I’m no expert when it comes to the Roman view of women. My specialist area was neoplatonic philosophy, so I would never lay claim to having a thorough and intimate grasp of this field, nor did I take any particular interest in feminist readings of ancient literature (indeed, I recall being specifically warned off it as a research area – by men, it may not surprise you to know). All of that said, as a trained Classicist I have read a fair number of sources that discuss women and/or their behaviour – for better or for worse. The current prescription for the WJEC/Eduqas GCSE specification includes a group of texts to which they have given the title “Love and Marriage” and I am working with a few students who are studying them.
One of the most important things to grasp as a Classicist, in my opinion, is that women were broadly considered to be inferior to men in the ancient world. I think we all need to get over that casual misogyny, if we’re not going to spend every moment of study being triggered. There is no point having a panic attack every time this inescapable fact comes back on our radar, just as there is no point in doing so when we are reminded that in the ancient world the existence of slavery was considered to be completely acceptable. What we must do, on the other hand, is address these facts head-on. Never let anyone tell you that Roman society was advanced and civilised; when compared to our own, their society was cruel and grossly unfair, and those who would seek to say so are utterly deluded. One does not have to admire something to be fascinated by it.
The first thing to note about the collection of texts selected by WJEC – and indeed, about the overwhelming majority of sources that discuss women in our possession – is that they were written by men, and (largely) for men. Hearing women’s voices is extremely difficult, although I find it disappointing that WJEC did not even try to do so. They have included some visual source material as part of the “Love and Marriage” prescription, but they did not elect to include the graffiti and politicised slogans penned by women, which would have been a nice nod towards the fact that we do, at least, have those as direct evidence of women’s opinions. What we do have in the prescription is a collection of paintings and sculptures depicting the marriage ceremony. And yes, I know the prescription is called “Love and Marriage”, but given that the rest of the sources are fundamentally about women, it wouldn’t have taken much of a stretch of the imagination to make it considerably more interesting and inclusive.
The first text in the collection pretty much encapsulates the nature of a wealthy woman’s expected ideal life in the Roman world. It is an epitaph, so necessarily idealised, and sums up the manner in which women were expected to conduct themselves and their lives:
hospes, quod dico paulum est; asta ac perlege.
hic est sepulcrum haud pulchrum pulchrae feminae:
nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam.
suum maritum corde dilexit suo.
natos duos creavit: horum alterum
in terra linquit, alium sub terra locat.
sermone lepido, tum autem incessu commodo,
domum servavit, lanam fecit. dixi. abi
Stranger, what I have to say is brief; stand still and read it through.
Here is the not very beautiful tomb of a beautiful woman:
Her parents gave her the name Claudia.
She loved her husband with all her heart.
She bore two sons, one of which
She leaves on this earth, the other she placed beneath the earth.
Of charming conversation, and indeed of elegant step,
She looked after the home, she spun wool. I have spoken. Now go on your way.
It is surprising how hard one has to push young students to articulate how and why this epitaph is perhaps (to use modern parlance) problematic in terms of what modern women might expect for themselves, their lives and their legacy. I don’t know what the kids are into these days, but unless I am very out of touch then I am guessing that housekeeping and wool-spinning is not necessarily top of a 21st century girl’s list of ambitions (that said, crochet is apparently making a comeback). What is most notable to me about the epitaph is its coldness: Claudia’s achievements are those expected of a good wife and mother: nothing more, nothing less. She loved her husband with all her heart – there is no mention of that being reciprocated. The only personal attributes mentioned are those of the ideal desirable woman – she looked good, she conducted herself appropriately and made polite conversation. As my mother legendarily said to some considerable awkwardness at a dinner party in the 1970s, “women have been making intelligent conversation at these kinds of dinner parties for centuries, and look where it’s got us”. Indeed.
The other texts in the collection which discuss marital relations fall very simply into two categories: marriages in which the woman behaves herself in the correct manner, and marriages in which she doesn’t. Pliny’s Letter to Calpurnia Hispulla is a simply toe-curling account of his successful match with the 15-year-old Calpurnia the Younger, who is by all reports simply delighted to be married off to Pliny, who was in his mid 40s. (This, I am happy to report, does get something of a reaction from students). In addition to keeping the household in order as one might expect, Pliny reports that his young (indeed, by modern standards, child) bride is learning his speeches off by heart and even setting them to music on the lyre. We are also told that she “sits hidden behind a curtain” so she can hear him perform in front of his friends. Lord knows what this youngster truly thought of her marriage – we have some letters (not included in the prescription) from Pliny directly to her but none (of course) from her to him. Not that she wouldn’t have written them, you understand, but nobody would have considered them worth publishing or preserving for the future.
Cicero’s report of his brother Quintus’ marriage, by contrast, gives the picture of a most unsuccessful match, with the wife portrayed as a thoroughly unreasonable and difficult woman. Quintus is – of course – an absolute model of decency and Cicero is dismayed at the behaviour of his sister-in-law. Not as dismayed as Seneca, mind you, who in the text nicknamed Changing Morals makes it clear that pretty much all the women in Rome are loose and immoral, hell-bent on taking as many lovers as they can possibly fit into their day and totally lacking in any kind of decency:
num iam ulla repudio erubescit, postquam feminae quaedam illustres ac nobiles non consulum numero sed maritorum annos suos computant? … num iam ullus adulterii pudor est, postquam eo ventum est ut nulla virum habeat nisi ut adulterum irritet? pudicitia argumentum est deformitatis. quam invenies tam miseram, tam sordidam, ut illi satis sit unum adulterorum par?
Is any woman today ashamed of divorce, now that some distinguished and noble ladies count their age, not by the number of the consuls but of their husbands? … Is there no longer any shame in adultery, now that things have reached the point that no woman keeps a husband except to frustrate her lover? Chastity is now a sign of ugliness. What woman will you find so wretched, so undesirable, that for her a single pair of lovers is sufficient?
According to Seneca, Roman women were frankly rampant and if Catullus’s account of his lover, Lesbia, is anything to go by, then he’s not wrong. It is always worth telling students that the poems included in the selection are amongst Catullus’ tamest works, many of which would not make it onto the A level syllabus, never mind the GCSE. I’ll never forget being frankly agog at a lecture on Catullus during my first year at university – I wasn’t aware that university lecturers knew about those kinds of things or indeed used that kind of vocabulary. The very fact that Catullus’ lewd works appear to give us glimpses of undeniably empowered, liberated women in Rome only serves to make our inability to connect with their true voices all the more frustrating.
Passionate love affairs do not always run smoothly, and the WJEC collection also includes a poem by Catullus about being rejected by his lover, plus another by Horace in the same vein. They both speak of the pain of rejection and the account by Horace includes a possible reference to a desire for violent revenge upon his ex. Two extremely short poems, one by Catullus and one by Martial, both describe feelings of both love and hate for one woman and explore the idea that the poets can both love and despise their female partners at the same time.
difficilis facilis, iucundus acerbus es idem:
nec tecum possum vivere, nec sine te.
Unbearable, agreeable, you are pleasant and repulsive just the same:
I can live neither with you, nor without you.
The WJEC selections make an interesting collection, albeit with the disappointing omission of any kind of female voice. What we are left with is the male perception of women, which is without doubt of interest in itself. How men perceive women and set out to control them is the scenery that forms the backdrop to so many societies, including our own. One of the things that makes the study of the ancient world so interesting and so worthwhile is the opportunity to look at this frankly and from a position of relative progress.