BMCR 2020.10.45

Brides, mourners, Bacchae: women’s rituals in Roman literature

, Brides, mourners, Bacchae: women's rituals in Roman literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. Pp. xvi, 296. ISBN 9781421428918. $54.95.


According to Vassiliki Panoussi’s stimulating and well-researched new book, Brides, Mourners, Bacchae: Women’s Rituals in Roman Literature, the representation of women’s roles in religious rituals—weddings, funerals, and rituals predominately associated with women (Bona Dea, Bacchic rites)—provided an especially useful lens for Roman male authors to think through issues of agency and identity. She persuasively shows how Roman authors in a wide range of genres from the late Republic to the Flavian period could use images of women’s rituals as a microcosm of the tensions between individual and state. As a result, she reveals a consistent pattern of female agency and empowerment through ritual that allowed these authors to play with counternarratives that negotiate, question, or ultimately affirm gender, social, and political hierarchies.

The book is divided into four thematic parts: brides, mourners, Bacchae, and women-only rituals (this last one not quite catchy enough to make it to the book’s title). Each part begins with a short introductory chapter that mostly summarizes the findings of scholars on the particular female ritual under discussion to orient readers—particularly useful for students— unfamiliar with the ritual framework before moving on to the individual case studies that make up the heart of each section. These case studies cover an impressive range of both familiar and oft-taught and -discussed texts (e.g., Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Catullus’ wedding poems, Livy) and the less familiar (e.g., Statius and Valerius Flaccus) and could easily be read or assigned in isolation. The division by type of ritual is helpful, though several chapters reveal the superficial nature of this division because of the tendency in the sources to depict female rituals as “fused or overlapping with various other rites” (11). For example, outside of the tightly focused “Brides” section, discussion of maenadism as the female ritual par excellence (despite the known participation of men) seeps into nearly every chapter and can often overshadow the primary female ritual under examination (e.g., Chapter 7, “Mourning Orpheus”).

In Part I, “Brides,” Panoussi analyzes texts from the late Republic through the Neronian period to show how different authors used the framework of the wedding and the bride’s role within the ritual to establish, question, and complicate the parameters of Roman identity. This is the longest section of the book and the most cohesive, allowing us to see the full range of her methodology with a tight focus on wedding ritual. Chapter 2, “Sexuality and Ritual,” offers close readings of Catullus’ wedding poems—61 and 62—in which the play between female resistance and vulnerability to sexuality is linked to the state’s prosperity—but it is a sexuality that is negotiated through female participation in the ritual, a manifestation of the conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of the state. Chapter 3, “Isis at a Wedding,” brings us to the Augustan period with an innovative discussion of the Iphis and Ianthe episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 9. Here Panoussi spotlights the intersection between Isis ritual and Roman wedding ritual to show how Ovid uses the foreign goddess to empower the women of the story to question the gender hierarchies prescribed by marriage and to contemplate the instability of identity.

In tracing the use of women and wedding rituals over time, Panoussi then pivots from a discussion of literary wedding rituals that help establish and explore the boundaries of gender roles and the stability of the state to a discussion of the literary distortion of wedding rituals as a reflection of the infirmity of the state in the Julio-Claudian period—affirming the findings of previous scholarship on the perversion and inversion of Greek weddings and sacrifice, particularly in Greek tragedy. Chapter 4, “Wartime Weddings,” underscores the confusion and inversion of wedding and funerary rituals in the “antiwedding” of Cato and Marcia in Lucan’s Civil War and the sacrifice of Polyxena—her “marriage to death”—in Seneca’s Trojan Women. The final chapter of this section, “Quartilla’s Priapic Weddings,” looks at the initiation and hieros gamos overseen by a priestess of the ithyphallic god Priapus in Petronius’ Satyrica. In the ritual framework of Quartilla’s mysteries, the comic reversal of male sexual aggression and female passivity highlights the fragility of masculinity, a literary parallel to the fragility of the self in the Neronian era.

In the introduction, Panoussi warns that the women-only festivals (Part IV) may seem too short thanks to the lack of sources and general mystery on the subject (12), but it is in fact Part II, “Mourners,” that feels too sparse. In this section, Panoussi explores the complex ways Ovid and Statius use the female genre of ritual lamentation, particularly as it relates to and contrasts with the male-dominated genre of epic poetry. In Chapter 7, “Mourning Orpheus,” we see gendered poetic genres at the heart of the intersection of gender, ritual, and power and the literary tendency to fuse and overlap female rituals, as Ovid’s Orpheus narrative of Metamorphoses 10 and 11 moves from wedding to lamentation to maenadism. Chapter 8, “A New Hope,” focuses on book 12 of the Thebaid and argues that women’s burial rites, though affording women the agency to articulate potentially socially destabilizing views, nevertheless are ultimately the main force of unity and social cohesion in the poem.

Part III, “Bacchae,” makes a strong case for the ambiguity of female religious empowerment as both a (potentially) destructive and a (potentially) beneficial force. Chapter 10, “Roman Bacchae,” offers a fresh reading of Livy’s Bacchanalian narrative as a purely literary document that pits female religious power, particularly in a “foreign, feminine, feminizing, and uncivilized cult” (139), against the state, and obscures a wider acceptance of the mysteries. Chapter 12, “Hypsipyle’s Bacchic Pietas,” compares Hypsipyle’s fake Bacchic rites in Valerius’ Argonautica and Statius’ Thebaid and shows, through nuanced intertextual readings, how each author invites us to see the beneficial side of Hypsipyle’s agency. Chapter 11, “Philomela’s Bacchic Justice,” on the story of Procne and Philomela in Metamorphoses 6, at just under 7 pages, gets lost, sandwiched between the two much longer treatments in Chapters 10 and 12, but offers a good encapsulation of some of the major themes both of this section and of the book as a whole: the overlapping of female rituals in literature, the correlation between women’s ritual activity and the state, and the intersection of ritual, (bonded) agency, and power.

In the final section, “Women-Only Rituals,” Panoussi tackles a particularly muddy category, made even vaguer by scholars who focus solely on female participation in cults that may, according to epigraphic evidence, have also included men (172-173). In all three chapters of this section, she explores literary depictions that pit women-only rituals (represented by a priestess or a group of worshipping women) against a hyper-masculine hero (Hercules in Chapters 14 and 15 and Achilles in Chapter 16). The contrast shows that women’s rituals offer “a more fluid definition of gender that promotes inclusivity” (175) and provides a new view of Roman foundational narratives that give women a positive role in the self-fashioning of Roman identity. I am not completely convinced by her argument in Chapter 14, “Spinning Hercules,” that the priestess of Bona Dea in Propertius 4.9, who excludes the male Hercules from female religious space, is actually representative of inclusivity. Likewise, I felt the chapter missed a discussion of the threat of sexual violence that the hero poses to the feminine realm. Chapter 15, “Hercules and the Founding Mothers,” is more successful in showing the “inclusive foundation model that celebrates peace and fertility” (175) in Ovid’s Fasti 6, in opposition to male foundation narratives like that in the Aeneid. Finally, Chapter 16, “Dancing in Scyros,” offers a fascinating discussion of gender performativity based on the work of Judith Butler and highlights the empowerment of perhaps one of the most disempowered groups, young women, through the ritual expression of their beauty and sexuality.

The particular strength of this book lies in its range, comprehensive though not exhaustive, and its versatility—providing a useful springboard for both classroom discussion and further study.

Notably missing from her case studies are discussions of women’s rituals in the Aeneid (covered thoroughly in Panoussi’s previous book)[1] and—understandably if disappointingly—women and magical ritual in Latin literature. Both briefly sneak in in chapter 12 in her discussion of the intertextual play in Valerius Flaccus and Statius’ treatment of Hypsipyle, and the epilogue gives a tantalizing taste of a discussion of female magical ritual that deserved a full chapter treatment.

This volume is a welcome and timely collection of feminist readings that address current scholarly and cultural areas of interest, including gender identity, agency, and power structures. She deftly uses the findings of scholars of Roman religion to unpack the often biased or skewed image of women’s religious roles in literature in order to highlight the essential role of women in defining the many layers of Roman identity. By reexamining these texts through a ritual and feminist lens, Panoussi effectively shows that women’s religious roles were deeply embedded in Roman society and concerned with more than just traditional female spheres. Though she states clearly that “this study is less interested in actual social practice” (3), the use of literary female rituals to explore socio-political issues is a welcome reminder not only that were women’s rites central to the classical cannon, but also that women’s lack of rights in ancient Rome did not mean their religious role was inconsequential.


[1] Panoussi, V. 2009. Greek Tragedy in Vergil’s “Aeneid”: Ritual, Empire, and Intertext. Cambridge.