I. M. Plant (ed.), Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: an anthology. London: Equinox, 2004. Pp. viii + 268, incl. glossary, appendices, two maps, and two indices. ISBN 1-904768-02-4. US$21.95, UKú16.99.
The Queen's College, Oxford.
With this volume, Plant aims to provide a 'comprehensive collection of texts (in translation) by women from the Graeco-Roman world' (p. 1), ranging from the seventh century BCE to the sixth CE. It should therefore serve as an invaluable sourcebook for the ever-increasing number of courses on women in antiquity and gender studies within the field of Classics and Ancient History, and also for courses on women's literature generally. Plant has made it accessible to the widest possible audience by providing a glossary of people, places, texts, and classical terminology, as well as a general introduction to the transmission and preservation of ancient texts by women writers which are often fragmentary. Each author also has her own brief introduction, providing up-to-date references to further scholarship, and surveying what (little) is known about her life and works. In a sense, the appearance of a book such as this seems entirely natural; it will fill a gap in the market, providing the first English translation of some authors, and standing as a literary counterpart to collections of historical sources such as Lefkowitz and Fant's Women's life in Greece and Rome.[] As befits a book of this nature, its focus is firmly upon the facts -- the primary texts and other evidence -- with no politics or polemic. The reason for an anthology of women writers, we infer, is the existence of courses on women which will make use of it. On one level this cautious, utilitarian approach must be right; users of this book (like readers of many anthologies or collections of sources) are more likely to want to dip in to read certain texts or to find further bibliography on particular writers, than to read it through or to pay more than passing attention to the general introduction, so that any grand theories about women's literature are better advanced elsewhere.[]
This emphasis on functionality over theory is not without its problems, however, in that it leaves assumptions about gender to be uncovered by the reader, or, more dangerously, to be unconsciously accepted as fact by the unsuspecting student. The idea that a body of women's literature, particularly the scattered remains collected here, will have any special distinction or unity on the grounds of the sex of the author alone (as opposed to the cultural construct of gender, which must vary considerably across their chronological, social, and political contexts) is contentious. It is certainly less obvious than the view that representations of women's lives in male- and female-authored sources (as in Lefkowitz and Fant)[] have something in common within (and, to an extent, across) distinct cultural contexts. Even a scholar committed to an essentialist view of gender would struggle to argue such a case from this body of literature. For the most part it survives through being quoted, excerpted, copied and preserved by male readers and writers, and may tell us a lot more about what men thought fitting or acceptable for women to write, or what male writers found interesting or useful to quote from them, than about what women might (typically, or otherwise) have written. To go further, since the literature from which literate women learned to read and write must have been written mainly by men, and men generally controlled which women became literate and to what extent, it would be difficult to identify a distinctly female literary voice. Common themes and modes of expression can more easily be explained by shared literary forms and genres which, in antiquity at least, the essentialist would have to consider male themselves because of the long-established male control of literacy and dominance of all (surviving) literary forms. Of course there are exceptions -- notably Sappho, who was imitated by later female (and male) poets -- but the exceptions still employ these same common structures of language and literary expression. However, all this is not so much by way of criticism, although a greater self-consciousness might have been desirable concerning the underlying assumptions in and reasons for collecting and studying these texts under the rubric 'women writers' (as opposed, say, to collecting examples by men and women of philosophical treatises giving advice to women, or medical writings concerning women, both of which are found in this collection). But it is precisely in the kind of course likely to use this book that such questions should be considered and it is because themed collections of texts have not thus far included many writings by women that for the time being they are most conveniently gathered in this anthology.
The female authorship of many of these texts has been called into question by scholars, in some cases with good reason. In line with his cautious approach, Plant does not make many firm claims either way, but always adverts the reader to the dispute and includes many texts that are certainly falsely attributed to a particular woman. One example of this is the varied corpus of Pythagorean literature, long recognised as later compositions using the names of Pythagoras' pupils and family members to give authority to their arguments,[] and which may therefore just as well be by an unknown man as an unknown woman. Plant is right to include such texts for the sake of completeness, particularly where no other translation is available, but on the issue of female impersonators in his texts he steps uncharacteristically into the fray with a disingenuous rhetorical question, 'Why would a male writer pretend to be a woman?' (p. 2). This is sidestepping the issue; there are many possible reasons, and Plant thinks of some himself. For example, in the case of 'Philaenis' (p. 45), under whose name survives what seems to be an Ars Amatoria for men in Greek prose, he admits that 'prostitute pseudonyms may have disguised work by male writers' (p. 5). One reason in the case of Pythagorean writings advising women on how to behave toward their husbands and to rear children might be to appeal to women readers by writing as if from a position of common experience, rather than appearing to instruct from a position of authoritarian ignorance. Another reason which could apply to many kinds of literature, is the simple pleasure of ethopoeia. It may be that none of the reasons a reader might think of for a male writer to impersonate a woman turns out to be plausible, nor the most likely scenario for any given text attributed to a woman, but this is something to be argued on a case-by-case basis rather than brushed aside in the introduction in this manner.
Any faults in this book, however, must be far outweighed by the service it does in providing accessible translations of and introductions to so many neglected authors, and by its excellent presentation and format. Each short chapter is a self-contained dossier on one author, with endnotes and full bibliographical references in situ rather than in separate sections at the end of the book. The one reservation I have about the format is that it is often not possible to tell from a chapter (and nor is it always obvious from the writer's name or biographical information) whether the writer concerned wrote in Greek or in Latin. This can be discovered from the list of attested women authors (pp. 243-49), but there would be no harm in placing it prominently at the beginning of each chapter. The translation is very accurate, following literal meanings and original word order quite closely (perhaps a little too much so at times, if those without Greek and Latin are among the envisaged readership). The bibliography is admirably up to date,[] and the various chronological tables, maps, appendices and glossary provide enough information to make the book readily accessible to students and non-specialists as well as a reference work and starting point for research on any woman writer of antiquity.
[] M. Lefkowitz and M. Fant, Women's Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation (Baltimore 1992).
[] Contrast J. Balmer's anthology Classical Women Poets (Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1996), which tries, sometimes too hard, to find unity in women's poetry, and is perhaps more problematic because of it: cf. A. D'Angour's review at BMCR 97.1.4 (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1997/97.01.04.html).
[] Cf. H. Thesleff, An Introduction to the Pythagorean Writings of the Hellenistic Period (Abo 1961).
[] C. Neri, Erinna: Testimonianze e Frammenti (Bologna 2003), and B. Gentili and L. Lomiento, 'Corinna, Le Asopidi (PMG 654 Col. 3.12-51)' in A. Basson and W. Dominik (edd.), Literature, Art, History: Studies on Classical Antiquity and Tradition in Honour of W. J. Henderson (Peter Lang: Frankfurt am Main 2003) should be added. It is good to see citation of online scholarship in a bibliography of more traditional medium (at least one article on www.stoa.org/diotima is cited); this site should be flagged up more generally as the starting point for bibliography, course materials, online articles, texts and translations concerning gender studies, women in antiquity, etc. Additionally, Lefkowitz and Fant (n. 1) is there in abridged form (www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr); and the definitive edition of the Vindolanda tablets is at http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk, which includes newer material and corrections not in the book version cited by Plant.