Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.12

E. A. Hemelrijk, Hidden Lives, Public Personae: Women and Civic Life in the Roman West.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015.  Pp. xx, 610; 16 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780190251888.  $85.00.  


Reviewed by Helen Ackers, Duke University (helen.ackers@duke.edu)

Hemelrijk’s new book was inspired by and conceived as a complement to Riet van Bremen’s seminal work: The Limits of Participation. Women and Civic Life in the Greek East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (1996), a go-to text for any scholar of women in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Hemelrijk’s professed aim is to complete the picture begun by van Bremen, drawing together and interpreting inscriptional evidence pertaining to the civic lives of women in the Latin- speaking West of the Roman Empire. The result is impressive: the sample alone of 1,400 published inscriptions, helpfully listed and ordered in a 225-page appendix, makes this an essential reference work for any researcher interested in the civic roles of Roman women. Further, Hemelrijk’s decision to exclude evidence from Rome and imperial women, which often biases and dominates discussions of women’s public roles, allows for a far fuller discussion of elite female commemoration and participation in the civic sphere. Many generalisations and assumptions concerning female civic involvement, frequently the result of over reliance on limited literary references, are debunked. Elite women were priestesses of the most prestigious civic cults; they were honoured by and even on occasion belonged to collegia; the wealthiest gave generous donations on their own behalf and enjoyed privileged positions as patrons and even became ‘mothers’ of their home towns. Hemelrijk’s overriding argument is subtly but forcefully made: as individual elites women could and did have significant and important civic roles; despite the secondary position of women as a collective in Roman society, they had public personae.

In the introduction Hemelrijk outlines the scope of her project and her main research objectives. She limits her sample not only geographically (the Latin speaking West with the exclusion of Rome) and chronologically (the Imperial Roman period, with inscriptions dating between the first and third centuries AD), but also decides to focus on those published inscriptions that record women’s official functions, activities or civic roles. She consequently excludes any unofficial inscriptions: dedications or monuments not explicitly authorised by the town council or without named dedicator (3). Once gathered, this sample of material is then divided into three groups: honorific inscriptions, dedications (including votive and building inscriptions) and epitaphs. Through discussion and analysis of this data Hemelrijk hopes to shine fresh and bright light on the roles and involvement of women in the civic realm, and to understand which women participated in civic life, and the benefits of this involvement both for the women themselves and the communities they belonged to. Hemelrijk’s overarching aspiration is to improve our definitions and understandings of Roman women. Despite this broad purpose Hemelrijk does not anticipate a homogenising ‘answer’, but rather proposes a complex vision of Roman civic society taking account of regional and class diversity.

The first chapter provides an overview of some of the major methodological challenges incumbent on a study of this scale and ambition, and the limitations of the data under study. For example, Hemelrijk acknowledges that while the inscriptional evidence presents a more varied range of elites than is often anticipated—these are by no means all women of senatorial or even equestrian rank—we are still dealing exclusively with an economic elite. Hemelrijk also addresses such important issues as chronological trends and the impact of the epigraphic habit, regional variation and ‘Romanization’.

The main body chapters (two through six) deal in turn with the various civic roles of women: Civic Priesthoods, Civic Benefactresses, Social Networks and Civic Associations, Civic Patronage and ‘Motherhood’ of Cities and Associations, Public Honour and Representation. This structure, by Hemelrijk’s own admission, results in some repetition: it was to be expected that many women fulfilled multiple civic roles and consequently appear in several chapters. This minor shortcoming, however, should be forgiven as the breadth and detail of these chapters presents a substantial contribution to our understanding of the civic roles of elite Roman women.

Chapter Two’s discussion of civic priestesses is limited to two major groups: priestesses of the imperial cult (281 inscriptions) and priestesses of the traditional Greco-Roman pantheon (495 inscriptions), including several closely affiliated regional variations, for example the North African deity Caelestis, who is closely associated with Juno (43). By limiting her discussion to those cults most commonly associated with official and respectable Roman civic life, Hemelrijk addresses, and successfully dismisses, the myth that Roman women were only priestesses of ‘foreign’ or unofficial cults, at the fringes of Roman public life.

Chapter Three is concerned with female civic benefactions. Hemelrijk orders donations by type, from public buildings to infrastructural works, structures for entertainment, civic amenities and other forms of public benefaction—banquets, games/theatrical displays, public statues and child-support schemes (alimenta). The range and size of female benefactions is astonishing, dispelling myths that women always contributed smaller sums and engaged in less significant forms of civic munificence. Further, by focusing on those inscriptions in which women are the primary benefactors, she corrects the notion that female benefactions were always a front for the ambitions of powerful male relatives. The evidence presented in this chapter makes it clear that wealthy elite women could and did have independent civic identities. When it came to civic benefactions, the major hierarchy was economic.

Chapter Four looks at the relationship between women and the predominantly male civic associations or collegia. While it remains true that most of these civic groups were exclusively male, it is interesting to note the relationships a privileged minority of women had with these groups. Female involvement was limited (of approximately 2,500 inscriptions mentioning collegia or other civic associations around 200 pertain to female involvement) and geographically largely confined to Italy (182). Nevertheless, the exceptions are fascinating: Hemelrijk discovered two female sacerdotes Augustalium and three female members of the Augustales, from towns in central Italy (200, table 4.2). This evidence reveals that even the Augustales could, and did on occasion, have honorary female members. The chapter ends with Hemelrijk’s discussion of the tension between the second-class treatment of women as a group in Roman civic society, as is exemplified by the segregated seating in theatres, and the civic status and honours enjoyed by individual elite women.

Chapter Five examines evidence for the highest civic honours that could be bestowed on elite women: the status of ‘patron’ or ‘mother’ of a city or civic organisation. Here the discussion narrows to an even smaller minority of women, but it is intriguing to note that at this level of civic status gender appears not to have been a limiting factor. Roman inheritance law resulted in a large proportion of property ending up in female hands by the second to third century (estimates 30- 45%), and, as Hemelrijk notes, it would have been foolish for towns and civic organisations not to have cultivated relationships with these wealthy women (24 n.56, 269). However, as Hemelrijk asserts, the honours bestowed on elite women were not just symbolic. This was a reciprocal relationship, and in return for their munificence and support those women honoured as patrons or ‘mothers’ were substantially recognised and revered in their communities.

This is a point made well by the final main body chapter, which draws our attention to the public honours and recognition women could receive. These honours are divided into two sections: honorific statues and public funerals. The former section includes Hemelrijk’s one serious nod towards material culture beyond the inscriptional evidence that forms the core of this study. This consists of a twelve-page discussion of the “Form and Meaning” of female honorific statues (293- 305). A classical archaeologist might observe that this is too little, too late. In the opening chapter of her study Hemelrijk acknowledges the need to discuss inscriptions in relation to their architectural or sculptural context, correctly observing that “for the ancient viewer, the monument made the greater impression” (4). However, in this aim alone Hemelrijk’s study falls short. In this section her broad-brushstrokes approach, while necessitated by the breadth of the section, results in a rather summary and dissatisfying march through Roman female iconographic scholarship, which fails to move the discussion forward. While she cites some excellent research, ultimately the reader would be better advised to go directly to the referenced texts rather than to read her summary (most notably Fejfer’s heavily referenced volume: Roman Portraits in Context (2008) includes an easily accessible and superior overview of Roman female civic statues). Consequently one wonders if Hemelrijk’s discussion would have been enhanced by a more integrated approach to using the sculptural and architectural material evidence. Regular reference to monuments, dedications and architectural contexts throughout this book would have resulted in a more meaningful understanding of the relationship between the inscription and monument, and the impression this would have made on the ancient viewer.

The quality of Hemelrijk’s scholarship cannot be questioned. However, the copious footnotes and the structure — which encourage repetition of data and observation — and the desire to define the terms, sample and scope of the project at times result in a heavy read. Reading Hemelrijk’s book from cover to cover is not the best way to appreciate the value of this study. As Hemelrijk anticipates, the book is ideally used as a reference work to be dipped into by scholars and graduate students, depending on their interest. Each chapter stands alone well, and while cumbersome to a reader of general interest, the footnotes present a fantastic and generous resource to those wishing to investigate a topic further. There is no doubt that this book will provide the catalyst for much further research and discussion. For example, as Hemelrijk recognises, the parameters of her sample (particularly her exclusion of ‘unofficial’ public dedications and monuments) results in a focus on women of extreme wealth, the urban hyper-elites of Empire. More now needs to be done to understand the relationship of the ‘rest’ of Roman women to the civic environment.

Van Bremen was criticised by Pomeroy for a “conservative historical analysis”, which, she argued, resulted in too pessimistic a view of female civic roles in the Greek East (review 1998 AHR vol. 103 (2): 491). The same criticism could not be made of Hemelrijk’s study. Characterised by a similar methodical and meticulous approach, her discussion is powerful in its positive assertion of the public roles Roman women could play in the Latin West. Roman society remained patriarchal, and women as a class, as van Bremen’s study reveals, were most frequently defined by their private sphere roles and familial functions. Nevertheless, for a small but important group, the super-wealthy urban elites of Empire, exceptions were made. The limits of participation for this privileged set were far less restrictive.

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