PSCO Presentation: 8 December, 2011

“The Exemplarity of Women”

Matthew Roller (John Hopkins)


In the Roman Republic, men are the canonical social actors. It is their performances, in exclusively masculine spheres of activity that pertain to the (largely masculine) civic community, which command the interest of writers and dominate civic space through the dedication and erection of commemorative monuments. These figures, and their performances, enter the roster of exemplary actors/deeds, to be invoked by contemporaries and posterity as canons of social value against which the performances of others may be measured.

In the Imperial age, women — especially women belonging to or closely associated with the imperial household — increasingly command attention for their own performances. While the domestic sphere is stereotypically the proper domain of Roman women, as opposed to the largely male civic sphere, the domestic sphere gains enormous civic consequence when the household in question is the imperial household. That is to say, in this context domestic virtues and vices become civic ones, and thus imperial women, along with what come to be regarded as Republican-era "precursors," become increasingly visible and significant as social actors and moral agents in their own right.

In this seminar I present some texts from the early empire that deal with women as exemplary figures, and that define some of the arenas and standards of female performance. In particular I wish to explore the social and moral dynamics of lists of exemplary women, which are found in all three of the primary texts presented here. The idea of the "virtue wheel" is perhaps valuable: for this, see the article by Carroll, and an application of the idea in regard to male actors in the article by myself. The section from Jerome's Adversus Iovinianum is interesting as a later, Christian exploration of the exemplarity of women, and of lists of exemplary women; it also is the major witness to a lost work of Seneca entitled "on marriage" (De Matrimonio), on which Jerome seems to have drawn heavily for the content and structure of his argument.

Meeting and Dining

All are welcome! Those wishing to dine together before the seminar will meet at 6:00 pm in the Cohen Hall Second-Floor Lounge to go next door to the food court in Houston Hall.

Suggested Reading

M. Roller, “The politics of aristocratic competition: innovation in Livy and Augustan Rome.” In W. J. Dominik, J. Garthwaite, and P. Roche, eds., Writing Politics in Imperial Rome (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 153–72.

Carroll, N. (2002) “The Wheel of Virtue: Art, Literature, and Moral Knowledge,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60: 3–26.

Primary texts

Seneca, Consolatio ad Marciam (lots of women, and men, adduced as exemplary for not excessively mourning the death of a son)

Valerius Maximus 4.6, "on conjugal love", and 6.7, "On wives' fidelity toward their husbands" (two shortish sections with lists of admirable women)

Jerome, Adversus Iovinianum, secs. 41-49

PDF copies of these articles are available on request.