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Gender and Body Language in Roman Art

Gender and Body Language in Roman Art

By Glenys Davies. Pp. xii + 357. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2018. $120. ISBN 978-0-521-84273-0 (cloth).

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In December 2018, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst was dedicated in St. Peter’s Square, Manchester, England. Standing on a kitchen chair as makeshift rostrum, with her arm outstretched in forceful appeal, Pankhurst adjures suffragettes and other women to rise up and demand the vote. This statue is one of the very few public statues in the world to honor women, and its bold and typically male open pose asserts Pankhurst’s challenge to masculine public space in the early 20th century.

The Romans also erected statues honoring elite women in public spaces. How do these honorary statues present elite women appropriately in public spaces reserved for men only. Can these statues of Roman women help us understand gender relationships in Roman society? In her latest book, Davies synthesizes her more-than-20-year investigation into how modern theory and research about body language helps us “read” Roman art and so “enriches our understanding of social dynamics, and in particular gender relations, in the Roman world (and specifically the urban elite)” (xi).

For readers unfamiliar with modern scholarly research on body language, Davies begins (ch. 1) with an overview of major theories of body language (e.g., those by Desmond Morris, Allan and Barbara Pease, Pierre Bourdieu). She notes that “some aspects [of body language] are universal and innate” (17), such as orientation, gaze, and posture. This section could have been enhanced by examples from several cultures; only later (25–6) does the author cite Bourdieu’s description of specific aspects of body language among the Kabyle of Algeria, which are very like those of the Romans she describes in chapter 2. She points out that each Roman social group (man, woman; slave, freed, freeborn; elite, nonelite) would learn during childhood the body language “which not only defines the group, but also serves to maintain the power relationships between (and within) those groups,” and cautions that body language uses subtle cues to reflect the social complexity of Roman society (26). As gestures are movements that can be difficult—sometimes impossible—to replicate in statues and reliefs (in addition to the fact that hands and arms are the body parts most likely to be damaged or completely missing), Davies finds that pose and posture are the aspects of body language most revelatory of gender differences among the Romans.

The author next turns to Roman authors for information they provide on expectations of male and female behavior and bodily deportment (chs. 2 and 3, respectively). Literary sources, of course, focus mostly on the exemplary behavior of elite men, including emperors, in public, especially in oratorical performance, and they provide fairly extensive information on rules concerning dress, gestures, good manners, and etiquette. Roman sources for women’s body language are few because elite women, even empresses, had little or no occasion for public performance compared to elite men. However, Roman authors provide indirect information on societal expectations of the exemplary Roman matron’s body language, gestures, and demeanor by praising her pudicitia, deference (as shown by her downcast glance), reticence, subordination, and concern about her reputation and deportment in public.

Davies begins her analysis of body language in Roman art (ch. 4) by examining two Greek standing nudes, the Doryphoros and the Aphrodite of Knidos because body language theorists generally view these statues as illustrating the male open pose of dominance and boldness in contrast to the female closed pose of submission and modesty. Late Classical and Hellenistic male and female nude statues, such as Agias and the Medici Venus, Davies notes, “perpetuate, and indeed often exaggerate, the characteristic features of male and female body language” (100). Romans adapted these statues’ nude poses for certain of their own portrait statues (e.g., Caius Caesar now in the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth; the Flavian woman as Venus now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek). The nudity of these portrait statues “was an indicator that the people commemorated were in some way extra-ordinary and even godlike” (119). Most Roman statues, however, are clothed, and in chapters 5 through 8, Davies explicates how the Romans modified these Greek male and female poses.

Standing statues of Roman men (ch. 5) can be presented in several types of clothing that indicate their sex and role in Roman society (e.g., gallus, barbarian). The pose of elite male togate statues shows them as dominant, confident, and poised speakers, officials, or generals. Davies emphasizes that details of pose, posture, and clothing are important: by holding his right arm close to his body through the arm-sling toga, a young man or a freedman signals his “respectful reserve . . . a limited form of submissiveness” as compared to the typical togate figure (145). As for male barbarian figures and galli, Davies points out that their poses are “reminiscent of the female pudicitia statue type” (144) and so express the Roman view of such men as “a feminized Other” (151).

A variety of draped statue types, discussed in chapter 6, were used to commemorate women, though certain types were particularly favored for empresses or funerary monuments. Artists varied these poses by adding attributes, redirecting the women’s gaze, or showing them veiled or unveiled. Nonetheless, all these portrait statues express the ideals of Roman female behavior. Because the ideal elite woman and those aspiring to be included in this category should really have remained unseen or unnoticed by the public, Davies observes that an honorary statue, by virtue of being public, set up a tension between ideal and public presences for a woman (167). She argues that the statues’ poses negotiate this tension in various ways, such as by having generalized or idealized facial features, having the palla being pulled across the body as a screen, or placing a woman’s arms in a defensive gesture against the public gaze.

In chapter 7, the author analyzes seated statues of men and women, including in certain relief sculptures. Clues to interpreting these poses are given by high- and low-status chairs, by context (of a relief scene), or by means of sitting like a statue of a deity, poet, or philosopher. She points out that examples of seated woman figures are often, but not exclusively, funerary.

The penultimate chapter looks at statues and reliefs of men and women represented together as a group. Many such representations were funerary or adorned part of a public building. Davies comments that often the group expresses harmony by mirroring each other’s pose, by clasping hands (which, depending on context, may indicate marital or patron-client harmony or political relationship), and by the direction of the gaze of each subject. A woman may show her submission to her husband or patron by, for example, bowing her head.

Chapter 9 sums up Davies’ interpretation of how the poses reveal Roman gender hierarchy. She emphasizes that it is important to notice details and compare statues. For example, in two statues from Cyrene in the British Museum, a woman’s pudicitia pose is very similar to a man’s palliatus pose. While she clutches her slipping palla to keep it as a barrier from the public gaze, he has complete control of his clothing, signifying that he has control of himself and his life as an elite male should.

The author’s analysis of a statue’s (or relief’s) artistic details (e.g., is a woman’s hand visible? is her pose more open for a woman? how does her pose relate to the pose of any male figure found with her?) provides a convincing argument that these statues should not be dismissed as generic stereotypes but are an important medium offering a more nuanced view of gender than the misogynistic literary sources indicate. As she notes in her conclusion, this study of body language can be extended to other forms of Roman art and other social groups. This reader looks forward to her analysis being tested on reliefs and wall paintings depicting owners and slaves and men and women in daily life scenes.

Judith Lynn Sebesta
University of South Dakota

Book Review of Gender and Body Language in Roman Art, by Glenys Davies

Reviewed by Judith Lynn Sebesta

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Sebesta

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