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  • Pliny's Women: Constructing Virtue and Creating Identity in the Roman World
  • Eleanor Winsor Leach
Jacqueline M. Carlon . Pliny's Women: Constructing Virtue and Creating Identity in the Roman World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. ix, 270. $85.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76132-1.

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Amid the current surge of scholarly interest in the Younger Pliny, the topic of women calls out for attention, and Carlon's book handles it authoritatively with a felicitous combination of traditional and new approaches to the Letters. While her readings appreciate and often add to the writer's long-recognized value as a source of constructive information on the society and culture of the first and second centuries A.D., they also engage with the currently popular interpretive slant on his letters as the vehicle for embodying his future reputation and self-image. Carlon's traditional, historicizing discussions reveal much more than previous studies have disclosed about the situation of elite women: the extent of their property holdings, their roles in inheritance, their involvement in children's education, and how many take charge of family affairs upon losing their husbands. The self-representational analysis reminds us that Pliny is crafting his portrayals of women to reflect upon his own ethical conduct. Thirty-three women receive mention in Pliny's letters, some only in passing but others recurrently. As Carlon points out, a perceptible decorum governs Pliny's inclusion of women; in one way or another all those about or to whom he writes have histories contingent upon their associations with men.

After an initial introduction to Pliny's life and to current interpretive methodologies, Carlon treats Pliny's women in five chapters each of whose titles highlights an aspect of Pliny's self-representational agenda. "Enemy of Tyrants" involves profiles of women connected with the so-called Stoic resistance to the principate; the women of "Model Protégée" are related to his most valued political mentor, Corellius Rufus, recently deceased. Sixteen women in "Champion of the Vulnerable" are those to whom he has given either legal or financial aid, including some members of his wife's family. In "Creator of the Ideal Wife," Carlon paints a composite portrait of conjugal virtues extrapolated from portraits of four women at four stages of life. "Arbiter of Virtue" treats women who seem in one way or another to transgress social proprieties or conventions: an adulteress tried in court, an octogenarian dowager with her own troupe of mime actors, and the Vestal condemned and executed by Domitian.

A reader can learn much from the prosopographical background within which Carlon has contextualized Pliny's praises of the "Stoic" women seen in a tradition extending from the wife of Thrasea Paetus, opponent of Nero, to his contemporary Fannia, the widow of the executed Helvidius Priscus. His admiration for their "Stoicism" is political, not philosophical. Through his sympathy for these women and their allegedly martyred husbands and fathers, Pliny develops his own desired image as an enemy of tyrannical rule with implications of occasional peril. Yet Carlon's real revelations here are things that Pliny does not tell: how he surpresses active, even conspiratorial activity, by the Helvidii, in order to highlight the treachery of informers and [End Page 367] the brutality of punitive actions. A second appearance of Helvidius' widow Fannia as the iconic matron of the "Wives" chapter shows Pliny coopting normally masculine laudatory language to construct an impressive, admiring portrait of this steadfast, courageous noblewoman now nearing death through exhaustion for her public service role of attending upon a Vestal Virgin's mortal illness. Letters concerning legacies in the chapter on advocacy expose women's liability to have the short end of testamentary negotiations, even if not wholly defrauded. Here, as Carlon observes, Pliny both showcases his personal integrity in the face of varied forms of duplicity and also compensates for his own losses of blood kin by adopting surrogate family members. At the outset of the...