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Women and the Roman City in the Latin West

Women and the Roman City in the Latin West

Edited by Emily Hemelrijk and Greg Woolf (Mnemosyne Suppl. 360). Pp. xxii + 408, figs. 40. Brill, Leiden 2013. $180. ISBN 978-90-04-25594-4 (cloth).

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With the amount of papers and books discussing the subjects of female presence, visibility, and sociocultural influence in antiquity, gender certainly is not a neglected topic. Yet, too often imperial women and elite women of Rome have been the focus of attention, resulting in the marginalization of those living beyond Rome and Italy. The volume under review, which originated from a December 2011 Amsterdam conference entitled “Gender and the Roman City: Women and Civic Life in Italy and the Western Provinces,” will help remedy this imbalance.

Roman women living in the Latin West are studied here from a variety of perspectives aimed at emphasizing their prominence and visibility in “essentially patriarchal” Roman society (3). The particular focus of this volume is on women as part of the urban matrix but also the extent of their civic participation, since Roman cities in Italy and the Latin West “have only rarely been studied from that angle” (1). Detailed epigraphic and iconographic analysis is at the heart of most contributions, although a few essays delve briefly into the archaeological evidence.

The volume begins with the set of five contributions under the title “Civic Roles,” which contextualizes the ways that women in Italy and the Latin West sought to represent themselves publicly within the norms of expected female behavior. Civic munificence or benefaction allowed women to establish their significant presence in perpetuity through inscriptions and honorific statues and display their role as both “ideal citizens and exemplary matrons” (81). Hemelrijk’s magisterial essay confirms the importance of female benefaction for civic life and indicates that women were eager enough to integrate themselves into the male-dominated public arena. This is further confirmed in Cenerini’s chapter, which observes that authorities recognized their contributions to the city by bestowing on them honorific titles that were inspired by those of imperial women (17). Moreover, men of elite families avidly erected honorific statues for their mothers and wives, albeit for their own self-promotion and glorification (e.g., Eck’s evidence from Rome and Italian cities; Witschel’s evidence from two North African cities). Yet, as Witschel emphasizes, women “could and did act on their own” (104), especially those of non-elite and non-imperial descent, who brought creativity and innovation into public benefaction, a point that is investigated in Cooley’s concise contribution.

The second part, “Participation in Cult,” stresses the role and significance of gender in various religious cults and practices. It is the least engaging section in the volume, maintaining the rather obvious point that gender divisions did indeed play a major role (esp. the chapter by North). It does not move beyond confirming the view of male dominance in the religious sphere, where women were confined to being priestesses and passive observers in cults, although on some occasions they may have taken over the rituals typically performed by men (i.e., Rives’ tenuous account on whether women presided over public animal sacrifices) or promoted particular cults, in which they possibly held prominent positions (i.e., Spickermann’s unbalanced contribution on the gendering of the cult of Magna Mater/Cybele). The section has produced, however, the most important statement in the volume: “some of the key negotiations about what women did and did not do, took place at a local level and in the context of local politics” (157), reminding the reader that women’s (civic) behavior varied drastically across the urban landscape of the empire.

This statement is clarified in the third section, “Public Presentation,” which focuses on engendered behavior in dress. The first three essays consider how much elite women’s behavior was confined to the accepted and expected dress repertoire, which represented them as idealized, conventional, modest, and submissive, whether it was on the Greek island of Delos in the second century B.C.E. (e.g., the chapter by Dillon), on the streets of Rome (e.g., Harlow), or on public and private statues in Italy and the Latin West (e.g., Davies). The chapters clearly show that the discrepancy has existed between the norms enhanced by “the upper class male rhetoric” (232) and elite women’s own attitudes to such imposed dress behavior. In contrast, women of the lower class or those living farther from Italy seemed to be more flexible and free in their choices of appearance. The latter is explained by Rothe’s comparative analysis of the dress behavior of women living in two cities in Gallia Belgica and Noricum. Rothe’s conclusion is that women’s style was nuanced and complicated, where negotiation of cultural identities played a central role with “the right balance ... struck between local and Roman identity” in their public appearances on the funerary monuments (266).

The fourth section, discussing the economic participation of women from all levels of society, comes forward with a clear statement: women were active participants in the urban economy, yet the level of their participation depended much on their status. Two similar chapters by Groen-Vallinga and Holleran observe an inequality in work availability for female slaves, freed, and freeborn women. While the first two had more job opportunities, since they received some type of basic training or worked on an apprenticeship basis, the last had minor possibilities. Yet, according to Holleran, retail was an attractive prospect for freeborn women, since it required minimum skills and gave them more flexibility to change their job affiliation “as and when needed” (325). “If women were selling, they were also buying” (328); what they were allowed to buy is slightly expanded in van Galen’s contribution, which investigates whether women were eligible for grain distribution in Rome. The fourth chapter of the section, by Flemming, is appealing, although it has nothing to do with economics. It is a well-argued account of the genderless nature of medical provision, noting that men and women alike could be treated by professionals of both sexes (289).

That “women certainly travelled with men” (362) and “when they did travel it was as wives, sisters and mothers ... and slaves” (360) are statements from Woolf’s opening essay of the fifth and final section of the volume that looks at the gendered nature of mobility. Woolf presents unsurprising results, which he himself acknowledges, that men were more mobile than women. This ability to travel freely resulted in the empowering of male provincials and the strengthening of their positions in the social reality (364). Taking into account the previous sections’ statements that female civic participation and behavior depended much on their status and local situation, one may ask whose wives, sisters, mothers, and slaves were more mobile? Greene, in her convincing and refreshing analysis of female networks as recorded in the Vindolanda tablets, points out that the wives of military prefects on northern frontiers had “a greater degree of freedom” to travel (376), while Woolf indicates that independent wealthy females of Roman Italy were limited in their mobility because owning property would have limited their movements (354). Foubert’s vivid contribution further confirms that military wives traveled extended distances with their husbands (400).  

Altogether, this is a compelling volume with some innovative and intriguing contributions. It is successful in breaking down boundaries of long-standing perceptions of Roman women in the Latin West cities as passive and domestic, painting an image of a more nuanced reality where women had the power to influence their public and private representations within a male-dominated world. However, the absence of a final synthesis by the editors makes this volume appear as a patchwork of essays rather than as a monolithic narrative, made more frustrating by a number of inconsistencies. For example, Cooley, Eck, and Witschel conclude that the prominent role of men and the promotion of their families was a main reason for erecting an honorific inscription for and by women, while Hemelrijk starts by stating that such a reading is self-evident and “inevitable” (67). North's contribution would be out of place anywhere in the volume: it only briefly discusses women’s religious participation, focusing instead on remaking and reproving arguments of other scholars on recruitment and competition within the cults of Mithras, Isis, and Attis. Engaging as they are, contributions by Groen-Vallinga and Holleran deal with the same data, to the extent that repetition occurs as they arrive at painstakingly similar conclusions (cf., 304–9, 314–18). Moreover, there is little logic to the internal structure of sections: most are divided alphabetically, while the section on “Mobility” unexpectedly starts with a more general paper and then shifts to detailed case studies. Such editorial lapses could have been avoided if a more judicious selection of papers had taken place. Thus, while this volume seems to have aspired to be a collection of carefully chosen essays, it instead became a true conference proceeding.

Regardless of these flaws, experts—depending on their scholarship interests and preferences—will enjoy particular sections of this volume that move us a good way forward in our understanding of women of the Roman empire who lived beyond Rome. 

Tatiana Ivleva
Schubertlaan 124
2324EA Leiden
The Netherlands

Book Review of Women and the Roman City in the Latin West, edited by Emily Hemelrijk and Greg Woolf

Reviewed by Tatiana Ivleva

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 4 (October 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1184.Ivleva

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