A History of Women in the West, vol. 1, From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints.
This volume of A History of Women consists of the contributions of eleven scholars from France, arranged into three loosely thematic parts: Feminine Models of the Ancient World presents four discussions on prevailing male views of women: in the Greek construct of female divinity (Nicole Loraux), in the assumption of women's incapacities found in Plato and Aristotle (Giulia Sissa) and in Roman Law (Yan Thomas), and finally through the eyes of Athenian vase-painters (Francois Lissarrague). Traditional Rituals Women Share includes two chapters analyzing the social, political and legal implications of marriage in Greece and in Rome (Claudine Leduc and Aline Rousselle), and three chapters covering the extent to which women mere involved in or excluded from the religious practices of the Greeks, the Romans and the early Christians respectively (Louise Bruit Zaidman, John Scheid and Monique Alexandre). Yesterday and Today is historiographical in nature. Apart from the editor's overview of current research in the field, the other chapter, Stella Georgoudi's "Creating a Myth of Matriarchy," offers an informative critique of Bachhofen's often cited, seldom explicated Das Mutterrecht, and of those caught under its spell.
The last word in the volume is given to Saint Perpetua; time has preserved her own account of the powerful vision she had the evening before her martyrdom in 203 AD.
The eleven chapters, particularly in part two, do cover issues fundamental to the understanding of women's place in the life of the ancient state. The editor justifies (p. 3) the exclusion of topics that have recently appeared in major publications, for example, women in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, but relegates to a foot-note (p. 507) the decision not to include a chapter on recent archaeological discoveries, which is, I feel, a serious omission in the text. Admittedly in "Figures of Women" (chapter four), Lissarrague makes extensive use of the images on Athenian vases (sixty-three illustrations) in his account of the male-reconstructed reality of women's lives in Athens and thus demonstrates how one type of unwritten source may contribute to our analyses of every-day life in antiquity. Archaeology can go further, theoretically offering unslanted evidence of the homes, graves, and traditional spaces of women, from the Neolithic to the Late Roman Empire. To choose an example relevant to Loraux' provocative essay "What is a Goddess?" (chapter one), the material amassed by Marija Gimbutas from Neolithic sites in the Balkans has established without doubt the prevalence of the worship of multi-formed female deities as overseers of all aspects of community life. The archaeological record confirms the continuity of such cult practice in the Bronze Age Aegean, under the predominant though not exclusive aegis of women. While Loraux is right to feel indignant at the uncritical acceptance of a Great Mother Goddess by the "militant proponents of matriarchy" (p. 36), she ignores Bronze Age material from Crete, the Cyclades, and mainland Greece that might corroborate her speculations on the plurality of female divinity in the Greek construct, especially since material evidence suggests the persistence of some cults through the recession following the Bronze Age.
The three chapters on religion are the most valuable and successful part of the volume in that they offer the reader comprehensive, well-documented accounts of women's involvement in specific rituals, for example, as kane-phoroi in Athens, as the flaminica in Rome, or as missionaries in the early Christian church. More importantly, each author analyses the degree to which women's active participation was permitted in a male-dominated system. In general, concludes Scheid, "the religious role of women in Rome signified their religious incapacity" (p. 408). On the other hand, in the early centuries of Christianity, although the traditional subordination of women continued to be justified, women were active and influential in conversion; perhaps, as Alexandre suggests, it was easier for women to break free of the social and political bonds of the ancient state.
On the topic of marriage and reproduction, Rousselle's "Body Politics in Ancient Rome" (chapter six) provides a broad-ranging discussion of sources on childbirth, women's sexuality, concubinage, and continence, with a final section on the changing views on marriage in Christian Rome. The stimulating material of this chapter stands in sharp contrast to the contents of Thomas's "The Division of the Sexes in Roman Law" (chapter three), an unremittingly abstract evaluation of the legal construct of sexual difference in the jurisconsults' interpretations of Roman Law. For Thomas, the exclusion of women from political involvement in Rome resulted from their legal incapacity to pass on either citizenship or property to their (male) offspring. More generally accepted is the converse, that traditional exclusion from political life led to certain legal disabilities.
Leduc's "Marriage in Ancient Greece" (chapter five) challenges the reader with a highly detailed and technical discussion drawing on models from anthropological theory. Using the Homeric poems, the fifth-century Law of Gortyn and fourth-century Athenian law-court cases, she traces the development of dowry and inheritance systems and their implications for the transference of civic land during the growth of the various Greek poleis. Openly admitting to the hypothetical nature of her conclusions, she tentatively suggests that political pressures in Solon's Athens prompted the change from the discrete to the overlapping model of household, which in turn contributed to the greatly diminished status of Athenian women compared to that of women in other poleis.
There are few English typographical errors in the text as a whole. On the other hand, in chapters five (Leduc) and seven (Bruit Zaidman), a number of inconsistencies and errors in the transliteration of Greek terms occur. For example, "plot of land" should be klaros with k, not claros (p. 261), particularly when we find karpos 2 lines above. More seriously, Leduc discusses the Gortynian heiress as patrouchos (sic p. 263). In fact the term used in the Law was patroiokos, while patrouchos was the Spartan term. Solon's "shedding of burden's" was seisachteheia not sisachthie (p. 287). The "basket carrier" (pp. 343-43) should be kanephoros with k, its plural kanephoroi. It would be more consistent to speak of arrephoroi rather than Latinate arrephorae (p. 341). Both nouns in Greek are compound formations and receive masculine terminations! Such errors may, however, have been overlooked in the process of translation, just as, for instance, Trezene for Troizen (p. 362).
This volume, then, is not intended to offer a continuous and cohesive history of Women in Antiquity, an impossible task given the breadth of subject-area and lacunae in our sources. Rather, it will take its place among the growing number of "anthologies" of specialized papers that contribute to the recovery of the lives of ancient women based on scholarship rather than polemics and that stimulate further work in the field.
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|Author:||Maingon, Alison Dale|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1993|
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