The censure of powerful women : roman monarchy and gender anxiety

The censure of powerful women : roman monarchy and gender anxiety

Witzke, Serena

Master of Arts, McMaster University, July (2007)


The criticism of Roman women, particularly from the Late Republic to the early dynasties of the Principate, was a constant in the literary and historical accounts of ancient Roman society. This censure has previously been either attributed to the cultural misogyny inherent in a patriarchal society or treated disparately for the anecdotal content without a survey of themes and tropes found in the criticisms. When the material is gathered together and examined as a whole, several themes and patterns emerge from the episodes involving the disparagement of women close to power. Such women were criticized for their involvement in politics (often through influence over powerful men), administration, and the military. The criticisms were motivated by various anxieties experienced by the male elite, such as the disparity between cultural ideal for Roman women and the reality, the conflict between the domus and the res publica, and the overarching anxiety about the burgeoning monarchy (and women’s place in it) developing in the Late Republic and coming into fruition with the Principate of Augustus, as it related to Roman ideas of tyranny. Chapter Two examines the themes of criticism in the accounts of strong Julio-Claudian female figures, Livia, Messalina, and Agrippina Minor. Chapter Three explores the origins of these criticisms in the anecdotes of public female action in the Republic, with particular emphasis on the triumviral period. Chapter Four deals with the women accompanying Roman officiaIs into the provinces (which were a kind of monarchy) to show that the themes and tropes in the censure of Roman women close to power were uniform across time period and geographical location.

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