Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.32
I.M. Plant (ed.), Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome. An Anthology. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 268. ISBN 0-8061-3622-7. $21.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Alison Keith, Victoria College, University of Toronto (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 917 words
In this useful book, I.M. Plant (hereafter P.) has brought together and provided translations for all the surviving texts by female writers from classical antiquity in a comprehensive anthology. Over fifty authors are represented here, many of them accessible for the first time in English. The volume thus constitutes an important addition to the roster of modern collections of ancient sources and will be invaluable for university and upper level secondary school instruction about women in antiquity, women in classical literature, and sex and gender in the ancient world.
It may seem surprising that there is no comparable volume already available, given the popularity of undergraduate courses on women in antiquity and sex and gender in the classical world. But the collections of sources on women's lives and women's texts most frequently used in such courses restrict the female-authored material they present in order to offer either more narrative contextualization or more thematic coherence.1 P.'s volume therefore fills a real gap in the market, though my experience of reading the collection straight through from cover to cover suggests the profound artificiality of grouping texts from the ancient world according to the gender of their authors. Indeed if one imagined performing the same kind of exercise with male authors one would be struck not only by the artificiality of the procedure but also by its cultural specificity to the current Anglo-American academy. Yet the very artificiality of P.'s source book selection made me newly sensitive to the equally gendered contents and contexts of all those epigraphical readers and historical source books whose gender specificity routinely goes unsignalled by editors and publishers, reviewers and instructors alike. Now there's grist for the gender studies mill.
P. opens his source book with an introduction surveying the range -- chronological, generic, geographical, temporal -- of female-authored work in classical antiquity and situating it in the larger context of male literary production and consumption, in which women's voices were largely muted. Noting the difficulty of even identifying women authors from the evidence available to us (and drawing heavily on Athenaeus and the Suda), he observes the high proportion of pseudonymous women authors suspected by both ancient and modern readers and adduces some reasons for this feature in ancient literature. He offers a good discussion of performance as the medium of "publication" in the ancient world, although more might have been made of the constraints played by genre in performance.
The texts themselves follow. P. presents them chronologically, beginning with Sappho (born about 630 BCE) and ending with Eucheria (fl. late 5th or 6th centuries CE). The chronological presentation makes for a highly discontinuous and disjunctive reading experience, and underscores the pedagogical purpose of the collection. The translations and ancillary material are therefore best assessed in terms of how well they fulfill this purpose. P. prefaces each author's work with a brief introduction situating her work in its historical and literary context (at two and a half pages the introduction to Sappho is, appropriately, the longest in the volume). The introductions even-handedly present the issues that have dominated ancient and modern discussions of the author in question and include generous annotation for further reading. Often, however, they repeat material verbatim from earlier introductions to authors writing in the same time, place, or genre, a practice which could conceivably be useful in a classroom context -- pointing the lazy teacher or confused student back to a helpful parallel -- but which can be irritating on a sequential reading, especially when repeated over two or three (or more) entries in a row.
The translations themselves are accurate, tending towards the literal rather than the literary. In the case of the philosophers, religious writers, and especially the scientific writers (if that is how the alchemists and midwives are best characterized), this procedure is both practical and helpful, but for the poets there is, inevitably, a loss and one that is all the more noticeable because of the comparative abundance of published translations of classical female poets. An unintended consequence of this approach to translation that affects both prose and verse texts is that not only are idiosyncratic features of an author's style lost in translation but so are larger commonalities of genre. Another loss is the opportunity to annotate the translations. There are very few notes on the translations and no developed commentary at all. This puts the onus on the classroom instructor to offer historical, literary, and philological commentary on the translations, a task that will appeal to many of us. Nonetheless, I fear that the omission will also diminish the appeal of this source book to instructors of more general classical civilization courses that lack a unit on women's writing in the ancient world.
Rounding out the volume are a good basic Bibliography of secondary scholarship on female-authored texts from antiquity, a list of the Editions used and the Sources of the fragments, an extensive Glossary, a register of the women writers attested in the Graeco-Roman world, a list of attested oracle-givers in the Graeco-Roman world, a Chronological Survey of women writers of the ancient world with a companion table plotting the chronology of the male writers mentioned in the text, Tables of Comparative Numeration with the standard editions for Corinna, Sappho and Sulpicia, ending with two Maps, an Index of Authors and Works Cited, and a General Index. This material, especially the glossary, chronological surveys, maps and bibliography, should prove particularly helpful for students since it provides much of the contextualization absent from the translations.
1. In The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome (Carbondale 1989), for example, Jane Snyder concentrates on ancient Greek female poets and philosophers, with a brief concluding chapter on women writers from Rome (five authors of very different periods and genre), and offers extensive discussion and contextualization of the twenty or so authors she includes, while Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant in their very successful collection, Women's Life in Greece & Rome: A source book in translation, 2nd edn (Baltimore 1992) include material about women by men as well as a selection of texts by women. The Oxford collection of sources on Women in the Classical World (1994) combines both features in its inclusion of both female- and male-authored texts about women's lives in chapters devoted to specific times and places in the ancient world.