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Seleucid Royal Women: Roles, Representations, and Expectations

In collaboration with the Waterloo Institute for Hellenistic Studies
Researchers: Prof. Hans Beck, Alex McAuley, and Prof. Altay Coskun (University of Waterloo)

The study of royal women has been one of the most active and productive vectors of inquiry into the Hellenistic World over the past two decades, and one that has dramatically shifted our perceptions of gender, status, influence, and ability within the Hellenistic dynasties and empires – and, in turn, in the broader ancient world. While royal women were once dismissed by Hellenistic historians as powerless pawns in a political game that was an exclusively masculine domain, thanks to recent research we have ceased to try and evaluate female power by the same standards that we use to judge their male counterparts. Instead, a burgeoning appreciation of the potential for female influence, of dynastic prominence, and of a very distinct sort of agency that came with being royal and being female in the Hellenistic period has begun to emerge, and has done so with increasing prominence.

Yet despite the proliferation of strikingly productive research on the women of the Argead (Macedonian), Antigonid (Macedonian), and Ptolemaic (Egyptian) dynasties, Seleucid women have yet to fall under the gaze of scholarly scrutiny in the same way as their perhaps more visible contemporaries. They represent a line of inquiry that is as promising as it is under explored: Seleucid women have figured indirectly into discussions of everything ranging from religious practice to imagery and mechanisms of administration, and it is time that they are considered as a subject of research in and of themselves.

Seleucid women, perhaps moreso than any other group of women in the ancient world, were in a position that was as fascinating as it was unique: they were Greek women born into a family that was at the head of an empire spanning dozens of middle and near-Eastern cultures, languages, and traditions, and were imbued with an ideological prominence that made them scions of their family’s legitimacy and prestige. Sent to all corners of the Hellenistic world through their marriages to dynasties in Egypt, Greece, Pontus, Cappadocia, Armenia, Bactria, and beyond, they were representatives of their family in a very literal way and were charged with the promotion of its interests. How they impacted and were impacted by the cultures into which they married is an indispensable vector of inquiry into how cultural diversity and plurality functioned in the Seleucid Empire and the broader Hellenistic world.

This research project is thus the first of its kind amongst Seleucid studies, and will begin with a conference organized by the Department of History and Classical Studies along with the Waterloo Institute for Hellenistic Studies to be held at McGill  from 20-23 February, 2013. This landmark meeting – which represents the fourth in a series of Seleucid Study Days held consecutively at Exeter (UK), Waterloo (ON), and Bordeaux (FR) – will welcome some 29 scholars hailing from 11 countries for four days of panels, discussions, and collaboration on this groundbreaking topic.

The conference proceedings will then by published in a volume edited by Altay Coskun (Waterloo) and Alex McAuley, which will be the first solely dedicated to the topic of Seleucid women. In addition, further meetings and collaboration with other colleagues will doubtless emerge, as will more prosopographical research on the individual lives and careers of these Seleucid women.