The female shape of conquest: visualising war, victory and dominion through the female gender in Roman art

Goddess with trophy and female captive: marble relief from the Julio-Claudian Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, 20-60 CE

The purpose of this project, which represents the first systematic and holistic inquiry of its kind, is to explore the presence and functions of females in the triumphal art of the Roman Empire (1st–6th centuries CE), and from this hitherto patchily studied and generally underrated source material gain some new and valuable insights into the perception of women’s nature, functions and agency in the Roman world order founded on military conquest. In Roman triumphal iconography — the most expansively masculine manifestation of Roman art — women were (for perhaps natural reasons) underrepresented, yet meaningfully present through a large and shifting variety of goddesses, personifications, women of peoples assailed and conquered by Rome, and symbolic and generic females. Through a representative range of artworks including triumphal and funerary monuments, and various works smaller in format and scope displaying complex narrative or pseudo-narrative imagery referring to triumph in more symbolic terms, the project investigates how the female sex and gender were visually articulated in the context of Roman warfare, victory and empire; what they may tell us about qualities and agencies attributed to the female beyond the boundaries of Roman womanhood, the norms and ideals of which were conveyed through civilian and ‘private’ art (with which we are much more familiar through a rich visual record and an expanding research literature); how notions of women and femininity were translated into a coherent visual language for the promulgation of Roman victory and power — an integral ‘female narrative’ within the historicising narrative of Roman triumph, if you will; and how, thus, the female sex and gender were fitted into the continually evolving ideological, theological and socio-cultural construct of the Roman empire, and the Roman world of ideas as a whole.

Cecilia Olovsdotter