Catherine Kennedy is a mature undergraduate at the University of Sheffield studying Religion, Theology, and the Bible. When not wallowing in libraries she enjoys long walks, cooking for a crowd, red wine, and asking awkward questions.
What did a dangerous woman look like in the ancient World? A temptress like Cleopatra was a one-off, and so arguably not dangerous for long. There was no Cleopatra ideology to inspire a movement. In contrast, perhaps the most socially disruptive women of the Greco-Roman world were as far from the glamour of Cleopatra as could be, and they are brilliantly represented by the fictional heroines they created. My favourite of these is Thecla. Thecla is quite a gal – part nude Xena warrior princess, part Saint Claire dispensing alms to the poor and the good word to anyone who’ll listen. To be fair, she only ever sets out to play the second role, but like any dangerous woman she attracts some unwanted attention, and in fighting it off she lands herself in the Roman arena fighting for her life. Just as well God is on her side!
Thecla appears in the ‘Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla’, an entertaining little book which was penned around the time of the Biblical pastoral epistles – the ones addressed to Timothy, and from ‘Peter’ and ‘John’. In this Apocryphal book, a character called Paul is travelling around the Empire preaching a new religion which venerates a certain Jesus. His message is slightly different from the Biblical one, involving swearing off sex as a basic condition for salvation. Young people flock from far and wide and decide to stay single. Wives leave their husbands, or refuse them their conjugal rights … this probably won’t end well.
In other books of ‘Apocryphal Acts’ women drive a husband to suicide (Agrippina), cause another woman to be murdered (Agrippina again), desert their live-in lover together (the four concubines of prefect Agrippa), flee naked by night from an amorous husband (Mygdonia), and get imprisoned in a tomb and miraculously rescued (Drusiana). The original ‘Princess Bride’ is another of these colourful stories. The ethics are often questionable, but the plot lines are as dramatic as secular novels from the time, where star-crossed lovers are abducted by pirates, threatened by cannibals, and generally have a hard time. The crucial difference is that in the secular stories true love of the heterosexual married kind conquers all, whereas in the Apocryphal plot lines marriage and sex are precisely what the women are all desperate to escape. With implacable resolve. As fanciful as these stories may be, they reflect the deadly serious threats any woman could face if she dared to question the inevitability of marriage. Threats which remain a pressing reality for many women and girls in the world today.
At the start of her tale Thecla is a privileged teenager engaged to a rich young man chosen by her mother. The absence of a father suggests that the mother, Theoclia, has remained single after being widowed in order to retain control of her fortune and her daughter. Many wealthy women in Antiquity did this rather than surrender their freedom again, although it was hardly a working class option. In a perfect world this independent-minded mother would empathise with a headstrong daughter, but the world is not perfect, and Theoclia proves to be the sort of mother who takes disobedience personally.
Thecla overhears Paul preaching his celibate Christianity in the house next door, and she is fascinated. For days she hangs on his every word through her bedroom window and refuses to come down for meals. Her fiancé is sent for to talk some sense into her, to no avail. He takes it badly, and has the preacher arrested for disturbing the peace by persuading women not to marry, and to become bad wives. So that night Thecla creeps out of the house and bribes her way into the cells. Falling at his feet, she begs Paul to preach to her in person.
Meanwhile the whole town is out looking for her, and when she is found there is uproar. Teenaged rebellion is not recommended for girls in Antiquity. Thecla is not just a class traitor, she has betrayed her sex by refusing to marry, and betrayed her mother into the bargain by publicly refusing to back down. Theoclia demands her daughter be burned at the stake as a warning to other youngsters who might get uppity after hearing this new-fangled religion. The governor passes sentence on the spot, and Thecla is only saved by divine intervention.
At this point we can be sure we are dealing with fiction. However, while Roman courts may not have actually been in the habit of executing disobedient daughters of the aristocracy, girls were not at liberty to refuse their parents’ choice of suitor. Marriage and childbearing were legal obligations, and fathers made and unmade their offspring’s marriages as suited their business interests. The Pater Familias had theoretical power of life and death over his children as long as he lived for much of Roman History, and what went on behind closed doors was entirely the householder’s business where discipline was concerned. The ‘honour’ killing attempted against Thecla is fiction, but it was fiction with a point to make. No woman was free in such a system, and for some the best option was to opt out altogether.
On with Thecla’s adventure. Paul has been flogged and thrown out of town, so Thecla sets out after him and they travel to a different city. Here, a local chap takes a fancy to her and tries to ‘embrace’ her in the street. Thecla is having none of it. She beats off her attacker, yelling that she’s not faced death by refusing one man to end up being mistreated by another. Predictably, he takes offence, and drags her into court where it turns out that he is a big noise, and pals with the governor. She is condemned to die by wild animals as a public spectacle. There is an outcry with the ladies of the town taking her side, but they don’t make the rules. Thecla is paraded into the theatre naked, and does battle valiantly for two days with various creatures (including man-eating seals) being saved each time by some miracle. Ultimately the authorities give up, and she is freed to re-join Paul who gives her his blessing to go on her way as a fully-fledged believer and teacher of their version of Christianity. The richest of her supporters, now her adoptive mother, signs a vast fortune over to her, and Thecla sets out on a life of poor relief and preaching. She is everything the writers of the Pastoral Epistles feared – not under male control, not shut in the house, taking a role in public instruction, and attracting hostile pagan attention. Quite the ‘nasty’ woman.
So why was sex a problem, when Antiquity was so open about it? Victorian prudery was a long way off, but the idea that sex was entirely unspiritual was quite widespread across the Greco-Roman world, and committed philosophers often formed celibate communities. Philo of Alexandria describes one of these, the Therapeutae, in glowing terms, with women as full members. Whether these were all widows deemed to have ‘done their bit’ for keeping up the birth rate Philo doesn’t say, but we can be fairly sure that they were not just walking in off the street. Membership would have required independent means and the right connections. The ancients were terrible snobs, and a life of contemplation was quite beyond ordinary folk. People with breeding clung to the idea that only the well-bred could attempt life on a higher plane.
And being a woman was very much second best. The female body was deemed less human, less perfect, than the male. Women couldn’t help it: their reproductive functions just got in the way of them ever growing up and becoming rational, spiritual grown-ups. (Yes, the two went together back then) The best they could hope for was to become an honorary man by avoiding using their plumbing for making babies. These ideas of biology went back a very long way, even at the time, and although early Christianity went out of its way to stress that ladies were just as ‘saved’ as gentlemen, the combination of powerlessness that went with marriage, and the stigma attached to female biology, inspired many Christian women to go celibate and enjoy a life of independence where they could get out and about, working and doing their own thing in all-female communities. They genuinely felt this was a net gain, and theirs was one of the first belief systems to support that sort of choice. Unlike the philosophers these were ordinary women making an unorthodox choice which attracted condemnation from pagan society. It was their ordinariness, their refusal to bow to male supervision, and their firm belief that everyone and anyone could lay claim to their intellectual independence which made them dangerous. As Thecla illustrates, any woman or girl who gets wind of the fact that she is a person in her own right may just walk out on everyone’s expectations and discover that she has it in her to take on the world.
Celibate female communities were extremely controversial in an age where a stigmatised group might fall foul of a lynch-mob, or judicial discrimination. Not on the scale of Thecla’s adventures to be sure, but the pressures and dangers symbolised in the narrative were real. As the Church became ever more institutionalised female independence was often seen as problematic there as well, but the all-female groups continued to re-invent themselves and flourish as environments where women could realise their potential. They are currently very much on the wane since modern developments in medicine and in relationships have made it possible for women to have many more options, and it is easy to forget that for these very early foremothers of feminism, religion and celibacy were revolutionary and empowering. Far from being hamstrung by a quest for male approval, or seeking after their ultimate ‘soul mate’, these dangerous women were out there proving that they needed no-one but themselves and their beliefs to live to the full.
Some Further Reading
The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla ( http://www.tonyburke.ca/wp-content/uploads/Acts-Paul-Thecla.pdf)
When Woman Were Priests by Karen Jo Torjesen (New York: Harper Collins, 1995)
Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion by Margaret Y MacDonald (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
The Revolt of the Widows by Stevan Davies (London: Feffer and Simons Inc, 1980)
Photo by IslandsEnd on Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-3.0 license.