BMCR 2002.11.02

The Roman Mistress: Ancient and Modern Representations

, The Roman mistress : ancient and modern representations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. x, 452 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm. ISBN 019815075X. $39.95.

This book is a compilation of essays brought together by the common theme of the “production, dissemination, and consumption of woman as Roman mistress” (1) in media ranging from Augustan love poetry to 20th century film. It is a valuable collection that includes Wyke’s articles of the late 1980s and 1990s in which she used a feminist approach to interpret Roman elegy. In a historiographic sense, the book serves as an important capsule of the developments in feminist scholarship on this topic. As the author notes in the Introduction, her own work is an example of the progression of feminist scholarship on ancient Rome — from interest in textuality to gender relations to socio-political systems. Here she has revised the articles to include recent scholarship and has combined them with essays concerning ancient Rome in popular culture. Two of these essays are expanded chapters from her book Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History (New York: Routledge, 1997) ( BMCR 97.11.16). Each essay contains thought-provoking and exhaustively researched arguments, with extensive notes and bibliography. The book serves as an important contribution to scholarship on ancient Roman women and images of them, as well as to media studies.

The language and theoretical base of the book direct it toward a scholarly audience, although the author carefully frames and summarizes her discussions, making them more accessible to non-specialists or those unaccustomed to theoretical jargon. Wyke’s discussions and writing style are complex and not easily distilled into a few paragraphs, but this review presents some of her main ideas. The book is divided into two parts. Part One, “Love Poetry,” comprises essays on the subject of Roman mistresses in Augustan elegy. Linking the chapters are a few themes, including Wyke’s influential arguments that the female subjects of the love poems should not be read as real girlfriends of the poets but as metaphors. Within the essays she also addresses the “transgressive” aspects of the elegies, where the narrator’s admitted submission to his mistress makes him socially irresponsible because he is incapable of fulfilling his civic duties and therefore of being a good Roman citizen. In Part Two, “Reception,” she analyzes representations of Cleopatra and Messalina in popular Italian, American, and British culture, and how the films themselves, film studios’ publicity machines, as well as consumer culture, assimilated their female audiences to women of ancient Rome (or, in Cleopatra’s case, mistresses of ancient Romans).

In Chapter 1, Wyke begins with a survey of scholarship on the question of whether Latin literature, specifically elegy, reveals any realities of Roman women’s lives. Elegy’s first person voice has tempted many into assuming that the poems are autobiographical, with descriptions of real women. Wyke argues that elegy’s strong mistresses are fictions, meant to be read as metaphors for poetry and political order. By placing elegy within the context of first-century B.C. discourses about women, including domestic legislation and moralizing texts, she examines its transgressive qualities and concludes that instead of heralding a change in women’s roles, elegy shows a lack of social or political roles for the male narrators.

In Chapters 2 and 3 Wyke concentrates on the mistress in the elegies of Propertius. She argues in a close reading of the narrative of Book 2 that Cynthia is a metaphor for a Roman version of Callimachean poetics (to significantly simplify her discussion). Returning to the idea of political metaphor, she argues that the poem itself, and therefore the mistress, serves as “unorthodox political fiction” (59). Her examination of Propertius’ Book 4, organized by subject of each of the book’s poems, focuses on how literary representations of women are constructed not only by the genre that they are written in but also by society and culture.

In Chapter 4, the theme of the textual nature of the elegiac mistress is continued in an analysis of Ovid Amores 3.1. Wyke examines it as being an important poem within the tradition of Western love poetry because of its parody of the typical mistress and its mocking of those who read love poetry as if it were factual. Concluding that in Ovid “the body of the elegiac mistress has become a site for the humorous expression of Callimachean concerns” (130), she uses the poem to decode Propertian elegy and vice versa.

Chapter 5 reviews the scholarship on Augustan elegy within the context of Roman gender construction. It serves as a valuable survey and analysis of recent work. Wyke addresses many topics, including the perceived masculine characteristics of elegy — and conversely its perceived feminist characteristics, the problem of Sulpicia as a female poet of elegy, and the audience reception of elegy’s recitation. Questions and topics for further study are posed.

The second part of the book analyzes modern popular culture’s depictions of Cleopatra and Messalina and their promotion and audience reception. The Cleopatra cluster of chapters is introduced with a discussion of the historical Cleopatra, based on textual and numismatic evidence. Wyke traces the queen’s mythology from Ptolemaic views of the queen, to Roman propaganda, to biographies written in England in the 1990s. She discusses how Augustan poetry demands that its readers “take up the position of either a resistant Octavian or a seduced Antony” (200). This chapter also includes an iconographic study of monuments and coins commemorating the victory at Actium, in which images of a defeated Cleopatra are absent. Wyke’s discussion of the engendering of Roman victory iconography is compelling. The next chapters address Cleopatra in film and popular culture. The author traces the films chronologically, beginning with director Enrico Guazzoni’s 1913 Marcantonio e Cleopatra and concluding with Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra of 1963 (starring Elizabeth Taylor). Wyke’s approach here is as scholarly and theoretical as the poetry chapters, with detailed analysis of meanings both intended and received. Wyke examines several topics, including the widely varying functions of these films and how the representations of Cleopatra and her relationship to Rome change accordingly. For example, the Guazzoni film was released two years after Italy’s invasion of Turkey, one year after Italy’s annexation of Libya, and focused on Rome’s conquest of Egypt. Cleopatra is depicted to be more a murderess than a seductress. American films tended to focus on the erotic and exotic aspects of Cleopatra. The 1934 Cecil B. DeMille version starring Claudette Colbert featured snappy modern dialogue and Cleopatra as a liberated woman, as newly seen in American society. Her submission to Antony that ends the film conventionalizes and traditionalizes her. Wyke makes excellent use of research materials such as directors’ notes, studio promotional materials, study guides prepared by the studios, and consumer products tied in with the film. The discussion of how actresses, especially Elizabeth Taylor, were promoted by the studios and by the media as personifying the role they were playing is especially interesting.

The final section traces Messalina as depicted in theater, film, and television. It begins with a review of the historical evidence for the wife of Claudius, in which she, like Cleopatra, is described as sexually voracious and almost insane. A fascinating detail is the citation of an 1893 criminal anthropology book that, in discussing the typical facial characteristics of a female criminal or prostitute, illustrates a Roman portrait bust labeled as Messalina. In film, again paralleling Cleopatra, images of Messalina when produced by Italians tend to reflect Italian politics, with intended allusions to the ancient state. However, in the case of the BBC’s filming of Michael Grave’s I Claudius in 1976, in the midst of the Women’s Liberation movement, Messalina is depicted as a morally corrupt proto-feminist and is punished at the end.

The book has much to recommend it. It is an important collection of essays that also make a cohesive book. The Introduction links them well, as do references within the essays themselves. A bridge between elegy and film is not easily constructed, but here they illuminate one another. Although the book’s complexity makes it difficult for non-specialists, Wyke carefully outlines her arguments and reviews her conclusions throughout the text. The bibliography and notes are extensive and valuable for further reading.

The difficulty of the language and theoretical jargon unfortunately may restrict the book’s audience, as in the passage, “For British audiences to make sense of Claudius’ televisual journey to knowledge of the dangers of transgressive femininities, they were required to deploy their own cultural knowledge of the socially acceptable codes and conventionals for gender that had been elaborated elsewhere but whose traces might be discerned in the serial’s representation of Messalina” (388). The production of the book is reader-friendly, with translations of ancient and modern languages, footnotes rather than endnotes, and 32 clear black and white photographs integrated within the text, including superb film posters and promotional photographs.