“He who knows only his own generation remains always a child”
-Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE- 43 BCE)
The question of scholarship’s ability to effectively initiate social change is a difficult one. Additionally questioning how said change can impact women only serves to complicate matters. How can we seek to effect change through examination of the past when we know so little about women’s place in antiquity?
When we began this class I labeled myself an Optimist on all levels of the ethnographer’s scale. Now, as I begin to re-label myself more toward the middle ground, I realize that these labels Amy Richlin constructs in The Ethnographer’s Dilema are superficial. Why must I compartmentalize my approach to history into two categories: the past is our model/the past is our curse? Labels are often arbitrary and not conducive to answering underlying issues. As Richlin points out herself, generalizations can get messy when it comes to Classics: “Many categories have grown blurry: “Greece and Rome” is used interchangeably with “the ancient Mediterranean” (excluding Africa and Asia); fifth century BCE Athens is often made representative of all antiquity; “Greece” is used when only “Athens” is meant; “Rome” is used without much consideration of the hugeness and ethnic variation of the empire; the Iron Age cultures of northern Europe are left to archaeologists” (290).
I do not lean on the Pessimist side of this created spectrum because while I recognize differences between societies, I do not believe that any culture develops in isolation of another — especially when it comes to Classics. One could argue that, on a large scale, local-historical differences are not so significant. Also, the differences are “a part of reality, not a sign of demise” (281). The past is not our curse. However, I am not a complete Optimist because I do not believe in the long-held notion of the past as a golden age to be emulated in the future. As this class has taught us, women (for the most part) did not have a voice in antiquity. Is that the golden age we hope to see re-envisioned in the future?
Creating boundaries within the confounds of an epistemological approach halts scholars from breaking through preconceived notions and stereotypes. I believe history to be an ebb and flow. Yes, we can look far back enough and find egalitarian societies. Richlin writes of a “time in the distant past when egalitarian societies gave way to male-dominated ones. This time began with the rise of states and would come to an end with revolution in the means of production” (280). This reminds me of Hesiod’s Theogony in which there is a shift from supreme matriarch to supreme patriarch! Was Hesiod mimicking history? In our post-modern era, are we moving towards a reanimation of a matriarchal past? Or are we creating a new future? No one may ever get to Z (as Richlin posits), but perhaps we will never get there because we are constantly creating a new future for ourselves. We learn from the past, but I do not believe we recreate it.
Examining the past in relation to the present gets tricky. Can we really judge a culture so far removed in space and time from our own? Contemporary Western civilizations in particular try to project their own values on other cultures. Is this fair? As Richlin suggests, this creates an “imbalance of power between observer and observed” (285). When we look back to the past, on a certain level, we see what we want to see. Richlin talks about Roman women having a group identity. She may see this as a positive thing. I look at it and think, “Yes, but that does not negate the fact that the collective identity was still oppressed.” Neither of us is wrong. Also, we must remember that there are several different female voices echoing from the past. What about the women who oppressed other women; who abused female slaves? Women in the past are a web of sociocultural interactions with males and other females. Nothing is ever as clean cut as we want it to be.
What should really be focused on is recovering women’s agency along with their oppression. Both play into our understanding of history. The past “illuminates contemporary problems in relationships between men and women” (287). By reading the gaps and silences, we can hope to extract more and more female voices from the distant past. As Elizabeth Fiorenza says, “Remembering the sufferings of women in the past is reclaiming them” (286). The ultimate point is, we are talking about it — we are questioning all that we know. I believe this approach not only makes us better scholars, but better people as well.