Sunday, October 28, 2012


Lauren Hackworth Petersen, Patricia Salzman-Mitchell (ed.), Mothering and Motherhood in Ancient Greece and Rome. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 260. ISBN 9780292729902. $55.00.

Reviewed by Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle, Australia (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume is the partial result of a panel, 'Motherhood in the Ancient World,' sponsored by the Women's Classical Caucus for the 2007 APA/AIA Annual Meeting. Four of the ten essays in the volume were delivered at that session (Taraskiewicz, Strong, Jones and Lively) with the remaining six commissioned by the editors, Lauren Hackworth Petersen and Patricia Salzman-Mitchell (Lee, Hong, Tzanetou, Augoustakis, Salzman-Mitchell and Woodhull).

The book begins with a clear Introduction (Chapter 1) by the editors, which establishes its parameters, its interdisciplinary nature as well as its place within established studies such as the works of Demand and Dixon.1 The Introduction also offers readers some interesting and scholarly food for thought, including consideration of the seemingly eternal dilemma facing researchers in the field of women's lives in antiquity: the dichotomy between the private and 'real' world of women and the public images and representations usually manufactured by upper-class men. This most salient issue is answered in part in many of the essays, which is a refreshing and scholarly rigorous commitment to this introductory premise. The Introduction also addresses the overlap between ancient motherhood and modern mothers and does so in an unlaboured, non-excessive manner (feminism is far from over—or unnecessary).2 Finally, the editors ask: '... where do we go from here?' and accordingly outline some areas in need of further study, for example, the lives of high-profile mothers such as Cleopatra and Julia Domna.

The unravelling of the complex web of reality and publicity in what remains of the lives of ancient women, mothers included, is one of the aims of this study. In order to even partially achieve some sense of historical balance, indeed 'truth,' the modern scholar must spend a good deal of time on the minutiae, the unexplored and the seemingly marginal. In the opening two essays, both scholars have done so. Mireille M. Lee on 'Maternity and Miasma: Dress and the Transition from Parthenosto Gunē ' and Angela Taraskiewicz on 'Motherhood as Teleia : Rituals of Incorporation at the Kourotrophic Shrine' both utilise archaeological evidence (votive items, vases and coins, for example) to explore the bodily adornments and performative nature of (particularly) pregnancy, in the case of Lee, and ritual processes attending the life-journey of the betrothed bride, in the case of Taraskiewicz.

Yurie Hong's 'Maternity in Hippocratic Gynecology and Embryology' provides a detailed appraisal of excerpts from three Hippocratic texts: Diseases of Women I, On Generation and On the Nature of the Child. This is a more traditional, non-interdisciplinary study (not a criticism) that offers a strong blend of philological acumen and interpretive insight. Here the author demonstrates how such sources furnish a particular construction of not only the maternal body but also the maternal-foetal relationship with a focus on the textual emphasis on the ambivalence and anxieties concerning birthing and maternal child-rearing.

The role of the mother in Greek tragedy is explored by Angeliki Tzanetou in 'Citizen-Mothers on the Tragic Stage.' As the author admits, this is an ambitious topic, and consequently the article only achieves an introductory discussion or 'overview' (113) of mothers/ motherhood in tragedy and their 'civic import' (97). Some case studies, such as Praxithea from Euripides' fragmentary Erechtheus, provide an excellent taste of where this research can go.3 Similarly, Anise K. Strong's piece, 'Working Girls: Mother-Daughter Bonds among Ancient Prostitutes,' is fascinating, but the material is spread too thinly to sustain a compelling argument. As with Tzanetou, Strong provides some case studies, including an effective survey of Neaira.

Patricia Salzman-Mitchell takes the reader from the works of the Homeric poets to the Augustan age in 'Tenderness or Taboo: Images of Breast-feeding Mothers in Greek and Latin Literature.' Like Tzanetou's article, Salzman-Mitchell grounds the opening of her analysis in some sound discussion of prior scholarship. This is an interesting piece, although I disagree with some of the conclusions (the incestuous scopophilic implications of the scene between Hecuba and Hector at Iliad 22.79-84 and the view that breast-feeding in antiquity was, in essence, a practice aligned with taboo). As with Strong's chapter, the genre of each piece under examination was not taken into consideration in terms of its potential impact on interpretations.

Cleopatra as mother is discussed by Prudence Jones in 'Mater Patriae: Cleopatra and Roman Ideas of Motherhood.' As this is a narrow topic with manageable source material, it works well as a chapter. The contrast between Cleopatra's self-representation as mother to her Egyptian subjects and Octavian's handling of the very same topic within a Roman context is fascinating reading and Jones moves as effortlessly between Egyptian and Roman cultures as she does through her various sources (including coins, statuary and literature). The connections made between the maternal Cleopatra and Isis are also more convincing and smoother in their articulation than the application of a similar methodology (reality or historical ideology expressed via mythology) in the previous chapter, which included a discussion of the suckling of Romulus and Remus by the she-wolf.

'Mater Amoris': Mothers and Lovers in Augustan Rome' opens with Genevieve Lively's discussion of the controversial New York Times article on motherhood by Ayelet Waldman (2005). In 'Truly, Madly, Guiltily,' Ayelet admits that she loves her husband most of all and that outside the core of this par amor are her satellites —their offspring. This modern meditation on the pressures and imposed expectations and societal ideals of motherhood leads Lively to consider corresponding bonds in antiquity. Ideas that Ayelet disowns in her article are reinstated by Lively as far as the ancients are concerned as she demonstrates their privileging of parental over marital relationships. Lively's treatment of good and bad mothers, based on textual and visual materials, is an effective adjunct to the previous chapter on Cleopatra and also provides additional material for consideration in light of Salzman-Mitchell's treatment of breast-feeding mothers.

The Roman world, particularly the literary world, is further treated in 'Per hunc utero quem linquis nostra: Mothers in Flavian Epic' by Antony Augoustakis. The topic here is non-Roman mothers in Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica, Statius' Thebaid and Silius Italicus' Punica. Again, there are some useful connections between this paper and some of the ones that precede it, particularly those by Jones and Lively, which contribute to a strong scholarly cohesion as the collection draws to a close. As the latter two scholars include discussions of mothers as outsiders, Augoustakis discusses the Saguntine mothers of Silius Italicus, mothers who 'reverse the act of founding a city' (207), the story of Hypsipyle in Statius and her own careless mothering skills, and Valerius Flaccus' treatment of the same heroine. The paper draws to a conclusion with a brief look at Flavian art, which, as a collective artefact, completely elides motherhood, relegating it to 'an unimportant theme when compared, for instance, to the Augustan imagery of fertility and abounding motherhood in the Ara Pacis.' (218). This is smooth, concise and insightful scholarship that wrestles with complexities and dichotomies and does not claim to have answered all the conundrums unearthed along the way.

Finally, extending Augoustakis' interest in landscape, Margaret L. Woodhull examines the literal landscape of imperial Rome, or what remains of it, in her treatment of five monuments built by or for women from the Julio-Claudian to the Antonine eras: the porticoes by Octavia and Livia, the temple for the Deified Matidia, the 'lost monuments' regarded as Sabina's 'consecration altar,' and the temple of divaFaustina (226). Woodhull is interested in the inclusion of maternal motifs on the monuments and the deployment thereof over time in relation to 'changing realities of dynastic inheritance' (225). She ably demonstrates that the power of the imperial mother remained strong and stable in succession politics, contra the customary view that such feminine (particularly iconographic) power was on the wane by the second century. Woodhull is an effective reader of these monuments (their material and literary remains) and provides insightful and compelling interpretations. This paper is refreshingly positive in the conclusions it makes and in this sense it was a wise choice to end the collection.

As indicated earlier, at times some of the scholars attempted very ambitious projects and their chapters only managed to survey the topics undertaken. Additionally, more attention needed to be paid to genres and their specificities in some instances. While the contemporary relevancies were useful and thoughtful, they might profitably have been augmented by some feminist theory—something lacking overall from the book, where theory in general was not a compelling component of any of the chapters.4 Nevertheless, the work offers some thoughtful analyses, is well organised and makes a contribution to our knowledge of women's lives in the ancient world.


1.   Nancy Demand, Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Mother (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1988) and The Roman Family (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). Important works also discussed include Rosa María Cid López (ed.), Madres y maternidades: Construcciones culturales en la civilización clásica (Oviedo: KRK Ediciones, 2009) as well as Patricia Watson, Ancient Stepmothers: Myth, Misogyny, and Reality (Leiden: Brill, 1995).
2.   For example: 'should a recent mother disclose in a job interview that she has young children ... Does the public display of motherhood help or harm a mother in a position of power ... ? Also, the question of whether to conceal or reveal publicly the motherly body (in pregnancy or lactation) is of pointed concern for modern mothers.' (3)
3.   Had the author omitted the material on Aristophanic comedy, which opens the article, there would have been additional scope for a more detailed discussion of the main topic.
4.   While reading this collection, I was nostalgic at times for the force of previous collections, such as Feminist Theory and the Classics, edited by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin (London: Routledge, 1993) and painstakingly reviewed by Simon Goldhill in BMCR 94.01.15 and Woman's Power, Man's Game: Essays on Classical Antiquity in Honor of Joy K. King, edited by Mary DeForest (USA: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1993). While these were far from uniformly finessed and sophisticated productions, they had an arresting forcefulness in their unabashed (and at times unwieldy) implementation of a range of feminist theories.

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