Friday, June 6, 2014


Claude-Emmanuelle Centlivres Challet, Like Man, Like Woman: Roman Women, Gender Qualities and Conjugal Relationships at the Turn of the First Century. Wien: Peter Lang, 2013. Pp. 211. ISBN 9783039119127. $66.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Alex Dressler, University of Wisconsin-Madison (

Version at BMCR home site

The first book of Claude-Emmanuelle Centlivres Challet is a readable, creative, and insightful contribution to the study of women, gender, and the relations between the sexes in the Roman world. At 160 pages of text and seven tightly organized chapters, the book makes an original contribution relevant well beyond its convenient scope, even as it provides a pretty serviceable introduction to questions of sex and gender in ancient Rome. With a good summary of scholarship (from Beauvoir to Foucault through Hallett and Halperin: 4-7), Like Man, Like Woman fulfills its subtitular promise to treat "gender qualities and conjugal relations at the turn of the first century [AD/CE]." Not obvious from the subtitle or the table of contents is the special place of Pliny the Younger throughout and Juvenal's sixth satire at the end, not to mention the development and deployment of a novel and elegant theoretical innovation. This the author terms "dual discourse," and it merits consideration by all students and scholars of the subject from now on. Because of this, rather than provide a chapter-by-chapter summary, I will, with the exception of the overview of the contents in the next paragraph, discuss the book's conceptual contribution, the examples that it uses to illustrate this, and the resulting significance for the interpretation of sex and gender in the ancient world.

Furnishing much of the social context in the earlier chapters, Pliny the Younger receives a more extended treatment in Chapter 5, followed by Juvenal who receives the lengthiest discussion of any author in the book in Chapter 6. Before that, Challet provides a concise introduction in Chapter 1, and then, always with a good amount of Pliny, explores the social context of Rome, Flavian in the capacious sense, in Chapters 2-4. These ultimately preliminary chapters explore relations "Within the Family" (Chapter 2) and then, in public, "Intellect" and "Morals" (Chapters 3-4). The former succinctly demonstrates the secret Roman recognition of equal competencies in men and women, and the latter, to like effect, offers a catalogue of gender qualities and moral activities from money-handling to murder. One of the main themes that emerge in the course of the book is the vicarious power that women achieve in the role of witness to their husband: semi-public counterpart to his private comportment, women are judged for all their behavior, public and private, even as this provides them with leverage against their husbands. Illustrating this throughout are passages from Statius and Martial, Tacitus and Quintilian, and even Neronian Musonius Rufus. It is, in the end, however, Pliny and Juvenal who primarily exemplify the book's compelling theory of "dual discourse."

Early in the book, Challet establishes that women and men actually share the many "gender qualities" that the book catalogues—courage, self-control, economic commonsense, a taste for domination, conspiracy, jealousy, avarice, lust—all in the dialectic of dual discourse. This concept describes the capacity of complex texts to establish two sets of claims about women: general and particular, and maybe even ideal and real. In addition to reflecting "Roman tradition," the first—general, ideal, dominant—dimension of discourse ("voice") presents women as circumscribed by, inferior to, and different from men. The second, minor voice elaborates individual characteristics of particular women, real or represented. Equivocation on this last point is, I'll suggest below, a source of strength as well as weakness in the study.

The clearest examples of dual discourse come from the relatively straightforward texts of Pliny. Thus, in matters "financial, legal and political" (pp. 46-51), Pliny praises women as though they acted in accordance with the ideal, traditional standards of Roman women—which is to say, as though they took no part in the ideally male spheres of finance, law, and politics; yet Pliny does this because, in individual instances, women do engage in all these activities; they do so, moreover, in ways respectful, even conservative, of the social order. Why?

Challet' s answer is partly functionalist and partly aprioristic, even scientific!

In functionalist terms, Pliny's treatments of individual women assume one general and ideal set of standards, which would in fact prohibit women from behaving in the way that Pliny praises, even as he celebrates them for exactly that. Taking initiative in "masculine" business, by a kind of Lysistrata- or Lucretia-effect, women transgress the dominant order precisely to maintain it. In contrast with Lysistrata or Lucretia, the women in Challet do not transgress their traditional roles in order to restore them; rather, their transgression is the condition of stability of the traditional roles, which are in turn the condition of women's freedom to transgress. Transgression is thus not prior to tradition; rather, tradition and transgression alternate in any text's dual discourse, which thus reflects the "delicate equilibrium" of Roman gender relations in the period (106): "The parallel presences of the first and second voices [of dual discourse] can thus be explained by the various uses to which genders need to be put." And so (106): "The danger of women threatening men's dominant position can be avoided by bribing or placating the potential rebels by giving wives a certain amount of leeway, room for manoeuvre and opportunities for self-determination."

These two concepts, room for manoeuvre and female leeway, are central to the study, and Challet's explanation of their dynamic allows Romanists to put their finger on something that they will have long suspected but never seen formally demonstrated before, namely that, throughout Roman history, the contradictory proliferation of images of women, in its inherent failure to be exhaustive, provided women with a choice of identifications that would become their freedom.

Such is the functionalist explanation. With it, Challet also explains the negative aspect of the dominant voice of dual discourse (here is where Juvenal will prove the pièce de résistance): faced with the possibility of women acting beyond the scope of the positive reflection of their husbands that they present to society, Romans sought "to curb displaced behaviour via mockery, scorn, revilement or rejection to the margins of society" (106).

At this point, playing the individual interests of social agents off of one another to account for the total functioning of society in a basically value-neutral way, the functionalist explanation skews optimistic and finds itself, it seems without realizing it, in the midst of the old "ethnographer's dilemma": articulated for the study of subalterns in the ancient world by Amy Richlin, the ethnographer's dilemma is the choice that the modern interpreter faces between pessimistic and optimistic interpretations of the otherwise ambivalent prospects of the past.1 Thus, where one might see a relative value neutrality in Challet's functionalist interpretation, Challet marginally introduces a scientific principle to accompany Roman deployment of "mockery, scorn, revilement or rejection" against women. The limit to the nastiest aspects of dual discourse is "a fundamental term of the human equation," namely "affection" and the Roman husband's fear of alienating that of his wife. Alongside Pliny's professions of concern for his wife's wellbeing, here we also encounter "[a]nother fear…however, Pliny's fear of abandonment," appearing as either "a literary pose or a fear inspired by sincere love" (105). Challet implies that sincere love is the case when we find in a footnote: "Affection has a known biological substrate, the hormone oxytocin," which, "since the chemistry of the brain is unlikely to have changed in the last two thousand years," makes it "safe to assume that this feeling must have been experienced by Romans" (106 n. 90).

I pick on this (marginal) turn in the discussion for two reasons. First, it is the point at which the value-neutral, glass-half-empty hermeneutic approach to the ethnographer's dilemma becomes its opposite. Second, the glass-half-full hermeneutic of optimism, grounded in the presumption of ancient affection, comes to the fore in the longest chapter of the book, the challenging analysis of Juvenal's sixth satire, as neither masculinist screed nor experiment in authorial explosion, but actually a kind of reactionary-cum-countercultural marriage counseling on the order of Musonius Rufus and Nussbaum's Lucretius (136): "What emerges from this series of vignettes is a picture of total incomprehension between the spouses… The male-female relationship is shown lacking in rules guiding the couple, lacking in communication, and as the hotbed of unhappiness experienced by both sides."2 The target of Juvenal's apparent misogyny in this poem is thus "neither men nor women nor marriage as such but male-female relationships…and, at the root of it, mutual affection as a premise ensuring a traditional ideology of genders" (134).

Affection enters the discussion as a means of grounding the book's apparent preference for love as the basis of cultural production in the case of these wide-ranging texts. Wisely, Challet equivocates on the character of this love, shifting the burden of proof for those who would deny its power to the modern (109): "We will never know whether Pliny really loved Calpurnia in the modern sense of the word, but it is as much of an impossible task to try to define a single modern sense of the word." This is true, but the lack of a "single modern sense" of love arises partly from the lack of a single modern experience, and this would include any experience of love unalloyed by its ostensible opposites in Challet's interpretation, namely the aggression and domination, or at least ambivalence, that typify attitudes to women in Roman literature with or without dual discourse. 3

Nevertheless, apart from the introduction of this suppositious ground of affection, Challet's equivocations may ultimately be a source of strength. They allow the book to evade the unknowable and focus instead on these texts as themselves divided, as representations in their own right and in the dynamic of dual discourse, between representation (the general, ideal, traditional, dominant voice) and reality (the particular). This is an important move in the history of the study of such texts: it displaces the problematic of the ethnographer's dilemma from the modern practice of "ethnography" to the products of the past in their own right. In the complexity of dual discourse, these cultural productions present two equally plausible representations of the data of experience, optimistic and pessimistic, and with this insight Challet shows that the Romans were also their own "ethnographers," confronting their own dilemma, and so Challet wrests the Roman, man or woman, from the objectifying processes of "ethnography."

Finally, in terms of the history of interpretations of gender and relations between the sexes, Challet also allows students of ancient sexuality to have their Foucauldian cake and eat it too: notoriously, after asserting that such texts were nothing more or less than an "ethics of men made for men," the French philosopher contented himself with exploring only "the way in which the husband would be able to form himself as an ethical subject within the relation of conjugality."4 While effectively acknowledging this limitation in the discourse of the past, by developing the tools for working through it with dual discourse, Challet makes a productive contribution alongside the more destructive approaches that started with Simon Goldhill's critical deployment of the historian of thought in Foucault's Virginity (Cambridge 1995). For this reason, not to mention the deft interpretations of individual texts and the more global provocation to find a place for love in our interpretation of Latin literature, Like man, like woman is necessary reading for anyone interested in its still important subject. 5


1.   In Feminist Theory and the Classics, ed. A. Richlin and N. Rabinowitz (New York 1993), 272-303.
2.   DRN 4.1037-1287, with M. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton 1994), 160-66.
3.   For the same approach to a related move in social theory, see Judith Butler's response to Axel Honneth in "Taking Another's View: Ambivalent Implications," in Honneth, Reification (Oxford 2008), 97-119 at 108f.
4.   History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Care of the Self (New York), 1986: 83, 80 where note also Foucault's instructive comment of the evidentiary value of such texts: "They should be taken not as the reflection of a situation, but as the formulation of an exigency, and it is precisely on this account that they form a part of reality."
5.   Errors are few: at 13 n. 29, Keane 2012 is not listed in the bibliography; at 89, the words "intellectual successful" appear reversed; at 140, "letting" is used without the necessary complement "go."

No comments:

Post a Comment