BMCR 2011.11.07

Motherhood and the Other: Fashioning Female Power in Flavian Epic. Oxford Studies in Classical Literature and Gender Theory

, Motherhood and the Other: Fashioning Female Power in Flavian Epic. Oxford Studies in Classical Literature and Gender Theory. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xii, 314. ISBN 9780199584413. $110.00.

[Table of Contents at the end of the review.]

Augoustakis examines the roles of women in the epic poems of the Flavian period of Latin literature, specifically Statius’ Thebaid and Silius Italicus’ Punica, while occasionally drawing on Statius’ Achilleid and Valerius’ Argonautica for comparanda. As a whole, this book highlights the Flavian poets’ construction of Roman identity and of gender and cultural hierarchies.

The book consists of four chapters plus an introduction and epilogue. Each of the four chapters is of substantial size; the first two exceed sixty pages each and even the generous use of subheadings cannot completely relieve their weight. The introduction, “Other and same: Female presence in Flavian epic,” sets up the theoretical basis for the analysis of the subsequent chapters, using Julia Kristeva’s theories on foreign otherness and motherhood to examine the roles of female characters in the Thebaid and Punica. Kristeva’s concepts of symbolic expression (paternal/masculine/verbal) and semiotic expression (maternal/feminine/non-verbal) are used to underscore Augoustakis’ argument about the on-going negotiation between same and other in the Roman literary imagination of the Flavian period.

Chapter one, “Mourning Endless: Female Otherness in Statius’ Thebaid,” focuses on the role of foreign otherness in the Thebaid, examined in the context of gender differentiation. Within this perspective, Augoustakis considers the themes of mourning and lament as he looks at the roles and representations of mothers, both foreign and domestic. He concludes that women’s retreat into semiotic modes of expression, namely the Bacchic cries of Ismene in book 11 or the Argive women in book 12, or their complete silence, like Hypsipyle in book 6, “speak volumes for the relegation of the female to the fringes of the epic landscape and the reinforcement of gender and generic boundaries” (p. 91).

Chapter two, “Defining the Other : From altera patria to tellus mater in Silius Italicus’ Punica,” continues the examination of otherness beginning with the obvious same/other, centre/periphery, Roman/Punic tensions within the poem. Augoustakis goes on to argue that the female characters in the cities on the periphery of the Roman empire are presented in such a way as to call into question the status of true Romanness: while it is lacking in the centre, it may be found in the margins. The central focus in this chapter is the dichotomy between the masculine term and concept of patria and that of mother-earth. By the end of the poem, Augoustakis asserts, there is a transformation of the masculine role of the patria to an integrated link between mother-earth and the male warrior, through which he is empowered to face his enemy and return home victorious.

Chapter three, “ Comes ultima fati : Regulus’ Encounter with Marcia’s Otherness in Punica 6,” focuses specifically on the literary relationship between Regulus and his wife Marcia. Augoustakis characterizes Marcia as “subversive” and yet a “symbol of maternal potestas ” (p. 158) as she opposes her son’s emulation of his father. Her dissenting voice and criticism of the masculine cannot be integrated into the masculine, Roman ethical code since that code has proved to be deficient in many respects, according to Augoustakis. It would have been useful here to have a more detailed exposition of the failure of the masculine ethical code as well as the presumably more-desirable feminine ethical code and its underlying principles. Through her speeches, Marcia − motivated by maternal protection of her son − deconstructs her husband’s androcentric narrative and thus transcends the expected voice of the female aligned and subdued to her husband’s wishes and commands.

Chapter four, “Playing the Same: Roman and Non-Roman Mothers in the Punica ” addresses the roles and representations of two foreign women in the Punica : Hannibal’s wife Imilce and Masinissa’s unnamed elderly mother. Imilce, Augoustakis points out, is not successful in promoting a Roman ideological code of pietas, whereas Masinissa’s mother does succeed in promoting her son as a Roman ally and therefore as a Punic vehicle for the same Roman virtues portrayed by Scipio himself. Through the agency of this powerful mother, Masinissa’s African “otherness” is been reshaped into Roman “sameness” by the end of the poem. A Roman audience would be satisfied with a display of Roman virtues, and Masinissa’s mother is positively represented as an educator for Roman and non-Roman alike. Augoustakis highlights Italicus’ presentation of the idea that while the traditional Roman values were being undermined from inside the Roman world, they were regenerated and reinforced by new elements that stemmed from the periphery, and moreover that female power was an important factor in retaining this Roman identity.

The epilogue, “Virgins and (M)others: Appropriations of Same and Other in Flavian Rome,” centres around a discussion of how the importance of polarities (same/other, centre/periphery, mother/virgin) presented earlier in the book might be used to contextualize and interpret certain elements of Flavian art: specifically the Cancelleria reliefs and some details of Domitian’s palace. This change of focus is radical and unsettling and might be equally measured as a pro and a con. On one hand, only after a thorough reading of the foregoing text are Augoustakis’ insights to these artistic interpretations readily comprehensible. The change of topic is disconcerting but ultimately manageable for an alert reader. On the other hand, a more serious criticism is that the scholars of art or archaeology most interested in new interpretations of these pieces will not be looking in a book like this that is overtly on a completely different subject.

Augoustakis’ book is suitable for scholars and advanced students of classics, gender studies, and psychoanalysis and literature. For the classicist, extensive use of Greek and Latin sources (nearly all translated) helps the comparative study of the poems under discussion and places them in a wider context. For the literary theorist or scholar of gender studies, modern psychoanalytic theory is used to illuminate the themes of motherhood and otherness. It is a small subgroup, I believe, who will navigate both specialties with equal ease; Augoustakis makes few concessions to non-specialists.

Overall, Augoustakis’ book brings to light new questions and illustrates how a changed angle of vision can enrich our perception of these texts that many regard as highly patriarchal. He offers new and perceptive reflections on aspects of alienation and gender representation in Flavian epic poetry. While modern writers like Kristeva have examined these ideas in a more introspective, autobiographical way, such a perspective is not available for the women of Flavian epic. At most, Statius and Italicus have recorded their imagined or intuitive understandings of their female characters’ framework of responses and Augoustakis has attempted the exceedingly difficult task of discerning and analyzing attitudes that the poets themselves likely did not understand.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Other and Same: Female Presence in Flavian epic
1. Mourning Endless: Female Otherness in Statius’ Thebaid
2. Defining the Other : From altera patria to tellus mater in Silius Italicus’ Punica
3. Comes ultima fati : Regulus’ Encounter with Marcia’s Otherness in Punica 6
4. Playing the Same: Roman and Non-Roman Mothers in the Punica
Epilogue: Virgins and (M)others: Appropriations of Same and Other in Flavian Rome