Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome
Traditionally, scholars have approached Roman sexuality using categories of sexual ethics drawn from contemporary, Western society. In this 2006 book Dr Langlands seeks to move away from these towards a deeper understanding of the issues that mattered to the Romans themselves, and the ways in which they negotiated them, by focusing on the untranslatable concept of pudicitia (broadly meaning 'sexual virtue'). She offers a series of nuanced close readings of texts from a wide spectrum of Latin literature, including history, oratory, love poetry and Valerius Maximus' work Memorable Deeds and Sayings. Pudicitia emerges as a controversial and unsettled topic, at the heart of Roman debates about the difference between men and women, the relation between mind and body, and the ethics of power and status differentiation within Roman culture. The book develops strategies for approaching the study of an ancient culture through sensitive critical readings of its literary productions.
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<csc>REBECCA LANGLANDS</csc>. Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. viii + 399 pp.
Rebecca Langlands offers a close study of the Roman concept of pudicitia across a variety of genres and time periods. In her analysis of Roman sexual virtue, Langlands explores the complex relationship between Roman concepts of body and soul, the use of exemplars of pudicitia as role models for later generations, and subversive reactions to the idealization of pudicitia. While she has a narrow focus, L. offers a compact and elegant thesis backed by extensive research and provocative interpretations of familiar texts.
The introduction outlines different ways in which the untranslatable concept of pudicitia was represented in Roman society. She examines the relationship between personal morality and social regulation, a dialogue that is at the heart of notions of pudicitia. As L. repeatedly demonstrates, pudicitia is a paradoxical virtue in that it both exalts demure modesty and only exists when publicly recognized. Although she does not make this comparison in much detail, this concept strikes at the heart of the difference between classical Greek and Roman attitudes towards women’s morality. The most virtuous Greek women are those ‘least spoken of (Thucy. 2.45).’ In contrast, Roman elite women seek public recognition and approbation for their virtue, even when that virtue is itself strongly connected to ideals of reticence and sexual modesty (39).
L. next explores the cult of the goddess Pudicitia, although this section serves more as a collection of sources than a detailed exploration of the worship and ritual surrounding this goddess. L. is hampered here by a comparative lack of ancient references to the cult or any archaeological evidence; she relies on Livy, Propertius, and Juvenal for information. The most intriguing idea in this section is the idea of female religious competition in the realm of pudicitia; both the rival patrician and plebeian cults and stories narrating the selection of the pudicissima woman in Rome suggest that this virtue is both public and relative. The goal was not simply to be pudica but to be more pudica than your neighbour.
The second chapter focuses on Livy’s various tales featuring displays of exemplary pudicitia, especially Lucretia, Verginia, and the Bacchanalian Conspiracy. Lucretia is the paradigmatic female Roman exemplar of virtue; Langlands perhaps gives us excessive detail and overly lengthy quotations (in both Latin and English) for such a familiar text. L. emphasizes the mind/body split of Lucretia; her mind is still pudica despite the rape of her body (93). She offers a more subjective and active interpretation of Lucretia’s role than Sandra Joshel does, focusing on a literary and psychological approach rather than anthropological or structuralist analysis.
In her discussion of Verginia, L. focuses on the figure of the fiancÚ, Icilius, who declares that he will not accept Verginia as a wife if Appius has caused her to lose her pudicitia (101-2). L. suggests that the tales of Lucretia and Verginia represent two contrasting Roman models of heroic pudicitia – self-defense and defense of another’s virtue.
The Bacchanalian Conspiracy offers an example of the importance of defending young male pudicitia. L. does a very good job of showing that pudicitia is not exclusively female, although she does not really explore distinctions between representations of male and female pudicitia. Publius Aebutius is a sexually active young man, in and of itself not an indication of vice; however, he is at risk of corruption through the debauched Bacchanalian rituals (Livy, 39.8-19). L. does not here discuss extensively Roman attitudes towards male passive homosexuality and how these might have shaped reactions to the Bacchanalian practices. Unfortunately, L. does not really connect this tale back to her earlier themes of the body/soul split. She does emphasize Livy’s focus on status differentials and the violation of pudicitia as