Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.04.60

Nicoletta Francesca Berrino, Mulier potens: realtà femminili nel mondo antico. Historie: Collana di Studi e monumenti per le scienze dell'antichità 4.   Galatina (Lecce):  Congedo Editore, 2006.  Pp. 198.  ISBN 88-8086-656-7.  €18.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Carolyn Osiek, Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas (
Word count: 1593 words

The author examines the use of potens and related words applied to women in Latin literature after first laying out what we can know of the general status and position of women in ancient Rome and popular perceptions about them. Her conclusion is that this terminology when applied to women always indicates from the male author's perspective a problematic situation that would be resolved by tighter male control.

Chapter one summarizes the status of Roman women in legal, philosophical, and literary sources. The discussion of the legal basis for the paterfamilias springs from Ulpian's definition of one who holds dominium in a domus. Included is a summary of theories of origin of this uniquely Roman institution. It does not allow for the possibility that a female property owner could also be included in the category of paterfamilias by the legal definition, though without legal heirs.1 The term materfamilias is not an equivalent and carries no legal power. The chapter recounts the basic denial of the rights of heredity and adoption to women, and the prohibition to postulare pro aliis.

Discussion of the philosophical sources in the second part of the chapter points out that Plato undoes in the Laws the move toward greater gender equality that he lays out in the Republic. Aristotle's views of women as inferior from conception and the passive role of the mother in conception and growth of the fetus are well known. The theme of one ἀρετή for both men and women is traced through the Cynics, and some famous women partners and disciples of philosophers, such as Themistia, Theano, and Ipparchia, are acknowledged, though with no critical discussion of sources. Brief mention is given of several Roman philosophers, notably Cicero and Seneca, the latter of whom recognized women's capacity for virtue, yet accompanied by "feminine weakness." Those philosophers who granted the same kind of capacity for virtue to women, and thus argued for education of women, did so in the framework of preparing women to be better wives, mothers, and household managers.

The third part of the first chapter looks at some images of women in literature. Girls were more likely to be abandoned at birth. Women should be silent and not talked about. The various reasons given for the prohibition of wine drinking by women are discussed. Women's dance and song are associated with seduction. All autonomous initiatives by women are condemned, especially sexual initiative.

Chapter two takes up the theme of feminine weakness, under four terms: imbecillitas, impotentia, levitas, and impatientia. The first of these words is associated with women and children, while virtus and vir were inextricably connected. The belief that mulier was derived from mollities continued well into the Christian period (Lact. Opif. 12.17). Impotentia meant lack of capacity to control and moderate one's passions and impulses, and was widely associated with women, which then justified the perceived need for strong male control. Surprisingly, Livia was portrayed as mater impotens by Tacitus, not because she had no control, but because by her passions she exercised too much power over Augustus. Tacitus also portrayed in similar manner Agrippina Minor, as did Suetonius, along with ferox, so that it is not a case of passivity but rather of aggressiveness due to attributed unbridled passion and ambition. In the ongoing discussion of whether wives could accompany their husbands on military campaigns in the provinces, Valerius Messalinus was reported by Tacitus (Ann. 3.34.5) to be in favor of it; otherwise wives left behind, living with pleasure and distraction, were likely to violate their conjugal fidelity.

The judgment of levitas was most frequently levitas animi, the stereotypical feminine defect, signifying incoherence, unreliability, and changeableness. For Gaius, it was the reason for the legal institution of tutela. Petronius' Eumolpus during a voyage discourses on the levitas of women, recounting the story of the Ephesian widow who replaced a stolen crucified body with that of her husband in order to save her lover, the soldier who was supposed to be guarding the crucified (Petronius Sat. 110.6).

Impatientia carried similar connotations: originally, the inability to tolerate a situation, but soon with moral implications, applied to the typical woman with unchecked passions, incapable of self-control. Yet the opposite idea is also contained in the use of the word: a woman who is both controlled and controlling, so that she dominates others. Such is Tacitus' description of Agrippina Maior (Ann. 6.25.2).

The third and final chapter takes up the title theme: application of potens and related words to women in Roman literature. The author distinguishes the semantic fields of potens, potentia from potestas. Potens, equivalent to Greek δυνατός, signifies capable of acting to obtain what one wishes, capable of acting with αὐτάρκεια, while the Latin potestas, equivalent of Greek ἐξουσία, has a legal background, meaning one is authorized to perform certain acts, leading especially to the authority of a magistrate. Only the first group of words is concerned here.

Potens when applied to men can carry a neutral or positive meaning, but usually has a negative connotation, especially when used in the superlative potentissimus, of one who abuses power. The word is also applied to divinities, referring to their numen, and in erotic literature to one who has the advantage over his rival, here often in the comparative form, potentior. A girl at twelve years of age is considered viri potens, indicating a capacity or qualification.

There are a number of instances in which a form of potens is applied to women. All carry negative connotations, and usually relate to the political sphere. Clodia (Cicero pro Caelio 62) is branded with this description in the midst of Cicero's attempt to distract the hearers' attention from the juridical process to her, and to create an image of her that cannot be taken seriously. For Horace (Ars 116) in a series of comparisons, a matrona potens is compared to a sedula nutrix. This would seem to refer positively to her authority in the domus. But the author argues that the context is closely connected to comedy, where stereotypes are held up for ridicule (she implies that that is what Cicero is also doing with Clodia, and even that Cicero's Clodia is Horace's model), and that the pattern of successive verses presents either positive or negative figures in an alternating pattern, so that the description is not meant to be complimentary.

Juvenal 1.69 presents another matrona potens, this time with accusation of poisoning her husband. Again, the prototype could be Cicero's Clodia, for many of the circumstances surrounding the two stories are similar. Juvenal in fact presents a series of women who tried or succeeded at killing their husbands or other close family members: Caesonia (6.615-17), Pontia (6.639-642) who killed her two sons, and Clytemnestra (6.656).

In Quintillian (Inst. 6.3.85), Domitius Afer jokes about Celsina being called a femina potens. The author argues that femina from Virgil on is a title of disdain, and should so be understood here. Firmicus Maternus (Mathesis 6.23.4) in discussion of various astrological combinations notes that those under the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus are honorable and trustworthy persons who will receive, among other things, honors and support from feminae potentissimae, the kinds of honors usually given by powerful males. The author argues that this unusual reference suggests that the power of the women referred to is problematic and indicative of an inherent difficulty with the very idea.

Flavius Vopiscus (Vita Aureliani 28.2) calls Zenobia mulier potentissima in a context in which Aurelian needed to defend his honor in claiming victory over a woman, with echoes of the Cleopatra-Marc Antony combination in Zenobia and Firmus, even, argues the author, reminiscent again of Cicero's Clodia. Ovid (Epist. 12.205) writes an imaginary letter supposedly written by Medea to Jason, who has abandoned her to marry Creusa, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. The abandoned Medea, claiming to be the rightful wife, calls Creusa potens, and brands her as paelex. Here the problematic aspect of Creusa's power is evident. Last, Statius (Silv. 1.2.158) in an epithalamium for the marriage of Lucius Arruntius Stella with Violentilla, a rich widow, calls her a potens alumna of Venus. The author argues that in context, the praise applied to her in the poem is really ironic, and the combination of the two words creates a close union of connotations between the bride and the goddess. This is the only occurrence in Latin literature of the ascription alumna of a deity to a woman. The genre of the poem, the ascription of relationship with a goddess, and the immense wealth of Violentilla combine, argues the author, to produce a warning to the groom that his new wife may become more powerful than he, upsetting the necessary masculine dominance.

The text of the book ends abruptly here, with no concluding discussion. It is followed by a bibliography and indexes of modern authors and ancient citations.

The first chapter of the book is a rather cursory summary of basic information necessary to establish in order to move on to the main subject. The word studies in the second chapter are interesting and revelatory of the Roman male mindset with regard to women that surfaces regularly in the literature. The principal argument, presented in the final chapter, is that any language of power ascribed to women is always meant derogatively and often with warning of lurking danger to men. The point is on the whole convincing, even if in one or other example it is not so clear. Berrino's book should be added to the already considerable number of works on Roman women.


1.   Richard Saller, "Pater Familias, Mater Familias, and the Gendered Semantics of the Roman Household," Classical Philology 94 (1999): 184, 187.

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