Seeing through the fog: Digital problems and solutions for studying ancient women
First Monday

Seeing through the fog: Digital problems and solutions for studying ancient women by Alex McAuley



Abstract
In spite of the proliferation of online resources dedicated to the study of the ancient world, there is nonetheless room for the improvement and expansion of methodology and content. This paper identifies two predominant problems in the realm of digital classics: the perpetuation of traditional methods of presenting research rather than the promotion of technology-driven analysis, and the virtual invisibility of ancient women in cyberspace. Arguing that there is a gender imbalance in Web-based resources for antiquity, two solutions are proposed beginning with the addition of more material regarding ancient women to existing platforms in the interest of equalization. Using an analogous project from McGill University as inspiration, an approach that combines ancient data with GIS analysis is proposed in order to make room for technology-driven research while beginning to mitigate the invisibility of women in the ancient world and on the Web.

Contents

Introduction
Problem I: Presentation, not analysis
Problem II: Where are the women?
Solution I: Equalize
Solution II: Innovate
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction

At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, the explosion of classical studies into cyberspace that has occurred over roughly the past two decades has profoundly impacted both the mechanism and the outreach of the discipline. Open access texts, online encyclopaedias, coin collections, maps, even message boards and forums have made the ancient world accessible to a larger audience than ever before. In turn, this has left its mark on how — and to what end — classicists produce their research. The ‘digital turn’ in classics has been well discussed in a variety of arenas over the past decade, ranging from online communities to print publications (Crane, 2004), most directly in Mahony and Bodard’s (2010) edited volume Digital research in the study of classical antiquity and in Dunn and Mahony’s (2013) Digital classicist supplement.

This has all been an implicitly ‘good thing’ for the field of study, but if we take a somewhat closer look at the state of the digital realm of classical studies certain imbalances in the character and content of online resources for the ancient world come to the fore. Most conspicuous among them is the question of ancient women and their digital treatment. The broader concerns of ‘ancient gender’ in the digital realm are manifold and complex, and in the interest of thoroughness I shall limit my focus in this article to the digital study of ancient women — in particular, royal women. Gender is a much broader cultural lens for research, but in this wider context I believe that the biographical and social history of ancient women presents us with a problem, in digital classics at least, that is fairly easy to resolve. Yet in spite of the far-reaching advances made in the study of women in the ancient world, the digital realm remains a place that is associated with a “white male playground” (Scott, et al., 2001), characterized by a masculine gaze and preoccupied with male subjects. The digital sphere — and thus digital humanities by association — remains torn between an aspiration for its utopian potential (Green and Adam, 2001), and the dystopic reality of online sexism and the digital invisibility of women (Foka and Arvidsson, 2014).

I argue in this article that the same gender imbalance is present among digital resources for the study of the ancient world, in a manner that has only compounded the problem of the invisibility of women in our ancient sources. While we have made striking advances in epigraphy and textual criticism, the study of ancient women has largely been left by the digital wayside and we as a discipline have yet to formulate an approach for solving some of the basic problems inherent in their identification. Righting the online gender imbalance is only part of the problem, but thanks to emergent geographical information system (GIS) technologies along with a re-imagined methodology we are indeed better equipped for studying and identifying women in the ancient world than we may have thought. What I propose below is not meant to be taken as a panacea for women in the ancient world, but rather as potential solutions for rectifying some of the more particular problems faced by the field of study. The criticism and approach that I advance here aim to rectify both this gender imbalance and the general lack of technology-driven research that remains characteristic of digital classics. Ancient women, in short, need not be as inconspicuous as they currently are shown to be in cyberspace.

In what follows I begin with an overview of the current state of certain areas of classical studies in the digital realm, and identify two generalized problems that are discussed in turn: the trend of the simple presentation, rather than the production, of classical research using digital means; and the invisibility of ancient women in scholarly cyberspace. I then propose a solution to each problem, and elaborate a case study from my own recent research as well as an analogous project undertaken by McGill University that could very well hold the keys to taking some new steps forward in the digital study of ancient women. In the process, I shall situate this project in the troubled context of ancient applications of GIS. Although the case studies that I have chosen below are rather specific, a more general approach has the potential for a far broader application than just in the ancient context. The study of ancient women remains a complex and diverse topic in both print and digital arenas, but in this instance the remedies to problems in the latter may be quite straightforward.

 

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Problem I: Presentation, not analysis

As I mentioned at the outset, the past few decades have been marked by a revolution in the presentation and accessibility of materials from the ancient world. There are two sides to the digital coin thus far: first, and certainly most popular, is the digitization of ancient texts and materials, and their reproduction as open-source resources accessed by a vast audience. The second are those platforms which use computing technologies to generate research regarding some aspect of antiquity. The preponderance of the first, in both number and popularity, is only gradually coming to be superseded by the emergence of the second, and we must take each in turn. Classical texts in their original Greek and Latin along with translations in dozens of languages, photographs and maps or archaeological sites and artefacts, coins, statuary, are all now available in dozens of open access libraries and collections. The most frequently cited paragon of this trend is the Perseus Project (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/), an open-access library of resources for the study of the Greek, Roman, and now Arabic worlds. It joins the ranks of other collections large and small — Lacus Curtius (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/home.html), the Ancient History Encyclopedia (http://www.ancient.eu.com/), the Latin Library (http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/), and dozens if not hundreds of others [1].

The impact of these various ventures on the democratization of classical texts and their sheer utility to specialists and casual users alike cannot and should not be understated, and my comments that follow are meant to be observations rather than points of criticism. When we consider these ‘general’ resources along with others that are more specifically oriented towards the scholarly community we can begin to observe a trend. The majority of digital tools for classics have formulated new and interesting ways of presenting information and research to a broadened audience, but the actual mechanism and methodology by which such research is generated has remained essentially unchanged. Most of the materials presented online fall into the category of ‘traditional’ philology — textual criticism, morphology and syntactical analysis, etc. — in that they are simply digital reproductions of extant print materials. Texts that were composed by the ancients and edited by nineteenth or twentieth century scholars are stored in beta code and presented in XML, but the texts themselves are the same; their current appearance remains the product of traditional, ‘manual’ philology. There are more recent exceptions which show a great of promise in using digital methods to advance traditional textual analysis, however, so the trend is not ubiquitous. Chief among them is Franco Moretti’s analysis of literary networks using what he refers to as ‘quantitative’ means; in the process female characters come to the fore and their role in broader plots becomes much clearer (Moretti, 2011; 2013). While this is certainly a great step forward, much more work needs to be done.

The same can equally be said of more material culture-themed resources. The catalogues of the British Museum, the Louvre, the Ashmolean, to name but a few, are all available on the Internet in fully-searchable form, complete with descriptions, citations, and photographs [2]. But on a processual level these represent little more than digitized versions of their print predecessors: the method and criteria for cataloguing have remained the same, only the manner of presentation and dissemination have shifted in the digital era.

The pattern reappears among compendia of secondary sources. The Ancient History Encyclopaedia, Livius, along with for-profit scholarly ventures like Brill’s New Pauly, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Ancient History, and the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Ancient Greece and Rome have created digital platforms that vary in their utility and clarity, but all have an online component [3]. The articles are presented on the Web; they are searchable to some extent, and linked to one another. Yet the articles themselves are still the product of traditional classical scholarship, the work of individual researchers that has been compiled and edited in a publication process that is essentially unchanged from that which produced the nineteenth and twentieth century Pauly Wissowa. In format, structure, content, and revision they are still the product of workflows and processes that predate the digital age.

All of the above, I should note, are simply Web sites which communicate and disseminate classical scholarship, and in this sense they act more as digital transmitters for ‘traditional scholarship’. There are, of course, dozens of technology-driven projects and for a complete listing I refer the reader to the Digital Classicist Wiki’s ‘Projects’ page (https://wiki.digitalclassicist.org/Category:Projects). However I wish to single out a few that I find particularly noteworthy in the context of our current discussion by virtue of their incorporation of technology-driven research.

The ORBIS mapping project by Stanford (http://orbis.stanford.edu/) creates a geospatial network model of the Roman imperial world and by combining otherwise isolated sets of archaeological, literary, and geographical data it permits the calculation of travel times, distances, and costs that would otherwise elude us. This is technology-driven analysis in the purest sense, as no such calculation or extrapolation would be possible without these databases and the computing power that supports them. Epigraphy has greatly benefited from collaborative techniques involving XML (Tupman, 2010), and the EDUCE Project allows for the digital reconstruction of carbonized papyri and analysis of their texts (Terras, 2010). In the same vein as other similar projects for the Roman and Greek worlds, the Persepolis 3D project (http://persepolis3d.com/) spearheaded by Kourosh Afhami, Wolfgang Gambke, and Sheda Vasseghi combines archaeological, geographical, and historical data into a three-dimensional reconstruction of the Achaemenid palace complex. By navigating the digital reconstruction in 3-D, various architectural features, organizational traits, and quirks of the site come to the notice that otherwise would have remained invisible.

Despite these instances, the generalization still holds. The most popular and widely accessed digital classics resources are pages that present static content, with little update or variation save for cosmetic modifications to page display and code updates. Their value and popularity, of course, lie in how they facilitate research by providing its primary source components with open-access convenience and easy integration with other relevant materials. The content itself, however, is mostly unchanged from its print predecessors, as are the methods of the research. Human-generated research still predominates, as do traditional methods of classical philology and ancient history, and only the mechanism by which such research is presented has been radically altered in the past two decades. There is perhaps some broader danger in this for the study of ancient gender: these resources which digitize older forms of scholarship serve to reproduce older patriarchal power structures and male dominated avenues of research, while newer developments in the study of ancient women have yet to be disseminated with such access or prevalence. Most of these resources, in turn, simply reproduce static print scholarship in hypertext or PDF. In 2010, Bodard and Mahony — along with Stuart Dunn — noted that the popular field of neogeography has been accompanied by relatively little consideration of the broader Web 2.0 context of user accessibility, dynamic contribution, ease of update, and synthesis of data (Bodard and Mahony, 2010; Dunn, 2010). Three years later, this call to arms has begun to be answered with a variety of projects that are generating research in new and dynamic ways — for a more complete list of these I refer again to the Digital Classicist Wiki (http://wiki.digitalclassicist.org/Main_Page) and the various projects discussed by Dunn and Mahony (2013). Elsewhere, there are strides being taken in the right direction by projects that continue to be presented at the Digital Classicist Seminars in London and Berlin, as well as the eHumanities series in Leipzig (http://www.digitalclassicist.org/wip/).

But when we take a more panoptic view of classics in the digital realm, the generalization as yet holds: Web 2.0 functionality, the potential for user-driven content and dynamic methods of analysis, have not been implemented or exploited by the most prominent players in the game; they remain rather monolithic. Digital technology has become instrumental in the communication of this research, but not its production. In short, methodological innovation has not kept pace with rapidly evolving means of presenting classical research over the past generation.

 

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Problem II: Where are the women?

The second general problem revolves more around content than the mechanical issue I have described above. Since the earliest days of the digital era, commentators have observed that the masculine tends to monopolize the digital space, and dominates even discussions that revolve around specifically female questions and issues (Kramarae and Taylor, 1993; Herring, 1996; more recently in Green and Adam, 2001). Although the online gender divide is gradually eroding (Foka and Arvidsson, 2014; Dean and Laidler, 2013), the imbalance still persists — and this is certainly the case in digital classics. The majority of the most popular digital resources for the study of the ancient world are skewed almost exclusively towards masculine subjects, particularly the compendia sites that I have mentioned above. Great steps are being taken in certain corners of digital classics which are not gendered at all — archaeological reconstructions, 3-D modelling, the aforementioned ORBIS project — but the same cannot be said of the most frequently accessed resources. In these, male subjects dominate in nearly every arena, from literature to biography and art, and in general such online platforms provide information on the traditional ‘big man’ narratives of ancient history that the scholarly discipline has generally moved beyond in favour of more nuanced, diverse approaches. The observation, though simple, nonetheless requires elaboration.

By the ‘big man’ narratives of ancient history, I refer to the general fixation on prominent male leaders, generals, warriors, and politicians that dominated the field of ancient history since the nineteenth century. Battles, policies, confrontations, political decisions wrought and fought by ancient men were typically considered to be the most worthy subjects of study, but since the cultural and gender turn of the 1970s and 1980s the general focus of ancient history has been substantially broadened. The studies of Pomeroy (1995; 2002), Fantham, et al. (1994), as well as more recent reconsiderations by Foka (2014) and Richlin (2014), among a great many others, have led to the proliferation of studies dedicated to ancient women — and gender more broadly — that has left an indelible mark on the profession as a whole.

Digital resources have not been so quick to catch up. Particularly among open access, generally non-scholarly online resources, the preponderance of male subjects is striking. In the Ancient History Encyclopedia, for instance, there is an article on Justinian, but not on Theodora; Cleopatra VII is the only Cleopatra to be given an article, and there is no entry for ‘women’ in general [4]. Nonetheless, articles on Alcibiades, Sargon II, or the Caesars are long and elaborate — Artemisia of Halicarnassus seems to be the only figure who bucks the trend, and this is likely thanks to her appearance in the second 300 film [5]. The Livius project does a somewhat better job of incorporating articles about ancient women, but the balance of entries nonetheless tilts towards male subjects. The same can also be said of Wikipedia. There is, as yet, no category devoted to ‘women’ or ‘gender’ in the ancient world. Publications that are intended for a scholarly audience have, admittedly, been eager to add entries for various female subjects in recent years, but these remain inaccessible to the average user because of the prohibitive cost involved.

In the realm of literature and philology, female subjects remain absent — though we must concede that this must be more the product of our source limitations than any conscious scholarly bias. Women were, I ought to highlight, for the most part invisible in the ancient world, particularly among our (almost exclusively male) ancient authors on which we must base much of our analysis. But thanks to the efforts of the scholars I have cited above, this invisibility has been overcome in mainstream scholarship and it would seem odd that this has not yet manifested itself in our digital resources that reach an exponentially larger audience. This is not meant to be an indictment, merely an observation that ought to be made: Digital classics remains an overwhelmingly male corner of cyberspace in the most purely quantitative terms. Regardless of the intention of the end-user, the corpus of digital classics scholarship is weighed heavily towards male subjects: there are simply more articles, more resources, and easier ways of accessing information and research about men in antiquity than about their female counterparts. The much broader character of the relationship between gender and the digital realm is outside the scope of this article, and to make the subject manageable we must treat the imbalance in simple terms of quantity and accessibility.

The few exceptions to this general trend, unfortunately, give little cause for enthusiasm. The scarce digital resources for the study of ancient women that I have been able to find are decidedly lacklustre. The aptly entitled Web site womenintheancientworld.com, for instance, was last updated in 2010 and features no images, links, or any sense of academic rigour. Broad — often unsound — generalizations abound that likely do as much harm as good. The more scholarly-oriented Diotima project (http://www.stoa.org/diotima/), last updated on 7 April 2011, has an admirable anthology of primary sources, syllabi, even suggested readings but is mired by a dense and inaccessible format. While perhaps quite useful for the lecturer putting together a course outline, the compendium would hold little interest to the general public — and in the Web 2.0 age such a static, outdated site is quickly glossed over by search engine spiders and end users alike. Swathes of broken links only compound the problem.

I do not mean to adopt an overly accusatory tone towards the general corpus of digital classics that has generally brought only immeasurable benefit, only advance observations that might aid in its betterment. The lack of ancient evidence for ancient women is constraining, yes, but not to the point of impossibility, as so many recent gender studies have proven. To what extent we can blame the ‘masculine’ bias of the Internet, or the interests and expectations of society writ large, is, in equal parts, unclear and irrelevant. As cyberspace evolves to allow ‘previously marginalized groups to participate in the digital mainstream,’ so too should it evolve — or be pushed towards — the presentation of marginalized groups, in the present as in the ancient past.

 

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Solution I: Equalize

Thus far this paper has been dominated by a negative tone, but all is not necessarily cause for doom, gloom, and resigned bitterness. In the interest of righting the gender imbalance in digital classics, I propose two solutions and an accompanying methodology. One is far more straightforward than the other, though both are aimed towards rectifying the two problems that I have discussed above. The first solution is simply to equalize the amount of content relating to ancient women on existing open access platforms, and involves only adding to existing frameworks rather than re-inventing the wheel.

The article portions of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Livius, or any number of similar digital resources could be balanced by the inclusion of entries on prominent women — wives, queens, empresses, and the like — whose careers have been the subject of so much recent scholarly activity. Given that there are full-length biographical treatments of Clodia Metelli (Skinner, 2011), Arsinoë II (Carney, 2013), or Berenice (Clayman, 2013), to name but a few, it would not be a burdensome endeavour to add concurrent biographical entries on Wikipedia or other encyclopaedic sites. The research is already extant and of high quality; it would simply need to be distilled and added to current resources. The inclusion of the female counterparts to male rulers would do well to increase their prominence and visibility in already popular open access platforms, and provide the end user with a more balanced perspective that they lack at present. If universities and departments were disposed towards assigning the composition of such articles as projects to advanced undergraduates or graduate students, so much the better, and the process would be completed far more quickly. Unfortunately not all academic institutions are so accommodating to ‘unconventional’ methods of assessment.

The equalization of the gender balance in prosopographical sites is something that I have begun to undertake in my own research, namely with the Seleucid Genealogies project (http://www.seleucid-genealogy.com). In the process it has increasingly come to my attention that detailed biographical entries regarding ancient women are the exception rather than the rule, and analytics data has shown that such articles are among the most popular pages on the site. More users, for instance, tend to visit pages about female members of the dynasty — Apama of Cyrene, Antiochis of Cappadocia, etc. — than their perhaps more prominent male counterparts. Admittedly my own project is modest in size, scope, and impact, but nonetheless the pattern should in all likelihood persist at scale. There are similar steps being taken in other endeavours of much more ambitious scope: the newly formed SNAP project — ‘Standards for Networking Ancient Prosopographies’ — has received AHRC funding and aims to unite and integrate otherwise disparate resources for ancient biographies and personal names (http://snapdrgn.net/). Though still in progress, endeavours such as this show a great deal of promise for bringing otherwise isolated attestations of ancient women to the fore, and promoting their digital visibility.

In order to round out socioeconomic and gender considerations, broader entries discussing the more general place of ancient women in various contexts — Greek, Roman, Near Eastern, etc. — would provide a more balanced thematic overview of ancient gender. Moving away from simple names, dates, and careers and towards a more theoretical description of gender in antiquity would draw our focus away from the elite and towards the common. Again, none of this would require any sort of technological innovation or even structural addition; simply build on what is already there.

This aspect of the solution, in essence, is delightfully simple: add to the female in order to counterbalance the male, and in the process we regain sight of otherwise invisible ancient women.

 

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Solution II: Innovate

While such an equalization of extant scholarly materials would make great strides towards righting the gender imbalance in digital classics, it would still not rectify the other predominant issue with the digital classics status quo: a lack of technology-generated research. As I have mentioned above, classicists have taken great advantage of the internet’s ability to communicate and disseminate knowledge but have not been so quick to capitalize on its potential for methodological innovation; the discipline has remained fairly set in its ways and it is only in recent years that we have begun to see new initiatives take form. This slow process need not necessarily be the case, and researchers in similar fields have been very effective in employing digital methods of data collation and analysis in the consideration of ‘traditional’ questions of social history.

I take the Swedish context as an illustrative case study for the methodological benefits of incorporating quantitative analysis of digitized data. Numerous large-scale projects have emerged in the past decade, among them the Demographic Database (DDB) spearheaded by Umeå University which makes detailed parish registers from the eighteenth and nineteenth century available to an international audience. (Vikström, et al., 2002). The DDB has not simply been of interest to demographers and statisticians, but has been indispensable in ostensibly non-quantitative domains of research like psychology, cultural geography, medicine, and social history. (Nygren, et al., 2014). The same can be said of the search engine SHiPs, linked to the Swedish Tabellverket Database, which visualizes population and demographic data using GIS technology. Diverse publications have emerged from such technology-driven analysis that have now informed debates regarding women in the job market (Nygren, et al., 2014), birth control (Edvinsson and Kling, 2010), and the lasting impact of crime (Vikström, 2011).

Although the data for ancient history is of course an altogether different beast, this does not automatically exclude the possibility that such methodologies could be equally effective for the study of antiquity. Quite the opposite: I argue that by adopting this technology-driven approach of diverse data and applying it to the study of ancient women, we can in no small measure negate their traditional obscurity in the ancient source record and previously invisible figures and trends will come to light. All the while, such an approach would serve to right the imbalance in digital classics with an innovative methodology.

I take as my inspiration here the Major Collaborative Research Initiative (hereafter MCRI) spearheaded by McGill University’s Indian Ocean World Centre (http://indianoceanworldcentre.com/mcri). Though not the only project of its kind, it nonetheless provides a fitting avenue for exploring this potential applicability of such technologies to the ancient world. The MCRI unites 37 researchers divided into nine teams at institutions across the world with the aim of exploring the rise and development of the first global economy in the context of human-environment interaction. Inspired by the analytical approach of Fernand Braudel and the French après-guerre tradition, the project seeks to expand traditional state-and-society based frameworks to include the environment as a formative influence on social and material culture.

But it is how the MCRI goes about accomplishing this ambitious task that is of the most interest of us. Each of the project’s teams digitizes and inputs a truly vast variety of data, including everything from meteorological patterns, crop harvests, and migratory routes to trade routes, political developments, and market analysis. The data is then compiled into a GIS database that allows for the analysis of the spatial and temporal relation of such seemingly separate sets of data, and thus the impact of one on the other. In the process, fascinating social networks emerge, the influence of a drought in East Africa on trade routes in the South China Sea suddenly becomes conspicuous, and vectors of influence and interrelation that would have otherwise remained imperceptible can be effective glimpsed and analysed [6].

When such a methodology is applied at scale throughout the entirety of the Indian Ocean world stretching from East Africa to China and India across a chronological span of the first centuries B.C.E to the present day, the project’s research potential becomes staggering. The consideration of otherwise isolated sets of data in relation to each other, the inclusion of patterns and influences that are usually discounted or dismissed, and the synthesis of seemingly disparate scholarly approaches into one GIS-driven project has an intriguing potential for sundry other fields in history and beyond.

The technology-driven approach of the MCRI project and those like it do wonders to overcome the barriers and limitations of fragmentary source material, and in the process fills or glosses over evidentiary gaps. Researchers at Nipissing University have begun to do precisely this with their Ancient History GeoVisage project, and while the endeavour is still in its infancy, its approach nevertheless holds great promise for the digital study of ancient women. The Pelagios Project is likewise highly appealing in this regard, and perhaps could provide the sort of meta-platform that would facilitate such data synthesis (http://pelagios-project.blogspot.ca/). In any eventuality, the method seems particularly promising with regards to increasing the digital visibility of ancient women.

I must note, however, that GIS is not an unequivocal solution for digital classics, and poses no lack of problems in and of itself for the study of antiquity. Its benefits are patent, and the inclusion of a spatial dimension to the study of antiquity aids greatly in correlating otherwise disparate sets of data. As Bodenhammer aptly sums up, by “locating historical and cultural exegesis more explicitly in space and time ... [GIS] finds patterns, facilitates comparisons, enhances perspectives, and illustrates data” [7]. Such is certainly true of more contemporary quantitative data sets, but when it comes to the integration of literary and archaeological material the approach becomes somewhat more complicated. GIS is, unfortunately for antiquity, poor at handling and integrating incomplete or fragmentary sets of data — not to mention the disparate data sets that plague so many corners of the ancient world — and thus the nature of evidence becomes troubling (Gregory and Healey, 2007). While issues do arise when applied in the context of antiquity, these are not insurmountable — if anything they underscore the amount of work that remains to be done. In the end, though, GIS remains promising even in the perilously fragmentary realm of the Hellenistic world. It is certainly worth a try.

The approach has already worked on a small scale and in a specific context. A project that I undertook in collaboration with Monica Drsquo;Agostini sought to reconstruct the family tree of a regional client dynasty of the Seleucid Empire in third century B.C. Asia Minor as part of the broader genealogical research to which I have already alluded (http://seleucid-genealogy.com/Achaeus.html). An already thin source record for the region is particularly sparse for this family, and necessitated somewhat different methods in order to fill the prosopographical gaps — particularly when it came to the women of the dynasty. Pen and paper were too conventionally limiting for such a project and, as ever with genealogical research, the spatial freedom and flexibility provided by the digital work environment proved indispensable. Possible combinations, interrelations, and vectors of descent can be laid out with a facility that allows for ease of experimentation.

Despite the utility of the digital environment for formulating such a stemma, one glaring gap still remained: who was the matriarch, the first prominent woman of the dynasty? On the surface, and according to traditional analysis and sources, she did not exist: we were provided with no name, no literary reference, no inscription, and no trace of her passage on the Anatolian stage. Yet by deduction we know that she had to exist. With the digital stemma we could clearly see that she had produced several children for whom we knew the attested father, and even though she was not attested, she must have still existed. But who was she?

The answer lay in the combination of two vastly different data sets that are almost never considered in relation to one another, but nevertheless share an interrelation that becomes conspicuous when working in the digital environment. The first: onomastics. Glancing at the stemma as it had been digitally reconstructed in all of its complexity brought an interesting pattern to the fore: while the men of the family had various names, some of which were dynastic, the female members of the family all had only one of two names — Laodike or Antiochis. Both, as it happens, are female dynastic names of the family’s more prominent royal overlords, the Seleucid dynasty, and thus carry something of a royal trademark.

Comparing these names and this pattern to the rest of the empire’s broader family tree proved equally revelatory (McAuley and d’Agostini, 2013). Every other sub-dynasty which had the same pattern of female names shared one thing in common: a princess of the main dynasty had married into each, as both a token of the royal house’s appreciation and a recognition of their fealty. In the following generations after these princesses married into the client dynasties, the same naming pattern emerges: every subsequent female in these families has one of the two dynastic names that we saw in our mysterious Anatolian family. From examining the entirety of the Empire’s genealogy and descent — something which is only possible in the digital environment — the conclusion thus became clear: our shadowy family in Asia Minor must have also received such a princess in marriage, and thus we were brought a step closer to discovering her identity [8].

The Empire’s geography, almost never considered in relation to such questions of genealogy, lent credence to this idea as well (McAuley, 2011). Inspired by the IOWC’s approach and the potential of GIS techniques, I mapped the spatial dimension of such dynastic marriages in the hope of revealing the connection between dynasty and territory. The results were again enlightening, and the structure of this Empire became conspicuous: every region or territory which had sworn itself to the Seleucids had been given a princess in marriage in a very feudal pattern. When all of this is seen on a map, it becomes clear that the entirety of the empire adheres to this feudal pattern of intermarriage and allegiance across all of its diverse regions, stretching from modern day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to Turkey and the Levant coast. Every region, that is, except precisely where we began: southern Asia Minor, the realm of our mysterious family which lacked a matriarch. Given that every other region of the map had a dynastic tie, why should we think that this part of Asia Minor would be an exception?

So through a combination of GIS mapping, a prosopographical database, and onomastic analysis a firm conclusion emerged: the mysterious matriarch of the family must have been part of a dynastic marriage, and thus she must have been a princess — either a daughter or sister of the reigning king. Her marriage must have conformed to the same mechanism of feudal intermarriage seen in every other corner of the empire (Engels, 2011). The names of all of her subsequent daughters and granddaughters further reveal her to be of royal status, and thus clearly of the overlord Seleucid dynasty. Her age and the relative timing of her marriage were accordingly extrapolated from the attested dates for her children and husband. Perhaps we could even hazard a guess at her name — Laodike — given her family’s trend in that generation.

It is remarkable, using this synthetic and technology-driven approach, how much about this one ancient woman can be gleaned from essentially nothing. With no direct attestation of her life or her career, we are nonetheless able to safely conclude that she was a Seleucid princess, that she was married to a prominent general and loyal servant of her father or brother, that she resided in Asia Minor as the prominent matriarch of an emerging dynasty, and that she passed on her family’s traditional names to her children in a manner that broadcast her own status. Her lifespan, career, relationships, issue, and even some glimpse of her symbolic prominence would otherwise have been either invisible or nebulous.

What is to say that this approach could not be replicated at scale in any other corner of the ancient world, or indeed other time periods? Although this is the isolated case of one ancient woman in what is admittedly an obscure corner of an obscure period of antiquity, if it worked in her case, it could certainly work elsewhere. This methodology, in this small instance, allowed us to identify and describe an ancient woman for whom we have no concrete record, and in the process her absence from the ancient source record has been overcome by extrapolation and synthetic analysis. If the same approach were taken for much larger areas, and much larger periods of time — provinces of the Roman Empire, the other Hellenistic kingdoms, the states and leagues of the classical period, or the satrapies of the Achaemenid Empire — the prospect of recovering the lost traces of numerous ancient women becomes tantalizing. By placing the social networks, dynastic marriages, relations and descent of these women in their spatial and temporal context then the whole of the evidence becomes far greater than the sum of its parts. In the process, technology could drive analysis towards overcoming the constraints of our source material, and thereby equalize a prominent imbalance in current scholarship.

 

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Conclusions

In the midst of the on-going debate regarding the relation of gender to the Internet, and in which precise direction this relationship is heading, the realm of digital classics seems to reflect the character of its ancient source material. Ancient women are superficially invisible in our ancient evidence, and as a consequence they have a decidedly humble presence in our digital resources. The most prominent digital resources for the study of antiquity tend towards the masculine; male subjects of study predominate, and the study of ancient women has yet to enjoy the same digital prominence. Articles on women are conspicuously absent, even amidst the proliferation of large-scale encyclopaedic resources and more narrowly focussed scholarly research projects. Such is particularly the case among open access Web sites intended for a general audience, which tend to reflect the masculine preoccupations of an earlier period of classical scholarship. The Internet has not yet caught up to the scholarly community; the latter is perhaps more so the fault of the former than the inverse.

While the expanding prevalence of open access classical materials available in cyberspace has done wonders for the promotion of classical studies to a popular audience, there is still work to be done. In a sense, the digital classics community is halfway there: the communicative potential of the Internet has been well realised and utilised, but not the productive potential of digital methods of conducting research into the ancient world. The seeds of change are, however, beginning to germinate in a variety of labs and projects that gives due cause for optimism. As we have learned from early forays, it is greatly beneficial to begin producing, rather than simply disseminating, classical research in the digital environment. Various projects are now coming to fruition, as highlighted in many of the resources which I have discussed above, but these do not yet have the impact or popularity of more conventional digital resources for the study of antiquity.

This need not be the case, and again I do not intend the above commentary to be a scathing indictment of a systematic failure of academics. Rather I simply hope to bring a trend that has lain unnoticed the fore and take a moment to pause and reflect on the current state of digital affairs. The solutions, as I see them, are both enticing and lucrative. Equalizing the amount of scholarly material dedicated to ancient women and gender would be a straightforward task that would not require vast implementation of new technologies and approaches. It is simply a matter of adding to what is already there and rounding out the already-impressive slate of subjects. Doing so would bring the open access classical resources closer to the scholarly bar set by more exclusive, for-profit ventures. At the risk of sounding overly idealistic, it would seem that the resources of the study of the ancient world that have the largest audience impact ought to be of the same balanced standard as those which academics circulate amongst themselves in closed isolation.

At the same time, there is room for innovation: the application of GIS technologies and Web 2.0 functionality in research processes — not just research outcomes — is ripe with potential as means by which to overcome the inherent limitations of ancient source material for the study of women and gender. A synthetic methodology, characterized by the combination of disparate sets of data into new platforms and databases, freed of the constraints of paper and liberated from more narrow scholarly confines, allows a vastly different set of patterns to come forward. None of this is without its methodological or technical difficulty, but in the process of its application, technology drives research, and the line between quantitative and qualitative analysis is blurred in a manner that overcomes the deficiencies of both. All the while, the fog that obscures our understanding of ancient gender as much as its modern counterpart in the digital age is burned away as it comes to be seen in a different light. End of article

 

About the author

After working as the Director of Sales for a Montreal-based Web and graphic design firm, Alex McAuley then dove into the world of academia with a Master’s in classics at the University of Edinburgh, before returning to Quebec to pursue his Ph.D. in ancient history at McGill University. Apart from his principal research interest of ethnicity and pluralism in the Hellenistic world, he is the primary author and editor of the ongoing Seleucid Genealogy project (http://www.seleucid-genealogy.com), and has several published and forthcoming articles in the fields of Seleucid dynastic history, Hellenistic royal women, Greek federalism, and the reception of the ancient world in film and television series.
E-mail: alexander [dot] mcauley [at] mail [dot] mcgill [dot] ca

 

Notes

1. The Classics Department of Williams College has compiled an admirable list of links to various other resources available at http://classics.williams.edu/resources/online-resources-2/.

2. For the British Museum Collection: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx; for the Louvre: http://www.louvre.fr/en/departements; Ashmolean Museum: http://www.ashmolean.org/collections/online/. These are only three examples among many.

3. Brill’s New Pauly project: http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/browse/brill-s-new-pauly; Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Ancient History: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/book/10.1002/9781444338386; Oxford Encyclopaedia of Ancient Greece and Rome: http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726.

4. Ancient History Encyclopaedia entry ‘Cleopatra VII:’ http://www.ancient.eu.com/Cleopatra_VII/.

5. Ancient History Encyclopaedia entry ‘Artimisia I of Caria:’ http://www.ancient.eu.com/Artemisia_I_of_Caria/. Livius’ entries on women tend to be more robust, for instance the listing of several Cleopatrai: http://www.google.com/cse?cx=000714590587527494598%3A0sc8p7o4i5s&q=Cleopatra&sa=Search&cof=FORID%3A0#gsc.tab=0&gsc.q=Cleopatra&gsc.page=1.

6. I owe my thanks to Prof. Gwyn Campbell and Mr. Carl Hughes of the IOWC for the kind insight, correspondence, and screenshots of the project they were generous enough to provide.

7. Bodenhamer, 2010, p. 28.

8. A full treatment of the House of Achaeus and the rationale explained here in superficial detail will soon be published in K. Erickson (editor). War within the family: A reassessment of the first half-century of Seleucid Rule. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, c. 2015. At the moment, a shorter account is provided at http://seleucid-genealogy.com/Achaeus_the_Elder.html.

 

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Editorial history

Received 3 March 2015; accepted 24 March 2015.


Creative Commons License
This paper is in the Public Domain.

Seeing through the fog: Digital problems and solutions for studying ancient women
by Alex McAuley.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 4 - 6 April 2015
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5467/4429
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i4.5467





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