Imperial Women of Rome. Power, Gender, Context

Boatwright, Mary T.
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Belinda Washington, Independent Scholar

As Boatwright has already demonstrated in her excellent article on the “silent” imperial women of the Second Century[1], there are many interesting observations that can be gleaned about the lives of such figures through close examination of non-literary evidence. The best parts of Boatwright’s book build on this previous work. Boatwright has set herself the ambitious task to provide an overview and analysis of imperial women from the early Principate down to the end of the Severan dynasty with a focus on their relationship with Rome in particular. As Boatwright argues in the introduction, analysis of the evidence for these women can show how they “illuminate Roman history and afford us glimpses of fascinating and demanding lives”.[2] By necessity, this requires examination of a broad range of material evidence, since the literary attestations are, as Boatwright herself describes, “usually inadequate and often tendentious”.[3]

The chapters are divided into seven themes and then each follow an internal chronological order. Chapter one focusses on the first empress Livia, while in the remaining chapters Boatwright considers the lives of imperial women by the themes of law (chapter two), within the imperial domus (three), religious activities (four), their physical imprint on the city of Rome (five), statuary and reliefs (six) and military and provincial travel (seven). There are a number of useful maps, tables and images, with which Boatwright engages directly in her detailed examination of literary, numismatic, legal and epigraphic evidence. By the nature of the extant evidence a lot of the discussion is focussed on the best attested women, Livia and Agrippina the Elder. The focus on Livia includes Boatwright’s useful discussion of the senatus consultum de Pisone patre (SCPP) (pp. 42–44) which is an important epigraphic source for the presentation of Livia and other female members of Tiberius’s imperial domus. Like some other evidence which Boatwright includes in her discussion, the SCPP has been examined before in previous scholarship but mainly within its specific temporal context, while here it forms part of Boatwright’s wider ranging analysis of the Principate. Such discussion therefore makes the book a useful reference for future students of different dynasties. Throughout all the chapters, Boatwright also builds on important scholarship, such as the studies of specific themes by Flower, Varner and Kienast and the biographies of imperial women by Barrett, Brennan and Levick.[4]

When the evidence presents the opportunity, Boatwright offers insightful broader comparisons across dynasties. Such comparisons are particularly effective in chapters five, six and seven where Boatwright focusses, respectively, on public attestations (mainly in Rome), statuary, and women’s travel outside of Rome. In chapter five, Boatwright’s detailed analysis of material evidence is strengthened further by her contextualisation of monuments within Rome’s topography to draw attention to particular locations, for example the buildings in the area of the Campus Martius (pp.189–195).

In chapter six, on statuary, Boatwright engages with the recent discovery of a statue of Matidia the Younger at a theatre in Sessa Aurunca (in central Italy), which Matidia herself funded and which also celebrated a number of Matidia’s female relatives (pp. 241–245). This self-promotion and display of wealth was all the more remarkable because Matidia was not the wife of an emperor (she was Trajan’s great niece and half-sister to Sabina, the wife of Hadrian), nor did she ever receive the title Augusta. Boatwright’s analysis of this statue, again carefully considered within its local context, comes at the end of a chapter which otherwise reinforces the image of a restrained presentation of women within the city of Rome itself (with any public display featuring women confirming their deference to the Emperor within the imperial domus). The section on Matidia’s statue therefore provides a satisfying contrast to imperial women’s promotion in Rome and indicates the resources and publicity such women could access, the evidence for which has however rarely survived.

Chapter five, on public attestations, perhaps best demonstrates the book’s strengths and weaknesses. The close examination of the material evidence and comparisons across dynasties in part two of this chapter (pp. 185–210) showcase the best features of the book. Part one of the chapter (pp. 171–185), which is about women’s public appearances in Rome, is less effective. This first section mainly comprises a description of the limited surviving evidence of imperial women at funerals and imperial adventus and triumphs without much analysis due to the paucity of the evidence.

Each of the chapters are divided into short subsections, which will make the book a very useful reference for future students. However, the brevity of each subsection also at times curtails Boatwright’s valuable insights. For example, the patronage of Plotina (Trajan’s widow) of the Epicureans in Athens (pp. 207–210) is only briefly mentioned in the conclusion of chapter five. Due to the number of imperial women covered in the book, the reader will have to rely on Appendices 1 and 2 to identify the various women mentioned. However, as Boatwright herself acknowledges there are some omissions in the appendices, such as Domitia Lepida (an aunt of Nero who is not a well-known imperial woman) whose inclusion would have been useful since she is part of the discussion in chapter two (pp. 72–73, especially note 114). Such omissions may present difficulties for those new to the subject.

These criticisms are both minor and cosmetic and should not detract from the overall value of the book. My main criticism is that there is not more space given to Boatwright’s excellent analyses of material evidence. Boatwright herself acknowledges the challenges presented by the surviving evidence and that the relative lack of women in the Flavian dynasty disrupts the chance to trace any continuous development across the dynasties (p. 263 and p. 286). Nonetheless, the book should serve as an important reference not only for those interested in imperial women but also in the development of the representation of the imperial domus across the centuries.

Boatwright concludes her book with a series of questions for further studies and I hope this book will serve as a launchpad for looking at the roles and agency of imperial women more broadly, rather than in select biographies. In particular, the book reveals scope for more work on the reception of imperial women outside of Rome, their involvement in the imperial cult and comparisons with their elite women counterparts.

[1] Mary T. Boatwright, The Imperial Women of the Early Second Century A.C., in: American Journal of Philology 112.4 (1991), pp. 513–540.
[2] Boatwright, The Imperial Women, p. 1.
[3] Boatwright, The Imperial Women, p. 6.
[4] Harriet Flower, The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture, Chapel Hill 2006; Eric Varner, Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture, Leiden 2004; Dietmar Kienast, Werner Eck and Matthäus Heil (eds.), Römische Kaisertabelle: Grundzüge einer römischen Kaiserchronologie, 6. edition, Darmstadt 2017; Anthony A. Barrett, Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome, New Haven 2002; T. Corey Brennan, Sabina Augusta: an Imperial Journey, New York 2018; Barbara M. Levick, Julia Domna: Syrian Empress, London 2007. Boatwright (p. 359 notes 53) disputes Barrett, Livia, pp.36–38, that the Augusta travelled with Augustus on his eastern tour.

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