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Hidden Lives, Public Personae: Women and Civic Life in the Roman West

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

Hidden Lives, Public Personae: Women and Civic Life in the Roman West

By Emily A. Hemelrijk. Pp. xviii + 610, figs. 25, b&w pls. 20, tables 28, maps 2. Oxford University Press, New York 2015. $85. ISBN 978-0-19-025188-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This book attempts to address the public lives of upper-class nonimperial women or women of substantial financial means living beyond Rome in the period spanning the late first century B.C.E. to the third century C.E. The volume is a long-awaited contribution to van Bremen’s landmark study The Limits of Participation: Women and Civic Life in the Greek East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Amsterdam 1996), which explored female participation in the public sphere of Greek cities. Hemelrijk’s volume explores exactly the same dimension of the Latin-speaking provinces of the Roman West. The aim is to show that (and how) female civic participation formed an organic part of the Roman urban civic landscape. Without a doubt, Hemelrijk is a leading and authoritative scholar in this field, highly regarded for her extensive work on the subject of female visibility and female civic participation in Roman cities across the empire.

The monograph is well structured, generally well written, and though often repetitive is a remarkable work of erudite scholarship. The author’s meticulous and comprehensive study of about 1,400 inscriptions is matched by her dexterous handling of the current historical and theoretical volumes directly related to the subject. This is particularly apparent in the concise chapter 1, which is a critical reassessment of some highly controversial issues in contemporary Roman studies, such as the public-private division in the Roman world, “romanization,” epigraphic habits, and the wealth and status of women.

To provide a more robust perspective of female civic activities, Hemelrijk begins by collecting inscriptions erected by and for women from nonimperial wealthy backgrounds who consciously left their mark of participation in the public lives of Italian and Latin-speaking provincial cities. The epigraphic evidence is then examined within a series of five topics.

The first four chapters discuss in great detail how prominent and wealthy females exhibited and exercised informal power befitting their sex despite the fact that they were officially banned from political offices (Dig. 50.17.2). The topics covered include women holding religious offices by appointment of the city council or exercising priesthoods on behalf of the city (ch. 2), female munificence (ch. 3), women’s participation in and involvement with the mostly male civic institution of collegia (ch. 4), and female patronage and the phenomenon of civic motherhood (ch. 5).

These chapters present overarching analyses of the material that both refine our understanding of how women ventured into the male-dominated civic world and refute long-held opinions. For instance, the discussion in chapter 2 shows that appointed female priests were relatively common in nearly every corner of the Latin West, challenging the scholarly orthodoxy that all priests in the Roman empire, with the exception of the Vestals, were male. In a similar vein, chapter 3 challenges the perceived wisdom that women donated small-scale gifts in their acts of civic benefaction. In fact, Hemelrijk argues, female civic munificence followed male conventions, where both pragmatic and altruistic motives for benefactions dominated. Her reading of scarce epigraphic evidence in chapter 4 indicates that women were actively involved with the civic institution of collegia, through their husbands as well as individually, on many occasions. Yet because of the marginal position of women in the Roman civic hierarchy in general, the author claims that their overall participation in these male institutions was rather low and was confined mostly to Rome and other cities of Italy. The internal distinction between the women themselves, based on their status (elite, nonelite, and women of modest social standing), further influenced their level of participation and integration.

In the first four chapters, Hemelrijk presents convincing evidence for extensive female participation in civic life, showing how their devotion, piety, and generosity earned them public attention, social recognition, and respect. The last chapter, logically, turns to the subject of what various all-male civic bodies did in return. Yet this is not a chapter listing tokens of honor and appreciation by the cities to their illustrious women, as one might expect. Hemelrijk provides a compelling study centered on the proposition that civic bodies made decisions about granting honors on the basis of political, social, and familial considerations. The moral and civic merits of a woman were considered, but in most cases the honor was granted because of the prominence of their families and to cement the city’s long-lasting relationship with its most illustrious citizens. It was an intricate play of reciprocity centered on women: by honoring the females from prominent and wealthy families, cities tacitly expected various favors in forms of donations, patronage, and other costly expenses.

In the extremely brief conclusion, Hemelrijk warns readers not to overplay the idea that all honors or privileges bestowed by cities on women and by women onto cities and various civic bodies targeted their male relatives and families. Indeed, the whole volume suggests how female civic engagement contributed to the enhancement of their own roles and authority befitting their gender. Moreover, as “fame should be the result, not the purpose of conduct” (Plin., Ep. 1.8.14), the study successfully illuminates how religious sentiments, a feeling of obligation, and emotional satisfaction arose from the acts of generosity, but that social pressure also formed the basis for female civic participation.

This is a study to applaud; it provides an impressive autopsy of a wealth of inscriptions to expand our understanding of Roman female civic identity and argues that Roman female civic activities and civic integration were much more complex and nuanced than is commonly assumed. One major frustration comes from the decision to print about 200 pages of the roughly 1,400 inscriptions in the appendices. In the age of digital humanities, these inscriptions might easily have been made accessible via various open access sites, such as the Dutch Data Archiving and Networked Services (DANS) or the U.K.-based Archaeology Data Service (ADS). Another drawback of this volume is that the text is under-supported by maps and images, leading to rather long narrations of distributions and monuments (e.g., 90 n. 117). Maps could have been interactive and images could have been presented in color when published online. In many ways, the volume matches its counterpart, van Bremen’s (1996) seminal work, but it does not as clearly and succinctly define the limits of female civic participation in the Roman West. Individual chapters raise this point briefly from time to time, hinting that there may have been no limits for some women, but Hemelrijk conscientiously distances herself from that claim. The volume would have benefited from a more robust conclusion in this regard. Better editing would also have produced a refined focus and sharpness in some chapters to illustrate the limits of the integration and participation along status lines. Regardless, this long-awaited contribution will undoubtedly be a discernible marker for many decades to come and will serve very well those courses tackling women in ancient Rome, civic identity, and cities in the Roman world, among others.

Tatiana Ivleva
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Newcastle University

Book Review of Hidden Lives, Public Personae: Women and Civic Life in the Roman West, by Emily A. Hemelrijk

Reviewed by Tatiana Ivleva

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Ivleva

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