zone at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting by Zimri son of Salu, who similarly is the son of a clan leader from the tribe of Simeon. As Claudia Camp has shown, the mixing of nations at work in this couple troubles the Priestly order at the same time that it brings it into relief (Camp, 2000, pp. 212–215). Women, who do not count within the national configuration of Israel, have no place in the Tabernacle environs. To make matters worse, Cozbi is a stranger who must be sacrificed because her presence contaminates the very sanctity of the entrance.

In the census following the illicit sacrifice of Cozbi, the foreign woman is contrasted with an acceptable category of women. Thus the second census names specific female characters and concedes to a scenario in which women might find themselves owners of land. Their potential ownership of land causes them to resemble Israelite men in having a public, political presence. The census of Numbers 26 is also concerned with the number of military men, yet the word emphasizing maleness, zakhar, is absent. It seems that the absence of this word makes way for the introduction of the acceptable category of women: daughters.

A hierarchy becomes apparent when the census names no “daughters of Israel” as counterparts to the “sons of Israel,” but only daughters of particular tribal founders. The census names the five daughters of Zelophehad (Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah) (Num 26:33), Serach daughter of Asher (Num 26:46), and Yocheved daughter of Levi (Num 26:59). Such daughters, should they mind their place and marry within their tribe, can legitimately own land in the absence of brothers (Num 27:8).

The daughters of Zelophehad secure this right when they present their claim “before Moses, Eleazar the Priest, the chieftains and all of the community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Num 27:2). That the daughters approach the very place encroached upon by Cozbi illustrates the acceptability of their position. The possibility of land ownership that they secure entails a provision for participation in the political realm that constitutes “all Israel.”

The Nation in Deuteronomistic Texts.

As in the censuses of Numbers, texts ascribed to the Deuteronomistic source represent corporate Israel in military terms. The image of fighting men bound by common purpose forms the basis of national public space. For example, the book of Deuteronomy applies military imagery to the image of collective assembly. The supportive presence of the divine replaces the opposition of an enemy, but the national collective still resembles the lineup of troops. According to Saul Olyan, the God of Israel who requires “that every Israelite male stand before YHWH three times a year with offerings (as in Deut 16:16)…as a vassal approaches a sovereign” commands supreme power (Olyan, 2010, p. 36). However, all Israel assembled for the jubilee includes “men, women, children, and the strangers at your gates” (Deut 31:11–12).

In dialogue with Olyan, Susan Ackerman counters that Deuteronomy’s collective address does not “offer to women a place in ancient Israel’s social order equivalent to (or even approaching) that available to men” (Ackerman, 2010, p. 16). Olyan is correct that women appear in the rank and file at some Jerusalem assemblies, and Ackerman’s qualification identifies the power differential operative at the gatherings. Ackerman further shows how becoming a wife can signal the end of representation in most biblical texts.

Deborah the Prophetess, a “mother in Israel,” has the role of military advisor and leader (Judg 5:7). The general Barak refuses to go to battle without her, so Deborah joins him in the field against a Canaanite army led by Sisera. Sisera is undone in the tent of Jael where Jael uses domestic tools to kill him in his sleep. This episode portraying female military prowess belongs to the collection of local, regional tales collected in the book of Judges. Where books like Numbers and Deuteronomy that depict Israel as nation largely suppress female political participation, local traditions reflect significant female influence in the realm of politics. It seems that women in ancient Israel were politically active at the same time that the narratives generated by centralizing governments sought to conceal or censure this fact.

The House.

The site of sustained female political power is “the house.” In societies where the household is “the fundamental unit of society” such as ancient Israel, “women have a strong role in decision making and consequently exercise considerable power” (Meyers, 1998, pp. 127, 174). Deuteronomy 12, for example, summons “you and the households with which God has blessed you” to “the place where God chose from out of all your tribes to place His name” (12:5–7). The metonymic continuum of house and woman is not without its problems, but the institution of the household registers in national politics and bears traces of female power. When the text brings us into individual homes, we can see the strategic, political acts of women like Rahab, Achsah, Jael, Delilah, Michal, Abigail, and Bathsheba.

Mieke Bal’s brilliant work on the book of Judges reveals the lethal dimension of the home for women. Jepthah’s daughter (whom Bal names Bath), Samson’s wife (Kallah), and the Levite’s concubine (Beth) number among the women of marriageable age who are destroyed in and around the household. Because the house represents lineage—for example, the House of David—as well as position in a clan, fathers and husbands compete for their place as well as their future through the bodies of nubile women. In each case, the house cannot stand under the pressure. The young women die instead of giving birth and Israel splits into opposing armies as a result of the toppled houses (Judg 20).

The homes of Jael and Delilah, Bal shows, display a reverse dynamic in which women bring about the demise of men. As their homes enter the sphere of war, Jael and Delilah take part in public political maneuvering. This is likewise the case in the only home portrayed in the book of Joshua, that of Rahab the Canaanite. Prior to Israel’s march into its promised land, Joshua sends two spies across the Jordan. The spies go to “the house of a woman” (Josh 2:1) positioned in the wall of Jericho (2:15). Rahab thwarts the king of Jericho’s messengers when they appear at her home and narrates Israel’s past in a manner that ensures its future in Canaan. Her home is a space traversed by opposing forces—the messengers of Joshua and the king of Jericho—where Rahab determines a sweeping political outcome.

Achsah establishes her household by renegotiating her patrimony with her father Caleb. Married to her kinsman Othniel as a prize for the conquering of Kiriyat-Sefer (Debir), Achsah returns to her father to reconfigure the borders of her land. “You have given me away as Negev (desert) land, now give me springs of water” (Josh 15:19). Understanding that Achsah must run a household in the desert, Caleb redistributes a water system with upper and lower springs (Josh 15:16–19, Judg 1:12–15). As a consequence of the words of one of the few women depicted in the book of Joshua who speaks to a collective need, water rights are negotiated within a nonmilitary discourse. This dialog that pertains to water rather than war stands out in a book focused on battle. The text introduces a female speaker who is, therefore, not a soldier to depict a local sphere where women influence and sustain the community.

The word for “house” in Hebrew indicates both the local sphere of the extended family and a hereditary or royal line such as “the House of David.” Women exercise power in both the local domain of the household and in the designation of hereditary power. The figure of Michal represents the rocky transition from the House of Saul, the first monarchy in Israel, to the House of David. In the beginning when Michal actively loves David, her father Saul tries to leverage the bride-price of 100 Philistine foreskins into David’s demise (1 Sam 18:20–28). David survives and marries Michal as Saul absorbs the signs of David’s predominance. When Saul begins his pursuit of David, Michal sides with her husband and employs classic trickster modes of subterfuge to protect him (1 Sam 19:11–17). God withdraws favor from Saul who, as if grasping for ways to reduce David, takes Michal from David’s house and marries her to Paltiel (1 Sam 25:44).

As an act of constituting his monarchy, David demands the return of Michal, citing her dangerous bride-price (2 Sam 3:14). The transfer of Michal to David’s house is intended to symbolize the transition from the House of Saul to the House of David. The tears of Michal’s husband, Paltiel, as he follows her back to David indicate the emotional toll of the political transition (2 Sam 3:16). Michal articulates her bitterness about her change of status from beloved wife to symbol of a fallen house when she criticizes David’s public behavior. She thereby loses the potential to advance the candidacy of her offspring (2 Sam 6:20–23).

Within royal households, women often used their authority or influence to secure the throne for their children. In many cases, there is a continuum of power between a queen and her son. The story of Bathsheba and Solomon dramatizes this dynamic. With a shivering David attended by the beautiful, young Abishag the Shunammite as he approaches death, his sons begin stirring. Adonijah, whom David had never disciplined (1 Kgs 1:6), gathers his allies excluding Solomon, Benaiah, and the prophet Nathan. A panicked Nathan turns to Bathsheba, going so far as to tell Bathsheba what to say and to follow her as live expositor.

If the book of Esther provides a parallel, then Bathsheba takes a risk by going into David’s chamber without being invited. But David only asks, “What do you want?” (1 Kgs 1:16). Bathsheba recalls David’s pledge that Solomon would succeed him, informs David of Adonijah’s insurrection, reminds him “the eyes of all Israel are upon you,” and describes the consequence of David’s inaction for her and Solomon (1 Kgs 1:17–21). Nathan interrupts her to tell the same story with a particular emphasis on his own political future (1 Kgs 1:22–27). David halts Nathan with the demand that he “call Bathsheba.” He pledges to her that Solomon her son will sit on the throne (1 Kgs 28–30). Bathsheba’s continued influence during her son’s rule is apparent both in the interloper Adonijah’s request that she secure Abishag the Shunammite as his wife (1 Kgs 2:17) and in Solomon’s placement of a throne for the queen mother on the right side of the king’s (1 Kgs 2:19).


The foreign Queen of Sheba is an autonomous sovereign. Arriving in Jerusalem with her own impressive retinue, she comes not to bow to Solomon but to test his wisdom. Her riddles and extensive tour of the palace and temple reveal to her the nature of Solomon’s power. The queen seems also to have a revelation of the God of Israel while in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 10:5, 7, 9). That she tells Solomon “everything in her heart” and he gives her “all that she desired” implies intimacy (10:3, 13). Yet, despite their mutual respect and matched generosity, the Queen of Sheba does not remain or become wife to Solomon. With the vision of Jerusalem, she returns to rule her own land. True to the biblical motif of the foreign woman, the Queen of Sheba commands more authority than native queens of Israel.

Why do foreign women like the Queen of Sheba enjoy greater mobility and autonomy than Israelite women? Perhaps the foreign woman represents a kind of third gender that opens up possibilities beyond culturally proscribed gender codes. Perhaps ascribing action and initiative to a foreign woman is a less threatening way to present acts of female power to the native audience.

Foreign women are also subject to particularly vehement forms of demonization. Some biblical texts portray their participation in the public sphere as a form of contamination. The Sidonian queen Jezebel who establishes shrines to foreign gods (1 Kgs 16:30–33, 21:25), persecutes Israelite prophets (18:4), and has a man killed to expropriate his property (21:5–15) enacts the antithesis of the values advocated in the book of Kings. More pointedly, she is the stark opponent of miracle wielding Elijah the Prophet (1 Kgs 19:1–2, 2 Kgs 9:36–37).

Where Jezebel’s influence spoils the already bad king Ahab, foreign women also have a deleterious effect on the golden king Solomon (1 Kgs 11:1–5). However, the question arises of whether the central problem with these women is their foreignness or their femininity. Is femininity in a public, political arena always represented as foreign? The charge of introducing the alien goddess Asherah is also leveled at the Judean queen Maacah. Only after her son, Asa, deposes her from her status as queen mother—a position likely established by Bathsheba—does his rule become secure (1 Kgs 15:13).

The theme of banishing women from the halls of royal power runs through the books of Kings. The removal of women from positions of influence often works in tandem with the elimination of practices and symbols deemed corrupting. Many scholars understand the correspondence as resulting from a process of centralization in which a state in formation outlaws popular practices and local forms of authority in the name of strengthening its rule. In such a scenario, local forms of female authority, along with regional traditions, become outlawed as heterodox.

The only woman to command sole rule is Athaliah. The daughter of Omri, king of Israel, Athaliah seizes power in Judah by having other claimants put to death (2 Kgs 11:1, 3). Not only does Athaliah fulfill the role of the wicked queen, but also her ouster enables Israel to reconstitute itself as a nation. Although another woman, Jehosheba daughter of King Joram, ultimately undoes Athaliah by hiding a male heir to the throne (11:2), the army and the priests find common purpose in opposing a woman’s rule (11:4, 12). The putsch is portrayed as righting all that is wrong with Israel. The priest Jehoiada arms the guards with the weapons of King David stored in the Temple as if to renew David’s age of loyalty and faith (2 Kgs 11:10). He orders guards to protect the sanctuary from a contaminating death by escorting Athaliah to a run for horses, where she is killed (11:15). Afterward, Jehoiada restores the covenant among God, king, and Israel and reconstitutes the “nation” through the confirmation that it is a male entity (11:17). No women are party to this covenant so ambivalence as to whether women can participate in the nation becomes matched with certainty that they cannot lead it.

A Book of One’s Own.

Later biblical texts, written in the Persian period, are more permissive toward female heroes. Women like Esther and Ruth have their own books in which they perform the roles of savior and founder. In these books, the inherent foreignness of women is shown to be an asset for Israel. Esther’s indeterminate nationality lands her in the Persian palace, a queen among a harem of women, from whence she foils an extermination plot launched by an enemy of the Jews. Esther is a heroic precursor of Jewish political power in the diaspora.

Ruth is indeed an exceptional character but, all the same, she displays the very qualities that readers expect from a foreign Moabite woman. Recently arrived in Bethlehem, she goes out to work in the fields to sustain Naomi and herself. This shows that she gladly accepts the responsibility as the head of a family and feeds Naomi the food grown on her own land, something that Naomi’s husband and sons failed to do.

There are plenty of clues that Naomi and Ruth are in the throes of a conspiracy to reclaim the land rightly due them. Ruth just “happens” to end up gathering barley in the field of Boaz, the overseer of Naomi’s land (Ruth 2:3), and, with perfectly orchestrated timing, Ruth goes down to the threshing floor, where she seduces Boaz. Subsequently, when Boaz negotiates his marriage to Ruth with the elders of Bethlehem, the land in question becomes the heart of the matter. Boaz employs the ruse that Naomi wishes to sell her late husband’s fields as a way to secure his ownership of the land and marriage to Ruth.

Although Boaz would imagine himself the master, he is more the instrument with which Ruth and Naomi secure land and an heir. Fulfilling the duty of levirate marriage, Boaz speaks to the need “to establish the name of the dead on his patrimony” (Ruth 4:10), but after the child is born, the women of Bethlehem name him Obed, “a son born to Naomi” (4:17). Ruth successfully gives birth to Naomi’s child.

Ruth is a woman who presses a land claim and, to the degree that a woman can own land, is awarded it. Where Boaz would have her be satisfied with the occasional repast, gleanings, and the wages dispensed by God (Ruth 2:14, 12), Ruth expands the parameters of a woman’s place in the nation. When Ruth—with praise and in public—joins the community of Bethlehem, engineers a female territorial claim, and founds the Davidic house, a woman makes it into the center of the Israelite power constellation of God, land, and heredity. The book of Ruth advocates not only for the stranger at the gates to be ushered in, but also for women’s access to the central constellation of power.




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  • Ackerman, Susan. “Only Men Are Created Equal.” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 10, no. 9 (2010): 14–27.
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Rachel Havrelock

Greek World

When Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in 330 (all dates B.C.E.) and took over the Persian Empire, he ushered in a new phase of political leadership in the Greek world, a period termed the “Hellenistic.” His style of kingship involved a heroic masculinity and was imitated by the self-declared kings who divided up and fought over his empire (seen in the descriptions of Daniel 2:39–43; 7:6, 20–26; 8:21–25; 11:3ff.). Alexander and most of these successors were Hellenized Macedonians, not Greeks, and through their careers they witnessed other cultural modes of exercising power, notably from the Persians. As each successor dynasty established its own sphere of dominance, these other traditions influenced the Macedonian model of leadership, producing distinctive representations of power and the gendered expressions of royal identity. Their shared Macedonian background, extensive intermarrying, and similar methods for demonstrating rulership permit comparisons between the Hellenistic dynasties, while significant contrasts derived from cultural influences in the areas they controlled—especially Egyptian for the Ptolemies and Anatolian, Mesopotamian, and Iranian for the Seleucids—all of which played into gender constructions for men and women of each dynasty. Also important, but easily overlooked, are historical changes to dynastic characteristics resulting from political events, choices, and reactions (Carney, 2011). The major Hellenistic royal families exposed a successful route to sovereignty through their aggressive performances of Alexandrine kingship and dynastic politics, and so they set the tenor for power holding and political leadership among upwardly mobile elites, comprising new royal houses like the Attalids of Pergamum, Hasmonaeans in Judaea, and various kingdoms of eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, as well as aristocrats based in the hundreds of cities around the eastern Mediterranean and Near East.

The Development of Hellenistic Royalty.

Alexander died (in 323) too soon to fully formulate his own expression of postconquest kingship, but many of his successors had been present during his campaign through Asia and had a clear sense of Alexander’s legacy as it worked for them, visible in posthumous portraits and historiography of him as well as developing iconographies for themselves. Alexandrine masculinity was rooted in physical vigor and demonstrated by courageous and successful warfare, enthusiasm for hunting, and bodily attractiveness—at least ideally, and Demetrius Poliorcetes (“the Besieger”) and Demetrius Kalos (“the Fair”) were famous for their handsome looks, and other successors copied Alexander’s famous anastolē (“cowlick”) hairstyle. This was matched by a charismatic heroic temperament schooled in magnanimity, justice, and honor. Alexander himself introduced two key iconographic elements for depicting kingship: youthful beardlessness and the diadem, a white band tied around the head with its ends left hanging behind. In 330 he added the diadem, probably derived from the Greek athletic victor’s fillet, along with the Persian king’s purple tunic, to his Macedonian costume of kausia (a soft hat) and purple chlamys (cavalryman’s cloak), as a symbol of his victorious conquest to date (Smith, 1988; Stewart, 1993). Wearing the diadem became crucial to any claim of kingship, and its designation of royalty worked for both men and women, as is apparent in coin portraits of kings and queens. The early kings celebrated military prowess and successful conquest in their coins, often including in portraits of themselves and Alexander ram horns (for Zeus-Ammon), bull horns (ancient Near Eastern symbols of masculine leadership), lion-skin headdresses (reminiscent of the Greek hero Heracles), elephant-skin headdresses (allusions to Asian or African conquests), and Zeus’s aegis.

The Greek word for queen, basilissa, appears early on in the evidence, contemporary with the first usages of “king,” basileus, by the successor generals. The title did not describe a single, common, queenly role but was adopted as part of the process of asserting royal legitimacy, just as the title basileus was experimental, adopted by Alexander’s successors, who still had to prove their fitness for rule by military victory. Macedonian tradition positioned women as possible inheritors of ruling power (dynasteia), and as a result succession was often a violent competition among several legitimate claimants. Among the fourth-century Argeads of Macedon and under Alexander’s successors, women were construed as possessing the ability to confer legitimacy, making them sought-after as wives, either to enhance royal claims or to establish or strengthen alliances (Carney, 2011). This notion was not alien to Near Eastern thinking, since the Achaemenids had undertaken exogamous, endogamous, and polygynous marriages to establish legitimacy and alliances (Brosius, 1996). Although bearers of legitimacy and sometimes appearing on the field of battle to exhort their soldiers, Macedonian royal women were not accepted as sole rulers, and they came to the fore of political leadership during periods of disputed succession, as did Alexander’s mother, Olympias; his sister Cleopatra; and his sister-in-law Eurydice after his death. In later centuries, as their dynasties’ concepts for queenship developed, other women were more successful at ruling in their own right, particularly among the Ptolemies.

Marriage and Women’s Power.

Most of the attested events involving Hellenistic royal women concern succession politics and their connection to international affairs. A notable example is Arsinoe II (ca. 316–268), married three times, first in ca. 299 to Lysimachus (as his third wife), then to her half-brother Ptolemy Keraunos, then to her full brother Ptolemy II. She bore Lysimachus three sons and feuded with their main rival, Agathocles, her stepson and the husband of her paternal half-sister Lysandra, culminating in his execution for treason in 282. This came to naught in 281 when her second husband slew her children, forestalling any further agitation by her on their behalf against himself, whereupon she fled, arriving in Egypt and the court of Ptolemy II, whom she married and whose children from his previous marriage she adopted. After the failure to forge a dynastic link with Lysimachus and the vulnerability revealed by Ptolemy Keraunos’s actions, redirecting Arsinoe’s political capital inward proved the best option for the family, and she and Ptolemy generated new prestige by titling themselves the theoi philadelphoi, “sibling-loving gods,” celebrated on coins and in official documents. This marriage successfully managed succession politics for the time being and confirmed Ptolemaic adherence to pharaonic practices. Later generations adopted the sibling marriage, linking it to co-rulership and expanding the royal titulature that celebrated filial affection. Problems still arose whenever there were multiple siblings competing for the throne, but the term “domestic” should be avoided in describing such conflicts, lest it be assumed that they were private or trifling matters. The familial concerns of the Hellenistic dynasties shaped administrative practices and diplomatic decisions, as a result making the activities and roles of the women crucial elements in this period’s history.

Ptolemaic incest and joint rule was one strategy developed to limit succession problems. Seleucus I attempted a different form of incest in 292, marrying his second wife, Stratonice, to his son Antiochus I, at the same time making him co-ruler. With Demetrius Poliorcetes as her father and Antipater as maternal grandfather, Stratonice herself possessed a strong claim to rulership, and marriage to Antiochus prevented a conflict between him and the heirs she bore for his father. At least one other incestuous Seleucid marriage is known, between Antiochus and Laodice, eldest children of Antiochus III (r. 222–187) and Laodice III, echoing their parents’ fictive titles of “brother” and “sister” (they were cross cousins) and intended to strengthen the appearance of dynastic solidarity. Seleucids normally handled succession by appointing the eldest sons as co-rulers after the pattern of Seleucus I and Antiochus I, but this failed with the sons of Antiochus II and later with the brothers Seleucus IV (r. 187–175) and Antiochus IV (r. 175–164), whose heirs fought for primacy until the end of Seleucid kingship in 64. Most Seleucid women married outside rulers to create or consolidate alliances and claims on foreign territory; Antiochus’s half-sister Phila married her maternal uncle Antigonus Gonatas, and his daughters Apame and Stratonice married, respectively, Magas of Cyrene (her third maternal cousin) and Demetrius II (son of Phila and Antigonus). The wives of Seleucid princes are more difficult to identify, with most given the name “Laodice,” but they probably originated from neighboring minor dynasties, as had Apame I of Sogdiana and Laodice III of Pontus. Similar marriages linked the Seleucids with the Ptolemaic, Attalid, Cappadocian, and Armenian royal houses.

Continued intermarriage among the dynasties meant that virtually every royal marriage was endogamous. This connectivity intensified the rivalries inherent in dynastic management, leading to and accelerating the political fragmentation, which advantaged the Parthians and Armenians in the east and Romans in the west. Throughout the Hellenistic period, territorial control as a political aim was tightly bound to the quest for dominance in dynastic politics, and women with multiple kinship ties were integral to diplomatic strategizing. Ptolemy II engineered a Seleucid succession crisis by marrying his daughter Berenice Syra in 253 as part of a peace treaty to Antiochus II (cf. Dan 11:6), who already had four children with his wife Laodice. The plan culminated in 246 when Laodice and her two sons became embroiled in war both with Ptolemy III and Berenice Syra (who was soon assassinated) and with each other until the 220s. Women’s leadership during the later second century drove an explosive mix of internecine violence, serial incest, and war in Syria-Palestine. The female protagonists were Cleopatra II, married to her brothers Ptolemy VI and VIII; her daughter Cleopatra III (r. 116–101), married to Ptolemy VIII (alongside her mother); her sister Cleopatra Thea (r. 125–121), married to Seleucid kings Alexander Balas (r. 152–145), Demetrius II (r. 145–138), and his brother Antiochus VII (r. 138–129); Cleopatra Tryphana, married to Antiochus VIII (r. 125–96); her sister Cleopatra Selene, married to their brother Ptolemy IX, Antiochus VIII, Antiochus IX (r. 115–95), and his son Antiochus X (r. 95–93/2). These incestuous marriages were directly connected to contests for supremacy in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms; two of the queens ruled jointly with their sons, and all of them established and undermined the kingship of their other male relatives. Congruently, the Hasmonaeans also practiced endogamy as a means to retain their hold on legitimate power and struggled with dynastic strife, giving significant power to the women of the family. John Hyrcanus bequeathed rule to his wife, not his sons; Salome Alexandra dispatched Aristobulus I (r. 104–103), arranged her marriage to Alexander Jannaeus (r. 103–76), and later ruled alone (r. 76–67). That her two husbands are both credited as first to wear the diadem is most likely a reflection of her wifely role for generating royal legitimacy (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 13.301; Strabo, 16.2.40). Similarly, Herod the Great married Mariamne, daughter of parallel cousins Alexandra and Alexander, and great-grandchild of Salome, as part of his preparation for a royal career (Jos., AJ 14.300, 467).

Succession crises were fruitful ground for new formulations of kingly and queenly identity. This had been the case as Alexander’s first successors married each other’s female relations, took up royal titles, and developed a royal iconography during the race to establish themselves in kingship. Similar processes occurred later, for example when Berenice of Cyrene, betrothed to Ptolemy III, resolved the tensions caused by her mother, Apame, in Cyrene and Berenice Syra’s rivalry for queenship in Egypt with an assertive campaign to position herself as heir of Arsinoe II and paragon of divinely romantic and supportive consortship modeled after the goddess Hathor (Llewellyn-Jones and Winder, 2011). Ptolemaic portraiture from periods of heightened dynastic uncertainty shows new stylistic elements corresponding to the developing characters of the rulers; the complicated period of Ptolemy VIII; his two wives, Cleopatra II and III; and their children witnesses several parallel portrait series for each ruler, mirroring the sensuous, refined, loyal, and warlike aspects of their changing self-representations and political activities.

It is true that Hellenistic royal women experienced limitations of self-determination, generally regarding choice of spouse. These were not the impositions of men on women, but the results of a highly competitive dynastic milieu. There were many occasions when kings or queens employed offers of a princess’s hand to leverage advantageous alliances or territorial dominance, but kings and princes were also limited in their marital choices. The constraints imposed on Ptolemaic kings by their family’s tradition of sibling marriage produced a kingly gender role distinct from that of other dynasties, and one which saw co-rule with a female relation, whether mother, wife, or sister, as a normal state of affairs. The prevalence of endogamy among the ruling members of the other Hellenistic dynasties indicates that the involvement of women with royal lineage was a criterion for legitimacy, as important as the enactment of Alexandrine masculinity. The visibility and political significance of queens set Hellenistic royal masculinity apart from traditional Greek constructions (Roy, 1998).

Other royal women.

Daughters of the Hellenistic dynasties were not the only women active in the constellations of power holders at court: the courtesan (hetaira), concubine (pallakis), and wife of nonroyal background were important political agents, whose role overlapped that of royally born queens. These women typically had high status in their own right as members of regional or civic aristocracies. Outstanding is Apollonis of Cyzicus, the wife of Attalus I (r. 241–197) and mother of four sons, including two kings, Eumenes II (r. 197–159) and Attalus II (r. 159–138). She appears titled as basilissa in dedicatory, honorific, and administrative inscriptions from Pergamum. Married to Apollonis’s son Athenaeus was Kallippa, the previous mistress of the Attalids’ enemy Perseus, and she acted as kingmaker to the Macedonian pretender Andriscus around 150 while in Pergamum, supplying him with a diadem. Literary sources describe dozens of royal courtesans and mistresses, many of whom bore children who obtained prestigious marriages or political roles. Many, like Kallippa, became royal wives. There is some fluidity in the attributions of their precise marital status because during their careers many did advance to being considered royal spouses (Ogden, 1999, p. 231ff.).

It is possible to attribute the presence of royal concubines to the ostentatious masculinity of Hellenistic kingship, and view these women as accessories for displaying the kings’ sexual prowess alongside other luxurious pursuits. This certainly was how classical Greeks critiqued the activity of women at the Achaemenid court in Persia (Brosius, 1996, pp. 1–2). Given the Hellenistic propensity for foregrounding women’s roles in the legitimizing of royal power, however, it is problematic to emphasize such an orientalist cliché and downplay royal women’s political agency. Negative views in the Greek literary sources of promiscuous, corrupt, or belligerent women at Hellenistic courts emerge from ancient propaganda battles and obscure these women’s true status and power. Actual political errors among Hellenistic royal women do not indicate the lack of personal autonomy or a lapsed adherence to gender norms: power brought with it the capability for making poor decisions. While Hellenistic royal femininity prioritized kinship, sexual relationships with royal men, and succession matters, it did not exclude the potential for political leadership, handling of administrative duties or appearances on the battlefield. When they acted in this manner Macedonian women behaved royally and did not transgress their gender role or encroach on men’s, and pejorative accounts of courtly life concerned the misdeeds of men as much as women. In an important cultural precedent, the Achaemenid evidence shows royal women present on campaign, in hunts, at feasts, and at royal audiences, where their presence was accepted as normal royal behavior, a practice inherited by Alexander, who (we must remember) captured Darius III’s harem in 333 (Brosius, 1996, pp. 84–97).

Receptions of Royal Power.

Reactions of Greek cities to royal women show recognition of their political status and proximity to ruling power, usually expressed by the institution of cult honors. In the 340s Philip II had already notified the Greeks that Macedonian hegemony was dynastic and therefore involved the women of his family when he included chryselephantine statues of his wife Olympias and mother, Eurydice, in the Philippeum at Olympia (Carney, 2000, pp. 25–26). Beginning with one of Alexander’s officials and the early Antigonids was a long-lasting association of Aphrodite with prominent women in sexual relationships with kings. Harpalus established an Aphrodite cult for his hetairai Pythonice at Babylon and Glycera at Tarsus; both courtesans were reportedly honored as basilissai. The Athenians honored Phila, the wife of Demetrius Poliorcetes, as “Phila Aphrodite,” ca. 307, in tandem with cults for her husband and father-in-law, and Demetrius’s hetairai Leaenea and Lamia were also honored with Aphrodite cults in their names at Athens and Thebes. Smyrna honored Phila’s daughter as “Stratonice Aphrodite,” and Antiochus I conflated her with the goddess Ishtar in his Babylonian propaganda, and she herself patronized the cult of the Syrian goddess Astarte at Hierapolis-Bambyce (Syria). Around 195 Iasos (Ionia) instituted a festival for Aphrodite Laodice, the wife of Antiochus III. Ptolemy II’s famous mistress Bilistiche also enjoyed an Aphrodite cult in Alexandria at his behest. Cultic links to Aphrodite for the Ptolemaic queens generally appeared in conjunction with pharaonic associations to Hathor and Isis.

Subject cities of the dynasties, both old Greek poleis and new colonial foundations, developed methods for honoring royalty that suited the dynasties’ preferences and still stayed roughly within their own democratic or oligarchic traditions. The favored method was to honor the divine and virtuous characteristics of kings and queens, partly an attempt to curry favor, partly in an effort to provide local traction to the dynasties’ particular iconographies and modes of representing leadership. This resulted in a body of evidence, largely epigraphic, providing insight to how the roles of kings and queens and other royals were understood by their subjects. Of interest is how these newly represented royal roles proved influential for civic elites aspiring to greater status: Hellenistic royal power reconfigured for local conceptualizations of leadership. Greek inscriptions praise the beneficence, ability to dispense law and order, eunoia (kindness), philotimia (love of honor), sebeia (reverence), and aretē (excellence) of leaders, qualities attributable to nonroyal persons of authority and increasing influence without disrupting civic traditions. Certain honors were reserved for royalty: for women the Aphrodite cults described above, for men statues of kings and princes in the Alexandrine heroic nude likening them to gods. The religious context for many of these civic honors is noteworthy, the common meeting point for idiomatic cultural understandings of power. The dynasties patronized old cults, instituted new dynastic ones, appropriated divine titles, and used divine iconography in ways that suited themselves and their subjects, providing an opening for the latter to understand and honor the dynasties without compromising their traditions. This did not always work—the Hasmonaean rise to power was fuelled by hostile reactions to royal cultic impositions, but even that dynasty subsequently operated on a Hellenistic model.

Female models of leadership.

Little is known about the wives of nonroyal political leaders beyond references to their names in funerary or dedicatory inscriptions. After the fourth century, however, portrait statues for these women began to be set up in cities, both by the women themselves and their male relatives, showing a new acceptance for their public roles. Often such statues were of priestesses, such as Nikeso, Timonassa, and Niko at Priene (Ionia), women already performing a public duty, now representing that role and their personal merits on the same stage as men (Dillon, 2010, p. 53). Women also appear honored as euergetai, “benefactors,” receiving the same types of praise as men. An outstanding example is Archippe of Kyme, whose career produced a series of inscriptions detailing her own benefactions of a new council house and food rations, the city’s honors of tax exemptions, and a gilded statue of her, as well as her negotiation of tax exemption in exchange for bequests to provide long-term revenues (van Bremen, 1996, pp. 13–18). These women emulated the beneficent donations of Hellenistic queens, who because of their dynastic roles enjoyed an independence and agency not normally available to Greek women. When faced with the favor of so-inclined women, the cities reacted as they would to queens, by decreeing public thanks and prestigious honors, thus confirming the new elevated status of their patronesses. This development grew substantially through the Roman period, to the point where women might be holders of public magistracies and political leaders in an official capacity.


Hellenistic rulership operated in a paradigm of continual experimentation with legitimacy, which in its earliest Macedonian iterations had closely tied the identity and presence of women to political success. The movement of Alexander’s successors toward royal status set precedents for subsequent successor dynasties to establish themselves while the rivalries of the major houses played out. Hellenistic royal masculinity and femininity were malleable, permitting changes to gender roles as cultural specifics, dynastic strategies, and political affairs required, and lending themselves to emulation by nonroyal elites. Strong traditions of representing kingship and queenship did remain throughout the period and across groups, reflective of the heightened integration among dynasties produced by the relationships of royal women.




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  • Carney, Elizabeth. “The Initiation of Cult for Royal Macedonian Women.” Classical Philology 95, no. 1 (2000): 21–43.
  • Carney, Elizabeth. “Being Royal and Female in the Early Hellenistic Period.” In Creating a Hellenistic World, edited by Andrew Erskine and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, pp. 195–220. Swansea, U.K.: Classical Press of Wales, 2011.
  • Dillon, Sheila. The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd, and Stephanie Winder. “A Key to Berenike’s Lock? The Hathoric Model of Queenship in Early Ptolemaic Egypt.” In Creating a Hellenistic World, edited by Andrew Erskine and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, pp. 247–269. Swansea, U.K.: Classical Press of Wales, 2011.
  • Ogden, Daniel. Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death: The Hellenistic Dynasties. London: Duckworth, 1999.
  • Ogden, Daniel. “How to Marry a Courtesan in the Macedonian Courts.” In Creating a Hellenistic World, edited by Andrew Erskine and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, pp. 221–246. Swansea, U.K.: Classical Press of Wales, 2011.
  • Ramsey, Gillian. “The Queen and the City: Royal Female Intervention and Patronage in Hellenistic Civic Communities.” In Special issue: Gender and the City before Modernity, edited by Lin Foxhall and Gabriele Neher. Gender and History 23, no. 3 (2011): 510–527.
  • Roy, Jim. “The Masculinity of the Hellenistic King.” In When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power, and Identity in Classical Antiquity, edited by Lin Foxhall and John Salmon, pp. 111–135. London: Routledge, 1998.
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  • Stanwick, Paul Edmund. Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
  • Stewart, Andrew. Faces of Power: Alexander’s Image and Hellenistic Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • van Bremen, Riet. The Limits of Participation: Women and Civic Life in the Greek East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1996.

Gillian Ramsey

Roman World

Like many premodern societies, the Romans of the imperial period saw the world as divided into two spheres: the public, which belonged to men, and the private, which was the proper place for women. Men, especially elite men, were expected to excel in war and politics, and to put their mark on the historical record of the times; women, by contrast, were supposed to focus their attention on their homes, their families, and the work of the household. Funerary epitaphs are a good source for studying the normative values of a society, and there we commonly find men praised for their strength, glorious exploits, and political offices achieved; women’s virtues tend to be modesty, chastity, obedience, and a commitment to wool working. The invisibility of women on the public stage was seen as an index of the well-being of Roman society, so that, for instance, Valerius Maximus sees the evil of the civic conflicts of the first century B.C.E. as reflected in the fact that women were called to give evidence in political assemblies: “What do women have to do with a public meeting? Nothing, if our ancestral customs were preserved: but where domestic quiet is stirred up by the turbulence of sedition, the authority of old habits is overturned, and what violence compels is stronger than what modesty urges and instructs” (Memorable Words and Deeds 3.8.6). Similarly, Cicero condemns Plato for suggesting that the ideal state would allow women to participate in government: “How great will be the misfortune of that city in which women assume the offices of men!” (De re publica 5).

At the same time, however, early Roman history is rife with stories in which women transgress this gendered boundary and make a mark not just on civic life but on the stories about it handed down to later generations. Thus, for instance, one of the most important and frequently repeated stories about early Roman politics concerns Lucretia, whose death is the pretext for Rome’s transformation from a monarchy into a republic. During the days of early Rome, when the state was still ruled by kings, Lucretia was the daughter of a Roman nobleman and the wife of another, the two of whom were away from home on military campaign with the sons of Tarquin, the present king of Rome. While drinking together one night, the group proposes a contest to see who has the most virtuous wife; while the other women are discovered out at a dinner party, Lucretia is found weaving with her servants in her home, and is thus declared the winner. One of the princes, however, invades her house and rapes her, which causes her—after she discloses the crime to her husband and father—to commit suicide out of shame. This incident becomes the catalyst for the first major shift in Roman governance, as her male relatives (led by a family friend, Lucius Junius Brutus) rise up in anger and, displaying the bloodied knife with which Lucretia took her life in the Forum, whip up the sentiments of the Roman public against the monarchy. As a result, the kingship is overthrown, establishing the republican system that would govern Rome for the next five hundred years. Like the Sabine women, therefore, Lucretia has a significant effect on the masculine sphere of politics—not despite, but because of, her virtuous adherence to domestic virtues. The notionally impermeable boundary between the private sphere of women and the public one of men is thus transgressed in the name of political progress. Moreover, that transgression is celebrated as one of the great founding myths of the early Roman state. As Seneca the Younger would later put it, giving equal or greater credit to the female role in the political shift, “Lucretia and Brutus threw off the king from the heads of the Romans: we owe freedom to Brutus, Brutus to Lucretia”: (Ad Marciam 16.2).

Although stories like that of Lucretia had long been part of the canon of Roman historical myth, it is not surprising that one place they are prominently presented is in the early imperial historian Livy’s monumental history of the city of Rome. Livy lived and wrote under the emperor Augustus, who oversaw the formal transition of the Roman state from republic back to hereditary monarchy. The Roman republic had lasted slightly less than 500 years, from the death of Lucretia in 509 B.C.E. to the end of the civil wars and the “Augustan settlement” of 27 B.C.E. Governance by a single man, and dynastic passage of imperial power through the generations of a single family, would remain the norm in Rome until the fall of the empire in 476 C.E. Livy thus lived in a time in which the imperial “house,” or family, was being transformed into one of the central institutions of the Roman state.

Women’s Political Roles from Republic to Empire.

With the advent of the imperial “house” as a locus of political influence, women’s roles in governance were profoundly affected. One reason for this is that the wives, sisters, and daughters of emperors had direct and unmediated access to the central power, namely, the single man who was ruling the state; another was the fact that the dynastic succession could only be effected through women’s production of male heirs. In the Julio-Claudian dynasty inaugurated by Augustus, we can see the particular difficulties that afflicted ruling families and the ways in which they allowed women to attain positions of considerable influence in imperial politics. Augustus himself married a woman who already had two sons from a previous husband, one of whom (Tiberius) would go on to become his successor. But Augustus left only one biological child, a daughter. Consequently all subsequent rulers, were they to trace their blood back to the original emperor, would have to do so through the female line. As the dynasty grew older, and male scions of the imperial house died young on the battlefield or because of political machinations, female members of the family continued to grow in importance, because very often it was they who lived long enough to produce and influence subsequent generations of the family.

This pattern under the Julio-Claudians began with the formidable wife of Augustus, Livia, who seems to have been instrumental not only in the conduct of her husband’s rule but also in the succession and early policies of her son. Along with Augustus’s sister Octavia, Livia enjoyed unprecedented honors such as sacrosanctitas, “inviolability” of her person under the law, a right that had before only been enjoyed by men holding the political office of tribune of the plebs. Octavia and Livia also both sponsored significant building projects in Rome under their own names, something that echoed a practice long used by male politicians under the republic to gain popular influence. Later historians apparently had remarkable access to information about Livia’s influence on her husband, as Augustus insisted on communicating with her in writing and having copies of the documents placed in the public archives (the Acta Diurna). After Augustus’s death and subsequent deification, she was made his chief priestess and given the title Julia Augusta. “Augusta” would continue to be a title adopted by imperial women—even those not related to the Julio-Claudian dynasty—to signify their authority and power. At the same time, however, it is clear that even Livia’s power was to a certain extent grounded in her performance of traditional female roles. As one small but significant example, the historian Tacitus reports that, when Augustus lay on his deathbed, Livia sealed the imperial house to the outside while she sent for her son, thereby ensuring that Tiberius would be in the correct place to take the throne when his stepfather’s death was announced. Her control over women’s traditional sphere, the house, thus became the basis for her control over the future of the Roman state.

Although women’s roles in the political life of Rome certainly underwent a transformation with the advent of Augustus, it would be a mistake to see imperial women’s authority as arising ex nihilo with the advent of imperial rule. Indeed, we can see women moving into positions of significant influence under the late republic, not surprisingly affected by the social transformations that would eventually bring down the republican government. With the growth of the empire and the concentration of power in the hands of fewer, extremely powerful men, women’s “informal” power networks took on increasing importance. In particular, their responsibility to contract marriages meant that they were in a good position to create alliances to further their own, or their families’, political ambitions: thus, for instance, the republican matron Fulvia, who would earn opprobrium for assisting her husband Mark Antony in the civil war against Octavian (later Augustus), was previously married to the great popularis leader P. Clodius Pulcher and the prominent politician C. Scribonius Curio. Curio, and subsequently Antony, seems to have married her not simply for her wit and beauty but because she would give them credibility with Clodius’s numerous supporters. Moreover, the civil conflicts of the last hundred years of the Roman republic meant that men often found themselves in difficult political situations, so that they ended up relying on their female relatives to conduct business in the capital city. For example, Cicero reports on several meetings he took with Servilia, Brutus’s mother, who took it upon herself to negotiate with her son’s allies in Rome after his assassination of Julius Caesar forced him to flee to Greece. One of these meetings was also attended by Tertulla and Porcia, Brutus’s half-sister and second wife, respectively. One of Servilia’s reported comments during the meeting—that in order to prevent her son from going to Rome, she herself would see to the rewording of a senatorial decree—makes it clear that part of women’s power lay in their ability to directly influence events in Rome while their male relatives whiled away their time in the provinces.

Thus, it is clear that the great matrons of the late Roman republic laid the groundwork for the women of the imperial house to assume positions, if not of formal leadership, at least of great visibility and importance. At the same time, scholars have often pointed out that the political roles that imperial women were called on to play were often assimilated to traditional ideals of female behavior. Livia’s public acts, for instance, were understood as arising out of her domestic roles: one of her major building projects included a shrine to concordia (harmony), a virtue of both a good marriage and a stable state. She is also portrayed as exercising toward the Roman people the kind of benevolence befitting a nurturing mother. The historian Velleius Paterculus comments on her death that she was “a very eminent woman, whose power no one felt except for the alleviation of danger and the elevation of rank” (Roman History 2.130.5). Similarly, the Senatusconsultum de Cnaio Pisone Patre, a senatorial decree from the reign of Tiberius, makes explicit the connection between her role as mother in the emperor’s household and her public benevolence. The inscription expresses the Senate’s gratitude to her, “not only for the birth of our emperor, but also for her many and great kindnesses towards all ranks of men” (116–117). The inscription goes on to remark that it is pleased to accede to her request to spare Plancina, the wife of a man who plotted against the emperor, because “although she rightly and deservedly should be able to exercise the highest influence over what she requests from the Senate, she uses that right most sparingly” (117–118). This emphasis on restraint is echoed in the extensive praise of the imperial household—especially its female members—for the “moderation” (moderatio) of their grief over the death of Augustus’s great-nephew Germanicus, supposedly assassinated in the conspiracy, as they waited for the Senate’s verdict in the case and took no dramatic action. These imperial women’s influence on public life is profound, but it is made rhetorically acceptable by an emphasis on their unwillingness to wield it.

Masculinity and Imperial Political Leadership.

The advent of imperial rule did not only affect the ideas and ideals that governed women’s public roles. Indeed, its effect on the performance of masculinity by elite citizens in particular was also profound. Under the republic, politics and warfare were the two primary arenas in which a Roman male could prove himself worthy of the name. On the battlefield, a man was expected to be a brave, loyal, and stalwart soldier; elite men were supposed to lead effectively without undue concern for their own, or their men’s, lives. A particularly victorious general could expect to be honored with a triumph, in which he led a parade of captured spoils through Rome to the temple of Capitoline Jupiter and received the title of imperator. In politics, an elite male was expected to perform his manliness (virtus) by participating in the highly competitive games of civic life: running for office, jockeying for friends and influence, or performing oratorically in public assemblies or high-profile court cases. Whereas in the modern world, achievement may be measured in monetary terms, and finance is often coded as a sphere of masculine competition, traditional Roman mores barred men of the highest rank from participating in commerce. Thus the attainment of political rank was one of the few external measures of success, and gaining the consulship—the highest magistracy in the republic, elected yearly—was considered the summit of many an aristocratic man’s life. Moreover, although Rome became a large empire, its political institutions were still anchored in the capital, so that it remained largely a face-to-face society. All behavior in public could be judged, and masculinity, particularly, was seen as much as a performance of self as the manifestation of an inherent quality: even the gestures that a man made while speaking in public were seen as an index of his adherence to correct gender norms.

The Emperor as Domestic Leader: Augustus and the Julio-Claudians.

As noted, the transcendence of a single man and a single family under imperial rule created significant difficulties for Roman ideals of manliness. While Augustus formally restored the Senate, the consulship, and most of the rest of the political system in 27 B.C.E., it was also clear at that point that achievement in the political arena was never again going to mean what it had under the republic. A man might become consul, but he could not—without significant military and social upheaval—hope to become emperor unless he was related to the ruling family. And it was with the emperor that the real power in Rome lay. On the military front, it was still possible to gain a certain amount of glory from achievements on the battlefield, but Augustus and his successors understood that it was a mistake to let anyone gain purchase on the public imagination through holding a triumph: the last to be held by anyone who was not a member of the imperial family was in 19 B.C.E. Aristocratic virtues, therefore, were forced to undergo a dramatic shift in meaning to accommodate the radical reduction in the sites where they could be displayed. Thus, for instance, rhetoric—which, under the republic, had been the central tool with which a man could make his way in public life—became under the empire merely ornamental, used for display in schools and in mock oratorical battles on set topics held among members of the elite. Moreover, it has been argued that traditional qualities associated with masculinity, even virtus itself, were gradually redefined to be philosophical or internal qualities rather than ones needing to be performed on a public stage. In this way, the empire made space for the display of manliness in contexts where it did not have any real effect on civic life.

However, the masculinity of the Julio-Claudian emperors was also complicated, both in fact and in representation. Augustus goes down in history as curiously “domesticated”: perhaps in part in an effort to distance himself from his violent and bloody youth, when he assassinated or cowed huge numbers of Roman aristocrats, he seems to have made an effort in later years to be seen as humble, homely, and approachable. He made pietas (duty) and clementia (mercy) two of the standard imperial virtues, qualities that had resonance in both public and private life. Suetonius reports that his house was decorated in a notably simple and unadorned style, and that he slept in the same bed, winter and summer, for forty years. He only ever wore homespun clothing, made by his wife and daughter, whom he insisted must learn to weave (Divus Augustus 72). On a larger level, he famously adopted the title pater patriae, or “father of the country,” assimilating his position to a male role, to be sure, but a domestic rather than a military or civic one. A quip of his is handed down to later generations in which he says that he had two troublesome daughters, Julia and the republic (Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.4). Augustus was thus understood as manifesting a certain kind of house-based masculinity, which is distinguished from that which had characterized leaders under the old republican system of governance.

Fortunately or unfortunately, his successors within his own dynasty seem not to have been able to maintain his legacy, and, in particular, as the women of the Julio-Claudian house are recorded as growing increasingly powerful, the emperors with whom they were associated were seen as increasingly weak. The dynasty culminated in the rule of Nero, whose theatrical pretensions, florid manner of dressing and acting, and luxurious tastes marked him as deeply unmasculine in the Roman mind. Part of this view of Nero, however, was his dependence on his mother, Agrippina, who was seen as dominating her son and insisting on a level of influence inappropriate for a woman. After her death, Nero himself is made to claim “that she had expected to share in the imperial power, to have the praetorians swear themselves to a woman, and create a like disgrace for the Senate and the people” (Tacitus, Annals 14.11). It is difficult to tell how much of this portrait of Agrippina is due to the hostility of our sources to her son, but she seems to have been a formidable woman in much the same way as her great-grandmother Livia: indeed, she is explicitly described as copying Livia’s behavior in the way that she managed the accession of her son to the throne (Tacitus, Annals 12.69.2). Agrippina seems to have spent less time carefully crafting her public image, so that her influence was not disguised under the cloak of domestic virtues that had served Livia so well.

Gender and Political Leadership after Augustus.

The women of the Flavian dynasty (69–96 C.E.) do not seem to have had nearly the same influence as their Julio-Claudian predecessors: they appear in the historical record mostly in a negative light, in clear attempts to discredit the men with whom they were associated. In part, the opprobrium accorded the women of the Flavians may have been a reaction against the influence that the female Julio-Claudians had enjoyed. Curiously, however, following the assassination of Domitian and the shift to a new dynasty of emperors, women reappear as influential players in the game of imperial politics. Plotina, wife of the emperor Trajan, and Sabina, wife to Hadrian, were depicted on coins with reverse images of Vesta, Fides, or Pietas, creating associations between them and the personifications and goddesses. Hadrian also conferred the title Augusta and deification not only on Plotina but on Trajan’s sister Marciana and her daughter Matidia—who were, not coincidentally, the grandmother and mother of Hadrian’s own wife, Sabina. Again, we see women functioning as the connecting tissue between the reign of one emperor and the next. Indeed, it is worth noting that the “dynasty” founded by Nerva was one only loosely based on biology: although each successor (Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, and Marcus Aurelius) was formally adopted by his predecessor, there was little or no genetic relationship between them. Each, however, married a female relative of the previous emperor. Hadrian’s own successor, Antoninus Pius, married Faustina the Elder, who was the daughter of Sabina’s half sister. Their daughter, in turn, was married to Marcus Aurelius, one of Antoninus Pius’s designated successors, and in 174 C.E. was given the title mater castrorum (“mother of the military camps”) to honor her role in accompanying her husband on his numerous foreign campaigns.

The very title mater castrorum, which continued to be awarded to imperial women through the end of the western empire, neatly sums up the position of imperial women as political leaders, as it blends a domestic role (mother) with an environment firmly associated with masculinity (military camps). Although Roman women could never fully escape their association with the private sphere, then, certain of them were able to make their presence strongly felt in the world of Roman politics.




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Kristina Milnor

New Testament

The New Testament writings envision political leadership as a masculine affair, as did the Greco-Roman culture at large. Men were widely assumed to be superior to women, and traits that were essential for leadership—mastery, courage, action, strength—were imagined as male attributes. However, the New Testament also reflects a broader cultural ambiguity regarding leadership and gender. Some women exercised leadership, and some men in leadership roles were described in feminized ways. The New Testament gives evidence both of sides of this tension. It affirms cultural norms of masculinity and dominance but also belies the presence of women whose political influence was taken for granted by their communities.

Addressing the intersection of political leadership and gender in the New Testament is complicated by four factors. First, the political sphere reflected in the New Testament writings was somewhat broader than the modern conception of politics. It was not limited to legislative, judicial, and military functions, but intersected with the religious and social spheres as well. Devotion to God or the gods was foundational for the well-being of the city and state, for divine beings were protectors who promoted the prosperity of their region and people. Social influence was also closely related to political power. In the imperial period, legislative and judicial decisions were concentrated in the hands of a few, yet many more people could effect change through patronage and social influence. Because of the broad scope of the political, this essay explores rulers with official titles, social influence in the political realm, and the political tenor of religious leadership.

A second issue regarding New Testament texts is the difficulty encountered in uncovering the ways women functioned in political decision making. Women only occasionally played legislative or judicial roles. In the New Testament, for example, the Candace of Ethiopia lends her social status to the description of her eunuch in Acts 8:27. More frequently, however, women intervened in politics through the exertion of social power. Social status was a function of a number of factors, including wealth, family of origin, gender, citizenship, and whether one was slave, freed, or freeborn. Because of this, the status of men and women was relative. Highborn women had greater social influence than poor men or noncitizens, for example. Women of high status exercised informal political leadership. To understand political leadership, then, one must look beyond heads of state for women and men who acted as patrons or exerted social influence over political events.

Third, the New Testament must be read alongside the gendered cultural norms and virtues of Greco-Roman culture. It draws on these norms to portray leaders, both positively and negatively. The ideal leader in the Greco-Roman world was the person who exhibited ideal masculine traits. Perhaps the foremost of these traits was mastery—over both oneself and others. The ideal ruler was not overly concerned with his own comfort or the satisfaction of his passions. He commanded others who obeyed his will. Other virtues like courage and strength—also conceived as masculine virtues—were required in exhibiting mastery over others. Men who were fearful or who exhibited other “womanish” qualities were by definition poor leaders. As the supreme leader, the emperor was imagined as the ideal male, and could be described as the head of a very large household. Like the paterfamilias, the pater patrias exercised authority over all of his subjects. In both cases, a thriving, well-ordered household was evidence of the excellent leadership at its head. The expression of political leadership in the New Testament often reflects shared cultural values and assumptions about leaders.

Fourth, the use of masculine and feminine traits as rhetorical tropes complicates what can be known about actual men and women within the scope of the New Testament writings. Masculine traits were automatically viewed as superior to feminine traits. Criticism of males as “womanish” or embodying traits defined as feminine cast aspersions on their character. Similarly, women could be praised for achieving masculine virtues or blamed for acting too masculine. The gendered rhetoric signifies the author’s wish to praise or criticize, but does not give accurate information about the person described. Although the actions approved or condemned may be unreliably portrayed, the language reaffirms gendered assumptions that were widely agreed upon.

Roman Officials in the New Testament.

The political leaders mentioned in the New Testament primarily appear as characters in the Gospels and Acts. The authors of these writings draw on conventions of leadership—including gendered virtues—in crafting their story. The officials are not the focal point of the story, but through them the reader may see a reflection of cultural values that the author shapes to communicate his point about Jesus or Paul.


Herod’s execution of John the Baptist (Matt 14:1–11; Mark 6:17–28; Luke 3:19–20) reflects familiar patterns of gendered political leadership. On the one hand, Herod is portrayed as the decision maker. Mark, for example, attributes action to Herod: “Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison” (Mark 6:17). Herod also gives the command to behead John (6:27).

On the other hand, both Mark and Matthew also portray Herod being ensnared by his own desire and arrogance (Mark 6:17–29; Matt 14:1–12). Pleased by the dancing of his daughter (Mark 6:22) or stepdaughter (Matt 14:6), he promises her whatever she wishes before a crowd of local dignitaries. Prompted by her mother, she asks for John’s head on a platter. Herod feels unable to refuse, though both writers convey his reluctance. Thus, Herod is a powerful decision maker, yet he is entrapped by his failure to control his desire. He makes extravagant promises he then feels obliged to keep. Drawing on the conventions of masculine leadership in this way, John’s death is portrayed as a tragedy that results from Herod’s failure to be master of himself and his situation. (See Herodias, below.)


Pilate condemns Jesus to be crucified in all four Gospels (Matt 27:11–26; Mark 15:1–15; Luke 23:1–25; John 18:28—19:16). John’s version sets up a dramatic contest between Pilate and the Jews in which both parties try to exert power over each other. Pilate emerges as the dominant male who outmaneuvers the Jews rhetorically to exert dominance. Their declaration “we have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15) is a rejection of Jesus that also validates Rome’s power, even on the eve of Passover, the celebration of Israel’s freedom from foreign domination. Pilate also imposes over Jesus’s cross the words “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (19:19), against the objections of the Jews, who want clarification that this was merely a claim Jesus made (19:22). Thus Pilate emerges as one who can manipulate opponents, symbolically squelching Jewish hopes for self-rule.

Yet John’s trial narrative is also a reminder of the ultimate ideal authority of the emperor, to whom even Pilate must defer. The claim that Jesus is “Son of God” frightens Pilate (John 19:7–8). Fear is an inappropriate quality in a leader, one that can appear “womanish.” Pilate’s attempts to release Jesus are stopped by the Jews’ claim, “if you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor” (19:12). This suggests that Pilate also must acknowledge the authority of the emperor and not be seen to support rebellion.

Tribune, governor, king, emperor.

A number of rulers who appear in Acts illustrate the overlap between social influence and political power. Paul is imprisoned and passed along a chain of command until he ends up in Rome, the seat of political power. The military tribune in Jerusalem, Claudius Lysias (Acts 21:31; 23:26–30) passes Paul along to the governor, Antonius Felix (procurator of Judea, 52–56 C.E.; Acts 24:1–27). Felix is succeeded by Porcius Festus (appointed procurator in 60 C.E.; Acts 24:27)) who hands Paul over to Herod Agrippa II (53–93 C.E). Agrippa eventually sends Paul on to Rome ((26:32).

Each of these leaders exercises power, but their power is limited both by those with greater authority and by those below them who exert social and political pressure. On the one hand, they protect Paul from plots of the Jews (e.g., 23:16–24) and allow Paul’s friends access to him in prison (24:23). On the other hand, they detain Paul as a favor to the Jews (Acts 24:27; 25:3). Furthermore, each ruler shows deference to those higher up the chain of command. The tribune fears repercussion for having bound a Roman citizen (22:26–29) and Paul’s appeal to the emperor (25:10; 26:32) begins a chain of events that takes Paul out of the control of these figures. Such officials rule through the negotiation of interests between competing demands of those above and below.

Social Influence and Political Change.

People without official political roles exert social influence to change judicial outcomes or influence decisions. This was the case with the Jewish leaders whom Luke describes influencing Paul’s case. Another example from the New Testament is Joseph of Arimathea, who requests the body of Jesus from Pilate (Matt 27:57–61; Mark 15:42–46; Luke 23:50–53; John 19:38–42). Joseph is a man of stature: Matthew identifies him as a rich man; Mark and Luke say he is a member of the council. His social influence extends to the case of an executed criminal. Joseph’s position gives him access to Pilate, who grants his request.


Women of high social standing also are portrayed as shaping the course of events. Herodias, Herod’s wife, acts decisively in the story about Herod. All three Synoptic Gospels cite a conflict with John the Baptist over the marriage of Herodias and Herod (Mark 6:17; Matt 14:4; Luke 3:19). Herodias, granddaughter of Herod the Great (who ruled from 37 to 4 B.C.E.), was married to her uncle Herod Philip but divorced him to marry Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee (Josephus, Ant. 18.136). Such practices of divorce and remarriage were relatively common among the Roman elite and would have garnered little moral approbation in those circles, but this apparently went against John’s understanding of proper behavior for Jews. John’s religious objection creates enough of a political disturbance for Herod and Herodias that he has John imprisoned.

Mark describes Herodias as holding a grudge against John for his denunciation of her divorce and marriage (Mark 6:19). Herodias seizes an opportunity and acts decisively, pressing her daughter to ask for John’s head (Mark 6:24; Matt 14:8). Herodias has no formal power to pass judgment on John but uses her social influence to achieve political goals.

Pilate’s wife.

Pilate’s wife also plays a role in Matthew’s trial of Jesus, for as Pilate sits on the judge’s bench she sends word to him: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (Matt 27:19). Pilate seems to have realized that the charges against Jesus are trumped up (27:18), and so his wife’s message is not the only influence on his decisions. But it is evidence of the kind of day-to-day access to power that elite women had. Furthermore, dreams were often viewed as a form of divine communication, so Pilate’s wife assumes a role of religious leadership that has political implications. Matthew assumes his reader will not only find this story plausible, but will also see her dream as further confirmation of Jesus’s innocence.

King Agrippa and Bernice [Berenice].

With Herodias, Bernice is one of few New Testament women known from outside sources. A daughter of King Agrippa I, she was married to her uncle Herod, king of Chalcis (Josephus, Ant. 19.277) and after his death to King Polemo of Cilicia. In the face of “unprecedented” brutality of the procurator Gessius Florus against the Jews, Josephus describes Berenice’s protest (War 2.308; cf. 309–314). While unsuccessful, Josephus presents her as a person of high status whom Florus defies.

Luke gives few details about Bernice, but his inclusion of her suggests again that it was conventional for elite women to have access to the locus of power. As noted above, King Agrippa is invited by Festus to intervene in Paul’s case in order to clarify the charges brought against Paul. Agrippa is the highest-ranking official to appear in Acts and is at the center of these events. His sister Bernice (Berenice) is noted as traveling with him (Acts 25:13) and ceremonially entering with him into the audience hall (25:23). She is present when Paul speaks and responds favorably, along with the others in the king’s party (26:30).


While elite women and men had access to influence at the highest levels of power, men and women of lower standing also used social influence to effect change in their lives. Patronage also functioned among the lower classes. They sought favors from wealthy patrons, offered hospitality, served as leaders, and donated money to associations, and owned and freed slaves.

Women and men who act as patrons of Jesus, Paul, or of local churches are examples of this phenomenon in the New Testament. One of the women who provided for Jesus’s ministry was “Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza” (Luke 8:3; cf. 24:10). Chuza was most likely a freedperson and former slave of Herod, for slaves could not form legal marriages. His proximity to Herod would have given him relative wealth and power. Joanna also has resources of her own that she uses to support the Jesus movement.

Other patrons include Lydia, another woman of relative wealth and social standing. She is identified as a “dealer in purple cloth” and head of her household (Acts 16:14–15). She offers hospitality to Paul and his party, an act of patronage. Paul’s letters record emissaries like Timothy (1 Cor 16:10; 1 Thess 2:2) and Phoebe, who is a deacon and patron (Rom 16:1–2). Patrons like Aquila and Prisca (1 Cor 16:19; cf. Acts 18:1–3, 26; Rom 16:3–4) or Nympha (Col 4:15) also hosted churches in their homes. Their roles as hosts and emissaries put them in positions to wield influence among the churches.

The Political Nature of Religious Leadership.

Religious leadership also had political dimensions, as seen in various ways in the New Testament.

Jesus as a political leader.

The Gospel writers imagine Jesus’s leadership in part as political leadership. He is hailed as a king (e.g., Matt 2:2; John 1:49; 6:15; 12:13) and is executed under the charge “the king of the Jews” (Matt 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19). Many interpreters read elements of Jesus’s ministry as making political claims. For example, Jesus’s casting a “legion” into the sea in the story of the Gerasene demoniac is often viewed as a critique of the Roman government, whose armies were divided into “legions” (Mark 5:1–20). Many interpreters understand the claim that Jesus is the Son of God (e.g., John 20:31) as a political claim, for emperors were also referred to as sons of God.

To some extent, Jesus’s leadership is described in ways that evoke the ideal ruler. For example, John’s Jesus always appears to be in control. He has complete foreknowledge of his death (e.g., John 2:4; 7:33; 13:1). His active role in the arrest scene (18:5) and handing over his spirit on the cross (19:30) emphasize his ultimate control even over the events of his crucifixion (cf. John 10:17–18).

Like the ideal ruler, Jesus’s speech is effective and persuasive. His voice halts a storm (Matt 14:32; Mark 4:39, 41; Luke 8:24) and commands the dead to walk (e.g., Mark 5:41; Luke 7:14). When tested by others, he silences his opponents with a clever response (e.g., Matt 21:23—22:46; Luke 20:1–26). In these ways Jesus embodies traits of the effective leader, traits that were gendered masculine in the Greco-Roman world.

However, Jesus’s leadership is also “not of this world” and in some ways diverges from or subverts the dominant paradigm. For example, frequent sayings like “the least among all of you is the greatest” (Luke 9:48; cf. Matt 18:4; 23:11; Mark 9:35; Luke 22:26) or “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45) underscore an alternative view of the leader’s role. In his trial and crucifixion, Jesus becomes subject to the will of others, as exemplified in the soldiers’ treatment of him: they strip him, mock him, and spit upon him (e.g., Matt 27:27–31; Mark 15:16–20). Jesus’s passivity and refusal to answer charges against him could be viewed as feminine. They go against the grain of usual expectations for effective (masculine) leadership.

In Revelation Jesus’s leadership is often portrayed in political and masculine terms. He is a military leader whose speech is effective. He issues edicts and commands the churches to obey (Rev 2—3). While Jesus is also envisioned as a lamb, many of Revelation’s images depend on masculine ideals. Rome’s power is also at issue in Revelation. But Rome is depicted either as beastly (e.g., Rev 13) or feminine (Rev 17—18), both of which render it less than the masculine ideal. To some extent Revelation’s critique of Rome embraces the masculine stereotypes of the culture and presents Christ as the one who meets that ideal.

Paul’s leadership and gender.

Paul’s religious leadership also has political overtones. In Thessalonika, Paul and Silas are accused of “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:7; cf. 16:20–21). Paul’s activity attracts the disapproval of the Jews, but also brings him into contact with the local authorities.

In his own leadership, Paul displays many of the same gendered virtues of leadership familiar from Roman culture. Luke portrays Paul as a powerful speaker (e.g., Acts 13:16–49; 14:1; 24:24–46; 26:1–32) and worker of miracles (Acts 14:3, 8–10; 19:11–12; 20:7–12). Paul’s letters show his persuasive powers and his assumed authority over his churches (e.g., 1 Cor 9:1–2; 2 Cor 10:1–6).

Another of Paul’s leadership qualities is self-mastery. He endures many hardships and persecution (e.g., 2 Cor 6:4; 11:23–28). He exercises control over his body and desires, using imagery of the athletic contest (1 Cor 9:24–27) and of warfare (Rom 13:12; 2 Cor 10:3–4).

As with Jesus, Paul’s suffering at the hands of others could be viewed as feminine. Paul also characterizes himself in feminine terms, as mother or nurse caring for children (1 Thess 2:7; cf. 1 Cor 3:2). The gendered language expresses and reinforces the cultural notion that political leadership is imagined as masculine, and caretaking roles are imagined as feminine.

Leadership qualities in the New Testament.

In a general sense, leadership envisioned by the New Testament reflects the ideals of masculine political leadership. For example, the leadership qualities identified in 1 Timothy 3:1–13 reflect many of the norms discussed earlier. Leaders should be heads of their household who govern well (1 Tim 3:4–5). They should exercise self-control (3:2, 8, 11).

Many interpreters have seen these qualifications of religious leaders as a reflection of a political agenda. Attempting to avoid persecution, early Christian communities adopted the norms and virtues of the Roman political order. From this viewpoint, the political implications of religious beliefs affected the forms of leadership the church developed. The church sought to adapt to the social order as a means of fitting in and avoiding political persecution.

Yet the Christian system of leadership described here not only reflects the household language of Roman political order but also the availability of roles for women. Women served less frequently than men in official roles, but nevertheless held civic and religious titles, especially in Asia Minor, the region around Ephesus, to which the letter is addressed (1 Tim 1:3). Women who served their communities in civic and religious roles were often praised as exemplars of virtue and self-control (e.g., Iunia Theodora, SEG 18.143).

Similarly, the church order prescribed by 1 Timothy includes women deacons (3:11) whose qualifications mirror those of male deacons (3:8–10). At the same time, expectations of modesty for women are also affirmed (1 Tim 2:8–15). Although many interpreters have understood the expectations of modesty to negate the possibility of women’s leadership, the cultural parallels may suggest that praise for modest behavior existed alongside accepted practices of leadership by women. Read from this perspective, the language of 1 Timothy affirms norms of modesty while acknowledging that virtuous women played formalized leadership roles in those communities.

The early church inhabited the same cultural paradox as the Greco-Roman culture at large. Leadership was gendered as male, and gender stereotypes were used to praise or blame one’s allies or adversaries. Yet women also served as leaders and could be praised for doing so effectively. The cultural tension remains unresolved and is reproduced in early Christian writings like those of the New Testament.




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  • Crook, Zeba. “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited.” Journal of Biblical Literature 128 (2009): 591–611.
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Susan E. Hylen

Early Judaism


Early Church

In modern terms, women did not have real political power in the early Church period. That is, they were not allowed to hold civic offices (with some Jewish exceptions noted below). But there were other ways of exercising power and influence through patronage. Women in both Jewish and Christian communities found some measure of equality and opportunities for leadership. While the focus here is on political leadership, leadership within the ekklēsiai (“churches”) was political as well as religious. The conception of “religion” as a separate, private sphere of human activity is a modern notion and there was no separation of “church” and “state” in the Second Temple or Greco-Roman world. Indeed, leadership in the associations or institutions we now call “churches” was one of the few opportunities for women to exercise political leadership. While this continued throughout the period of early Christianity, forces of resistance to women’s leadership found in many second-century texts increased through the third and fourth centuries C.E. As orthodox churches became increasingly dominated by social and imperial elites, and Christianity more reflective of the culture of Late Antiquity, women’s leadership was greatly diminished by the fourth century.

To complicate matters, our sources are problematic for recovering women’s roles and influence. Both Jewish and Greco-Roman texts, perhaps all of which were written by men, are constrained by ancient views of gender. Josephus, or his source Nicolaus of Damascus, portrayed powerful women negatively. Roman writers such as Juvenal, Livy, Tacitus, or Valerius Maximus exhibited similar tendencies. Strong and politically powerful women such as Athaliah, Shelomzion, and Livia are often described negatively by male historians. Rather than always recovering lost women voices when reading these texts, we are often reading how male authors employed women characters for different ideological purposes. Inscriptions and other evidence from material culture have enriched the evidence for women’s social-political activity in the Roman Empire.

Biblical and Jewish Traditions.

Biblical women, although often mythological characters, provided important role models for early Christian women. Eve, the mother of humanity in Genesis 1—3, appears in gnostic literature. Rebekah shows initiative in choosing to go to Canaan to marry Isaac (Gen 24:58) and then manipulates Isaac on Jacob’s behalf (Gen 26:5–17, 42–45), taking responsibility for her actions and protecting him from Esau, without any negative implications for her character. Her stories in Genesis could have been written to support the machinations of Bathsheba for the succession of Solomon (1 Kings 1—2). Rachel defies her father and protects Jacob as they flee from Laban (Gen 31:19, 32–34). Miriam, in contrast, who leads the Hebrew women in a victory song by the sea (Exod 15:20–21), is punished for exercising prophetic power (Num 12:1–15).). The hypostasized figure of “Lady Wisdom” (Hokma [Heb], Sophia [Gk]) in Proverbs 8 plays an important role in the creation of the world and becomes a central figure in gnostic Christian traditions.

Biblical traditions include several women heroes. Judges 4—5 highlights the political and military leadership of Deborah, judge and prophet(ess). She singles out the role of women in battle (Judg 4:9), which is fulfilled when Jael kills Sisera (4:21).). Naomi and Ruth do not exercise political leadership but work the ancient social welfare system with Boaz to ensure the line leading to David continues (Ruth). Esther skillfully gains power at the court of Ahasuerus as chief concubine and, with Mordecai’s help, defeats the plans of Haman to exterminate the Jews (Esth). The wealthy and beautiful widow Judith acts as both strategist and assassin to save the Jews of Bethulia from Holofernes (Jdt). The mother of the seven brothers tortured and killed by Antiochus IV (175–164 B.C.E.) is described heroically in 2 Maccabees 7:24–42 and 4 Maccabees 14:11—17:6. These women are literary characters in texts almost certainly written by men, and therefore represent male constructions of the feminine in support of patriarchal ideologies, but nonetheless inscribe in scripture the important political idea that women can take initiative and exercise leadership.

Two ruling queens are recorded in biblical and Jewish texts: Athaliah in ancient Judah and Shelamzion in the Hasmonean period. Athaliah, granddaughter of the important Israelite king Omri, ruled for six years after the death of her son Ahaziah (1 Kings 11:1–20), who was killed after a one-year reign in Jerusalem at the hand of Jehu, king of Israel, as part of the civil war fostered by Elijah and Elisha. She killed the Davidic children of Ahaziah except for Joash, who was hidden and replaced her in a coup in which she was executed. As an Omride, she would be viewed negatively by the Deuteronomic editor so it is difficult to discern misogynism, but the absence of a formulaic summary for her in 1 Kings suggests that the editor did not view her reign as legitimate.

Queens feature prominently in Josephus’s accounts of the Hasmonean household. Of these, the most significant queen was the Hasmonean Shelamzion (Salome) Alexandra, who ruled from 76–66 b.c.e. Sources include fragments in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q331, 4Q332) and possible encoded references in the pesharim on Nahum 3:1 and Hosea 2:11–12 (4QpNahum ii, 4Q166). She was the widow of Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai) and succeeded him even though they had two sons. The books of Esther and Judith could have been written, and certainly read, to support her reign. Josephus describes her reign twice, more favorably in J. W. 1.107–119 and negatively in Ant. 13.398–432. Despite the rhetorical differences, there are several points of agreement in the two accounts. Achievements during her reign included raising an army, moving against Damascus, and making a peace treaty with Tigranes of Armenia. She also restored the Pharisees to positions of power after her husband’s purge; Josephus claims she governed others while the Pharisees governed her. When she fell sick, her younger son Aristobulus II attempted a coup and her death led to civil war between him and his brother John Hyrcanus II, who was high priest, leading eventually to the Roman occupation under Pompey. Shelamzion receives favorable mention in early Tannaitic halakic midrash, Sifre Deuteronomy 42, because of her support of the Pharisees, but the Babylonian Talmud diminishes her importance. Herod the Great’s execution of his second wife Mariamne shows the continued political influence of Hasmonean women. The Synoptic Gospels attribute the execution of John the Baptist to the influence of Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas (Mark 6:17–28 and parallels).

Greco-Roman Models of Leadership.

Throughout the ancient cultures in which Christianity developed, gender performance was central to political leadership. Sexual relationships were understood as between the dominant, or penetrator, and dominated, or penetrated, and this ideology was translated to the political realm. A ruler’s strength and virility was an important political statement to those who were ruled. The Roman emperors inherited and built upon Hellenistic images of virility. Statues of emperors depict them primarily in military garb or naked, as a god. Augustus was also portrayed as Pontifex Maximus, high priest, and Pater Patriae, father of the homeland, as well as Imperator, Emperor, notably in the reliefs of the Ara Pacis. As Lopez has shown, the gendered images of Roman power and stability were often combined in imperial reliefs of the conquered nations, such as Claudius and Britannia in the Sebasteion relief, which were imaged as the opposite in every way of the Romans: as lawless, conquered, and colonized barbarians. These images of conquered nations were gendered as female, passive, and penetrated (2008).

Women in the Greek world were identified with domestic tasks in the oikos (household) from the archaic period onward (Iliad, Odyssey); the public space of political leadership in the polis (city-state) was, therefore, male space. Women were expected to be subservient daughters and wives; fertile mothers of legitimate children; and managers of the oikos. Roman women had more social freedom, particularly elite women, and could attend dinner parties and own property. But they could not vote, hold political office, or attend assemblies (cf. Valerius Maximus 3.8.6; (Auct.) de viris illustribus 73). Roman women could hold religious offices. The Vestal Virgins were the most prominent, with special rights from the Republican period onward, but the priests wives (flaminicae) of the priestly colleges flamines Dialis and flamines Martialis had status as well.

The most powerful women in politics were the Hellenistic queens and imperial wives. The public images of these women expressed the dominant “feminine” values of domesticity, faithfulness, loyalty, and subservience. But as with the Hasmonean queens, the Hellenistic queens exercised political influence privately and cultural influence publicly, such as Antiochos III’s wife Laodike establishing a bridal cult and playing a role in the ruler cults. The Julio-Claudian women exercised even more significant political power. The Domus Caesarum or Household of the Caesars was a political entity in the empire that included the imperial women. Livia Augustana, the wife of the first Imperator, was one of the most powerful people in the empire during the imperium of Augustus and Tiberius. Such elite politics were fairly removed from the early Christian ekklēsiai, but the images of the imperial women were part of the imperial cult in Asia.

Patronage was the most diffuse area socially where women exercised power and influence. All Roman women could participate in business activities that included a range of profit-making activities, including trading, manufacturing, and owning real estate for rent. Such activities involved women in the public sphere more actively, particularly the legal system. Wealthy women protested against a tax instituted by the triumvirs Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus in 43 B.C.E. Wealth acquired through business or marriage gave women patrona influence in the political sphere. While they could not hold office, they could back family members and friends. Livia was a famous and powerful patron.

Women in the Early Church.

The feminist project of recovering lost women’s voices and roles has been successful at establishing the centrality of women in early Christianity. Women held important, even crucial, leadership positions in the Jesus movement and Pauline ekklēsiai. This claim holds even though women also appear as literary fictions in male-authored texts and therefore as figures of male-oriented gender performance. First-century texts consistently show women in leadership roles and second-century and later texts contain controversies over the role of women in the ekklēsiai. Women were buried at Qumran; were full members of the Pharasaic havurah (Ilan, 2001; 2006); and were both leaders and patrons of Jewish synagogues. There is no reason therefore that women would not have been both participants in and patrons of the Jesus movement.

The earliest gospels.

All of the Christian gospels feature women leaders and actors, primarily Mary Magdalene. Of the earliest gospels, Mark has the most evidence for women in the movement. Mark minimizes the role of women patrons but their influence is clear in the text. The author introduces the central figure Mary Magdalene (of Magdala), along with Mary the mother of James and Joses and Salome, only when their presence is necessary for the passion narrative (15:40–41; 16:1–8), but her central role at the burial of Jesus and indeed the origin of what comes to be Christianity indicates a leadership role from the beginning of the movement (cf. Luke 8:2). Mark includes other women patrons. Jesus’s ministry begins at the home of Peter’s mother-in-law, who could have been an early patron of the healing movement (Mark 1:30–34). The Syrophoenician woman who requests a healing miracle would most likely have been a woman of stature and influence (Mark 7:24–30), although the story in the gospel focuses on a mission to the gentiles before the turning point at Caesarea Philippi. So too the unnamed woman in Mark 14:3–10, memorialized in Schüssler Fiorenza’s seminal book (1983), was most likely a patron of Jesus. The reconstructed Q gospel does not mention any women leaders or followers with Jesus, but it references the feminine Wisdom in 11:49 and compares Jesus to a mother in 13:34. The references to women and gender in the Gospel of Thomas (15, 22, 46, 79, 96, 97) are primarily symbolic with regard to the unity or duality of the soul. Mary of Magdalene appears in logion 21 and, more ambivalently, 114. Read politically, this final logion, probably from the second century C.E., shows the continuing presence of and controversy over women’s leadership in different Christian communities.

Paul and Pauline traditions.

Women held important leadership positions in the Pauline ekklēsiai. This shows the influence of both the ideology of gender equality “in Christ” expressed in Galatians 3:28 and Paul’s Pharasaic background, since women were part of the Pharasaic havurah. Notable leaders in the Corinthian community include Chloe ((1 Cor 1:11), a patron whose clients report to Paul of divisions in the ekklēsia, and women prophets addressed in 1 Corinthians 11:2–17. Paul sends greetings from Prisca and Aquila (1 Cor 16:19; cf. Rom 16:3 and “Priscilla” in Acts 18:2, 18, 26). She and her partner were important co-workers of Paul who supported house ekklēsiai and Paul’s ministries. Her name is listed first in Romans 16:3 and Acts 18:18, 26, highlighting her importance as equal to her husband Aquila. The greetings in Romans 16 include a number of important women leaders. These include Phoebe, a deacon at Cenchreae (16:1–2)), whose role as patron (prostatis) is highlighted; Prisca; and Mary ((16:6). The verb used for Mary here, kopiaō, to work or toil, is the same used in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 for the work of unnamed persons who have charge over the ekklēsia. Scribal and ecclesiastical traditions have attempted to hide their gender or erase their role in the Pauline communities.

Post-Pauline texts show considerable controversy and struggle over women’s leadership in the Christian communities. The book of Revelation records an encounter between the author, John, and a women prophet, teacher, and leader in Thyatira slanderously called “Jezebel” (Rev 2:20–25). The graphic and violent female imagery in the visions, such as the harlot and city of Babylon, functions as a political statement against Rome as well as condemnations of women in the ekklēsiai. “Babylon’s” destructions in Revelation 17:16 and 18:2–24 invoke Roman gendered political themes of rape and the domination of conquered peoples. Women play a more prominent role in Luke–Acts, which is probably a second-century text, than in the other Synoptic Gospels. In Luke 8:3, the role of the women patrons of the Jesus movement are highlighted early in the narrative whereas in Mark they are not mentioned until the crucifixion. Luke’s Gospel features important women characters, such as Mary the mother of Jesus and the sisters Martha and Mary. Although these women are not political leaders and function as part of the authors focus on women as a literary trope, the author places a powerful political message in Mary’s song, traditionally called the Magnificat, in Luke 1:51–53. Martha, who manages her own house, appears to be another patron of Jesus (Luke 10:38–42). So too the independent and wealthy merchant Lydia (Acts 16:14–15), who offers support to Paul and his traveling companions while traveling herself on business, manages a household. Women in leadership positions would not have appealed widely to Roman male society. Celsus includes the presence of women as part of his attack on Christianity (Origen, Contra Celsum 3.10, 44, 49, 55–57) and Pliny mentions, neutrally, two women ministrae, probably deacons, among the accused Christians he arrested (Ep. 10.96; cf. Contra Celsum 7.41). Luke–Acts probably accurately reflects the role of women as patrons and leaders, although Luke’s emphasis on high-status women would have made the new movement more acceptable in Greco-Roman society (Acts 1:14; 13:50; 17:4).

The letters in the New Testament labeled deutero-Pauline and Pastoral Epistles present increasing strictures on women’s leadership in the ekklēsiai. Colossians contains the first Christian Haustafel, or household code of duties (3:18—4:1), which stipulates subservient roles for women. Versions of the code appear in Ephesians 5:21—6:9, 1 Peter 2:12—3:7, and Titus 2:2–10. Both 1 Peter and 1 Timothy include more extended arguments against women’s leadership in the ekklēsiai, such as scriptural examples of submission in 1 Peter 3:6 and outright bans on women’s leadership in 1 Timothy 2:11–15, which also cites Eve as an example to follow. These texts are evidence of increasing patriarchalization within some Christian communities in the second century but are also indirect evidence of continued women’s leadership. Hauptman has identified a parallel increase in restrictions on Jewish women in the Rabbinic text Mishnah, edited circa 200 C.E., when compared to the Tosefta, which was compiled in the third century (1999). Within both Jewish and Christian second- and third-century communities, there were power struggles over the political leadership of women.

Women in gnostic texts.

A text from the same generation of Christianity as the Pastoral Epistles, the Gospel of Mary, shows that women’s leadership continued to be celebrated. Mary Magdalene is the hero of this gospel. She comforts the other apostles at Jesus’s departure and provides special knowledge about the ascent of the soul. Her leadership and teachings are directly challenged by Andrew and Peter at the end of the gospel, but Levi reaffirms her central role. This gospel was most likely written and transmitted by gnostic Christian communities that valued women leaders. Rather than reflecting the actual history of Jesus’s first followers, this text functions to uphold women’s authority in later Christian communities. Mary also plays an important role in the Gospel of Phillip, along with Jesus’s mother Mary, as his constant companion whom he used to kiss often, which could suggest spiritual insight as well as possible sexual relations. The Gospel of Phillip refers to the enigmatic “bridal chamber,” which is also referred to in the Flavia Sophē inscription from third-century Rome. While this inscription does not indicate political power, she was clearly an important member of this Christian community. Mary Magdalene also appears as an apostle of equal stature with Judas and Matthew in The Dialogue of the Savior, again affirming women leaders in some Christian communities. Read against the Pastoral Epistles, these gnostic texts imply a political struggle within Christian communities over the leadership of women.

In a social world where women had little tangible political power compared to men, symbolic expressions such as the Gospel of Mary were a means of expressing women’s political power. Female characters such as Barbelo, Sophia, Zoe, and Eve and her daughter Norea appear in many Nag Hammadi texts along with historical women, such as Mary Magdalene. Many of these texts can be read politically as well as philosophically and theologically. Three of the more prominent expressions of women’s power are Hypostasis of the Archons, the Trimorphic Protennoia, and Thunder: Perfect Mind. The term archōn (“ruler”) is itself a political title. In this text, as with many gnostic myths, the hermaphroditic Archons, under the Chief Ruler Samael (=Ialdabaoth), are evil and benighted rulers of an inferior, material earth. They create Eve from Adam’s side and rape her physical or carnal image. Cain is the product of this union. The rape of Eve suggests the Roman rape of the Sabines, a foundation story for Rome that appears in Livy, Pliny, and frequent statues and art work. Zoe and Norea also are powerful figures; Zoe elevates Sabaoth on the throne of God and Norea, after dialogue with the angel Eleleth, achieves the Pleroma. The Trimorphic Protennoia and Thunder: A Perfect Mind are powerful, often paradoxical, expressions of the Divine Feminine as Sophia/Christ, using “I am” statements. This tradition of the divine feminine goes at least as far back as Proverbs 8. Thunder, moreover, contains images of violence that can be read as political critique of the Romans and images of female subordination to male power that are ultimately subverted in the text’s unified vision of the human and divine.

New Prophecy.

The various gnostic texts from the second and third century were not the only expressions of women’s leadership in early Christianity. One of the earliest renewal and reform movements, “New Prophecy,” was led by Montanus (hence “Montanism”) and three women prophets, Priscilla, Maximilla, and Quintilla (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.14). This was a charismatic, apocalyptic (and therefore political) movement that gained many adherents in the early church, with Tertullian being one of the most prominent. Rejection of marriage and opportunities for leadership attracted women for centuries. According to the heresiologist Epiphanius, there were women ministers in the fourth century who appealed to the biblical models of Eve, Miriam, and the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:8–9; Panairion 49.2). The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas highlights two women heroes of New Prophecy.


Elite women such as Lucilla of Carthage, Marcella of Rome, and Melania the Elder and the Younger continued to exercise political power through patronage in the early church through the fourth century. But the ideology of gender equality that emerged from the Jesus movement and developed in the Pauline ekklēsiai lost significant ground over time. By the era of the imperial Orthodox Church, men continued to hold the vast majority of political power in the churches.




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Robert M. Royalty Jr.