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Classics and Ancient History

Motherhood in Antiquity

A Colloquium of the Network EuGeStA (European Gender Studies in Antiquity)

The University of Manchester, Tuesday, 8 and Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Organiser: Alison Sharrock

The European Network on Gender Studies in Antiquity runs a series of meetings, taking place approximately every 18 months, which aim to address issues of gendered importance across the range of the Greco-Roman world and across the disciplines of the study of Antiquity. Network members form the core of the speakers at these meetings, supplemented by a small number of invited speakers. The convention of the network is that speakers may use the language of their choice when speaking and when engaged in discussion; this is usually limited to English, French, Italian, and German. Where possible, we aim to provide written copies of papers or summaries for those who wish them.

This meeting concentrates on 'mothers', with papers ranging across Greece and Rome, literature and history, from pregnancy to the mothering of adult children. We aim, in particular, to analyse motherhood as far as possible from the female perspective, reading through the heavily male-dominated culture to try to reach some sort of sense of how motherhood might have been constructed and experienced for ancient Greek and Roman mothers. While we would not expect to be able to hear genuine mothers voices unmediated, except in a few highly unusual circumstances like that of Cornelia, nonetheless we hope to take the woman s part, whether as a specific historical personage, a fictional character, or a type.


Tuesday, 8 April

Registration will be from 10am, with the first session beginning at 11am.

Session 1:

  • Stella Georgoudi (Paris): 'La théorie de la Grande Déesse Mère et la question des divinités "mères", dans les cultes grecs'
  • Florence Gherchanoc (Paris): Transmission maternelle en Grèce ancienne: du physique au comportement
  • Giulia Sissa (CNRS and UCLA): 'The political intelligence of mothers'

Session 2:

  • Mairead McAuley (UCL): 'Uncanny mothers in Roman literature and modern theory' (by Skype)
  • Alison Keith (Toronto): 'Mothers in Ovid'

Session 3:

  • Jacqueline Fabre-Serris (Lille): 'Maximum Thebis (Romae?) scelus/maternus amor: Amour de la mère et inceste selon Sénèque'
  • Evelyn Syré (Rostock): 'The pains of being a loving mother: Marcia in Silius Italicus Punica'
  • Federica Bessone (Turin): 'Nimis…mater: mother plot and epic deviation in the Achilleid'

Wednesday, 9 April

Session 4:

  • Florence Klein (Lille): '"La mère parfaite"? Alcmène dans l Idylle XXIV de Théocrite'
  • Emma Griffiths (Manchester): 'Unseen motherhood in Menander s Samia'

Session 5:

  • Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer (Basel): 'Motherhood in Roman Epithalamia'
  • Alison Sharrock (Manchester): 'The Roman Mother-In-Law'
  • Judith Hallett (Maryland): 'Augustan maternal ideology: the blended families of Octavia and Venus' (read by Alison Keith)

Session 6:

  • Therese Fuhrer (Munich): 'Wife, mother, philosopher: on the symbolic function of Augustine s Monnica'
  • Kate Cooper (Manchester): 'Sister of Dido, Daughter of Eve: Augustine of Hippo remembers Monnica of Thagaste'
  • Valerie Hope (Open): 'A Roman mother in mourning'

The final session is a network meeting from 4-5pm.


Tuesday, 8 April: Session 1

Stella Georgoudi (Paris): 'La théorie de la Grande Déesse Mère et la question des divinités "mères”, dans les cultes grecs' ('The theory of the Great Mother Goddess and the question "mother" goddesses in Greek cult')

This paper is concerned with the 'archetypal' figure of a 'single', 'universal' Goddess, interchangeably named by scholars 'Great Goddess', 'Great Mother', 'Mother Earth', according to evolutionistic theories, developed particularly since the 19th century. Considered as the original powerful deity, a "Genetrix" who presided over the destinies of the human, animal and vegetal species, this Goddess is supposed to have given 'birth' to many Greek goddesses, who emerged by imperfectly accomplished differentiation from this primitive 'Mother'. Parallel to the critical reconsideration of these theories, which reappear periodically, it would be interesting to examine cases where, in Greek cults, a Greek goddess is qualified as 'mother'; also, to consider the scarcity of this cult epithet compared to its more frequent mention in literary texts.

Florence Gherchanoc (Paris) 'Transmission maternelle en Grèce ancienne: du physique au comportement' ('Maternal transmission in Ancient Greece: from the body to the behaviour')

My paper will examine a variety of sources (medical and biological texts, tragedy, forensic rhetoric, poetry, etc.) in order to consider and reassess the role of the mother in the construction of child-identity in the ancient Greek world. In other words, what kind of 'imprint' does a mother put on her children? Does she transmit physical characteristics and behaviours to them? In what way does it affect their social and/or political roles during their life?

Giulia Sissa (CNRS and UCLA): 'The political intelligence of mothers'

Tragedy, Aristotle tells us, is a place for intelligence, "dianoia", and for political discourse. Tragic characters, he points out, speak politically,"politikos". As we know, this is all true. The theatre dramatises, visually and argumentatively, political theory. There is justice, "to dikaion". There is fairness, "to ison." Philotimia, passion for honour, is a goddess, but a goddess without justice,  adikos he theos. It is much more beautiful to honour equality,"isotes. This is what connects friends to friends, cities to cities, allies to allies. "To ison" is the only thing that is stable for human beings. Tragic"dianoia, therefore, joins the chorus of normative knowledge about good government. It also contributes to a discourse on what we would now call 'international law'. There is a law. There are customs, such as hospitality. All Greeks abide by such norms. The worth of an individual polis depends upon her respect for these principles. A ruler has to beware of arrogance and anger. In war, not everything is permissible. You must take care of your dead, and allow your enemies to do the same. Corpses must be recovered on your side, and, reciprocally, must be given back to those who claim them, from the other. On this particular point, the care of dead soldiers, and dead enemies, the theatre offers a template of moral and political imperatives, which associate justice, the law, honour, and manliness.

In Euripides' plays, it is mothers who utter these"logoi. Mothers are full-fledged political thinkers. They remind their children how to be men. They know what "andreia" is. Their instruction aims at a set of social values: they connect manliness to "kalon" and to "nomos". They perform remedial education on stage, but in the perspective of the wide world. They advise their children to be good kings, to act for the common good; more ambitiously, they advocate good relations among Hellenic cities and, beyond that, among all "anthropon poleis". They look ahead, they get the big picture. They offer a mirror to princes – who happen to be silly boys. Euripides' mothers are a remedy against tyranny. They actually save (or, at least, try to save) the city.

Tuesday, 8 April: Session 2

Mairéad McAuley (UCL): 'Uncanny mothers in Roman literature and modern theory' (by Skype)

Interest in the maternal in critical theory has surged in the last decade (see, e.g., the work of Baraitser 2006; Parker 2013; Marder 2013). During the same period, classicists have also (re)turned to the mother, examining with greater sophistication her multiple, complex representations in Greco-Roman literature and culture (e.g., Hackforth Peterson and Salzman-Mitchell (eds) 2012; Augoustakis 2010; Oliensis 2009). This paper takes a look at these recent developments and considers some of the challenges and possibilities unleashed when we try to read the mother in early imperial Roman literature.

Maternity in the Augustan foundation narratives often functions as a powerful trope or rhetorical instrument for explaining, justifying and reproducing Augustan social norms and values. Examples from Virgil, Horace and Livy show how motherhood does not merely operate as a reassuring symbol of permanence, continuity and fecundity after a time of social upheaval; rather, the frequent invocation of the maternal as origin signifies a move to a "deeper" 'truth', meaning that can be fixed, the prospect of an epistemological and ethical certainty that stands above and outside of messy post-civil war masculine politics. I argue that this use of mothers to signify transcendent certainty in both morality and knowledge masks their uncanniness – the ways in which they figure ambivalence and uncertainty about origins within Roman literature and culture. Recent theoretical work helps us see how the figure of the mother – her voice, her body, her own knowledge – persistently intrudes in literature and in politics to dismantle the very certainties maternity had been used to shore up.

Alison Keith (Toronto): 'Virgilian" matres: from maternal lament to female sedition in the Aeneid'

Virgil presents a rich array of maternal "exempla" in the "Aeneid"– from the multiple appearances of Venus, mother of the epic's hero, whose support of her son drives the action of the narrative almost as much as Juno's anger; through the brief irruption into the narrative in "Aeneid" 9 of the unnamed mother of Euryalus, whose terrible grief at her son's death unmans the Trojan fighting forces; to the crowd scenes in which the "Troades" lament the sack of their city and their Italian counterparts resist Latinus' compact with the Trojan refugees. This paper takes as its starting point the role of the "mater dolorosa" in the "Aeneid", with comparative discussion of Andromache, Euryalus' mother, and Amata. The analysis of individual mothers' laments for their children is then extended to consider the relationship in the Aeneid between female lament and the collective action of women characterized as matres. I argue that female agency in the poem is closely associated with maternity and lament.

Tuesday, 8 April: Session 3

Jacqueline Fabre-Serris (Lille): 'Maximum Thebis (Romae ?) scelus/ maternus amor est(629-630). Amour de la mère et inceste selon Sénèque' ('Maximum Thebis (Romae ?) scelus/ maternus amor est (629-630): mother love and incest in Seneca')

My paper takes its point of departure from the hate-filled response put into the mouth of Laius (maximum Thebis scelus/ maternus amor est, 'mother love is the greatest crime at Thebes', 629-630), which is assimilated to incest by an intertextual reference to Ovid's Myrrha. I make a case for personal implications on Seneca's part in this negative judgement regarding maternal love. The case is explored through an analysis of all the passages of the Oedipus which feature either incest or Jocasta, and then by making use both of what Seneca tells us about his relations with his own mother in the Consolatio ad Helviam, and also of the witness of Tacitus regarding the manner in which Seneca was involved in the relationship between Nero and his mother at the time when those relations were denounced or at least slandered as tending towards incest.

Evelyn Syré (Rostock): 'The pains of being a loving mother: Marcia in Silius Italicus' Punica'

In Book 6 of his poem on the Second Punic War, the Flavian epicist Silius Italicus makes a long retrospective digression. He introduces the veteran Marus to tell the story of the famous Roman commander Regulus. Having faced a cruel death by torture in order to maintain Roman politicalfides, Regulus is an example of Stoic virtue as well as of male heroism. We hear about Regulus' wife Marcia, too. Although she once delivered a highly dramatic speech and appealed to her husband to save the family bonds, she was ignored and abandoned by her husband. Interestingly, Marus tells the story to Regulus' son Serranus, who fled from the battlefield after the disastrous fighting at Lake Trasimene. Afterwards Marus returns him to his mother who reacts very emotionally. Marcia experiences a kind of re-animation, precisely because Serranus is described as being another Regulus.

Considering the aspect that in epic a woman's life is often limited to waiting for her husband and son respectively, the paper aims at exploring the distressing or even violent element of being an abandoned mother. Especially the constellation of sons who are loved as if they were a copy of their father turns out to be problematic. By comparing the characterisation of Marcia with Andromache in Seneca's Troades as well as with the Virgilian Dido who wishes to have a parvulus Aeneas (Virg. Aen. 4.328), it can be shown how excessively loving mothers obstruct future epic action on the one hand and endanger their sons' pursuit of male virtue on the other. Accordingly, the paper focuses on the painful paradox that in epic mothers have to be abandoned in order for their sons to gain identity as real Romans.

Federica Bessone (Turin): 'Nimis…mater: mother plot and epic deviation in the Achilleid'

I analyse the role of the hero's mother in the Achilleid from a narratological and poetological point of view. It is up to Thetis to set the poem in motion, a minor deity compared to Thetis in the Iliad, and Juno and Venus in the Aeneid; as the expectations of a grander epic are frustrated, the comedy of deceits of the Scyros episode is being prepared: 'The transvestite Achilles at Lycomedes' court'. This is the mother plot of the Achilleid, until Ulysses uncovers the deceit and starts Achilles off to the Trojan war. 'Nimis o suspensa nimisque / mater!': the role of the mother is 'too much' for heroic epic, an impediment to its poetic project. Thetis is depicted in a precarious balance between pathos and humour.

Mother and son aspire to competing narratives. The mother plot is a deviation from Achilles' epic-heroic career, it makes room for comedy and erotic elegy, and coincides with the hero's gender deviation. The disguise does not rescue Achilles from his destiny. On the contrary, it is the instrument for the assertion of his heroic virility, but the unsuccessful action of the mother has been joined by the action of l/Love, and this has had decisive effects: Achilles has become a more complex epic hero than the Homeric one. Thetis has not been able to deviate Achilles' destiny, but she has deviated the epic tradition.

The Achilleid explores the limits and potentialities of the literary role of the 'hero's mother'. Achilles' re-appropriation of his gender identity might redirect the poetic genre, from feminei doli tokléa andrôn. But eros, which has brought the narrative near to the Metamorphoses, the Ars amatoria and the Heroides, has hybridised this epos irreversibly. The ironic and sentimental tones might have continued. In the second book, the hyper-epic claims of the pre-Iliadic hero are an object of irony, like the comic-novelistic, anti-epic plots of his mother. The narrator depicts his character in a detached attitude, in a way akin to Ovid's Metamorphoses. The two forces which contend for control of the poem relativise each other: the arma uirum are modified by the feminine and maternal deviation, and are looked at in the same poignant and disenchanted way. Even 'Achilles' anger' lends itself to the narrator's irony.

Statius downgrades Thetis from goddess to mother. A mightier god is needed for the mother plot to be carried out. Statius suggests the presence of the Love god in Achilles' falling in love, with a technique close to that of the Metamorphoses. The Achilleid stages the triumph of Love over Achilles, which has been decreed by love elegy. Not obedience to his mother (as in the tradition justifying the Scyros episode), but only eros can make to yield the hero who is 'incapable of yielding'. In the second book, Achilles would like to censor the memory of his mother's plot, but the narrator's irony deflates his pretensions. An allusion to the anger episode in Iliad 1, interpreted as an effect of love for Briseis, shows that Statius could reinterpret Homer in line with Hellenistic and Latin erotic-elegiac poetry.

Wednesday, 9 April: Session 4

Florence Klein (Lille): '"La mère parfaite"? Alcmène dans l'Idylle XXIV de Théocrite' ('"The perfect mother"? Alcmene in Theocritus' Idyll XXIV')

Theocritus' Idyll 24 (Herakliskos) foregrounds the caring and loving mother Alcmene, who tenderly feeds and cradles her babies, before providing the young Heracles with the ideal upbringing of a Hellenistic prince. I will begin by placing this foregrounding of the positively valued maternal figure in its contexts both literary and political, before considering the more troubling, even disturbing, issue of this vision of Alcmene as a 'perfect mother', built as it is in part on retellings and intertextual silences.

Emma Griffiths (Manchester): 'Unseen motherhood in Menander's Samia'

The comic confusion of Menander's Samia centres around one baby, with mistakes about the identity of the child's biological parents. This paper will, however, focus on the social components of motherhood and grandmotherhood. Although initially we may see Chrysis, the courtesan, caring for the baby with transferred affection for her own dead child, it soon becomes clear that she is actively engaging in the role of mother for the baby and for the baby's father, Moschion, and she continues to uphold this role even at the risk of her own social and financial ruin. Myrrhine's role runs on a parallel course, as her actions as biological mother and grandmother bring her into conflict with her expected social behaviour. Plangon, the biological mother of the baby, displays no maternal behaviour in the play. This interest in hidden and multiple aspects of maternity becomes particularly relevant when we consider the birth stories of Dionysus and the intimate connections between comedy and the festival context.

Wednesday, 9 April: Session 5

Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer (Basel): 'Motherhood in Roman Epithalamia'

The mother's role in the Roman Epithalamia is not homogeneous. It depends on the bride's age, but differs also according to the social status of the family and varies according to the periods. Motherhood is twofold: the loss of the (very young) daughter mainly is seen as rape, but at the same time the hope of successful motherhood for the bride seems to prevail. In my paper I will focus on the oscillations of these two aspects and analyse texts from Catullus, Statius and Claudian.

Alison Sharrock (Manchester): 'The Roman Mother-in-Law'

'Operator, give me a wrong number – I want to speak to my mother-in-law!' The wife's mother was a regular butt of usually sexist jokes in 20th century Britain, not to make claims for other countries and noting that the phenomenon seems perhaps finally to have decreased in recent years. The heyday and locus classicus of such humour was the world of Les Dawson, in which it is clear that the speaker is a man and it is indeed his wife's mother, not her husband's mother, who is the victim and implied problem. Whether expanding the topos to a female speaker's husband's mother is really any sort of advance must remain a moot point, although that constellation too may have a long and male-centred history in the form not so much of a female speaker's husband's mother but a male speaker's position felt as caught between wife and mother. In ancient Rome, where so many sexist jokes have resonance with the modern world, and where any woman above thirty is regularly seen as fair game for abuse, it is remarkable that the mother-in-law does not feature very strongly. Rather, it is the stepmother who takes on the opprobrium of 'interfering older woman' whose position is threatening because it has the social closeness of immediate family without the biological security of blood relation. Identification of negative humour is not the only reason to explore the presentation of the mother-in-law, however, as her role must have been extensive in life and therefore must be of interest in literature, even if its very absence is its most salient feature. In this paper, I shall attempt to draw out some of the literary echoes of mothers-in-law that do exist in Roman literature (most notably Terence's Hecyra, but also other comedy, with hints from satire, elegy, and epic), in order to consider any light that literature may shed on how the Romans perceived and negotiated this difficult but important relationship.

Judith Hallett (Maryland): 'Augustan maternal ideology: the blended families of Octavia and Venus' (read by Alison Keith)

As Genevieve Liveley has observed, 'Virgil's Venus, mother of Aeneas, mother of "savage Love", and founder-mother of the Julian line, presents a complicated image of motherhood.' Liveley argues that Venus' status as a divinity of erotic love seems to destabilise and undermine her status as a loving mother in Virgil's epic. But other anomalous aspects of Venus' characterisation in the Aeneid —her role as loving wife to Vulcan, stepmother to Vulcan's offspring Cacus, and relationship with both Mars and the illicit issue he sired—render her maternal identity more complicated still.

In her 2006 study of women's networks in the Aeneid, Alison Keith situates Virgil's portrayal of interactions among female characters, both divine and human, in the historical context of the codes and conventions governing social relations among elite Roman women. Keith draws on Plutarch, Cicero and a major prose inscription— ILS 8393—as sources for elite female socio-political conduct in Rome of the mid- to-late first century BCE. She adduces this evidence to contend that 'Virgil's thematisation of gender conflict at the heart of proto-Roman social and political conflict both reflects the widespread practice of elite women's participation in the social and political life of triumviral Rome and anticipates its public emergence in the Principate.'

My discussion resembles that of Keith in utilising the testimony of Plutarch and other historical sources—most notably Suetonius and Velleius Paterculus— for mid-to-late first century BCE Roman elite socio-cultural practices so as to illuminate Virgil's anomalous characterisation of the goddess Venus in the Aeneid. Anomalous, yet in certain respects sympathetic: Virgil depicts Venus as having born children to different males and endeavouring to connect these children more closely to one another; as devoted to a loving husband who has nonetheless fathered offspring out of wedlock, and as not entangled in adulterous liaisons of her own during the 'time line' of the Aeneiditself. I will argue that Virgil's Venus evinces striking similarities to depictions of an elite Roman historical woman who prominently figures both in triumviral Roman social and political life, and the familial interactions that increasingly assume a public role under the Principate: Augustus' own half-sister Octavia. Both Octavia and Venus, after all, are portrayed as having to cope with what we today call 'blended' families, households consisting not only of their own children by different fathers but also children that their male partners have sired by other woman. Curiously, by representing Venus as persuading not only Aeneas' half-brother Cupid but also his stepfather Vulcan to support of Aeneas' political aims, Virgil portrays the 'love-goddess' as more successful than her historical counterpart, a paragon of respectable womanhood, in making her 'blended family' function.

Wednesday, 9 April: Session 6

Therese Fuhrer (Munich): 'Wife, mother, philosopher: on the symbolic function of Augustine's Monica'

Augustine introduces his mother Monica as a contributor to the conversation in three philosophical dialogues, Against the Academics, On the Happy Life and On Order, where on the one hand she represents the common sense of a simple, uneducated, and religious woman, but in certain passages she also takes on the role of a philosopher, in which she moves the discussion forward in a decisive manner. Augustine gives her a similar role in Book 9 of the Confessions, where, after a review of her life as wife and mother, he grants her a philosopher's death modelled on that of Plato's Socrates. I shall discuss the importance of Monica's role and function as mother both for the topics of the three dialogues, and also for the autobiographical narrative of the Confessions. I shall suggest that, in addition to her real biographical role, Monica can also be read as a symbolic figure, in that both the philosophical arguments put into her mouth and also her behaviour at particular moments represent a specifically maternal perspective and manner of thought. I shall attempt to support my argument with the methodology of role-theory developed in modern social science.

Kate Cooper (Manchester): 'Sister of Dido, Daughter of Eve: Augustine of Hippo remembers Monnica of Thagaste'

A bittersweet thread of recollection about his mother runs through the Confessions, Augustine of Hippo's memoir written some time after becoming a bishop in AD 397. His memorable account of her death in Book 9 offers a brief and evocative biography of her childhood and subsequent life as a wife and mother in Thagaste, the market town of eastern Numidia where Augustine was born.

The literary aspects of Augustine's memoir have not gone unnoticed. In particular, Camille Bennet, Danuta Shanzer, and William Werpehowski have called attention to the importance of Dido of Carthage as a literary model for Monnica – and indeed, for Augustine himself – in the narrative. This paper builds on that work in a new direction, seeking to understand how the parallel between Monnica and Dido interacts with a second parallel which is clearly present in Augustine's imagination, the parallel with the paradigmatic wife and mother of the Biblical tradition, Eve. The two parallels evoke different contexts for the problem of 'speaking as a woman', and their intersection reflects Augustine's ambivalence about maternal authority. Whether it offers a filter through which we can gain a better knowledge of the historical Monnica is a question that will be posed, but which may remain unanswered.

Valerie Hope (Open): 'A Roman mother in mourning'

Grieving Roman women were often stereotyped and even caricatured. A lack of self control, exaggerated weeping and dramatic gestures marked bereaved women, who were often made to stand in stark opposition to the male ideal. However, recent research has suggested that women's essential roles in death rituals, including mourning, gave them a certain power (e.g., Stears 1998, Richlin 2001; Corbeill 2004; Sterbenc Erker 2004). In this paper I will explore the behaviour associated with women who went into mourning for their children. What was acceptable and what was unacceptable for a grieving mother; how did the loss of a child impact on a woman's status and role; and were there shifts in attitudes towards bereaved mothers across time? A case study will be made of the emperor Augustus' sister, Octavia, and how her behaviour, following the death of her son, was characterised.