BMCR 2002.07.32

Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Elite from Cornelia to Julia Domna

Hemelrijk, Emily Ann, 1953-, Matrona docta : educated women in the Roman élite from Cornelia to Julia Domna. [Routledge classical monographs]. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. xvi, 382 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0415196930 $100.00.

An exemplary and thorough study of the subject. As the title indicates, with its neologism based on the phrase docta puella, Hemelrijk confines herself to “women of the upper classes in Rome and Italy during the central period of Roman history (second century BC-AD 235)” (p. 2). In some ways this is a pity, since what little evidence there is for literacy among non-elite women could have been incorporated without too much difficulty and would have provided an interesting contrast.

This book has three great strengths. 1) It resolutely avoids anachronism. All too often, under the desire for compensatory history and our own depression or unwillingness to believe how grim the lives of ancient women could be, we tend to cram everything we come across into the box of “education.” For example, Claude Calame and numerous epigonoi want to shoehorn membership in female choruses into the notion of “education,”1 as though participation in your local Purim spiel were the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts. Although she does not explicitly invoke Gerda Lerner’s rule of thumb to look to a woman’s brothers when judging her social opportunities, Hemelrijk is resolute in placing what “education” means for women against the widest social background. Indeed, one could do worse in a class on Roman Civilization than to assign the opening pages on class, status, family structure, and the meaning of education to men (pp. 1-30) as a quick and dirty overview (with excellent indications of what to read next).

2) There is an exhaustive examination of the primary sources. It is difficult to think of any piece of relevant evidence that is not cited. All the sources are carefully scrutinized, with close attention to original settings and literary purposes. (See for example, her discussion of dancing as a trope and her clever juxtaposition of Plutarch on Pompey’s wife, Cornelia, and Sallust on Sempronia, pp. 17, 81-84.) The principal passages are given in Latin and Greek with English translations (though too often taken or modified from the Loeb for my taste). Thus, even when one disagrees with her conclusions, all the evidence is conveniently assembled to allow one to evaluate the question.

3) The bibliography of secondary literature is very complete and up to date. This is shown by 219 pages of text backed up by 138 pages of notes.

All the more reason to cry shame — Shame, I say! — to her publishers, Routledge. In an age in which footnotes can be printed as footnotes with the touch of a button, and every undergraduate knows how to set out a paper, Routledge has chosen to slap everything at the end of the book with no running heading other than “NOTES” (not even chapter headings, much less “Notes to pp. X-Y”). Oxford, California, Princeton, and others seem to have figured out which key to hit. In a book whose primary usefulness lies in its thoroughness of documentation, Routledge’s disdain for the reader is unforgivable. As a result, the book is rendered quite difficult to use. I found myself flagging pages with three stickies, one to fight my way back to the text, a second to avoid getting lost in the notes, and third to mark the beginning of the bibliography. This disservice to the author and reader has also led to a certain amount of redundancy. Matters discussed in the text are repeated or summarized in the notes. Had they been placed as footnotes, a rather large number of pages might have been saved. The price of $100.00 is also simply grotesque. But back to the virtues of Hemelrijk’s scholarship.

Chapter 1 outlines “The social position of upper-class women.” Chapter 2 covers “opportunities and impediments,” beginning with a overview of the contents and aims of elite education for men, then types of education for women before and after marriage. She exaggerates, in my opinion, the role of social life in women’s education. Does attending “refined dinner parties,” recitations, and the theater (p. 41) really count as education? Would it count in the case of a man? But again all factors that might have any bearing are discussed, and all the evidence is presented and weighed. Chapter 3 is on “aims and opinions”: what was the purpose of education for women and what were the conflicting views? Chapter 4 covers what little can be said about women as patrons of men’s learning and what, if anything, this tell us about their own education. (Not much; having a book dedicated to you doesn’t really say a thing.) Here again 3 pages of text (with 2 pages of notes and attendant bibliography) on what patronage meant could serve as an excellent introduction to the topic. We’re pretty well limited to the imperial family after Cornelia. So we get a review of Octavia, Antonia Minor, Agrippina, Poppaea, Domitia, Plotina, Sabina, Matidia Minor, and finally Julia Domna, with a good appreciation both of the status of the sophists involved (contra Bowersock) and how little evidence there is for a “circle.”

Chapter 5 surveys women as writers of poetry; Chapter 6 women as writers of prose. Here all the the evidence for the existence of these women is scrupulously assembled and evaluated. Hemelrijk is not herself a literary critic, but her survey of readings of the surviving texts of Sulpicia I and II, Julia Balbilla, and Terentia is complete and sensitive. We have a discussion of the lost memoirs of Agrippina, the authenticity of the two letters attributed to Cornelia (“the balance seems to be somewhat in favour of the genuineness of the fragments, but we have to admit that their authenticity cannot be established beyond doubt” p. 196), what we can deduce about the silent side of the correspondence of Cicero and others, and the full text of the letters of Sulpicia Lepidina, Claudia Severa, and Valatta from Vindolanda. The evidence for a separate weiblisches Latein is summarized and rightly dismissed. Each chapter concludes with a handy summary. Hemelrijk is careful to avoid generalizations, and to consider all the individual factors of family, wealth, housing, marriage, children, and age. The book is studded with what amount to short complete articles (see, for example, pp. 12-14 on the existence or not of an ordo matronum).

This organization, however, like the layout of the book, leads to a certain amount of avoidable repetition. Cornelia, “mother of the Gracchi” (and how irritating that title soon becomes) is discussed under “rhetoric” (24-25), “family background” (28), “private libraries” (54), “ideal” (64-67), “social status” (72), “traditional morality” (75-78), as a patron (97-102, 127-8), possible author (193-96), and political figure (206). Inevitably, a certain amount of redundancy is built in. In some ways indeed the book seems designed not to be read straight through but to be consulted for individual chapters.

I have many small disagreements. “Short personal poetry, chiefly elegiac epigram, was the genre women chose when writing themselves” (p. 49). No, that’s all that’s come down to us. “Plutarch … qualifies his approval [of Pompey’s Cornelia] by stressing her virtues as a faithful and lovable wife in spite of her accomplishments” (original italics, p. 84). No, in addition to them: authors customarily praise women for their chastity even without a mention of their artistic or intellectual skills. I still think Corpus Tibullianum 3.9 and 3.11 were written by Sulpicia herself.2 Hemelrijk rightly excludes Christianity, but Perpetua keeps sneaking in.

But these are quibbles and all the evidence pro and con is fairly presented. The book has only two real weaknesses: a lack of theory and a lack of historical comparison. Greater attention to feminist analyses of women, knowledge and power would have illuminated many of Hemelrijk’s discussions (for example, Barbara K. Gold’s “But Ariadne Was Never There in the First Place”3 and Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing [Austin, 1983] kept springing to mind in chapters 5 and 6). Hemelrijk confines herself strictly to her subject, but even a glance at Early Modern Europe, for instance, would have helped clarify similar problems of source criticism, the role of literacy, and the meaning of education for women. Over all, a solid and extremely useful survey of what we know, what we think we know, and what little we can know.


1. Claude Calame, Choruses of Young Women on Ancient Greece: Their Morphology, Religious Role, and Social Functions. Trans. Derek Collins and Janice Orion. New and rev. ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. pp. 221-44.

2. “Sulpicia, the Auctor de Sulpicia and the Authorship of 3. 9 and 3. 11 of the Corpus Tibullianum,” Helios 21 (1994) 39-62. I have made almost no converts, alas. Hemelrijk is not alone is disagreeing; she is alone in saying why she disagrees rather than rejecting the suggestion out of hand.

3. In Feminist Theory and the Classics, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin, eds. New York: Routledge, 1993.