Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.08.16

Christiane Kunst, Ulrike Riemer (ed.), Grenzen der Macht: Zur Rolle der römischen Kaiserfrauen. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, 3.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2000.  Pp. 174.  ISBN 3-515-07819-3.  DM 78.  

Contributors: A. Alexandridis, A.V. Siebert, K. Schade, M. Horster, R. Stepper, H. Leppin, B. Klein, A. Wieber-Scariot, T. Späth, and U. Riemer.

Reviewed by Susann S. Lusnia, Tulane University (
Word count: 1574 words

Grenzen der Macht reflects the growing scholarly interest in women in the ancient world, joining two other recent European conferences on women in antiquity published in the last three years.1 Unlike these other symposia, however, Kunst's and Reimer's efforts have produced a cohesive collection of papers, focused on a well-defined time period and a specific socio-political group of women. The nine papers (plus one abstract) collected in this volume focus on the political and social roles of Roman imperial women, from Livia to the empresses of late antiquity. The papers are grouped into four categories: portrait representations (Alexandridis, Siebert, Schade), religious functions (Horster, Stepper), political powers (Leppin, Klein, Wieber-Scariot), and portrayal in literary sources (Späth, Reimer). With the exception of the contribution by Alexandridis, all represent talks given at a two-day symposium on Roman imperial women held in October 1999 at the University of Potsdam. Included with the papers are an extensive bibliography (pp.157-167), a subject index (pp.169-174), and nine illustrations.

The introduction written by co-editor Kunst (pp.1-6) summarizes the main themes of the current scholarship on imperial women and places each author's contribution in this framework. K. acknowledges that imperial women walked a fine line, often exalted in their real or potential roles as matriarchs of a dynasty but sometimes denigrated as corrupting influences, especially if they seemed too interested in real power.

Part I, entitled "Stola und Diadem. Darstellung der Kaiserfrauen im Bild," offers three views on the role of women as visible figures in public art and imperial imagery. In the first paper ("Exklusiv oder bürgernah? Die Frauen des römischen Kaiserhauses im Bild," pp. 9-28) Alexandridis argues that the visual images of women in the imperial house formed a unified whole with those of their emperor-husbands and, for that matter, with the entire family. The author concentrates on statuary portraits, analyzing the visual symbolism of dress and other attributes. Of particular interest is A.'s discussion of the use of the dextrarum iunctio, a gesture borrowed from private art.

In Siebert's paper ("Porträtabsicht und Porträtwirkung. Gedanken zu zwei Kaiserinnenporträts in Hannover," pp. 29-40) the two main portraits discussed are two sculpted heads of Julia Domna and Julia Mamaea. S. wants these portraits to be actual reflections of the intellectual and emotional character of the individuals portrayed. Certainly the Romans did believe that character and physiognomy were inextricably linked. In most cases, however, we modern scholars lack sufficient and reliable information on an ancient individual's character to draw any real parallel to his/her portraiture. Contemporary sources (Dio, Herodian) were clearly biased against both Domna and Mamaea, so that making any argument on character based on these is risky at best. This paper seems the weakest in the collection.

Shifting to female images in late antiquity, Schade's contribution ("Die bildliche Repräsentation der römischen Kaiserin zwischen Prinzipat und Byzanz," pp. 41-53) offers a careful examination of two coin issues, both gold medallions: one issued for Fausta, wife of Constantine the Great, and the other for Galla Placidia. S. shows quite well how the imagery shifts from Constantine's emphasis on traditional female virtues (motherhood, piety, etc.) to a connection between the empress and salus republicae along with images of Victory, blended now with Christian notions of piety and devotion.

Part II, "Honos und Pietas. Wirken der Kaiserfrauen im Kult," contains only an abstract of Horster's presentation ("Ehrungen für weibliche Mitglieder des Kaiserhauses des 1.-3. Jhs.," pp. 57-59) concerning the honors bestowed on imperial women from the first through third centuries, but Stepper's paper ("Zur Rolle der römischen Kaiserin im Kultleben," pp.61-72) is an interesting discussion of how imperial women, especially the emperor's wife, might have religious duties that paralleled those of her husband. In her argument, she looks to the little known and rarely discussed duties of the wives of such figures as the flamen Dialis and the rex sacrorum. The empress was, after all, the wife of the pontifex maximus and so could be expected to perform some religious role on behalf of the state, as the wives of the flamen and the rex sacrorum did. Stepper draws the evidence for her arguments from literary, numismatic, and epigraphical sources. She concludes that while the possibilities for priesthoods were limited for women, the honors that imperial women received, including their elevation to cult status, and their active participation in religion were important to the emperor's standing.

Part III, "Consors imperii. Einbindung der Kaiserfrauen in das Herrschaftsystem," has three papers that deal primarily with late antiquity and the actual power of the empress in politics. The first of these, by Leppin ("Kaiserliche Kohabitation: Von der Normalität Theodoras," pp. 75-85), examines the complex relationship of Theodora and Justinian as seen in Procopius' Anecdota (a.k.a. "Secret History"). According to L., Procopius did not begrudge Theodora her power, which L. shows was following the traditions set down from the 4th century onwards. L. argues that Procopius was upset that Theodora did not use her power in the traditional way but was instead cruel and vindictive. With its strong focus on Procopius' portrait of Theodora and reliance on 4th century panegyrics, perhaps this paper should have been placed in the last section of the work on literary representations of empresses.

In the next paper, Klein ("Römische Kaiserinnen im 3. Jh.: Furia Sabina Tranquillina und Marcia Otacilia Severa--ihr Beitrag zur Herrschaftsstabilisierung des Kaisers," pp. 87-96) concludes that while neither Tranquillina, wife of Gordian III, nor Otacilia, wife of Philip the Arab, was politically active, both brought stability to their husbands' political positions. Although K. shows that Otacilia had a more prominent role as a dynastic co-founder, she could have developed her discussion of the empress' relationship to the army and the senate. K. also hints at a connection between the honorary titles bestowed on Otacilia and those given to both Julia Domna and Julia Mamaea, but she never follows up on this.

Wieber-Scariot ("Vorhang zur Macht--Herrschaftsteilhabe der weiblichen Mitglieder des spätantiken Kaisershauses," pp. 97-112) uses Ammianus Marcellinus' account of a treason trial in 354 at Antioch as the springboard to a discussion of the empress' power in late antiquity, the division of the sexes, and the imagery of curtains, both in texts and art. In her analysis, the curtain acts as both a literal and figurative yet penetrable boundary between the male and female spheres. This insightful interpretation focuses primarily on Constantina but compares her actions and literary portrayal to the earlier situation of Agrippina the Younger, who, like Constantina, attended political meetings but behind a curtain.

The two articles of the final section, Part IV, "Diva und veneficia. Kaiserfrauen in literarischen Quellen," deal mainly with women as they are presented in Tacitus and Suetonius. Späth ("Agrippina minor: Frauenbild als Diskurskonzept," pp.115-133) argues deftly that there is no "Frauenherrschaft" in the Annales of Tacitus. He sees Tacitus' portrayal of Agrippina as a commentary on the reigns of Claudius and Nero and the inherent weaknesses of the Principate, in general, in which the domus Augusta was set above all other households. In other words, the outrageous behavior of the Julio-Claudian women in Tacitus' text reflects his judgment of the emperors as weak and ineffective, unable to keep the women of their household in check according to Roman societal norms. Späth's argumentation is clear, rational, and well organized: he is careful to define the parameters of his discussion and the terms of his literary criticism.

The final contribution is by co-editor Riemer ("Was ziemt einer kaiserlichen Ehefrau? Die Kaiserfrauen in den Viten Suetons," pp.135-155). Like Späth, Riemer finds that Suetonius uses the female characters in his imperial biographies to highlight the negative aspects of the male characters. Thus, women are more prominent in the biographies of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, because Suetonius depicts these men as bad emperors, and their relationships to and treatment of women reflect the weakness and depravity inherent to their characters. Though it might have been more useful for R. to concentrate on a single female character (e.g., the differing portrayals of Livia in the biographies of Augustus and Tiberius), nevertheless, she convincingly argues that Suetonius was interested in the women only when they served the goal of his narrative.

There are several typographical errors in the volume. On the first page of the Table of Contents, "Einbindung" should be read for the printed "Einbingung," in the title of Part III (this does appear correctly, however, at the head of that section later in the text). Other errors include: on p. 3, "Blider" for "Bilder"; p. 4, a missing umlaut in "Vergottung" and "Elemenierung" presumably for "Eliminierung", to mention a few. In three places, the footnote numbering is out of sequence: p. 59, note "54" should be note "9"; p. 96, for notes "38" and "39", read "63" and "64"; and on p. 100, notes "31" and 32" ought to read, "12" and "13." Finally, there are two instances where footnotes appear to be incomplete: p. 84, note 40; and p. 132, note 55.

Overall, Grenzen der Macht is a fine collection of papers that is cohesive in its focus on the women associated with the emperors of Rome, whether through marriage or familial and even non-familial ties. With its broad chronological spectrum, we are afforded the opportunity of seeing both the continuities and the changes evident in women's roles among the imperial elite of Rome. The sincere hope is that more international symposia and conferences on women in antiquity will be held--and, more importantly, published in similar fashion.


1.   The proceedings of the First Nordic Symposium on Women's Lives in Antiquity, held at Göteborg in June 1997 were published as: L. Lovèn and A. Strömberg, Aspects of Women in Antiquity, Josered, 1998. A colloquium held at the Finnish Institute in Rome in September 1995 has appeared as: P. Setälä and L. Savunen, Female Networks and the Public Sphere (Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae XXII), Rome, 1999.

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