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Reviewed by:
  • Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Jennifer Burek Pierce
Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome. Edited by I. M. Plant . Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. viii, 268 pp. $49.95 (cloth); $21.95 (paper). ISBN 0-8061-3621-9; 0-8061-3622-7.

Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome presents works in translation by fifty-five classical female authors. This simple declaration of the book's content is at once accurate and yet incomplete, because while this volume is an anthology, the editor acknowledges the difficulty of establishing the identities of some authors, noting that pseudonyms may hide the work of male writers. Still, Plant contends the material contributes to understanding women's authorship because "if the community could believe a text was by a woman, then it provides an example of what women were thought to be capable of knowing and writing" (2). Further, a number of the texts translated for this volume exist only as fragments, so that some of these representations of women's words are brief glimpses at what it meant to be a literate woman in early Greek and Roman society. Through introductions to each author's texts that describe efforts to establish authors' identities, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome also foregrounds some issues of scholarship and textual study as well as providing access to historic texts by women. [End Page 569]

Other reviews, including Allison Keith's 2004 assessment in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, have testified to the place of this volume in classical studies, describing its value in making these female-authored texts available and its uses in the curriculum. Owen Hodkinson, in a 2005 issue of Scholia Reviews, articulates the significant difficulty of determining, in some cases, an author's sex, in effect rejecting Plant's neat resolution of such problems by declaring these works as representative of women's ideas and skills. The aliterary quality of the translations has seen some comment as well, though fairness requires that any such criticism acknowledge the editor's own introductory statement that his interest was in conveying meaning rather than preserving poetic phrasing. Given that the vast majority of texts presented in this volume are poetry, one might nonetheless take issue with this decision.

A question that remains, then, pertains to the value of this work for scholars interested in library history. In short, it is the historical perspective that Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome provides regarding women's literacy. The texts in this volume portray women as writers, as readers, and as participants in discourse communities. These translations allow those interested in questions about women's literacy in historic context to consider early demonstrations of the creation and consumption of texts. As Plant states in introducing one such early female author's advice treatise, "it offers evidence for the literacy of women and the sharing of books" (69).

A particularly interesting feature of classical women's writing that emerges from this anthology is the not inconsiderable number of texts that deal with medicine and science, with women's health and that of their families. While it may be tempting to read these scientific and medically oriented texts as signs of women's advances toward a more equal footing with men, excerpts from a conduct manual translated by Plant suggest the ways that concerns with health remain firmly connected to traditional sex roles in these cultures: "On the whole a woman must be good and orderly; and one could not become such a woman as this without virtue. . . . The virtues of the body are health, strength, good perception, and beauty" (84–85). Thus women's writing, reading, and even knowledge about health, while indicating education and participation in the production of discourse, may also reinforce conservative cultural norms. Plant's volume aptly reveals the sometimes paradoxical situations of women writers in early Greek and Roman society.

Jennifer Burek Pierce
Indiana University, Indianapolis


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pp. 569-570
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