BMCR 2023.10.34

Ancient women writers of Greece and Rome

, , , Ancient women writers of Greece and Rome. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. xiv, 408. ISBN 9780367462529.


[Contents are listed at the end of the review]


Ancient Women Writers of Greece and Rome is a welcome addition to the Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World series. In rendering more visible the work of 16 ancient women writers, the volume demonstrates a continued commitment in the field to centering voices and lives that have historically been marginalized. The focus on women in antiquity has grown particularly robust since the initial floruit of women’s and gender studies in Classics in the last quarter of the 20th century, during which one of the authors of this volume, Judith Hallett, was indisputably at the forefront. In the last twenty years alone several sourcebooks on women authors and women’s lives have been published, along with an increasing number of translations and countless studies on literary works by female authors. However, the volume at hand is truly singular; while others such as Plant’s anthology (2004) are more exhaustive, this is the first such edition to bring together the original Greek and Latin passages with commentaries and translations for each poem or fragment. Such a text is perfectly suited for language pedagogy at either the intermediate or advanced level and would also make a wonderful supplement to any course on women in antiquity, ancient poetry, marginality, gendered voices, or the like.

The volume’s texts are arranged into two sections, “Greece” and “Rome,” with an introduction by Judith Hallett and preface by Bartolo A. Natoli and Angela Pitts. The volume also includes three appendices (on ancient Greek dialects, ancient meter, and recent finds of Sappho) followed by glossaries and a general index, as well as six images that are positioned at the book’s center. Sections are arranged roughly chronologically by author; each section contains a brief introduction along with relevant bibliography, followed by (in this order), individual texts accompanied by a vocabulary list and commentary, translations, and endnotes. For the texts, the volume authors use their own system of numbering but indicate more conventional equivalents.[1] It may be useful to know that the Greek texts refer to Smythe for grammatical reference, while the Latin texts use Allen and Greenough.

Judith Hallett’s introduction, “Looking at Ancient Women Writers through Male and Female Lenses,” is a pleasure to read. At nine pages it is relatively brief, and yet remarkable for both its clarity and breadth. In these few pages, Hallett addresses topics such as gender dynamics and gendered power relations, class in antiquity, and matters of sex – both practical and as a literary motif – as well as the self-conscious nature of the literary tradition, in Rome, in particular. Threaded throughout is a clear sense of the situatedness of both text and scholarship, emphasizing for this reader how these artifacts are simultaneously fixed and fragile, stable yet fluid. There is a clear focus on textual transmission, which the author extends also to the role of the reader in the movement of text through time. Hallett ensures the survival of names from the more recent past as well as the distant, directing attention to the contributions of female scholars such as Medea Norsa, an Italian papyrologist to whom the volume is also dedicated, along with Black feminist and activist bell hooks, who died in December 2021, not long before the book’s publication. Thus, the volume marks itself from the start as belonging to a feminist genealogical tradition. In a similar vein, Hallett reflects on the role of positionality in scholarship, remarking on “different, distinctly female lenses”, as well as, for example, that “some of the most insightful literary critics on ancient women’s writing are themselves lovers of other women, and thereby able to provide a significant new vantage point […] when interpreting texts about women’s homoerotic feelings” (p. 8). Given, then, the introduction’s own emphasis on contextualizing the long hermeneutical tradition of antiquity’s women writers, I would have liked it to include mention of interpretive work being done in, e.g., queer approaches to these texts and/or trans-inclusive feminisms. Such recognition feels especially important at a time when gender critical feminism is on the rise in many parts of the world.

The sense of situatedness established by Hallett in the introduction is carried over in the volume’s sections, which offer more detailed background on the life and work of each author. Nearly every section provides the preservation context of its fragments, as well as their current state. As is to be expected, sections on Sappho and Sulpicia are the most full with respect to the scope and length of their introductions, commentaries, and bibliographies, as well as the number of textual artifacts included. And yet, readers will also find less-familiar names in the pages of this volume (e.g., Moero of Byzantium and Terentia), and even, in one instance, a poem whose authorship remains unknown (CIL 4.5296, an inscription from Pompeii). In addition, the volume offers an excellent mix of literary and material sources, including the aforementioned inscription as well as a selection of inscriptions from the Colossus of Memnon and an epitaph that was once inscribed on the pyramid of Cheops, in Giza. And, while the volume includes mostly poetry, there is documentary evidence as well, in the form of several letters by Claudia Severa to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina, from the Vindolanda tablets. Lastly, I appreciate the authors’ transparency regarding recently discovered fragments of Sappho around which there has been some controversy (see, esp., pp. 17-18), and I applaud their approach, which was to include the texts as an appendix. In this regard, the authors demonstrate how the practice of philology – and of humanistic scholarship more generally – is an ethical matter, and their approach encourages such care in readers as well.

With regards to content, materials are perfectly suited to the intended student audience. The vocabulary lists that accompany each selection are concise yet helpful, and there is no expectation that students will remember an item introduced in an earlier piece. This means that each fragment can be read and/or assigned on a stand-alone basis. Commentaries provide plentiful morphological support and suggest translations for complex words and phrases; notes on word order and poetic devices are similarly generous, especially for the poems written in Latin. Selections are helpfully positioned as part of a literary tradition as well as consistently placed within their socio-historical contexts, and the introductions and commentaries orient an early reader to key scholarship. Translations are straightforward but not displeasingly so – to give only one example, I was particularly delighted by the translation of Sappho 1.11, πύκνα δίνεεντες πτέρ᾽ as “wings eddying in a blur.” Overall, the register and tone are extremely accessible for the 21st-century reader; for example, on Sulpicia 5, the authors note that she “hits peak drama in the final couplet,” and the rendering of puella as “girlfriend” in several places is good in context.

My criticisms, limited as they are, are predictable for a project of this type. First, regarding the volume’s design, I found the layout of each section to be less intuitive than I desired. In particular, I found it confusing that bibliography and endnotes were separated as they were. To my mind, in future volumes of this series it would be preferable for endnotes either to follow the introductory text directly, along with bibliography, or for bibliography to be placed as the final component in each section. I also note that there was much overlap of content between the commentary notes and the endnotes, and indeed at times details were given in both places word-for-word, often rendering the latter superfluous. Secondly, while overall the introductions and bibliography were reasonably thorough, on certain occasions I was left wanting more. For example, in the Nossis section, the matter of temple prostitution is raised, and some scholarship cited, but the latter seemed fairly limited given the abundance of recent scholarship on sex work as well as rising cultural interest in the topic. Thirdly, while I appreciated the inclusion of images, I felt their quality could have been better, especially in the case of Claudia Severa’s letter (figure 4). Given that several of the lines are thought to be written in the author’s own hand, it would have been truly exciting to have a more crisp visual rendering of her words.

There are quite a few typos and inconsistencies throughout the book, although in a project of this scope and size such mistakes are difficult to avoid, and they certainly do not detract from the book’s value overall. In the accompanying footnote, I give several notes for the primary reason that I think they will be helpful for a student reader.[2] Of greater concern are textual errors, and, while it is beyond the scope of this review to check every selection, I offer in the footnote my corrigenda for the first set of texts, by Sappho, in case they can be of use.[3]

To conclude on a positive note (which certainly this collection deserves!): such textual errors offer us, as both teachers and scholars, a welcome opportunity to continue – or introduce, as the case may be – conversations about, among other things, transmission, fragmentation, and stability and its lack, which indeed the volume at hand already does so well. Interestingly, some of the observed errors can be found too in editions of the past, and thus are fitting reminders that the text itself experiences the touch of innumerable hands, and that the words we see now on the page are as much a part of our world as of the worlds of the women who first wrote them, and all those in between. I found the reading of this collection to be both pleasurable and invigorating, and I thank the authors for their hard and excellent work.


Works Cited

Plant, Ian Michael, ed. Women writers of ancient Greece and Rome: an anthology. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.




Part I: Greece

  1. Sappho
  2. Corinna
  3. Erinna
  4. Moero
  5. Nossis
  6. Anyte
  7. Praxilla

Part II: Rome

  1. Melinno
  2. Sulpicia
  3. Sulpicia Caleni
  4. Claudia Severa
  5. An Inscription from Pompeii
  6. Terentia
  7. Colossus of Memnon

Appendix A: Introduction to Ancient Greek Dialects
Appendix B: Introduction to Ancient Meter
Appendix C: “The Newest Sappho”
Greek to English Glossary
Latin to English Glossary



[1] For convenience and clarity, I use the authors’ own numbering in the remainder of this review.

[2] The Sappho 31 translation is missing a “be” in line 1, which should read “that man seems to me to be an equal to the gods” (p. 52); in the Corinna introduction both parthenion (p. 61) and partheneios (p. 85) are used to mean “maiden song”; at Erinna 1 ad loc. 4, τεθέλω is mistakenly given for τελέθω (p. 100); on p. 108, “Moera” should be “Moero”; in the translation of Sulpicia Caleni 2, line 41 should have “Capitolinus” for “Capitolius” (p. 275); additionally, there is an unnecessary “the”  in line 68, which reads, “For the we live […]” (p. 276); in the commentary for the Pompeii inscription “popula” is given twice for vocative “pupula” (ad loc. 3-4, p. 294); regarding the commentary for Terentia (ad loc. 3, p. 300), I note that Lynceus is not Hypermnestra’s nephew but her cousin (p. 300); in the commentary for the Colossus of Memnon selections, at Julia Balbilla 1 ad loc. 4 (p. 307), αἴθω should read ἀλίω, as is given in the text, and at Julia Balbilla 2 ad loc. 7, αὐταν is missing its accent (p. 310).

[3] I have checked the texts against those cited by the authors (pp. xiii-xiv). Listed first is the text as given in the volume, followed by the correction. Sappho 1: line 1, Ἁφροόδιτα > Ἀφρόδιτα; 3: μήδ > μήδ᾽. Sappho fr. 2: line 1, δεῦρυ > δεῦρύ; 14: χρυσίαισι > χρυσίαισιν; Sappho fr. 16: line 5, πάνχυ > πάγχυ; 8, ἄρ]ιστον > αρ]ιστον; 9, ῾ς > ᾽ς; 14, κοὺφως τ[ > κούφωστ[. Sappho fr. 31: line 1, φαίνεται > φαίνεταί; 8, ς > σ᾽; 10, χρωι > χρῶι; 15, ῾πιδεύης > ᾽πιδεύης; 16, αὔται > αὔ[ται. Sappho 44: line 14, ἰλίαδαι > Ἰλίαδαι; 25, λίγέ]ως > ]ως, I note the former is the emendation of Lobel and Page, which the authors seem to have accepted without note; 26, αἴθερα > αἰθέρα, curiously, other texts (including those of Voight (1971) and Campbell (1967)) give αἴθερα as well, but the word is listed in LSJ as αἰθηρ, -έρος and so I see no reason why the accusative should be a proparoxytone. A quick TLG search suggests that the usual spelling is αἰθέρα.