Cretan Women: Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Phaedra in Latin Poetry. By REBECCA
ARMSTRONG. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press, 2006. Pp. ix + 351. Cloth, $125.00. ISBN 0–19–928403–2.
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CAMWS and the Classical Journal:
Print Version: CJ 103.3 (2008): 329–31
In this book, Rebecca Armstrong (A.) explores the connections between the
myths of Cretan women in Roman literature of the late Republic and early
Empire. Crete is a location defined by contradictions and paradoxes:
associated with the establishment of law and justice, it is also associated
with lying and deception, depravity, and lack of civilization. These
competing tendencies shape the appearances of Pasiphae, Ariadne and
Phaedra, whose stories of sexual perversion and betrayal excite both
revulsion and sympathy. A. argues that the Roman fascination with these
paradoxes makes the stories of these three transgressive women particularly
attractive, as they provide a rich context to explore the dynamics of
personal, cultural and literary memory, and the overlap and boundaries
between the wild and the tame, and between vice and virtue.
The book has a two-part structure. The first three chapters are thematic in
nature; each is devoted to how a particular theme (memory, wildness,
morality) shapes the stories of all three Cretan women in various works.
Chapters 4–7 focus on individual characters in a series of texts. This
structural approach has the advantage of flexibility, allowing for a
variety of critical approaches. The thematic chapters demonstrate the way
layers of texts work together to form composite pictures of the characters,
while the sustained readings of the second half provide a fuller view of
individual incarnations, situating them within literary history. A.
describes her critical approach as labyrinthine—an apt metaphor running
throughout a book characterized by twists and turns, even repetitions, as
she follows different paths of inquiry. A.’s detailed account of her
methodology in the introduction includes poetic memory, ethical values,
psychological realism and feminism among the concerns that inform her work.
This variety of approaches yields a richly layered and complex analysis; A.
consciously resists easy answers and overly-simplifying or schematic
assessments, producing a kaleidoscopic view of the texts at hand. One of
the most intriguing premises of her book is that the mythological and
literary concerns at the center of these stories resonate with broader
Roman cultural concerns. This is a suggestive line of inquiry, which has
the potential to energize her excellent literary readings, but is left
disappointingly under-developed. The entire book displays an impressive
command of literary history, bringing to bear a wide array of evidence,
both Greek and Roman. A. is at her best in close readings of texts, and
offers many sensitive observations and nuanced analyses. The book would
have benefited, however, from a clearer articulation of the extent to which
these women form a distinct group, unified by shared characteristics that
set them apart from other literary women or, through the outlines of their
myths, prompt a sharper exploration of the literary implications of more
broadly shared characteristics.
Chapter 1 addresses the relationship between personal and poetic memory.
Ariadne is haunted by thoughts of Theseus’ forgetfulness of her, and
Phaedra dwells on the sexual perversion in her family tree and its
implications for her own actions. References to memory, immediately
motivated by developments within the characters’ stories, open up to engage
with the dynamics of literary influence and inheritance. This is the most
successful example of A.’s multivalent view of these texts; the
psychological realism of the women’s concern with their own and their
ancestors’ pasts and the intertextual dynamics that bring in the literary
past are mutually reinforcing.
Chapter 2 addresses the theme of wildness in the Cretan women’s stories.
Beginning with the idea that Crete is a place defined by the contradictory
forces of uncivilized wildness and a renowned legal system, A. argues that
the stories of Cretan women, characterized by unbridled female lust, remote
natural locations, the cruelty of heroes and the divine madness of Bacchus,
offer opportunities to explore the hazy boundaries between human and
animal, wild and tame, civilized and uncivilized.
Chapter 3 addresses the moral complexities of the sexual intemperance and
betrayal that define the Cretan women’s stories. Pasiphae’s betrayal of her
husband for the bull, Ariadne’s betrayal of her father for Theseus and
Phaedra’s betrayal of Theseus for Hippolytus offer opportunities to explore
the definitions, categories and even overlaps between vice and virtue. The
characters’ attempts to fight against their passions or to preserve their
virtue through silence complicate their status as irredeemably “bad” women.
The treatments in the second half of the book focus on situating these
texts within literary history. The echoes of and departures from familiar
details bring into sharper focus the outlines of the individual character
in a particular text, but the distinctiveness of these three as
specifically Cretan women falls to the wayside as the focus moves away from
their thematic unity. Chapter 4 focuses on Pasiphae in Vergil’s Eclogue 6
and Ovid’s Ars Amatoria 1. Vergil’s sympathetic treatment of her brings
together neoteric and pastoral influences, while Ovid treats her with
amused mockery, presenting her as a prime elegiac example of women’s
lustfulness. Chapter 5, on Ariadne in Catullus 64, emphasizes Catullus’
poetic self-consciousness and the poem’s relationship to literary history.
Chapter 6 effectively takes stock of the three different Ovidian Ariadnes,
giving a compelling account of the repetitions and variations between them:
a passionate and desperate Ariadne, recently abandoned by Theseus, takes
control of her own narrative in Heroides 10; a vulnerable and weak Ariadne
awaits Bacchus’ arrival in Ars Amatoria 1.527–64; and Ariadne plays the
part of jealous wife of Bacchus in the account of the creation of the
constellation and her identification with Libera in Fasti 3.459–516.
Chapter 7 examines two portraits of Phaedra. The Phaedra of Heroides 4,
drawing from the generic influences of elegy, hymeneal and tragedy, is a
weak, lovesick woman attempting to persuade both herself and Hippolytus.
Seneca’s Phaedra, motivated simultaneously by Theseus’ infidelity, the
inevitability of inherited sin and the questionable divine origin of
passion, is a heroine who bears the weight of her own literary history in a
It remains unclear whether these problematic Cretan women should be
regarded as forming a special group or exemplifying wider trends in Latin
literature. But A.’s sensitive and sympathetic treatment brings valuable
new dimensions to them and the texts they inhabit.
ERIKA J. NESHOLM
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