- Reproducing Rome: Motherhood in Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, and Statius by Mairéad McAuley
McAuley’s book is an excellent addition to the growing interest in Roman women’s representations in literature that attempt a deeper engagement with the complexities of literary representation and investigate the way in which it refracts social structures and ideologies. Although it is hard to summarize this rich and complex work, McAuley, using feminist psychoanalytic theory among other critical frameworks, argues that mothers, often represented as repressed or oppressed figures, serve as vehicles for the articulation of patriarchal and imperial ideology. Yet in these same texts mothers transgress or resist patriarchy, thus offering a critique of the social norms they are called upon to uphold. Furthermore, McAuley cautions against viewing maternity as a stable category and demonstrates repeatedly how mothers “dismantle the very certainties maternity has been used to shore up” (35). The book’s greatest contribution is that it makes the case for motherhood as a category that simultaneously reveals and defies patriarchal norms, while it also advances a host of nuanced and original readings of the role of mothers in Roman epic and tragedy. [End Page 582]
The book begins with an extensive introduction that lays out its methodology. It continues by tracing the concept of motherhood in Vergil and Ovid. Seneca occupies the next part: a discussion of his Consolatio ad Helviam Matrem precedes an examination of Medea, Phaedra, and Troades. An analysis of mothers in Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, followed by an epilogue, concludes the volume. The book also contains a bibliography, an index locorum, and a general index.
McAuley examines the representation of mothers in Vergil’s Aeneid, building on A. M. Keith’s argument regarding the association of women with war and revenge in epic (Engendering Rome: Women in Latin Epic [Cambridge 2000]). She proposes that Vergil’s epic “works . . . hard to elide the mother from view, while also returning, obsessively, to her at moments of crucial poetic investment” (66). Disrupting maternal voices repeatedly intrude in the epic narrative even as their loss is portrayed as necessary for civilization and empire-building. The chapter on Ovid offers an astute analysis of mothers such as Alcmene, Niobe, and Althea. Niobe’s story, for example, constitutes “an exploration of anxieties not only about Roman expansion in general, but more specifically about fecundity, matrilineage, and female political agency in relation to Roman imperial power, recalling, for example, the importance of the mother’s line in Augustus’ own Julian lineage and of the female line for his succession plan” (157).
Turning to Seneca, McAuley’s reading of the Consolatio ad Helviam is one of the highlights of the book. Seneca’s Helvia displays a devotion to her son analogous to the loyalty expected of men in the public sphere. This “manly” mother emerges as a potentially confusing category, suggesting the fragility of masculine identity and the precarious foundations on which it rests. A discussion of Seneca’s Medea follows, deftly demonstrating that the heroine’s rationale accords with the Roman legal system’s views on motherhood and divorce, whereby parenthood is defined through patriliny alone. In denying her motherhood and killing her children, Medea pushes this rationale to its extreme and exposes its absurdity. Seneca’s Phaedra similarly depicts paternal authority and legitimacy in crisis by asking: “If a man is the only ‘true’ parent, does that make all mothers stepmothers?” (253).
Three chapters on Statius explore the figures of Jocasta, Atalanta, and Thetis, arguing that their portraits offer key ways of understanding the epic genre. This “maternal poetics” thwarts Vergil’s linear teleology by repeatedly disrupting generic norms: the mothers in Statius’ epics emphasize what is absent from the Aeneid, amor, women, and mothers. Above all, they fully expose the ideological character of the maternal ideal.
Methodologically, McAuley’s use of theory is extensive. Feminism, psychoanalysis, and philosophy are productively deployed, accompanied by careful attention to intertextuality and each text’s historical milieu...