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Sempronia's Song: Attitudes to Women's Music-making in Ancient Rome
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Classical archaeology and ancient history.
2015 (English)Doctoral thesis, monograph (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

This study explores attitudes towards women’s music-making in ancient Rome (c. 120 BC–130 AD), as expressed in love poetry, satire, letters, historiography, biography, rhetoric and philosophy. The texts are studied from an intersectional perspective considering gender, social status, age and ethnicity to explain various attitudes. Gender-theoretical concepts of differentiation, implementation of hierarchy and master suppression techniques explain the need for controlling the Roman gender order and women’s music-making. The study demonstrates that the traditional picture of women musicians as either prostitutes or decent, musically-talented matrons needs to be nuanced, and that the attitudes were more complex than previously assumed.

Some Roman authors show a positive attitude to women’s musical talents, especially love poets, but also writers of other genres, as long as it was performed on “appropriate” instruments in accordance with the social status of the woman in question. The musical skills of a woman should not override her modesty and virtue. A young woman was encouraged to display musical talents. This enhanced her beauty and attractiveness in the eyes of a husband-to-be. Older music-making women were, on the other hand, ridiculed as unrespectable. The labelling of women musicians in Rome as “non-Roman” could be another way of differentiating non-respectable from respectable women, but such identifying could also serve to evoke “exotic” attraction, or for an artist to require a certain status or a sense of belonging.

The results obtained from the ancient Roman sources are further augmented by comparison with more recent periods in musical history, displaying a long tradition of rather similar attitudes as a result of patriarchal structures: in seventeenth century Italy Pope Innocent XI in an edict tried to prohibit women from playing music, since this would be injurious to proper modesty. In the twenty-first century world-leading women musicians such as Madonna and Mariah Carey are publicly scorned for their older age in relation to their music-making.

In ancient Rome both women and music needed to be controlled: Music was unpredictable and could evoke unexpected feelings and temptations, whereas women held the key to pure marital breed and the Roman family line.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Uppsala: Institutionen för Arkeologi och Antik historia , 2015. , 191 p.
Keyword [en]
Rome, Roman, Music, Music-making, Women, Gender, Patriarchy
National Category
Research subject
Classical Archaeology and Ancient History
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-260751ISBN: 978-91-506-2478-6OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-260751DiVA: diva2:848326
Public defence
2015-10-09, Universitetshuset sal IV, Biskopsgatan 3, Uppsala, 13:15 (Swedish)
Available from: 2015-09-17 Created: 2015-08-24 Last updated: 2015-09-17

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Lindgren Liljenstolpe, Erika
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