The Villa of Mysteries, which is situated approximately a mile outside of Pompeii, is one of the most controversial art works to survive the Roman Empire. What makes the Villa so mysterious is a large room that contains the only series of frescoes to depict a full initiation ceremony into a Dionysian cult whose members are female.
While there has been intense research into the frescoes and their meaning, few scholars have examined the work in relation to women’s societal roles. I will critically analyze past and contemporary research, offering my conclusions and a new perspective on the Villa of Mysteries and its significance in relation to women’s roles in Pompeiian society.
The Pompeiian woman had much more freedom than the earlier Roman woman. They sold goods, owned property, built temples and acted as priestesses. In addition, they formed and led their own cults; with Dionysian cults being the most popular. Dionysus is a god associated with women as both release emotional energies. The typical Roman Villa of the time was a public building in many respects, and it is my contention that the room with the frescoes served as a place where the cult would meet and perform various ceremonies.
Through discussion of the symbolic meaning of the scenes depicted in the frescoes, I will illustrate the importance of Dionysian cults for women and the significant experiences they gained from being involved in one.
Danielle Tousey Schmidt, ’99
Sponsor: Hugh Lifson