- Roman Girlhood and the Fashioning of Femininity by Lauren Caldwell
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015
Pp. vi + 188. $103.00.
In early Christian studies, we often encounter young women through the eyes of older men, be they bishops or self-styled influencers urging women to choose a future of chaste virtue, or hagiographers extolling their subjects’ past lives of [End Page 660] sanctity. Lauren Caldwell’s book on Roman girlhood refocuses our historical lenses to present us with a detailed account of their experiences and challenges on the cusp of womanhood during the early empire. What results is a unique scholarly contribution to our understanding of Roman life. Roman Girlhood ranks among a cluster of recent books on family and childhood in late antiquity. The girls of this study are predominantly elite. Wherever possible Caldwell notes the circumstances of women in other social classes. (In this review, unqualified mentions of “women,” “girls,” and “men” refer to free, elite women, girls, and men.) Caldwell writes a history that highlights the agency and life paths of people whose labor and property undergirded Roman society, yet who often are relegated to the margins of history. Simultaneously, she exposes how widespread and embedded were the structures maintaining the power and privilege of men.
The Introduction contextualizes and provides demographic information. The average woman in the first to second centuries typically married in her mid- to late teens, with elite women marrying earlier. The age of marriage was due to social factors, not fertility requirements to replenish the population through childbirth.
Chapter One, “Formal Education and Socialization in Virtue,” asks how girls learned feminine virtue. Philosophers saw a role for instruction in shaping girls’ moral character. Advanced formal education, however, was seen as masculinizing and incompatible with feminine virtue; formal education trained people for public life, not for futures as wives and mothers. Only some masculine virtues were deemed appropriate, and even then within narrow parameters. Courage earned praise, and even comparison to Amazons, but typically when shown while protecting chastity. Papyri and gnomic sayings in schools presented negative images of educated women. Sources, thus, reveal anxiety about the formal education of girls, even though we know many did receive such training. Other women in the household were expected to model feminine virtue for the younger generations.
Chapter Two, “Protecting Virginity,” addresses situations facing girls due to the familial and social anxieties over their virginity. Caldwell examines law codes, Greek novels, moralizing texts, declamation exercises and speeches (controversiae), and other literature. This period sees a shift in the locus of authority for punishing stuprum from the household (the paterfamilias) to the state. Concern for a girl’s “marriageability” was the driving factor, not her agency or consent. Consequences for the man rested on whether a woman’s reputation was restored, rendering her marriageable. Personal revenge killings were illegal, as was the older Roman tradition of a father executing his daughter if she had been raped or had sex. The moralizing texts, however, do recount stories of such killings set in the Republican past. These accounts expose anxieties about women’s virginity and about the shift to state power. The narratives aim at both “confirming and restraining paternal power,” particularly in his role of defending the stability of the household (68). Girls were expected to protect themselves against harassment and assault through their dress, decorum, and activities. Declamation exercises exhibit more concern for relationships within the household (a father consoling his daughter, for example). They show less concern for her agency than the legal codes, which newly afforded young women the authority to voice the accused [End Page 661] man’s punishment: marriage or execution. Although her community did not always abide by her wishes, this role established the virgo (a free, unmarried young woman) as a “legal and ethical subject” (50).
Chapter Three (“All Kinds of Exercises Fitting for Girls”) addresses physical care, including diet, exercise, medical treatments, sexual health, and childbirth. Caldwell’s sources are primarily medical texts, which often portray the early adolescent girl as physically unstable due to sexual feelings and physical changes. They also betray a tension...