Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Books: Flawed Portrait Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004
by Sarah Markgraf

Eugenie Sellers Strong, a British archaeologist with a love of all things Roman, has been largely forgotten. She was well known until her death just 50 years ago, one of the few women in the field and the author of scholarly work that influences art history to this day. The reason behind this amnesia--her gender, perhaps, or maybe her sympathy for Mussolini--is never resolved in Stephen L. Dyson's Eugenie Sellers Strong: Portrait of an Archaeologist (London: Duckworth, 2004; $44.95). The Park Professor of Classics at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), Dyson has written a well-researched biography that nevertheless leaves unanswered many questions about this complex woman. Readers get a lot of facts about Strong's scholarship and social life but not a good sense of who she was.

Eugenie Sellers Strong

Though her fascination with Roman art and culture--inspired in childhood by a Rome-loving Jesuit teacher--remained a constant in her life, Strong herself was less predictable. In scholarship she was a traditionalist dedicated to preserving the past, but in life she was a woman pushing the limits of female potential in a male-dominated profession. (As assistant director of the British School at Rome, her unseemly ambition eventually got her fired.) One of the first female university graduates in England, Strong was a productive scholar who believed ancient Roman art to be the very basis of Western civilization. Her Roman Sculpture was considered for decades after its 1907 publication "the only serious study of Roman sculpture in English," notes Dyson. Yet she was not bookish. Considered one of the great beauties of the age, Strong moved in the swank circles of Europe's social elite, didn't marry until age 36, had no children, and probably had a number of highly unconventional romances--a man 30 years her junior and women among them. Yet she was a devout Catholic fascinated with the Counter-Reformation married to a conservative Victorian man, and while she possessed a rigorous intellect, she sympathized with Mussolini's opportunistic sentimentality for ancient Rome.

Dyson dances around these complexities without delving into them, offering only cryptic references to Strong's depression and health crises, and to "the negative side of Eugenie." There are few quotations from Strong herself. Though Dyson says up front that his portrait of Sellers Strong is inspired by the Victorian style of biography--unsurprisingly prudish about life's seamier side--the central mystery of Strong's identity requires more forthright analysis from a twenty-first-century biographer writing for a modern audience.

Sarah Markgraf is a professor of literature at Bergen County Community College

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America