Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.46

Sharon L. James, Sheila Dillon (ed.), A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. Blackwell Companions to the ancient world. Ancient history.   Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.  Pp. xxiv, 616.  ISBN 9781405192842.  $199.95.  

Reviewed by Sarah B. Pomeroy, Hunter College and the Graduate School, CUNY (


This book is a collection of thirty-nine articles arranged in five sections; each section opens with an introduction. The chronological range is vast: from Prehistory to Late Antiquity. The geographical territory surveyed is equally vast: from Mesopotamia to Roman Britain. The authors include scholars such as Elizabeth Bartman, Judith P. Hallett, and Barbara Levick who have already published their own books on aspects of women in antiquity, as well as lesser- known junior scholars. (See the Table of Contents in the Preview linked at the top of this review.) It is impossible to comment in detail on every paper in the Companion. While some of the articles incorporate previously published material, many are original, valuable contributions to the field and could well have been published in a journal. Every introduction and chapter ends with a paragraph or two of recommendations for further reading.

This Companion presupposes a reader familiar with the ancient world and its art, history, and literature, as well as with current methodologies and theories. Thus, it is not suitable for most undergraduates: rather it seems appropriate for graduate students, and scholars in ancient studies. It is by no means a textbook or an encyclopedia. For example, there are no general articles on Etruscan or Spartan women; instead, Vedia Izzet offers “Etruscan Women: Towards a Reappraisal,” a revisionist view addressed to readers who already have a knowledge of existing scholarship, and Jenifer Neils gives an art historical interpretation of “Spartan Girls and the Athenian Gaze.” The arrangement of the book is chronological rather than geographical. For example, Part III includes women both in Hellenistic Greece and in Republican Rome. This juxtaposition is unusual in collections of articles on women and certainly raises interesting questions, but makes it more difficult for beginning students to compare Greeks and Romans – a staple of introductory courses. Although confusing to the novice, this arrangement points out where work needs to be done, for example, on Greek women in the early Empire. Some chapters discuss representations of women in the work of male authors including Homer, Archilochus, and Vergil. None, however, focuses on women writers: Sappho is cited twice in the Index of Women. In general, this book differs from most other such collections in presenting a great deal of visual and material evidence using what the editors describe as “an integrated, interdisciplinary focus” applying “articulated methodologies” (p. 1).

Despite the vigorous growth of the study of women in antiquity, however, some subjects have been barely examined and are not ripe for review or revisionist analysis. One such area, where there is abundant archaeological evidence and some literature, is “Women in Magna Graecia.” In her discussion of women in Sicily and South Italy, Gillian Shepherd concludes that grave goods are not always a secure clue to gender identity, for they varied by community. Nevertheless, the magnificent studies by J. C. Carter et al. of the Pantanello Necropolis allow Shepherd to state that female burials do tend to include mirrors, jewelry, and feminine toilet articles. Shepherd also considers whether the original Greek colonists included women or whether the settlers married indigenous women. Scholarly opinions, influenced by post-colonial theory, have varied over time. One type of evidence for interaction that Shepherd does not take into account is the list of Pythagoreans who settled in Croton and Metaponto. Following his catalogue of 218 men, Iamblichus (VP 267) names seventeen famous Pythagorean women. The extremely skewed sex ratio may be partially due to Iamblichus’ criterion that the women be “famous,” but it is likely to reflect the fact that the majority of colonists were men. Most of the Pythagorean women are Greek and come from the Dorian strongholds of Sparta, Argos, or Achaea, or their colonies. Nine women are identified as a wife, sister, or daughter of a male Pythagorean. In addition, Occelo and Eccelo, sisters of the Pythagorean Lucanians Occelus and Occilus, were indigenous (see further Sarah B. Pomeroy, Pythagorean Women. A Social History [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, to be published]). Apparently the majority of the single Pythagorean men who wanted to marry would have had to take women outside their community, whether Greek or non-Greek wives. These women would have needed to learn the Pythagorean way of life, for it embraced diet, dress, and family relationships.

An unusual feature of this collection is the inclusion of case studies, i.e. six articles, each about four pages, and each based on one piece of evidence. Unlike the chapters, these contributions do not have suggestions for further reading and some of them do not refer to the work of other scholars, but simply present the author’s ideas. In “Sex and the Single Girl: The Cologne Fragment of Archilochus,” Sharon James examines the values and social context of the seducer and the women he wishes to seduce. James concludes, provocatively, that premarital intercourse might not have ruined a citizen girl’s reputation. Unfortunately, the text of the poem itself is not reproduced in Greek or translation. A case study based on two types of material evidence is Sheila Dillon’s “Hellenistic Tanagra Figurines.” Dillon relates the beginning of the production of figurines depicting elite women to the emergence of portrait statues depicting mortal women in the mid 4th century. The so-called Tanagra figurines were a less expensive and less formal medium for showing women at public religious festivals.

On the opening page the editors state that their goal was “to draw together, in a methodologically self-conscious way, the advances in scholarship since Pomeroy [Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Women in Classical Antiquity, NY, 1975].” It is interesting to compare this volume with a similar, earlier collection that shares its title: Women in the Ancient World. The Arethusa Papers (Albany, 1984), edited by J. Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan. This book reprinted the papers from a pioneering conference on women in antiquity held at SUNY, Buffalo in 1973. The conference papers first appeared in Arethusa 6 (1973) followed by an expanded version in 1984. Like the Companion under review, the Arethusa papers discussed matriarchy and mother goddesses, Homer, and Etruscan Women. There was a much larger proportion of literature-based papers than in the James and Dillon volume: two of the fourteen Arethusa contributions treated Athenian tragedy – a topic which unfortunately does not appear in the book under review. On the other hand, the Companion contains a far greater proportion of papers using archaeological evidence than appeared in the earlier volume. The Arethusa Papers covered only Greek and Roman women; Jewish and Christian women were deliberately excluded then, but they are included in the Companion. Thus, the current interest in the fields of classics, ancient history, and classical archaeology and art history in cultural diversity and avoidance of Athenocentricity are reflected in the panoply of subjects covered in the later volume. The Arethusa contributions refer relatively more frequently than the Companion to work by feminist scholars in other fields. Forty years ago was a time of theories and sweeping generalizations, with questions about the western attitude toward women, the origins of misogyny, the relationship between heroines of drama and actual Athenian women, and whether the golden age of Greece was a good time for women. Publications specifically on ancient women are now so numerous that some authors in the James and Dillon volume refer solely to others in ancient studies.

The black and white reproductions are clear, and there is some Greek text with English translation. This book is a fine addition to the study of women in antiquity.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010