Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life

Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life

Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life

Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life

Synopsis

The age of Augustus has long been recognized as a time when the Roman state put a new emphasis on 'traditional' feminine domestic ideals, yet at the same time gave real public prominence to certain women in their roles as wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. Kristina Milnor takes up aseries of texts and their contexts in order to explore this paradox. Through an examination of authors such as Vitruvius, Livy, Valerius Maximus, Seneca the Elder, and Columella, she argues that female domesticity was both a principle and a problem for early imperial writers, as they sought toconstruct a new definition of who and what constituted Roman public life.

Excerpt

These days, in Europe and America of the early twenty-first century, we tend to take the language of private morality as a natural, normal aspect of political discourse; we now expect our civic leaders to make repeated reference to the virtues of ‘traditional’ homes and families—even while they take action in their public and private lives which undermines the very values they espouse. It was this, in part, which led me to this project: I was struck by the eerie coincidence between the terms in which I had been taught to understand the moral restoration of Roman society under Augustus and those which I was reading in the newspaper every day. I had long believed one of the great credos of the feminist movement, that attention needs to be paid to the private sphere and the work, primarily done by women, which allows it to function. the attention which it was receiving from both right and left as ‘family values’, however, was not what I had had in mind. the family, I knew, was an institution, and thus had all of the merits and difficulties of other institutions. Yet as far as I could tell, the family being described by politicians—in its perfect selflessness, absolute acceptance, and unbreakable bonds of loyalty and love—did not describe the familial experience of anyone I knew, or anyone I had ever met. This in turn led me to wonder, not just what politics lay behind the invocation of domestic values as a civic concern in the modern day, but what lay behind it in the age of Augustus. As a historian, I had long been unsatisfied with the explanations which are traditionally offered for the loud trumpeting of traditional values in early imperial ideology; as a feminist, I distrusted the motives of Roman patriarchy in celebrating women’s roles within the home; as a feminist historian, I wanted to know more about the conditions under which ancient Roman women were living and what changes, if any, had accompanied the shift from republican to imperial governance. and as a citizen of modern . . .

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