You are here

Women in Roman Britain [and] Roman Women

July 2008 (112.3)

Book Review

Women in Roman Britain [and] Roman Women

Women in Roman Britain, by Lindsay Allason-Jones. Pp. xii + 209, figs. 71. Council for British Archaeology, York 2005. $19.95. ISBN 1-902771-43-5 (paper).

Roman Women, by Eve D’Ambra. Pp. xxii + 215, figs. 101, maps 2. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2007. $12.99. ISBN 9780521521581 (paper).

Reviewed by

When I was an undergraduate student in the 1970s, it was at the height of the feminist movement, but the teaching of ancient history was still a patriarchal institution (although I did write one essay on Roman contraception, which seemed at the time very daring, even shocking). Feminists deplored the lack of “herstory,” and Balsdon’s Roman Women (1962) did not seem adequate to fill the gap. Rereading Balsdon today, I am surprised to find myself impressed at the sheer amount of information his book contains (mostly taken from literary sources), and it is presumably for this reason that it continues to appear on reading lists and in bibliographies. But compared to the two authors whose works are the subject of this review, Balsdon now seems to be naively complicit with the Roman (men) whose views and attitudes he reproduces without comment. He also concentrates on the upper echelons of society and makes comparatively little use of the visual and material evidence.

Both D’Ambra’s Roman Women and the revised edition of Allason-Jones’ Women in Roman Britain are short books, but both are lavishly illustrated (101 figures, some in color, and 71 black-and-white illustrations, respectively; cf. Balsdon’s 16 black-and-white plates). This reflects the role material evidence plays in both books, especially the inscriptions and images on funerary monuments. Both volumes use literary sources as evidence for the ways in which Roman society worked and for the attitudes of the dominant group in that society: elite men. (As Allason-Jones remarks, Romans such as Cicero and Tertullian were far from being politically correct [xii].) Both D’Ambra and Allason-Jones are writing for nonspecialist audiences: D’Ambra for students with no knowledge of or familiarity with Roman antiquity, Allason-Jones for laypersons interested in British or women’s history, or Roman Britain. This means that from time to time, both authors have to stop writing specifically about women to explain aspects of Roman society that have as much, if not more, to do with men (e.g., the Roman system of slavery and the role of freedmen, the ranks in the Roman army, the social use of baths, the structure of the Roman house or praetorium, and what people ate in Roman Britain). Such digressions can be long, taking some time to return to the subject of women—a symptom, perhaps, of the difficulty of writing about women in such a male-dominated society; men’s lives can be discussed with little reference to women but not vice-versa.

Allason-Jones deals with a specific, far-flung corner of the Roman empire, and for her the subtext is the Romanization or, more properly, the acculturation of Britannia. A major theme is the part women played in this process and the ways in which their lives were affected by it. The women of Roman Britain in effect divide into two basic groups: “natives” and their descendants, and those who came into the province from Rome or elsewhere in the empire as wives and daughters of Roman military personnel, administrators, or merchants. Roman law and custom, she suggests, may well have accorded women less power and status than Celtic tradition, and both British women who moved away from their tribal area and women who moved to Britain from outside the province may have led rather lonely and isolated lives. She compares their situation to that of the families of the British in India and the pioneers of the American West.

Allason-Jones divides the book into eight chapters. Chapters 2 and 3, on women and the army and women in town and country, are particularly coherent and convincing. Parts of the other chapters—on subjects including the home, fashion, religion, entertainment, and recreation—have more to do with general “daily life in Roman Britain” than issues specific to women. Where material from Britain is lacking, evidence has to be drawn from farther afield. Wherever possible, Allason-Jones provides specific case studies, many of them an analysis of an individual piece of evidence such as a gravestone. A list of all the women discussed by name is included at the end of the book. It is this attention to individuals that gives the book its own flavor and charm, but the equally assiduous attention to recording the provenances of the items discussed and illustrated is unlikely to mean much to the nonspecialist.

D’Ambra’s theoretical stance is less easy to detect. She states at the outset that she wishes to foreground the ordinary and everyday, the plebeian and mundane, but throughout she reverts to the elite classes who provide much of the evidence. Nevertheless, she does put some emphasis on the evidence for women working outside the home and the occupations undertaken by female slaves, freedwomen, and others of small means and low status. She does not impose chronological or geographical limits on her subject matter (which ranges from earliest times and the Rape of the Sabines to such disparate items as a head of auburn hair from York, the statue of Helena, and the Mildenhall Treasure, all in the fourth century C.E.), but she does tend to confine her examples to Roman Italy and the city of Rome, in particular in the period from the Late Republic to Mid Empire. This breadth of coverage means that at times her accounts of Roman womanhood appear rather contradictory. Some juxtapositions may be deliberate, such as the traditional virtues of the Roman matron (and Augustan legislation on marriage and adultery) contrasted with depictions of mistresses in romantic poetry and the opportunities provided for transgressive behavior by the fact that Roman wives attended banquets. Similarly, male moralizing against female preoccupation with dress and appearance is juxtaposed with evidence that dress, jewelry, hairstyles, and make-up really were important concerns for a large number of Roman women. A reader who is a newcomer to the subject might find such apparent contradictions confusing and the structure of the book difficult to follow. The material is organized into four wide-ranging chapters (“Gender and Status,” “Marriage and the Family,” “Women’s Work,” and “Public Life”), but it is not always clear why subjects appear in one chapter rather than another (e.g., why puellae doctae are in ch. 2, but matronae doctae in ch. 3). The long section on “the arts of cultivation” (cosmetics, hairstyles, jewelry) ironically appears in the chapter on women’s work, an ideological placing that belongs firmly in the postfeminist era rather than the feminism of the early 1970s.

In both books, references are kept to a minimum. Allason-Jones’ notes, though confined to four pages at the end, do give adequate references to classical authors, inscriptions, and archaeological reports. D’Ambra’s references all appear in the text, and, although direct references to classical texts are given, several points in the argument are not adequately backed up with verifiable evidence (such as the view that the Romans idealized motherhood and saw it as the goal for all women, or that the crescent moon motif represents fertility). Some statements are too sweeping or too obscure and lack adequate explanation (e.g., is it really justified to assert that elite Roman men saw saleswomen as “aggressive, shameless, and surely willing to sell their bodies as easily as they would hand over a head of garlic” [140]?).

Both authors have produced accounts that are readable, at times thought-provoking, and a pleasure to look at; they provide their target audiences with as coherent an account of women in the Roman world as is possible in books of this length. Both acknowledge the size of the task they have been set (“a brief book on a large and increasingly unwieldy subject” [D’Ambra, xvii]; “an impossible book to write” [Allason-Jones, x]), but they refer to the sheer amount of material rather than the difficulties involved in attempting to isolate women and write about them separately from men. Can “women” in fact be studied as a coherent group? Is the writing of “herstory” still a valid aim? I am no longer as certain as I used to be that there should be books on “Roman women” (where are the books on “Roman men”?—although there are increasing numbers on aspects of Roman masculinity).

In the end, I found Allason-Jones’ specific study of Roman Britain more successful and convincing (partly because it has the theme of acculturation underpinning the narrative) than D’Ambra’s more wide-ranging and discursive survey. From time to time, it seemed that the equivalent theme for D’Ambra might be the ways in which (and extent to which) dominant masculinity succeeded in constructing and maintaining its own vision of Roman womanhood. But this theme is not sustained throughout the book, and as a result the work lacks intellectual focus.

Glenys Davies
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
University of Edinburgh
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9JX
United Kingdom

Book Review of Women in Roman Britain, by Lindsay Allason-Jones; Roman Women, by Eve D’Ambra

Reviewed by Glenys Davies

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 3 (July 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Davies

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.