BMCR 2001.10.13

Roman Women. Translated by Linda Lappin

, Roman women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. vi, 249 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226260933. $45.00.

1 Responses

This English translation of an Italian volume published by Laterza in 1994 as Roma al femminile is something of a companion to the same publishers’ A. Giardina (ed.), L’uomo romano, which appeared in Italian in 1989 and in English in 1993 with the rather misleading title The Romans. Whereas Giardina’s book dealt with men by types (slave, priest, bandit, etc.), the new volume looks at individual women both as themselves and as representatives of types: Claudia the Vestal Virgin, Cornelia the Matron, Fulvia the Woman of Passion, Lycoris the Mime, Livia the Politician, Perpetua the Martyr, Helena Augusta: from Innkeeper to Empress, Hypatia the Intellectual, Melania the Saint. At least one of these classifications seems questionable: was Fulvia not as much of a politician as Livia? However, they enable the book to have a broad thematic, chronological and geographical range. The quality of the contributions varies considerably, from some which repeat very familiar material rather uncritically to others which offer profound new insights. Nevertheless, the book is an important and interesting addition to the growing library of works on Roman women, even if the delay since its original publication means that it does not always take the latest ideas into account. There is a general trend towards showing that less is known about some individual women than has usually been claimed.

In the Introduction, Fraschetti takes a rather pessimistic view. “It was considered unseemly for outsiders to praise a woman’s virtues, for her talents and abilities could find expression only within her home. No one but her closest relatives could know anything of her merits, and the members of her family were the only persons permitted to speak of her to others” (p.2). This sounds as if it has come from a work on Greek women, and seems incongruous alongside discussions of Livia (honoured in inscriptions throughout the Roman Empire), Hypatia (whose role in public life led to her murder) and Melania (the subject of a biography). A general survey of women’s role in society from Lucretia to the Christian Empire provides some background and introduces each of the chapters, although it includes some debatable claims about the Roman family. Plutarch did not consider the ‘wife-swapping’ arrangement of Cato, Hortensius and Marcia to be ‘typically Roman’ (p.5), but was well aware that it was more like Spartan practice. Veyne’s ideas about the development of companionate marriage in the first century CE are quoted with approval (p.10), even though other studies have shown that there was much less change in ideals than Veyne claimed.

Scheid on ‘Claudia’ briefly discusses Quinta Claudia and Claudia the Vestal Virgin, the two candidates for having brought the statue of Cybele from Ostia to Rome at the end of the Second Punic War. He looks at how Roman sources managed to confuse the two women, and takes them as representing ‘two closely complementary images of female sexuality and perfection’ (p.31), the matron and the Vestal. He also detects a message about the importance of collaboration between the sexes.

Cornelia is probably the first historical Roman woman about whom there is enough evidence for a biographical essay (just as she was the first to get her own statue), but Petrocelli shows that most of the information is related to the men in her life and filtered by her usefulness as a model of female virtue. Her qualities of chaste matronhood were emphasized while her intellectual abilities were generally played down. Her roles as daughter, wife and mother may not have formed ‘the essence of her entire existence’ as he claims (p.65), but they certainly formed the essence of her public and posthumous image.

Fulvia, too, was known for her intelligence, but in her case she attracted moral condemnation for alleged cruelty and overstepping the bounds of acceptable female behaviour. Virlouvet argues that modern scholars have been too willing to accept the ancient sources’ image of her. She was apparently able to attract her husbands’ devotion without being beautiful, in itself something which put her outside the conventional praise of women. Her death was very convenient for Antony, who was swiftly able to reconcile himself with Octavian and marry Octavia. Virlouvet provides an adequate brief biography, but does not consider the larger question of whether any woman who intervened in late republican politics to the extent Fulvia did was doomed to failure.

Traina’s essay on the well-known but shadowy figure of Lycoris the Mime is one of the most successful in the book, reconstructing the world from which Volumnia Cytheris (her real name) emerged. A slave actress who got her freedom, she could move into the world of the aristocracy through sexual relationships with some of its younger members, and for a time she was treated by Cicero with the deference due to Antony’s wife. Traina usefully points out, in contrast to some recent romanticizing of the world of courtesans, that she was not in a position to choose her own lovers, and real-life courtesans could not expect the happy endings which Roman comedy offered them. There is no information about what happened to Lycoris after she was in her thirties, a time when she presumably ceased to be a potential love object for Latin poets.

Fraschetti provides a fairly basic biography of Livia, with little attempt to criticize the usual sources very deeply (beyond exonerating her from accusations of poisoning) and no direct reference to non-literary evidence. Octavian ‘fell madly in love with her’, but no explanation is offered of how he got the chance to do so in the middle of a civil war. Fraschetti assumes that Livia was responsible for arranging her sons’ marriages but admits how difficult it is to know who did what behind the scenes in the ‘court’, whose existence was a creation of the Augustan political system and where Livia’s role might deserve investigation.

The Christian martyr Perpetua is a figure of huge importance as the first woman whose prose writing in Latin is preserved in any significant quantity. She has been the object of a number of recent studies, of which the English-language ones are too late for inclusion in Prinzivalli’s bibliographic notes (although there seems to have been some post-1994 updating for the new edition, as there are items from as late as 1997). Prinzivalli argues that Perpetua’s self-confidence came despite, rather than because of, her family background. Her traditional upbringing and conditioning were responsible for her attempts to present a dignified appearance in the arena, something which has often been thought of as an addition made by the compiler of her martyr-acts. However, she defined men in relationship to herself, precisely the opposite of what normally happened in ancient texts or in respectable society, as shown by Cornelia. Perpetua only narrated facts of ‘special inner resonance for her’, leading to notorious lacunae like the lack of reference to a husband. The beating which her father received at the hands of the procurator’s men can be attributed to the family’s diminished status caused by Perpetua’s disgrace, as her father predicted. Prinzivalli compares the compiler’s positive attitude to women in general with Augustine’s retelling of Perpetua’s story with an emphasis on her overcoming of feminine weakness. This essay offers some important new insights in a heavily studied area.

In her essay on Helena Augusta, Consolino argues that even less is known about Helena than is usually imagined. Not only is Helena’s involvement in such political machinations as the death of Fausta unknown, but her contribution to the finding of the ‘True Cross’ is a late addition not mentioned by her contemporary Eusebius. She can be assumed to have been of humble origins and the concubine rather than wife of Constantius, but her religious affiliation before becoming a Christian is unknown.

Hypatia is now the subject of her own monograph by Maria Dzielska, not included in Ronchey’s bibliography. Most studies of Hypatia tend to treat her as an aberration, a successful woman in an otherwise entirely male-dominated intellectual world; she is often discussed in the context of other isolated female scientists or philosophers from different periods. Was she really a unique phenomenon in Alexandria at the end of the fourth century? Without trying to answer this question, the first part of the essay gives a brief introduction to the Alexandrian world of the time (it is highly unlikely that there really were 100,000 Jews in Alexandria at this time, as claimed on p.163). Ronchey then provides an interesting survey of European attitudes to Hypatia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before returning to the ancient sources and the imaginative nature of much of their treatment of her. The last parts of the essay look at her relationships with her student, the future bishop Synesius, and with philosophy, lamenting the tendency to focus on her ‘martyrdom’ and to view her primarily in terms of her relationship with Bishop Cyril.

The Melania of the last chapter is the Younger Melania, an ‘extraordinary mixture of radicalism and conformity’ according to Giardina. She dedicated her daughter to virginity at birth, and, like her grandmother and others of that pioneering generation of Christian female ascetics, found dedication to God stronger than motherly affection, despite not having any of the usual statuses of virgin, widow or (after her daughter’s death) mother which most female saints held. She renounced wealth and status yet was an authority on theological questions and received VIP treatment when she travelled. Giardina does not take the hagiographical account of her life at face value: ‘Melania’s sincere and ardent love for Christ was combined with an ill-concealed narcissim’ (p.202). She adopted a masculine role towards the outside world and within her own marriage and did not have the male mentor who had lurked behind some of her predecessors, yet her biographer found this all entirely praiseworthy. Melania was a high-achieving woman, but her achievements were made possible by the advantages which her background gave. It would be interesting to know how far Christianity offered new opportunities to women who were poor or uneducated, but the structure of the book with its concentration on famous individuals rules out any discussion of such questions.

The book does not have conventional footnotes except for the Introduction. Each chapter is accompanied by some ‘bibliographical notes’, varying in size from less than one page to more than eight, some involving considerable annotation and some just providing a list of titles.

The translation is generally quite adequate (except in chapter 8, which has a different translator, some very strange English, and a clear mistranslation in a place where both Italian and English are quoted: ‘come ci parve’ does not mean ‘as we liked it’), but some names have been left in an italianized form when they are more familiar in English in other versions: Sylla for Sulla (p.27), Cuma for Cumae (p.50), Bambalion for Bambalio (p.60), Jacopo for Jacobus/James (p.138), Tebaid for the Thebaid (p.164), Ipparchia for Hipparchia (p.178), Eustochio for Eustochium (p.203). One technical term has been mangled: ‘aedile curule’ (p.26). ‘CIL 2408’ (p.90) is not a very helpful reference. There are a few errors, presumably resulting from difficulties in translation: Gaius Gracchus was surely considered mad rather than ‘furious’ (p.60); Caligula was not Livia’s ‘grandchild’ (p.106), Claudius was not her ‘grandnephew’ (p.117), and Bishop Cyril of Alexandria was the nephew not the grandson of Theophilus (p.161); ‘mathematicians’ (p.184) apparently stands for astrologers. Jerome wrote about ‘the Briton’ not ‘the Breton’ (p.200), and leges annonariae were certainly not ‘rationing laws’ (p.69).

[[For a response to this review by Anthony Alcock, please see BMCR 2004.07.33.]]