Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.11

Päivi Setälä, Liisa Savunen, Female Networks and the Public Sphere in Roman Society. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae, 22.   Rome:  Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 1999.  Pp. xiv, 139.  ISBN 951-96902-9-8.  

Reviewed by Emily A. Hemelrijk, University of Leiden (
Word count: 2483 words


M. Beard, J.F. Gardner, M.-L. Hänninen, K. Mustakallio, and M. Nielsen.

Finnish scholars, Päivi Setälä in particular, have been very active in the study of Roman women, initiating various research projects in the field. The present volume is the result of an international conference held in the Finnish Institute for Classical Studies in Rome in September 1995 on 'Women in Roman Society: Female Networks and the Public Sphere,' which was to mark the end of a three-year project on this subject. Apart from Mary Beard and Jane F. Gardner, who do not need further introduction, the contributors to the conference and to the present volume are Finnish scholars who participated in the project.

The title of the volume, Female Networks and the Public Sphere in Roman Society, raises great expectations. These are topics that have received little attention despite the explosion of studies devoted to women and gender in the ancient world during the last twenty-five years. But the contents of the volume are much more limited than this title suggests. Almost all contributions focus on (early) republican Rome or Etruria and some have no clear connection with the central theme at all. Apart from the article of Jane Gardner (on women in business in Puteoli in the early first century AD) the imperial period and the world outside Rome and Etruria go without notice.

In 'The Erotics of Rape: Livy, Ovid and the Sabine Women' (pp. 1-10) Mary Beard explores the rape of the Sabine Women on the basis of the stories given by Livy (1.9-13) and Ovid in the Ars Amatoria (1.101-134). Though Livy's story has often been treated as more or less the official version and Ovid as its subversive voice, Beard argues that both are part of the ancient discourse of rape, which was not simple and unproblematic but, like the modern discussion, 'diffracted' and characterised by different approaches and arguments. Though interesting in itself, Beard's lively discussion of the rape of the Sabine Women shows no clear connection with the theme of 'female networks and the public sphere'. For instance, the famous intrusion of the Sabine Women into the public sphere, their intervention in the final battle between Romans and Sabines, is left out of consideration. Instead, Beard focusses on the seizure of the women as told by Livy and Ovid, comparing the two versions and showing that Livy's politicised version is not as unproblematic as has often been thought and does not eliminate sexual desire and the knotty problem of the interrelationship of rape and marriage. Ovid's account, on the other hand, instead of 'speaking up' for the raped women, as has sometimes been thought, eroticises their fear and tears in ways consistent with the male elegiac tradition. Rape, she concludes, was a topic of constant debate among Roman men and no definitive version of the rape of the Sabines existed.

In 'Women in Business Life: Some Evidence from Puteoli' (pp. 11-27) Jane F. Gardner discusses women's involvement in business activities in Puteoli on the basis of a collection of waxed wooden tablets found at Murecine near Pompeii in 1959. The documents belong to the archive of the Sulpicii, a firm of financiers concerned with lending and borrowing money and the recovering of debts. Of the 170 tablets that have been published (most of them dating from the period AD 35-55) only fourteen mention women. Gardner discusses these tablets extensively, providing the original text and a translation of each of them and commenting on the implications for the role of women in business life. Women appear in these documents both as debtors and as creditors, carrying out business in much the same way as men. Yet, unlike men, they do not appear as signatories or as guarantors of an obligation, nor did they write the documents in their own hand. This last point has often been interpreted as a sign of illiteracy, but Gardner suggests that there may have been legal reasons why women did not produce chirographa: as a woman could not take on an obligation or give a formal release from debt without the authorisation of her tutor, it was the latter who was the obvious person to write the document, thereby demonstrating his consent. Though convincing, this leaves the problem unsolved why those women who because of the ius liberorum did not need a tutor, did not write in their own hand. Should we perhaps assume that, like the exclusion of women as witnesses to private documents, this was due to social convention? The fact that no women are found as guarantors for the debts of other persons is explained by Gardner by referring to the senatus consultum Velleianum, which allowed magistrates to refuse actions by creditors against women standing surety for others. She concludes that one of the effects of the exclusion of women as witnesses to transactions and as guarantors to other people's debts is that this deprived them of an easy way of bestowing favours and thus excluded them from an area of social networking which was usual among men.

Marja-Leena Hänninen has contributed two articles about women's role in Roman republican religion. Her first article, 'The Dream of Caecilia Metella. Aspects of Inspiration and Authority in Late Republican Roman Religion' (pp. 29-38), is a little disappointing. Hänninen discusses the role of women in reporting and expiating prodigies on the basis of a story of the dream of Caecilia Metella, which, according to Cicero in the De Divinatione, had led to the restoration of the temple of Juno Sospita in 90 BC. Among the many questions posed at the beginning of the article (most of which are not discussed) two aspects are singled out: the problem of authority in Roman religion and the interpretation of dreams as prodigies. As regards the first issue Hänninen observes that Caecilia Metella's dream was taken seriously in spite of the fact that she was a woman: it was recognized as an official prodigy and led to the restoration of the temple. She tries to explain the success of Caecilia Metella's 'initiative' by drawing attention to the fact that she was a member of a very distinguished family, the Caecilii Metelli. Moreover, she herself was an influential woman, praised by Cicero for the 'male' virtues of virtus, fides and diligentia (Cic. Rosc. Am. 27). This last point, mentioned only in passing, would have merited a more detailed discussion as would the reliability of the story of Caecilia Metella's religious activities, which is taken by Hänninen to reflect reality in a rather simple way. Her discussion of the second problem, the interpretation of dreams as prodigies, is somewhat haphazard. It touches on several issues, such as the gender and social status of dreamers, the location of the temples of Juno Sospita and the connection between the morals of women and the welfare of the state, without, however, reaching a clear conclusion. Also, the link between this article and the central theme of the volume is not very clear.

The second article by Marja-Leena Hänninen 'Juno Regina and the Roman Matrons' (pp. 39-52) also deals with prodigies and expiation. Hänninen focusses on ceremonies which were meant to placate Juno Regina of the Aventine during the second Punic War, in which, she argues, Roman matrons had a special role. Three times during this war (in 218, 217 and 207 BC) groups of matrons approached Juno Regina trying to appease her by a gift for which, at least in one case, they had organized a collection among themselves. In order to explain why women played such an important role in expiating Juno Regina of the Aventine in times of war, Hänninen argues that the origin of this goddess as a tutelary deity of the Etruscan city of Veii, once the enemy of Rome, and her possible identification with the goddess Tanit of Carthage made her a particularly important goddess to keep on one's side during the Punic wars. Drawing on legendary stories about women's role in the foundation of the cult of Fortuna Muliebris and the festival of the Nonae Caprotinae, as narrated by Livy, Hänninen argues that the role of women in traditional Roman religion was felt to be essential for the welfare of the state. She also briefly mentions a magic aspect in the appearance of women in expiatory rites, but without further argument these 'apotropaic values connected with femininity' do not convince. The practical and economic reasons for their participation, especially the contribution of women's wealth, are, of course, obvious. Hänninen concludes that as a former tutelary goddess of an enemy city Juno Regina had a special function to defend Rome against its enemies; to this end not only the arms of men, but also the prayers and moral dignity of the matrons were essential.

In her article 'Legendary Women and Female Groups in Livy' (pp. 53-64) Katariina Mustakallio deals with legendary women and female groups in Livy's first decade. Recent studies, according to her, have over-stressed the subordinate role of women in the early books of Livy. To elucidate the role of legendary women and female groups in Livy's narrative she examines in which situations (groups of) women come to the fore. Four episodes are singled out for discussion: Hersilia and the Sabine women (Liv. 1.9-13), the story of Cloelia (Liv. 2.13.6-11), Veturia and the other women approaching Coriolanus (Liv. 2.40.1-12) and the death of Verginia which led to the overthrow of the decemviri (Liv. 3.44-58). After paraphrasing these well-known stories and briefly comparing them with the accounts of Dionysius of Halicarnassus and other authors she concludes that in Livy's work women come into the limelight in situations of crisis, mostly for the benefit of the state. Thus, far from being invisible and subordinate, the activities of women mark the turning points in Roman history. Thus far, Mustakallio has kept to the beaten track and it is a little disappointing that she does not carry her argument further. For instance, she does not explore why Livy depicted women in the way he did and what relation (if any) existed between these legendary women and the women of archaic Rome (she seems to assume a simple and straightforward relation) or those of Livy's own days. Thus, her article leaves the reader with the feeling that it breaks off prematurely.

The last contribution to the volume, by Marjatta Nielsen on 'Common Tombs for Women in Etruria: Buried Matriarchies?' is by far the longest (pp. 65-136). Nielsen, an archaeologist well-known for her work on Etruscan urns, provides a detailed discussion of sixteen late Etruscan tombs (dating from the last four centuries BC) in which, as she calls it, 'only women were buried together' (p. 64). Since family burials were the usual practice in Etruscan tombs, the exclusion of men from these tombs is surprising. Nielsen extensively presents the evidence, providing detailed descriptions of each of the tombs, the finding circumstances, the inscriptions identifying the women buried, and the artefacts found. To explain these unusual burials she tries to reconstruct the relation between the women buried in the same tomb. In most cases, she concludes, such women were members of the same family who might be buried in the same grave for several generations. In only one case, in a tomb from Vulci (the Tomba delle Iscrizioni), the women seem to be connected by their position: all are called hatrencu, a title which Nielsen tentatively interprets as referring to some kind of priesthood. However, this tomb contained several urns of men; therefore, as is acknowledged by Nielsen, it does not qualify as a 'women's tomb'. Other uncertainties interfere with the other 'women's tombs': six tombs also contained uninscribed urns or urns with an unreadable inscription, which allows for the possibility (acknowledged by Nielsen) that some unidentifiable men were buried along with the women. Moreover, some tombs were plundered or disturbed so that the absence of men cannot be proved with certainty. Finally, the genealogies which Nielsen draws up to visualize the relation between the women buried in the same tomb are highly hypothetical. Still, the female predominance in these tombs is striking, especially in Perugia where eleven of the sixteen 'women's tombs' are found.

How is this to be explained? To this question Nielsen gives no satisfactory answer and perhaps there is none. Some possibilities are briefly listed or mentioned in passing. Thus, some of the tombs seem to contain women of a certain family whose male members were buried together in another tomb in the neighbourhood. This 'exclusion from men's tombs' (pp. 105-7) is tentatively ascribed to the 'warrior ideology' of the men; a connection with the progress of Romanization is suggested but no arguments are adduced in support of this hypothesis. In other tombs she detects patterns of matrilineal kinship among the women buried in it, which she ascribes to the insistence of the women to found their own matrilineal tombs (pp. 91, 108) suggesting that they may have worshipped a common goddess. There are no clear indications for either of these explanations -- unfortunately, neither of them is investigated in great detail -- and other, more fortuitous explanations, such as the possibility that the male members of some families died elsewhere, seem equally possible. It is a pity that more space is not allowed for further discussion of the background and explanation of the appearance of these 'women's tombs' which, despite some uncertainties, is remarkable. Instead, most of the lengthy article is taken up with a catalogue-like description of the tombs, which is the more superfluous as most of these tombs have been discussed at length in earlier articles by the same author.1

Though containing some interesting papers the collection as a whole is somewhat disappointing. In spite of its wide-ranging title most articles are concerned with legendary times and the republican period; moreover, not all of them are clearly linked with the central theme. The preface (pp. vii-xii) by one of the editors, Päivi Setälä, is surprising: instead of discussing the central theme of the volume and introducing the individual contributions she expounds on her subsequent research project, for the period 1994-1997, about 'the economic opportunities of Roman women'. Moreover, though published four years after the conference, the volume gives the impression of having been made somewhat hastily. For instance, one misses a common bibliography -- or a separate bibliography for each of the articles; instead, the preface and the article of M. Nielsen contain separate bibliographies whereas the common bibliography of the other contributions is tucked away on pp. xiii-xiv of the preface. Articles referred to only once or twice are mentioned in the notes only, but without giving the full title. Greek and Latin texts are translated in most papers, but not in all. Thus, though interesting things can be found in this volume, the uneven nature of the contributions and their great difference in length -- the article by Nielsen takes up half the volume -- make the collection as a whole somewhat unbalanced.


1.   See, for instance, Nielsen, M. (1989) 'Women and Family in a Changing Society: A Quantitative Approach to Late Etruscan Burials', ARID 17-18: 53-98 (from which she copies table 1 and fig. 2 despite the fact that her material has increased since the publication of this article) and Nielsen, M. (1990) 'Sacerdotesse e associazioni cultuali femminili in Etruria: testimonianze epigrafiche ed iconografiche', ARID 19: 45-67.

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