Friday, 23 January 2015

Roman Women

Dickison, Sheila K. and  Hallett, Judith P.   A Roman Women Reader: Selections from the Second Century BCE through Second Century CE
ISBN: 978-0-86516-662-2 Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers 2015
Paperback  $19.00 

This reader is part of a series from Bolchazy for intermediate and advanced students of Latin.  Some are conventional, based on extracts from a particular author (Cicero, Livy, Propertius etc.), but this a thematic selection about the life of women in Rome based on a wide variety of texts.  It aims to and succeeds in extending the range of the students’ reading beyond the usual suspects to inscriptions, archaeological finds and unusual texts found in extracts from Aulus Gellius.  It contains an excellent introduction to Sulpicia or rather the two Sulpicias who are among the few authentic women’s voices we have.  Extracts are short and can give only a glimpse into the complex texts which are included, such as the attack on Clodia in Cicero’s pro Caelio, or the story of Nero’s disastrous relations with his mother Agrippina, which is told here in the version of Suetonius rather than the better known one of Tacitus.  However, a picture of the way women were seen by men begins to emerge from the selection.  Men’s attitudes tend to dominate of course as men have written the majority of the texts, but the selection and the extensive and well-judged commentary enables us to begin to hear the women’s voices.  Cornelia on her son Gaius Gracchus, the strong character of Sophoniba in Livy, the few poems of Sulpicia (found in Tibullus) and several funeral inscriptions show some of what life was like for women right through the Roman period.  The epigraphic and archaeological material is particularly welcome, especially Claudia Severa’s birthday party invitation, found in Vindolanda by Hadrian’s Wall and now in the British Museum.  This recently found text is quickly establishing itself as standard reading for Latin students.  The attitudes found in some extracts will be quite shocking to younger readers encountering, for example, the full fury of Juvenal’s misogyny perhaps for the first time.  In addition, the texts and commentary are not reticent about including material of a sexual nature which will demand mature reactions from the young readers at whom this book is aimed.  Some teachers may well feel more comfortable setting some passages for private reading rather than dealing with them in class, but Dickison and Hallett deserve credit for giving us the full picture.  This is a manageable and student-friendly selection with a full vocabulary and notes that explain most difficulties and give a full context to each section, which move from Plautus to Juvenal.  It will lead students off into new directions, but does not itself need a lot of extra material and resources to be worked through.   I found this an exciting and significant development in the way material is presented to students.  We should no longer rely on (or prescribe as set texts) the traditional commentary on a whole book of Cicero or even Virgil. This selection is more attractive and manageable with the inevitable time constraints imposed on over-worked teachers who will find that a lot of the work of searching out and editing suitable material has already been done for them, and a whole new aspect of the ancient world has been opened up for their students.

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