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Roman Women - Eve D'Ambra

Book Review by Ursus

I had hesitated to purchase and review any book on women studies. In my opinion, usually the discipline is nothing but an excuse to indulge in obnoxious postmodern jargon and whiny deconstructionist tirades about oppression. However, the status of women in Roman society is something that does merit serious study. I found a cheap, used copy of D'Ambra's work on the subject, and was generally pleased that I had taken a chance. It is written in clear language and richly illustrated. While pointing out the often-unequal status of Roman women, the work does not possess what I would consider an overbearing axe to grind. In short, "Roman Women" offers a passable overview of the topic for a casual reader.

This work is part of the Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization, a set of books designed as a companion guide to the Cambridge Latin Course. While based on primary texts and the most up-to-date scholarship, they are written in non-scholarly language to serve as introductions to the general reader. Topics include religion, warfare, and (obviously) women. At the end of each book is a glossary of terms and a bibliography for suggested further reading on the subject.

Eve D'Ambra is Professor and Chair of Art at Vassar College, and has written a previous book on Roman art. "Roman Women" is blessed with 42 halftones and 57 color illustrations, reflecting the author's professional interests in art and its use as material for this study. In her preface, the author states that her bias is for plebian and anticlassical sources as opposed to the elite. This gives the study, and thus the reader, a broader reality of Roman women than if the work had focused on a few prominent females such as Livia. The author also states she intended to hint at the breadth and depth of the subject without fully examining either (such are the needs of a self-described introductory survey).

At 180 pages of text, the work is comparatively short. It is divided into four chapters as follows: Gender and Status, Marriage and Family, Women's Work, and Public Life. Each chapter tries to examine the material evidence for said topic in conjunction with the available literary sources. The literary evidence was written by elite Roman males and thus usually objectifies women through a narrow filter of biased expectations and perceptions. Nonetheless, when those biases are elucidated and taken into account along with the artistic and archaeological evidence, they can provide some sort of reconstruction for the lost feminine voices of Ancient Rome. While the book tries to provide as broad a timeframe as possible, the available sources favor the late Republic and early empire.

In general, while enjoying some greater freedom than their Greek counterparts, Roman women were still defined by their relations to their fathers, husbands and brothers. Women were generally viewed as irrational, indulgent and fickle, in contrast to normative masculine values of reason, self-restraint and devotion. Their chief use to society was in cementing alliances between families via the institution of marriage, and the production of familial heirs and citizen-soldiers via procreation. Roman women married young, and many died in childbirth. When a female stepped outside her allotted role as wife and mother, she was usually viewed with suspicion and hostility. The ambitious women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty were demonized, for instance.

The other side of the coin is that women who adhered to their assigned roles were quite well respected. The very foundation myths of Rome reflect this. The Sabine women became reconciled to their Roman captors and intervened to halt a war between Sabines and Romans; the Republic was created in the wake of a tyrant's dishonoring of a virtuous Roman matron. In domestic and religious duties women could be honored by an otherwise patriarchal state. The Vestal Virgins presided over one of Rome's most cherished cults, while the mother of the Gracchi was praised as a virtuous and educated maternal influence on her offspring.

While generally interesting, some parts of the book bored me. I can only stomach so much talk of hairstyles and cosmetics, for instance, but perhaps that is a male bias. The normal price tag of $25 dollars or more is also a bit pricey for such a short work, and therefore I recommend this work be bought at cheaper prices from used book dealers. In the sum of things, I would recommend the work for clarity of language and the breadth of visual resources.

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