The call for discussion from the Franklin Humanities Institute for the Mellon-funded Humanities Futures initiative makes me wonder if disciplines such as my own, Classics, have become dinosaurs. Neurocognition, climate change, data mining, geospatial analysis—all seem unrelated to the study of the Greco-Roman world. Or perhaps I should say that they seem unrelated to the work of classical literary scholars such as myself: some of my archaeologist friends in fact do work that shares much with science, and neuroscience has been used in a recent study of masks in ancient performances (Meineck 2011).
I propose here that study of Classics, the ancient Greco-Roman world, remains vital for the future of humanities—indeed, for the future of the university.
But the future of the humanities is the overall concern of the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Mellon-funded programs, and it’s a concern I share. So I propose here that study of Classics, the ancient Greco-Roman world, remains vital for the future of humanities—indeed, for the future of the university. I do so not with time-worn arguments about the foundations of "Western" thought or civilization, but with a focus on women and women’s lives, arguing that study of the ancient Mediterranean and Aegean can help us to understand much about the place and lives of women in the contemporary world, and about the future of women around the world. I begin by turning to an overlooked source of materials for studying women in antiquity, and I hope to demonstrate that such study remains remarkably relevant for today’s U.S. college students, whose futures may still be shaped by attitudes toward women that are fundamentally similar to those of the ancients. Further: even if U.S. college students do not as a rule personally undergo experiences common for women of antiquity, those experiences remain part of life on this planet, as recent and current global events continue to make distressingly clear. I will suggest that studying women in Greco-Roman antiquity can help U.S. students to recognize their own present times, and can even shed light on the future of their world.
I. Women in Antiquity; Women in Ancient Comedy
Preliminaries and Background
Studies of women in antiquity have burgeoned since Sarah Pomeroy’s groundbreaking 1975 book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. All who work in this field are hampered by the fact that most of our evidence focuses on a tiny percentage of the population, namely the elite classes—a fact perhaps even more true for women in antiquity than for men. Evidence for the lives of non-elites is scarce, and even funerary inscriptions that may provide biographical information about individual women—slaves, former slaves, foreigners, working women, women of the lower classes—tell us less than we might think, because generic restrictions operate even on tombstones. This restriction, too, may be even more true of women than of men, for as one inscription puts it,
. . . praise for all good women is simple and similar, since their native goodness and all the trust they have maintained do not require a diversity of words. Sufficient is the fact that they have all done the same good deeds that deserve fine reputation, and since their lives fluctuate with less diversity, by necessity we pay tribute to values they hold in common….Still, my dearest mother deserves greater praise than all others, since in modesty, propriety, chastity, obedience, wool-working, industry, and loyalty she was on an equal level with other good women, nor did she take second place to any woman in virtue, work and wisdom in times of danger. (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005, 18).
In other words, respectable women are praised for the same few things, because their lives are so restricted. In Rome, an epitaph needed only four words to mark a good woman: domum servavit, lanam fecit ("kept house, made wool"). It is widely found, in part because it was inexpensive and therefore affordable for the lower classes. Generic practices in art, poetry, and historiography likewise hamper the study of women in antiquity. Finally, almost all our written evidence was composed by men, and it is often highly ideological. I argue here, and in my current book project, that the theatrical genre known as New Comedy, a large corpus of plays that were extremely popular for centuries throughout the ancient world, is a remarkably rich, and surprisingly overlooked, source of evidence for the way women of all classes lived and experienced their lives.
First, a bit of theater history. Greek tragedy has been much studied for evidence on women in ancient Greece. Such studies shed light on Greek cultural values, anxieties, and concerns relating to women, but inevitably they yield limited results for understanding women’s lives. Tragedy can tell nothing about women in Rome, however, and because its plots are preoccupied with Olympian gods and goddesses and mythical characters of the elite classes—heroes, warriors, kings, queens, witches—it has little use for learning about the lived reality of average women in Greece. The best-known early Greek comedies are those of Aristophanes, a practitioner of Old Comedy (so-called, to distinguish it from the later New Comedy). Aristophanes’ plots tend to be set in Athens, with average characters who exemplify and enact social and political concerns. His plays show us important aspects of the lives of women in Athens, in part by providing evidence that refutes emphatically stated notions, still sometimes repeated, about seclusion of citizen women. For example, citizen women in Aristophanes do not match up to the ideological claims, found in legal orations and other prose sources, that "respectable" women stayed not only at home all the time, but in the women’s quarters, the gynaikonitis. Aristophanes’ women are integrated in their neighborhoods, well-acquainted with the women and men around them; they are fully informed of current events, and ready to take action in relation to city politics.
But Aristophanes’ ferocious political farces are interested in Athenian civic and cultural issues, not in women. Thus his Women at the Thesmophoria, populated chiefly by female characters who talk about their personal lives, focuses on mocking the tragedian Euripides rather than on depicting women. The female concerns and experiences staged in the play are hilariously exaggerated representations of male paranoid fantasies about what women do when men are not around, but they show little about women’s lived realities. Likewise, Assemblywomen and Lysistrata show women conspiring to influence Athenian politics, and thus give us glimpses of the social relations and civic concerns of Athenian citizen women. But they, too, represent nothing that can be understood as women’s lived realities. In addition, Aristophanic plots are fantasies involving such things as a competition in Hades between Aeschylus and Euripides, or a city of birds engaging in politics and international relations.
The female concerns and experiences staged in the play are hilariously exaggerated representations of male paranoid fantasies about what women do when men are not around, but they show little about women’s lived realities.
New Comedy began in Athens with the poet Menander (~325–290 BCE) and later moved to Rome (~240–160 BCE). It engendered much of later Western drama through its Roman practitioners Plautus (~254–184) and Terence (195/185–159), who translated and freely adapted Greek originals for the Roman stage. We have twenty-six Latin plays, one complete Greek play, fragments (some sizable), and plot summaries of numerous other Greek plays depicting bourgeois life and preoccupations, many of which have to do with the romantic problems of young people. The plays present exaggerated versions of everyday issues and conflicts, much as TV sitcoms and soap operas do, and are thus excellent sources for information about social life in the ancient city.
The cast of characters in New Comedy is organized into stock types, mostly from a city population. The male roles include callow young men; fathers, either indulgent or strict; retired soldiers who must be reintegrated into peacetime society; "parasites," or impoverished citizens who support themselves by aiding their betters; and male slaves, who may be clever plotters working to help their hopelessly enamored and terminally witless younger masters by creating elaborate deceptions, or who may be confused slaves who mostly run errands. Female roles include mothers, who often wield domestic power; household slaves, including the family "nurse," a slave who was the family’s child-tender and is retained in a semi-maternal role after the children have grown; citizen daughters; and many female sex workers, from those enslaved in brothels to independent "courtesans." (Some are women who gave up citizenship upon leaving their home cities and had to make their living through sexual relationships.) Citizen daughters are brought up at home or displaced through a variety of means; the genre features a surprising range of recovery methods for these girls, whose rediscovery comes just in time to prevent permanent ruin and often engenders overjoyed reactions from their rediscovered kin.
Menander’s large corpus (approximately a hundred plays) is dedicated to arranging happy unions among young people who are ideally already in love, with a goal of creating new families and new citizen children. Plautus and Terence adapted Greek plays and presented them, in Latin, to Roman audiences, at civic/religious festivals. Their plays retain Greek settings and names but engage in Roman social values, often having specific Roman references (such as the senate) and using Latin names for the gods (Jupiter instead of Zeus, etc.). Although its plots are ridiculous and repetitive, the ancients believed that New Comedy accurately represented their lives: the scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium (~257-180 BCE), remarked: "Oh Menander and life, which of you imitates the other?" The Roman plays were received as representing Roman social and gender values. Roman writers employ New Comedy particularly for women: Cicero invokes stock Roman comic types in his legal speeches; the historian Livy draws on Roman Comedy in his account of the religious-political scandal of the Bacchanalia (itself mentioned in Plautus), a crisis said to have involved inappropriate behavior by women; the Roman elegists routinely mention characters and plots from New Comedy as models for the love affairs they depict.
The generic plot of New Comedy is typically described in very familiar terms—boy loves girl; boy can’t get girl; with help, boy gets girl—and I have often used that summary myself. But no more: after completing my book manuscript on women in New Comedy, I’ve come to see that the "boy in love" is not a focus for the Roman playwrights. I may continue to describe Menander in those terms, but I have recently put a foot down and argued that Plautus and Terence are little interested in the amours of citizen youths, and that for Romans the dangers faced by citizen girls are more important than adolescent male passions (James 2015; James forthcoming). I take this position in part because of the social class of these two playwrights: unlike Menander, a member of the Athenian elite, neither of our Roman poets is actually Roman—Plautus comes from Sarsina, in northern Italy, and learns Latin as his second, third, or even fourth language; the young boy Terence was brought to Rome from Carthage as a captive after the second Punic War—he was North African. Neither poet grew up as a Roman citizen, and in my view they’re uninterested in the foibles and love affairs of Roman citizens, and the happiness of the citizen household. So their views on the enamored young man whose ineptitude allows complex comic plots of deception are jaundiced. He features in their plays but is rarely interesting or compelling.
Final remarks: the obstacles to the young man’s love affair are often laughably dull—a braggart soldier, an upright father. At other times they are fraught: a lost daughter has grown up in the possession of a pimp, knowing that she has a citizen family somewhere and hoping desperately to find that family before she is sold into a life of forcible concubinage at best or continued sexual trafficking at worst. For modern readers, the most shocking obstacle is rape, which occurs at an unrealistic rate and is resolved in a fashion sometimes deliberately staged as disturbing—namely, the marriage of the raped girl to the young man who had raped her. In the strictly classed societies of antiquity, rape was understood as happening only to members of the citizen classes. Violation of slaves was a property crime against their owners when committed by anyone but their owners—when committed by the owners, it was rarely worth remarking. Rape of free non-citizens also fell beneath the concern of law. In a surprisingly common plot, a drunken boy, coming home from a wild party with his friends, runs into a citizen girl who is returning from a nighttime religious ritual. He rapes her and runs off; usually, she manages to tear a ring or a pin from him, by which he is later identified. Such rapes always lead to pregnancy—biologically implausible, but generically requisite—and those pregnancies lead inevitably to marriage. Students reading these plays are appalled, often distressed, and I find myself discussing my view that Terence in particular feels the same way (James 1998b); I further point out that this solution to the social problem of rape has been common historically and is still in practice upon the planet even now.
Students are not pleased by these facts, and I would not want them to be, but they do begin to develop a more complex understanding of the social meanings of the female body. Because the ancients took rape (again: rape only of citizens) very seriously and punished it severely, it remains a mystery to most scholars that audiences seem to have tolerated this plot type. Menander generally excuses the young man by showing him as extravagantly remorseful and determined to be a good husband; Plautus and Terence generally do not. I return to this subject below.
Down to Cases
When I set out to write my book on women in Greek and Roman New Comedy, I expected to write about 450 pages. I now have 750, and still need to add about 50 pages here and there. How? Not out of sheer repetitiveness: these plays, which I’ve been studying and teaching for nearly thirty years, completely surprised me when I looked at them anew, not to follow theme or structure, but to ask one question of each female character: what is this woman’s experience? I presumed that with some adjustments, such as ruling out the likelihood that a little girl might be stolen by pirates or grow up under a pimp while remaining a virgo intacta, I would find some realistic aspects of women’s lives. I did—and what I found was often stunning. In some ways, these discoveries might seem predictable, but they turn up virtually nowhere else in our evidence. Often these moments are but passing glimpses into a vista that may not even be articulated but is easily recognized by the viewing audience. Stolen glimpses are a common source of evidence for women in antiquity.
Considering two groups of women, young citizen girls and female slaves, we learn in New Comedy that concern about the safety and happiness of newlywed girls is found in all social classes; that conspiracies of women, within and between households, operate across class lines, working to protect girls at risk of ruin or sexual abuse; that enslaved women express their opinions and work to earn their freedom; and that brutal truths about the lives of slaves, especially enslaved women, are acknowledged. I review instances of these phenomena below.
The Bride’s Happiness and Safety
The official purpose of marriage in antiquity was procreation. Arrangements were made by father and groom; bride and groom might not even meet before their wedding. A standard Greek formula for betrothal runs as follows: "I give you this girl for the purposes of sowing/plowing legitimate children." The same formula is used for contracts to rent out farmland. Romans married pro liberorum quaerundorum caussa, for the purpose of begetting children. The functionality of the girl and the union are unmistakable. Love is not invoked as part of marriage, at least in its initial stages. What New Comedy regularly shows us is that parents take seriously the characters of the young men to whom they betroth their daughters, and that concern for the happiness of those daughters is found even outside their own families. If a man seeks to marry off his son, so that the boy will grow up, the father of the intended girl may not want her to be the vehicle of that maturing process. Thus, in Terence’s play The Woman from Andros, Chremes argues with his neighbor, Simo:
Simo. I beg you by the gods, Chremes, and by our own friendship, which started when we were young and has grown along with age, and by your only daughter and my son—the greatest power of saving him is yours!—I beg you to help me in this matter and let the wedding go forth, as it has been planned (538–42).
Chremes. But it’s a very serious thing, to put your daughter in danger (566).
Chremes. I’ve gone far enough into danger. Stop this begging, now. Aiming to please you, I almost gambled my daughter’s life away (821–22).
Chremes. You pushed me to engage my daughter to a youngster tied up in another love affair, absolutely refusing to take a wife, so that I would hand her into quarreling and a shaky marriage (828–30; translation mine).
In the same play, the girl Glycerium (Chremes’ other daughter, long lost and much missed) is the object of much concern and protective sympathy from non-citizens, who fear that Simo’s son will abandon her just as she is giving birth to his illegitimate son (naturally, her parentage is discovered, so the two can marry happily). Subaltern women, from slaves to free working women, exert every available form of influence in trying to protect Glycerium from abandonment: no fewer than seven different speakers show anxiety on her behalf. And when her father learns that she is alive, he is almost fearful in his elation and his eagerness to see her.
In Plautus’ Three-Dollar Day, six men conspire to provide a dowry for a girl whose brother has wasted the family’s resources. Only two are her kin—her father and the wastrel brother himself; all the others are unrelated, and some may not even know her. They agree that she deserves a decent marriage in which she can thrive, so they pursue various means of arranging a dowry, the sign of her family’s commitment to her, the sign that she has not been given into concubinage, the protection that will prevent her becoming effectively a slave to her husband (something plotted by an older man in the play Aulularia) and the object of malicious gossip by her neighbors.
Female Conspiracies to Protect Girls
Quite a few plays feature women conspiring to protect citizen daughters, both displaced girls (such as Glycerium of The Woman from Andros) and the ones brought up at home. Terence’s Hecyra (Her Husband’s Mother) and Plautus’ Truculentus (Uncivil Slave) show the women in a citizen house working together to hide a rape-caused pregnancy from a girl’s father so that her reputation will not be ruined. In Hecyra, Myrrhina and her household slaves take Philumena back home while her young husband is away on family business, refusing to let the girl’s mother-in-law see her; they plan to expose the baby so that Philumena can go back to her husband without scandal. Terence shows the anxious collaboration of the women in this house as they try to keep Philumena from ruin. The plot’s resolution, namely that the premarital rapist turns out to have been Philumena’s husband, is almost universally disturbing to readers. In Truculentus, Plautus’ most breathtakingly cynical play, discussed both above and below, an independent courtesan borrows a newborn so she can tell one of her suitors that it is his son to manipulate him into generosity. The child comes from the house of her neighbor, whose wife and slaves have worked to keep him from learning about his daughter’s pregnancy by rape; they co-operate with the women of the house of prostitution next door, protecting both citizen daughter and citizen infant son. (I discuss other disturbing elements of this plot below.) Because every raped girl must be married to her rapist, the truth comes out, and so the unnamed daughter in Truculentus is married off to the universally despised Diniarchus. In these plays, Plautus and Terence show great reservations about the practice of resolving rape via marriage: if we must generically accept that in Menander’s theater, a repentant drunken rapist can become a loving and respectful husband, that convention does not operate in Hecyra and Truculentus; neither young man expresses any regret. In such moments, we can see the dissent of these two non-Romans from the hypocritical social values of the Rome they inhabit, along with their recognition that women forced to marry rapists have been doubly victimized.
Enslaved Women Seek Their Freedom
In ancient Greece and Rome, no one could imagine a world without slavery. The chief supply source of enslaved persons was warfare: conquered cities and nations lost their independence, and any of their citizens could be taken by the victorious side as slaves. Slaves could dream of gaining their freedom, and in New Comedy they have unparalleled opportunity to express those dreams. Enslaved brothel prostitutes are shown working for their liberty: by helping out the separated newlyweds in Menander’s Arbitrants, the smart and charitable Habrotonon hopes to be freed from the pimp who owns her; Philematium of Plautus’ Haunted House is deeply grateful to the young lover who purchased and liberated her; Phoenicium in Plautus’ Pseudolus carefully monitors her small personal fund, planning to buy herself away from the pimp Ballio.
Slave Women Speak—and Suffer Brutality
New Comedy shows female household slaves as deeply embedded in their owners’ lives, while retaining independent perspectives. It particularly allows them to speak their feelings about the condition of slavery and its injustices. The brilliant Pardalisca of Plautus’ Casina remarks privately, for instance, on the gluttony of her mistress Cleostrata and the next-door mistress Myrrhina. But when she pretends to her male owner that the young slave Casina, whom he seeks for his own sexual purposes, is running amok with swords indoors, shouting that she will kill any man who comes near her, Pardalisca does more. She not only ventriloquizes the younger girl, but speaks for herself as well, enacting comically the powerful rage and fear of slave women about their vulnerability to sexual abuse—not only by their male owners, but by male slaves as well. The comic scene speaks volumes (see Andrews 2004).
This play gives unusual expression to the resentment of all slaves, male and female, of sexual exploitation and abuse by their owners. But under the sign of Comedy, it goes further, voicing and enacting the terror of female slaves at their helplessness and at the cavalier attitudes of men (citizen and slave alike) toward their bodies. Pardalisca visits some of that terror upon her predatory owner, and forces him to confront and acknowledge, even briefly, the matter of willingness in his slaves. Nothing like this scene occurs anywhere else in ancient literature: a female slave works joyously, not to help the owner class but to protect another female slave from sexual abuse by her elderly owner and his farm-manager slave, who was to share the girl with him.
In Plautus’ Truculentus, two female slaves suffer torture and interrogation by the old man Callicles, who has belatedly learned of his daughter’s pregnancy by rape. On stage, he threatens to torture them again unless they tell him the rapist’s name. Their hands shackled, they are held in place by two silent male slaves. His household slave stands up to him, arguing that he is misrepresenting the situation: it is not the fault of the women who hid the pregnancy, but rather of the male rapist who overpowered his daughter. When the eavesdropping Diniarchus confesses, the slave tartly reminds Callicles that he is being unjust because he has innocent women in ropes while the guilty man stands free. In this remarkable scene, women who are still feeling the pain of torture show clear thinking about the self-serving logic of bourgeois citizen mores. They speak truth to power, using wit and logic to protect other women and to identify the guilty citizen male.
My final example comes from Plautus’ Poenulus (The Little Carthaginian). Hanno has been searching the Mediterranean for his lost daughters, stolen along with their nurse Giddenis from a public park in Carthage some twelve years earlier. He finally locates them, with the aid of Giddenis, who recognizes him. She has been protecting the girls as best she could while they were all owned by the pimp Lyco, and she is very conscious of the risk to them: they are about to start practicing the profession for which they have been trained; that is to say, they are about to be put forward for either short-term rentals or permanent purchase. Just as she has completed her narrative, his young male slave speaks to her, in what Plautus represents as the Punic language. He turns out to be Giddenis’ long-lost son, and the two minor characters have joyous reunion on stage. Her tale is absurdly implausible—a slave of African birth, very dark-skinned, noticeably lovely, kidnaped from Carthage with her owner’s little girls, and sold with them to a pimp—but it represents some elements of life in antiquity. This scene offers a rare reminder of grim facts about the lives of slaves, especially women: natal deracination, abduction, trafficking, forcible separation from their own children. Slaves and ex-slaves watching would have found Giddenis’ scene very moving, perhaps almost unbearably so, as it staged what must have been an impossible, sad dream of many. Significantly, the plot of Poenulus does not remotely require the reunion of this small slave family. (We do not know if it was part of the Greek original, but even if it had been, Plautus could easily have removed it.) The staging is lively and comic, but the mere presence of the scene demonstrates implicit sympathy for the reunited slave family, especially for the mother long deprived of her son. There is nothing like it in extant Greek and Roman literature.
Moments of these types fill the pages and stages of New Comedy—and there are many, many more of them in the corpus. I offer these points before turning to my larger context. First, because New Comedy offers unparalleled glimpses of lives for women of all classes, it is an extraordinary resource for studying women in antiquity. In my experience, that study can shed light on modern global practices and attitudes (and vice versa). Second, the plays often narratively reinforce standard citizen mores and social/legal structures, but they insistently, repetitively stage dissenting perspectives and discomfiting truths about life in antiquity. Because the great majority of our evidence treats the ruling classes, it is very easy to say "the Greeks" and "the Romans" while speaking and thinking only of the elite, who were far from the majority of the population—and only of men, not of women. Third, playwrights cannot stage meaningless or dismissable characters; to do so is to ruin at least a scene, and in so doing to produce a defective play. All characters have meaning and importance in their scenes. In performance, each character can affect the audience, the reception of the drama, and the way the play lingers in the minds of its viewers later. Even a short, narratively unneeded scene, such as Giddenis’ reunion with her son, influences the play and its audience.
New Comedy, perhaps particularly Roman New Comedy, is a vital area of research in Classics, as it has much to teach us about humor, the lower classes, slaves, slavery, and women in antiquity. This study can help to transform our understanding of the entire ancient world, by keeping us constantly aware that Greece and Rome were more than their elite classes. That awareness can be dispiriting, but it is necessary. If the discipline of Classics is to stay alive in the twenty-first century and beyond, it must begin to recognize that Greco-Roman antiquity shares traditions with so-called western civilization and non-western civilization alike, traditions that cannot be simplistically summarized in such standard positive terms as "foundations of freedom and democracy." The great majority of classicists have not talked in such terms for some decades now, but that language sticks to us, and to the field. New Comedy can help us to shake it off.
II. Women in Ancient Comedy; Women in the Twenty-First Century
Here I aim to provide a larger context for my brief sketch, above, of women in New Comedy, beginning from some basic principles. The first is that the discipline of Classics has been on the run, institutionally and culturally, for decades. If Classics was for some hundred years "the gentleman’s course" and a preparation especially for law, it has not been so for at least sixty years now. For all that "Western Civilization" is often called central to higher education, in the United States, at least, the actual study of its so-called origins (i.e., Latin and Greek) has long been marginalized in institutions of higher learning. It has been eliminated altogether in more than a few of those institutions. So we have had our arguments marshaled for some time now.
But I come here neither to praise nor to bury my discipline—and least of all do I come to make any claim that the anteriority of ancient Greece and Rome, their long-proclaimed status as the origins of Western Civilization, automatically justifies institutional support or privilege. I want instead briefly to interrogate the term "classic," and then try to provide my larger context. In 1944, T. S. Eliot gave his Presidential address to the Virgil Society, in which he argued, to an audience no doubt sympathetic, that Vergil was the true Classic of the age—and it should never be forgotten how fraught that particular age was. Eliot defined a Classic chiefly by leaning on maturity of both author and literary tradition, and by linguistic specificity, that is, by the author’s ability to express the "character of the people who speak [his] language."
It will hardly be a surprise, I suspect, that although I love Vergil and his almost hopelessly melancholic poetry, composed as his world seemed to be breaking apart and remaking itself in alarming, uncertain style, I find the definition of "the classic" offered by the Nobelist J. M. Coetzee as he took up Eliot’s argument almost fifty years later to be both more congenial and more accurate:
So we arrive at a certain paradox. The classic defines itself by surviving. Therefore the interrogation of the classic, no matter how hostile, is part of the history of the classic, inevitable and even to be welcomed. For as long as the classic needs to be protected from attack, it can never prove itself classic. One might even venture further along this road to say that the function of criticism is defined by the classic: criticism is that which is duty-bound to interrogate the classic. Thus the fear that the classic will not survive the decentering acts of criticism may be turned on its head: rather than being the foe of the classic, criticism, and indeed criticism of the most skeptical kind, may be what the classic uses to define itself and ensure its survival. Criticism may in that sense be one of the instruments of the cunning of history (16; emphasis added).
Coetzee does not limit his term "the classic," to Latin and Greek. Neither would I; like many of my colleagues, I find the name of our field deeply problematic, but have yet to find a way out. (Institutionally, I think, it is actually pernicious, but that’s a problem for another day.) The term is malleable, of course. People often speak of such things as a "classic of 1950s sci-fi cinema" or "a 1970s feminist classic," and I accept those terms. Indeed, I have used them myself, understanding them to mean not so much representative examples of a genre, but works that in fact had an effect (in modern bureaucratese, an "impact") beyond the limited scope of period and genre—a lasting effect. But that effect is, I think, implicit in Coetzee’s definition.
Indeed, what continues to make the world, the art, and the literature of ancient Greece and Rome exciting to me is precisely that it can survive interrogation on new grounds, in new terms, in terms that speak to contemporary life. Brilliantly accomplished applications of theory to ancient literature and art, too numerous even to list here, are being produced all the time. My own work tends toward grounds that are far more mundane, often having to do with material realities for women of all classes in antiquity, and with the apparently universal problems of rape and sexual violence. I propose that these ancient materials can help to shed light on modern instances of those phenomena, on scales from small to large.
Indeed, what continues to make the world, the art, and the literature of ancient Greece and Rome exciting to me is precisely that it can survive interrogation on new grounds, in new terms, in terms that speak to contemporary life.
According to foundational legend, the first Roman marriage was that of Romulus’ newly cohesive and disciplined band of outlaws to the abducted daughters of their Sabine neighbors. As the historian Livy recounts the tale, Romulus realized that his new city was destined to perish within a lifetime, owing to penuria mulierum, shortage of women. Children are necessary to the survival of any society, and the only way to gain children was to marry. Rejected by their neighboring cities, the Romans turned to deception and force, in the event known as the Rape of the Sabine Women. Like any number of elements in Rome’s founding legends, this episode was morally dubious at best, and the Romans themselves were a bit uneasy about it. Hence they celebrated the Sabine women for having retroactively redeemed the crime by accepting their marriages, when they ran on to the battlefield to stop their fathers and brothers from killing their husbands. The men stopped fighting, made peace, and joined territories; the Sabine women were greatly honored by all. Thus Romulus doubled the size of his city’s land and population (no Roman source makes note of the young Sabine men who had been deprived of their intended brides and thus could not themselves procreate).
This notorious, much-celebrated tale establishes the connection between women, rape, and land: abduction and rape of women is a means of gaining territory (see Dougherty 1998 on this subject). If the Romans claimed that they abducted the Sabine women only out of necessity, because their polite requests to marry were everywhere rejected, it should not escape notice that the tactic allowed them to take over rich and strategic lands, to absorb their neighbors’ societies, and to reduce or eliminate their neighbors’ opportunities to maintain those societies by continuing to marry and have children of their own.
It is a horrifying truth that the same practice continues in the twenty-first century. In the previous decade, the Janjaweed militia of Darfur, Sudan, and Chad were involved in territorial disputes. Among their other activities, they practiced a program of raping Sudanese women with the intent of creating lighter-skinned babies who were to be kept by the Janjaweed as their own children, a means of taking land from the Sudanese and of breaking up Sudanese families and settlements. In other words, a rationalized program of ongoing abductions and rapes was used for the destruction of one civilization and the expansion (in population and territory) of another. These rapes were not called "marriage," but they instantiated the equating of the female body as a vehicle not only for procreation but for imperialist expansion, and for genocide, under the name "ethnic cleansing."
In the news of just the last year, 2014–2015, this equation has justified massive abductions of women and girls by ISIS and Boko Haram. ISIS has targeted Yazidi territories and villages in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Armenia, with a particular interest in abduction of girls and women for use and sale as wives/slaves (there appears to be little difference between the two categories). Numbers are hard to establish, but some thousands of girls and women are missing from Yazidi territory, and it is known that they are enduring programs of constant rape. In Nigeria, Boko Haram appears to have abducted more than four thousand women and girls, with a similar aim of selling them to be wife-slaves. Its recently revealed ulterior motive turns out to be familiar: creation of children for Boko Haram (see Nossiter 2015). The standard assault program involves killing men and boys who refuse to join the attacking force, while abducting girls and women indiscriminately—a sort of shoot-and-grab-first, sort-out-later procedure.
Modern weaponry and means of transport make mass abductions much easier in our own age—and, sadly, much more likely in the future. And the contemporary instances, from Bosnia to the Sudan to the Yazidi lands to Nigeria, are prominently given at least nominal justification under the sign of religion, which was not a formal issue in the Roman tale of abduction-rape-marriage. It is far beyond my scope here to try to unpack and disentangle religion, politics, and land wars in these conflicts, most of them ongoing (the Janjaweed militia has hardly gone out of business; see Gettleman 2014). And very specific—often very local—regional, ethnic, racial, and cultural particularities are involved in them. So I do not claim that these horrifying modern assaults, abductions, and rapes are identical to the Roman tale of the Sabine women. But the programs of imperialist expansion, cultural annihilation, and population growth by rape are eerily similar in intent and effect. I suggest that the highly simplified Roman account helps us to see the enduring logic that underlies what look like chaotic, uncivilized programs of looting, and that logic begins with a particular view of women and of the potential functions and uses for women: baby-makers, land-granters, and vehicles for ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Moving to less apocalyptic matters that link antiquity and the contemporary world, I return here to comedy. As so often, I have found in New Comedy much that is disturbing and much that looks forward to its own disturbing analogues in our own time. Less than a year ago as of this writing, on May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger, a disturbed young man in Santa Barbara, went on a shooting rampage near the University of California campus there. The damage he wrought was heartbreaking—and I note with personal sorrow that two of his victims were young women who studied Classics there, well known and beloved of my friends and colleagues in the Classics Department at UCSB. At the time, I was preparing a paper for a conference in Rome about the Roman courtesan, a figure who is one of my subjects of specialization. Reading about Rodger’s elaborately planned assault, I was stricken: U.S. gun laws allowed this young man, whose longstanding mental illnesses were well documented, to acquire semi-automatic weapons; racial and gender privilege permitted him to persuade the small deputation of police officers sent to his apartment—at his parents’ request—that he was not dangerous. When he went on his spree, he killed six young people, and left fourteen others injured. His first stop was a sorority house, whose members he felt had particularly spurned him (though almost certainly not one of them had ever even met him); by great fortune, nobody answered the door. Otherwise at least fifteen more young people would have been wounded or killed.
Elliot Rodger left a long, well-written, highly articulate manifesto, his own biography, whose opening abstract reads as follows:
All of my suffering on this world has been at the hands of humanity, particularly women. It has made me realize just how brutal and twisted humanity is as a species. All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me (emphasis added).
The remaining 141 single-spaced pages, of some 107,000 words—a document slightly longer than my first book (James 2003)—go on to detail this tormented young man’s lunatic self-pity, racial self-hatred, and misogyny. I read every page. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this document put me into a near-depression.
I was particularly stricken because I was preparing to deliver a conference paper about the lives of the Roman women who made their living by sexual relationships, women I denoted by the term "professional girlfriends," as I felt that phrase best described the work/career/labor/lives of a fair number of women in the Roman world. Again and again, the Latin texts I was drawing on showed me the same things that I found in Elliot Rodger’s disturbed manifesto: a man needs a girlfriend; it doesn’t really matter who she is—he needs one, period. Why? For status among other men.
This set of equations recalled to me the loathsome self-pity and obsession of the murderer George Sodini, who felt that life without a woman was meaningless, that his twenty-some years without a girlfriend were to be blamed on 30 million American women who had rejected him— women who could not possibly have met him. On August 4, 2009, he murdered three women and wounded nine others before killing himself, when he burst with guns exploding into a women’s fitness class in Collier Township, Pennsylvania. Sodini wrote in his blog these tell-tale words:
A man needs a woman for confidence. He gets a boost on the job, career, with other men, and everywhere else when he knows he has someone to spend the night with and who is also a friend.
"A man needs a woman for confidence. He gets a boost on the job, career, with other men." When I read these words, nearly six years ago, my blood ran cold. It was a modern version of the first scene of recorded Western literature, namely the argument of Achilles and King Agamemnon in Book 1 of Homer’s Iliad, albeit with automatic weapons and internet video-log. Forced to give back his spear-captive, a girl granted publicly to him by his fellow warriors as a reward for his heroism, Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, says to Achilles:
Not in that way, good fighter though you be, godlike Achilleus, strive to cheat, for you will not deceive, you will not persuade me. What do you want? To keep your own prize and have me sit here lacking one? Are you ordering me to give this girl back? Either the great-hearted Achaians shall give me a new prize chosen according to my desire to atone for the girl lost, or else if they will not give me one I myself shall take her, your own prize, or that of Aias, or that of Odysseus, going myself in person; and he whom I visit will be bitter. (Iliad 1.131–39, tr. Lattimore; emphasis added).
In the following scene, the two heroes argue back and forth about their relative status, but what matters for me here is that their statuses are publicly marked by a female body—specifically, by a captive female body. Naturally Agamemnon takes the woman previously awarded to Achilles, precisely to punish the other hero for having challenged him and his status. In a rage, Achilles withdraws from battle—and there follows the entire Iliad.
As I was reading Elliot Rodger and thinking of George Sodini and Agamemnon, king of the Greeks who needed a captive female to remind all the Greek heroes that he was the top dog, I was also writing up a section of my book on women in New Comedy. In Plautus’ hilarious, cynical play Sisters Bacchis, the unpleasant soldier Cleomachus has a courtesan under contract; she wants to void the contract but has already spent the money he gave her. Fearing that if she goes on his tour of duty with him, he will ignore the terms of the contract and forcibly convert her into a sex slave, she works with her sister, another courtesan, to entice money from her sister’s lover, so that she can buy herself free from the soldier. They succeed—thanks to one of Plautus’ most brilliant clever slaves. But the soldier, whose name means "Famous at Battle," kept haunting me. He insists on his rights: girl or money. He cannot distinguish between the two, and he is indifferent: he is owed either a woman—any woman—or the sum of money he paid for the contract on the first girl, so that he can get another woman. He must have a woman, period, and he threatens violence in order to enforce the point.
When another soldier, in Plautus’ Poenulus (The Little Carthaginian), becomes angry at having been tricked into buying lunch for a crowd, he decides that he will beat his African girlfriend black-and-blue as compensation. Her pimp, after all—the man who still owns her—is the one who tricked him into paying. She is answerable with her body for the soldier’s humiliation in front of other men, as the sister Bacchis must answer with her body or its equivalent, i.e., cash, for another soldier’s belief that he is entitled to either a woman, any woman, or else a bag of cash.
A brief excursus on a long-time bugbear of mine, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 movie, Cape Fear. This film too rehearses, appallingly and in racist fashion to boot, the principle that Agamemnon visits upon Achilles: women’s bodies are vehicles for teaching a man a lesson about himself. The ex-con Max Cady, played by De Niro, stalks, terrorizes, rapes, and brutalizes three different women (wife, daughter, mistress) in the life of his former defense attorney, played by Nick Nolte. He murders the Latina housekeeper—a fact not mentioned in a single review I read, either before I saw the film in 1991, or since then, when I searched reviews as I was preparing this essay. The film ends with the reunion of the husband, wife, and daughter: the family is presented as having been improved by the traumatic experience of Max Cady’s moral instruction of his male enemy. Improved, somehow purified. Not a single review asked why this lesson had to be conducted through the bodies of women.
There is no mistaking the principle in Scorsese’s Cape Fear: the women are vehicles for manipulating male status and marking men’s locations in a hierarchy. If men have internalized that principle from the very beginning of Western narrative art, the principle is lived by women. That is, another way of casting much of what I’m suggesting here is to say that it may really be more about men than about women. It’s about public, competitive masculinity. Perhaps a football, or a bag of coins, would suffice as well as a woman.
But I don’t think so. I think, and I would fully argue so elsewhere, that there is something special about a woman—and Ruth Scodel (1998) on the captive woman’s dilemma is right on point here. If the average woman of antiquity, in her daily life, did not experience a tussle between heroes, or a gunfight with automatic weaponry, with her body the proof of masculinity, she still knew that her every move carried meaning outside herself, that her life in context—social, legal, even dramatic context—required monitoring, even if she was socially and legally no more than a slave. She knew that men were watching, measuring, evaluating, assessing, owning her. Wife, daughter, domestic slave, brothel slave, free sex worker, professional girlfriend—it didn’t matter. New Comedy shows us that a Greek or Roman father or brother might really treasure his daughter or sister, and I hope to have shown above that they did, but that girl’s life was still dependent upon men, and those men might evaluate themselves according to her behavior and her sexual/social status, a principle still alive on much of the planet today. The horrors of the constant realities of that principle fill the news sources every day, from around the world.
When I interrogate the Classic—in Coetzee’s phrase, thinking about what it has to tell us about the lived reality of women both in antiquity and now—what I find is rich information, boiled down to its essentials. Cultural particularities are hardly irrelevant, but many seem to share much with other forms of cultural particularity that also use the female body as a measuring stick for male status, accomplishment, self-satisfaction—and, as I have suggested, as a vehicle for cultural genocide, forcible population expansion, and land imperialism.
My students tell me that they see their own lives reflected in these plays and poems…
Year after year as I teach these texts, I am astonished at how often my students tell me that they see their own lives reflected in these plays and poems. I should restate, perhaps, that these are not questions previously asked of the materials I work on. But these works keep speaking to the contemporary world, in a fashion felt by my students to be compelling and almost alarmingly relevant to their own lives, and their subjects keep arising in real life, in ultra-violent fashion, around the world. The literary and dramatic works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, their legends both mythical and historical, provide templates that help to identify and explain the deep-rooted view of woman as a body for use by men, for marking male status in a group or community, for support and enforcement of male agenda, and finally for military, political, imperialist programs. These texts and tales also show us women of all classes and ages managing their lives as best they can, often in and at great danger to themselves. Hence I propose that the often-mundane realities of ancient women’s lives, found in Greek and Latin poetic texts, merit study, merit inclusion among the Humanities, merit a place in the university curriculum, and that they can bring Greek and Roman antiquity—the Classics—into productive conversation with all kinds of other disciplines.
- Another title for this paper, perhaps more accurate, might be "Why it’s important to study women in ancient comedy."
- One has only to think of "Beloved Wife and Mother" as a standard line still to be found on tomb stones today.
- Even the freedwoman Allia Potestas, apparently girlfriend to two male friends simultaneously and thus not an officially respectable woman, is praised for some of the virtues listed for the very respectable Murdia: "She was courageous, chaste, resolute, honest, a trustworthy guardian. Clean at home, also clean when she went out, famous among the populace. She alone could confront whatever happened. She would speak briefly and so was never reproached. She was first to rise from the bed, and last to return to her bed to rest after she had put each thing in its place. Her yarn never left her hands without good reason. Out of respect she yielded place to all; her habits were healthy" (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005, 19).
- Much scholarship has been done on these points, and on women in Aristophanes, but here I cite only Cohen 1991 on Aristophanes as evidence against the strict seclusion of citizen women.
- There is an intermediate body of plays called Middle Comedy, of which little survives.
- The term "courtesan" is a gross misnomer, and some scholars object to its use, with good reason. I have remarked on the point elsewhere (James 2006, 245-46, n. 25): "I have chosen to keep using the outmoded and inadequate word ‘courtesan’ here for the sake of convenience, as an accurate designation (such as "young woman of no social standing or protection, relying on male sexual attraction to her youth and beauty to support herself and her household") would be both awkward and verbose." My employment of the term "courtesan" is not intended to import any semi-glamorous dimensions from, say, eighteenth-century France.
- It will be immediately evident that Menander’s drama is resolutely heteronormative, a feature that is beyond my scope here. On the political goals of Menander’s marriage-minded theater, see Lape 2003. In Rome, Plautus’ theater contains regular references to male homosexuality.
- I have discussed this subject in detail in James 1998a, James 2003, and James 2013.
- See Fontaine 2010 on Plautus’ bilingual and trilingual puns.
- The brilliant clever slave, usually male, who outwits all parties around him and speaks dazzlingly, is the true star of the Plautine stage; I have argued (James 2013) that Terence’s agenda has to do with his skeptical autopsy of the hypocrisies of the privileged, myopic citizen classes, particularly the way Roman patria potestas (the legal power of life and death held by each household’s father over all its members) produces psychically and emotionally deformed and defective sons, not to mention miserable wives.
- The results appear to be generally tragic, at least in the accounts made available in the West: see, e.g., Abawi 2011, Schemm 2012. For a recent act of defiance, see Singh 2015. Enforced marriage to rapists is a foundational legend for Rome, in the story of the Sabine women, discussed below.
- In 131 BCE, the state official Q. Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, in co-sponsoring legislation that would require all citizens to marry and procreate, made remarks to the effect that a wife is a pain in the neck, but a necessary one.
- Terence’s play Phormio shows even an older, unrelated men recognizing that a girl about to be married may be very anxious and acknowledging that her feelings should be considered.
- I have argued (James 1998b) that Terence designs this ending to be disturbing.
- Piracy and raiding were secondary sources. The practice of engendering slaves at home was so unusual that Latin has a word to designate home-born slaves (verna). New Comedy and other sources offer reason to think that sex trafficking of enslaved women was a constant, from the archaic period on, and was well-organized around the Aegean and the Mediterranean. See Marshall 2013.
- This play features another conspiracy of women to protect a girl; unbeknownst to them all, she is a displaced citizen daughter, but, even believing that she is a slave, they work to keep her safe
- Punic need not be her native tongue: she could have been bought by Hanno from someplace other than Carthage.
- See Richlin forthcoming for more about the way slaves in the audiences viewed Plautus’ theater.
- In James 2014, I have argued that to speak of "the Athenians" as considering rape a crime against a father or husband, rather than a personal violation of a woman, requires us to think of "the Athenians" as exclusively citizen men, who were in fact a minority of the overall population of ancient Athens.
- For a demonstration, see the scenes from Roman comedy on my YouTube channel, videotaped for the NEH Summer 2012 Institute, "Roman Comedy in Performance," co-directed with Timothy Moore: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmBs1K1ruw2i48CmDku1HrQ/videos?view=0.
- See, e.g., Wax 2004 and Boustany 2007. The program of destroying the opposition’s society by way of mass, organized rape was practiced by Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s; see Drakulic 1998.
- See Watson 2014, Masi 2014, Saul 2015.
- Some of these girls and women have been rescued—not nearly enough of them—but they often face severe dangers in attempting to return to their own societies, where they may be rejected by their families if they are known to been raped. Hence they tend to practice a longstanding program of denying that they were raped (brilliantly understood and articulated by Drakulic 1998). In Terence’s play The Eunuch, Pamphila hysterically refuses to speak after having been raped; her body and clothing speak for her. In line with generic practices and social realities the play must force her to marry Chaerea, the rapist. Raped and unmarried, she will be rejected by her newly rediscovered family. As Drakulic 1998 shows, maintaining silence is the victim’s best means of protecting not only herself but her family, her village, her society.
- Regardless, it was inevitably a side benefit, as Roman religion was a state religion and had already established new divinities and rituals. The new Roman brides took on their husbands’ family and state religions.
- I would add that the modern horrors may cause us to rethink the Roman accounts of order, discipline, and necessity in the tale of the rape of the Sabine women, although, as I have noted, Ovid has already done some of that rethinking for us. I have argued elsewhere (Henry and James 2012) that the Roman story does not add up logically or mathematically and must be a cover-up for a series of abduction raids on the neighboring villages. Why the Romans would prefer a foundation tale about open, daytime mass abduction over targeted nighttime raids is a subject for another time.
- It is worth noting that Rodger’s misogynist murder spree actually killed more young men than women, by a ratio of two to one. As numerous commentators pointed out, mostly online and in the Guardian newspaper, misogyny kills men, too.
- I’d like to extend my thanks to Professor M. T. Boatwright, who invited me to participate in the April 10 seminar, and to my fellow participants in the seminar. I particularly thank Beth Perry, who made everything happen with exceptional graciousness.
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———. 2015. "Sons and Daughters, Love and Marriage: On the Plots and Priorities of Ro man Comedy." Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Boulder, CO, March 2015.
———. 2014. "Reconsidering Rape in Menander’s Comedy and Athenian Life: Modern Comparative Evidence." In Menander in Contexts, edited by Alan Sommerstein, 24–39. New York: Routledge.
———. 2012. "Elegy and Comedy." In A Companion to Roman Love Elegy, edited by Barbara K. Gold, 253–68. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
———. 2006. "A Courtesan’s Choreography: Female Liberty and Male Anxiety at the Roman Dinner Party." In Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, edited by Christopher Faraone and Laura McClure, 224–62. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
———. 2003. Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. 1998a. "Introduction: Constructions of Gender and Genre in Roman Comedy and Elegy." Helios 25: 3–16.
———. 1998b. "From Boys to Men: Rape and Developing Masculinity in Terence’s Hecyra and Eunuchus." Helios 25: 31–47.
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