Sunday, July 15, 2012


Jenifer Neils, Women in the Ancient World. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. Pp. 216. ISBN 9781606060919. $25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Peter Keegan, Macquarie University (

Version at BMCR home site

The author of this volume, Jenifer Neils, is an art historian, classical archaeologist and museum curator with a broad interest in the art and archaeology of the ancient world from the Bronze Age to late antiquity and particular expertise in the history and material culture of Greece. 1 Given her longstanding focus on the visual language of the extant past, it will come as no surprise to learn that Neil's aim is 'to reveal how the imagery of women in the ancient world contributes to our understanding of their lives and roles in society' (13). Chronologically, 'ancient' encompasses a period of time stretching from predynastic Egypt (4400 BC) to the late Roman empire (AD 476); geographically, the 'world' comprises Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa; 'society' is almost exclusively elite (acknowledged by the author in her introduction); and, importantly for the organization of the book and the display of the collected images, 'women' is a categorical denomination – 'real' women (Ch. 1) juxtaposed against an assortment of 'stereotypes' (Ch. 2), 'mothers and mourners' (Ch. 3), 'working women' (Ch.4) and 'royal women' (Ch. 7) – as well as described in relation to associated practices – physical modification (Ch. 5) and religion (Ch. 6). It should be clear, therefore, that this treatment of 'women in the ancient world' proposes a wide-ranging general examination of elite female representation across a broad sweep of historical periods, pre-modern cultures, and behavioural typologies, but restricted in the main to that social stratum 'wealthy enough to commission images' (13).

Chapter 1 ('Real women: an introduction') utilizes the well-known gilt silver toiletry box of a late Roman woman, Projecta, to illustrate the usefulness and limitations of visual material culture as a guide to the nature of female representation in antiquity. By means of this device, Neils claims that imagery relating to women in the ancient world may be distributed among three categories of display—wife, mistress of the household, mother (or reproducer)—for which she provides examples from Egypt, Greece, Etruria, and Rome. This overarching thesis is stated at the outset (13), reiterated throughout (e.g. 15-16, 32, 40-3, 54, 59-66, 69-77, 84, 138, 163-4) and rehearsed at the very end of the book (204). Neils concedes, however, that it is only through a study of the physical remains of deceased women that we can know anything about the realities of women's existence in ancient times – lifestyle, diet, medical condition, physiognomy. Drawing on archaeological insights selectively illustrated to accompany the text, a brief outline of the various cultures encountered in the book rounds off the chapter.

Dispensing with the quest for historical reality, Chapter 2 ('Female stereotypes') illustrates a variety of perceptions and misconceptions that have adhered to women across the span of the last several thousand years. In line with the previous pattern of compartmentalization, these views pertain to such categories as the femme fatale (Eve, Pandora, Ishtar/Circe, Aphrodite/Venus, Helen, Athena/Minerva), the man-slayer (Amazons, Clytemnestra, Medea), the martyr (Jocasta, Phaedra, Iphigenia, Polyxena, Lucretia, Vestals, Christian martyrs), the witch (Lamashtu, Isis, Circe, Medea, Medusa, Lamia), and earth (and sky) mothers (Nut, Demeter/Ceres, Ge/Gaia, Mary). It is important to note that Neil's catalogue of stereotypes—restricted, as it must be, both in length and depth—conflates the divine, demi-human, human, and monstrous, and explores only those facets of each representative type and accompanying exempla which accord with the defining category. Chapter 3 ('Mothers and mourners') addresses the imagery of the ancient reproductive economy and explores cross- cultural associations of women and emotional display as part of ritual funerary practice. Neils prefaces her examination of the female in relation to birth and death by touching on the centrality of marriage in the life of young women in the ancient world. Viewed as a key point of transition—mid-way perhaps between the starting- and end- points of temporal existence—she draws out the disconnection between genres of representation (epigraphic, documentary, literary, visual) and degrees of relationship to historical reality. This discussion of commercial, political, social, emotional and sexual dynamics inherent to ancient marriage is tied to beliefs and customs relating to virginity, the wedding, polygamy and incest, adultery and divorce and embraces a plethora of cultural affiliations— old Babylonian, neo-Hittite, Egyptian, Etruscan, Athenian Greek, south Italian, and imperial Roman. Neils segues into a similarly panoramic review of reproductive and memorializing roles reflected in ancient visual culture. For some, this diverse catalogue of material evidence might seem to dictate the direction of discussion rather than illustrate the line of argument. What is certainly true is that Neils' transhistorical portfolio of mothers, midwives and mourners elicits a startling final observation: '[T]hese roles were essential to the well-being of ancient societies, perhaps more so that the actual work performed by women' (86).

Chapter 4 ('Working women') addresses explicitly—though still through the filter of prestige material culture—the range of occupations assigned to non-elite women (most often, slaves) in ancient Mediterranean societies: textile production, food preparation, midwifery and childcare, entertainment, and prostitution. The selection of images used to illustrate Neils' survey comprises a number of 'usual suspects' (e.g., an early Bronze Age spindle whorl, a pre- dynastic Egyptian model of brewers and bakers, an Athenian red-figure scene of Greek women making music) as well as depictions of less-seen female representations (e.g. 5th century BC Greek figurines of women engaged in domestic tasks, a Hellenistic statuette of a female dwarf dancing while playing castanets, a 1st-2nd century AD Roman relief of female gladiators discharged from the arena). Neils concludes this chapter with a brief excursus on the depiction on Athenian hydriae of women fetching water at the spring or fountain house. She uses this corpus of artifacts as a means by which to illustrate the problems facing ancient historians and archaeologists when interpreting 'the silent material record' (116) and to support her contention that the limited reference to female participation in art and literature reflects 'the prevailing ideology in many [ancient] cultures' (121).

Chapter Five ('The body beautiful') looks at the rhetoric of female decorum across the visual and plastic arts, and literature. After presenting 'a gallery of post-mortem portrayals of individual women' (126), which illuminates the idealizing and ideological foundations underlying such images of adornment, grooming, and dress, the author considers the elements with which ancient women decorated themselves in life. At the end of the chapter, Neils notes that 'these beautification rituals … played a role in affirming the place of women in their culture' (157). However, it should be noted that any analysis in her overview of the representation of the female body and its adornment underemphasizes this passing attestation of female agency in favour of the surface preoccupations of physical care and embellishment.

Chapter Six ('Women and religion') considers the roles and status of women in the sphere of religion by way of evidence pertaining to cult, legislation, rituals and festivals, offerings, and the trappings of office. Neils' catalogue is instructive: Vestal Virgins (historical Rome) and temple prostitutes (mythistorical Babylon); sacred marriage (Egypt), divine intercession (Mesopotamia), and temple guardianship (Greece); oracles from Greece (the Delphic Pythia) and Asia Minor/Italy (the Cumaean Sibyl); cult devotees (again, Egyptian and Greek); women's festivals (the Greek Thesmophoria and Roman Bona Dea) and votive offerings (a Mediterranean-wide phenomenon). According to Neils, it would seem that '[r]ecent feminist-driven investigations have perhaps overstated the power and independence of female priestesses' (160) – a claim which should perhaps be measured in relation to the implications of this chapter's sampler of elite female participation in civic religious activity. To take a single instance, reference is made to the 'wide variety of objects dedicated by women … throughout the Mediterranean' (178). Opportunity is an equally useful measure of participation, and, beyond the limited (and limiting) frame of elite representation, I would suggest that sub-altern cultural practices afforded women religious opportunities encompassing markers of 'power and independence' commensurate with their social strata and normative boundaries.2

Chapter Seven ('Royal women') touches briefly on references to and images of a number of women viewed as significant in historical and/or socio-political terms in their own times and in posterity. Oddly enough, not all the subjects of this chapter are royal—Roman Lucretia, for instance, was raped by Etruscan royalty but not royal in her own right; Eumachia was the daughter of a wealthy Pompeian businessman; Livia, I would suggest, should be viewed as Augusta rather than as a queen. Neils' whirlwind tour of Mediterranean monarchy (from Hittite Puduhepa, Assyrian Sammuramat, and Egyptian Hatshepsut, to Ptolemaic Arsinoe II, Cleopatra VII, and Romano-British Boudica) registers in passing the display of political and intellectual achievements of a select cohort of historic and legendary women of note.

Neils includes at the end of her book a glossary of historical, artistic and archaeological terms, a list of goddesses, and a bibliography of further reading (in general and keyed to ancient cultures), a catalogue of illustration references, and an index of topics, persons and locations.

It should be clear from what has gone before that there is much in this book to admire, not least the splendid selection of well-sized, quality-rich photographs that illustrate every page of the text. The brief notes provided as captions to each image, comprising useful aesthetic detail and socio-historical context, enhance the general discussion. For students first encountering the representation of women in the artefactual record of the ancient Mediterranean, and for those with a general interest in the manufacture of gender- and status-specific ideology through material culture, Neils' work is highly recommended. As a selective compendium of imagery pertaining to elite women from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Near East, or displaying non-elite women in relation to elite aesthetic and cultural principles—filtered, it should be noted, through exclusively male literary perspectives on female roles in ancient society – Women in the Ancient World is a most successful enterprise.


1.   Publications include: The Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005 [BMCR 2006.08.23]); with John Oakley, Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003 [BMCR 2004.07.44]); The Parthenon Frieze (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 [BMCR 2002.06.14]); Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992 [BMCR 04.03.09]).
2.   Cf. e.g. Celia Schultz, Women's Religious Activity in the Roman Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2006 [BMCR 2006.10.40]; Susan Guettel Cole, Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space: The Ancient Greek Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) [BMCR 2004.09.18]; M. P. J. Dillon, Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 2002) [BMCR 2002.11.06].

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