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Re-presenting Reality: Provincial Women as Tools of Roman Social Reproduction

Shelley Haley

This paper focuses on how Livy uses the Carthaginian noble woman Sophonisba not only as a way perpetuating a cultural stereotype in regards to the Romans’ greatest national enemy but also as a morally didactic and generally essentialist warning to control the behavior and agency of Roman women. In so doing, we can glean a sense of the moral imperatives involved in Roman gender relations and the propagandists of the Augustan age as they passed these imperatives on to future generations of Roman men, and through them to Roman women. Consequently Sophonisba, and, by extension, all provincial women become tools in the moral agenda of the Romans and there is no real interest in the social location or particularity of women outside the Roman social construct and framework.

The theoretical approach I use in this paper is that of critical race feminism (hereafter CRF.) This critical stance grew out of critical race theory (CRT) which was first developed in the field of jurisprudence and law. After a brief explication of CRF, I show how it is an important framework for evaluating race and gender constructs in ancient Rome.  However, for the purpose of this abstract, I will give a brief overview of CRF and how I will employ it in examining Livy and Sophonisba.

Quite succinctly, CRF is a feminist intervention within CRT. In addition, CRF constitutes a race intervention in feminist discourse, in that it necessarily embraces feminism’s emphasis on gender oppression within a system of patriarchy.  CRF, like feminist theory, draws on notions of formal equality, and dominance/inequality. In addition, and most importantly for this paper, the narrative methodology (i.e., story-telling) figures prominently in CRF, just as it does in feminist discourse. While CRF has strands that derive from CRT and feminism, it also has made a major analytical contribution in its position of antiessentialism. CRF provides a critique of the feminist notion that there is an essential female voice, that is, all women feel one way on a subject. CRF highlights the situation of women of color, whose lives may not conform to an essentialist norm. A concept linked to antiessentialism is what has come to be called intersectionality.

In her critique of the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon’s “dominance theory,” CRF theorist Angela Harris states, “Despite it’s power, MacKinnon’s dominance theory is flawed by its essentialism. MacKinnon assumes, as does the dominant culture, that there is an essential ‘woman’ beneath the realities of differences between women…In dominance theory, black women are white women, only more so” (Angela Harris, “Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory,” 36. In Adrien Katherine Wing, Critical Race Feminism: A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2003).

Employing the antiessentialist framework of CRF, I argue that in order to advance his moral, nationalistic and patriotic agenda, Livy is strategically essentialist in his narrative about Sophonisba, and in ignoring her multiplicative identity, Sophonisba becomes a Roman woman, “only more so.” Indeed, we learn more about the crisis in the social construction of gender in the late Augustan age than we do about the construct of gender in Carthaginian ruling classes.

Session/Panel Title

Provincial Women in the Roman Imagination

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