BMCR 2000.06.23

Engendering Rome: Women in Latin epic

, Engendering Rome: Women in Latin epic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 149. $18.95 (pb).

Although recent decades have seen a flourishing of scholarship on women in epic, most of these studies have focused primarily on Homer, Apollonius, and Virgil. There has been relatively little feminist work on the poetry of less frequently read epicists such as Statius or Silius. A.M. Keith’s Engendering Rome, which provides analyses of passages from Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, Silius, and Valerius Flaccus is thus a welcome addition to the field. The volume is part of the “Roman Literature and Its Contexts” series, whose aim is to promote “approaches to Roman literature which are open to dialogue with current work in other areas of classics, and in the humanities at large.” Keith (hereafter K.) fulfills this goal nicely by offering stimulating and insightful close readings of epic that are informed by feminist and literary theory, social history, and anthropology.

As she states in the introductory chapter (“Gender and Genre”), K. is interested in how Latin epic both expresses and constitutes gender asymmetry in ancient Rome, or in the words of Theresa De Lauretis, how epic functions as a “technology of gender”. K.’s point of departure is that Latin epic is a masculine genre. Not only was epic “composed by men, consumed largely by men, and centrally concerned with men”(1), but it was also instrumental in the construction of Roman masculinity. According to K., Latin epicists “scrutinise the conventions of Roman virtus (‘manliness’) in ‘poetry that trains men’ by inculcating the ‘values, examples of behavior, [and] cultural models’ by which Rome won and governed her Mediterranean empire”(6). This project of ‘making men’ involves legitimating hierarchies of class, gender, and nationality by presenting a narrative about expansion and foreign conquest, as well as one about the establishment of proper interactions among classes and between the sexes. For K., much of the power of Latin epic lies in the fact that the genre constructs a model by which Roman social relations, both at home and abroad, are organized.

The second chapter (“Epic and Education”) deals with the didactic function of Latin epic. K. examines the place of epic in the Roman curriculum in order to argue that from childhood Roman elite boys were schooled in notions of gender difference and the superiority of male over female. The first half of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of Roman schooling and the ways in which educational institutions shaped political and social identity. Citing passages from Quintilian, Seneca, Suetonius and Tacitus, K. posits that in addition to providing linguistic and rhetorical training, the schools of the grammarian and the rhetorician socialized Roman boys in the conventions of masculinity. Epic played a significant role in this instruction, since the genre was regarded as the repository of the ideals of manliness. As K. remarks, “Familiarity with Roman epic thus constituted an essential component of the ancient Roman’s ‘cultural capital’ and confirmed his membership in the social and political elite” (11). The second half of the chapter offers a discussion of select passages from the Aeneid and the Thebaid that focus on the female in Latin epic and the interpretation of these passages by the ancient commentators. K. points out that at various moments the poet himself problematizes an essential view of gender, but yet the ancient commentators use these very passages to reaffirm a gender hierarchy. K. argues that these commentaries are representative of the type of interpretative strategies to which elite boys were exposed in their reading of the Aeneid and thus “allow us a glimpse of the ‘pedagogic work’ of reproducing Roman social relations … performed through a reading of epic in the ancient curriculum” (18).

Chapter Three (“The Ground of Representation”) explores the cultural association of the female body with the earth. While the metaphor of Mother Earth is found in Greek myths and literature, it is given an innovative twist in Latin epic. Here K. analyzes passages from Ennius, Virgil, Lucan, Ovid, Statius and Silius Italicus to make the case that Roman poets feminize the terrain of heroic action through the literal or symbolic inscription of women into the landscape. For example, in Ennius’ Annales, Ilia literally becomes a part of the topography of primordial Rome as she is thrown into the river Tiber; the site of her rape and death is the site of the rescue of her sons and of the foundation of Rome itself. In the Aeneid the assimilation of woman to land, seen in the burial of Caieta in primaeval Italy, culminates with Lavinia, whose very name signifies her connection to Latium. Surprisingly, in her examination of the Aeneid K. does not discuss Dido. The simile comparing the queen’s death with the destruction of Carthage lays bare the ideological connection between woman and land. K rightly maintains that the inscription of women into the land has political and social implications. In this paradigm female characters, once they are absorbed (either literally or symbolically) into the land, lose all agency; they become sites that are defined and possessed by men. The male domination and appropriation of a feminized landscape plays out, and appeals to, a gendered dichotomy that situates women in nature and men in culture. Ultimately, K. argues, the assimilation of woman to land legitimates women’s displacement from the Roman cultural and political order.

In chapter Four (” Exordia Pugnae : engendering war”) K. moves from a discussion of woman as passive matter to woman as instigator of war. K. begins her examination of this theme with female characters in the Aeneid who incite war, especially civil war: Juno, Dido, Helen, Allecto, Amata, the Furies, who become the embodiment of war. The displacement of responsibility for war onto women finds its historical analogue in contemporary discourses about figures such as Cleopatra, Fulvia and Hortensia; K. astutely locates the image of the militaristic female seen in epic in the unprecedented visibility of upper class Roman women in the politics of the decade between Philippi and Actium. “The male conquest of the militant female in the Aeneid reflects a potent enabling fiction of the early Augustan regime, in which Roman Order is re-established externally through the defeat of Cleopatra and internally through the re-domestication of Roman women” (81). The remainder of the chapter is devoted to an investigation of this association of the feminine and war in later Latin epic: Lucan (Julia in book 3, Cleopatra in book 10), Silius Italicus (Hannibal is the tool of Juno and the avenger of Dido), Statius (the Lemnian conflict, Jocasta, Bellona), and Valerius Flaccus (the Lemnian conflict).

While the arguments in the chapter are, on the whole, persuasive and well-worked out (K.’s readings of the Aeneid and Thebaid are excellent), the one section that is not as convincing is K.’s discussion of Ovid. As K. notes, in his “Iliad”, Ovid downplays the implication of gender in the stucture of war; there is no mention of woman as the inciter of war. By scarcely mentioning Helen in connection with the Trojan war and instead critiquing male heroism through his depiction of Achilles, Ovid undermines the generic logic that places responsibility for war on women and in the process demystifies woman’s role as scapegoat. While K. acknowledges that Ovid problematizes the Virgilian (and epic) paradigm, using the case of Caenis/Caeneus (a woman who is transformed into a man) she goes on to argue that a “natural hierarchy of gender” underpins Nestor’s account of the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths (a doublet for the Trojan war). To be sure, the rationale behind Caenis’ desire for the sex change (she asks her rapist Neptune for the boon in order to be invulnerable to future sexual assault) appeals to an essential view of gender. But the remainder of the episode underscores the fluidity of Caeneus’ gender identity (since s/he, as K. herself notes, is depicted as both hypermasculine and feminine) and thus disrupts a strict binary opposition between the sexes. I would have liked to have seen K. deal further with this issue of how Ovid (and other epic successors of Ennius and Virgil) subverts the epic model with respect to gender. At various moments in the book, K. points to instances of gender and generic slippage (e.g. in chapter 3, she observes that Statius undermines the epic association of woman and land by enveloping male characters into the ground of heroic action), but does not always fully explore their implications.

The final chapter (“Over her dead body”), the best in the book, deals with the “intersection of ‘death, femininity and the aesthetic'” in Latin epic. The argument here is that female death is sexualized in epic and consequently the female body is the “site where sexuality and violence coincide” (104). The sight of the beautiful female corpse is the catalyst for the action of epic; political and social order are established “over her dead body.” Woman’s status as the object of the male gaze thus underwrites male agency and subjectivity (both that of the male heroes within the poem and that of the male poet and his readers). While all of the close readings that K. does in this chapter are interesting and provocative, her analyses of Ennius and Lucretius are especially good. In the case of Ennius, K. points out that the poet endows Ilia with a corporality (and hence a sensuality) that is denied to any of the male characters in the poem; the narrative repeatedly draws the reader’s gaze to Ilia’s body and its respective parts (hands, heart, foot, tears). Even the depiction of Ilia’s rape emphasizes her sexuality by implicating her in the rape; all sexual desire and responsibility for sexual violence are displaced from Mars onto Ilia. As K. concludes, the Annales ultimately “inscribe[s] her [Ilia] in an ideological system that associates the female with the body, the body with sexuality, and sexuality with death” (107). The inter-relation of female body-sexuality-death culminates with the assimiliation of Ilia’s raped and dead body to the landscape of primordial Rome; the city is literally founded on her dead body. This nexus of ideas is more fully developed in Lucretius’ representation of the death of Iphigenia, whose sacrifice guarantees the safe passage of the Greek forces from Aulis and their subsequent success against the Trojans. As K. notes, the poet exposes Iphigenia’s various body parts to the reader’s gaze, dwelling first on her blood, then moving to her maidenly locks, cheeks, and shaking knees as she goes trembling to her death. The image of Iphigenia as spectacle is underscored by the mention of the way in which the Greek soldiers gaze upon the sacrifical victim.

In sum, Engendering Rome is a significant contribution to the field and is sure to be appreciated by classists, social historians, literary critics, and those interested in gender issues in ancient Rome. One of the strengths of the study is K.’s skill in presenting sophisticated and complex analyses in very readable prose. Though K. is obviously well-versed in different theoretical texts, her own writing is lucid and jargon-free, thus making the work accessible to a broad audience. Specialists and undergraduate students alike will find much of value in Engendering Rome and will gain many useful insights into the role of women and the construction of gender identity in Roman epic.