Susan DIXON, Reading Roman Women. London: Routledge 2001. Pp. 242. ISBN 0-7156-2981-6.
Sempronia, Messalina, Clodia then Lesbia? When one starts to ?read? Roman women, individuals plucked from ?colour pieces? in history, or Valerius Maximus, from poetry, or from forensic oratory, are the staple fare. This sort of ?page 3? approach to the study of women in antiquity began to leave us in the 1970s and is nearly fully replaced by a contextual approach: we have, so to speak, turned to the economics and politics pages, and attempt to read Roman woman in her cultural context. This is not an easy task, but it is one Dixon makes progress with in her book, especially in Part III Reading the Public Face: Legal and Economic Roles. The difficulties inherent in our ?reading? Roman women are attractively covered in the final chapter, ?Conclusion: the allure of ?La dolce vita? in ancient Rome?. This, the concluding essay, is one of nine self-contained essays making up the book. The text as a whole is split into three clear parts or sections: I. Readings, II. Reading the Female Body, and III. Reading the Public Face: Legal and Economic Roles. In Part I. Essay 1. ?Re-readings: a partial survey of scholarship? is a useful trawl over the ground especially of the last thirty years, accompanied by a cautionary distrust of ?Theory? and a warning about the paucity of sources. Essay 2: ?Reading the Genre? argues for applying the skills of literary analysis, on the cultural studies model, to non-literary sources, that is, conventional professional boundaries between historical sources (inscriptions, imperial rescripts, petitions, contracts, funerary reliefs) and imaginative literature (?fiction?) must be breached.
?Fiction? (Dixon?s apostrophes) brings me back to the ?third fiction? that is Lesbia/Clodia, the ?historicised? (my apostrophes) woman that is the composite of Catullus? Lesbia and Cicero?s Clodia Metelli. Dixon rightly maintains in her final essay that this historicised woman has been, and is, a remarkably tenacious image for ?conservative classical scholars?. This ?third fiction? is one suggested first, not surprisingly, by that expert in fiction, Apuleius, in the second century. One rarely takes Apuleius at face value, but this po-faced, pat, histrionic, oratorical detail from his Apology (a speech made in self-defence of a charge of enticing, by magic, a woman older and richer than himself into marriage) is surely as unsafe and unsound a basis for judging Roman women you can get. Dixon includes a rereading of our portrait of Cicero?s Clodia, reminding us of the genre and context in which it was composed, all in an unassuming and wry tone. We have, apparently, when reading Roman women, been sitting with our minds in neutral. Dixon rightly takes us to task. The rest of her book shows that she has taken her own advice.
Part II. ?Reading the Female Body? begins with Essay 3. Dixon is concerned with how literary genres shaped representations of Roman women then, and our attempts to interpret and understand this ancient discourse now. Her essential point is that these representations were flexible then, and that we should beware of ?cosy assumptions? (such as ?the Romans were just like us?) now, in our interpretation. This essay ?Representations of female sexualities?, chooses to range over several areas of literary representation, especially Elegy and Satire, where portrayals of the body are conditioned by genre. The good woman as she appears in Elegy is contrasted with the bad and the ugly in Satire. It is of course perilous, as Carcopino infamously does in his Daily Life in Ancient Rome, to base any interpretation of ?Roman women? on Juvenal Satire 6! These literary genres existed along with other written matter, as Dixon says (epitaphs, letters, moral essays and so on), and there is no real reason to privilege one representation over another. Written mostly by men, Roman literature reflects a conservative, male, elite, citizen viewpoint, but this fact must be balanced by the demands imposed by the literary genre itself.
Essay 4 ?Rape in Roman law and myth? concentrates on the stories of Lucretia (Livy 1.57-59) and Verginia (Livy, 3. 44-48). Both stories illustrate the importance of female chastity as a commodity and as indicator of the morals of the family group (as in ancient Rome), or of the whole community (as in Christian Rome from the era of Constantine). Dixon gives a cogent account of rape within early Roman laws on violence, insult, fornication and a law from the later period, abduction. She deals mainly with rape as a crime of violence and with the consequences of rape on the woman.
Essay 5 ?Woman as symbol of decadence? completes Part II, and deals with the idea of Roman women as ?other? in the European tradition following the classical revival. The essay discusses abortion. Dixon sensibly concludes that abortion is made to appear as a mere fault of female vanity and general moral decline in Ovid and Seneca: this reading can in no way be taken to describe the actual experience of abortion in women?s lives in ancient Rome. The body is used as an emblem of social decline and in this, woman has been seen to be ?useful to historians? as literally a happy diversion from ?real? history and a handy narrative hangar for tales of decline and fall.
Essay 6 ?Womanly weakness in Roman law? is the first essay in the most interesting Part III. Dixon again employs her usual method of looking at the idea of infirmity of woman in law and tries to evaluate how this related to the lives of women. The basis for the notion of infirmitas animi is found in attitudes to alienation or pledging of property, particularly dowry and dotal lands, as surety against debt. The original impetus of the notion of women?s infirmity in law was the vulnerability of the dowry and her own fortune, for example, in the face of her husband?s creditors. The notion of infirmitas being grounded in the absurdity that women are especially witless about money, or in a woman?s supposed need of protection by men in business affairs, arises out of later western gender stereotypy. In ancient Rome, the exclusiveness of the dominant (male) ruling group meant that a whole group, i.e. women, could be discounted. When women are oppressed in this way then these complex male self-serving convictions about women?s incapacity of mind grow. As Dixon says of these convictions, ?it would be rather naïve to read them literally?. The existence of Law in theory and its observance in real life, are often two very different things. Essay 8 ?Women?s work: perceptions of public and private? concentrates on the difficulty, when dealing with our present concept of labour, of transferring or transmuting this to the ancient world. The difficulties and dangers are obvious especially when one discusses women?s work. The work Roman women did was domestically based and attracted celebration in certain kinds of ways, in literature and in epitaphs for example. Dixon makes the point that ?respectable womanly work? is both idealised and rendered barely visible because iconographic and other representations are so generalised. Essay 7 ?Profits and Patronage? is excellent well-documented building on earlier articles by Dixon herself. Again women?s roles in business were subject to male notions of what was appropriate for a woman. Business, large or small, engaged in by men or by women was not an admired lifestyle. One need only think, as Dixon does, of Trimalchio. Legal documents and contracts routinely use the masculine form alike when referring to both male and female parties. Dixon concludes that even though women?s names are not specifically cited it is reasonable to allow for their implicit inclusion. Arguments from silence are always a bit shaky and Dixon admits that the recorded participation of women in business activity is lower than that of men. Women benefactors fall prey to sly criticism of men like Pliny the Younger who damns Ummidia Quadratilla, a rich woman who contributed monies from her own purse to fund amphitheatres and temples in her own region. Pliny records this munificence and adds that ?she kept a troupe of pantomime actors and used to indulge them more freely than was suitable in a lady of rank? (Letters 7.24). Moving to the top of the social scale, Dixon has some interesting paragraphs on Livia?s representations in various media: historical writing, coinage, honorific sculpture, inscriptions, and the Ara pacis. Dixon finds that much of what applies to ?reading of Roman women? in the lower classes applies to Livia also. She concludes that the ?domesticated public woman? reassured everyone?. This is an interesting and worthwhile book with extensive notes and bibliography.