Today's visitors to the archaeological museums of Rome will see many statues of the imperial and elite women of ancient Rome and of Roman goddesses on display and numerous other kinds of Roman objects such as reliefs, tombstones, coins, and mosaics adorned with images of women of many sorts. Some of these images were intended to be taken at face value by their ancient, contemporary viewers, but others were imbued with more subtle and nuanced meanings depending on their original context of display.

Lifesize bronze statue of Victory from the Capitolium, Brescia, Northern Italy

In my latest book for Amberley Publishing The Mirror of Venus: Women in Roman Art I attempt to make sense of this plethora of images of women and to explain their original meaning and significance in what was a male-dominated society and a highly visual culture. As well as looking at such images in Rome itself I also examine their occurrence in provincial contexts in places like Roman Britain.

Statue of the empress Sabina in the guise of Ceres

Particular attention is paid to analysing the images of the Roman imperial women and the elite women who often emulated their portrayals, to consideration of the significance of imagery on funerary monuments, and to the investigation of the remarkable phenomenon of the portrayal of working women from Rome, Ostia and Pompeii and elsewhere in the Roman world and of barbarian women.

Mummy-portrait of a Romanised woman from Hawara, Fayum, Egypt (Photo copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum)

I also look at the widespread use of images of goddesses, common personifications such as Victory, and mythological women such as the war-like Amazons in various contexts, including their appearances on major civic monuments in Rome. Finally, I try to come to grips with the concept of the Roman male gaze and its relationship to male power in Roman society and how this may have impacted on the reception of the many sexualised or erotic images discussed in the book.

My book is intended to counteract the old cliché that the vast majority of women in the ancient world could be classified either as goddesses, whores, wives, or slaves and to illustrate the multiplicity of positive and sometimes complex identities revealed by a careful analysis of images of Roman women.


Iain Ferris' The Mirror of Venus is available for purchase now.