BMCR 2006.07.22

Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. A Source Book in Translation. Third Edition

, , Women's life in Greece and Rome : a source book in translation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. xxvii, 420 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0801883091. $22.95 (pb).

When Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant first published their collection of sources on Women’s Life in Greece and Rome in 1982, they stood at the vanguard of feminist attacks on the male-dominated, male-oriented realm of Greco-Roman history.1 By the time the second, greatly expanded edition of their book was issued ten years later, the study of women in antiquity was no longer marginalized or disparaged, but had become an established and even fashionable field of inquiry for classical scholars.2 Now, another decade on, with research and teaching on the history and representation of women fully integrated into the Classical mainstream, a third and apparently final edition of the work has appeared.3 In view of this changed academic climate, it is pleasing to report that, in its most recent incarnation, a work whose initial conception was radical and politically motivated sustains its utility; although approaches to the study of women have developed dramatically over the past twenty-five years, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome continues to contribute to conversations about women in antiquity today.4

By producing their source book, Lefkowitz and Fant aimed ‘to make accessible to people who do not know ancient languages the kinds of materials on which historians of women in the ancient world must base their work’ (1982, xv). As with its predecessors, the third edition does this superbly, offering 526 complete texts or excerpts, 74 of which are new additions. In selecting their materials, the authors limit themselves to those which shed light on the lives of women in identifiable historical contexts (2005, xxiv). Otherwise they are constrained only by practical concerns. Texts which require reading in their entirety are omitted, as are those which are too fragmentary and difficult to interpret or are easily accessible in other publications (1992/2005, xxiii-xxiv; 2005, xxvi-xxvii).5 The resultant collection, gathered from all areas and periods of Greco-Roman antiquity, includes: epic, lyric, and satiric poetry; drama; prose texts such as biography, history, medical treatises and philosophical works, constitutional writing, novels, travel writing, and Christian texts; lawcourt speeches and law codices; magic spells, letters, legal documents, and other records preserved on papyrus; honorific, dedicatory, regulatory and funerary inscriptions, and graffiti. This material is divided into two sections: the first section reproduces the texts, notes and bibliography of the second edition; the second consists of a smaller Appendix presenting material brought to the authors’ attention in the interim. As well as reproducing documents of a similar nature, the Appendix notably includes more fragmentary texts (27b, 32a, 65a, 287a, 287b, 288d), new papyrus finds (6A and 53ἀ, and archaeological evidence (285c).

A thematic arrangement helps the reader to navigate through this diverse collection of writing. Both sections are organized according to the format of the second edition. Each text is assigned a descriptive title and placed chronologically in a sub-category under one of ten chapter headings: Women’s Voices, Men’s Opinions, Philosophers on the Role of Women, Legal Status in the Greek World, Legal Status in the Roman World, Public Life, Private Life, Occupations, Medicine and Anatomy, and Religion. This scheme makes it possible for readers to examine texts by topic or by period across disparate subject-areas. The latter task is facilitated by a new ‘Geographical and Chronological Concordance’ (2005, 399-401). Sources in the main text and Appendix are plotted in a single table according to their time and location, making the previously difficult task of comparing entries from individual cities and regions easier as well. As before, a ‘Concordance of Sources’ (2005, 402-4) makes it possible to discover what certain writers had to say about women, while texts associated with historical or mythological figures can be traced through the ‘Index of Women and Goddesses’ (2005, 405-13). Both have been updated to include the new material.

The accessibility of Women’s Life in Greece and Rome is further improved by the explanatory paragraphs which accompany many of the texts cited and place them within their historical, archaeological or literary context, as appropriate. To take some examples, excerpts relating to women in the Twelve Tables are preceded by information on the origins, publication, and longevity of the ancestral laws (108: 2005, 95); details are noted of the monument erected in Rome during the second century BCE on which the quoted funerary dedication by a baker to his wife (285B: 2005, 380); and issues of authenticity concerning the teachings attributed to St Paul in I Timothy and the implications of these teachings for understanding female participation in early church life are outlined (442: 2005, 309). Yet, perhaps for reasons of time or space, the authors have neglected the opportunity to update such paragraphs to reflect the interests of the current generation of scholars and students. The field of woman’s studies has changed considerably since many of them were written more than ten or twenty years ago. Across the spectrum of Classical study, approaches to source analysis have developed — as the new Preface to each edition demonstrates. On the book’s first outing, the authors celebrated their material as displaying ‘a spectrum of opinions . . . a record, scattered over space and time, of personal feelings’ and ‘general trends of attitudes towards women and impressions of their status’ (1982, xv). By the second edition, more caution was shown: the reader was informed of the potential biases within genres of evidence, and warned against blindly accepting their allegations (1992, xxiv). The implicit recognition that the texts shape their presentation of women for reasons other than to express certain truths is reiterated in the new edition by the authors’ call to view their texts as ‘objects’ (2005, xxvi) and so to interpret them within the social and literary contexts in which they first appeared. Thus, the authors recognize that the sources do not present opinions, feelings, or attitudes in a straightforward way, and that every reading requires awareness of a broader context. Yet, by offering only minimal information about each entry, their ambition to ‘let the documents speak for themselves’ (1982, xvi) continues to dominate the format of their book.

Of course Women’s Life in Greece and Rome is a source book and from the first Lefkowitz and Fant have envisaged its documents being read in tandem with relevant historical scholarship (1982, xvi;1992, xxvi). However, the focus of this scholarship has changed dramatically since the book first appeared. While scholars in the 1970s were keen to uncover the minutiae of women’s lives in ancient Greece and Rome, modern-day classicists and historians, influenced by post-structuralist theories of literature and art, ask how and why texts and visual images represented or ‘constructed’ women and how these works operated in their performance settings. They seek to advance understandings of ancient women by investigating their place in society and in its cultural imagination.5 Undergraduate teaching has changed accordingly: few courses on women in antiquity focus exclusively (or even partly) on the minutiae of their daily lives. A quick glance at institutions in the UK and North America reveals that students on courses devoted to women in ancient Greece and Rome predominantly spend time analysing constructions of the female in different (literary and artistic) genres and settings and consider their social and cultural significance.6 It is interesting to note that for these courses, the second edition of Women’s Life in Greece and Rome is often the standard reference book with texts selected by tutors from across the collection to help discuss particular topics. As undergraduate teaching seems to be a primary market for the work, some recognition of current scholarly methodology and debate in preface to individual texts or chapters would enhance its utility to teachers and students in the contemporary class room.

A stronger response to contemporary methodologies might also have encouraged the authors to contextualize their visual evidence to a greater degree (figures 1-22). In compiling this evidence, Lefkowitz and Fant have again drawn from a commendably broad range of material: monumental sculpture, funerary reliefs, and votive offerings, Athenian figured vases, wall-paintings, coins, papyri, and mosaics (the third edition includes six new objects) are all represented. As they explain, ‘The illustrations … were chosen for their relevance to topics covered in the text, rather than as a source in themselves to provide additional information about women’s lives’ (1992/2005, xxv). However, sandwiched between two pages in the middle of the book and given only the briefest of explanation, they are removed from the topics that they are intended to illustrate, as well as from their original archaeological and cultural settings. For example, the first illustration presents a ‘Relief in Pentelic marble showing a maenad leaning on her thyrsos. Roman copy of a Greek original, perhaps by Callimachus, c.420-410 BC. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1935, New York).’ Neither the Contents nor the Indices help the reader to identify which texts this image might be associated with, or indeed what a maenad might be. At the very least it would have been helpful for each object to feature along with the textual evidence in the ‘Geographical and Chronological Concordance’, or, even better, to be wholly integrated into the collection, with its own entry number and more extended commentary.

To conclude, the new edition of Women’s Life in Greece and Rome surpasses its predecessor by presenting an even greater array of source material relating to women in the Greco-Roman world in a more accessible form. Like the second edition it strives to remain pertinent by including texts on current topics of debate: where the previous edition expanded its treatment of women’s occupations and religious roles, new entries in the third edition respond to academic interests in ageing, peripheries, and the Late Antique period (2005, xxvi). Moreover, although the agenda of ‘women’s studies’ has dramatically changed since the book was first published, the sources examined remain the same. The on-going commitment of Lefkowitz and Fant to expand and publish their ever-growing collection of sources relating to women in the English language (by electronic means in future: 2005, xxvii) is, therefore, not only laudable but important for the continuing growth of the field.7 In its third incarnation, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome should remain a staple reference work for undergraduates and scholars alike.


1. First and second editions of M. R. Lefkowitz and M. B. Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, were published in 1982 and 1992 respectively by Duckworth in London. The first edition was itself a successor to the authors’ earlier Women in Greece and Rome (Toronto/Sarasota, 1977) (1982, xvi).

2. Before the 1970s the study of women in ancient Greece and Rome remained by and large a sideline or curio for established male scholars whose primary interest lay elsewhere: see the contributions of A. W. Gomme, ‘The Position of Women in Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries,’ Classical Philology 20 (1925) 1-25; Charles Seltman, Women in Antiquity (London, 2nd edition 1959); and G. E. de Ste Croix, ‘Some Observations on the Property Rights of Athenian Women,’ Classical Review 20 (1970) 273-278. However, under the influence of the feminist movement the study of women in antiquity took off, especially following the landmark publication of S. B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York, 1975). The 1980s thereafter witnessed an explosion in publications grappling with the status, position, and experiences of ancient women. At this point, scholars also began to consider the value of representations of women and to contemplate their theoretical approaches. For a taster of that scholarship, read the essays collected by: H. Foley (ed.), Reflections of Women in Antiquity (London, 1981); A. Cameron and A. Kuhrt (eds.), Images of Women in Antiquity (London, 1984); J. Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan (eds.), Women in the Ancient World. The Arethusa Papers (Albany, 1984); M. B. Skinner, Rescuing Creusa. New Methodological Approaches to Women in Antiquity (Texas, 1987).

3. The last printed edition at least: for electronic developments of the project see n.7 below.

4. The radical and political foundations of the book are politely indicated by the opening lines of the Preface to the first edition (1982, xv): ‘Histories of the ancient world have traditionally been written without reference to women. The ancients themselves set the pattern: wars and politics, not social or domestic affairs, claimed the chief attention of educated men. But the politics of today’s world urge our reconsideration of past practice.’

5. As noted in n.2 above, a movement towards this approach had already begun in the 1980s: P. Culham, ‘Ten Years after Pomeroy: Studies of the Image and Reality of Women in Antiquity,’ Helios 13 (1986) 9-30. But see also the scathing attack on these approaches and call for renewed interest in the realia of women’s lives by S. B. Pomeroy, ‘The Study of Women in Antiquity: Past, Present, and Future,’ American Journal of Philology 112 (1991) 263-268. S. Dixon, Reading Roman Women (London, 2001), 1-15, offers a more measured response to scholarly developments.

6. Outlines and resources for over sixty courses in the area of women’s studies, mostly posted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, can be found on the Diotima website.

7. Readers are encouraged to send suggestions for future entries to the authors and are directed towards Maureen Fant’s personal website for links to any material forthcoming. At present, the entry for Women’s Life in Greece and Rome at this site connects directly to the Diotima website where many of the texts in the second edition are already available.