Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women

Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women

by Amy Richlin


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Women in ancient Rome challenge the historian. Widely represented in literature and art, they rarely speak for themselves. Amy Richlin, among the foremost pioneers in ancient studies, gives voice to these women through scholarship that scours sources from high art to gutter invective.

In Arguments with Silence, Richlin presents a linked selection of her essays on Roman women’s history, originally published between 1981 and 2001 as the field of “women in antiquity” took shape, and here substantially rewritten and updated. The new introduction to the volume lays out the historical methodologies these essays developed, places this process in its own historical setting, and reviews work on Roman women since 2001, along with persistent silences. Individual chapter introductions locate each piece in the social context of Second Wave feminism in Classics and the academy, explaining why each mattered as an intervention then and still does now.

Inhabiting these pages are the women whose lives were shaped by great art, dirty jokes, slavery, and the definition of adultery as a wife’s crime; Julia, Augustus’ daughter, who died, as her daughter would, exiled to a desert island; women wearing makeup, safeguarding babies with amulets, practicing their religion at home and in public ceremonies; the satirist Sulpicia, flaunting her sexuality; and the praefica, leading the lament for the dead.

Amy Richlin is one of a small handful of modern thinkers in a position to consider these questions, and this guided journey with her brings surprise, delight, and entertainment, as well as a fresh look at important questions.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472119257
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 08/04/2014
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Amy Richlin is Professor of Classics, University of California, Los Angeles. This is her seventh book.

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Arguments with Silence

Writing the History of Roman Women

By Amy Richlin

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 Amy Richlin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12013-0


Approaches to the Sources on Adultery in Rome


"Approaches to the Sources on Adultery in Rome" was written in the summer of 1980 thanks to the encouragement of Helene Foley, who was visiting Hanover, NH, where I then held a visiting position at Dartmouth. I was just beginning to turn my dissertation, a lexicon and motif index of Roman sexual humor, into the book that was to become The Garden of Priapus (first published in 1983), and I had collected a great many Roman texts about adultery. My first article (1981b) had focused on lurid punishments for adulterers in satire, specifically on the use of irrumare in Catullus and Martial, and readers as I was working on it repeatedly expressed doubt that Romans had really practiced oral rape as a punishment for adultery — even that such an act is possible (we live now in less innocent times). At that time I was, therefore, looking for texts that would tell me what really happened to those caught in adultery; the elusiveness of the answer taught me a lesson about history-writing that influenced all my later work. At the same time, the experience of writing for Foley's collection brought me into a scholarly network that had been growing since the early 1970s; the referee was Susan Treggiari. When Helene Foley joined Natalie Kampen and Sarah Pomeroy to organize the 1983 NEH Summer Institute on Women in Antiquity, I was ready to sign on.

I had kept the original manuscript all these years, always intending to put back all the cruelly pruned-out material; when I took a look at it in the summer of 2009, it turned out to be little more than a list, though a long one. Rereading the published version now, I am struck by how, as a young scholar, I had imitated the unquestioning adoption of the Roman sources' point of view then current, using phrases like "compliant husband" and words like "adulteress" and "cuckold." Shackleton Bailey, for example, commenting in 1965 on one of Cicero's letters to Atticus, writes, "L. Lucullus's wife Servilia ... was eventually divorced by her long-suffering husband for loose conduct" (332). The fact that Servilia's voice was absent barely registered; some revisions to this chapter try to correct this. In 1981, taking "what happened to a man and woman caught in adultery" as the object of study, I focused on the fascinating fact that different kinds of writing tell very different stories, without thinking too much about the oddity of the object of study itself. The very word "adulteress" now sounds almost biblical, certainly finger-pointing. The Roman definition of the act as extramarital sex between a wife and a man not her husband, and the almost total lack, after Plautus, of a sense that a wife is wronged by a husband who has sex with others; the way in which such a wife's feelings repeatedly show up in texts in the form of the wife's jealousy; Augustus's conversion of the act into a crime; the class-related differences in the way the law was defined, so that, for example, a waitress could not be prosecuted for adultery, as if such women had no honor (here buried at the end of a footnote) — in 1981 I saw the historiographical problem as one concerning kinds of sources more than as one concerning the history of women.

Also because I was new to writing, and intended my writing to be read by other classicists, I assumed that the sources needed no description or analysis; although the essay first appeared in Women's Studies, my goal was to speak to the elder initiates of classical philology as if I, too, were familiar with what was familiar to them. I did not reflect that experts on Roman law would not read Women's Studies, nor would feminists generally be familiar with the Digest. But, even for a classicist, Digest 48.5, one of the major texts discussed here, needs not just a gloss but some reflection, as does the Digest itself as an amalgamation of layers and layers of legal opinions by jurists, all of them male. The sheer weight of this male-authored law on Roman women whose responses are now lost is a fact that should not be taken for granted, as is the weight of the two thousand years of interpretation that have buried women like Lucullus's wife Servilia. In writing the essay printed here as chapter 2, on invective against women, I first came to grips with the relation between male writers and Roman women. In chapter 1, the main idea I wanted to convey was that, by reading a wide range of kinds of sources against each other, a reader could begin to make out the shape of a social phenomenon and understand a cultural obsession. I assumed then, and still do, that there was a real social phenomenon to observe, and that it was accessible through texts, though not from any single text. One lamppost problem leaves you in the dark; multiple lamppost problems can be treated as a simultaneous equation. It was writing this essay that first put me in mind of the scene in Forbidden Planet when the invisible monster was outlined by a circle of questing beams of light. Accordingly, what I did in this essay as a matter of course I still, and urgently, believe to be important: I used jokes and gossip alongside law and serious history — low alongside high. This I take to be a fundamental need for any historian, for high and low make culture together.

* * *

Since the rise of Christianity, indeed even earlier, observers of Roman culture have had a lot to say about the sex lives of the Romans. These comments vary from tirades against license to speculation on the amount of sexual freedom enjoyed by free Roman men and women (sexual unfreedom being a mark of the slave). This freedom certainly involved many types of liaison — same-sex as well as male-female; from casual use of prostitutes to established concubinage — as well as the use of the slave's unfreedom. In a society where marriage was common, many of these relationships entailed adultery, and the surprising thing is that a society with so many sexual outlets, where divorce was legal and acceptable, was so obsessed with adultery — or rather with one particular sort of adultery, a wife's infidelity. The purpose of this study is to present different sorts of evidence on extramarital sex between men and women, especially evidence which reflects social attitudes toward such relationships, and to draw attention to problems in the evaluation of this evidence. The answer to the question "What happened to Roman adulterers?" turns out to be a classic case of "depends who you ask." But no matter what texts you consult, some answers are constant: the Roman concept of adultery constituted a major part of the Roman construction of male and female sexuality and particularly of what made a woman good; all Roman sexual categories depend on civil status (slave or free) and on relative social status.

To Romans, the concept of marriage was full of heavy moral and social significance; it follows that their reactions to adultery were not simple. This study lays out five categories of evidence on Roman attitudes toward adultery — law, history, moral anecdote and exempla, gossip, and satire. Can the contradictions among these kinds of evidence be resolved? Or are we left instead with a demonstration of how a social problem projects multiple images in the written record?

A few facts can be relied on as landmarks. The most important are that before the time of Augustus there was no criminal law about adultery, which previously had been strictly family business, and that Roman law generally from its earliest times was the custom of a public community. The family had a great degree of jurisdiction over its members, with the paterfamilias at the head, his descendants in direct line under him, along with women married in manu (a class which by the late republic was not so numerous), and the freed slaves and slaves under all. Execution of the law depended at all times on self-help, since there was not much of a police force; therefore, the concerned parties had to decide among themselves whether to go to court, settle within the family, use force, or do nothing, and the Twelve Tables are full of the most physical instructions — for dragging your adversary off to court, for keeping debtors imprisoned in chains at your house or cutting them into bits, for the surrender of children into slavery to repay damages. A thief caught in the act could be killed.

It is also important to keep track of changes in manners — to historicize. The late republic and early empire seem to have been characterized, in the city of Rome, by a certain flamboyance of behavior among the upper classes; the end of the Julio-Claudians and the beginning of the Flavians seem to have marked a general return to a love of respectability, and it looks as if, by the time of Trajan, after the reign of Domitian, the Senate was no longer so interested in drawing attention to itself. Not that we can be at all sure that such generalizations are anything more than an artifact of accidents of textual survival; moreover, the overwhelmingly elite authorship of the extant texts from these periods leaves us in the dark about most Romans, even most free Romans. If we go back to the earliest extant texts, the comedies of Plautus from the middle republic, the adulterous wife and her lover, ubiquitous sources of humor later on, hardly make an appearance, maybe because adultery was not so interesting to the slaves and lower-class men who produced comedy. Yet adultery by wives seems to have been a stock theme of mime (see Reynolds 1946) — but we have no trace of the unscripted mime of Plautus's day.

All the literary sources here surveyed were written for the city of Rome, usually for and sometimes by senators and equestrians, while the legal sources were compiled in Constantinople in the sixth century for the benefit of the entire empire. Furthermore, almost all the material was written by men, so that whatever picture of Roman sexual mores can be established can only be one-sided, without much direct evidence from women themselves (but see chapters 3 and 4).

Legal Sources

The legal sources are largely limited to those of the late empire, especially Digest 48.5 and Codex 9.9. Yet this includes two earlier bodies of writing: the comments of the jurisconsults who wrote under the Severan emperors and earlier, and in turn their citations from a particular law enacted by Augustus, the lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis. Here and there in the legal sources are rescripts by emperors of the first and second centuries. The late collection known as Paulus's Sententiae also devotes space to the lex Julia (2.26) and offers, if dubiously, some information mentioned nowhere else in the legal sources.

The comments of the jurists are unfortunately ambiguous. Rarely do they give a direct quotation from the Julian law; on the other hand, they often use the phrase "the law says. ..." Whether this refers directly to the lex Julia or to the body of commentary surrounding it is not possible to say; it seems likely that what the jurisconsults say can be accepted as at least consistent with the tenor of the law for the period between the passage of the lex Julia and the reign of Severus Alexander.

The lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis was passed by Augustus as part of his campaign for the moral reform and eugenics of the Senate and equites in 18 BCE, and was complemented in 9 CE by the lex Papia Poppaea, which, among other things, forbade a senator to marry a convicted adulteress. The law on adultery seems to have included a great deal of regulation of procedure. Most important was its establishment of a quaestio perpetua for the hearing of accusations of adultery, similar to those already in existence for the hearing of other iudicia publica (parricide, acts of violence, murder, treason). This alignment of what is essentially a civil affair with crimes of violence should be noted as a significant aspect of Augustus's political program, and indeed it was to prove a fertile source of the delatio (politically motivated informing) that made the first century CE such a miserable time to be a member of the senatorial class. It certainly shook the generation that followed the one decimated by the proscriptions Augustus sanctioned when he was still just Octavian: a distracting turn from mass murder to a moral purity campaign.

The law delineated the steps to be taken prior to the quaestio. The husband was to divorce his wife as soon as he found out she was adulterous, or he would himself be liable for prosecution for lenocinium, pimping. He had sixty days in which he or his now ex-wife's father had the exclusive right to accuse her of adultery. However, the adulterer had to be accused first, and his trial would be first. If he were found guilty, the woman would then be tried. If he were found innocent, and the woman had remarried, she could not be tried.

The law further delineated the circumstances in which the husband or father could kill the wife and/or the adulterer. Any killing had to be done in flagrante delicto and only in the husband's or father's house. The father had unlimited rights, but had to kill both parties. The husband could only kill the adulterer if the adulterer was infamis — a person stigmatized by the censor, or a member of an infamous profession (an actor, a gladiator, a pimp, a prostitute; see Edwards 1997).

When two months had passed after the act of divorce, any third person could bring the accusation of adultery, within the next four months — evidently an open door to spies and informers. There was a five-year statute of limitations on the accusation.

Neither the Digest nor the Codex makes any mention of the penalties to be imposed by the court on those found guilty of adultery. To sum up, the Digest does cite the following penalties: the father's right to kill the wife and adulterer caught in flagrante delicto; the husband's right to kill the adulterer, within limits; limits on the punishment of a husband who killed his wife in flagrante delicto; the husband's right to inflict injury (contumelia) on the adulterer, since he has the right to kill him; the husband's risk of being accused of lenocinium if he does not divorce his wife; and the culpability of any accessories to the adultery as adulterers themselves, which seems to be an amendment to the original law (Digest 48.5.9[8], 9[8].1, 10[9], 10[9].1, 10[9].2, 13[12], 33[32].1).

Paulus's Sententiae give the statutory punishment for adultery (2.26.14): the wife and the adulterer were subjected to relegatio (exile), to separate islands; the woman lost half her property and a third of her estates, and the adulterer lost half his property. According to the Julian marriage laws, women found in adultery, as well as other women of low moral standing, were prohibited from remarriage to freeborn Romans.

It will be noticed that the only situation legally defined as adultery was sexual intercourse between a matrona and a man not her husband. A married man could legitimately have intercourse with any male who was not freeborn, or with any woman who did not have the status of matrona and was not engaged, married, or in concubinage, and he could keep concubine(s) of either sex in his household. If he did have sex with a married woman, his own wife did not acquire the explicit right to prosecute him for this until the late empire; of course there is no reason why she or her representative should not have been eligible to prosecute the adulterous pair as third parties after the husband and father.

That the lex Julia was revived by Domitian, though this is mentioned in only extralegal sources, suggests that its implementation, after Augustus, was not wholly successful. There is no legal description of what was entailed by Domitian's reenactment of the law.

The jurisconsults themselves represent a stage in the history of the law on adultery. Each of the excerpts in the Digest and Codex is taken from a book or section of a book by that jurist on adultery or on the lex Julia itself. The chief concern of each jurist seems to have been to define the rules as to the time allowed for bringing accusations, and occasionally to define the circumstances under which the husband or father could kill the adulterer and/or the wife. It might, then, be postulated that the chief area of confusion and concern for those wishing to accuse under the law was when they might do so; perhaps this is more naturally a question for a third party wishing to accuse. Certainly it is hard to find historical examples of husbands or fathers bringing a criminal prosecution, much less killing anybody; there are some exemplary tales of fathers killing daughters or their lovers for premarital sex, even for a kiss (Valerius Maximus 6.1.3, 4, 6), or of a husband clubbing his wife to death for drinking wine (Valerius Maximus 6.3.9, an example of justifiable severitas). The law nonetheless manifests a preoccupation with controlling women's sexuality that is easy to match in Greek culture (see Lysias On the Murder of Eratosthenes), and in most other kinds of Roman sources, where adultery is a popular topic. The law's quest to get people to redefine themselves — husband as pimp, wife and adulterer as criminal — seems to have succeeded mainly in providing new terms for use in jokes.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: In Search of Roman Women 1

1 Approaches to the Sources on Adultery in Rome 36

2 Invective against Women in Roman Satire 62

3 Julia's Jokes, Galla Placidia, and the Roman Use of Women as Political Icons 81

4 Sulpicia the Satirist 110

5 Reading Ovid's Rapes 130

6 Making Up a Woman: The Face of Roman Gender 166

7 Carrying Water in a Sieve: Class and the Body in Roman Women's Religion 197

8 Pliny's Brassiere 241

9 Emotional Work: Lamenting the Roman Dead 267

10 The Ethnographer's Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age 289

Notes 319

Bibliography 357

Index Locorum 395

General Index 405

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