BMCR 2021.03.46

Gender, memory, and identity in the Roman world

, Gender, memory, and identity in the Roman world. Social worlds of late antiquity and the early middle ages. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019. Pp. 327. ISBN 9789462988057. €105,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume is a valuable addition to the series on Social Worlds of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. The scholars contributing to the volume came together to celebrate and honor the career and work of Katariina Mustakallio of the University of Tampere, Finland. Mustakallio’s long career in the field of the social history of Rome is the underlying inspiration for many of the eleven papers in the volume that cover approaches to individual and collective identities, age, memory and agencies across the Roman world and into the early Middle Ages.

The theme behind the volume is coherently tied together in an introductory chapter by Rantala that outlines how the papers focus on interactions between gender, memory and identity at all levels of society in the imperial Roman context. What is important here is how the interplay between these factors can be understood from our sources. The ways that identity shapes perceptions of gender in the cultural memory of different communities and different socio-economic classes can be traced through the responses to cultural interaction and belonging. This idea of elites shaping cultural values and non-elites being shaped by them is examined across the range of imperial and late antique Roman and Greco-Roman societies sampled in the volume.

Vuolanto’s chapter on ‘Public Agency of Women in the Late Roman World’ explores social contexts and interactions to articulate the concept of public or private spheres for women to operate within. Developing ideas previously expressed by Kate Cooper in her essential article on public and private in Roman women’s lives, this chapter accentuates the idea of overlapping spheres in which women could exist and formulates a slightly modified paradigm.[1] The theoretical interactions between women from different levels of Roman society crossover in a range of loci. With women’s lives viewed here through the ‘cracks’ that appear in society it is, to misquote Leonard Cohen, ‘how the light got in’.

Further chapters in the volume offer complementary studies, on ‘Religious Agency and Civic Identity’ and ‘The Invisible Women of Roman Agrarian Work’, which explore the evidence for those social hierarchies that are both apparent (e.g., in the material culture available at Ostia) and elusive (agrarian and rural women). Both of the articles build on important previously-published work to develop their ideas on the function and role of women in these two essential aspects of Roman female life.[2] The articles explore how we can further read the ways in which the women could move through these hierarchies.  These two chapters cover the full range of methodologies for understanding women’s roles in society that move from the explicit reading of the material evidence to theoretical analysis of rural pre-modern roles.

Complementing these is a chapter by Berg that surveys the identity of bar girls, entertainers and dancers through their material culture and representation.  This study provides an insightful approach and a depth of access to the subaltern. With the focus on jewelry and other adornments, the means by which a woman’s dress can be read as an indicator of status and cultural memory is illuminated. The visual codes used by women and expected in the hierarchies of gendered presentation are examined in detail. The colorful world of the cauponae, usually the preserve of Roman satirists, is studied with evidence from literature, Pompeian paintings, and material from excavations at the baths and taverns at Pompeii. The combined result provides a fuller picture of what is normally a two-dimensional view of innkeepers, tavern keepers and prostitutes and a subtle reading of the material enriches the play on exotic and mythical personae.

Joska’s fascinating chapter on imperial daughters of the second century CE (‘Show them that You are Marcus’s Daughter’) elaborates on the public roles of elite women as articulated in the sources. Balancing anecdotes from Dio and Herodian with public inscriptions to illuminate the role of the Augusti filia of Marcus Aurelius provides us with a glimpse at elite women who were embedded in the imperial system, and their residual memory in Roman culture both east and west. The position and links of the daughters of the Emperor provided a potent influence in dynastic politics that could be both dangerous and useful for projecting key messages of the period. The honors the daughters received in communities across the Mediterranean are unique and speak perhaps of their agency in a wider community beyond the emperor and his consort.

The imperial family is also the focus for Karivieri’s paper that takes on the multiple identities and mixed Greco-Roman cultural memory in the Hadrianic period by exploring gendered representation of the emperor, Antinous and Sabina. The concept of a ‘bi-cultural’ identity for the Greco-Roman elites follows on from Gleason’s publication on Herodes Atticus and his patrician wife Regilla.[3] The paper looks at the evolution of the Greco-Roman cultural fusion into the multiple and layered identities of the second century Roman Empire. The locations for constructing memory for the different members of the imperial household reveal the use of established narratives in novel forms that would continue to be employed into the Late Antique period.

Peltonen’s chapter signals a shift in the volume towards masculinities and explores the memory of Alexander and the creation of an ideal masculinity in Late Antiquity. The timeless exemplum of Alexander’s life is traced here through different cultural and ethnic identities, mainly focused on the western traditions. This is a vast topic and difficult to cover in its entirety in an article, so the author taps into idea of the patriarchal order being projected through Alexander’s relationships with women, including that of his mother. The rich resource of Alexander’s life as a model is illuminated here within these mostly western traditions. The universality of the Alexander narrative fits well into similar themes that can be identified in the east and the romance traditions.[4]

Ideal masculinity and another of the iconic figures of antiquity feature in Harlow and Laurence’s paper on Augustus’ age and youth and experiences. As with the Alexander paper, Augustus’s relationships with sisters, wives and daughters are explored here to illustrate how sisters can influence brothers. The theories of age and ageism’s are placed in the context of his often-cited ‘19 years’ when he first appears in the record as Caesar’s heir. This key part of Augustus’ self-definition and presentation at a crucial moment in the story offer insights into ideals of Roman manhood. This is a fascinating and novel look at the dialogue that has grown up around the first princeps across the ancient sources and its role in the construction of memory.

Rantala’s own chapter continues with the Augustan period and an exploration of literature and memory through the figure of Ovid’s Anna of Carthage and her role as a foil for Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas. In Ovid’s tale, Anna is a fellow refugee and traveller, homeless and stateless. The gendered Carthaginian is always a useful canvas in Augustan literature, the blank space to construct the other as a lesson to learn from and a mirror to reflect. The way that figures like Aeneas and Anna differ so clearly in the gendered analysis underlies an insightful and contemporary aspect of this article, which is the exploration of refugees and asylum in Rome.

I found Melotti’s article looking at Santa Lucia in Syracuse and her connection to the solstice, fertility, and the worship of Demeter captivating. The approach is wide-ranging and underpins an anthropological study to assess the evolution of the identity of a goddess into saint. As a template to study this phenomenon it succeeds and surprises. By including examples from modern Sweden and northern Europe, the article makes us think about these deep-rooted links to an ancient past and to the contemporary social and religious calendars. There is emphasis on the idea and importance of light, and just how much of the goddess still resonates today through the figure of Lucia.

The final chapter of the volume engages with elusive topic of mental illness and its interplay with religion and exclusion in society (Laes). More an overview than an in-depth study of one specific society or chronological period, this is a rewarding attempt to access these otherwise invisible characters of the past. The intention here seems to be to construct a thoughtful methodology of approach through the late antique and early medieval world, both east and west, that can be employed for more specific research and textual analysis.

Overall, this volume is diverse and engaging. The combined effort results in a thoughtful survey across a wide variety of both masculine and feminine identities, in elite and non-elite contexts. The authors explore these topics through literary and material evidence, often in interdisciplinary contexts. Impressive is the range of evidence and the variety of methodologies employed to explore the topics. The result is a nuanced and often fascinating picture of Roman society that is cross-cultural and gendered. The focus here on the imperial and late antique period, a necessity based on our available evidence, is a fascinating addition to the scholarship on gender and identity, and an enlightening look at a multiplicity of approaches.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Jussi Rantala
1. Public Agency of Women in the Late Roman World – Ville Vuolanto
2. Religious Agency and Civic Identity of Women in Ancient Ostia – Marja-Leena Hänninen
3. The Invisible Women of Roman Agrarian Work and Economy – Lena Larsson Lovén
4. ‘Show them that You are Marcus’s Daughter’: The Public Role of Imperial Daughters in Second- and Third-Century CE Rome – Sanna Joska
5. Defining Manliness, Constructing Identities: Alexander the Great mirroring an Exemplary Man in Late Antiquity – Jaakkojuhani Peltonen
6. ‘At the Age of Nineteen’ (RG 1) Life, Longevity, and the Formation of an Augustan Past (43-38 BCE) – Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence
7. Conflict and Community: Anna of Carthage and Roman Identity in Augustan Poetry – Jussi Rantala
8. Dress, Identity, Cultural Memory: Copa and Ancilla Cauponae in Context – Ria Berg
9. The Goddess and the Town: Memory, Feast and Identity between Demeter and Saint Lucia – Marxiano Melotti
10. Varius, multiplex, multiformis – Greek, Roman and Panhellenic: Multiple Identities of the Hadrianic Era and Beyond – Arja Karivieri
11. Mental Hospitals in Pre-Modern Society: Antiquity, Byzantium, Western Europe and Islam. Some Reconsiderations – Christian Laes


[1] Cooper, K., 2007, ‘Closely Watched Households: Visiblity, Exposure and Private Power in the Roman domus’, Past and Present, vol. 197. 3-33

[2] For example, Hemilrijk, E. 2015, Hidden Lives, Public Personae. Women and Civic Life in the Roman West (Oxford: OUP) and Roth, U., 2007, Thinking Tools: Agricultural Slavery between Evidence and Models (London: ICS).

[3] Gleason, M., 2008, ‘Making Space for Bicultural Identity: Herodes Atticus commemorates Regilla’. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics Paper No. 070801, available at SSRN:

[4] For example, Stoneman, R., Erickson, K., and Netton, R (eds)., 2012, The Alexander Romance in Persia and The East (Groningen).