Women are making the classics their own

Historians in the News
tags: gender, women history, classics



Emily Wilson's translation of Homer's Odyssey will be published by Norton in the fall. 

If you look up the subject heading “female classicists” in the large research library catalogue at the university where I teach, a grand total of five books pop up – of which two are separate editions of It’s a Don’s Life by Mary Beard. Next up, alphabetically, is “female cleaning personnel”, which has a larger number of volumes devoted to it: six, with no duplicates, none by Beard. Predictably, there are no entries for “male classicists”. Male classical scholars are represented by the heading “classicists” – which counts more than 200 volumes. Like “female scientists” (42 volumes, as opposed to 303 for “scientists”) or “male nurses” (three to 377), “female classicists” is a category that has been assumed not to exist. (In fact, a handful of women are buried among the “classicists”; one can find here several studies of Victorian classical scholar Jane Harrison, including a fine one by Beard.)

For hundreds of years, the study of ancient Greece and Rome was largely the domain of elite white men and their bored sons. One might assume optimistically that things have changed. After all, women from a wide variety of backgrounds are now able to enrol at prestigious universities and colleges and learn Latin and Greek from scratch; knowledge of the ancient languages is no longer open only to men. But the legacy of male domination is still with us – inside the discipline of classics itself and in how non-specialist general readers gain access to the history and literature of the ancient world.

This is true of the blockbuster Hollywood imaginings of ancient Greece and Rome such as Troy, 300 and Gladiator – all male-directed films in which female characters exist primarily as eye candy. It is also true, less obviously, of the available translations into English of ancient Greek and Roman texts, most of which are still created by “classicists”. The works of dead, white elite men have largely been translated by living, white elite men....

But now, at long last, we are beginning to see an outpouring of translations of Greek and Latin texts by women. Many of the most dedicated (such as Pamela Mensch, Sarah Ruden, Caroline Alexander and Josephine Balmer) have no institutional affiliation and are thus free from the pressure to produce work that “counts” for tenure. The Aeneid, perhaps the most canonical Latin text, was translated into English by a woman (Ruden) for the first time in 2009. The first English translation of The Iliad by a woman (Alexander) came out last year. This year marks the publication of the first female translation of five of Plutarch’s Roman Lives (by Mensch, who has also translated Arrian, Herodotus and five of Plutarch’s Greek Lives).

We are in a bull market ....




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