Review of Diotima: Materials for the study of women and gender in the ancient world

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Diotima: Materials for the study of women and gender in the ancient world

In 1995, when Suzanne Bonefas and Ross Scaife created Diotima, it was one of only a handful of subject-specific Web sites for topics in classical studies. Much has changed in the years since. Scholarship on the topic of women in antiquity has continued to emerge at a rapid pace and has expanded its focus to include ancient constructions of gender and sexuality. In addition, more resources of all sorts have become available over the Internet, and more students and instructors are now well equipped (both technologically and attitudinally) to take advantage of them. In the midst of this evolving landscape, Diotima, now chiefly under the direction of Scaife, has likewise had to evolve to remain current and maintain its focus, and has mainly been successful in doing so. After nearly five years Diotima remains one of the most useful sites available to students of antiquity. For a site that is managed by educators rather than computer professionals, it is also remarkably well devised and well maintained.

Diotima primarily offers links to remote resources and to local copies of material published or distributed elsewhere. There is, however, a growing amount of material created especially for Diotima and housed on its server. The simple and elegant home page offers clear, text-based links to these resources, of which the most valuable are Bibliography, Anthology, De feminis Romanis, Course Materials, Essays, and Visual Images. The home page also offers access to a Search function and to a choreographed selection of links to the Perseus Website.

In the last two years Diotima's Bibliography section has undergone significant improvement. Where previously this section consisted of a simple list of records broken down into subject categories, now the records have been gathered into a unified database. A keyword search form generates a formatted list of hits on demand. Subject keywords have been associated invisibly with each of the records, a move that greatly increases the effectiveness of the search and gives Diotima an advantage over other databases that restrict their searches to words contained in the author and title fields. (1) As an example of the site's commitment to interconnectivity, much effort has been devoted to linking the citations in the bibliography to other electronic resources (including reviews of books and full-text versions of articles in on-line journals). Besides the search form, the Bibliography page also presents a copious catalogue of subject headings (where one can find subjects such as "Virginity," "Hera," "Aeschylus," etc.). Instead of connecting to static lists of sources, however, a click on any of these headings initiates a keyword search of the database. This feature replicates the structured environment of Diotima's old bibliography while adding to it the flexibility of the new system.

As the authors readily admit, the database is "not complete", but it does house over three thousand records of books and articles, and is certainly a good place at least to start one's research or to send one's students to start theirs. The reader is also warned that the usefulness of the items in the database "varies considerably" and that it has an "emphasis on recent material" (one might also add that it has an emphasis on English-language material). As is to be expected in such a large amount of data, there are some typographical errors, but they are remarkably rare. A somewhat more serious problem is occasional inconsistency in citation methods. These discrepancies are mostly innocuous, but some of them may detract from the effectiveness of searches, such as referring to journals like Classical Philology sometimes with the full title and sometimes with "CP."

Anthology, under the separate editorship of Diane Svarlien, is a collection of translations of ancient sources, some of them published previously and some done specifically for Diotima. Of the previously published translations, the most useful is likely to be the excerpts from Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant's staple sourcebook, Women's Life in Greece and Rome. (2) Over 100 of the entries from the print version (approximately one quarter of the total) are available, including many of the most important passages, such as the excerpts from On the Killing of Eratosthenes and Against Neaira. The Anthology also houses, in its entirety, an electronic version of Robert Torrance's 1966 translation of Sophocles' Trachiniae (3) and a well-annotated hypertextual translation of Antigone by W.B. Tyrell and L.J. Bennett.

The Anthology's current repertoire is a mixed feast. Contributions by heavyweights such as Gregory Nagy (Homeric Hymn to Demeter), Mary Lefkowitz (Accius on clitoridectomy, etc.), and Judith Hallett (selections from Ovid) sit side-by-side with the efforts of capable non-classicists such as Bruce MacLennan (the Pandora story from Hesiod's Works and Days). Most translations are accompanied by rudimentary annotation designed for beginners. Some have more complete introductions and ancillary commentary. The translations, even of the poetry, tend toward the literal and pedestrian, with more attention paid (quite appropriately, given the venue) to presenting the materials as sources of information rather than as examples of literary art. There are some exceptions to this, such as John Quinn's jaunty alliterative renderings of a number of Horace's Epodes, and Steven J. Willett's remarkable translation of a selection of the Odes which attempts an accentual replication of Horace's complex meters.

Another original feature of Diotima is De feminis Romanis, a project contributed separately by Celia Luschnig and her students. This section provides the Latin texts of several passages dealing with women, Livy's account of the Rape of the Sabines and Pliny's Arria letter being two examples out of more than a dozen. Each passage is accompanied by very basic notes designed to accommodate the readings for use in an intermediate Latin class. This is a valuable resource (as anyone who has struggled to find appropriate prose selections for second-year Latin can attest) and might easily serve as a model for additional contributions. Some users, though, will probably find the annotations either too skimpy or too prone toward simply translating difficult spots.

Many of the links on Diotima's home page give access mainly to off-site resources. Course Materials furnishes a collection of syllabi, lecture notes, and ancillary resources for over fifty courses in ancient women and gender, a priceless resource both for first-time teachers of these topics and for veterans who are looking for new ideas. Essays offers a growing number of links to electronic scholarship, most of it housed in other websites and e-publications, but there are also texts of paper-published articles provided to Diotima by the authors. Visual Images, similarly, gathers a number of links to remote locations (Diotima does not maintain its own archive of graphics). These latter two sections are rich in valuable and interesting links, but accompanying the good items are some of more questionable quality, a problem that will be discussed in greater detail below.

Of the remaining links on the home page, two are very useful, the rest less so. Perseus does not take the user directly to, but instead to a page offering a number of connections to Perseus that have been optimized for the field of women in antiquity. Teachers of "women in antiquity" courses who want to incorporate the resources of Perseus into their teaching would be well advised to take advantage of this helpful shortcut. The Search option is a bit disorienting at first, but is still worth becoming familiar with. The visitor cannot use it to search Diotima's bibliography (which is accessible via a separate search form on the front page as well as through the Bibliography link), and it will search all files on the Kentucky Classics server, rather than just the Diotima files. The searches run through this option are performed with a professional search program that produces a list of hits prioritized in a star-rating system. As with all such systems the computer's opinion of the pertinence of a hit is no substitute for the careful scrutiny of all the search results.

Announcements presents notices of conferences, calls for papers and other time-sensitive information. This is potentially a convenient venue for disseminating news in the field of ancient women and gender. At the time of this review, however, the Announcements page had not been updated for some three months, and two of the three items listed on it were out of date. Finally there is Biblical Studies, a link which seems a bit out of place. Through this link the visitor is taken to a page that is not specifically geared to women or gender at all, but instead consists of a set of links that are of general use for investigating biblical matters. One section of this page is directly pertinent: a set of links to primary texts dealing with women, but one has to scroll through a lot of other material to get to it.

This last item exemplifies one of the few legitimate criticisms one could level against Diotima: there is a slight tendency to include more than is really necessary or pertinent to the topic of the site. The explosive growth of Web resources in recent years and the ease of providing links from one site to another have presented site designers with an almost irresistible temptation to provide links to as many things as possible. The result is often a Web site in which is cumbersome to consult and which has lost track of its own identity. This problem is not as bad in Diotima as it is in some other sites, but there are some areas of concern. The Images section, for instance, offers numerous links that have no obvious relation to the site's central topics, such as "Assorted Images from the Oxford Classics Server" and "19th Century Photography of Ancient Greece". Likewise, in Course Materials the courses represented have expanded from those dealing with women and gender to those that deal with any aspect of ancient society, including "Food in Antiquity," "Roman Slavery," and "History of Ancient Medicine."

This problem is particularly worth mentioning in light of Diotima's likely audience. Though the site is potentially of use to anyone with even glancing interest in the ancient world, it has a clear target audience for which it will be most valuable. The contributors and links are predominantly North American, and even more predominantly English-speaking. Though the topics of women and gender in other ancient societies, such as Egypt and the Near East, are not ignored, the focus is overwhelmingly on Greek and Roman antiquity. There is little here to help out researchers on women in ancient China, India, Mesoamerica, etc, and likewise little on general feminist theory and anthropological studies of gender. These limitations mean that professional researchers will soon find themselves in need of looking beyond Diotima, a fact which makes the site's usability by students and inexperienced researchers even more important. For this reason more emphasis should perhaps be given to selectivity than to comprehensiveness and eclecticism. Quality control is also an occasional problem. Although the vast majority of the material Diotima has to offer is scholarly and reliable, there are some exceptions. The Images section, for instance, contains links to such things as an entertaining but uninformative virtual "gallery" of ancient erotic art, and the Essays section, while full of invaluable scholarship, also has a number of items of spotty provenance, including submissions to e-mail lists, articles from popular publications and site descriptions published by tourist agencies. The non-scholarly material, while not overwhelming, is precisely the sort of thing that will catch the eye of the tyro researcher and end up on his/her list of sources. The instructor who sends his or her students to Diotima cannot omit giving them careful instructions about the evaluation of Internet sources.

The interface design of Diotima is impeccable throughout. Information is laid out in large, attractive type on a plain white background. There are no frames and very few graphics. This no-frills aesthetic is a remnant of the site's early days, when most Web users were operating in a low-tech environment, and is a refreshing sight these days when many webmasters seem to devote more effort to ostentation and gadgetry than to efficiency and accessibility. There are only a couple of ways in which the interface could be improved: A navigational image map appears on all subsidiary pages housed on Diotima's server, but no alternative text links are offered for the graphically challenged. The raft of text links that appears on the front page looks fine on a large screen, but word-wrap problems occur when the window is scaled down or viewed on a smaller screen.

The University of Kentucky server on which Diotima is housed is very reliable, and both it and the site are maintained on a professional level. As editor of the Stoa Consortium (, Scaife's ability and determination to ensure the site's upkeep can be relied upon. Regular monitoring (using LinkScan software) keeps the number of dead links to a minimum. In dozens of extended visits to the site I have never found more than two or three defective links at any one time. Most of Diotima's local pages (though not all, unfortunately) include a form for reporting errors and suggesting additions. Errors reported by me in the course of researching this review were all corrected within a couple of days.

In conclusion, keeping in mind that a reviewer of a dynamic Web site is presenting more of a progress report than a final judgment, the assessment I would make of Diotima is that it is an exemplary resource. The authors and editors of the site are to be commended for taking on such a major project in the early days of the Web, when the career advantages of devoting time to the development of electronic resources were far from clear (not that they are much clearer now). Their efforts in managing and improving the site ever since have maintained Diotima's position as one of the few sites that all classicists, whatever their area of specialty, should be familiar with. Future plans for Diotima include more additions to the Anthology (for which Svarlien offers an invitation to would-be translators), a new series of essays written especially for Diotimaon general topics, and a Greek counterpart to Luschnig's "De feminis Romanis." A closer association with the Stoa Consortium and a possible move to the Stoa server is also in the works (which, if nothing else, should at least enable Diotima to have a simpler URL). As the site develops further it is to be hoped that the authors maintain their emphasis on quality and pertinence and resist the temptation to turn their site into an omnium-gatherum.


(1)See the comparative review by Linda Roccos of the bibliographical features of Diotima and other sites: Back to text.

(2) 2nd ed Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. Back to text.

(3) Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Back to text.

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