Power behind the curtain

Agrippina - Matrona Docta

February 25, 2000

Why educate women? Here is a topic for male dinner debate. Emily Hemelrijk's study helps us construct our own: Sidonius Apollinaris, looking back from the 5th century to the good old days when women held candles for their husbands as they studied; Pliny the Younger at the beginning of the 2nd, nauseatingly winsome about the docility of his young wife, who learnt his work by heart, set his verses to music and attended his recitals behind a curtain; Seneca in the mid-1st regretting that his father's old-fashioned strictness prevented his mother getting more than a smattering of philosophy. In favour there is an obvious argument that does no harm to male dignity: education quietens wild women, making them agreeable helpmeets. From the other side a quick riposte: education gives women ideas of their own that they insist on expressing, even when their husbands are present (Juvenal's complaint).

It is not illegitimate to hold that imaginary dinner party. Hemelrijk's volume is avowedly not about changes over the three-and-a-half centuries that it covers (she has special sections for development over time). The titles of her chapters - on the social position of upper-class women, their education, opportunities and impediments, its aims, their activity as patronesses, their writing in verse and prose - make that clear. It is a survey of a state of play reached in a society that resisted change, the more for constantly talking of it.

Hemelrijk sees beyond the diners' arguments, which mask another issue: the education of elite women came in with 2nd-century-BC controversies about conspicuous expenditure. Educated women were an ornament to a family and, unlike tall mansions and grand plate, would not bring down the wrath of the censors.

The author examines not only education but literary patronage exercised by women, their compositions in verse and prose, the standards expected of them, and possible differences between their language and that of their menfolk. She provides convincing reasons for the disappearance of so much; an archive of what remains would have been welcome. Cornelia's reproving letter to her radical son Gaius Gracchus should be included, although it looks as if later publicists snatched her for the conservative cause; it shows what could be credited to a woman.

It is a limitation that this book austerely confines itself to the ancient world. No parallels are sought, no glances at Victorian values or the society of Sei Shenagon. This is to be regretted in an area which has benefited from input from sociology and anthropology, and which has even been exploited in the interests of change.

But the author's researches, attested in the massive apparatus of notes, will make her book a first resource within her field.

Perhaps approved literary activity did keep elite women such as Octavia and Antonia out of trouble. Certainly Agrippina the Younger broke the rules about genres suitable for women: not elegy but memoirs, the province of a Sulla or a Caesar, memoirs read and made use of by the greatest historian that Rome produced; and when Agrippina listened behind a curtain it was to senatorial debate. A woman descended both from Augustus and from Livia and presented in the sculpture from Aphrodisias on the cover of Anthony Barrett's book as the power behind two emperors, was in disputed territory and endangered precisely because her power was inherent.

Her murder by Nero less than five years after he came to power, the son who had to reign since she could not, is proof of that, and shows that the original title of the book in this country, Mother of Nero , was too narrow and underestimated her ambitions; Agrippina was not content to retire from politics once Nero became emperor. A powerful woman implied an autocratic dynasty. Hence her struggle against Seneca's attempt to turn Nero into a constitutional monarch helped to make her a political liability to him, and an indispensable threat for Seneca to use against him.

Barrett's interpretation, presented in scrupulous detail, has a slightly simpler picture, favourable to his heroine, of a woman destroyed by the monster she had created, and the claim on the jacket, that "the first five years of Nero's reign, while she was still alive, were the most enlightened", neglects the in-fighting that made the helpless tiro Nero so acceptable to the Senate during those years.

There is an appetite for biography, stronger among the general public than among scholars, who doubt whether the materials are sufficient and have misgivings about methodology. We should be content to note public gestures and honours and the form they took - but Barrett has a chapter on sources and a catalogue of literary and material evidence. It is indeed meagre and there is a pair of introductory chapters before Agrippina herself emerges ("The younger Agrippina could hardly have been unaware of such happenings"). But Ronald Syme's brisk "there is work to be done" has to suffice throughout ancient history. Hemelrijk too has had to make economical use of her materials. As to legitimacy, Barrett's book examines a character of prime interest to Tacitus, and we are entitled to share that interest.

It is many years since "women in antiquity" became "gender studies". These volumes belong to the older stream and are piquantly related, although at first they seem profoundly different. Hemelrijk analyses a state of play in society, Barrett relates with relish and verve the ups and downs of an individual making catastrophic history.

One deals with a polite world of leisured accomplishments, of Julia Balbilla on tour with Hadrian in AD 130 and her three insipid Greek poems inscribed on the leg of the Memnon statue, the other with the deadly game of imperial politics, of which the sculptures of Agrippina at Aphrodisias give us a vivid snapshot. Yet they tell the same story, of women behind a curtain that the strongest could not pull down.

Barbara Levick is an emeritus fellow, St Hilda's College, Oxford.

Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the Early Empire

Author - Anthony A. Barrett
ISBN - 0 415 208607 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £14.99
Pages - 330

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