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Women in Antiquity: CLAS 330/HUM 330/WS 330 (3 units)
Presession, Summer 1995: Monday, May 15 - Saturday, June 3
9:00 -11:50 AM MTWTHF ML 312
Instructor: Marilyn B. Skinner (

Guidelines for Book Reports

(Jump down to Sample Book Report)

The object of doing a book report is to demonstrate, first, that you understand the thesis of the book you have chosen to report on and, second, that you have applied some critical thought to the ideas encountered there. Reports that do no more than summarize the book's contents will be returned ungraded.

  1. Please follow the format given below:
    1. Give author, full title, publisher, date and place of publication.
    2. In a single paragraph, state the fundamental thesis of the book and summarize the argument used to establish that thesis. If the book surveys a topic (e.g., Women in Hellenistic Egypt), provide an outline of its contents.
    3. In the body of the report, relate the content of the book to issues and materials discussed in this course. For example, if the author is writing a biography of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, comment on her treatment of Cleopatra in the light of class lectures on queens of Ptolemaic Egypt and readings in Pomeroy and Lefkowitz and Fant. A large part of your grade on this assignment will depend on how thoughtfully you relate the book to course content. Be specific.

  2. Mimimum length of each report is 500 words. There is no maximum length.

  3. Criteria for grading: You will be graded primarily on your understanding of the author's basic ideas and on your capacity to integrate those ideas with other course material.

  4. Demonstrating that you have understood the central thesis does not mean giving a detailed summary of the book's content, chapter by chapter. Being able to abstract the argument and sum it up concisely is the best proof of understanding it.

  5. Remember that authors often state their thesis in the introductory or concluding chapters of their books. Read those sections carefully.

  6. It is understood that these are scholarly works, and so rather difficult for the non-specialist. I will not expect you to demonstrate expert knowledge of the topic.

  7. You will receive credit for noting authorial conclusions that conflict with other opinions you have read (such as those found in Pomeroy). Give reasons, if you can, for adopting one or the other position, or suggest how opposing views may be reconciled.

Sample Book Report

This sample report on Sarah Pomeroy's Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves may be used as a model for your own reports. If a student had handed in this report, she or he would certainly receive an "A."


Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken, 1975.

In this book, Sarah Pomeroy attempts to provide both a social history of ancient women and a survey of images of the female in Greco-Roman myth, literature and art. The time frame is approximately 1500 years, from Bronze Age Greece to the late Roman empire. Successive chapters treat gender relations in Greek mythology and Homeric epic, the situation of Dorian and Ionian women in the Archaic period, the legal condition and the private lives of classical Athenian women, treatments of the female in tragedy, comedy, and philosophical treatises, Hellenistic queens and ordinary women, elite and working-class Roman women, and women's role in Roman cults and mystery religions. In a brief epilogue, Pomeroy draws some general conclusions about the respective status of Greek and of Roman women from evidence presented earlier.

At the time Pomeroy wrote there was, she explains, "no comprehensive book on this subject in English" (p. x). Although her study was not primarily intended as a college textbook, it soon became the standard text for women-in-antiquity courses. The fact that it has remained in use for almost twenty years indicates that it serves that purpose well. It summarizes a great deal of information in highly accessible form, while still raising original and provocative questions. For example, Pomeroy's observation that "we know of some courtesans who attempted to live as respectable wives, while we know of no citizen wives who wished to be courtesans" (p. 92) warns us not to attribute modern desires for sexual freedom and intellectual fulfillment to women of earlier societies. Her insistence that the past should be understood on its own terms is a reasonable one.

Pomeroy's work continues to exert an important influence on subsequent scholarship. Her claim that loss of male kinfolk during the Second Punic War increased the wealth of elite women and provided more opportunity for independence (p. 177) has become a historical truism. That thesis has now been explored at greater length by John K. Evans in War, Women, and Children in Ancient Rome (1991).

In such an extensive project, there will naturally be gaps and deficiencies. Thus Pomeroy's discussion of Greek gynecology (pp. 84-86) is disappointing. Extracts from the medical texts in Lefkowitz and Fant's Women's Life in Greece and Rome (pp. 81-98) contain a great deal of interesting information that obviously should have been included there. Furthermore, we know much more about ancient women than we knew twenty years ago, so there are times when Pomeroy's judgment appears faulty in retrospect. When she pronounces the Boeotian poet Corinna "parochial" (p. 53), or states that Sulpicia "was not a brilliant artist" (p. 173), she unthinkingly reproduces the trivializing comments of earlier critics. As Jane M. Snyder points out in The Woman and the Lyre, feminist classical scholars have since taught us to appreciate the real artistry of these and other ancient women writers (p. 135).

Despite those occasional flaws, this book should provide a student with a firm understanding of the realities of ancient women's lives. It is the foundation upon which all later studies of women in antiquity rest.