BMCR 2006.12.02

Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life. Oxford Studies in Classical Literature and Gender Theory

, Gender, domesticity, and the age of Augustus : inventing private life. Oxford studies in classical literature and gender theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (x, 360 pages).. ISBN 9780191515644. $99.00.

In this book, Kristina Milnor (henceforth M.) explores the use of the ‘domestic’ in the political ideology of the Augustan Age and its effect on subsequent historiography. In keeping with the goals of the series, M. incorporates works that have attracted little interest from literary scholars working from a feminist perspective. Her investigation of such texts is a major strength of the book, resulting in a fine analysis of, to pick just one example, the rhetorical strategies Vitruvius uses in book 6 of de Architectura to make domestic space reflect Augustan ideas of domestic life. M.’s book, aimed at a scholarly audience, begins with a preface, followed by an introduction, five chapters and an epilogue. After the body of her text she includes references, an index locorum, and a general index. The topics of the chapters are as follows:

Chapter 1: Reading and Writing Gender on the Augustan Palatine

Chapter 2: Other Men’s Wives: Domesticity and Display in Vitruvius’ de Architectura

Chapter 3: Women, History, and the Law

Chapter 4: A Domestic Disturbance: Talking About the Triumvirs in the Early Empire

Chapter 5: Natural Urges: Marriage, Philosophy, and the Work of the House

Epilogue: Burning Down the House: Nero and the End of Julio-Claudian Rule

In her introduction, M. declares that “this book is . . . about how and why the early Empire developed new ways of articulating ‘correct’ female behaviour, and what those new articulations had to do with the larger cultural transformations of the early Empire” (1). She wants to look at “how femininity functions as a cultural construct, which both creates and is created by a particular historical context” (2). By examining representations of ‘femininity’ in texts, she identifies something she calls “gendered Augustanism” and defines as “a set of ideals and ideologies which on the one hand imagined themselves to be beyond the petty rise and fall of political systems, and on the other served as one of the fundamental building blocks of the new imperial state” (3). M. asserts that after winning the civil wars, as a ‘private’ citizen Augustus made the domestic sphere a political arena, thus redefining public and private life. The subtitle of this book is thus misleading, for it has nothing to do with the invention of private life per se, except in the broad sense of looking at texts produced in imperial Rome, in which, compared to the emperor, mostly everybody was in effect a privatus. In discussing her method, M. says that she has chosen her texts for their connection with daily life in that they are “vehicles for learning;” but then declares that “ultimately, however, this is a study of representation rather than reality” (40-1). Finally, M. hopes that her study will “show that, far from existing in some isolated world of transcendent and transparent values, women and women’s place were continually the site of struggle and negotiation as a part of early imperial culture” (46). This seems to me to set up a straw man, as I don’t know of any recent work that claims such a place for women, nor am I sure exactly what M. means by this.

M. announces at various points what her book is about, which I found eventually confusing, as what the book was about seemed to change. After her explanation on p. 1, quoted in part above, M. notes that the age of Augustus created not so much a lived distinction between the domestic and the political “but rather a new language used to debate, delineate, and defend the correct relationship between the two” (31). Thereafter, M. declares: “This book, then, is about the motivations for, and mechanisms for, and mechanisms of, that [discursive] policing — about the ways in which the Augustan period both created, and was created by, the image of the good woman within the good home” (32). A few pages later, we find that “this book, then, is about a series of ideas which are imbued with history but have not been understood as ‘historical’ themselves, and which are grounded in the material environment but are not only expressed materially” (38). In general, M.’s writing style distracts the reader from the good points that she makes.

In Chapter 1, M. looks at Augustus’ house on the Palatine which, she argues, the princeps used to perform privacy for the Roman people’s benefit, to emphasize his position as a ‘private person’ even as he held all public power. Examining the gendering of Augustan space by means of interlocking texts and structures — the porticoes of Livia and Octavia, Cicero’s de Domo Sua, and Augustus’ Res Gestae, she argues that women had an important symbolic function in Rome’s urban environment to mediate between domestic and civic ideals. Augustus’ Palatine complex, and textual presentations of his relationship to it, M. asserts, “use femininity and female roles to make ‘domesticity’ an imperial virtue, inseparable from the civic virtues on which Augustus is generally supposed to have built his auctoritas” (43).

M’s use of archaeological evidence is sometimes problematic. Her discussion of the porticoes mentioned above may serve as an example. It is certainly true that Augustus dedicated them using the names of his female family members. Augustus himself stresses his dedication of the buildings in the names of others in the Res Gestae. However, although M. acknowledges that, for example, Livia here stands for Augustus, she argues that Livia and Octavia, by having their names on these porticoes, assume roles as private individuals acting unambiguously for the public good (62-3). Thus, they “purify” the sites with “female domestic virtue” (80). Surely anyone looking at these porticoes would know that they were looking at Augustus’ patronage, nor would they mistake them for private acts of politically uninterested individuals. Further, my faith in her discussion founders on her apparent ignorance of standard reference works such as Steinby’s Lexicon Topographicum. A cursory glance at C. Panella’s article on the Porticus Liviae reveals that Augustus erected it in Livia’s name, but that Tiberius together with his mother dedicated it in January 7 BCE, on the occasion of his triumph. This historical context should have bearing on her discussion of the portico’s gendered meaning. An equally cursory glance at Viscogliosi’s entry on the Porticus Octaviae shows that while it was dedicated in Octavia’s name, the complex had been financed by Augustus himself with the booty taken from the Dalmatians in 33 BCE. Given these facts, it is unclear to me how the princeps was in reality constructing “a kind of politicized privacy,” as M. puts it, “a way for an individual to have power and influence outside of the traditional structures of republican civic life” (64). It is true that both women were private citizens and thus could not gain political power from this type of public patronage, but if everybody knew these porticoes were really funded and put up by Augustus, was that reality obscured by dedications in the name of the royal women? Perhaps M. disagrees with the interpretation of these monuments in basic references such as Steinby, but she needs to tell us, if so.

The first chapter does contain an interesting analysis of Cicero’s de Domo Sua, in which M. argues that the orator makes his Palatine house a sort of national symbol, comparing the house and his weeping wife and daughter to a conquered city and its suffering women (75). The house, then, represents the state itself, in M.’s view (78). In contrast, Clodius’ portico and statue of Libertas, portrayed as public monuments for the benefit of the Roman people, become symbols of his private immorality and greed (76). M. asserts that Cicero’s house, as he constructs its meaning in the de Domo Sua, becomes an intermediate stage in the evolution of significance of the houses of powerful public Republican figures and Augustus’ imperial Palatine complex (78).

In chapter 2, M. argues that Vitruvius’s text reflects not a blueprint of real Roman domestic architecture and social relations but rather the Augustan idea that imperial culture can be read via the structure of domestic life. Her main question is: given that Vitruvius makes gender central to his presentation of the Greek house, why does he omit gender in his discussion of Roman houses? She looks at the places in which Vitruvius does mention gender in order to discover its purpose in the text’s logic, such as the gendered architectural language in book 4, specifically the account of the origin of the architectural orders, in which he describes the Doric order as gendered male and the Ionic as gendered female. When the architect combines the Doric and Ionic orders to produce the Corinthian (96-97), M. argues that Vitruvius makes gender disappear. Because the Corinthian order was very popular in Roman architecture by this time, M. sees here a “sense of progress from the (Greek) past to the (Roman) present” (97). Nevertheless, while noting that Vitruvius describes the Greek Ionic order in terms of a Roman matron with her stola, M. doesn’t address the anachronism of that term. M. argues that Vitruvius attributes gender only to ‘other’ people, not Romans, since the Corinthian order represents not a gendered body but a strange combination of virgin’s grave and vegetation. To the architect, M. suggests, “all places . . . are simply pieces of a larger imperial space, meant to display masculine virtues and values.”

Although the Roman house’s central courtyard was traditionally “a place where virtuous femininity encountered civic life, as part of the public display of the Roman home” (108), Vitruvius makes no mention of women in his discussion of the Roman house — but does incorporate gender elsewhere. He talks about the use of caryatids as roof supports, providing an aetiology for them in the story of the capture of medizing Caria in the Peloponnese. The Greeks killed the men and enslaved the women, forcing them to keep wearing their matronly stolae to serve as shameful examples to others. Architects then used their images on public buildings to carry heavy burdens. Here, as opposed to the passage discussed above, M. does see meaning in Vitruvius’ anachronistic use of the Roman stola : “it seems to me that too little has been made of the stola and its significance to Vitruvius’ description” (112). After discussing Augustus’ later efforts to limit the wearing of stolae to virtuous matronae, M. argues: “The stola was thus not simply a woman’s garment, but a good woman’s garment, associated not just with female members of the upper classes, but with female members who correctly performed their duties as wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. The story of the caryatids in Vitruvius, therefore, turns on the idea that power, military power, may be manifested in the public display, not just of women, but of women clothed to emphasize their role as representatives of virtuous domestic life” (113). These two analyses, one of which ignores the significance of the anachronistic stola while the other emphasizes it, serve as an example of the facile argumentation into which M. sometimes slips.

After this, M. goes on to argue that Vitruvius uses the display of domestic femininity as “a complex cultural and textual signal, rather than a straightforward symbol of virtuous private life” (124). Her discussion of the architect’s chapter on Greek domestic architecture is very interesting and generally well argued. Vitruvius concentrates on gender in the Greek house in order to emphasize that the Greeks have private (female) spaces that they wish to keep hidden. In contrast, there is no privacy in the Roman house, no secrets to be kept from outsiders. Thus, the lack of gendered domestic space expresses or reflects the natural overall superiority of the Romans, which justifies their imperial power.

In chapter 3, M. looks at “the ways in which law and the history of law became important in Augustan ideology as a means of situating women within the public/private dichotomy” (44). To do so, she discusses the Augustan social legislation (the laws themselves and what later historians such as Tacitus say about them) and Livy’s presentation of the debate over the repeal of the lex Oppia. M.’s unique contribution here, she says, is to look at Augustus’ laws “as a historiographical event — as an imperial act which changed the way that authors read and represented law and the history of law in the early Roman Empire” (142). In essence, she looks at these laws as texts, at how they function as “representational vehicles” for what it meant to live in early imperial Rome. In particular, M. investigates what these laws might say about the role of domesticity. Her discussion of Tacitus’ reworking of Livy’s Oppian law debate is particularly good, concluding that it “reveals the ways in which Tacitus is operating with a conception of place and power different from Livy’s: Rome has become a vast provincial empire and in it women are active political players . . . [Tacitus] constructs a new means of asking the question of where women belong in the Roman state” (185). This is one of the book’s most clearly written and convincing chapters.

Chapter 4 examines representations of domestic life during the civil wars, concentrating on prose authors such as Cornelius Nepos, Appian, Dio Cassius, Valerius Maximus and Seneca the Elder. M. asserts that rather than functioning as strict historical accounts, the triumviral narratives, in particular, were used to depict the late Republic as an era when the domestic realm became the arena for politics. Because historians were not able to write about the political violence in which Octavian was complicit, they created an alternative history with stories of virtue and vice in private life which characterized that moment in time. M. notes that “insofar as it was invested in advertising itself both as a faithful expression of, and as an improvement on, the political system which went before it, the early Empire’s representations of the late Republic were necessarily complex and highly ideologically charged” (186-87). This is an intriguing chapter, and M.’s discussion of Seneca’s Controversiae 10.3 is especially effective, followed by her analysis of Appian’s representation of deposed triumvir Lepidus as not only disempowered but feminized, which brings her argument to a powerful close.

M. contrasts the philosophical texts of Musonius Rufus and Columella in Chapter 5, in order to look at “the relationship of the Roman citizen to himself” as constructed through household life (239). Neither of these later imperial texts associate the return of good domestic life with the beginning of the empire, she contends, but they do exhibit the Augustan emphasis on the household as the primary place of social life. Using Foucault’s The Care of the Self as a springboard for her discussion, M. analyzes Musonius’ presentation of companionate marriage as a protection for the external community, even as private domestic space represents anti-social drives. For Musonius, domesticity “depends on the presence of a wife but is abstracted from the house, the wife’s traditional place in the map of Roman society” (253). The relationship between husband and wife becomes a model for more public, communal relationships in the philosopher’s ideal Stoic state.

Like Musonius, M. argues, Columella also attempts to provide a lifestyle paradigm for Roman citizens that will benefit them both domestically and communally. M. looks mostly at books 11 and 12 of the de Re Rustica, which outline respectively the duties of the vilicus and vilica of a farm. Contrasting Xenophon’s Oeconomicus with Columella’s work, M. shows that whereas the primary concern in Xenophon’s text is with men’s fitness to function morally in the public world of the polis, Columella’s text rejects those urban, communal activities “as both corrupted and corrupting.” Instead, the Roman citizen should concern himself with the country, his farm, and “the neat symmetry of the relationship between villa, vilicus, and vilica” (267). Citizens thus occupied would restore Rome to moral superiority. In M.’s analysis, the vilicus and vilica serve as moral exempla for Roman citizens and their wives: the bailiff embodies what Columella’s book teaches, and the bailiff’s wife manages and preserves what the farm produces under her husband’s guidance. Addressing the fact that the bailiff’s wife is an employee, or perhaps even a slave, rather than a freeborn wife such as in Xenophon’s text, M. asserts that she functions as a symbol of domesticity most importantly, which is “the natural goal of the wisdom laid out in the book” (282). Still, I wonder why Columella used employees of uncertain status rather than freeborn Roman farmers and their wives as the main characters in his text, if he wished them to serve as lifestyle examples. I am unconvinced that elite readers would see themselves and their moral roles in life in the characters of vilicus and vilica, and be motivated to change.

In the epilogue, M. argues that whereas Augustus “made Rome into the image of a good home,” Nero “constructs it as a bad one, and thus brings a fitting end both to his own dynasty and the kind of ‘domestic politics’ which characterized the early Empire” (45). After discussing the fact that the Augustan dynasty was genetically continued by his daughter Julia, M. claims that “the succession of Nero comes to be understood as the triumph of . . . the fundamental femininity of Julio-Claudian rule” (292). Whereas Augustus’ focus on the domestic sphere symbolized “his ability to transcend the messy politics of the late Republic” (299), Nero destroys the boundary between public and private, a destruction that is symbolized in the Domus Aurea. She ends the epilogue with this statement: “On both material and symbolic levels, the fact of the imperial domus transformed how Rome thought about the ‘correct’ relationship between public and private life, and how the work of the one influenced the construction of the other” (304). Given this, and although she stated in the Introduction that her book is about representation, not reality, M.’s discussion would have benefited from consultation with recent scholarship on Nero and the Domus Aurea, such as Larry Ball’s contribution to JRA Suppl. 11 (1994) or his book, The Domus Aurea and the Roman Architectural Revolution (2003), or Champlin’s Nero (2003). Even as she traces the historiography on Nero’s house, she could have noted that we don’t know much about either Augustus’ or Nero’s houses, the remains of which are scanty. Further, no one has been able to interpret with any precision spaces that are public or private in the sense of M.’s discussion, in the house of Augustus or even in the best surviving (Esquiline) part of the Domus Aurea.

M. concludes with her belief that the Roman empire succeeded because of the Augustan age’s ability to present itself successfully as something different, solving the problems that had plagued the Republic by transcending the division between public and private. The Augustan age did this by focusing on the domus as the site where politics was “felt most deeply, expressed most profoundly, and played out on an emotive and moral level not achieved in the more formal sphere of state” (304).

This is an interesting book with many useful analyses and insights regarding texts relatively unstudied by literary critics. While this book deserves a place on university library bookshelves, I found it tough going because of M.’s verbose narrative style, sometimes facile argumentation and logical leaps, and lack of attention to the archaeology of the structures she discusses. If the study is purely about representation, not reality, then a lack of attention to material culture is reasonable. However, M. does refer to the archaeological record in her discussions, which injects reality into the representation.

In aid of a possible second edition of the book, I offer the following suggestions. More editing would be helpful to prune M.’s overuse of a number of expressions such as “this book, then,” “in other words” (77 and passim) and the verb “drums” (121, 172, 201, 222), which make her narrative verbose and repetitive. Although the text is largely free of typos, I did notice a few: “behoves” for “behooves” (viii, 162), “on which speech turns” for “on which the speech turns” (67), “would became more” for “would become more” (79) “refering for “referring” (142), “villian for “villain” (194).