BMCR 2015.05.04

Roman Girlhood and the Fashioning of Femininity

, Roman Girlhood and the Fashioning of Femininity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. vi, 188. ISBN 9781107041004. $95.00.


Roman Girlhood and the Fashioning of Femininity offers a sustained and subtle account of a group only glimpsed fleetingly in the ancient sources. While Roman matrons and the family have received more scholarly attention in recent years, maidens have been relegated to discreet discussions of the wedding ceremony, paternal powers, and entrepreneurial matchmaking among elites. Roman girls have borne the double disadvantage of gender and age in a society that compressed — or denied — adolescence to the extent that aristocratic girls were child brides transferred from the houses of the fathers to those of their husbands (p. 10). Upper-class young ladies did not “come out” in society as in early modern European cultures that encouraged social cultivation after puberty. The author focuses on the passage to marriage and childbearing that marked the end of childhood for girls too immature to be fully adult. She questions the conventional explanation that early marriage maximized fertility and, instead, finds the rationale in ideals of sexual purity, primarily the desire to preserve virginity until betrothal. Her method employs the “social dimensions of demography” in its analysis of quantitative evidence from a cultural perspective (p. 7). A range of evidence from the 1 st century BCE through the 4 th century CE derives from Augustan marriage legislation, jurists’ opinions, medical texts, funerary epitaphs and altars, and Greek novels, as well as literary accounts of the wedding ritual.

The book begins with a chapter on girls’ early care and training, “Formal Education and Socialization in Virtue.” Both formal education in reading and writing and moral guidance were provided to daughters of elites. For boys, studying grammar and rhetoric established the foundations for a career in public life. For girls, so-called book learning was precarious: the over- educated woman was deemed unmarriageable due to her pushy, attention-grabbing antics. Better for a girl to absorb practical information and guidance from her mother and grandmother. Yet Musonius Rufus and the younger Pliny acknowledge the value of literature and philosophy to improve female virtue. What to make of this seeming contradiction? The author notes a “mismatch” between the ideals of masculine fields of endeavor (supported by formal education) and the conventional female traits of virtue and, above all, modesty (p. 32). Furthermore, the author turns to funerary altars commemorating girls in the guise of Amazons and the often-recounted tale of Cloelia, whose heroic exploits resound in the historical sources on early Rome. Cloelia has long stood for the exceptional female who dared to protect herself and her peers fearlessly while under attack, and was honored with an equestrian statue erected on the via Sacra. The author uncovers new ground in this familiar story by suggesting that virtus/andreia could have been appropriately deployed by girls, if it served to guard their chastity (p. 41).

The second chapter, “Protecting Virginity,” looks at the state’s authority over sexual behavior and marriage. Much has been written about the Augustan marriage laws that turned family matters over to the courts. Juristic opinions involving the definition of virgo as opposed to puella, and restrictions on clothing and the mobility of girls suggest how the courts defined norms of behavior and responsibility for unfortunate consequences. The author observes gaps in commentaries on the laws of sexual crimes: the jurists do not mention the father’s right to kill a daughter damaged by stuprum (rape), but discuss the father’s right to kill both an adulterous daughter and her lover if caught in the act, granted by the Julian law on adultery (athough jurists were concerned with limiting that right). Reactions to the laws are found in moralizing anecdotes and declamatory speeches. Valerius Maximus’ stories present fathers punishing unchaste daughters with death. Set in the exemplary past when the paterfamilias exerted absolute control over his family, the stories served not as models for behavior but as warnings of the fragility of honor (p. 72). In contrast, the controversiae or forensic arguments of the rhetorical schools provided basic training for future senators and magistrates. In the controversiae, a raped girl can decide the punishment of her attacker: he may be put to death or marry her. What at first may seem a glimmer of female agency turns to a more conventional outcome as most girls chose to marry their rapists (p. 75). Fathers or other male relatives guided the girls’ decisions (proper disposal of damaged goods was thus achieved). After all, as one speaker claims, can the rapist be punished since most girls this age are eager for sexual experience? The arguments and proposed resolutions are striking and bizarre — after all, the quasi-legal arguments fired the imagination of young men learning how to persuade a jury. Both the exempla and the controversiae exist in a world barely touched by the Augustan laws that moved jurisdiction to the state and punishment to perpetrators.

In the next chapter, “All Kinds of Exercises Fitting for Girls,” medical texts offer another perspective on the physical aspects of girls’ development at puberty. The physicians Rufus and Soranus saw early childbearing as unhealthy, and tried to prepare girls for the rigors of the demands of marriage. Often theories and prescriptions were in conflict due to the physician’s concerns for patients’ vulnerability and the social requirements of their clientele (p. 79). Rufus’ Regimen for Young Girls advised moderation in exercise and diet (walking, singing, playing). Rufus recommends eighteen as the best age for first marriage; Soranus found the period immediately following puberty to be preferable (even though he maintained that permanent virginity is more healthful in theory). In the Hippocratic tradition followed by Rufus menarche was associated with illness and accompanied by sexual urges. Marriage provided the cure. The physicians, despite some of their best intentions towards their patients, adapted their knowledge and practice to the reality of the marriage market for elite households.

The fourth chapter, “The Pressure to Marry,” returns to the jurists for a discussion of the minimum age and consent to marry. Although the minimum legal age for marriage was twelve, Roman law did not enforce this. Instead, juristic opinions suggest an accommodation of various underage unions in the interests of brides’ fathers and future husbands. Male networking and alliances for property and political capital through marriage ensured high value for brides, if they remained pure until marriage. Since Roman marriage required simply the consent of parties involved, definitions of formal unions and cohabitation required the legal expertise of jurists, who maneuvered between rules and practice on the related matters of eligibility and dowry. “Consent” entailed the father’s permission for the girl under his control, and if no father was living (a common occurrence), then other male relatives stepped up. Anxiety about female sexuality drove fathers to marry off elite girls young. The same men exhibited no concern about the sexual exploitation of children of the lower social orders (p. 108).

The fifth and final chapter focuses on wedding ritual (“The Wedding and the End of Girlhood”). As the wedding was the only ritual to mark girls’ change of status, the public presentation of bride and groom in the deductio, the procession to the groom’s home, announced the new identities of man and wife, and celebrated their hopes for the future with children (p. 134). The author’s analysis of literary sources, namely Catullus 61 and 62, examines the wedding from the point of view of the bride’s transition. Rather than observing the ideal quality of literary representations of the wedding and symbolic aspects of the bride’s costume, the author concentrates on the characterization of the bride and her lack of agency. The bride’s change of status from sheltered child to a sexually aroused woman was abrupt—the transformation was supposed to take place during the wedding night. The chorus of virgins in Catullus 62 express reluctance to wed and resistance to the marriage bed, no doubt as a result of their youth and innocence (and, perhaps, also from the high cultural value of their virginity that they would have to give up, p. 144). The author points out how the bride’s reactions surface in both poems, as evidenced in fear, shyness, nervousness about male sexual aggression as well as the difficult separation from her own family. Furthermore, Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom, along with the poems by Catullus, advises the bride to ignore her husband’s indiscretions with female servants (p. 160). Against the background of this sexual e double standard, the consummation often was frustrated by male eagerness and the bride’s ignorance, unwillingness or physical immaturity (Ausonius portrays the scene as an assault in his Cento Nuptialis).

This book contributes to the scholarship on Roman women by filling a significant gap on the formative stage of girls in transition. Discussions of Roman girls appear in passing in literary or historical studies, but have not merited a book of their own. Cicero’s Tullia and the younger Pliny’s Calpurnia are typically summoned to mirror elite male expectations. Roman Girls and the Fashioning of Femininity, however, expands the field by investigating an array of evidence and sources to examine cultural attitudes and realities. Juristic commentaries, controversiae, and medical texts may not be familiar to all classicists, but the author takes care to introduce each voice and to compare their points of view in order to build one upon the other. Although the book began as a dissertation, it is free of the paraphernalia of the genre, and makes forceful but measured points in direct, clear prose. Since the use of visual as well as textual evidence is sophisticated and assured, readers would appreciate viewing images of a few funerary altars (that of the little Diana, Aelia Procula, is discussed twice in the text) or wall paintings (the mother-daughter scenes, the Villa of the Mysteries or Aldobrandini Wedding paintings are evoked). For a work focused on elites, some consideration of the status hierarchy would make sense (since the altar of Aelia Procula was erected by her father, an imperial freedman). These are very minor quibbles about an exemplary book that deserves to be widely read.