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The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome.

Jane McIntosh Snyder's survey of ancient Greek and Roman women writers rescues from obscurity the fragments of twenty authors and places them beside the one well-known female poet of antiquity, Sappho. The book proceeds from clear and accurate translations, through judicious analysis of literary qualities and biographical evidence, to scholarly and critical reception of these texts. What emerges is a fascinating picture of a tradition that has received all too little attention, even among Classicists. Part of the reason for this lies in the scanty nature of the remains: the ravages of time have not been kind to lyric poetry in general, and then there were the Christians, who when they could not burn the author, destroyed the author's works instead. But the works of these women writers have also suffered from the chauvinistic attitudes of many male Classicists, who regard writing by women as less interesting than writing by men. This book, suitable for the general reader as well as the specialist, is a timely effort to redress the balance.

The first chapter covers Sappho -- old ground, to be sure, but Snyder's translations are accurate and she has much to say about the need to eschew the sense of awkwardness which pervades much of the scholarly interpretation of the fragments. Only by abandoning the notion that Sappho's poems are somehow "aberrant" can they be fully appreciated. Snyder's method avoids the excesses of biographical criticism, yet one wonders how far Sappho's poems can be taken as the expression of an individual, rather than a community spirit. In many ways, the lyric poet is still a vessel for the Muse, performing in a public arena and voicing civic ideology. Snyder only touches upon this issue, which surfaces on several occasions throughout the book (with Praxilla and Telesilla, for example).

The second chapter deals with four less well-known poets, all from the fifth century BCE: Myrtis, Korinna, Praxilla, and Telesilla. Considering the scantiness of the remains, Snyder is wise to refrain from broad generalizations. There is not much to be done with Plutarch's paraphrase of one of Myrtis' poems or with Telesilla's tiny fragment, but other references allow for the recovery of useful biographical information. With Korinna and Praxilla, Snyder is on firmer ground, concluding that the former, at any rate, wrote poetry less woman-centered than Sappho's.

Chapter three examines the Hellenistic period, a time of considerable artistic innovation, the details of which are only sketched by Snyder. The epigram was particularly popular and several by Anyte, Nossis, Moero, and Erinna are translated and discussed. The literary quality of many of these short pieces is high in the original Greek, and some of that comes through in the translations, such as this version of Anyte, AP 9.314:

This is the precinct of the Cyprian, since she likes to come here always to watch the sunlit sea from the mainland

So that she may accomplish a lovely voyage for sailors.

The waves tremble as they behold her gleaming wooden image. (75)

Snyder also offers some hexameter lines of Moero and Erinna, but does not translate the surviving five lines of Hedyle's elegy entitled "Skylla."

With Chapter four we move from poetry to philosophy and the startling fact that women were involved in several of the most significant philosophical schools, including the Epicureans, the Cynics, and the Pythagoreans. One of Epicurus's followers, Leontion, went so far as to compose a treatise against the venerable Theophrastus, something which appalled the Roman writers Cicero and Pliny. Hipparchia the Cynic, described by Snyder as a woman of "strong will and quick wit" (107), caused a similar stir. Of course, the most famous woman philosopher is Hypatia, who was, by all accounts, a brilliant scientist and mathematician. She may have invented a kind of hydrometer and also wrote at least three major treatises, before her life was cut short by a mob of Christian monks. They dragged her from her carriage to a church, where they stripped her, slashed her to death with oyster shells, and tore her body to pieces. The exact circumstances leading to this atrocity are unclear, but Socrates, a church historian, suggests that the murderers acted with the approval of Bishop (later Saint) Cyril. Reading between the lines, it is clear that Hypatia posed a significant threat to the Christian power-structure in Alexandria: her brand of Neoplatonist learning was simply too popular.

The fifth chapter is entitled "Women Writers in Rome and Their Successors" and it covers mainly Sulpicia, Proba, and Egeria. There are six elegies by Sulpicia preserved in the corpus of poems by the male poet Tibullus. Opinion on their quality varies. Snyder concludes that Sulpicia differs from male elegists in her preference for brevity and her avoidance of allusions to mythology and contemporary political events. With Proba, we see the blending of pagan and Christian, represented by her sole surviving work, a cento. This is a patchwork of lines and bits of lines from Vergil that tells the biblical story of the Creation and the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Snyder provides a two-page excerpt. As a cento, Proba's is workmanlike, and possesses none of the flashes of inspiration that characterize the obscene cento of her rough contemporary Ausonius. It was, however, extremely popular for centuries after it was written. Finally, Snyder gives some lengthy extracts from the travel diary of the nun Egeria, who made a pilgrimage to sacred sites in the Middle East, probably in the fifth century. In Latin, the text is of considerable linguistic interest and historical value. Snyder's English version smoothes out some of the tediousness of Egeria's repetitious style, euphemistically called "formulaic and recapitulative," and manages to convey the fascinating character of what the author terms "the earliest surviving example of a diary that gives universal validation to an individual woman's personal experience" (150).

The survey of women writers provided by Snyder is a wide-ranging one. It is a pity that Aelia Eudocia (also known as Augusta) gets only a brief mention (140-41) and that none of her work is translated. Her "Martyrdom of St. Cyprian," written in Greek hexameters, and her poem on the baths at Hammat Gader in Israel deserve some exposure as instances of the Classical tradition in the Christian era. Another omission is Julia Balbilla, who wrote epigrams in Greek around AD 130. Five are extant, scratched onto one side of the Colossos of Memnon in Egypt. They are encomiastic, in praise of the visiting Hadrian and Sabina, but Balbilla manages the flattery with artistry, even charm. She also imitates the Aeolian dialect of Sappho.

In the Conclusion (152-56), Snyder offers some general trends which seem to distinguish these women writers from their male counterparts. Some of the remarks are well taken: for instance, "straightforwardness and simplicity seem to be characteristic. . . . Allusion, indirection, punning, and elaborate rhetorical figures are not present to the extent that we generally find them in the work of male writers of the ancient world" (154). Or, "Not surprisingly, the realm of daily living, the household, and children, often provided . . . themes" (154). Likewise, the observation that certain topics favored by male poets, like "battles and politics (historical or mythological)," are rare in the women writers (153) seems reasonable. On the other hand, to say that women writers "tended to focus on such things as emotions, lovers, friendship, folk motifs, spiritual and ritualistic matters" (153) does not say very much. Nor is there much point in contrasting Korinna's use of local mythology in two fragments with Pindar's use of panhellenic myths in a corpus many times larger. The gaps in our knowledge are simply too large to allow for this sort of reckless generalization. In sum, approach Chapter 6, the Conclusion, with care.

This is a well-written and useful book. It typifies a brand of scholarship being practiced by a growing number of Classicists: the questioning of long-held assumptions, the examination of marginalized texts, the breaking of long silences. These voices can be heard in journals like Arethusa and Helios and in books like Snyder's.
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Author:Larmour, David H.J.
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1340
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