10 Things About Women From Ancient History That They Wouldn’t Have Taught You In School

How much do you think you know about the women of antiquity? If it’s only what you learned in school, then there are likely to be some glaring gaps in your knowledge. Here, though, is your chance to put that right. Yes, now you can get up to speed on the women of ancient East Asia, Egypt, Rome and Greece by reading these ten intriguing nuggets of information.

10. There was a Roman Barbie doll

If you think the concept of human-like dolls as playthings for children is a modern phenomenon, think again. The wooden doll pictured here with its movable limbs comes from a girl’s grave that was discovered in Rome in 1889. The girl was probably aged around 16 when she died sometime in the 2nd century AD.

Furthermore, an inscription on the girl’s sarcophagus means that even nearly 2,000 years after her death, we know her name: Crepereia Tryphaena. The doll is made of ivory and was found alongside a collection of doll’s clothes and toys. Interestingly, too, the figure is much more anatomically correct than the modern Barbie that girls play with today.

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9. Girls played jacks in ancient Greece

Jacks, or knucklebones, is one of the world’s oldest pastimes. Although it’s difficult to put a precise date on the origin of the game, it may have started in Egypt, while it was certainly adopted by the Greeks. There’s plenty of evidence for how much jacks was enjoyed by the ancients, too; take the Greek statuette above, which dates back to between 330 and 300 BC.

Roman girls, it seems, also enjoyed playing a form of knucklebones, as the figure from the era pictured here shows. The Romans played a version called astragaloi, which was based simply on the luck of the throw. Astragaloi saw different sides of the bone assigned varying values to produce scores.

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8. Roman women wore bikinis

These charming images show Roman women engaging in sports and clearly clad in what we would now call bikinis. However, the bikini wasn’t invented in modern times until 1946, whereas this mosaic dates from the 4th century AD. The artwork was discovered in a Roman home in Sicily by archaeologist Gino Vinicio Gentili sometime around 1959.

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Archaeologists have dubbed the mosaic the “Coronation of the Winner,” as it depicts a woman giving a crown and a champion’s palm branch to one of the participants. In fact, though, this portrayal of a bikini-like costume is not the oldest that we know of. You see, there are illustrations of Greco-Roman women engaging in sports and dressed in bikinis that date as far back as 1400 BC.

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7. A woman in ancient Japan wrote the world’s first novel

A Japanese woman called Murasaki Shikibu wrote what is considered by some to be the first book that’s recognizable as a novel. Incredibly, Shikibu – who was a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese court – wrote The Tale of Genji in the early part of the 11th century.

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The novel is a story of court life in ancient Japan, and the central character is an emperor’s son called Hikaru Genji. Genji’s father decides that his son will not become emperor – and so he lives as a commoner. The tale also describes the political machinations involving other people in the court, including a concubine called Lady Kiritsubo.

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6. Divorce was a tricky business in ancient China

As in all too many societies throughout history, women in ancient China were placed in a position firmly inferior to that of men. A custom called the “three followings” saw women commanded to be subordinate to their fathers, husbands and even their own sons. And one area where female oppression was particularly stark was divorce.

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You see, a man in ancient China could divorce his wife for a variety of reasons, but a woman could not do the same except in the case of a husband’s cruelty to her family. And while some of the reasons for a parting of ways seem reasonable enough – infidelity and theft, for example – others were harsh. A man could divorce his wife for failing to produce a son and, perhaps most inhumanely, simply for talking too much.

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5. There were notable women artists in ancient Greece

Throughout history, it would appear as though most great artists have been male. Yet although men have received the lion’s share of fame and recognition, women have, of course, always created artistic works, too. What’s more, in ancient Greece, female artists definitely got a much fairer crack of the whip. We have the 1st-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder to thank for our knowledge about the women painters of ancient Greece; plus, naturally, there are the works themselves.

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The work shown here, for example, is a mosaic from Pompeii that was created in about 100 BC. Known as the Alexander Mosaic, it portrays a great battle that was fought between Alexander the Great and the Persian Darius III. And though for many years the work was attributed to the male artist Philoxenus of Eritrea, some now believe it to have been the handiwork of Helena of Egypt.

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4. Women had significant rights in ancient Egypt

We’ve already heard about the almost total lack of rights afforded women in ancient China, but the picture in ancient Egypt was quite different. On paper, at least, an Egyptian woman had the same legal rights as her male counterpart. She could possess land and other goods in her own right. And she could also own slaves – though it should be pointed out that legal rights did not extend to those poor unfortunates.

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An ancient Egyptian woman, or at least one who was freeborn, also had the right to divorce her husband. Following a divorce, everything she owned – including all she’d brought to the marriage – remained in her legal ownership. And if a man assaulted his wife, he could be punished by flogging or a fine – or a combination of the two.

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3. Ancient Egyptian women went rowing

Interestingly, it seems that ancient Egyptian women used to take to the water for a spot of rowing now and again. We know this thanks to a story recorded on papyrus called “Sneferu and the Green Jewel.” In it, King Sneferu is described as being in low spirits, and as a result, his chief scribe comes up with an idea to cheer his master up. The plan’s genius is in its simplicity: why not go out onto the lake with some of the women from the royal palace in tow?

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After all, the thinking went, the sight of these women displaying their physical skills and attributes would surely improve the king’s mood. So, 20 of the fairest women were ordered to row the king up and down the lake. And what do you know? The spectacle did indeed lift Sneferu’s spirits. Some, naturally, might think the king a bit of an ogler, but the story does strongly seem to suggest that ancient Egyptian women knew their way around a rowboat.

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2. There were women’s Olympics in ancient Greece

Although the Olympic Games in ancient Greece were an exclusively male dominion, women actually had their own separate sporting contest: the Heraean Games. Pictured here are the ruins of the Temple of the goddess Hera at Olympia. Hera was the goddess of women as well as marriage, and the women’s games were dedicated to her.

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The first of the Heraean Games took place in the 6th century BC; they were held in Olympia before the men’s competition. And, consistent with the men’s event, in the early days the only sport was running. Winners were awarded with crowns fashioned from olive branches and, bizarrely, ox meat from sacrifices made to Hera.

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1. Women engaged in gladiatorial combat

In the Russell Crowe blockbuster Gladiator, made in 2000, female gladiators are in short supply. In fact, they’re only notable for their complete absence from the movie. But recently discovered evidence indicates that there were indeed female gladiators in Roman times. And they, too, fought to the death.

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Like the men, these gladiatrices battled with either animals or one another. And their mooted existence seems to have been confirmed by a Roman statue of a woman wielding a short sword. In an arguable example of modern-day sexism, for many years it was believed that the bare-breasted woman was holding a bathing implement. After all, women couldn’t be gladiators, right? Well, as it turns out, wrong.

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