Download file in PDF format: TRAC 1992: Women and Gender Relations in the Roman Empire (pp. 174–189)
WOMEN AND GENDER RELATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE
The paper I delivered at TRAC 92 has been largely reproduced elsewhere
(Scott 1993a: 5-22), but I am grateful for the opportunity to expand on
and consolidate a particular theme which I have raised previously and all
too briefly, namely that women continue to be invisible within Roman
archaeology and ancient history. This situation is dependent partly upon
an uncritical over reliance on the ancient literary sources with archaeology
relegated to the role of ‘handmaiden’ (i.e. there to support not to challenge). It has also been mooted that classical philologists are not best
trained and equipped to interpret the human cultures of antiquity
(MacMullen 1990: 25), yet the views, interests and perspectives of philologists often continue to hold sway with many historians and classical
archaeologists. This leads us to the most important and intriguing reason
for the invisibility of women in Roman studies, which is the lack of explicit
use of feminist social theory in Roman archaeology and ancient history.
Recently, I was assured that comments such as those above are simply
‘abstractions’ which while easy to rant about vaguely are difficult to demonstrate formally, the implication being that my allegations of androcentrism
in Roman studies are unfounded. I would like, therefore, to support and illustrate my contentions more specifically, using examples from Romanist
mainstream literature, within a framework of feminist critique.
My interest in feminist critique grew rapidly during the period of my
doctoral research (Scott 1988) when it became increasingly clear that vari-WOMEN AND GENDER RELATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE 175
ous authorities’ assertions regarding Roman period infant burials seemed
to be based on little more than their own bizarre and prurient notions
about the alleged universal prevalence of baby-dropping (Cocks 1921: 150;
Johnston 1983: 11; Watts 1989: 373). Indeed, these scholars seemed to envisage naughty Romano-Victorian sernng wenches stuffing the illegitimate
results of concealed pregnancies into sundry nooks and crannies about the
house and yard. This in itself reveals one of the attractions of Roman
archaeology for many: the undiluted opportunity for the telling of the ripping yarn. Whether the story is actually appropriate to any specific historical
and social context under study would appear to be of little importance.
This sleek and slack approach, as we will see later, is nowhere more evident
than in discussions of women.
FEMINIsT SOCIAL THEORY —-
There is now extensive literature on feminist social and political theory.
There is also a rapidly expanding ‘backlash’ literature, which seeks to persuade women that too much equality, opportunity, feminism ete. is bad for
them, or contrary to ‘nature’ (Faludi 1992). Thus we see the appearance of
tracts from the Institute of Economic Affairs asserting that ‘women … are
genetically predisposed to have other priorities than paid work’ (Quest
1992: 2) and further that ‘changing nappies does, in fact, have a significant
genetic component’ (Levin 1992: 20). A significant part of this New Right’s
argument is underpinned by an idea of ‘traditional values’ and ‘historic
precedent’, and history and historical archaeology have been much misused within the anti-feminist domain. It is imperative that we begin to write
real women into our archaeological narratives and examine the cultural
constructions of gender within various historical contexts. I have outlined
the political reasons for doing so, but there are also mainstream intellectual
reasons, as Ruth Tringham recently noted in a description of her own ‘conversion’ (Tringham 1991: 94):
And then it dawned on me … until, as an archaeologist, you can
learn to give imagined societies faces, you cannot envisage gender.
Or, in somebody else’s terms (Conkey’s?) you cannot engender prehistory. And until you can engender prehistory, you cannot think of
your prehistoric constructions as really human entities with a social,
political, ideological, and economic life. Ahaaaa!
(N.b. It is quite alright to substitute ‘prehistory’ with ‘history’ or even
‘Roman history’; the world will not come to an end). 176 E. SCOTT
Making Women Invisible in Social Analyses: ‘Tricks of the Trade’
It is commonly held by feminists, and with good reason, that historical,
social and political narratives and theory were, and for the most part still
are, written by men, for men and about men (lbiele 1992: 26). This has
been dubbed ‘male-stream theory’ (O’Brien 1981: 5). A number offeminist
scholars have investigated women’s disappearance from male-stream
scholarship by identifying the forms their invisibility takes in androcentric
sociology. The three main fonns of invisibility identified are exclusion,
psC1.ilUrinclusion and alienation (March 1982; Thiele 1992: 26-28). These
fonns of invisibility are not mutually exclusive, but rather tend to be used
in combination; and they can clearly be identified in mainstream Romanist
Invisibility of this fonn is brought about by women being completely
ignored or neglected because the subjects of such theories are explicitly
male or male-<lominated institutions and activities. Women are excluded by
default. They are invisible because they are disregarded. The general
narratives and theories set priorities in subject matter and data which focus
attention on social processes and activities in which women were only
marginally involved, if at all (Thiele 1992: 26). Thus, many volumes sporting the titles The Roman Empire or The Roman World are in fact accounts of
the Roman army, its imperial politics and Roman provincial administration. This is clear from the contents pages of many volumes, two which are
The Roman Empire by Professor Colin Wells (1984):
I The new order
II The sources
III The work of Augustus
IV Italy under Augustus: the social and political climate
V The consolidation of the Principate
VI The army and the provinces in the first century AD
VII ‘Emperors made elsewhere than at Rome’: Galba to Trajan
VIII The state of Italy from Petronius to Pliny
IX The orderly government of the Empire: Hadrian to Marcus
X ‘The immeasurable majesty of the Roman peace’
XI An age of transition: from Commodus to Maximinius the
Thracian WOMEN AND GENDER RElATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE 177
Even the most promising sounding chapters disappoint with their exclusionary language. Thus, in ‘Italy under Augustus: the social and intellectual
climate’ we are told (Wells 1984: 87):
A motif of Augustan propaganda was the restoration of stability.
Just as his legal powers were based on Republican precedent, just
as he revived obsolete or obsolescent religious ceremonial, just as
those who shared his views, like Uvy and Horace, looked back to
the good old days of uncorrupted simplicity, so too Augustan art
and architecture followed traditional models.
Not one word does he write about women, at whom, as we shall see
below, the Emperor Augustus’s ‘traditional values’ campaign was largely
The Roman Empire by Professor Chester G. Starr (1984):
II The imperial succession
III The Roman aristocracy
IV Governing the Empire
V The cities of the Empire
VI Army, roads and frontiers
VII The first test (AD 211-330)
VIII The final test (AD 330-476)
Starr too uses exclusionary language, such as in the passage subheaded
‘Cultural and religious changes’ (Starr 1982: 136):
If there was no inner sustenance to be gained from the models of
the past, then it was time to carve a new approach to the inner
nature of mankind which had once animated these models; this was
the achievement of the third and fourth centuries after Christ, one
of the great turning points of Western civilization. To define succinctly – and so with dangerous precision – the character of these
new ideas, man came to visualize himself as an entity independent
of state and community. He was sharply distinguished from all
other human beings and was also clearly set off from the physical
world about him, unlike in the pantheistic view of the classical
world. Nonetheless he had vital links to two outside forces: the
divine power above, and his fellow men; for he now advanced to
the capability of intimate, truly spiritual union with his brothers. So
he might work for common aims in a group without sacrificing his
individuality, and while separated from the physical world he was
certain that it too was divinely governed. 178 E.SCOTI
Starr’s passage demonstrates a far less subtle form of exclusion, in which
women are, for no given reason, simply dropped from the discourse.
Thiele notes the work of Hobbes as a prime example, for he presents a
Commonwealth entirely inhabited by men. Comparisons with Starr’s
Roman Empire are perhaps inevitable. Thiele stresses that the exclusion of
women is an active process rather than a result of passive neglect (Thiele
It is not a simple case of lapsed memory: these theorists don’t
just forget to talk about women; rather, women are structurally
excluded from the realm of discourse or, for the sake of
theoretical preoccupations and coherency, they are deliberately
Pseudo-inclusion differs from exclusion in that the theory appears to take
women into account but then marginalises them. Women become defined
as a ‘special case’, as anomalies, exceptions to the rule which can be noted
and then forgotten about. What is normative is male (ibid.: 27-28).
This is particularly true of the treatment of burial data by many Roman
archaeologists. Imbalances in the sex ratios in cemeteries tend to be ‘explained away’ or dismissed with imaginative stories, and sociological discussion is absent. Sometimes skeletons are even sexed on the most dubious of
grounds. Thus Frere viewed the Hambleden infant burials (unsexed) as
evidence of ‘the exposed unwanted female offspring of a slave-run establishment’ (1967: 266-67) with no further discussion. Frere has created an
interesting story but in so doing has actually dismissed these burials, and
this type of interpretation has become embedded in many secondary
sources. When Perring (1991: 121-22) discusses the cemetery data for
Roman London and the surrounding area, he concludes with the remark,
‘Where are the women?’ This remark could have been a useful starting
point for discussion, but unfortunately it brings the passage to a close and
the burial data is explained away in terms of an incomplete sample, which
in effect categorises the female burials as a deviation from the norm. The
opportunity for discussion of the profound social implications of the
burials is lost.
We can also see pseudo-inclusion in operation in Who Was Who in the
Roman World (Bowder 1980; reviewed in Scott 1993a: 9-10). In brief, the
authors endeavoured ‘to include all historical and cultural figures of im-WOMEN AND GENDER RELATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE 179
portance’ (Bowder 1980: 9). A sample of the large A-D section reveals that
only about 7% of these figures are women, though interestingly a much
higher percentage appear in the supplementary index of persons alluded
to in the text but ‘not important enough to be given their own entry’
(ibid.). This statement begs (unanswered) questions about whether this
number is a fair, proportionate and useful representation of the available
material evidence, how ‘importance’ has been assessed here, and the relationship of this ‘scholarship’ to the biases of the ancient sources. There is
a real disparity between the lengths of the entries of women and men, irrespective of their renown, and women are frequently dismissed in a few
lines. Julia Domna receives only 17 lines, whereas relatively obscure male
military figures receive two to three times as much. One repeatedly gains
the impression that the editorial line incorporates the unspoken belief in
the secondary importance of women to men.
This form of invisibility refers to those theories which are ‘extensionally
male’ (Clark and Lange 1979: ix). They include women as subjects, but they
do not speak of the parameters of women’s lives without distortion.
Women’s experience is interpreted through male categories because the
methodologies and values of the theorists remain androcentric. Despite
any commitment they may have to the subject of women, their perspective
interferes with their interpretation of women’s experience, especially in
their selection of those parts of women’s lives which are deemed significant
(Thiele 1992: 28).
Thus we have Matthews (1988: 357) giving women specific space – a
whole page no less – in his chapter on ‘Roman life and society’ in The
Roman World (Boardman et al. 1988). He deems as worthy of discussion
only three categories of women’s lives, the roles of helper, prostitute, and
mother/homemaker – Man’s helpmeets, whores and madonnas (Scott
Returning to Who Was Who in the Roman World, one can see that the
entries of the few women who are included tend to incorporate certain
common themes, a core of androcentric mythology about women. They
were renowned for their beauty; they were renowned for their chastity or
their promiscuity; they were the wives, mothers and daughters of important
men; they were the victims or perpetrators of violence; they were very
fertile or they were barren; or they were the ‘real power behind the throne’
(ibid.: 9). 180 E. Scon
MAINSTREAM ROMAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL WRITING —-
The Effects of Reliance on the Ancient Sources
A major part of the appeal of Roman archaeology is widely held to be that
the Romans themselves documented their own society. Ancient writers
such as Pliny, Cato, Columella. Varro, Juvenal and Martial wrote about
Roman culture, and modern archaeologists and ancient historians have
made prolific use of this window on the past. The ancient sources are thus
cited on many subjects. If we want to know all about women in the Roman
empire, we need look no further than Pliny. Garnsey and Saller did not
look much further, at any rate, when illustrating the ‘Family and the household’ chapter of their generally well-received, if not seminal, study, The
Roman Empire: economy, society and culture (1987). They express the usual
token caution about accepting the ancient sources too uncritically, and indeed one would hope so when to illustrate the widespread happy subordination of the Roman wife in marriage they cite an absolute gem from the
pen of Pliny (131-32). Pliny, in his forties, had married the teenage Calpurnia, and wrote to his aunt thus (Pliny Ep. 4. 19):
I do not doubt that it will be a source of great joy to you to know
that [Calpurnia] has turned out to be worthy of her father, worthy
of you and worthy of her grandfather. Her shrewdness and frugality are of the highest order. She loves me – a sign of her purity. To
these virtues is added an interest in literature, which she has taken
up out of fondness for me. She has, repeatedly reads, and even
learns by heart my works. What anxiety she feels when I am about
to speak in court! What joy when I have finished I She arranges for
messengers to tell her of the approval and applause I win as well as
the outcome of the case.
Having cited Pliny’s letter, what conclusions might we draw? Does this
give us a priceless window on the past? On the contrary, one might be inclined to dismiss it as the rantings of a rather unpleasant, arrogant, defensive, pompous, mean, dishonest man – so surely we can’t extrapolate from
this about Roman marriages in general? Garnsey and Saller would appear
to believe that we can, and their rather unsubtle reading of this passage is
presented as evidence for women’s behaviour and of the widespread cheerful subordination of wives to their husbands, by their subsequent references to Pliny and Calpurnia’s ‘companionate marriage’ and Calpurnia’s
role as ‘youthful admirer’. WOMEN AND GENDER RELATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE 181
This is an example not so much of deliberate exclusion of women from
the analysis, but rather of the techniques of pseudo-inclusion and alienation,
where women are mentioned or discussed but are then marginalised,
set aside from what the authors perceive as the normative and more important male experience, or they are only discussed in terms of selected
Garnsey and Saller’s remarks are perhaps simply naive, but nevertheless
they deeply flaw their discussion, for although they accept that Pliny has
found in Calpumia the traditional ideal of an aristocratic wife, they are
judging her entirely within the very idealised framework created by the
Roman writers like Pliny. They have, in effect, fallen for Pliny’s rhetoric. So
we are presented not with an analysis of Pliny’s idealised world, but rather
with a self-conscious and uncomfortable series of anecdotes gleaned from
the pens of various male aristocrats which are intended to shed light on the
actual lives of women; but their comments are at times astonishingly uncritical. For example, Pliny’s remark that Calpumia took up literature ‘out of
fondness’ for him is used to support the thesis that (1987: 134):
Though some women displayed literary talent, they were not as a
rule educated to the same level as their husbands.
That Calpumia may have had a motive other than pleasing her husband
in taking up literature seems to have eluded our two classical scholars, just
as it eluded Pliny.
Ancient Literature as Material Culture
There is no need to be entirely negative about these ancient sources. Certainly inferences can be made, so long as it is understood that dependence
on literary sources as ‘objective historical text’ is inherently problematic
because the texts are themselves material culture, and the authors – such as
Pliny – were human agents acting within and through social and ideological
st:n.lctures, and whose works must therefore be interpreted through reference to these s t:n.lctu res. This is a difficult task because these structures
have not yet been identified for the Roman world. The ideological realm is
not hot property and indeed is not normally discussed in Roman archaeology, which sees its subject matter very much in terms of ‘common sense’
or early modem explanations. Romanists like to feel that they really can
understand the Romans. Thus we have Professor Donald Dudley (1970: 46)
arguing in his book, Roman Society, that 182 E. SCOTT
A recent study of Roman women has compared their status to that
of women in Victorian England. And in that period, before emancipation, in the full sense, it was usually her own fault if a woman
let herself be repressed.
Clearly such a disturbing off-the-peg comparison contributes little to an
archaeology of women and gender relations. Yet the ancient literary passages which have been used to bring about such disgraceful interpretations
can have value, if they are used – as I indicated above – as material text
from their specific historical, cultural and ideological contexts. Of course
we do know from ancient sources some of the basic legal edicts issued in
Rome concerning the status of women regarding marriage and property
ownership. A woman and a man could enter into one of three forms of
marriage, the most popular of which (usus) was more easy to dissolve than
the others, and within which the woman could own and inherit property.
Legally a women either passed from the potestas or authority of her father
to that of her husband, or remained in the authority of her father after
marriage. She had no political rights (Balsdon 1962: 179-80). It should be
stressed that the laws described here, and in fact the writings of the ancient
authors generally, were issued for the landed Mediterranean classes, and
did not apply to slaves. The general descriptive and judgemental writings in
particular cannot be applied to peasants, particularly those in the far-flung
provinces of the empire such as Britain, if indeed they can be confidently
applied to any real women, anywhere.
What is interesting about the laws and their accompanying social
customs is how they were manipulated, negotiated and renegotiated by
men such as the Emperor Augustus to control the lives of women. It would
be useful if Roman archaeologists and ancient historians would discuss
what all these ancient literary passages, and the social complexities that led
to their production, actually meant in the Roman world in terms of images
and propaganda – in terms of the everyday rhetoric and visual images with
which women would have been confronted. Because the women of the
empire have no direct voice, what we have been hearing up until now has
been a noise which has been distorted first through the politics, minds and
pens of ancient writers and secondly through the politics, minds and pens
of modern historians and archaeologists. The voice is distorted out of all
recognition, not surprisingly after such double editing, such double alienation: women’s experience has been interpreted twice over through male
categories because the methodology and the values of the theorists remain WOMEN AND GENDER RELATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE 183
androcentric. Thus to find the women of the Roman empire, we must turn
to archaeology and the ideological realm, to images in material culture,
and look at female ideals and resistance to those ideals that were in operation.
IDEALS AND IMAGES VERSUS REALITY —-
The Acceptance of Myths
Ideal images of women were carried of course in literature, as we have seen
regarding Pliny’s ideal wife, and there was plenty more rhetoric and propaganda put out by male writers for the literate classes.
It is interesting to note the types of story which have been selected for
recent retelling in general works on the Roman empire. A somewhat disturbing trend appears to be the highlighting of ‘suicide pact’ narratives,
where the wife selflessly precedes the husband in death. The modern
authors seem to find this rather heroic of the wives, such as Griffin (1988:
1) on the general marvellousness of the Roman empire:
The idea of Rome has given the West several distinct myths, each
full of resonance. There is the image of . .. generals and consuls ..
. [and] great conquerors . … Their wives were women like …
Arria Paeta, who when the Emperor ordered her husband to
commit suicide showed the way by stabbing herself with the words
‘Look, it doesn’t hurt.’
If we return to Garnsey and Saller, we find them still trying to illustrate
the ‘companionate marriage’ with passages from Pliny, this time with the
tale of a wife who precedes her terminally ill husband in jumping off a cliff
into Lake Como (1987: 134). They do point out that we never hear of a
husband bolstering his wife’s courage by joining her in death; but they have
nevertheless told the tale to illustrate their concept of the ‘companionship
ideal’ in Roman marriage, without exploring the meanings of these myths
further. At the very least these stories raise questions about the ideologies
of representation and their correspondence with what women ‘really’ did
(see Pollock 1991: 366).
The Augustan Age of ‘Traditional Values’
Other ideal images of women were carried in literature, and it is of interest
here to note the poem of Horace, commissioned by the Emperor
Augustus, written to accompany a fertility festival which acted as the in-184 E. Seon
auguration of the Brave New World and ushered in a new golden age (Balsdon 1962: 79). One part of Horace’s commission referred explicitly to
Augustus’s recent legislation (trans. ibid.):
Goddess, produce children and give success to the Senate’s decrees
about the marriage of women and the marriage laws which aim at
increasing the birth-rate.
This was part of a general pro-fertility drive by Augustus, to persuade
women to have more babies. This included the dedication of the monumental public altar, the Ara Pacis, one panel of which depicted a goddesswoman with two plump infants, surrounded by the fruits of the earth. The
imagery on this panel can be read quite simply. The image of the infant, as
I have argued elsewhere (Scott 1992) tends to be presented for mass consumption in its most appealing form when it is being used to encourage
women to eschew notions of independence, have more babies, and stay
home ‘nesting’. The Romans went through a sustained phase of such backlash propaganda under Augustus, and it is notable that one of the most
naturalistic and attractive Roman depictions of infants is to be found on
the Ara Pacis. The imagery clearly links human fertility with abundance
and happiness, and the woman’s physical presence, posture and garments
are clearly intended to invoke in the viewer many different associations –
Pax, Venus, Ceres, ltalia, Terra Mater, Tellus – all goddesses (Zanker 1988:
174). The goddess is the good, eternal and ubiquitous mother, and the infants are the future of Rome. This was a quite open pro-fertility programme, and ancient Rome saw a rise of restrictive property laws and
penalties for unwed and childless women. The message for women was to
tow the line and earn nature’s ‘rewards’, or suffer severe consequences.
What about the illiterate classes? The illiteracy of the masses would not
have prevented the prevailing ideology permeating their lives, for the messages of Augustus and other administrations· were encapsulated in visual
images and in poetry and rhetoric, all of which were carried round the
empire. The poetry would have been transmitted primarily by bards, and if
one looks at the verse of Horace quoted above in the original Latin one can
see that its inherent qualities include a quite beautiful and memorable cadence. The fertility propaganda of Horace would have reached everywhere.
Diva producas subolem patrumque
prosperes decreta super iugandis
feminis prolisque novae feraci
lege marita WOMEN AND GENDER RELATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE 185
Relief sculptures – such as the Ara Pads – and statues, and copies of these
sculptures and statues, images of perfect goddesses and Roman imperial
women, were highly visible in public places. They were transported all over
the empire, into every forum and public space in every town, such as the
statue from Ostia in Italy of Sabina as the goddess Ceres, and the statues of
the Empress Julia Augusta around the empire. There were wall-paintings
and mosaics of goddesses in public and private buildings and baths. There
were images of goddesses on the reverse sides of coins in circulation, and
there were images of women on the sarnian pottery which we know was in
circulation on even the poorest sites in the empire. The uniformity of the
imposed culture throughout the empire meant that every woman and man,
regardless of status, would be exposed on a daily basis to these idealised
images of women. Rome was, after all, a blueprint for every other city,
town and even fort in the whole Roman world.
We now begin to see the sets of contradictions presented to women.
There were the official images of women as goddesses, imbued with a
power and goodness which ordinary women could never attain, but which
they would revere. There were the official role models of the imperial
matrons, with their extraordinary complex hairstyles and robes to be painstakingly emulated and consumed, regardless of the provincial woman’s
status or background. And there was the official reality of women in law
and Roman social custom and popular literature, disenfranchised and
steered toward subordination through a harsh reward-and-punishment
regime. It is perhaps noteworthy that the very complex hairstyles were seen
primarily in the early empire, in the first and second centuries AD, and one
might even begin to think of a cultural colonisation by Rome of the women
of the new provinces.
Sometimes maverick images break through in later years, especially in the
late third and fourth centuries, images which seem to challenge the cultural
colonisation of the Romans, such as the Celtic triple goddess representations from Roman Britain, and the woman on the Rudston villa ‘Venus
mosaic’ in Yorkshire, with her hair swinging free and her body unencumbered with the complicated Roman garments of the earlier imperial period.
Is she a Celtic goddess? Or a real woman? This isn’t as important as the uninhibited image itself. The image, however, received rather dismissive treatment from Professor Ian Richmond who wrote about the Rudston pavements in 1963 (Richmond 1963): 186 E. SCOTI
The immediate problems presented by the pavements are … those
of design and taste. Each pavement is different: the first [the ‘Venus
mosaic’] is lively with figures; the second [a plain geometric tesselated
pavement] has a quiet conventional pattern like a rug …. The most
satisfying to modern taste is unquestionably the second. But the first
is in every way the most remarkable; for we can admire the ambition
of the designer, while smiling at the execution of subjects beyond his
skill …. There is no need to dwell on the badness of this work.
Another image from a similar context, that of a fourth century AD
Romano-British villa, has produced evidence for the participation of women
in mainstream Christian worship. A group of six figures, both adult women
and men, were found painted onto a wall at Lullingstone villa in Kent. Taking this evidence together with that for increased ritual infant burials in this
period (Scott 1991), I have often wondered if we are not seeing a positive
shift for women in gender relations here after 300 years of cultural colonisation by Rome. If it had not been for Christianity, at first a gender equal
cult or religion, the dominant religion of the empire might well have been
Mithraism, exclusive to men and beloved of the military. The early Christian
church was probably an exciting and fulfilling place for women. But then
something went wrong. By the fourth century the male church theologians
had become thoroughly infected with the misogynist sentiments of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, who saw women as a corrupting force on earth
(Sanders and Stanford 1992: 18). StJohn Crystotom (AD 347-407) wrote:
The whole of her bodily beauty is nothing less than phlegm, blood,
bile, rheum, and the fluid of digested food …. If you consider what
is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the
mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned
body is merely a whitened sepulchre.
Saunders and Stanford carefully argue that the Church’s obsession with
virginity, closely coupled with the unholiness of the normal, mature
woman, was well under way. They observe that ‘Having sex with one of
these pieces of Adam’s rib, said theologians, was the equivalent of embracing a bag of shit’ (ibid.).
THE FEMINIsT CHALLENGE —-
It has always been a source of great disappointment to me that archaeology
has failed so dismally to challenge or provoke discussion of the social WOMEN AND GENDER RElATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE 187
theories which our modem democracies are prepared to accept. I suspect
that this is because the past which archaeologists write tends to ape conveniently the present they want to condone. Nowhere is this more clear
than in the writing about women, particularly the women of the Roman
empire. When one thinks that archaeological narratives still tend to be
written by men for men, one might wonder just what storyboard games are
being played out in the corridors of learning up and down the land. And
the storyboards of course get passed on to the public, to school children in
museums and to right-wing think tanks.
These comments are not simply made in passing. There is a pressing
need for an archaeology of gender relations. Romanists should not feel
exempt from this call just because they have information about ‘real’
women in the form of texts, epigraphy, sculpture, paintings and small
finds. On the contrary, the cultural meanings of this data need to be critically assessed. Further, the information presented for study tends to represent the existence of only a small proportion of women from particular
social groups, leaving the vast majority of women historically disenfranchised.
I believe that it is through increased analysis of the images of women and
a better understanding of the burial evidence, the social construction of
space and all the narratives of material culture in the Roman empire that
we will be able to write an archaeology of women and gender relations in
this period. This would mean Romanists critically examining their conceptual or interpretive frameworks (Scott 1993a), and I think that it is becoming increasingly clear that this would be no bad thing.
My final comment is addressed to those socialist archaeologists who have
informed me that one cannot begin to address adequately the issues of
androcentrism and gender within archaeology until we have begun to do
so in society in general. I am inclined to argue the opposite, because we
should not under estimate the influence of perceptions of the past on our
present policy makers (or rather, the perceptions they think they can get
away with). The macro- and micro-political ideologies of our western democracies are underpinned by a core of traditional mythologies, dressed up
and labelled as history and biology, and it is up to those who have primary
access to the knowledge which can dispel these myths to challenge vociferously the current orthodoxies. We have the power to counter the politically
compromised ideas of ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ which are used to sustain the
gender imbalances of our society. 188 E. Scon
Balsdon,]. P. V. D. 1962. Roman Women: Their History and Habits. London:
Boardman,].,j. Griffin and O. Murcay (eds) 1988. The Roman World. Oxford
History of the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bowder, D. (ed.) 1980. Who Was Who in the Roman World. Oxford: Phaidon.
Clark, L. M. and L. Lange (eds) 1979. The Sexism of Social and Political
Theory: Women and Reproduction from Plato to Nietzsche. Toronto: Toronto
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