a photo of a blue and red abstract painting with thick brush strokes blending the two colours to gether, with blue dominant on the bottom, red on the top

An introduction to Agency (with a Tombstone)

Ewan again, this time musing about agency in the past and demonstrating how it is preserved within a Roman tombstone.


image of a roman spindle whorl made from metal. the spindle whorls is circular with a whole in the middle, like a doughnut, and about 3cm in diameter. there is an above, below and side shot. the spindle whorl is decorated with some sort of geometric design.
Portable Antiquities Scheme / Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0 via WikiCommons.
Spindle whorls such as these are often seen as evidence of ‘female agency’ in Roman military spaces. See Alberti 2018.

There are various ‘stances’. You decide where you place the weight in your research.

a photo of a roman tombstone with a triangular pediment at the top flanked by floral designs enclosing a circular motif. Underneath the pediment is an inscription field with latin letters. The inscription is damaged with two deep rectangular grooves flanking the inscription field
J. Lendering, Split Archaeological Museum CC0 1.0
The tombstone of L. Vegonius

Here lies Lucius Vegonius, son of Lucius, a veteran of the 7th legion from the city of Florentia. Placed during her lifetime for herself and her husband by Tropaena Fabricia

It doesn’t stop here though: this interplay between agents (Lucius & Tropaena), objects (tombstone) and structures (community) is reciprocal. By erecting this monument Tropaena is active in the military community, continuing the tradition of monumental commemoration for servicemen and their families. Further even, this lovely tombstone will remain as a model for future community members long after Tropaena — influencing military (and local) mortuary culture for decades to come.

Agency evidently takes many forms and works in ways that we may not see at first, with our agency living on through the objects we create.

This too is just one dynamic of agency and practice preserved: we could also examine the role of Lucius & Tropaena as agents of Empire in a provincial landscape or the role of the stonemason in the monuments form and content

Your turn

So with this in mind, whether an historian of Greek law or an archaeologist of early medieval burial practices, think about your ‘theory of agency’. Single it out for your readership (or yourself). Perhaps examine or muse about the various forms of agency visible in your source material, its preservation and its presentation. How do they intersect? What forces are at play? Explore the concept further perhaps and check out the papers below — there’s a little something for everyone.

Further Reading

Please get in touch if you are unable to access any of these resources.

  1. I’m sure social scientists would be horrified by these gross simplifications.