M(ary) J(ane) Engh

Nonfiction


Yes, I do have another writing life, in fact more than one. As a science librarian, I’ve co-authored articles in Research Strategies and (no kidding) The Journal of the American Leather Chemists Association. As just me, I’ve written pieces for various writers’ magazines on SF poetry, non-sexist writing, how to survive on practically no income, and other writerly topics, for a local newspaper on the Salmon Rushdie fatwa, and for a young children’s encyclopedia on topics from clouds to Tokyo. (I’ve also written correspondence course exams for the U.S. Navy, various 4-H manuals, and chapters for a high school general science textbook – but for those things I didn’t get a by-line.)
Now here’s the big one: Femina Habilis.

Femina Habilis

Femina Habilis: A Biographical Dictionary of Active Women in the Ancient Roman World from Earliest Times to 527 CE

Dr. Kathryn E. Meyer (Washington State University History Department) and I are collaborating on this project. Our ambition is to collect all the documented women of this period who had a function other than being someone’s wife, daughter, mother, mistress, etc. We’re very inclusive about those functions, which we’ve sorted into fourteen categories. Thus we include poisoners as well as philosophers, seamstresses as well as empresses. Entry length ranges from a few lines to a few pages, depending on how much information is available. We already have thousands of entries, with many more to be added. Here are a few samples from each category to give you a taste of the contents. (For those not familiar with the jargon, "BCE" and "CE" are chronologically equivalent to "BC" and "AD" respectively.)

BUSINESS AND TRADES:

Valeria Nice, brickmaker, Rome, late 1st or early 2nd cent. CE. She was an employee or contractor of the empress Plotina. Numerous bricks have been found stamped with Nice’s name, many specifying “from the workshop of Valeria Nice” {ex of[f]icina Valeriaes Nices).
Source: CIL 15.692-94.

Aelia Isidora, shipowner, Egypt, 2nd or 3rd cent. CE. She and her partner Aelia Olympias made a dedication to the goddess Leto at a temple in Medamoud. Apollinarios, mentioned in a fragmentary part of the inscription, was apparently the captain (eparchos) of their fleet of ships, or possibly their business manager.
Source: SEG 8.703.

Flavia Petronilla Titanias, landowner, Egypt, early 3rd cent. CE. In 208, she leased a grove of date palms to two brothers for 1000 silver drachmae and a specified quantity of dates, to be paid at harvest. Her husband acted as legal guardian in the transaction.
Source: P. Ryl. 172 = Sel. Pap. 1.43.

HEALTH AND CHILD CARE:

Apollonia, wetnurse, Alexandria, Egypt, late 1st cent. BCE. She nursed a child for Harpocration for eight months, at which time her milk failed. Although she had nursed the child for some time before signing a contract, she agreed in 5 BCE to return the money she had received for the full eight months, plus a penalty.
Source: BGU 1112.

Antiochis, doctor, Tlos, Lycia (near modern Duver, Turkey), 1st cent. CE. She was granted the right to erect a statue of herself by the city council and people of Tlos “for her skill in the medical profession” (ten iatriken technen enpeiria). Galen, the most famous physician of antiquity, stated that she invented an effective medication for rheumatism and sciatica and treatments for dropsy and diseases of the spleen. Heracleides of Tarentum dedicated a book on hemorrages to her. Her father Diodotus may also have been a physician.
Sources: TAM 2.595 = Pleket 12; Galen 13.250, 13.341K.

Secunda, midwife (opstetrix) at Rome, mid-1st cent. CE. She was a slave of Stalilia Maior, and was buried in the Stalilian household tomb.
Source: CIL 6.6325.

LAW, LITIGATION, AND LAW-BREAKING:

Hostilia, litigant, early 3rd cent. CE. She married a man named Eros, and later discovered that he was a slave. In 215 the emperor Caracalla ruled that she could recover her dowry from Eros, with anything else he owed her, and that her children would be classed as freeborn but of an unknown father, i.e., illegitimate.
Source: Cod. J. 5.18.3.

anonyma 84, accused swindler, late 3rd cent. CE. Her stepdaughter Marcellina charged her with stealing the title to a farm belonging to Marcellina, in collusion with the tenant of the farm. In her defense, she claimed that the lapse of time rendered Marcellina’s claim void; but the emperors Diocletian and Maximian refused to allow that defense.
Source: Cod. J. 7.34.1.

Juvenalia, litigant at Rome, late 5th cent. CE. Her legal dispute with the patrician Firmus dragged on for 30 years without a decision. She appealed to the Ostrogothic leader Theodoric soon after he became king of Italy in 493. He directed the lawyers for both sides to reach an agreement within two days, which they did. Juvenalia thanked Theodoric for his help, perhaps indicating that the case was resolved in her favor. She was a widow of senatorial rank.
Sources: Joh. Mal. 384.10; Chron. Pasch. s.a. 485; John of Nikiu 88.52-4.

LITERATURE AND EDUCATION:

Cornelia Fortunata, pedagogue (paedagoga), Thugga, Africa Proconsularis (modern Dougga, Tunisia), date unknown. Pedagogues were not teachers, but accompanied students to and from school, helped them with their lessons, and may have sat in on their classes. Fortunata lived at least 70 years.
Source: CIL 8.1506.

Cornificia, poet, Rome, mid-1st cent. BCE. Her brother, Quintus Cornificius, was praetor in 45, an augur, and possibly also a poet. Their father’s name was also Quintus Cornificius. Cornificia married a man named Camerius. None of her poems have survived.
Source: CIL 12.793 = ILLRP 439.

Eunomia, orator, Gaul or Rome (?), mid-4th cent. CE. Her father Nazarius, a successful rhetor, delivered a panegyric on the Emperor Constantine in 321, probably at Rome. In 336, the year of Constantine’s tricennial jubilee, Eunomia “equaled her father in eloquence” according to Prosper Tiro’s chronicle. Presumably this means that she wrote and delivered an imperial panegyric as her father had done 15 years earlier. This may have been in Constantinople, where the main celebration took place, or elsewhere. Eunomia was a Christian, and unmarried in 336. She may be identical with Eunomia the writer.
Sources: Prosp. Tiro s.a. 336; Jer. Chron. s.a. 336.

PHILANTHROPY AND PUBLIC WORKS:

Voconia Avita, public benefactor at Tagilis, Hispania Baetica (in modern southern Spain), late 1st or early 2nd cent. CE. A citizen of Tagilis, she built public baths (thermae) for the city, at her own expense and on her own land. To celebrate the dedication of the baths she presented races and a public banquet. She also gave the city 2,500 denarii for the upkeep of the baths.
Source: AE 1979.352 = Fagan 165.

Epiphania, philanthropist, Tomis (modern Constanta, Romania), 2nd or 3rd cent. CE. “As woman to women” (gyne gynexi), she contributed to the support of a number of women in need, perhaps widows. Epiphania was born in Greece and traveled widely with her father and first husband, both shipowners. After their deaths she settled in Tomis and remarried. She was “born among the Muses and shared in wisdom” (en Mouses ephyne saphies te meteschon), i.e., she was well educated. She suffered from ill health. Her second husband, Hermogenes of Ankyra and Tomis, set up a monument in her honor.
Source: SEG 24(1969)1081 = New Docs 2.16.

Sapricia, Jewish benefactor at Apamea, Syria, 4th cent. CE. She paid for 150 feet of flooring in the synagogue, fulfilling a vow for herself and her family.
Source: I Syr. 1327 = Lifshitz, Donateurs 46.

PHILOSOPHY AND SCIENCE:

Amphicleia, philosopher, Rome, mid-3rd cent. CE. She was a disciple of the great Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. She married Ariston, son of the philosopher Iamblichus.
Source: Porph. V. Plot. 9.

Maria, alchemist and writer, Egypt (?), 3rd cent. CE or earlier. She was a principal founder of Graeco-Roman alchemy, the experimental science of its day. A Greek-speaking Jew, she probably lived in Egypt. She gave the earliest known descriptions of many items of chemical apparatus, some of which she presumably invented or developed. They included the still and the water bath or double boiler (balneum Mariae or bain Marie). Her writings were extensively quoted by Zosimus of Panopolis (cf. Theosebia), who especially praised her treatise On Furnaces and Apparatus, and by other alchemists. In later legend she was identified with the Biblical Miriam.
Source: M. Berthelot & C.E. Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchemists grecs v.2 (Paris, 1888).

Asclepigenia, philosopher, Athens, early-mid 5th cent. CE. Her father and teacher was the philosopher Plutarch, head of the Neoplatonist school at Athens. She was the only one of his many students to whom he taught the esoteric Chaldean lore of his teacher Nestorius. After her father’s death in the early 430s, she was said to be the only living person who knew these teachings, which she passed on to the philosopher Proclus. She was probably the mother of the philosopher Archiadas.
Source: Marin. V. Procli 28.

PUBLIC AFFAIRS. PART 1, GOVERNMENT:

Menodora, magistrate, archiereia (high priestess), and public benefactor, Sillyon, Pamphylia (modern Asar Koyu, Turkey), early 3rd cent. CE. She held the municipal offices of dekaprotos, demiourgos, and gymnasiarch. She made distributions of money and grain to all inhabitants of the city and gave 300,000 denarii for the support of orphans and other children. She was also high priestess of the Imperial cult under at least two emperors (Septimius Severus and Caracalla), priestess of Demeter and of all the gods, and hierophant for life of the gods of the city. She paid 304,000 drachmae to build, furnish, and decorate a temple. Her daughter, anonyma 35, also became gymnasiarch, and her son, Megacles, also became demiourgos. During her own and her children’s terms of office, Menodora gave cash gifts to all members of the city council, the elders, and the assembly, with lesser gifts to their wives and to all citizens, non-citizens, and freedmen. She was honored by her city with at least three statues.
Sources: Lanckoronski 58-60 = IGRP 3.800-2, Lanckoronski 61.

Caecilia Paulina, empress and deified augusta, mid-3rd cent. (?) CE. Her name and titles are known from coins (diva Paulina) and an inscription (divae Caeciliae Paulinae piae augustae). She is thought to have been the (otherwise unnamed) wife of Maximinus Thrax, emperor 235-238. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, the wife of “that savage emperor” (truculenti illius imperatoris) brought him back to “the way of truth and humanity” (veritatis humanitatisque viam) by her “useful persuasion” (utilia suadendo). Christian authors, however, charged that Maximinus killed his empress.
Sources: ILS 492; Eckhel 7, 297; Mionnet 3.395; Amm. Marc. 14.1.8; Syncell. 680; Zonar. 12.16.

Usia Ptolemais, tax collector, Egypt, early 3rd cent. CE. She is known from a tax receipt with her signature, dated 225. She was a member of the college of tax gatherers (apaitetai).
Source: P. Princ. 2.50 = P.J. Sijpesteijn, “A Female Bouleutes,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 24:3-4 (1987) 141-142.

PUBLIC AFFAIRS. PART 2, POLITICS:

Junia Theodora, lobbyist for Lycian interests at Corinth, mid-1st cent. CE. The Federal Assembly of the Lycians issued two decrees in her honor and presented her with a crown of gold, her portrait painted on a gold background, and five minas of saffron. The cities of Myra, Patara, and Telmessos also honored her with decrees of thanks for her assistance. According to the decrees, she used every means to gain the favor of the authorities for Lycian interests. She welcomed both ambassadors and private citizens from the Lycian Assembly and from individual Lycian cities into her home and supplied all their needs. She also drew up a will favoring the Lycians. She was assisted by Sextus Julius, her agent and heir. Theodora was a Roman citizen. Her father’s name was Leukios.
Sources: D. Pallas et al., “Inscriptions Lyciennes Trouvées à Solomos près de Corinthe” BCH 83(1959):496-508.

Avia, political endorser (and businesswoman?), Pompeii, late 1st cent. CE. With Taedia Secunda, she endorsed the candidate Lucius Popidius Secundus for the office of aedile. She may also be the Avia whose name appeared on at least two amphorae probably used for commercial products.
Source: CIL 4.7469, 4.10376, 4.10376a.

Vitrasia Faustina, public benefactor and conspirator at Cales, southern Italy, late 2nd cent. CE. With her own money, she paid for the construction or repair of a temple, probably of the Great Mother. She was executed in 183 with Velius Rufus, Egnatius Capito, and others for conspiring to assassinate the emperor Commodus. Her parents were Anna Faustina, niece of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Titus Pomponius Poculus Vetrasius, consul 176.
Sources: CIL 10.4635 = ILS 1115 = CCCA 4.82; Dio 73.5.1; SHA Commod. 4.10.

PUBLIC AFFAIRS. PART 3, WAR AND REBELLION:

Cyria, Moorish princess and rebel, late 4th cent. CE. Her mother may have been Nonnica. Her father Nubel was a powerful native ruler in Roman Mauritania. Of his many children, at least seven -- Cyria and six brothers -- played a role in Roman history. Some of the family supported Roman rule and held Roman civil or military offices; but her brother Firmus, goaded by the misconduct of the Roman governor Romanus, rebelled about 372. Many native Africans and some Roman troops joined Firmus, proclaiming him emperor. Although Romanus was arrested and subsequently tried, Firmus’ revolt was too serious and widespread to settle peacefully. The cavalry general Theodosius, father of the future emperor Theodosius I, with a corps of elite troops eventually defeated the rebels and drove Firmus to suicide. The war was bitterly fought, with Theodosius’ troops defeated or forced to retreat in many encounters. Cyria, “abounding in riches and feminine determination” (abundans divitiis et destinatione feminea), as the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus described her, supported the revolt by rallying many North African peoples, “different in culture and of varied languages but one in spirit” (dissonas cultu et sermonum varietate … unum spirantibus animis).
Source: Amm. 29.5.28.

anonyma 16, empress mother and advisor, Gaul, mid-4th cent. CE. She was the mother of Flavius Magnus Magnentius (emperor 350-353). According to one source, she was a Frank and her husband was British. Magnus Decentius, a relative of Magnentius and later appointed Caesar by him, may also have been her son. She advised Magnentius throughout his successful military career, and her predictions usually proved accurate. During the civil war between Magnentius and Constantius II, she tried to persuade her son not to march into Pannonia but to cross into Illyria. He rejected her advice and was decisively defeated.
Sources: Zos. 2.46.1; Scholion on Julian (REA 27(1925):312-18).

RELIGION. PART 1, FUNCTIONARIES:

Cantria Longina, sacerdos (priest), flaminica (priestess of the Imperial cult), and poet (?) at Aeclanum, Samnium (modern Eclano, southern Italy), late 1st cent. CE. She held priesthoods of the deified Julia (probably the daughter of the emperor Titus), of the Great Mother of the Gods, and of Isis. In gratitude for the honor of her priesthoods, she donated 50,000 sesterces to the public treasury. Her husband was the magistrate and writer Marcus Pomponius Cornelius Bassulus. Longina may have been the author of his verse epitaph. Her father’s name was Publius Cantrius, and the priestess Cantria Paulla may have been her sister.
Sources: CIL 9.1153 = ILS 6487= Malaise, Aeclanum 1; CIL 9.1164 = ILS 2953.

Rufina, Jewish archisynagagos (leader of a synagogue), Smyrna, Ionia (modern Izmir, western Turkey), 3rd cent. CE or later. She built a tomb for her slaves and former slaves. She may have been a convert to Judaism.
Source: CIJ 741 = I.Smyrna 1.295.

anonyma 13, Christian episcopa (bishop), Interamna, Umbria (modern Terni, central Italy), late 5th or early 6th cent. Her name apparently begins with Q. Her fragmentary epitaph reads in part: hic requie[scit] venerabilis fem[ina] episcopa (“Here rests the venerable woman bishop”). It has been suggested that episcopa means “bishop’s wife.” In that case, however, her epitaph could be expected to include some reference to her husband; in fact, it gives no indication that she was ever married.
Source: CIL 11.4339 = Anth. Lat. 2.2026 = Eisen, Women Officeholders pp. 199-200.

RELIGION. PART 2, ACTIVISTS:

Agape, gnostic leader in Hispania (modern Spain or Portugal), late 2nd or early 3rd cent. (?) CE. A member of a prominent family, she was a student of the charismatic Mark of Memphis, who came from Egypt. She in turn taught the rhetor Elpidius (also spelled Helpidius), whose teachings influenced the Christian dissident Priscillian.
Source: Jer. Ep. 133.4; Sulp. Sev. Chron. 2.46.

anonyma 49, Christian martyr, Gaza, executed 308. During the Great Persecution, she spoke out against the emperor Maximinus for his choice of Firmilianus as governor of Palestine. Severely tortured, she still managed to kick over the altar at which Valentina had been ordered to sacrifice. Firmilianus then had the two women tied together and burned to death.
Source: Eus. Mart. Pal. 8.5-8.

Marthana (also spelled Marthina), Elkesaite leader, Syria, 4th cent. CE. She and her sister Marthous were revered “as goddesses” by their followers. The Elkesaites were a Judaeo-Christian group who accepted most of the Old and New Testaments and claimed to have an additional revelation, a book fallen from heaven. They considered the Holy Spirit feminine.
Sources: Epiphanius Pan. 19.2.5, 53.1.5, Anac. t.3.53.1; John Damascene de haer. 53; Theodor bar-Khonai lib. schol. p.307.

RELIGION. PART 3, VOTARIES:

Vibia Pacata, dedicant on the Antonine Wall (at modern Westerwood, southern Scotland), mid 2nd cent. CE. She dedicated an altar to “the heavenly Silvanae and Quadruviae” (Silvanis Quadruis calestib[us]), goddesses of woodlands and crossroads respectively. Judging from her name and the epithet caelestis (often applied to goddesses in Roman North Africa) Pacata may have been African. Her husband, Flavius Verecundus, born in Pannonia, was a centurion of the VIth Legion Victrix.
Source: R.P. Wright, “Roman Britain in 1963: Inscriptions,” JRS 54(1964):177-185, no. 7 & Pl. 16.1 = CSIR 1.4 no.86.

Jul[ia] Valentina, votary of the Mother of the Gods at Lactora, Aquitania (modern Lectoure, southern France), late 2nd cent. CE. She and Hygia made a taurobolium sacrifice together, on the same day in 176 as Antonia Prima and Aurelia Oppidana.
Source: CIL 13.50 = ILS 4122 = Duthoy 106 = CCCA 5.225.

Taor, Christian ascetic, Arsinoe, Egypt, late 4th-early 5th cent. CE. She was a member of the women's monastery headed by Talis, where she spent more than thirty years. During that time she refused to take a new garment or shoes, saying that she had no need for them since she did not go out. Although the other women left the monastery each Sunday to go to church, Taor stayed at her work. Palladius, who visited the monastery, remarked on her beauty and decorum.
Source: Pall. Laus. Hist. 59.

SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT:

Achillia, gladiator, Halicarnassus, Caria (modern Bodrum, southwest Turkey), date unknown. Her name, like that of Amazon, was presumably a professional name chosen for its heroic connotations. Both apparently fought as heavy-armed gladiators.
Source: Robert, Gladiateurs, 184.

Tryphosa (also spelled Tryphose), athlete, Tralles, Caria (modern Aydin, southwest Turkey), mid-1st cent. CE. She placed first in the one-stade race (approximately 600 feet) for young women at both the Pythian Games and the Isthmian Games. The athletes Hedea and Dionysia were her sisters.
Source: Pleket 9.

Isodora, castanet dancer (krotalistria), Egypt, early 3rd cent. CE. She was the leader of a group of three dancers (see anonymae 44, 45) based in Arsinoe. She is known from a contract dated 206 in which she agreed to perform with her group for six days at the home of Artemisia in the village of Philadelphia. The three dancers together were to receive 36 drachmae per day, as well as food, transportation (two donkeys), and protection for their costumes and jewelry.
Source: P. Cornell 9 = Sel. Pap. 1.20.

VOLUNTARY ORGANIZATIONS:

Suavettia Amaryl[lis], officer of a collegium, Rome, late 1st cent. CE. She and Suavettius Alexander were either supervisors (curatores) or patrons of the organization, perhaps a funeral club. During the reign of Vespasian (69-79) they donated a site to the collegium. Suavettia Lacesis and Besia Jucunda were decurions of the same group. Amaryllis and the other officers may have been former slaves.
Source: CIL 6.10350.

Tetiris, officer of a women’s organization, Alexandria, Egypt, 1st cent. CE. She and the president of the organization (anonyma 139) dedicated a statue or monument in honor of the priestess …aris, which was paid for from the organization’s treasury. Tetiris’ title has been lost.
Source: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 4(1917):253f.

Blassia Vera, patron of a religious organization at Pisaurum (modern Pesaro, central Italy), 2nd or 3rd cent. CE (?). She was one of three patrons of the “worshippers of Jupiter Latius” (cultores Iovis Latii). She and her co-patron Marcus Fremedius Severus donated wine, bread, and half a denarius for each member. The other patron, Publius Seneka Cornelius, gave an altar to the group.
Source: CIL 11.6310 = ILS 3082.

Selected Works

History
In the Name of Heaven: 3000 Years of Religious Persecution
The first English-language general history of religious persecution worldwide, from ancient Egypt through 1900.
Femina Habilis
A Biographical Dictionary of Active Women in the Ancient Roman World from Earliest Times to 527 CE. Co-authored with Kathryn E. Meyer.
Science Fiction
Arslan
A third-world dictator sets out to save the planet in his own way. "One of the finest works of fiction of our generation."
Rainbow Man
A woman starshipper settles on an idyllic planet and discovers the road to hell. "A chilling depiction of reason in the service of unreason."
Wheel of the Winds
An epic of planetary circumnavigation. "Excellent validation for the idea that Engh is a major writer."
Children's Fantasy
The House in the Snow
Nine boys face 20 vicious robbers, in the mysterious House where no one is ever seen going in or out.

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