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  • Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life
  • David Fredrick
Kristina Milnor . Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life. Oxford Studies in Classical Literature and Gender Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xii + 360 pp. Cloth, $99.

It is the often-difficult task of social history to explain how a given institution (e.g., marriage, education, the army) changed across different types of cultural expression (e.g., legal and moral prescriptions, representation in visual art and literature) and in lived experience. In this fruitful and sometimes brilliant study, Kristina Milnor explores the repositioning of women during the Augustan period with respect to the distinction between public and private life. Over the course of an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue, she develops the argument that the Augustan period "invented" private life or, more precisely, new strategies for representing private life, in order to make the imperial system look like a return to traditional Roman family values. In making this argument, Milnor looks back to the Republic and forward to Nero; she assembles a wide range of literary and material evidence and makes judicious use of theory. Milnor is primarily concerned with textual representation; as she puts it at one point, the volume is "a study of representation rather than reality" (40–41). However, she does include substantial sections on architecture and space, and in the end it is not clear whether Milnor sees architecture in the Augustan period as a mode of representation or as something that by reshaping behavior necessarily transformed private life in lived experience.

The introduction uses Vergil's simile of the housewife spinning in Aeneid 8 to set up the much-debated distinction between "public" and "private" in Roman culture. Milnor notes that the original meaning of privatus during the republic is narrowly oppositional, "a man without a political or military position," but broadened during the empire to mean more generally, "anyone . . . who did not hold the ultimate 'public' role of emperor" (20). Hence privatus and "domestic" do not mean the same thing: "privatus is necessarily a political word," while "the domestic . . . functions as a kind of moralized privacy, a concept whose strength lies in its allegiance to supposedly transcendent and apolitical ethical truths" (27). Women emerge during the Augustan period as the preferred symbols of this "moralized privacy," and while the physical and social circumstances of Roman women were highly disparate, the representation of female virtues remains consistent: "the domestic ideal was a construct which did not 'truthfully' represent any woman's life, even at the same time as it purported to represent them all" (38).

In the first chapter ("Reading and Writing Gender on the Augustan Palatine"), Milnor argues that Augustus' Palatine complex is "engendered" by the prominence of Niobe, Cleopatra, and the Danaids in its decorative program, pointing to the problematic display of female virtue in the princeps' house. Because of Augustus' unprecedented political position, the "private" behavior of the women in his house became a kind of public performance, a tension that persists in Augustus' larger treatment of the city. In Tristia 2, Ovid addresses Augustus as a fellow author whose "text" is the city of Rome, and just as women [End Page 605] have misread Ovid's poetry licentiously, they frequently appropriate Rome's temples and porticoes for sexual liaisons. Milnor observes that this disingenuous argument at least recognizes women as active and resisting readers of texts, noting further that imperial women (Octavia and Livia) are paradoxically empowered as "authors" of significant public spaces precisely because they were seen to be expressing politically disinterested virtues. The chapter concludes with a look back at Cicero's de Domo Sua, which casts Clodius as a feminized abuser of public space in his appropriation of the Portico of Catulus for his shrine of Libertas; the restoration of Cicero's house, meanwhile, represents the restoration of the Roman state. Milnor argues that this anticipates Augustus' use of his own house as a symbol for Rome, and thus as the site for a paradoxically public performance of the traditions of Roman domesticity.

The second chapter, "Domesticity and Display in Vitruvius' de Architectura," begins with two significant questions. Why, if...


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