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Thea Lawrence

PhD Classics

The Senses and the Female Body in Pre-Christian Rome


Thesis Description:

Recent decades have seen a proliferation in scholarship within sociology, anthropology, archaeology and classics addressing the senses and sensory perception in historical societies. My project aims to make a timely contribution to this research by integrating two significant strands of classical scholarship that have traditionally been kept separate: ancient approaches to sense perception and the gendered representation, evaluation and use of the female body in pre-Christian Rome. From menstrual stench to exquisitely perfumed bodies, from smooth marble-white limbs to vibrant garments, Roman women were traditionally the objects of male eyes, noses, fingers, ears and tongues, but were also viewed with suspicion as active manipulators the Roman sensorium. I will examine the Roman use of the senses as a diagnostic and epistemological tool for understanding female physiology, character and behaviour, and also consider the ways in which women could actively manipulate this male- system. It is this opportunity for conscious control of self-representation within a system of sensory categorisation and code that I will focus on, looking in particular at the ways in which Roman female cultus could be used as a sophisticated process of sensory manipulation – self- adornment, perfume, dress, touch, and the female voice (or lack of) as tools for projecting an image.

Since the publication of A. Corbin’s "Le miasme et la jonquille: L'odorat et l'imaginaire social, XVIIIe-XIXe siècles" in 1982, historians have begun to explore the senses as a prism through which to study historical societies. This sensory study of history engages with other disciplines, in particular anthropology, and the field of ‘the anthropology of the senses’ has received considerable scholarly attention, as seen in the work of C. Classen and D. Howes. Classical scholarship on the senses is more limited, although more recent years has seen an increase in interest, such as in M. Bradley’s Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome (2009) and his six-volume Routledge series ‘The Senses in Antiquity’ (2013-2016), and J. Toner’s A Cultural History of the Senses in Antiquity (2014). Classical scholarship concerning women in the ancient world is far more comprehensive, having enjoyed a vast wave of interest in the wake of the feminist movements of the 1960s, and some of this work, particularly that focusing on the female body or ancient sexuality (such as Dean-Jones’ Women’s Bodies in Classical Greek Science, 1999, and Zeitlin’s Before Sexuality, 1990), will be of particular interest to my project. My thesis aims to synthesise elements of gender history, sensory history, and anthropology, and this interdisciplinary aspect of my research allows me to approach the topic of Roman women from an alternative and original angle which I believe will constitute a valuable contribution to the field.


Supervisors and Institutions: Dr Mark Bradley (Department of Classics, University of Nottingham); Dr Mary Harlow (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester)





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