SAS Honors Program


Course WILL count for major and minor credit in Classics

The position of Roman emperor’s wife was not an office and lacked a set title. Nonetheless, this status involved the potential for plenty of power and a staggering level of importance. Flattery of these women in literary sources, their inclusion in the state’s oaths and prayers, their conspicuous positions at public spectacles, the official celebration of their significant anniversaries, the mass dissemination of their portrait busts and statues, the carving of encomiastic inscriptions and the erection of temples and other buildings dedicated to their honor, the conduct of their funerals at public expense, votes of divinization after death—all served as powerful, mutually reinforcing markers of their charisma and standing. Precisely how Rome’s empresses were perceived to have turned their massive prestige into political influence and exercised patronage is the central concern of this Honors Seminar. This Interdisciplinary Honors Seminar aims to trace such developments in women’s political prerogatives in the first four centuries of the Roman imperial period, from the reigns of Augustus through Theodosius I (31 BCE-395 CE). This in turn involves looking back at attitudes toward women’s political power in the Roman Republic period, as well as the practices of Hellenistic Greek courts (culminating in Cleopatra); and also taking stock of later developments in the Latin West and the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire. It is in the east where eventually (starting in the late eighth century CE) one finds empresses ruling in their own right. There is an important caveat. The source problem on women and politics in the Empire is acute. Hence a focus of this seminar will necessarily be on “perceptions” as opposed to an attempt to reconstruct the precise mechanics of women’s political influence at Rome. That said, a particular concern of this seminar will be to examine how the public image of empresses was communicated directly to contemporaries through coins (especially) and portraiture in sculpture and other media. In addition, at practically every point throughout the course we will take note of early modern and modern receptions of the Roman women under consideration, ranging from fanciful 16th century treatments to up to the minute recreations (e.g., Netflix’s 2016 Roman Empire: Reign of Blood). There are no prerequisites for the course, and no special knowledge of Roman or ancient history is expected. However, I hope that by the conclusion of the seminar, students will have a broad acquaintance with Rome’s most notable emperors and empresses and also the basics of critiquing ancient historical narratives, and using coins and sculptural portraiture as historical evidence. REQUIRED: Subscription to CoinArchives Pro (Academic edition): $50.00 RECOMMENDED TEXTS C. Damon, Tacitus Annals. Penguin 2012, 978-0140455649 J. Rives, Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars. Penguin 2007, 978-0140455168 A. Birley, Lives of the Later Caesars: The First Part of the Augustan History, with Newly Compiled Lives of Nerva & Trajan. Penguin 1976, 978-0140443080

T. COREY BRENNAN is an Associate Professor of Classics with a Ph.D. from Harvard University.  His research interests are in Roman political history, social history of classical antiquity.


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Lucy Stone Hall
Room A-201
P 848-445-3206


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