Monday, December 23, 2013


Alessandra Valentini, Matronae tra novitas e mos maiourm: spazi e modalit√† dell'azione pubblica femminile nella Roma medio repubblicana. Memorie. Classe di scienze morali, lettere ed arti, 138. Venezia: Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 2012. Pp. xxxi, 315. ISBN 9788895996400. €45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Celia E. Schultz, University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The study of Roman women has come a very long way in the last 40 years. For the most part, we've moved past collections of biographies that jump from the mythical ladies of the early Republic to Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, to the Vestals, ending with a selection of the more entertaining empresses. We distinguish between representations of women and their historical reality. We have detailed studies of the realia of domestic life; of weddings and marriages and death rituals; of prostitution; of the religious opportunities, including priesthoods, open to women; and of their treatment by the law. As we strive to bring the picture of Roman women into sharper focus, one difficulty still to be overcome is that, given the paucity of material, we are often forced to make a mosaic image out of evidence disparate in time and provenance. Except in the most limited of ways, development over the centuries, let alone over the decades, is very hard to trace.

In Matronae tra novitas e mos maiorum, Alessandra Valentini strives to overcome this difficulty, arguing that the late third and second centuries BCE is a time in which we can see the women of Rome, or rather the matrons of Rome, become increasingly visible: the period of great societal change sparked by the depletion of the male population in the Second Carthaginian War was also a period of change in the lives of Roman women. The second century BCE has, of course, long been acknowledged as a critical period in the development of the Roman Republic, and it is often identified (by the Romans themselves and by modern scholars) as the period when the cracks that would eventually splinter Roman society in the mid-first century BCE first appeared. Valentini's original contribution is to trace how the public role of women developed in the period when public life in general underwent dramatic changes. The table of contents is included at the end of this review.

Following an introduction that offers an excellent outline of the history of the study of Roman women, the book is divided into three parts. The first section comprises a single chapter that first sketches the ideal to which Roman women were held. This is exemplified by the famous, brief epitaph for Claudia (CIL 12.1211, incorrectly cited as 12.2211) who loved her husband, bore two children (one of whom predeceased her), was charming and modest, kept her house, and worked wool. The ideal matron who stays at home and draws no attention to herself is then contrasted with the active public role matrons took in the effort to repeal the Lex Oppia in 195 BCE. Valentini takes Livy's presentation of the senatorial debate as generally true to what was said more than 150 years earlier (p.11) and the bits of Cassius Dio preserved in Zonaras as fragments of the actual speeches delivered (p. 21); here, as elsewhere, she is unconcerned about the likelihood that the event has been recast over time and that extent versions are probably influenced by the events of our authors' own day.

The second and largest section of the book devotes a chapter to each of three venues for a female presence in public life: religion, the court system, and funerals. In the first of these, Valentini eschews a discussion of the scope of female involvement in the religious life of Rome in the second century BCE and instead offers an argument that Roman aristocratic matrons were formally and officially organized into an ordo matronarum. Her main evidence is the episodes of the importation of the Magna Mater in 204 BCE and the suppression of the Bacchic cult in 186, with additional support drawn from the handful of episodes of collective female activity in the Republic: the intervention of the Sabine women in the Roman-Sabine war, the all-female embassy to Coriolanus, the opposition to the Lex Oppia (largely repetitive of the first chapter), and the protestations against the triumvirs in 42. Without question, Valentini builds a very strong case for a vibrant social network among married women of elevated social rank, but she pushes this too far in her claim that this was an official, institutionalized body during the Republic.

The chapter on women and the law courts (unhelpfully titled Le Donne Come Soggetto della Vita Civica) offers an insightful and valuable treatment of accusations of veneficium and stuprum / probrum. It is often overlooked that in the suppression of the Bacchic cult and in later, public trials for poisoning matrons were punished by their families. (Valentini rightly points out that the accused are always matronae, never mulieres.) The public nature of the trials indicates that these were domestic crimes with ramifications for the state, but it is not until Sulla that the punishment of those convicted of veneficium was undertaken by the state. In all these cases, the accusations were made against groups of matrons: Valentini suggests it is the involvement of multiple women that prompted the Roman state to intervene in what would otherwise be a private matter.

The final synthetic chapter demonstrates the close relationship between lamentation and female public action. Because female mourning was part of the mos maiorum, it was a socially acceptable form of feminine public display. This appears to have been true even when there was no funeral at which to mourn. Tradition records several instances from the early Republic in which groups of women successfully intervened in public life, but only after they had put on mourning dress. In other instances, such displays were unwelcome. During the third century, the Roman senate sought to curtail widespread feminine displays of mourning in times of crisis. Valentini identifies the third century as the period when aristocratic women were permitted to have a laudatio at their private funerals. By the end of the second century, as funerals for aristocratic women became increasingly visible, public events, they could be used to promote the gens as a political unit in much the same way as the funerals of aristocratic men could be.

The third and final section of the book comprises a series of engaging biographies of women attached to the family that dominated Roman political life in the period under consideration, the Cornelii Scipiones: Pomponia, mother of Africanus; Aemilia Tertia, his wife; Cornelia, his daughter and mother of the Gracchi; and Sempronia, daughter of Cornelia, sister of the Gracchi, and wife of Scipio Aemilianus. One wishes that they were tied more closely to the earlier sections of the book. The reader is left to divine for herself how the lives of these women reflect or instantiate the developments Valentini has already traced.

Reading Matronae tra novitas e mos maiorum is a varied experience. The writing is unnecessarily verbose; wrong citations, misspellings and erroneous publication dates throughout the notes and bibliography, and typographical errors in the main text in Italian, English, Latin, and Greek make it a book that one needs to work with cautiously. Despite the difficulties, the book offers a number of very interesting, innovative, and convincing interpretations of the role of women in the life of Rome in the mid-and-late Republic. There is much of value in this book. Perhaps the most valuable thing Valentini gives her reader is the demonstration that the trends effecting wider Roman society in a specific period effected Roman women as well.

Table of Contents

Matronae tra novitas e mos maiorum
Relazione della Commissione giudatrice, VII
Sigle e abbreviazioni, IX
Introduzione, XI
Parte I: L'immagine e il modello: la matrona romana tra III e II secolo a. C.
Capitolo 1: Per una definizione del ruolo della donna tra III e II secolo a. C., 3
1.1 L'elogio di Claudia (CIL 2211) [sic], 3
1.2 La Lex Oppia, 8

Parte II: Categorie evenemenziali per la definizione di un ruolo pubblico della donna romana tra III e II secolo a. C.
Capitolo 2: Il culto e la res publica: La vita religiosa delle donne, 23
2.1 Matronae primores civitatis: l'introduzione del culto di Cibele, 23
2.2 Facinorosae mulieres: la repressione dei Baccanali, 33
2.3 L'introduzione del culto di Cibele e la repressione dei Baccanali: elemento di confronto, 43
2.4 Ordo matronarum e conventus matronarum: l'organizzazione matronale, 44
Capitolo 3: Le donne come soggetto della vita civica, 83
3.1 Quaestiones de veneficiis: i processi per avvelenamento, 83
3.2 Casi giudiziari: i processi per stuprum e probrum, 101
Capitolo 4: L'esperienza del lutto, 119
4.1 La partecipazione femminile al lutto, 125
4.2 La morte della matrona, 158
4.3 La donna come antenato, 178
4.4 Elementi evolutivi nella partecipazione femminile al funus, 197

Parte III: Per una definizione del ruolo pubblico della donna tra III e II secolo a. C.
Capitolo 5: Le donne degli Scipioni, 201
5.1 Pomponia, 201
5.2 Emilia Terzia, 206
5.3 Cornelia Minore, 222
5.4 Sempronia, 245
Considerazioni conclusive, 249
Referenze bibliografiche, 259
Tavole, 291
Indice analitico, 301
Indice delle fonti, 309

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