Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 28.
Suzanne Dixon, Reading Roman Women: Sources, Genres and Real Life. London: Duckworth, 2001. Pp. xiv + 242, incl. 16 black-and-white photographs, 3 appendices, a bibliography and 2 indices. ISBN 0- 7156-2981-6. UK£16.99.
Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape
Suzanne Dixon is the author of several books and articles dealing with aspects of Roman legal history and social life, especially the family and women.[] This book contains essays on aspects of the lives of women in Roman Italy c. 201BCE-180CE. This focus will be useful to students who are not classicists but are interested in finding information on Roman women. So far the major part of the large number of recent publications on women in the ancient world has concentrated on Greek women. This book is accessible to non-classicists also in that all quotations from Latin authors are in translation. Extensive endnotes (pp. 163-203) and the two indices, one of ancient sources, ensure that specialists will be able to delve deeper.
Dixon's key arguments are that ancient texts have to be read in new ways, and that the genre of the text determines not only what it treats, but also the way in which it treats it and what it leaves out.
In the first chapter, 'Rereadings' (pp. 3-15), Dixon provides a useful overview of scholarship on women in antiquity since the 1970's. This is followed by a chapter, 'Reading the genre' (pp. 16-25), where her approach is that 'male-centred texts have employed constructions of Woman not as a reflection of known women or even of serious preconceptions about women in general, but as a category of discourse, the other, against which to define the insider qualities of the normative, hypothetical male' (p. xi).
The next section, with the subtitle 'Reading the Female Body', consists of three chapters in which Dixon applies techniques of narrative analysis and feminist and post-modern theories of constructions of sexualities and the body. In Chapter 3, 'Representations of Female Sexualities' (pp. 32-44), the theories are applied to Latin literary texts, especially erotic poetry and satire. The author concludes that there can be no single interpretation of the Roman approach to female sexuality as each genre has its own approach, but that Roman literature on the whole privileges a dominant perspective which is centred on Rome and is that of élite, middle-aged, male citizens. Chapter 4, 'Rape in Roman law and myth' (pp. 45-55), is a revised version of an article originally published in 1982. It contains a survey of Roman laws on rape and related offences. Dixon analyses the myths about two of the most prominent women in early Roman history, Lucretia and Verginia, and considers the symbolic and political meanings of female 'purity'. She traces how the ideal of female chastity was reinforced by the Augustan classification of adultery as a crime and during the Christian period by the notion of sin. This theme is complemented by the next chapter, 'Woman as symbol of decadence' (pp. 56-65), where the depiction of abortion in Latin literature is considered. She argues that, like adultery, abortion threatened legitimate male control over women and their progeny. She points out that the 'patria potestas was never challenged as such in Roman literary, moral or legal writings' (p. 61).
The following three chapters are grouped under the heading 'Reading the Public Face: Legal and Economic Roles'. The sources for this section are references to women and female activities as found in legal texts, inscriptions and on papyrus. The concentration is on how the legal status and economic roles of Roman women in commerce, cloth-production and patronage are represented and on how to assess how legal and conventional ideas of the feminine might have affected women's actual activities or representations of those activities. This is an ambitious undertaking but Dixon is equal to the challenge. She details her thorough investigation of women's involvement in these spheres without disguising the complexity of collating and comparing fragmentary material, scattered geographically and chronologically.
Chapter 6, 'Womanly Weakness in Roman Law' (pp. 73- 88), is an edited version of a paper first published in 1984. Dixon demonstrates how tutela ('guardianship') of Roman women was preserved not because women were regarded as inherently weaker, but because of Roman conservatism. She shows how the actual effect of having a tutor was gradually eroded so that Roman women conducted business quite freely with their 'guardian' being little more than a necessary convention. She further shows how, in spite of this reality, the concept of female incapacity incorporated in Roman law re-appeared in later European legal systems (and thence in Roman-Dutch law in the old South Africa).
Chapter 7, 'Profits and Patronage' (pp. 89-112), focuses on women of the upper class and their roles in commercial activities, especially in the socially defined areas of patronage and loans. 'Women's Work' (Chapter 8, pp. 113-32) turns to housewives and professional spinners and weavers. In these chapters Dixon again displays sensitivity to the dangers of cultural bias in speculating about the true extent of women's involvement in commerce, but she also offers valuable insights into areas of female activity often overlooked by standard books on Roman social history.
The last chapter, 'The Allure of "La dolce vita" in Ancient Rome' (pp. 133-56), should be prescribed reading for all Latin teachers who are still reading Catullus' Lesbia poems with their pupils on the assumption that Catullus was 'betrayed' by Lesbia and that she was that same promiscuous woman, Clodia, who was attacked by Cicero in the Pro Caelio. Dixon offers a detailed discussion of Catullus' portrayal of Lesbia, the identification of Lesbia as Clodia Metelli, the depiction of Clodia in Cicero's Pro Caelio and the possibility of this being the same Clodia Metelli. She again stresses the perils of ignoring genre conventions and purposes. This chapter is an invitation to classicists to open themselves to new ways of reading established texts, but as Suzanne Dixon is well aware, such an invitation is not universally welcomed. She writes, 'Scholars in the vanguard of Catullan studies and Roman Republican politics might regard such views as amusingly outdated, but when they are challenged at conferences, classical colleagues react with shock and grief at the prospect of relinquishing the alluringly wicked Lesbia/Clodia' (p. 153).
Suzanne Dixon states that this book is not meant to be 'a definitive or comprehensive view of Roman women' (p. xiii). In spite of this modest disclaimer, Reading Roman Women is a valuable addition to scholarly information. It will be useful not only as a companion to the reading of Latin literature, but also to ancient historians and those engaged in women's studies.
[] See, for example, Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Mother (London 1988).