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14 - Manly and Monstrous Women: (De-)Constructing Gender in Roman Oratory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Allison Surtees
Affiliation:
University of Winnipeg, Canada
Jennifer Dyer
Affiliation:
Memorial University of Newfoundland
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Summary

INTRODUCTION

In his anecdotal history collection Memorable Deeds and Sayings, Valerius Maximus records the cases of a trio of women orators who were inhibited neither by their sex nor by modesty from pleading legal cases on the public stages of the Roman forum and lawcourts. Though women were not legally barred from acting on their own behalf in trials, their foray into the male space of the Roman courtroom as orators was a gender-transgressive act met with ambivalence, even ridicule. The appearance of the three women orators in Valerius is exceptional not only for the rarity of the phenomenon at Rome but also for the paucity of accounts of women in recorded rhetorical history. Valerius reports that one of these women, Maesia of Sentinum, secured her own acquittal from unspecified criminal charges through her display of courage and rhetorical skill, but was condemned for her ‘usurpation of the male role’ (Marshall 1990). Maesia‘s performance in court represents a bending of the gender binary so alarming to her (male) audience that she is recorded for posterity as ‘Androgyne’, a blending of the Greek words for ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Harsher criticism was directed at Gaia Afrania, who thwarted the convention of relying on male kin to represent her in court and argued cases herself on multiple occasions. Afrania's repeated violation of gender norms and her assumption of the male role are so egregious that Valerius condemns her as a monstrum, putting her beyond not only gender categories but beyond what is regarded as human. The jurist Ulpian, writing in the third century ad, blames her example for a magistrate's edict barring all women from representing others’ causes in court (D. 3.1.1.5). By contrast, Hortensia, daughter of the jurist Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, receives praise from Valerius and the later Appian for her speech against the war tax on Roman matrons, but only insofar as her close identification with her illustrious father allows her to transcend her gender and be seen as his living image. Whether censured or praised, the women in all three cases are presented as masculinised and gender non-conforming at best, or inhuman at worst, for breaching the gendered lines of public self-representation in political and legal matters.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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