Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Mairéad McAuley, Reproducing Rome: Motherhood in Virgil, Ovid, Seneca and Statius. Oxford Studies in Classical Literature and Gender Theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. x, 449. ISBN 9780199659364. $150.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Chinn, Pomona College (christopher.chinn@pomona.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


This excellent book analyzes motherhood in Roman epic, tragedy, and other works. The book is divided into three parts. The first addresses presentations of motherhood in Vergil and Ovid, who are taken to be representative of the Augustan Age. The second part is devoted to Seneca, with chapters on motherhood in the Consolatio ad Helviam and in Senecan tragedy. The third part examines Statius' Thebaid and Achilleid. There is a theoretical introduction and a brief epilogue, both devoted to the problem of the recovery of feminine voices within male-authored texts written in a highly patriarchal society. McAuley's book attempts to redress the lack of attention paid to mothers and motherhood (as opposed to women generally) in Roman literature, and presents itself as a "supplement" (9) to Augoustakis' recent book on motherhood in Flavian literature.1

The Introduction (Chapter 1) sets the parameters for the study (especially indicating the reasons for including or excluding various works of Roman literature), provides a survey of feminist literature on classical authors, and discusses the notorious ideology of women in the Augustan Age. The book proposes three interpretive themes. The first is the literary representation of mothers in select Roman literature (mostly epic). Here McAuley employs sophisticated intertextual analyses to show the continuities and ruptures in the concept of motherhood in these works. The second theme is the historicist concern for the social, political, and cultural contexts that underpin the literary representation of motherhood. The final theme is the general problem of how far we can recover the feminine in Roman literature, and what theoretical approaches will be useful in this regard. I will return to these themes at the end of the review.

In Chapter 2, McAuley examines motherhood in the Aeneid and, more briefly, in the Georgics. After analyzing Dido—a "symbolic" mother who engages in a form of symbolic incest (58–61)—Creusa, Venus, and various other mother figures in the Aeneid, McAuley concludes that mothers represent a challenge to the dominant, teleological narrative of the poem, namely the establishment of the patrilineal connections between the mythic past and the current Augustan regime. Specifically, Vergilian mothers attempt to sidetrack the patrilineal narrative. Dido, for instance, attempts to prevent Aeneas from leaving Carthage, and hence from founding the Julian line. Euryalus' mother instills doubt in the Trojan warriors and thereby weakens their will to continue the fated Italian war. Vergil, however, reveals these motherly subjectivities only briefly, and immediately shunts them offstage in a kind of repression of the (dangerous) unconscious. This is symbolized in the figure of Euryalus' mother, whom Ascanius abruptly silences by sending her inside (82– 4).McAuley's analysis of Cyrene in the Aristaeus episode at the end of the Georgics, by contrast, offers the picture of a mother who demonstrates the creative and productive potential of the relationship between mothers and sons. These two variants of motherhood thus complicate our understanding of Vergilian poetics of the feminine and offer rich possibilities as models for Vergil's literary successors.

In Chapter 3, McAuley argues that Ovid's Metamorphoses connects its prominent portrayal of women and mothers with its deconstructive play with genre and stylistic convention. For example, McAuley's reading of the birth of Hercules demonstrates that Ovid invites us to view Alcmena's labor as generically comparable to Hercules' Labors (123–9). Similarly, Deucalion's famous act of interpretation in Metamorphoses 1 (that "bones" and "mother" mean, respectively, "stones" and "earth") demonstrates the strange interaction between male, symbolic, and paternal modes of interpretation and the maternal-material reality that this kind of interpretation acts upon. In the end, McAuley argues that Ovid's well- known rhetorical excesses may be understood as a kind of "maternal poetics of excess, a poetics that flirts obsessively [with] psychic, social, and aesthetic limits and the incipient threat of their explosion" (165). McAuley's theory provides a valuable explanation for the peculiarites of Ovid's style.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Seneca's Consolatio ad Helviam. McAuley argues that the complex mother-son relationship implied by the text serves to open up unique vantage points on Roman constructions of gender. McAuley claims that Helvia is given a kind of "honorary masculinity" with which she may deal with her sorrow at Seneca's exile. Helvia thus represents a kind of reflexive affirmation of masculine good citizenship. In this way Seneca is able to assert his political claims for return: his own good citizenship is guaranteed by his mother's virtuous behavior.

The long Chapter 5 examines Seneca's Medea and Phaedra. McAuley argues that the Medea dramatizes the tensions between women's various social roles: mother and wife, daughter and sister. One way to read the tragedy is to see that Jason, by evoking Roman ideas of marriage and divorce, forces Medea to make the choice between her roles of mother and wife. As mother, Medea is the caretaker of Jason's children. Through the logic of Roman marriage, the terminology of which appears throughout the play, Medea loses legal control of the children once she is divorced from Jason. Hence Medea may erase her status as mother (however personally difficult this might be for her) and justify the murder of the children both on this negative ground, and according to the logic of her obligations to her father and brother (which she violated in the "Argonaut" portion of the myth). The seeming paradox of Medea-as-mother killing her children achieves a kind of overdetermined conceptual coherence when viewed against the backdrop of the contradictions within Roman cultural expectations.

The second part of Chapter 5 argues that Phaedra embodies the tension between the murderous and amorous stepmother figures in Roman literature, in particular how relations between stepparents and stepchildren were viewed by Romans as incestuous. McAuley suggests that the prevalence of the two types of deviant stepmother in literature point to an underlying anxiety about such figures in Roman culture. McAuley then goes on to argue that the Senecan Medea lurks intertextually in the background as a model for Phaedra2: Medea is literally Theseus' stepmother, and the intertextual memory of her actions in Corinth not only activates the stereotypically cruel stepmother figure in literature, but also brings up the sexual politics of Seneca's Medea itself. McAuley concludes that both plays reveal a crisis of Roman "paternal institutions and structures of authority" (258).

Chapter 6 looks at Seneca's Troades and focuses primarily on Andromache's strange reasoning with respect to her "Sophie's Choice" (Hecuba also receives some attention but seems less important for the overall argument). McAuley proposes that Andromache's dilemma between respecting her dead husband and saving her son is best understood again in terms of Roman wife/mother problem. It would thus be anachronistic to view Andromache as un-maternal given this context. McAuley then embarks upon a long theoretical excursus that details a psychoanalytic model for understanding the "absent presence" of Seneca's Troades in the later tradition. Whereas the Greek tragic tradition plays the role of the father figure in writers from Shakespeare to Freud, the Roman tragic tradition lurks in the background like the forgotten mother figure. In the Freudian "narrative," Sophocles and Shakespeare are specifically mentioned "characters" whereas Seneca plays a more hidden role (via intertext) akin to the suppressed mothers in the Aeneid.

In Chapter 7 McAuley makes the bold claim that Statius, in exploiting the latent potential of mother figures already present in the Aeneid, undermines the Roman epic tradition and its relentless search for origins (e.g., the succession of fathers and sons in the Aeneid and the origins of the cosmos in the Metamorphoses). Jocasta, in particular, both represents Vergilian pietas (she attempts to reconcile the brothers and to counteract Oedipus' desires for war) and recalls famous examples of mothers from Roman historical myth who intervene in their sons' affairs (Cornelia and Veturia). Yet at the same time, Jocasta fails. While she employs the traditional epic strategy of using her body (breasts and womb) to try to convince her sons to desist from fighting, her strategy is doomed to fail because her body is marked by the incest that caused the Theban troubles in the first place. McAuley points to this circular narrative form as the maternal counterpoint to the teleological, patrilineal narrative of the Aeneid.

Chapter 8 looks at the mother-son relationships between Thetis and Achilles in the Achilleid, and between Atalanta and Parthenopaeus in the Thebaid. Like Jocasta, both Thetis and Atalanta attempt to intervene in the inexorable progress of epic narrative (and the epic tradition), and both ultimately fail. Thetis is foiled by the Homeric "father" narrative (Achilles will go to Troy to fight and die), while Atalanta fails to teach her son how the conventions of epic work: beautiful young warriors must inevitably die. At the end of the chapter, McAuley proposes an intriguing reading of Statius' famous epilogue to the Thebaid. The prevalent way of reading Statius' portrayal of the relationship between the Thebaid and the Aeneid construes Statius as the Bloomian "weak poet," subservient to the Vergilian "father" of the Roman epic tradition. Instead, we might understand the Thebaid as "following behind" the Aeneid like a mourning mother (i.e., Creusa in Aeneid 2) who grieves for her "lost child" (i.e., the Aeneid) itself.

The brief Epilogue re-establishes the fact that motherhood has been an underappreciated aspect of Roman literature, and suggests avenues for further study (in particular, the works McAuley does not cover in the book). McAuley repeats her rejection of modern trans-historical and essentializing feminist theories that erase historical difference. Instead, she prefers the metaphor of "releasing" feminine voices within texts while respecting their historical situatedness.

The book is in general very persuasive and offers a number of innovative ways of reading Roman epic and tragedy. Understanding Dido's rhetoric against the background of ancient ideas of "maternal impression" adds to our understanding of her actions and motives. Uncovering the Roman political and cultural underpinnings of Seneca's portrayal of Medea (as opposed to the famous Euripidean precedent) is also very successful. And McAuley's reading of the Thebaid as maternal epic is extremely provocative. Overall I think McAuley offers several steps forward in the feminist understanding of imperial poetics.

Strangely enough, the book raises questions of intentionality for me. Are the suppressed "maternal uprisings" in the Aeneid a fully unconscious reflection of cultural tensions, or does Vergil incorporate them as part of a "two voices" strategy? Or is it something in between? When Seneca "ruptures" (218) the divide between myth and Roman marriage conventions, is he doing this on purpose? Is Statius consciously trying to establish a maternal poetics of epic, or are the latent forces of the maternal, embedded within the tradition, spontaneously bursting forth?

Finally, let me return to the three themes of the book: (1) the literary history of motherhood in Vergil, Ovid, Seneca, and Statius; (2) the historicist concern for the Roman cultural contexts that produced these literary representations; and (3) the application of modern feminist theory. McAuley frequently integrates the first and second themes successfully. We may cite again the analysis of the Aeneid in light of the theory of "maternal impression" found in ancient medical and philosophical writers. Another example is the comparison of Statius' mothers with the historical-mythical figures of Cornelia and Veturia in Chapter 7. Yet another is the evocation of Roman marriage conventions in Senecan tragedy. McAuley also does well with the first and third themes in certain chapters, for example in her employment of feminist interpretations of psychoanalysis to interpret Seneca's portrayal of Andromache (Chapter 6) and in her theoretical interlude on the "uterine metaphor" in the analysis of the Thebaid in Chapter 7.

However, if "releasing feminine voices" is the goal, then it would seem that we should like to integrate all three themes at once. In particular, I would like to see a combined historicist and feminist-theoretical analysis of all these works. But because of her (well-advised) ambivalence about the latent essentialisms in much feminist theory, McAuley is often unwilling to press her theoretical analyses very far. Several such analyses reach tentative conclusions, while others shade into formalism, with largely metapoetic conclusions. It would be a disappointing conclusion if the hermeneutic problems associated with the recovery of feminine voices are insurmountable, but perhaps we must rest content with what McAuley is able to offer.3


1.   Antony Augoustakis, Motherhood and the Other: Fashioning Female Power in Flavian Epic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
2.   I should note that McAuley takes a strictly intertextual approach here, and therefore does not pay much attention the chronology of the plays. The intertext involves not only the two Senecan plays, but also Ovid's Medea which may be a model for both (206). McAuley advocates reading Seneca's Phaedra "through" (228) the Senecan Medea as a valuable intertextual exercise.
3.   Typographical errors: p. 12 "pushes mothers [to] centre stage"; p. 165 "inge-nio" should be "ingenio"; p. 224 unusual orthography of "mat(t)er" leads to a missed hyphen; p. 226 "meo.in" should be "meo in"; p. 231 "he contends that <the> murderous mother".

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