BMCR 2008.03.09

The Mirror of Antiquity. American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900

, The mirror of antiquity : American women and the classical tradition, 1750-1900. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xii, 242 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9781501711558 $28.70.

Table of Contents

Caroline Winterer has now added the counterpart to her earlier work on the influence of Greco-Roman classics in the intellectual, social, and political life of elite men in the early United States.1 This work concerns elite women in their engagement with the same subjects in their education and reading, values, fashion and furnishings, and the classical iconography of women in the early history of this nation. It necessarily addresses women of elite status since the evidence for their lives, in letters and diaries, is most abundant. It is a fascinating study that will appeal equally to students of American history, of feminism, of aesthetics, and of the Classics’ Rezepzionsgeschichte.

In her Introduction (1-11) Winterer gives a brief of the book, outlining the ways in which women used classical education and references as a kind of language by which to talk about, and indeed take, their place in early American society. Her semiotic treatment is thus like that of F. Waquet, though Winterer does not deal so much with institutional education per se.2

Chapter One, “The Female World of Classicism in Eighteenth-Century America” (12-39), primarily concerns the risks faced and overcome by pre-Revolutionary women in acquiring classical learning. Education for girls and young women regarded the end purposes: since women would not be involved in public affairs and politics, they did not need the training in those areas that was required of young men, chiefly in the form of Greek and Latin languages and literature. The growing cult of ‘politeness’ in the female and mixed-company salons brought about a greater interest in classical learning, even for women. The risk there was of making oneself pedantic and thus unattractive to men. Advice manuals encouraged women to acquire only as much classical knowledge as was necessary to maintain a lively interest and conversation involving classical references, the sure mark of the well-born and well-bred. An evolution then ensues, from polite, if superficial, female acquaintance with classical literature to “the humanist project of artful self-fashioning.” It is in this enterprise that classical portraiture and fashion combine with ‘Orientalism’ in the shaping of a distinct female idealization, one might say in competition with men. The easy adoption of Turkish modes of dress and headwear was the result of an imaginative association of ancient Greece with Asia Minor and the Near East. Winterer closes this chapter with examination of the effect of three writers on the education, in the broadest sense, of women in America in this period: Charles Rollin’s Ancient History, Pope’s translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, and Fénelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus. Her discussion of Pope’s influence in women’s lives furnishes Winterer a segue to Phyllis Wheatley and thence to the access of blacks to classical education generally. This is fascinating and important because it throws light on how classical learning was a closely guarded privilege and because it so challenged white notions of black intellectual inferiority. This will be resumed in her sixth chapter.

The second chapter (40-67) concentrates on the figure of the “Roman matron” in American literature and art during the Revolutionary and Constitutional decades 1770-1790. The term “Roman” is here generic only, meaning a woman of traditional qualities, whether Greek, Roman, or even Carthaginian. Winterer demonstrates how women of this period emulated and assumed personae of notable Greek and Roman women in order to stand beside their patriot husbands and male relatives in the casting off of tyranny and the founding of a new Republic. Notably, women began reading much more classical history at this time and took an ever-greater interest in the cause of liberty as a result. American women used classical references and allusions to step out of their customary seclusion and to take an active part in the formation of a new nation. The “Roman play,” a genre of amateur dramatic writing on classical persons and events, became for elite women a “viable public voice.” Parallel to literature is the iconography of the time, in which such painters as Copley, Reynolds, and Charles Willson Peale represented women dressed in classicizing fashions and poses. Catharine Macaulay becomes the model for this, chiefly because of her unusual literary achievement, her History of England (1767). More balance is needed here: weren’t loyalist American and British women at the time wearing similar “Roman” fashions? It seems that they were. What, then, could be said about the different meaning sought by such styles? I am not convinced that this was a deliberate and well-articulated choice made by classically educated patriot women; yet I don’t deny that some of them might have used such fashions in the way Winterer says they did. Winterer apparently does not know Greek or Latin, and that is certainly pardonable. There are several embarrassing moments, however, when one wishes she had checked on her original sources with someone who does or that her editor had done so. Discussing a Peale painting of John Beale Bordley (p. 57), she cites and translates the Latin on an open book in the image as “Notamus Legos Anglicae mutari” (“We observe the laws of England to be changed.”). Ouch.

The third chapter, “Daughters of Columbia, 1780-1800” (68-101), concerns the uses of three classical female figures as expressions of post-Revolutionary American women’s interest in and importance to the formation of the new, independent United States: women of Sparta, “Roman Charity,” and Venus. Winterer describes these as “Trojan horses,” symbols with more significance than they at first seemed to have in the emerging debate about the place of women in the new, free, and egalitarian republican society. This is especially important as classical academies for girls begin to appear and the education and literacy rates of women rise. That debate centered around military service as qualification to political rights: since women did not bear arms in the defense of their country, should they enjoy the same civic rights as men, who did? The Revolutionary persona of the Roman matron now shifts to that of the Spartan woman, a shift facilitated by the reading of Plutarch’s Lives, especially the life of Lycurgus and the account therein of the athletic training and the part played by Spartan girls and women in that militaristic state. Winterer quite properly calls this a “mythologizing of the Spartan mother” in post-Revolutionary America. But at this point, as indeed throughout her work, one must note that classical references were the only viable references that Europeans, even those in the New World, could possibly make. In that cultural continuum, when women sent their menfolk off to battle for liberty and prosperity, what else could they be but Spartan matrons?

Perhaps Winterer’s most fascinating example of the application of a classical exemplum to the symbolic importance of women in the early United States is that of “Roman Charity” (79-89). This is a story in which a daughter visits her aged and imprisoned father and keeps him alive by nursing him at her own breast. Unfortunately, it is here that a more accurate reading of original sources would have saved embarrassment. The story originates in Valerius Maximus, and Winterer says she has read Shackleton Bailey’s translation. In fact two separate stories are there, a much longer one at 5.4.7, in which a daughter suckles her own imprisoned mother, and another, much shorter one at 5.4 ext. 1, derived from a painting, in which the daughter’s and father’s names are made known: Idem praedicatum de pietate Perus existimetur, quae patrem suum Mycona consi[mi]li fortuna adfectum parique custodiae traditum iam ultimae senectutis velut infantem pectori suo admotum aluit. No emperor is involved, no year-long breast-feeding. Clearly, in the literature and paintings Winterer discusses, there was already some conflation of the two stories (e. g. the snoopy guard). But the weight she gives to the father-daughter relationship exemplified by this story and its use by early republican American women in their challenges to patriarchal authority should have been balanced by reference to the other one and clearer distinction made between them. This chapter closes with a short but important treatment of the reception of Venus in early American elite society as a mode of discourse about the respective qualities, interests, and privileges of men and women. Statues and paintings of Venus, once the exclusive domain of men, eventually become an acceptable sign of a cultured aesthetic in which women can take part. But fears of a female emotionality are offset by the use of Minerva’s image to express a desired quality of women in the new state: female in form but rational and clear-headed as men. References here and later to Saartjie Baartman should include Stephen Jay Gould’s essay.3

The new republic’s security and prosperity won in the industrial revolution and the influence of Napoleonic France on American neoclassical tastes and styles is the concern of Winterer’s fourth chapter, “Grecian Luxury, 1800-1830” (102-141). Winterer returns to the fusion of “Greek” and “oriental” (i. e. Turkish) in furniture and fashion. I am not convinced that this is something new in this era, since Winterer had already noted it in the pre-Revolutionary period. But it certainly is clear that American neoclassical styles tended to follow the trajectory of Napoleon’s shift from austerity and clean lines to over-the-top Trump opulence. A natural outcome of this was an increasing anxiety about the dangers of consumerism, materialism, and moral flabbiness and the loss of the old-school hardiness of the patriots’ generation. Certain items of furniture, especially the klismos chair and the sofa, centerpiece of the female salon, and of female dress, notably the ’empire’ “Grecian robe,” become indicative not only of refined taste but also of a leisured, effeminate libertinism. One painting that should have been at least mentioned in Winterer’s discussion of neoclassicism, of the sofa, of “Grecian” styles, and of French aesthetic influence is Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s Énée racontant à Didon les malheurs de la ville de Troie (1815). There are two serious omissions in this chapter: the influence of German Romanticism (touched on briefly in a later chapter, p. 143) and the elevation of all things Greek, together with Germany’s growing importance in the field of classical studies (dealt with by Winterer in her previous book), and the enormous influence of the discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The latter does get a passing mention (p. 126) but deserves much more here. The chapter concludes with a very interesting treatment of jewelry worn and desired by American women at this period and the classical references they used to manage anxieties about a growing extravagance. Cornelia mater Gracchorum figures prominently here as a mode of discourse to balance Grecian luxury with Roman austerity in American values. Winterer makes a generally good presentation of Roman sumptuary laws and the person of M. Porcius Cato the Censor. But her construction appears anachronistic: she suggests (p. 136) that the “parable” of Cornelia and her jewels began to circulate in the context of debate about the repeal of the Oppian law in 195 BC. But the elder Gracchus would not be born until about thirty years later.

The access of young women to institutional classical education is the subject of Winterer’s fifth chapter, “Climbing Parnassus, 1790-1850” (142-164). In female academies women found in classical studies a motive for and means toward self-perfection. Whereas earlier classical studies were deemed inappropriate for girls and women, they now become a desired ornament. Winterer gives a number of very interesting examples of schools, curricula, texts, and of women who took advantage of their new access. It is especially interesting to note the emphasis on geography, history, and mythology as part of girls’ and women’s classical education. I think Winterer is correct to connect women’s classical education with the establishment of public museums and libraries at this period, much more in the North than the South, and in particular the acceptability of (female) nude figures in painting and sculpture to be found there.

Chapter Six, “The Greek Slave” (164-190), concerns the application by women of their new classical learning in the gathering storm over slavery in the United States. Classics gave such women (in the North) a means by which to compare the social and political repression of women to the enslavement of blacks; but it also gave their Southern counterparts the means to justify slavery and a slave-based agricultural economy and way of life. Winterer is correct to adduce the recent freedom of Greece from Ottoman rule as a prime motive for the Abolitionist movement. The shocking action of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky who, upon recapture in Ohio, murdered one of her own children rather than see him return to slavery, could be understood and articulated only in classical terms: she was a Medea, like Verginius, Antigone, or Clytemnestra.

The dramatic character Antigone becomes the figure of the final chapter, “Antigone and the Twilight of Female Classicism, 1850-1900” (191-206). Winterer references productions of, interest in, and reception of Antigone in the Victorian-era United States to prove an irony: that, as women finally gained full access to a real classical education, the Classics themselves cease to be a meaningful mode of political, social, and cultural discourse. Classical literature becomes a private indulgence in aesthetic self-perfection, while the social and natural sciences and modern history replace classicism as things important to learn for industry and politics. Winterer here follows Reinhold, but makes excellent use of performances of Sophocles’ play during the fin de siecle Gilded Age. In that setting Antigone becomes variously a model of feminine withdrawal from important public affairs, the victim of her excessive female passions, virginal pre-Christian martyr to higher religious virtues, and even an exemplar of feminine resistance to repressive social conventions of the time.

Winterer closes her book with a brief epilogue, “The New Colossus,” in which she treats the newly-erected Statue of Liberty as “a tombstone for the vanishing world of women’s classicism” besides being a beacon of freedom for the world’s refugees: “What to them were Greece and Rome?” I can’t agree with Winterer here. Beginning in the early 20th century and continuing well into the 1940s, high school Latin enrollments were very high, due largely to the perception that Latin, and Greek, where available, were a binding educational force for hardworking and upwardly mobile children of recent immigrant families.

This is a most interesting work to read. It is well edited, with few typographical errors. More control should have been exercised where passages of ancient literature or facts of ancient history were involved. There are occasional mixed metaphors (p. 62: “sure-fire stopping ground;” p. 171: “zero-sum equation of the slavery calculus that saw … slavery moving in lockstep with freedom” and others). My most serious criticism is that balancing and opposing evidence or perspectives are not fully treated. But Winterer’s perception of the general evolution is, I think, correct. I apologize to the author and to the editor and readers for the lateness of my review. But I must lay part of the blame at Winterer’s door: for her book sent me often into areas of areas of inquiry into which I rarely have occasion to go; while it took more time, it was well worth the trip. That was itself a great pleasure, and an indication, I believe, of the value of this work.


1. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002 (rev. M. McGowan, BMCR 2003.03.13).

2. Latin, or The Empire of a Sign. Transl. John Howe. Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2001.

3. “The Hottentot Venus,” in The Flamingo’s Smile (New York, Norton, 1985), pp. 291-305.