Facing the Facts

An antiquated take on antiquity

Charles Kaiser/Flickr
Charles Kaiser/Flickr

The Missing Thread: A Women’s History of the Ancient World by Daisy Dunn; Viking, 512 pp., $35

In The Missing Thread, alongside the female stars of classical antiquity, like Sappho, Cleopatra, and Boudica, British classicist Daisy Dunn introduces us to a selection of arresting minor figures: the swimmer who disabled ships during the Persian Wars, a painter and a historian (their works now lost), the Roman civil warrior Fulvia, and many more. But the book’s central contention—that women “shaped the course of ancient history” in “tangible ways”—brims with problems.

Dunn’s starting point, to which she keeps returning, that textile production allowed women the means to do creative and empowering work, finds little support in what we know or can infer about the millions of female slaves and confined wives and daughters in Greek and Roman domains who toiled over carding baskets, spindles, and looms—not to express themselves or to build enterprises in their own right, but simply because they had no choice. Women complained when they dared. In Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates, for instance, women are quoted telling the male head of their household that they resent working at a textile business he set up for them, while he does nothing.

Dunn’s sole specific example of a woman player in history known for making cloth is the first Roman imperial consort, Livia, whom she describes as the “power behind the throne.” And indeed, the historian Tacitus shows her as a puppeteer of the aging emperor, a suspected poisoner, an unbearable shrew, and a ruthless kingmaker. Male authors impute to nearly all famous women much more power than they likely had, thereby putting on them wildly disproportionate responsibility for the brutality of male regimes. Dunn seems to take Tacitus largely at his word with regard to Livia’s power (if not her crimes). But the available facts say otherwise. Livia was expropriated from her husband, a quelled opposition leader, and given by him in marriage to Octavian three days after the birth of the couple’s child. The public ceremony served as a powerful warning from Octavian to the Roman aristocracy to fall in line. Afterward, Livia, together with her stepdaughter and step-granddaughter, found herself enacting a farce of old-fashioned domestic subservience, making traditional garments under the patriarch’s beady eye. The younger women could not endure such a life, rebelled, and were punished with annihilating exile. Livia’s rewards for knuckling down excluded any latitude not convenient to Octavian, and the perks that came her way during her years as a symbol of service to his regime were not secure during her long widowhood, when her mighty protector was gone. Livia had her will nullified and her memorial honors denied; that is, she ended up with less freedom and dignity than an ordinary matron.

Such outcomes were cemented in place by custom. Married off in their teens and almost never treated as full human beings, even the most privileged women could neither get out of the system nor rise safely within it. And like Nabokov’s Lolita, they had nowhere else to go.

I cannot single out Dunn for relying on narrative paradigms that are thousands of years old, but the denial of the truth has to stop. Whereas other oppressed groups push for a full account of their sufferings and losses—an account that allows for mourning, anger, and a resolve to pursue a different kind of future—women are routinely swindled of their real history. If we look back honestly, even someone as able and important as Cleopatra appears rather pathetic, her treatment at men’s hands leading to a choice between public abasement and suicide. She was excluded from critical, male-led deliberations and deals and betrayed by her sexual and childbearing maneuvers. She likewise lacked essential military training. The fantasy that women can transcend such brutal disadvantages is helpful to misogynists’ ongoing assertion that the gender does just fine—in fact, too well.

The realm of culture was not as thoroughly dismal for women as that of politics. There were, for example, a number of female poets, including one uncontested genius, Sappho. And yet, Dunn is uncritical of the tradition, which may have originated centuries after Sappho’s lifetime, that Sappho pioneered women’s institutional education (instead of simply having a cultivated social life that included young women—and her verses may exaggerate even that). Dunn would have done better to stress the literary achievement visible in the fragments: a new stanza form still in use, word choice and imagery to keep you awake at night, a challenge to Homer’s vision of war as the thing to love most in the world, and other signals of acuteness and courage.

In her insistence that women were shapers of the course of history, Dunn sometimes plays fast and loose with evidence. Of the purely legendary Lucretia, for example, she writes, “It could even be argued that, without [her], there would have been no Roman Republic at all.” What is more troubling, Dunn depicts Lucretia as an epochal champion of rape survivors. In doing so, whether purposely or by mistake, she switches around crucial dialogue in Livy’s From the Founding of the City. In Livy’s account, it is Lucretia’s husband and his friends, not she, who urge that guilt comes only from intention: the men say that the fact a woman was raped—and Lucretia is the pitiable example before them—exempts her from punishment. Also in Livy, it is Lucretia, not the men, who declares (using the lofty third person) that “no unchaste woman shall live by Lucretia’s example.” The men try to prevent her suicide, but she goes through with it on the principle that it is better for an innocent woman to die after a rape than to plead her powerlessness. Otherwise, Lucretia implies, hordes of sluts would be able to avoid the capital punishment they deserve by lying that they were raped; the rare good woman like herself should be willing to die in the cause of terrorizing bad women. Dunn gives to the men the decree of suicide for all raped women, and to Lucretia the high-minded consideration of intention.

How fragile and grandiose would women be to need fabricated role models hovering far above any imaginable historical circumstances, like an angel mobile above a baby’s crib? Wouldn’t we be better off aiming for an equal share of the ordinary human condition? And without the truth, what hope is there for that aim?

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Sarah Ruden is a translator, poet, and journalist whose books include The Face of Water : A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and translations of Augustine’s Confessions and Vergil’s Aeneid. Her most recent book is Vergil: The Poet’s Life.


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