BMCR 2007.02.23

Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome

, Sexual morality in ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (viii, 399 pages). ISBN 0521859433 $99.00.

Table of Contents

In this book, Rebecca Langlands (henceforth L.) studies the Roman concept of pudicitia in the literary sources dating from the second century BC to the second century AD. She wants to explore the term, reveal its nuances and ramifications, and thereby cast light on how Romans thought about sex and morality in general. Yet the emphasis of the book lies on pudicitia : what did it represent in Roman society? What role did it play in the public domain? What did it mean for authors such as Livy, Valerius Maximus, or Plautus? What was its function in oratory? To some extent, therefore, the generalizing title of the book is misleading. L.’s aim to answer some general questions remains partly unfulfilled. She rarely abandons the concept of pudicitia and her main general conclusion seems to be that her argument provides a challenge to the currently accepted model of Roman sexuality in terms of penetration and binary opposites (p. 365). Although this challenge is justified, L.’s study is perhaps not the right starting point for a reader who is looking for a general introduction to sexual morality in ancient Rome. This observation, however, does not diminish the value of the book. A recent tendency in modern research is to consider literary descriptions of ancient men and women not as accurate reproductions of historical reality but rather as products of a creative and literary process. Scholars have acknowledged that literary descriptions are embedded in, among other things, an author’s political opinion and the contemporary moral culture. Since the importance of virtues in Roman culture has long been established, a study of the various elements of the corpus of virtues is a necessary starting-point for research on Roman sexuality. L. has outstandingly noted this lacuna in modern research.

In the introductory remarks (pp. 1-36), L. discusses how the term pudicitia has been used in modern research. She concludes that the term is interpreted with a wide semantic range, already indicating the difficulties inherent in any attempt to understand the concept in Roman terms. L. distinguishes pudicitia from other terms pertaining to moral behaviour in Rome (such as castitas, pudor, verecundia, and modestia) and defines the special position pudicitia takes in regard to these qualities.

Chapter 1 (‘Sexual virtue on display I: the cults of pudicitia and honours for women’, pp. 37-77) treats the role of pudicitia in the public domain. As a counterpart to Chapter 6, this chapter concentrates on the attribution of pudicitia to women, whereas the latter chapter focuses on the relation between the virtue and men. L. explores the cultivation of pudicitia as a personified abstract virtue: a goddess associated with married women. By examining literary references, she tries to reconstruct the cult and deals with the associated themes and the narratives that emerge from the sources mentioning religious practices regarding Pudicitia (pp. 39-61). She also approaches pudicitia as a personal quality that needed to be displayed to and seen by others (pp. 61-77). The importance of displaying pudicitia is apparent from the sources, but how did a Roman know that a woman was pudica ? L. concludes that the sources remain coy and oblique on the question of what pudicitia looked like.

In Chapter 2 (‘Traditional narratives and Livy’s Roman history’, pp. 78-122), L. explores the meaning of pudicitia in Livy through the legends of Lucretia, Verginia, the centurion and the chieftain’s wife, and the Bacchanalian scandal. Lucretia, often considered the paradigm of pudicitia par excellence, receives most attention. In this context, L. concentrates on different Livian themes, such as the split between body and soul, the association between pudicitia and the freedom of the people, the dangers of avarice and lust, and status boundaries. This chapter consists, above all, of a closer reading and literary analysis of a few Livian passages. Although L. indicates that Livy’s interests may reflect the dominant Roman ideology in the Augustan period, she does not elaborate upon the historical context of the Ab Urbe condita. This would have contributed to a better understanding of Livy’s use of the concept of pudicitia.

Chapter 3 (‘Valerius Maximus: the complexities of past as paradigm’, pp. 123-191), which is the longest and most complicated of the book, concerns Valerius Maximus’ Facta et dicta memorabilia. The main focus lies on his chapter on pudicitia. L. starts her discussion by looking at its context within the work as a whole and at its relation to Valerius Maximus’ view of the era of the maiores. This he considered to have been a golden age since the power of virtues was so great that there was no need for further restrictions. After an extensive analysis of Valerius’ examples of pudicus behaviour, L. concludes that the examples often contain lessons about paternal authority. The Roman author emphasizes the importance of the protection of vulnerable bodies by the strongest members of society. Remarkably, many of the examples contain references to violent reactions to violations of pudicitia. Because of this and because of the moral complexity of the episodes, L. believes that Valerius did not want his audience to imitate the examples, but wanted to incite them to think about the concept of pudicitia and its relevance for social structures. Chapter 3, because of its complexity, is probably the most difficult to understand. It clearly shows L.’s familiarity with Valerius’ text. She also refers more than once to her unpublished doctoral dissertation on gender and exemplarity in the Facta et Dicta Memorabilia (‘Gender and exemplarity in Valerius Maximus’, Diss. Cambridge, 2000), but, since many readers will not have access to it, giving a broader context would often have been useful. Nonetheless, since studies on women in Valerius Maximus are few, this chapter should be valuable to every scholar interested in the subject.

In Chapter 4 (‘Subversive genres: testing the limits of pudicitia’, pp. 192-246), L. examines, as she calls it, literature for the less-well educated. These literary genres, which in ancient times were often attacked for their corrupting influence, question the moral standards of Rome and bring to attention the ambiguity that surrounds concepts such as pudicitia. Writers L. studies include Propertius, Plautus, Phaedrus, Ovid, Petronius, and Apuleius. L. analyzes how these authors tested the limits of pudicitia, how they undermined apparent certainties and exposed their problematic aspects.

Chapter 5 (‘Declamation: what part of ‘no’ do you understand?’, pp. 247-279), in a way, also treats the limits of pudicitia. L. studies the concept as a subject of declamation. She discusses how declamatory exercises consisted of constructing persuasive arguments around a controversial topic, in this case pudicitia, and how these exercises served to prepare young boys for their lives as orators. Through a study of declamatory texts by Seneca, Ps.-Quintilian and Calpurnius, L. explores the pliability of the term.

As mentioned above, chapter 6 (‘Sexual virtue on display II: oratory and the speeches of Cicero’, pp. 281-318) serves as the counterpart of chapter 1. It explores the result of the declamatory exercises treated in the previous chapter, namely the use of pudicitia in political speeches. Through various Ciceronian speeches, L. examines the role of the virtue in the image of a good citizen of Rome. Cicero highlights the importance to a citizen’s life of displaying pudicitia, and its consequent importance for the well-being of the state. Central in L.’s study are Cicero’s invectives against Verres, Clodius, and Antony, and his use of pudicitia as a means of characterization. In a concluding remark, L. observes that one should take into account the distinction between moral attitudes expressed in works such as Cicero’s and Roman ethics as actually practiced.

Chapter 7 (‘Imperial narratives, imperial interventions’, pp. 319-363) treats the works of Tacitus and Suetonius. In the first part of the chapter, L. discusses how Tacitus, unlike the authors treated in previous chapters, concentrates not on pudicitia but on impudicitia. Tacitus’ focus is mainly on vices, which he, of course, considers abundantly present in the imperial family. L.’s study of Tacitus’ Germania makes clear that his use of the concept of pudicitia in reference to the Germanic tribes serves to highlight the presence of impudicitia in Rome. L. then analyzes various passages of the Annales that describe Julio-Claudian women. L. hopes to show that Tacitus wrote these passages with the legend of Lucretia in mind. Yet, although there are similarities between the stories, in some cases they are too superficial to be convincing. In the second part of the chapter, L. studies Suetonius’ references to the decline of pudicitia under the Julio-Claudians. Suetonius, the author argues, uses the concept to symbolize the moral decline and to discuss the efficiency (or inefficiency) of imperial intervention. L. concludes that authors of the imperial period certainly used some Republican themes, such as the concept of pudicitia, but did so in reference to the socio-political changes of their times and as a means of describing the elite resistance to these changes.

In sum, L.’s study is an important contribution to the study of sexual morality in Rome. She has brought to the fore the complex meaning of pudicitia and offered a model by which other virtues could be studied. In this way, L. has broadened our view on this virtue, until now often considered characteristically feminine, by explaining how it was also a fundamental aspect of being a good citizen.