BMCR 2014.05.23

Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity. Key themes in ancient history

, Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xi, 188. ISBN 9780521557399. $29.99 (pb).


As a powerful social construct, gender has the ability to define one’s personal interactions, daily activities, cultural traditions, and religious practices. Moreover, gender can leave an impression on both material objects and physical spaces in the archaeological record. While researchers today benefit from previous decades of inquiry, there are still many questions and discoveries to be made. This is especially true following the onset of post-modern feminist thought, a movement that has allowed scholars to abandon their traditional binary approach to gender and concentrate on its dynamic role in shaping society.

Lin Foxhall’s Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity is a volume in the Cambridge University Press series Key Themes in Ancient History. The individual chapters focus on issues relevant to gender studies (e.g., households, demography, bodies, wealth, space, and religion), and, as is the nature of this series, it is not the aim to understand each of these topics in depth. Rather, Foxhall proposes to address these areas of investigation, often with uncommonly cited examples, and explain why such frameworks are important for the study of gender.

After an accessibly concise historiography of gender studies, an evaluation of the evidence, and an outline of the text’s goals in Chapter 1, Foxhall delves into the formation of Greek and Roman households in Chapter 2. Although seemingly obvious, the definition and components of an ancient “household” have long presented scholars with difficulties. Foxhall discusses the ancient terminology used to describe a home and family and juxtaposes the writings of Aristotle and Cicero in order to make clear the domestic distinctions between the two cultures. The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to an analysis of marital traditions, legislation, and the topic of adultery.

Chapter 3, “Demography,” unpacks the social make-up and growth of a household: family organization and ancestry, the rearing and education of children, and death and commemoration. Foxhall delivers a balanced and fluid discussion of the education of both girls and boys, aptly emphasizing that gender, though a major factor in shaping an individual’s life, was not the only determinant. Circumstances such as status, wealth, geography, and personal choice (to name a few) significantly affect one’s development and opportunities.

With the heading “Bodies,” Chapter 4 explores a variety of disparate sub-topics—medical texts, portraiture, and warfare. An individual’s physical appearance was telling, but highly contradictory with regards to gender—for men, a good body meant a moral countenance; for women, an attractive façade was simply a trick. While Foxhall necessarily comments on the Roman practice of uniting ‘veristic’ heads with idealized bodies, her consideration of funerary death masks, a tradition among the Roman elites, effectively augments her discussion of Roman portraiture. Similarly, in the section “Women at War,” Foxhall integrates the more obscure example of Tacitus’ Boudicca rather than the notable Artemisia of Herodotus.

Although the inclusion of archaeological remains in Chapters 2-4 is noticeably lacking, Chapter 5 on “Wealth” stands out with its exemplary incorporation of textual support and different types of physical evidence (e.g., skeletal remains, epitaphs and funerary imagery, graffiti, domestic and commercial structures, wall paintings and vase depictions, and small finds such as loom weights). As one might expect, the chapter investigates inheritance and conspicuous consumption, but it also examines the formation of wealth through various occupations like nannies, barmaids, and prostitutes. In the section on the guardianship of women, though it is often supposed that men enjoyed more freedoms in antiquity, Foxhall observes that “…only certain classes of privileged men could be considered truly autonomous” (95).

The concept of “Space” and the built environment is explored in Chapter 6, and Foxhall focuses the initial part of the section on domestic structures. While these are often thought to be “private” spaces full of women, our author correctly explains that such an analysis of ancient dwellings is far too simplistic. Rather, the space should be thought of as “flexible,” and Foxhall offers the reader an excellent survey of recent scholarship on and the current debates regarding Greek dwellings. Additionally, when considering Pompeian houses, Foxhall highlights the recent work by K. Huntley (2010) concerning child graffiti within the home.1 In this manner, one is given a fuller picture as to the typical inhabitants of a Roman home and their areas of activity. The second part of the chapter is concerned with Greek training spaces and Roman bathing complexes, highlighting the controversies regarding our understanding of how these facilities and the areas around them were engendered.

Ambitious in its scope and types of evidence presented, the final chapter pertains to the theme of “Religion.” Foxhall’s discussion of the Panathenaic Festival offers the reader provocative new questions (e.g., “Were the characteristics associated with eliteness desirable or acceptable for women…?” (142)), and her condensed survey of the scholarship, current theories, and types of evidence relating blood sacrifices and gender roles is particularly interesting. She then places emphasis on female-only rites, the Thesmophoria, Bona Dea, and Bacchic cult, and the problems associated with the evidence—specifically the conflicting reports that arise from the literary and archaeological remains. The chapter ends with the gendered behaviors concerning votive dedications, curses, and magic.

In the two-page conclusion, Foxhall asserts that “…gender is one of the most important attributes that Greeks and Romans used to create hierarchies, partitions and boundaries” (158). “Attributes” is certainly an appealing way to describe gender, but one cannot forget, as B. Arnold stresses, gender is also a verb, and the situations and contexts associated with it constantly change.2 The short Bibliographic Essay following the Conclusion affords the reader a handful of the best and most recent sources for each of the book’s themes.

Since the scope of the volume is so broad, it is understandable that a few minor errors are present. For example, the presentation of the Athenian vessel shape known as a lebes gamikos in Chapter 2, though necessarily brief, is slightly confusing. Unlike the loutrophoros, it is never utilized as a grave marker, only as part of a grave assemblage. Additionally, the discovery of a lebes gamikos in the Dema House is not altogether remarkable since this shape has been found in numerous domestic contexts.3

The book is well written, entertaining, and informative, and the author is clear and concise. While Foxhall identifies some of the standard controversies surrounding the study of gender in antiquity, she is also able both to present new evidence and to pose different questions about already belabored topics. Her exploration of both Greek and Roman materials works to her advantage since it often stresses, for all that they have similarities, that gender practices within each of these cultures are extraordinarily different. Overall, Foxhall is carefully critical of the inherent bias of and/or the problematic issues surrounding the ancient sources, and she masterfully incorporates a wide variety of evidence into her themes.

Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity is part of a series designed for the classroom, but the book is not entirely imaginable as a textbook. Although its relevance is not limited only to courses with a gender focus, it would find its greatest value in a class with Greek and Roman components. Regularly, Foxhall intertwines the evidence for Greek and Roman cultures, providing fruitful contrast but making it difficult for an instructor to assign only part of a chapter. Additionally, since it is the author’s goal to present more uncommon examples in each of the themes, one would certainly want to add supplementary readings to round out a student’s understanding of both the scholarly material and the body of evidence. ​


1. Huntley, K. 2010. “Identifying children’s graffiti in Roman Campania: a developmental psychological approach,” in Ancient Graffiti in Context, edited by J. Baird and C. Taylor, 69-89. New York and London: Routledge.

2. For B. Arnold and “gender is a verb,” see: Arnold, B. 2007. “Gender and Archaeological Mortuary Analysis,” in Women in Antiquity: Theoretical Approaches to Gender and Archaeology, edited by S.M. Nelson, 107-40. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

3. For the lebes gamikos, see: Sgourou, M. 1994. Attic Lebetes Gamikoi. PhD diss., University of Cincinnati. For its appearance in grave and domestic assemblages, see especially: Sgourou 1994, 28.