BMCR 2005.12.05

The Worlds of Roman Women

Raia, Ann., Luschnig, C. A. E., Sebesta, Judith Lynn., The worlds of Roman women : a Latin reader. Focus classical commentary. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2005. ix, 189 pages ; 27 cm.. ISBN 9781585101306 $24.95 (pb).

Prudence Jones, in a 2000 BMCR review of another Focus book, Finis Rei Publicae, rightly said that “Intermediate Latin is a difficult course to teach.” How, then, can one facilitate the transition from an introductory Latin course to unadapted text? What genres and authors should an intermediate course cover? What types of cultural material? Until now, Roman women and gender had been de facto left aside from the intermediate Latin curriculum. Thankfully, The Worlds of Roman Women is a step in a new direction. It will help more fully integrate women into any Classics curriculum. We have had Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant’s Women’s Life in Greece and Rome for use in our courses in translation, but The Worlds of Roman Women brings materials on Roman women into the language classroom. While I have not yet had the opportunity to test this book out on its target audience, namely intermediate Latin students, the text seems to provide enough passages of varying levels to suit the needs of a range of student abilities. Some parts of the anthology will challenge students more than others. But on the whole, this book fills a gap in language teaching and I look forward to using it in the classroom.

The Worlds of Roman Women attempts to merge two difficult tasks. First, it proposes a text suitable for Latin students of an intermediate level, tackling the task of finding selections of an appropriate level, deciding how much grammar and vocabulary help to give, and putting it into a useful format. The originality of the book lies in its other task, namely to present readings “solely by or about women.” (vii) The introduction to the book gives students a taste of important scholarly work that has been done on Roman women, providing basic background information on past and recent approaches to reading Roman women. The textual excerpts range from the third century BCE to the second century CE. The book is divided into different “worlds,” the worlds of childhood, learning, marriage, family, the body, the state, work, and flirtation. The selections come from a number of sources, many not traditionally read in undergraduate language courses, and they include inscriptions, epitaphs, as well as a variety of poetry and prose writings. Authors include Pliny, Aulus Gellius, Ovid, Valerius Maximus, and Livy, just to name a few. It is a good mix of often read and often overlooked readings. Having a wide selection of sources can prove difficult for some students who have to constantly readjust to the styles of different authors, but obviously this difficulty can be a good exercise in itself. The inscriptions and funeral epitaphs not only nicely introduce students to cultural material but are also texts for which translations are not always easily available to students. There is an obvious practical advantage to using lesser known texts: in the age of the amazing Perseus website, students can be tempted to look up grammar, vocabulary, and eloquent translation before giving themselves sufficient time to struggle with the text on their own. Of course, the anthology does include famous passages, such as Propertius 4.11 and Sallust’s passage on Sempronia.

Vocabulary and grammar aid (as well as cultural notes) are presented on the pages facing the text. The editors presume that students will recognize “commonly found constructions.” (vii) There is a glossary at the end of the book, which contains all words not found in the facing page notes, as well as an index of the women mentioned in the passages. Each passage is introduced in English with notes on the writer and the women mentioned, where appropriate. The anthology also presents the student with a number of woman-related images, including various tombs, statues, and wall paintings.

To believe that intermediate Latin students will seriously consider Roman women by reading some carefully selected primary sources is perhaps expecting too much from students who are consumed by the perils and pitfalls of grammar. In many cases, this is their first year with unadapted Latin. On the other hand, the concise and clear manner in which cultural material is presented may serve as an incentive for students to continue reading and honing their translations skills. The editors point to the need for scholars, in this case feminist scholars, to carefully consider word selection and syntax. It is through these considerations that one can examine “traditions, attitudes, and conventions.” (2) A translation is not necessarily treason, but it always implies a certain number of distortions, which are either strategically motivated or grounded in unquestioned ideologies. This is an important point for students to realize if we expect them to continue reading texts in the original and not in translation. They need to understand why they are reading Latin, and this book helps in this endeavor, pointing out specific instances where word choice and syntax matter. A bibliography of future readings (mostly scholarship in English) and a listing of useful websites appear at the end of the collection, hopefully inspiring students to continue their adventure with Roman women.

The first reading of the anthology, a funerary inscription, is well-chosen, short and relatively easy to read. Such a text should give the students confidence before they move onto longer and more difficult texts. The size of the passages nicely varies throughout the anthology. The editors provide help with not only grammar and vocabulary, but with word order. Since the passages are arranged by “worlds” and not by reading difficulty, it may prove to be a challenge to find the appropriate passages early on in the term. If you would like the level of difficulty to increase as the term progresses, it will be up to you to search for the texts. Of course, if you do this, the student does not get the full effect of the carefully devised “worlds.”

The true test of this work will be on the students themselves. But from a pedagogical perspective, such an anthology is a much needed addition in language teaching. This text is a welcome pedagogical enterprise that can be intellectually stimulating to students, encouraging them to look at writings by and about Roman women with a critical eye, while honing their language skills. It skillfully walks the treacherous tightrope between culture and grammar.