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  • The Rhetoricity of Gender and the Ideal of Mediocritas in Vitruvius’s de Architectura
  • Craig A. Williams

In her interpretation of Vitruvius’s presentation of domestic architecture in Book 6 of de Architectura, Kristina Milnor argues that “the one place we might expect to find Roman women, the house, has been emptied of gender by Vitruvius, leaving it as a strikingly hypermasculine space, built to speak to and about men alone.”1 The incisive formulation raises the question of what we mean by “gender.” In analyses like Milnor’s, the term refers to the physical and symbolic presence of women; if that presence is ignored or erased, there is no gender. In another sense of the word, however, gender refers not only to the range of cultural meanings and social practices having to do with women, but also to the semiotic systems having to do with femininity and masculinity which inform and are intertwined with those practices. In this sense of the term, a hypermasculine space, far from being emptied of gender, is massively gendered. It is in this sense of the term that I propose to explore some of the textual mechanisms of gender in Vitruvius, not just in Book 6, but throughout de Architectura. The exercise will, I hope, illustrate some of the ways in which using gender as an interpretive category can fruitfully inform a reading of a text which, on the surface, has relatively little to say about women and men as such.2 [End Page 227]


Women are by no means absent from the architectural landscapes described by Vitruvius’s de Architectura. There are, for example, the women of the Peloponnesian city of Caryas whose fate inspired the creation of the caryatid (1.1.4–5), the women who process to temples in order to perform rites of supplication (3.3.3), or the mistress of the household (materfamilias) who occupies a room in the Greek-style house accompanied by her wool-working slave women (lanificae, 6.7.2). Yet it is clear that both the world this text describes and the historical setting in which it arose and circulated are characterized by patriarchal social structures in general and, in particular, by male domination of architectura, understood both as intellectual discipline and as practice. At prominent moments such as the prefaces to books, for example, the text reminds its readers that those who teach, write about, theorize, commission, and practice architecture are overwhelmingly men like Marcus Aurelius, Publius Minidius, and Gnaeus Cornelius (1 pref.)—indeed, like Dinocrates and Vitruvius himself (2 pref.)—and that the principal patron of architecture in this world is the paterfamilias (1.1.10, 1.2.9, 5.3.1, 6 pref. 6, 6.5.1, 10 pref. 2; Artemisia of Halicarnassus, to whom I will return below, is an exceptional figure who proves the rule).

Beyond references to women, language of the masculine and feminine appears across the many fields of knowledge which de Architectura communicates to its readers. In the field of mechanics, for example, we find Vitruvius writing of the “male and female” hinges and sockets in a water clock (9.8.11: “masculo et femina inter se coartatis”) as well as of “male” pistons in a water pump (10.7.3: emboli masculi). Like the contemporary English-language “male” and “female” parts in plumbing and wiring, these senses of the adjectives masculus and femina have what semanticists call an “experiential basis” and, to that extent, may not surprise many readers. But precisely for that reason, it is worthwhile to draw out the implicit criterion of this semantic distinction. Here the female is lexically associated with the receptive role in penetrative acts, rather than, for example, as Aristotle puts it (GA 716a23), the capacity to produce new life within itself.

More surprising to some readers may be Vitruvius’s use of gendered language in a passage which blends botanical and medical knowledge. Noting that the best time to cut trees for timber is between early autumn and winter, Vitruvius explains that their wood is hardest at that time of year, since in the springtime trees become “pregnant” (2.9.1): [End...


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