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On Knowing and Not Knowing

Kristina Milnor

Sarah Pomeroy’s ground-breaking 1975 book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves ends with a chapter entitled “The Elusive Women of Classical Antiquity” – a conscious or unconscious tip of the hat to Moses Finley’s famous 1965 article “The Silent Women of Rome”. Both Pomeroy and Finley are interested in our lack of knowledge about ancient women’s lives, where it comes from and whether it might be redressed. Pomeroy opens her chapter by noting Cassius Dio’s assertion that, at Rome in 18 BCE, there were more men among the upper classes than women. Assessing the truth value of this statement, as Pomeroy discusses with characteristic seriousness and insight, is an issue at once real and representational – that is, it is necessary to determine the actual historical influences on the survival of girls and women at all stages of life, and to examine the processes by which women’s very existence is systematically excluded from the historical record. One question which Pomeroy does not ask, however, is why Dio might have chosen to impart this piece of information where he does; in other words, not just, why are women absent? but why are they present in the historical record at specific times and places?

            One reason why Pomeroy may not have considered this particular question is that she identifies herself as a social historian – emphasis on the historian – and is emerging from a scholarly tradition, which sees historical presence as the unmarked category. If something happened, and we are to know it happened, its traces (however exiguous) must be able to be seen, identified, and studied. On the other hand, even the most optimistic of feminist historians must admit that women will never have as much purchase on the ancient record of the past as men do, for a whole host of reasons well delineated by Pomeroy, Finley, and others. Thus, once we have told the stories of female actors which are there in the ancient evidence but have been suppressed by modern prejudice , we are left with telling the stories of ancient prejudice, explaining why there are so few stories to be told. In the same way that the history of homosexuality sometimes regrettably becomes the history of homophobia, women’s history sometimes devolves into the history of misogyny. This is a difficult situation, and one which in the years since the publication of Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, has been tackled in a number of different ways.  One is to see the project of women’s history as challenging not just the content of our ancient histories – both the ones written then and the ones written now – but their epistemology. Women’s history forces us to ask not just what we know to have happened, but how we know it, what structures of knowledge allow us to see it and not other things.

            In this paper, then, I take Pomeroy’s use of Cassius Dio’s statement about the relative number of men and women in Rome as a starting point of exploration of such epistemological issues. First, I look back to the original historical event which Dio is recording, the passage of the Augustan social legislation, and discuss the ways in which it itself was built on a foundation of “knowledge” about women’s lives. Next I reflect on Dio himself, and the reasons why the introduction of this “fact” at this stage in his narrative is useful to the historian. Finally, I consider how this and other attendant data around the social legislation have been used to write Roman men and women’s history, from antiquity to the present day, up to and including my own scholarship on the topic.  In this way, I will discuss the evolution of this historical fact and the ways in which Pomeroy and other women’s historians have contributed to our understanding of both knowing and not knowing as an aspect of ancient history. 

Session/Panel Title

40 Years of Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women’s History in Classics

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