BMCR 2019.01.46

Gender and Body Language in Roman Art

, Gender and Body Language in Roman Art. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xii, 357. ISBN 9780521842730. $120.00.


In psychology, body language is a nonverbal mode of communication: not a language as such, but a system of behavioral traits thought to express sentiment or convey information. In this book, Glenys Davies transfers popular perceptions of body language to art, and Roman portraiture in particular, in order to investigate what body language can tell us about Roman society and the extent to which Roman body language resembled that of today.

In chapter 1, which serves as the book’s introduction, Davies discusses body language as a modern concept and comments on the ways in which it was seemingly received in classical antiquity. As the author herself confesses, her interest was triggered when, in the late 1990s, body language became a thing in popularized psychology books and self-awareness tv series (p. 1). As the reader quickly realizes, the term is used throughout the book rather generically, in order to include any sort of posing or gesturing (and without distinction between the language of a living, breathing body and one rendered in stone): as examples of what she identifies as body language in classical statuary, the author examines several well-known works, from the Barberini Faun and the Copenhagen Demosthenes to the Terme Ruler. Moving on to Roman art, Davies turns to literary sources discussing posture and gesture, and then discusses different approaches to gesturing in classical and modern times (pp. 14-17). Finally, and in order to introduce her main research question, namely the extent to which (our readings of) body language in Roman art allow us to understand “the dynamics of gender in Roman Society” (p. 30), Davies turns briefly to a discussion of Bourdieu’s habitus. She seems however unwilling to invest too much in this, however, as “Bourdieu’s idiosyncratic vocabulary is not that of social psychologist specializing in nonverbal behavior or the more popularist body-language books” (p. 25).

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss literary evidence for body language—or indeed social behavior—in the Roman world; chapter 2 is devoted to men, and chapter 3 to women. Most of what our sources have to tell us, apparently, concerns exemplary behavior for Roman elites, including good manners and etiquette, though the sources focus primarily on gestures, posturing, and dress for orators; a short section on imperial body language is also included. Chapter 3 moves on to the more silent, reserved, and less discussed world of women. Here, the literary sources tend to focus on elements of character and behavior, while dwelling generously on dress and ornamentation. In both these chapters, the author does an excellent job of collecting and examining her sources in an engaging and convincing manner. She also includes two valuable sections of interim conclusions on gender (pp. 51-56 for chapter 2 and 72-76 for chapter 3), though, as elsewhere, avoiding any cross-disciplinary venturing outside Classics. Throughout the two chapters, and indeed throughout the book, terms such as “gender”, “masculinity”, and “femininity” are systematically essentialized and severely undertheorized, while the reader is constantly asked not to differentiate between images of mortal men and women and images of immortals, let alone between Roman statuary, Greek sculptural types from the 5 th and 4 th centuries, and copies thereof made and used by the Romans.

Chapter 4 turns—surprisingly, as the author herself confesses—to an examination of the standing nude type in sculpture. Consequently, most of this section is devoted to Greek sculpture from the 5 th and 4 th c., centering on the Doryphoros by Polykleitos and the Knidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles. Although the author is right to discuss the impact such images, and their constant copying, had in Roman society, this reader would have wished for a more in-depth contextualization of the two works. Davies’s discussion of statues representing women of the Roman elite in the guise of Venus, for one, is disappointingly restricted to a rather old-fashioned examination of typology, failing to register nudity and its representation as a discursive practice in the classical world—this despite the fact that nudity in classical art has been well studied in recent years in important works which the author does not seem to have consulted.1

Davies seems more at home with statues representing clothed men (armored, togate, and palliati) and women ( pudicitiae, “Herculanean” types, and so on), discussed in chapters 5 and 6, respectively. An interim conclusion at the end of chapter 6 (pp. 190-193) reiterates the author’s view that, as summarized on the backflap of the book, “gender relations in the notoriously patriarchal society of ancient Rome were not so different from what we experience today”, although the reader would really appreciate further contextualization at this point, and at least some effort by the author to provide theoretical context for the concepts she uses, somewhat randomly, throughout her work (from “gender” and “power” to “visibility”).

Chapters 7 and 8 discuss seated figures and representations of men and women together, further elaborating on the observations and arguments presented thus far. Last, chapter 9 is devoted to conclusions. According to Davies, men’s and women’s body language in Roman art reflects their social standing as well as what was expected of them. According to the author, the picture emerging is a “more complex” one, in that it often allows women a more assertive or even dominant portrayal than their assumed position in society would afford. Ending on a bit of an anticlimax, the author claims once again that that what we find in Roman art is “not so very different to what we see around us in daily life and the media in contemporary Britain and America” (p. 270). Be that as it may, the reader cannot help but feel that in this book an opportunity to make sense of an intriguing aspect of classical art was somehow missed.


1. E.g. Michael Squire, The Art of the Body. Antiquity and its Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011 (discussing most of the works also examined in this chapter of the book under review); Robin Osborne, The History Written on the Classical Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011.