Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.03

D. E. E. Kleiner and S. B. Matheson, I, Claudia. Women in Ancient Rome. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Pp. 228. $26.95. ISBN 0-89467-075-1 (pb).

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bartman, 15 West 81st St., Apt. 5A, New York, New York 10024,

On the day that I visited I, Claudia in its inaugural venue at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, the exhibition space was packed with groups whose ages ranged from elementary schoolchildren to senior citizens; in an adjacent room the show's organizers were leading a workshop for high school teachers. University museums do not often undertake major loan exhibitions devoted to an aspect of classical antiquity, and Kleiner and Matheson are to be commended for the ambitiousness of their undertaking.1 I, Claudia brought together 170 diverse objects from North American collections -- portraits as well as such ancient artifacts as funerary urns, jewelry, furniture, and bits of woven cloth -- in an attempt to document the lives and characters of Roman women. Clearly the subject of the exhibition intrigued many people; what was it teaching them about Roman women?

Now dismantled, the exhibition lives on in the handsome catalogue published to accompany it. Much of this volume is taken up by descriptive entries recording each of the objects displayed in the show; these were written largely by graduate students at Yale. With few exceptions, they suffer from the students' inexperience and should have been more closely edited. (I detail their errors at the end of the review.) In addition, the catalogue publishes longer essays that were commissioned from well-known scholars; meant to set the material on display in a wider cultural context, these pieces in fact do not always relate to the themes conveyed by the exhibition. Many of the ideas Natalie Kampen raises in her introductory essay on gender theory, for example, find no further development in the show. This is unfortunate, for Kampen's argument that "gender is always comprehensible only in relation" (p.17) is the implicit, if undiscussed, rationale for including portraits of men and children in the exhibition. Similarly, Klaus Fittschen champions second century CE senatorial and equestrian women as trend-setters in female appearance, yet they make virtually no appearance elsewhere in the book. In addition to these disjunctions, the volume is also, paradoxically, riddled with repetitions.2

Most of the other essays are general treatments of by-now standard topics of women's history: Susan Treggiari on social history, Gordon Williams on the literary treatment of women, and Susan Matheson on divinization in female portraiture. Writing on the Roman house, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill offers one of the volume's more provocative essays; while I agree with his assessment of the spatial configuration of the Roman house (in contrast to the earlier Greek) as non-gendered, his interpretation of erotic decorative themes as a sign of the "subordination of women within the house" (p. 114) is less convincing. To read paintings of such myths as the trampling of Dirce as a visual expression of the wife's subordination to her husband is too one-dimensional; if anything, erotic tales underscored both the power and weakness of women (and men), while women who were consumed by passion evoked admiration for the intensity of their emotion as well as pity for their obsession.3

Kleiner and Matheson organized I, Claudia along spatial lines, setting evidence they associate with the public forum against that from the private house and the mixed public/private tomb. The exhibition's historical foci are likewise tripartite: the early empire under Augustus and the Julio-Claudians, the second century under Hadrian and the Antonines, and the first decades of the third under the Severans. As family dynasties dominated politically during each of these periods, imperial women came to be celebrated for their maternity and fertility. Although the wealth of material and textual evidence from these times make them useful as historical anchors for the show, the women of a less conventional political era might have produced an instructive contrast. During the reign of Trajan, for example, the empress Plotina did not produce an heir and the emperor married off Sabina, his grandniece, to his designated successor Hadrian. With the traditional female virtues an awkward reference, Plotina (and the similarly childless Sabina) had to develop new visual modes for conveying female status and power. Their numerous portraits, along with those of the more fertile Marciana and Matidia (Trajan's sister and niece, respectively), are marked by iconographic novelty and often extraordinary quality.

From Augustus to Caracalla stretches a chronological gap of more than two centuries, but the exhibition does not always properly acknowledge the changing position of women over time. (Treggiari is an exception.) Similarly, certain media where women's depiction is widespread would have been better served by a lengthy, synthetic essay than the piecemeal treatment the topic receives.4 In the realm of coinage, for example, all of the "milestones" in female representation -- the first named appearance of a living woman and the first appearance of a woman with a man on an obverse -- are noted in Fred Kleiner's (generally excellent) entries for the coins included in the exhibition, but the reader has to read many individual catalogue entries to glean these nuggets.

Women of the imperial circle are the primary subjects of the coins on display in I, Claudia as well as many of the free-standing portraits. Women of the freedman class also garner considerable attention, by virtue of their active role as patrons and subjects of funerary art. Between imperial and freedman, however, yawns a wide gap occupied in antiquity by women of the senatorial and equestrian classes. As already mentioned, Fittschen argues in one of the volume's essays for the artistic and social influence of such women; their presence throughout the empire and their visibility in public places make them rather than the much-cited empresses the trendsetters -- and likely models -- of Roman female hairstyle and costume. In a sense, senatorial and equestrian women remain the "last frontier" of modern scholarship on Roman women for their lives and images remain poorly understood in comparison to their imperial and freed counterparts.5 By failing to acknowledge them in any serious way, however, I, Claudia deprives a major segment of the Roman female population of recognition and assessment.

Although the scale of I, Claudia was unprecedented, "women" is actually a familiar category in museum expositions of ancient life and culture. A 1941 guide to Greek and Roman antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art documents such topics as female dress, coiffure, and entertainment, and the newly opened "Greek and Roman Daily Life" section of the British Museum devotes several display cases to women.6 Such museological presentations are rarely disinterested, however. One of the most influential of all twentieth century exhibitions of ancient art, the monumental 1937 show in Rome on Augustan art that became the basis for the Museo della Civiltà Romana, did not treat women as a discrete topic but instead subsumed them into the category of "family";7 the taxonomy obviously reflected then-prevailing Fascist policies which regarded women as "breeders" procreating for Italy's glory.

I, Claudia is no different from Mussolini's grand mostra in reflecting contemporary social attitudes. Kleiner and Matheson's Roman woman is the predecessor of the 1990s career woman -- independent, resourceful, even entrepreneurial. Empowered in both the financial and political spheres, the Roman women profiled in the exhibition patronized the arts, influenced public policies (typically indirectly through male relatives), and managed their often substantial households. Some aspects of this profile are obviously correct, having been well documented by the transformative research on classical women over the last few decades and even by some spectacular new epigraphic finds.8 But there is a tendency in I, Claudia to inflate female achievement. Augustus' sister Octavia offers a good example. Kleiner (p. 28) describes Octavia as a "major force" in Roman political and social life during the reign of her brother and credits her with "raising armies and waging war;" given what we know from ancient sources such as Appian and Cassius Dio, both statements are grossly exaggerated.9

The catalogue entries present little new material and often convey the impression that the authors did not have firsthand experience with their subjects. They also contain a fair number of errors. I append the following corrections to individual entries:

Cat. 1. A head of Livia in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore is poorly understood in this entry, as there is no mention of either its unfinished state or the diadem-like band encircling the head. It has a number of iconographic peculiarities, and I believe that the head is a hybrid of two of Livia's major portrait types.10 Cat. 7. Livia's pose and attributes on the reverse of a bronze coin issued under Tiberius indeed invoke Juno, but the assimilation of the empress to Jupiter's consort is not as common in Roman art as is stated here. Cat. 9 and 10. Bearing the titles Iustitia and Pietas, these female figures simply represent personifications. The features are far too idealized to warrant identification as Livia. I would not characterize a woman who had four portrait types (plus a fifth known in a single example) during a public career that spanned more than seventy years (when one counts both Livia's lengthy life and posthumous depiction) as having "constantly updated coiffures." Compare Plautilla (Cat. 46), who had five types in less than three years. Cat. 11. The entry omits discussion of several important aspects of Antonia's portraiture: its iconographic proximity to Livia's imagery; the attribute of a hairband; the discovery of a full-length statue at Baiae. The ancient claim that Antonia was poisoned by Caligula goes unexamined.11 Cat. 12. There was no official damnatio memoriae of Caligula after his assassination in 41 CE. In my view, Caligula bears little physical resemblance to his great-grandmother Livia; certainly she does not have a receding lower lip (this error repeated at Cat. 15). Cat. 13. Caligula's sisters were not the first Roman women to receive privileges of the Vestal Virgins, Livia was. Cat. 28 and 29. Reputedly found together, the head of Lucius Verus and of a strongly idealized woman (identified by some as his wife Lucilla and by others as Venus) differ in so many technical and stylistic aspects that their conventional pairing might be questioned. Cat. 30. The identification of this female bust in the Yale University Art Museum as Avidia Plautia, mother of Lucius Verus, is intriguing. The suggestion that the portrait was created in c. 136, when Avidia's husband Aelius Verus was adopted by Hadrian, would have greater plausibility if the portrait could be compared to those of Verus. Another possibility is that it was made upon the accession of her son in 161 CE.12 Cat. 36. The reverse of this Antonine sestertius is most unusual, for if Kleiner is correct in his interpretation, it renders the adult Marcus Aurelius and Faustina the Younger as small children between Antoninus Pius and the deceased Faustina the Elder. Cat. 42. Julia Domna does not wear a stola in this magnificent bust in Bloomington, but a chiton over which she drapes a himation. The stola, a heavy sleeveless shift worn over the tunic or chiton, is distinguished by its ground-skimming hem and narrow shoulder straps. An old-fashioned garment reserved for respectable matrons, it was revived by Augustus but became rare after the late first century CE.13 Throughout the catalogue (rather nonsensically in the case of the child's bust, Cat. 75) it is repeatedly misidentified; I detected no examples except on the Salus Augusta coin representing Livia (Cat. 8)14 and possibly, in the processional frieze of the Ara Pacis (Figure 10 p. 31).15 Cat. 64. To call this visually arresting statue from the Getty Museum a combination of a portrait head with a "stock draped or idealized body" implies a stylistic disjunction that is not present in the work. Rather, both face and body have portrait characteristics; nothing other than the miniature lion at the subject's side need be interpreted as imaginary. Cat. 67, 68, 69, 70. These objects do little to advance the themes of the exhibition. Cat. 71-79. The identification of these statues as "domestic" rather than "funerary" is perplexing, as most of them (certainly the portraits of children) are likely to be from tomb contexts. (None has a precise archaeological context.) Cat. 75. In addition to identifying a stola mistakenly (the child's undergarment is simply a tunic whose drapery folds arc somewhat dramatically in the center of the chest,16) the entry fails to note the unisex nature of clothing worn by pre-pubescent children. Togas and tunics were popular garb for children of both sexes.17 Cat. 76. If curly locks were unusual for young Roman boys during the Julio-Claudian period, perhaps this head is better understood as broken from a statue of Eros. Cat. 80. I do not see the relevance of a dog sculpture to the exhibition's subject. Cat. 82. An interesting parallel to the bone dolls is a doll found in the tomb of an adult woman on the Via Valeria in Tivoli (G. Bordenache Battaglia et al., Corredi funerari di età imperiale e barbarica nel Museo Nazionale Romano [Rome 1983] 126). Cat. 88, 89. The suggestion that bronze furniture from a house was associated with women is misleading, as such ornamenta were legally part of the house and thus could be acquired by purchase or inheritance by men as well as women. Cat. 97-100. As literacy was a rarity among women, the inclusion of these writing instruments produces a misleading impression of female achievement. Cat. 121. The head looks to have been acid-washed. Except in the case of undeniably imperial context (like the Ara Pacis) or multiple copies, attempts as here and in Cat. 123 to identify subjects as members of the imperial family should be resisted. Many wealthy families of the senatorial or equestrian class would have commemorated a (deceased) child with a portrait such as this head. In any event, Agrippina the Elder was a primarily a portrait subject as an infant and as a matron, which would seem to rule her out as the head's subject.18 Cat. 143. For other examples of female mummy portraits from Hawara see now S. Walker and M. Bierbrier, Ancient Faces. Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London 1997) 37f. Cat. 145. That this otherwise standard draped female image is of marble elevates it (and its subject) above the many limestone renditions. Cat. 147,148. The nearly bald pates of these two busts probably reflects the subjects' infantile age rather than their sex. Cat. 149. The distinction made here between funerary altars and urns is unwarranted. Many altar-type monuments had cavities carved like the urn interiors to hold ashes while others show evidence for the attachment of a cinerary urn on top. Cat. 150. The inscription reproduced on page 200 omits the backwards "C" and "L" following the name Vesinia; note the unsparing record of age in Vesinia's face. Cat. 151. The dedicatory inscription of this funerary relief is completely misinterpreted. Published in CIL VI 24037 and X 2842, it belonged to two freedmen, Hedone and her son Philemon. One clue to their freed status is that mother and son share a nomen, while Hedone's name, with its erotic connotations, is common among slaves but not free persons. Cat. 152. The entry reiterates the standard view of Gisela Richter and others that the altar depicts a woman with her two sons. Given the relative ages and sculptural styles of the two male portraits, however, I suggest that the mature man visible in the photograph was the woman's husband and the righthand male bust (not shown) her son.19 The three cuttings on top of the altar may have belonged to a metal tripod of a type seen on the Tomb of the Haterii reliefs (see E. Bartman in AJA 101 [1997] 389). Cat. 162. The suggestion that the sarcophagus may have been commissioned by a woman for her own burial is not credible,20 as females are secondary, not primary, figures in the composition. Indeed the marriage and nursing episodes in which women appear are simply stock scenes from biographical sarcophagi; compare the nuptials shown on Cat. 163. Cat. 167. That this Malibu grave relief honoring "Helena" may belong not to a girl but to the lapdog depicted in the relief is perhaps more revealing of Roman attitudes towards women than the authors would wish to acknowledge.

In sum, the lack of engagement with gender theory, limited presentation of new research, and numerous errors of fact and interpretation make this catalogue a disappointment. We are still waiting for a worthy successor to J. P. V. D. Balsdon's 1962 Roman Women.  


1. The exhibition went on to later showings in San Antonio and Raleigh, where I suspect it met with similar box-office success.  

2. This problem is most evident in the historical background given in the essays and catalogue entries.  

3. It is probably the former that inspired the choice of such themes as the lovesick Phaedra for sarcophagus decoration.  

4. There are several short essays of a page or less on general topics like beauty, jewelry, and weaving.  

5. Examining the evidence from Asia Minor, R. van Bremen, The Limits of Participation (Amsterdam 1996) makes an excellent start.  

6. H. McClees, The Daily Life of the Greeks and Romans (New York 1941) 37f.; the new London display includes toilet articles and painted and sculpted scenes of women bathing, birthing, or working.  

7. Mostra augustea della romanità (Rome 1937) 595f.  

8. Notably the Tabula Siarensis, which documents the presence of Julio-Claudian women at a family discussion regarding honors for the deceased Germanicus and the senatus consultum of Gnaeus Piso in which Tiberius pays public homage to his mother Livia. For the Tabula see J. González and J. Arce, eds. Estudios sobre la Tabula Siarensis (Madrid 1988) and for the s.c. regarding Piso see W. Eck, A. Caballos, and F. Fernández, Das senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre (Munich 1996); an English translation by E. Meyer appears in Classical Journal 93.3 (1998) 318-24.  

9. Octavia is thought to have played a role in reconciling Mark Antony and (the then) Octavian at Tarentum earlier in 37 BCE and she is said to have brought troop reinforcements to Antony in the East in 35.  

10. I make these arguments in detail in Portraits of Livia: Imaging the Imperial Woman in Augustan Rome (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press).  

11. Accusations of both poisoning and incest are repeated frequently throughout the catalogue entries, but without a serious attempt to understand the context of their creation and repetition.  

12. The practice of honoring one's non-imperial parents with public statues began with the Julio-Claudians. See C. Brian Rose, Dynastic Commemoration and Imperial Portraiture in the Julio-Claudian Period (Cambridge 1997) 216 n.2.  

13. B. I. Scholz, Untersuchungen zur Tracht der römischen Matrona (Köln, 1992).  

14. The American Numismatic Society coin is too worn to show but the barest outline of the garment. For a clearer rendition see P. Franker and M. Hirmer, Römische Kaiserporträts im Münzbild (Munich 1972) fig. 2.  

15. If so, it is indicated not by the shoulder straps but by the ankle-length hem.  

16. The motif appears in less pronounced form in Cat. 11 and 30.  

17. See Cat. 121.  

18. Rose, n. 12 above, 66.  

19. Looking approximately 50 years old when he was rendered in the Flavian portrait style of the 90s CE, the man would have been born in circa 40. Looking about 50 years old in circa 120 CE when the monument was carved, the woman would have been born about 60 CE. Thus she must be his wife not his mother.  

20. This is not to say that the casket might not have been a woman's final resting place.