BMCR 2003.04.26

Gender Studies in den Altertumswissenschaften: Möglichkeiten und Grenzen

, , Gender studies in den Altertumswissenschaften : Möglichkeiten und Grenzen. Iphis ; Bd. 1. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2002. 124 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3884764659 EUR 17.50.

This volume is meant to lay the foundation of a new series, Iphis. Beiträge zur altertumswissenschaftlichen Genderforschung. The mythologizing name is fittingly ambivalent and already points to the multifarious aspects of the subject area. The editors (proudly, I think) emphasize that Iphis is the first series of this kind in the German-speaking world. This is true. In the context of international scholarship, the editors aim at providing an “attraktive Alternative zu ähnlichen Projekten im angelsächsischen Raum” (p. 1). Whether or not this seemingly rival-like competition per se justifies a new series, let alone can serve as a concept as such, I do not want to judge. Whether or not the editors wish to curb Iphis right from its very birth by admitting only German-speaking contributions (monographs and collections alike), I do not know. Either way, it is high time to promote research on gender-oriented issues in German, Austrian, and Swiss Classical Studies in order to bridge the academic gap that many scholars from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean increasingly seem to feel. To achieve this, various kinds of preconceptions of what ‘Classics’ ought or ought not to be concerned with need to be wiped out: philology (all too often fundamentalist by tradition) must cooperate with theory and transcend its own dogmatism: Classics must go beyond what is often (wrongly) called classical. The traditionalists’ anxiety need not concern those of us who are open-minded enough not to condemn any form of academic otherness.

This first Iphis volume contains the acta of the first (was it really the first?) German conference on gender studies in the Classics, held at the University of Trier, July 13-14, 2000.1

Here’s an overview, with sketchy details, of the individual pieces that are preceded by a preliminary essay by B. Feichtinger, which obviously was the introductory talk at the Trier conference (cf., e.g., pp. 20, 23). I shall return to that introduction at the end of this review.

Herrmann-Otto: “Frauen im römischen Recht. Mit einem Ausblick auf Gender Studies in der Alten Geschichte und der antiken Rechtsgeschichte”. This tour-de-force paper contains an important summary of extant research on women/gender in Ancient History and Law (pp. 28-33). The author repeatedly emphasizes that a reliable exegesis of gender-related (women-specific, rather) historical and legal issues in the Greco-Roman world is particularly thorny because of the cultural androcentrism that inevitably dominates the sources available to us (p. 40). Despite the paper’s title, Greece is treated as well (pp. 33-36).

Wöhrle: “Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Kindheit. Die Grabepigramme von Anyte und Erinna oder: Vom Telos eines Mädchens”. The four funerary epigrams of Anyte ( AG 7.486, 490, 646, 649) and the two epigrams ascribed to Erinna (7.710, 712) are analyzed as rare specimens of an écriture feminine (pp. 42, 48), namely as women’s poems on women. W.’s focus is on ‘social constructs and value concepts’ rather than ‘female aesthetics’ (p. 43).

Föllinger’s “Frau und Techne: Xenophons Modell einer geschlechtsspezifischen Arbeitsteilung” (pp. 49-63) under gender-specific viewpoints discusses the active role assigned to women in the context of household management (in Athens; see p. 51 w/ n. 11) as developed in the Oeconomicus. Comparing Plato and Aristotle, the author highlights the advance achieved by Xenophon in his draft of a symmetrical relation of male and female roles in the oecus (n.b., not in the society as a whole or in politics).

Schubert, in her ” Homo politicus – Femina privata? Fulvia: Eine Fallstudie zur späten römischen Republik”, questions the conventional understanding of the notion of ‘power’ (male public vs. female private realm) (pp. 67-68). Her case study of Fulvia illustrates how, in the late Republic, an aristocratic woman could become an influential figure in politics, that is, how she could effectively use the tools of her informal (female) power to take an active part in the male-dominated domain of both domestic administration and foreign affairs.

Malits and Fuhrer, in their “Stationen einer Impotenz. Zur Funktion der Frauenfiguren Quartilla, Circe, Oenothea und Proselenos in Petrons Satyrica“, explore traits of gender discourse in Petronius’ picaresque novel (gender/sex-specific roles, stereotypes, etc.). Their focal point is the sexually and socially impotent Encolpius. Circe and Oenothea, powerful women unlike the over-the-hill witches, Quartilla and Circe (pp. 94-95), “funktionieren gemeinsam mit dem Versagen Enkolps als Antithesen zu einer patriarchalen Welt, deren Wertordnung Enkolp selbst mit seinen übernommenen Rollen vorgegeben hatte” (p. 96, cf. pp. 86-93). However, Encolpius’ (sexual!) impotence is eventually healed (ibid. w/ reference to Petr. 140.12). One could ask to what extent the possible inversion of gender/sex roles can be found in other genres as well (e.g. elegy or epigram), and whether such a generic approach may further our understanding of Roman literarization(s) of the gender discourse.

Harich-Schwarzbauer’s “Erinnerungen an Hypatia von Alexandria. Zur fragmentierten Philosophenbiographie des Synesios von Kyrene” offers a critical ‘literary reconstruction’ in the history of philosophical literature of the famous female Neo-Platonic, Hypatia (p. 98). The author has worked in this field extensively and is currently preparing a comprehensive study of Hypatia in late antique literature. Her focus here is on the ‘literarization’ of Hypatia by her disciple, Synesius of Cyrene (p. 101). I do not feel competent to judge her post-structuralist explication of some passages in Synesius’ letters as specimens of ‘hidden writing’ ( verdecktes Schreiben, p. 108, cf. pp. 104-106), which she compares to the strategies of écriture feminine (p. 108). — For sure, Hypatia’s life came to a cruel end: after her assassination, some fanatics tore her body into pieces. Harich-Schwarzbauer takes this ‘fragmentation’ of Hypatia’s body to correspond to a (symbolic) ‘fragmentation’ of her life and Nachleben (pp. 98-99 and 103). I don’t know.

Reitz and Schibel’s “Die gelehrte Frau des Quattrocento: Fakten und Fiktionen damals und heute” is the only paper of this volume that goes beyond antiquity. Its point of departure is the increasing interest in learned Humanist women as shown in quite a few mainly English-speaking studies of the past 25 years (listed on p. 109). For sure, the femina docta was nothing but a “Randerscheinung” (p. 121; cf. p. 111 w/ n. 15 and p. 117). Paying special attention to Isotta Nogarola of Verona (1418-1466) (pp. 113-120), whose life, thanks to E. Abel’s 1886 edition of her writings, is much better documented than that of most of her (female) contemporaries, the authors examine (in an inevitably sketchy way) to what extent an ambitious and up-and-coming woman was able to attain to Humanist cultural ideals. Reitz and Schibel participate in a project at the University of Mannheim (“Mannheimer Texte Online”, ματεὀ, which aims at providing a computerized database of 15th century women’s writings. Provisional material is accessible at

As always in a collection, the degree of the individual pieces’ comprehensiveness varies. The impact of up-to-date social and literary-critical theory in each article is mostly clear, even if at times the respective approaches remain hidden under the surface. It can hardly be denied that the various methodological tools of gender-focused and/or feminist literary criticism do not always achieve the desired goal, as, e.g., Harich-Schwarzbauer reminds us (p. 107). This finally leads me to B. Feichtinger’s opening paper, which is supposed to offer a general frame for the seven articles discussed above. I cannot help but feel a little uncomfortable with her essay (“Gender Studies in den Altertumswissenschaften — Rückblicke, Überblicke, Ausblicke”, pp. 11-23), for the most part because her paper is much more an assessment of the position of female classicists and its development in the past century or so than a comprehensive discussion of gender studies in Classics.2 For sure, any theory in perhaps any research area is ultimately the product of its society, and it goes without saying that gender studies have chiefly resulted from the feminist movement. Be that as it may, the scholarly approach to gender issues of whatever kind in antiquity ought to be separated from the political dimensions of 20th or 21st century feminism. Feichtinger welcomes such an Entkoppelung only ‘to a certain extent’ (p. 22, cf. p. 18), because she is afraid that then the progress made by feminists to achieve equal rights for women may silently be demolished (ibid.). That must of course not happen, but if it did happen simply because gender studies and political feminism got ultimately separated from each other, then, I think, there would be something wrong with one or both of them. Academe should be able to advance both issues independently without making one the slave of the other. Secondly, it is true that ‘feminist research’ is (as Feichtinger, p. 17, puts it) ‘pluralistic’, i.e. not limited to one single approach.3 Eclecticism and/or the rejection of dogmatism is surely healthy these days, but nevertheless every scholar must make his/her methods unambiguously explicit to allow the reader to understand the argument. Finally, Feichtinger and some of the contributors seem to consider gender studies the same as feminist studies. This is not the case. Theorists rightly agree that gender is a (societal) construction (Malits and Fuhrer’s piece shows particular awareness of this). At the same time, we need to make sure that gender studies not become as stereotyped and constructed as the constructions they are academically concerned with. To use the gender discourse for a political manifesto is odd, I think, and is pretty likely to result in an unwanted mishmash of subjective and objective categories.

There is no comprehensive bibliography (neither of the book as a whole nor of any of the articles); references are scattered in the footnotes only, which is tedious, and, more importantly, the book lacks an index.

There is still a lot to do in this field. There is no mention, I think, of J. Farrell’s slender 2001 Cambridge monograph on the Latin language and culture. Of course, there’s no need to quote it, but Farrell’s chapter “The gender of Latin” is fascinatingly instructive in the context of the gender/sex discourse in Rome/Latin. He concludes this part of his book thus: “In Latin culture women play the role of the linguistic Other. At best they may attain to a nearly masculine linguistic culture. The most successful can almost pass as men, particularly in the eyes of modern readers”,4 thus, e.g., Schubert’s Fulvia as a ‘female Octavian’ (p. 79). Here we have an open field that calls for more attention from scholars of whatever sex, male, female, or other.


1. A follow-up conference on Gender Studies in den Altertumswissenschaften took place in Zurich, July 4-5, 2002.

2. See, among various other references (e.g., p. 12 n. 5), the prominent position of B. F. MacManus’ (most valuable) Classics and Feminism of 1997 (p. 11 n. 2, etc.). I have learned a lot from Feichtinger’s discussion of the maltreatment of women in the past two centuries (pp. 14-16). Feichtinger speculates that the more women succeed in gaining equal rights in certain fields of academe the less respectable those fields become, or vice versa (p. 15). To prove this, she quotes from an article that appeared in an Austrian newspaper (ibid.). I do hope that its author does not represent the Austrian people in general.

3. Cf. Th. A. Schmitz, Moderne Literaturtheorie und antike Texte (Darmstadt 2002), pp. 193-213 at 193. Schmitz, pp. 206-213, gives a neat summary of the dimensions of gender studies as they have developed from feminism and feminist studies.

4. J. Farrell, Latin Language and Latin Culture from ancient to modern times (Cambridge 2001), pp. 52-83 (quotation at 83).