The Classic Woman?

Mary Beard looks at the new ways of thinking about what life was like for women in Greece and Rome.

The book is written in the belief that the subject is interesting ... Its history is this. I have been trying for thirty years to write a book on the late Roman Republic, and am only deterred by the knowledge that the period is one which I still do not fully understand. A few years ago I tried a new attack on the period; I tried to approach it through its women ... The result was a paper on 'Roman Women in the Late Republic', which I read at so many branches of the Classical Association that the reading of it became not merely a habit but a disease. Cauterization was the only cure; it had to be published. The Editors of History Today were good enough to translate it into their own kind of impeccable English and to publish it ... After that, Mr Colin Haycraft of The Bodley Head bullied me into taking these women and turning them into a book.

These words come from the preface of J.P.V.D. Balsdon's Roman Women: their History and Habits, first published thirty years ago; and they show just how much studies of women in the ancient world have changed since the early 1960s. Would anyone write like that now? Surely not. It is not that Balsdon was uninterested in women's history (after all, he wrote a book on it); it is more a question of – what kind of interest? Would anyone today write about women's 'habits'? (Is that not the language of rabbits and hedgehogs and wildlife television programmes?) Would anyone imply that it was a good deal simpler to understand women than the political problems of the Late Roman Republic? Would we not hesitate before talking about 'turning (women) into a book'? This is the language of packaging, of specimens, of nineteenth-century colonial anthropology – getting all those weird savages safely dissected on the printed page.

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