Do all roads lead to Rome? The nuances of studying gender in Antiquity

By Leandro Wallace 

Women have been part of history since the beginning. That is as true a statement, as there can be. However, what we would consider the academic recollection of history has had a different approach. In this piece, I will do a quick summary of what has been the development of the study of women in the Classical Word, with a closer look at the Ancient Roman period. This is a personal opinion, which has developed as a result of my current research involving Gender Studies and the Late Roman Republic, talking to different members of the academic community, participation in academic rendezvous, and reading the work of authors from different countries. It is not a critique of any particular country or education system, but a personal review of a general situation. As such is not definitive nor is it all-encompassing. I will include some researches I found particularly interesting and/or central for its topic, for those readers that would like to know more. 

II 

As with many other periods in the academic history, the “introduction” of women into the Antiquities needs to be credited to the impact of the Second Wave of feminism in the 1960s/70s. From their work came the impulse to start looking at the social places and activities of women. Before I continue, there is a little clarification to be made. The sources that we use are authored by males of high status. That means that, unlike more recent historical periods, female authors are very scarce if not absolutely absent. One big exception is the poetess Sappho. For that exact reason she has been the focus of many analyses. Beyond her, we need to look through the male hand to find their female counterparts. That work was done by the first line of researchers involved in trying to reinstate women to their place in history, both Greek and Roman (Pomeroy, 1994 [1975]; Fhantham et all, 1994,). Another development in these attempts was the reconstruction of the life of the few female that appear mentioned on the sources to be able to position them on the grand social scheme. From there, move to generalizations using these women as prime examples. Most of them were of high social status and belonged to an aristocratic or the imperial family. One issue with this way of doing history is “the Everest fallacy”, which refers to the tendency to illustrate a category by an example which is exceptional.  

Once this line found such limits and the questions were not answered as expected, the search for women’s actions and places continued in other ways. This time it involved social roles and places where they were most likely to be active: the family, motherhood and religious rites. The first two, closely related, are sometimes treated at the same time, and others as separate elements. All of it depending on what the main focus of the researcher is (Treggiari, 1989; Dixon, 1990, 1992; George,2005). 

Perhaps one of the fields that have the most focus on the role and place of women are the ones related to religion and religious positions. Religion in greek and roman times was not a separate and almost private sphere like we might know it from nowadays. Religious rites were a central part of political live and planning, and, for that exact reason, involved the whole community and its safety. There were some discussions around this topic that presented the role of women as absolutely subjugated, with limited activities, and the prohibition of performing sacrifices. However, studies emerging from Women’s History have proved the central role women had on both state and family rites. The most visible of the state related positions were those of the Vestals priestess, which were closely related to the safeguarding of both the state and the community. At the same time, many of the male positions required a female counterpart to be able to access them. Some rites were exclusively female such as the cult to the Bona Dea, whose name was prohibited to male ears. Others were included after the actions of matronae save the state: the cult to Magna Mater. Nowadays the importance of women performing state sacrifices and occupying religious positions is not as debated as it was (Schultz, 2006; Takács, 2008; DiLuzio, 2016). 

From the areas of Latin and Greek literature, and the linguistics came the first line of studies regarding sexualities. These studies established the characterization of the Roman Republic and Empire as a patriarchal society and its construction of the different hierarchies within that society (Richlin, 1992; Hallet& Skinner, 1997). This line started a very interesting debate on whether we can employ our characterization of sexual identities in roman times (Williams, 2010). Closely related are some studies regarding roman masculinities. A major reason for this is due to the content of our sources. Many of them discuss this topic in extension. Most of the works involve discussions about the word vir and its relations with manliness and the difficulties of applying that description to women (McDonnell, 2006; Balmaceda, 2017). 

A new attempt has consisted on revisiting the most known female characters and making use of other analytical tools. The new look of those women’s lives involves the interest of being able to better comprehend the social, cultural and economical meanings of certain roles and positions, and to go beyond their personal experiences (Ginsburg, 2006, Brännstedt, 2016).We have arrived at a point in the research on gender in the Classical world, that we have works summarizing the social spaces of relevance in these societies. This helps develop the area as it is a great point of initiation to anyone interested on furthering their knowledge (Foxhall, 2013). 

Before moving on, an honorable mention is in place. Many of the most resent Companions and other mayor compilations have already started providing chapters about women’s places and sexualities in these societies. They share the global character of the compilation and try to summarize in a couple of pages as much information as possible. 

III 

After this short recollection of where we are in terms of research themes regarding women in the roman times, there are a couple of ideas I would like to consider as to what it means and what is missing. We have talked about what studies have been done to remark women in history. There are a lot more topics in the world of Classical history, where women have been relegated or not considered at all. Such a case involves the many debates surrounding the economic situation of the Middle and Late Republic, especially after the Hannibal wars. Women’s capacity to do manual labour is almost completely ignored, while considering the work needed for a freeborn family to produce their land. The failure to consider such work force is of great importance. If one is trying to analyze whether a family can sustain themselves, you are diminishing the workforce, and their possibilities, by halve. As a result, the conclusion of those studies could be misleading by failing to include women as possible manual labor. These errors are starting to be remedied, but, once again, the solution is coming out of the Gender Studies areas related to Roman History. This is the main critique I can make about the Classical History area. Many of the advances being made, are being relegated to the specific fields of Women History or Gender Studies, and barely taken into account by the rest of researchers. Whether the deficiency in knowledge is due to problems in the diffusion of the investigations or from lack of interest by the rest of the researchers, we cannot know for sure. At the same time, there is a form of compartmentalization of areas that has caused this miscommunication and separation between the specializations. Happily, the resurgence of interdisciplinary works and research groups has begun to remedy this.  

In an effort to counteract this, researchers related to Women History or Gender Studies in the Classical World tend to double down on looking for the women named on the sources. This leaves out theories or methods that originate from the Gender Studies area that could prove useful. One of the concepts that all classicist use but do not realize it, is intersectionality (introduced by Crenshaw (1989), I personally like the additions made by Lugones (2010)). To analyze a society that values many elements beside gender, using intersectionality consciously allows a more comprehensive examination of the realities women faced. 

As for the direction Gender Studies, as a research field, is taking, I believe it has drifted from historical perspectives and focuses too much on the current society. Maintaining a degree of relation with history, not only the Classical period, will help with establishing concepts and theories that have more solid bases. At the same time, looking into societies that differ in various degrees from ours can help us understand different social constructions a lot more. Some examples that come to mind are: how does the construction of masculinities and femininities work, a different approach to sexual identities, as well as how the erection of gender roles occurs. I believe that a bigger interdisciplinary approach and exchange between the different areas of research can be rewarding for all those involved. 

As I have expressed at the beginning, this opinion piece does not intend to be all-encompassing about the researches on the different aspects of the Classical World and the areas of Women History and Gender Studies. Nor are my commentaries the only way to advance. At the same time, any major topics I may have missed are my own mistakes. I am also aware that I belong to the field and that I am responsible of carrying my weight for these changes to happen. The goals I detailed are my own as well. At the end of it all, I hope I have been able to pick your curiosity just enough to grab one of the works I will detail below. 

What can I read? 

  • Balmaceda, C. (2017), Virtus Romana. Politics and Morality in the Roman Historians, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 
  • Brännstedt, L (2016), Feminaprinceps: Livia’s position in the Roman state, Lund: Lund University Press. 
  • Crenshaw, K. (1989), Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Policts, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989 (1), pp. 139-167. 
  • DiLuzio, M. (2016), A Place at the Altar. Priestesses in Republica Rome, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 
  • Dixon, S. (1990), The Roman Mother, Londres: Routledge. 
  • (1992), The Roman Family, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press. 
  • Fantham, E., Peet Foley, H., BoymelKampen, N., Pomeroy, S. B., Shapiro H.A.(1994), Women in the Classical World. Image and Text, Nueva York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Foxhall, L. (2013), Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • George, M. (ed.) (2005), The Roman Family in the Empire. Rome, Italy, and Beyond, Nueva York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Ginsburg, J. (2006), Representing Agrippina. Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Hallett, J. y Skinner, M. (1997),Roman Sexualities, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 
  • Lugones, M. (2010), Hacia un feminismo decolonial[Towards a decolonial feminism], Hypatia 25 (4), pp. 105-117. 
  • McDonnell, M. (2006), Roman Manliness. Virtus and the Roman Republic, Nueva York: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Pomeroy, S. B. (1994) [1975], Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, London: Pimlico. 
  • Richlin, A. (1992), The Garden of Priapus. Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor, Nueva York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Schultz, C. (2006), Women’s Religious Activity in the Roman Republic, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 
  • Tackács, S. (2008), Vestal Virgins, Sybils, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion, Austin: University of Texas Press. 
  • Treggiari, S. (1993) [1989], Roman Marriage. Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian, Nueva York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Williams, C. (2010), Roman Homosexuality, Nueva York: Oxford University Press. 

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