Women in Late Antiquity:
Pagan and Christian Lifestyles

Gillian Clark

Oxford University Press 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002 http://dannyreviews.com/
Compared to the classical and medieval periods, relatively little has been written about women in late antiquity (the 3rd through 6th centuries). The sources for the period pose several problems for understanding the lives of women: they are dominated by law codes, medical texts (such as Galen and Soranus), and patristic writings (Church fathers such as Augustine, Basil, John Chrysostom), which are almost all written by men and which tend to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. Women in Late Antiquity is solidly grounded in these primary sources, along with some input from art and archaeology, but Clark keeps us aware of their limitations even while working them into a succinct and readable survey.

Legal codes reveal much about the arrangement of marriages and about divorce and remarriage. In traditional Roman law marriage centred on property rights and, if there were no financial issues, divorce was relatively easy. Christian emperors went around in circles reworking the law to reflect Christian ideals, in an "extraordinary sequence of restriction and concession", but "divorce law, even at its most restrictive, failed to match the strictness of Christian teaching". In any case, some evidence suggests that actual practice did not reflect imperial legal edicts.

Roman morality saw adultery too in terms of property rights, with a clear-cut "double standard" and important differences between slave and free and between concubines and wives. This was difficult to reconcile with Christian universalism, and Christianity also came into conflict with aristocratic marriage practice by proscribing marriages between relatives and by making celibacy (and leaving inheritances outside the family) an acceptable option.

"Christian and non-Christian moralists agreed in disapproving of married persons who terminated a pregnancy or refused to rear a new-born child."
Some legislation took into account "women's weakness", but concerns about its abuse show that at least some women were not seen as needing protection.

There is evidence of women practising medicine, as midwives and more broadly. Approaches to women's biology varied, but "late-antique medical texts ... tend to emphasize the similarity of male and female, or to imply it by focusing on the male and rarely noting any divergence" and some writers recognised extensive variation between different women. There were debates over the physical markers of virginity and whether it was good or bad for health; different ideas about the relationship between puberty, menstruation, desire, and appropriate marriage ages; and a broad range of prescriptions and practice in the area of fertility, contraception, abortion, and infanticide. There was some understanding of menopause — perhaps visible in the ages at which women were allowed to become deaconesses.

Details of houses and domestic life are scarce.

"It may seem paradoxical that the best sources of information on housework are treatises on virginity. These aim either to persuade women that domestic life is drudgery, or to persuade men that they do not need a wife to look after the house."
Similarly most of what we know about women's clothing and dress comes from accounts focused on its moral meaning and symbolic status, though Clark also analyses a mosaic portrait of the empress Theodora.

The philosophical and theological status of women was the subject of a range of writing, in particular debates over whether (an undisputed) physical inferiority extended to spiritual inferiority. There were philosophic and scholarly women both pagan and Christian, though education was almost certainly the preserve of a minority of upper class women.

All of this is, as Clark writes in her conclusion, only a "patchwork", in which "we can sometimes see fragments of a pattern, but no overall design". Women in Late Antiquity is a fascinating patchwork, however, both in its own right, as a meeting of the Christian and classical, and for the light it sheds on the representation and position of women in medieval and hence modern Europe.

August 2002

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%T Women in Late Antiquity
%S Pagan and Christian Lifestyles
%A Clark, Gillian
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1993
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0198721668
%P xix,158pp