Private Lives, Imperial Virtues

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Book Details

Author  Eve D'Ambra
Publisher  Princeton University Press
Publication Date   January 25, 1993
ISBN  0691040974
Pages  178

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The depiction of the myth of Arachne, a woman punished for defiantly challenging Minerva to a weaving contest, is a subject without parallel for the frieze of a state monument such as Rome's Forum Transitorium, built by Domitian in the first century A.D. In this new interpretation of the frieze, Eve D'Ambra examines how art depicting mythological themes served as an instrument of social policy in the Roman Empire. She proposes that the portrayal of Arachne flanked by obedient women who spin and weave is presented as a moralizing exemplum: rather than unfolding in a continuous narrative, the myth is reduced to a series of emblems that provide both a cautionary tale and inspirational models of domestic virtue.


D'Ambra shows how the representation of weaving as a sign of the matron's traditional values reinforced Domitian's measures for moral reform, which included laws concerning marriage and adultery. She considers the equation of weaving and chastity in the cults revived by Domitian and, in the context of the founding myths depicted in Augustan art and literature, she explores the narratives of heroines and transgressors that blur the boundaries between private and public life: weaving not only served to initiate girls into the household economy but it also provided metaphors for statesmanship, civilization, and powers of life and death.


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