Diotima: Classical love

Photo, Roman female sarcophagus muses left side, Jonathan Dresner, 2008, Flickr
Jonathan Dresner, "Roman female sarcophagus muses left side," Flickr, 2008.

The website Diotima: Materials for the Study of Women and Gender in the Ancient World takes its name from a passage in Plato’s Symposium in which dinner guests discuss the concept of love. The famed philosopher Socrates relates the nature of Eros, as taught to him by the priestess Diotima of Mantinea, whose wise ideas form the basis of “Platonic love.”

The site, a rich source for materials on ancient women, gender, and love, may be a valuable research tool for readers, writers, and scholars of historical romances set in ancient Rome or Greece, particularly on topics such as social life, legal status of women, sex, rape, marriage, childbirth, and religion.

The extensive list of courses is a good place to start, as are the syllabi, images, bibliographies, and other materials. Topics include “Gender in Ancient Social Life,” “Puella, Matrona, Meretrix,” and “Love and Sex in the Ancient World.” Short summaries of material, as well as links to additional sources, are provided.

Wall fragment with an image of two Roman women standing next to each other, from the torso up

Mary Harrsch, “Wall fragment, two Roman women standing next to each other,” Flickr, 2006.

The Anthology section offers many translated texts from Sappho to Sulpicia, as well as selections from Lefkowitz and Fant’s excellent survey of primary sources, arranged by topic (law, private life, occupations, religion). The Bibliography offers articles on ancient women’s lives, including topics such as rape, virginity, sex, wedding, and marriage. The site also contains links to sections of Perseus, an online database of ancient texts, translations, and searchable dictionaries, a boon to those faced with unfamiliar Greek and Latin vocabulary in historical romances.

While experienced users can navigate Diotima’s interface successfully, newcomers may find its searchability and layout unwieldy. There is little context for the materials collected, and no clear starting point for those new to learning about women in the ancient world. Casual browsing can be frustrating: Diotima performs best when you start with a question or specific interest. Google powers the internal search, and you will find yourself paging back from results to search only Diotima again — further searches on the same page will move from Diotima to the whole web.

You may also need to expand or revise searches. For example, “roman dress” turns up few sources, while “clothing” yields more helpful results. A search for “sex” yields targeted results on ancient attitudes towards sex, bawdy humor, conception and pregnancy, misogyny, and rape. Unfortunately, many links and images are broken throughout the site, so promising search results must be put through Google again to find an unbroken link. Diotima was unedited for several years, and ownership has now passed to the Women’s Classical Caucus, so the site’s current iteration is a work in progress.

The Diotima bibliography is a good starting point. It leads you to print as well as online sources. Other sites, such as VROMA, can offer additional context. Rome: Republic to Empire, for example, provides basic explanations (naming conventions, dress, politics, the house, entertainment) about Roman culture.

Witzke Serena

Serena Witzke is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focusing on Roman history, women and gender, and classical reception. Find out more about Witzke Serena.

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