BMCR 2023.10.05

Gendering Roman imperialism

, , Gendering Roman imperialism. Impact of empire, 43. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. x, 271. ISBN 9789004524767.


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


No one would disagree with the assertion that the study of Roman imperialism has traditionally revolved around the male experience and has predominantly described male power and agency. The editors of the volume Gendering Roman Imperialism—Hannah Cornwell and Greg Woolf—invite the scholarly community to surpass this narrow point of view and identify the intersection between the representation of gender and the politics of imperial expansion as a fruitful area of research. While they only claim to have made a start in this relatively untapped field, the editors and their contributors do succeed in integrating women’s narratives, perspective and practices in the context of Roman imperialism to an unprecedented extent. By applying a broad understanding of what ‘empire’ means—as a form of power that intersects any aspect of daily life, including gender relations, slavery, commerce and the production of goods, religion, literature and more—the ten essays collected in the volume employ a wide variety of methods and sources to reach the stated goal: to recognize how gender performance and gender representation are transformed as Rome’s authority develops and grows. The result is a varied and thought-provoking volume that enriches the current scholarly debate on both gender and imperialism.

In the introduction, the editors note that it was their intention, while preparing this volume, to bring together historians working on imperialism and scholars working on gender studies in equal proportion. Yet, researchers already confronting gender topics were the keenest to join the project, thus perhaps skewing the volumes’ perspective more towards gender and less towards empire. I agree with Cornwell and Woolf that “if the (sc. volume) seems unbalanced, this is a corrective imbalance, a series of corrective interventions designated to expose the gaps in conventional narratives of empire” (p.1). Indeed, this ‘imbalance’ does not prevent the book from reaching its stated objectives, although a handful of essays do appear to be more interested in representations of gender rather than its symbiotic relationship to imperial conquest. This is not a fault of the volume or its editors, but simply reflects the interests of individual authors. It is regrettable that more historians who work on imperialism did not answer the call, but perhaps the publication of this volume shall inspire more scholars to join this new line of research.

Overall, the volume succeeds in its aims: it brings renewed attention to the intersection of gender and empire, problematizing how change in imperial power and its expression impacted the representation of gender, while adding a valuable female’s perspective to the history of imperialism. All the collected essays display good engagement with existing scholarship and are generally innovative in their approach. In particular, Julia Wilker’s “Sociae et amicae populi Romani: Women and the Institution of Client Kingship” (Chapter 7) addresses an understudied topic: the personal and political lives of so-called client queens, female regents of kingdoms allied with Rome. Wilker persuasively argues that while gender was not a completely irrelevant category when choosing a client ruler, other facts mattered more, such as previous experience, favor among local people and proven loyalty to Rome. Furthermore, her paper boldly posits the existence of female dynastic networks, citing the example of the long-lasting friendship between Livia, Augustus’ wife, and Herod’s sister Salome. Regrettably, we only have evidence for one such a network, but it stands to reason that just as male heads of state stayed in contact throughout the years, so did their wives and female counterparts. Michael J. Taylor’s contribution (Chapter 5) also stands out and not merely because it is the only paper which focuses on imperialism in pre-Augustan times. Through a neatly organized series of exempla, Taylor showcases how control over sexual appetites was represented as a commendable quality for Roman magistrates and military leaders, especially towards those who were inferior in status. Continence and moderation were, of course, highly praised qualities in every aspect of a person’s life, and this chapter sharply brings into focus the importance of sexual moderation in the literary representation of the elite of the Middle Republic (300-100 BC).

All the other essays cover the Late Republic and Early Empire (100 BC—200 CE), with many contributions focusing on the age of Augustus. This is unsurprising given our sources and the broad popularity of the high empire, but it is noticeable that the volume does not chronologically extend beyond the Antonine dynasty. Geographically, the focus of most contributions is Rome itself and the Western provinces, with only one essay concentrating exclusively on communities in the East (Joska) and another touching upon both sides of the empire (Wilker). Likewise, there is a sizable number of papers that investigate the effects of empire on Rome’s elites (Östenberg, Webbs and Brännstedt, Taylor, Eberle, Keith), which is probably unavoidable given the sources that we possess. This is not a critique of the authors of these papers, who produced strong pieces of scholarship, but merely an acknowledgement of the volume’s Rome-centric and elite-centric nature.

Among the essays that focus on the Roman elite, Ida Östenberg’s “Gendering the Funeral: Public Obsequies Held for Elite Women in Rome” (Chapter 2) stands out for its well-developed argument and narrative. The historian argues that female elite funerals—by displaying the virtues of the individual, her contribution to the well-being of her family and therefore of the res publica, and the importance of her gens—presented an intrinsically political message. As such, these public funerals for elite women were central to “transmitting and shaping Roman values central to the idea of imperialism” (p. 39). The issue of public female funerals is also treated in the chapter by Lewis Webb and Lovisa Brännstedt (Chapter 3) which primarily focuses on the presence of women in the Roman triumph. Arguing that a triumph was a family affair, for it elevated not only the conquering general but his family as well, the authors propose that unmarried daughters rode in their father’s triumphal chariot. While this practice is well attested in the Julio-Claudian period, the evidence for the existence of the same custom in the Republic is scanty. Although the authors convincingly argue that young Julia and Drusus rode in Octavian’s chariot during his Actian triumph, I find it difficult to see this as ‘republican’ evidence. Whether one considers Actium or the First Settlement to be the official beginning of the Empire, these were times of great transformation and Octavian’s behavior is often too unprecedented (who before him demanded to be made consul at twenty years old?) to identify him as a strict follower of republican traditions, despite his efforts to be seen as a restorer of old customs. Nevertheless, the authors give ample bibliographical support to their arguments and are to be commended for taking a bold position which will indubitably move the scholarly discourse forward.

Other contributions are also worthy of notice. Emily Hemelrijk’s essay (Chapter 1) is a magisterial survey of literary and epigraphic sources with the intent of showcasing how the expansion of the empire impacted women living in the provinces and in the Italian peninsula. While acknowledging the brutality of war and conquest, Hemelrijk proposes that women of a certain class and status benefitted from the growth of the empire, providing more opportunities for travel, commerce, and cultural connections, which affected the lived experiences and local traditions practiced by countless women, especially in the (western and northern) provinces. Novel and engaging, Sanna Joska’s essay on female patronage in Eastern communities under Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (Chapter 8) traces the practice of setting up honorific inscriptions and statues for the imperial children. While the Antonine emperors famously employed images of imperial offspring and fertility as means of political propaganda, Joska focuses on three case studies in which it is certain that these honorific statues were set up by women in their local communities, demonstrating their regional power and agency. Lisa Eberle wrote a comprehensive and serviceable contribution on the use of silk in imperial Rome (Chapter 9), in which the author successfully argues that wearing silk “was a way of experiencing the empire, a way of quite literally feeling what it meant to rule the world” (p. 207).

The volume also includes an essay from Richard Alston, in which he argues that gender performances and ideologies of imperialism worked in conjunction with each other in an effort to legitimize themselves (Chapter 4). While the literary and epigraphic evidence he introduces is well known, his use of modern post-colonial theory enriches and supports his arguments. Louise Revell analyzes how female agency was adapted in the provinces through the development of urbanism, increased economic activity, and the presence of the military (Chapter 6); and Alison Keith analyzes the well-known literary trope of the servitium amoris and the women who populate love elegy as a key to understand views on Roman imperialism (Chapter 10). Lastly, an afterward by Rebecca Flemming concludes the volume. While the contributions are all strong and well-referenced, the reader would have benefitted from the implementation of cross-references in the volume. Often the essays touch upon similar issues and theories, and some even cite the same sources. I believe that the presence of cross-references would have fostered the volume’s internal dialogue. Nevertheless, this remains a strong, well-sourced and innovative collection of essays that is bound to inspire other scholarly contribution and enrich our understanding of both gender and empire.


Authors and Titles

“Introduction,” Hannah Cornwell and Greg Woolf

  1. “The Empire of Women: How Did Roman Imperial Rule Affect the Lives of Women?,” Emily Hemelrijk
  2. “Gendering the Funeral: Public Obsequies Held for Elite Women in Rome,” Ida Östenberg
  3. “Gendering the Roman Triumph: Elite Women and the Triumph in the Republic and Early Empire,” Lewis Webb and Lovisa Brännstedt
  4. “Gender Formation in the Formation of Empire,” Richard Alston
  5. “Conquest and Continence: Roman Sexual Politics at the Dawn of Empire,” Michael J. Taylor
  6. “The Limits of Cultural Change? Romanization and Gender in the Roman West,” Louise Revell
  7. “Sociae et amicae populi Romani: Women and the Institution of Client Kingship,” Julia Wilker
  8. “Female Patronage and the Reuse of Imperial Iconography in the Antonine Age,” Sanna Joska
  9. “Foreign Silk on Roman Bodies: Gender, Wealth and Empire in the Metropole,” Lisa Pilar Eberle
  10. “Seruitium amoris: Slavery and Imperialism in Roman Erotic Elegy,” Alison Keith

“Afterword: More Gendering Roman Imperialism,” Rebecca Flemming