A rare inscription on a gravestone found by a Red Deer College teacher questions many previously-held beliefs about the role of women in Roman history.
Alison Jeppesen went to Rome doing research for her dissertation at the University of Calgary. The gravestone was in the Baths of Diocletian in Rome.
“I was walking around, photographing whatever I could and I found this one and the word amica jumped right out at me because it was what I was looking for,” said Jeppesen. “I was comparing these different terms that women were commemorated with because Latin has more than one word for wife.
“When I saw it, it was amazing because it had this very well preserved portrait in the style of the empress Plotina and the word amica just stood out.”
The inscription hadn’t yet been catalogued in English but had in some Italian books.
“It’s just another example of how when we look at the past or any example of modern culture, we might be going in with assumptions and when we challenge those assumptions, when we really look for the precursors, we are sometimes very surprised by what we find.”
The Roman funerary stele is a pedestal with an inscription on it, and a sculpture of the deceased.
“Often when we’ve looked at women in antiquity, and particularly women in marriage, we’ve tended to put values on their chastity and to read those into inscriptions,” said Jeppesen. “Then we associate that with terminology.”
The term this woman was commemorated with was amica, which Jeppesen said is generally associated with a woman who is a girlfriend or a mistress as opposed to a wife.
“But the rest of the terminology in how she was commemorated is very respectful and the portrait of her is quite severe-looking.
“There’s a bit of a difference between how real women are presented on grave stones and how elite male authors represented them in literature. Because we focus so much on literature in the first hundreds of years of scholarship, we haven’t always seen what has been happening in the gravestones.”
The research and scholarship surrounding her discovery earned Jeppesen the 2013 award for best oral paper presented by a post-PhD scholar at the 144th annual meeting of the American Philological Association, a society for the study of the Classics, in Seattle. She was presented the award at the 145th meeting in January of this year.
Jeppesen has been at RDC since 2011 and is a learning designer in the centre for teaching and learning. She teaches in the excellence in teaching and learning certificate program for faculty at the college.