BMCR 2021.11.33

Livy’s women: crisis, resolution, and the female in Rome’s foundation history

, Livy's women: crisis, resolution, and the female in Rome's foundation history. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. xxix, 254. ISBN 9781138553255 $128.00.

This book examines how Livy presents women as agents of historical change in his Ab Urbe Condita. Specifically, Keegan argues that Livy uses female representation to explore moments of crisis or rebellion in Rome’s past. He sees gendered participation as a key aspect of pivotal moments in Roman history. “When inescapable challenges threaten a community’s established political order and customary social practice, Livy incorporates very particular representations of women into the historical narrative,” (51). This argument is not new; most notably, Claassen’s 1998 article explores this focus for the first six books of Livy’s work and provides a detailed, comprehensive discussion of Livy’s use of women within his narrative of Rome’s early political development.[1] Keegan expands his study to include all gendered episodes in the surviving books of Livy’s work, but as many of the key episodes in question are found in Books 1-6, this volume only marginally adds to existing scholarship in this area.  The intended audience is stated as being not only Classicists but also instructors, researchers, and students of female representation in history in general. However, the dense and often convoluted prose and the level of background knowledge Keegan assumes would make this book difficult reading for students and non-experts in Classical texts.

The book begins by both situating Livy’s work within its historiographical context and Keegan’s work within its broader analytical framework. The short Foreword summarises the three historiographical elements affecting the composition of Livy’s work: Livy’s personal story and contemporary events, Livy’s style, and Livy’s purpose in incorporating women into his narrative. Keegan rightly notes that we can never get to the bottom of “what really happened” from a historical text and instead, we should examine whether Livy’s presentation of women within his narrative is different from his source material, or his contemporaries’.  He connects Livy’s characterisation of these women to contemporary historic women and episodes that might be influencing his choices.

Chapter 1 establishes Keegan’s intention to focus his analysis on close readings of the primary source material and begins with the most famous of the gendered crisis moments in Roman history: the rape of Lucretia, the expulsion of the kings, and the establishment of the republic. The remainder of the chapter turns to a brief introduction of some of the key elements that will be discussed in the episodes presented in later chapters. Keegan first examines how Livy uses female categories—nymph (Egeria), prophetess (Carmenta), priestesses (Vestal Virgins)—to explore society’s relationship with the divine and views about governance and authority. He concludes this section by introducing women in non-Roman contexts and exploring the tension between public and private, state and household.

The remainder of the volume is divided into three chapters that group the gendered episodes into categories: Gendered Collectives (Ch.2), Non-Roman Women (Ch.3), and finally Topoi, Tropes, and the Female (Ch.4). Chapter 2 begins with a “contemporary episode”, the role of Hortensia in the demonstrations of 43 BCE as presented by Appian, in order to situate Livy’s presentation of groups of female petitioners within his own life context. Keegan argues that this demonstration would have informed Livy’s own representation of similar interventions by groups of women throughout his history. The rest of the chapter is organised chronologically, beginning with the Sabine Women, turning to Veturia and Volumnia and their activity during the plebeian uprising and Coriolanus’ attack on Rome, concluding with the repeal of the lex Oppia. Keegan discusses how each of these episodes compares to what is known about the demonstrations in 43 BCE and how women use their collective power to overstep traditional boundaries to influence the male political sphere.

Chapter 3 examines how women can be simultaneously “the other” and yet also “the same”.  Its main framing case study is Livy’s account of the Bacchanalian affair. The summary Table 3.1 is helpful in situating the various events of 186 BCE and their outcomes. The discussion also provides an analysis of how Livy modifies or inverts expected tropes and character traits to further his narrative aims. The rest of the chapter is organised chronologically beginning with Hersilia and ending with Theoxena. The analysis of the Bacchanalian affair provides some good context and discussion of how Livy inserts female characters and uses them to subvert negative prejudices. While it appears that the intent of the chapter was then to see more of this subversion in the short episodes which comprise the remainder of the chapter, instead, the presentation is largely descriptive, with very little comparison between the representations or engagement with secondary scholarship on these episodes. In some instances, such as Hersilia’s ability to influence her powerful husband, Romulus, at the behest of a group of petitioners, episodes have more in common with material in other chapters than a sense of “women as outsiders.” Instead of organising this chapter chronologically, it may have been better to divide it between Roman women’s engagement with outsiders and non-Roman women’s interaction with Rome to draw out some of the themes and allow for stronger comparisons and analysis.

Chapter 4 explores and revisits many of the themes discussed in Chapter 1. It stresses how Livy organises his subject matter in a way that encourages his audience to think about contemporary politics, social situations, and cultural contexts. This final chapter examines whether Livy’s presentation of women should be seen as traditional or revisionist and discusses the many rhetorical and structural parallels present in gendered episodes. Keegan presents some of the most well-known legendary/mythological figures in Livy’s narrative, such as Lavinia, Rea Silvia, and Horatia. The lack of detailed engagement with Roman mythology and mythography, a problem throughout, is most obvious here. Considering how these narratives and the themes contained within them came to dominate Roman mythology and how many of the women presented in Livy’s work come from Rome’s mythologised past, it is surprising that there is not more discussion of the intersection between myth and history. The conclusion of this section summarises the key themes of not only this chapter but the book as a whole, although the traditional vs. revisionist question is not fully answered.  However, page 181 in particular provides a good summary of how Livy’s inclusion of women in his narrative achieves various historiographical objectives.

Instead of providing a full overview and conclusion of the argument, Keegan opts for an Afterword that revisits the broader discussions of conceptions of gender, distinctions of public and private, and conjunctions of literature and history which were introduced in the Foreword and Chapter 1. Table A.1 presents a summary of female presentations throughout Livy’s work, their connection to male figures, and a philological discussion of vir/homo and femina/mulier terms as signifiers of class and status, used for particular rhetorical purposes. Presentations of the dichotomy between female/domestic and male/public have a long history in classical scholarship. This section largely focuses on religion and is for the most part based on Scheid’s work from the early ’90s; it does not take into consideration some of the more recent work on the topic.[2] The final section examines women as poisoners and Vestal Virgins accused of unchastity. Like the foreword and chapter 1, this afterword provides more detailed engagement with larger scholarly debates and discussions; however, much of the discussion seems disconnected from the rest of the book. The volume as a whole would be much stronger if this engagement were consistent throughout the chapters.

Although not related to the content or quality of the argument, it is worth noting the poor production quality of the book. The text looks as though it has been scanned and printed. Words are squished together with very limited white space on the page, making the already dense prose even more difficult to read. Typos have also been introduced into the text, likely due to the scanning as ‘rn’ becomes ‘m’ (for example, “modern” becomes “modem” on p. 109 and “Turnus” is “Tumus” on p. 158). There are several errors in referencing: either the date of the cited work is incorrect or the cited work is absent from the bibliography (for example the following are not present in the bibliography: Skinner 1998, n.9 p.223; Schultz 1995, n.16 p.223; Scheid 1995, n.29, p.224). The publisher has opted for notes at the end of each chapter. Since the argument is largely based on close readings of the text, the relegation of the Latin texts to endnotes means that readers spend a great deal of time flipping back and forth.

This book provides some helpful summaries of how gendered episodes are presented. The tables are particularly useful for readers looking for a quick reference guide to the various episodes, key parallels within the text, and the relationships among the various structural components of Livy’s narrative. There is also very clear signposting within sections as well as in the introductions and conclusions to each chapter. This means that the main argument is continually expressed and some of the narrative gets repetitive, but it does provide a good summary of the key ideas.

The discussion also situates Livy’s representations of women in their “contemporary” context well, although there is room for further development here. For example, the discussion of Sophonisba in Chapter 3 would benefit from a consideration of her characterisation in connection with Cleopatra, a link that has been made by Martin 1942,[3] or even with representations of Dido in contemporary works. This example is symptomatic of a general lack of direct engagement with the multitude of work that has been done on many of these individual episodes as well as of any significant discussion of the intersection between myth and history within Livy’s work. While Chapter 1 clearly engages with the major works on the topic of the presentation of women and historiography, this engagement does not continue in the later chapters; the discussion instead comprises a series of close readings. Most of the analysis and discussion of individual episodes relies solely on Livy’s text. Although this volume does provide a good summary of the episodes and the tables serve as excellent reference guides, a reader looking for engagement with the current trends in the scholarship of gendered history or new insight into Livy’s presentation of women at key moments of historical change should look elsewhere.


[1] Claassen, J.-M. “The Familiar Other: The Pivotal Role of Women in Livy’s Narrative of Political Development in Early Rome.” Acta Classica 41 (1998) 71-103.

[2] Takács, S. A., Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion. University of Texas Press, 2008 and DiLuzio, M. J., A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome, Princeton University Press, 2016 are particularly noteworthy omissions. Hraste, D.N. and Vuković, K., “Virgins and Prostitutes in Roman Mythology”, Latomus 74.2 (2015) 313–38 discusses many of the episodes and themes that are of particular relevance to this section, but also other episodes throughout Keegan’s volume.

[3] Martin, J. M. K. “Livy and Romance.” Greece & Rome 11.33 (1942) 124–29.