Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.02


Richard Bauman, Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. London: Routledge, 1992. Pp. xvi + 294. ISBN 0-415-05777-9.


Reviewed by John Bendix, Bryn Mawr College.

This book has an ambitious brief: uncovering the avenues by which Roman women achieved a more public role over a period of four hundred years from the mid-fourth century to AD 68. With a time span of this length, no more can be done in a work of this nature than to trace a gradual evolution and describe a few major themes and incidents.

Prof. Bauman organizes the narrative into five, as he admits, arbitrary periods. The first, a period of "campaigns of direct action" and protest, extends from the mid-fourth to the end of the third century BC and is the subject of Chapters 2 and 3. The second, in which individual women figure more prominently, is the subject of Chapter 4 and covers the first half of the second century BC. The third phase, that of the emergence of the "politically conscious matron," extends from later Republic to the death of Caesar and forms the subject of Chapter 5 and 6. The fourth phase, the triumviral period, is seen as a transitional period, and it is the subject of two chapters which largely focus on specific women: Livia, Fulvia, Octavia. The fifth and final phase, in Chapters 9 to 13, deals with the period from 27 BC to AD 68, and consists of a mixed reflection on political institutions and the role of the family, including the growing power of women to affect the succession. This last era also marks the peak of women's political position, and as Bauman notes, "the wide range of activities open to women in the later Republic was a reflection of the rich potential of the Roman Republic as a whole; but as the choices open to men narrowed in the Principate, so did those open to women" (p.7).

This work is clearly designed to update Balsdon's survey produced a generation ago. As a survey and distillation of a wide variety of sources, and as a "special view of Roman history and a special view of Roman women" (p.xii), it represents one of a number of attempts to recover women's history. It also, I suspect, represents a rather unconventional way of writing Roman history for classicists, for it has more affinities with social history, the history written from the bottom up, than it does with the chronicles of great men, even though the sources themselves of course tend to give prominence to the most prominent women. Bauman himself obliquely acknowledges this in his summary of the second phase when he talks about the propitious climate in which it is not only the Great Man who makes his appearance, but also La Grande Dame (p.3).

The orientation to the subject as a whole is an evolutionist one, using the currently fashionable long durée approach to show the steady expansion of the public role of women. In the process, we are treated to details of poisoning trials (331 BC), the cult of Cybele, the repeal of the lex Oppia and suppression of the Bacchanals, an examinations of the women of the Gracchi, changes in the role of the vestals, and the skills and machinations of Octavia. The details are considerably more plentiful for the houses, and hence the women, associated with Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, so it is unsurprising that half the book concentrates on the likes of Agrippina, Drusilla, and Messalina. The nature of the sources perforce leads to conclusions that are more robust when applied to prominent Roman upper-class matrons than when applied to all women, a fact Bauman acknowledges early on.

Despite these obvious merits of comprehensiveness, I was frustrated by this book for a variety of reasons. For one, while Bauman in his introduction notes his use of Livy, Cicero, Appian, Dio, Plutarch, Suetonius, and, most indispensably, Tacitus, in the text itself he rarely comments on the questionable reliability of such sources. To be sure, he does note the bias towards women that existed -- "patriarchal Roman society did not like women's involvement in politics. The sources are unanimous about this" (p.10) -- but it is left to the reader to compensate both for the societal bias against women and for the difficulties of trusting sources like Tacitus and Suetonius. Readers need authors to help them to combat the "rigours of disputation and the tyranny of documentation" (p.211); readers are not helped by having authors assume every reader is as familiar with the sources and their problems as the author. This is not, despite Bauman's initial assertion, a work for a non-specialist.

For another, the framework the historical narrative is hung upon is entirely too weak and underarticulated. Bauman weasels out of defining "politics" by claiming it can only be defined by examples which "relate mainly, but not exclusively, to politics, government, law and public affairs in general," (p.8) and he throws in a footnote to the notoriously unreliable S.I. Hayakawa to substantiate his refusal to define his terms. This tautological definition gets us nowhere, since we are left without a clue about how power, participation, influence, opinions, tactics, values, and a variety of other political aspects which are presumably of interest might operate and help us understand women and politics in Ancient Rome. To be sure, the sources themselves may not readily permit inferences of this sort, but at least the author could suggest a few hypotheses at the outset. As it is, Bauman's text itself is full of suggestive and unsystematic hints of precisely the sort that could lead to assertions about influence, tactics, and power. More explicit attention to such theoretical matters would help.

The underdefinition of framework leads the author to amass evidence to "present a fitting panorama of the breadth and sweep of women's historic role in Roman public life" (p.211). But the panoramic sweep has two serious flaws. The first is that it leads to a retrospective view that, in Bauman's own words, sees "later developments (as) ... explicable and comprehensible in terms of what had happened before" (p.211). That is both bad history, because deterministic, and bad causality, since effects come before causes. The second flaw is that it permits an underdefinition of the source of women's power, the home. The slogan of the second wave of feminism over the last twenty years has been that "the personal is political," and it is abundantly clear from Bauman's evidence of the Caesarian period that such public power as prominent women could wield was very much a function of the private power they had over their households. In the details of who did what to whom in Bauman's account, we lose the larger implications of this insight: the growing public power of women was in part a function of the public space allowed them by men, in part an elevation of the importance of households and family allegiance in social and political life more generally.

But this may be cavilling on my part, as I am not a classicist but rather a political scientist interested in the contemporary issues surrounding women and politics. To me, Prof. Bauman sounds rather old-fashioned and underinformed in his approach to gender themes, but sounding old-fashioned is not, I suspect, a sin among classicists.