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Hellenic Heroines

A brief collection of some notable and eclectic women throughout Hellenic history with diverse contributions who left their mark on either the ancient or modern world (or both!).

Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse, 1887.

Cleopatra VII (69 BCE - 30 BCE)

The last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt and the intellectual equal of the men around her, she is often depicted as a powerful seductress. Cleopatra spoke as many as twelve languages and was in fact the only Ptolemaic ruler who actually learned Egyptian - the rest spoke only Greek. She was also educated in philosophy, oratory, mathematics, and astronomy.

Cleopatra ruled Egypt as co-regent for almost three decades. She was part of a dynasty of Macedonian rulers, founded by Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s most trusted generals. The Ptolemies ruled over Egypt for three centuries.

She took Julius Caesar as a lover and gave birth to his child. After Caesar’s death she found comfort in his close friend and loyal supporter Marc Antony; their famed love affair was later immortalised by Shakespeare.

Now celebrated for her sharp mind as well as her unconventional beauty, the figure of Cleopatra continues to enchant us, and her lavish, sensual reputation continues to inspire countless works of art and literature.

Sappho's portrait from the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

Sappho of Lesbos (610 BCE - 570 BCE)

Known by the ancients as the tenth muse, the Greek poet Sappho remains one of the most famous poets throughout all of history. In a world dominated by male voices, her focus on the feelings and lives of women set her apart, and continues to do so.

Most biographical details of the poet remain highly speculative, yet Sappho contributed significantly to the idea of the lyric genre. Born in Mytilene into a wealthy family on the Greek island of Lesbos, Sappho was fortunate enough to be educated in the art of writing and poetry, which was not common for women at the time.

Her work presents an unencumbered veneration of the erotic and the urgency of desire of physical and romantic desires from a perspective that feels authentically feminine. Sappho’s prioritisation of the subjective experience and the intimacy of her work ensures that the ancient poetess still resonates to this day.

Cover of Wilson's translation of Homer's Odyssey.

Emily Wilson (1971 - )

Emily Wilson is a professor of Classical Studies and is the first woman to translate Homer’s Odyssey into English, combating scholarly insularity with her unpretentious interpretation. Professor Wilson has also translated plays by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides and the Roman philosopher Seneca.

Dr Wilson attended Oxford University and received her PhD from Yale. She has been named a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome in Renaissance & Early Modern scholarship, along with being named a MAcArthur fellow and a Guggenheim fellow.

Her plain language translation of Homer’s Odyssey helps to dispel some of the stuffiness and intellectual elitism that often surrounds the field of Classics. Additionally, Dr Wilson’s translation exposes the way in which previous translations have misrepresented the text, perpetuating harshly patriarchal notions.

Her twitter is an excellent combination of her thoughts on Homer, translation, the field of classics more generally, and her cat!

Marble Herma in the Vatican Museums inscribed with Aspasia's name at the base. Discovered in 1777, this marble herm is a Roman copy of a fifth-century BC original and may represent Aspasia's funerary stele.

Aspasia of Miletus (c. 470-410 BCE)

Aspasia of Miletus was a prominent writer, teacher and intellectual in Athens who rose to fame as the lover of Pericles, the Athenian statesman. She was a key figure in the intellectual history of fifth-century Athens, pushing against the patriarchal confines of her time. She boldly conducted herself as any other male intellectual; establishing a school for young girls and a salon. Many of the most influential men of the time visited her salon; this is supposedly where she met Pericles, her future husband and the father of her son. She has been credited with writing Pericles’ famous speeches, including his renowned funeral oration, and with helping Socrates develop his stratagems for argument.

Although a woman of impressive accomplishments, Aspasia’s life still had its challenges - as a foreign-born woman living in Athens, she was not granted the same rights as Greek women. She may have been a hetaira, an upper class courtesan. Scholars are not one hundred percent convinced that her name was even Aspasia as it means 'greeting with affection' or 'welcome,' which reflects her alleged profession rather appropriately.

Today, Aspasia is broadly recognised and accepted as a formidable intellectual and a talented teacher.

Photo by Marcio Madeira, via VOGUE.

Sophia Kokosalaki (1972 - 2019)

Born in Athens in 1972, Sophia Kokosalaki was an internationally acclaimed Greek fashion designer. Her signature was her use of classic Greek draping, paired with hand-crafted additions. Her pieces adorned A-list celebrities such as Alexa Chung, Cameron Diaz and Kate Hudson, to name a few.

Kokosalaki first introduced her label at London fashion week in 1999 and it was a huge success. Her collections drew upon the beauty of gravitas of antiquity whilst channeling hot-female-rockstar energy that she herself embodied. Sophia had an admirable ability to combine the ancient world with a modern spirit of vitality. Her international renown led to her designing the costuming for the opening and closing of Athens’ Olympics in 2004.

Kaulbach, Wilhelm von - Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis - 1868.

Hydna of Scione (ca. 480 BCE)

It must be said that the existence of Hydna of Scione is not certain, as no contemporary writing, such as Herodotus’ Histories, mentions her. Her story, however, is so incredible it had to be shared! In 480 BCE, the Greece mainland was under attack by Persian forces and the Persian leader, Xerxes I, had stationed part of his naval fleet close to Mount Pelion, a short boat journey from Hydna’s home. Unbeknownst to the sailors, Hydna and her father Scyllis, an expert swimmer, were secretly approaching their location. Armed with knives, the pair reached the rocking ships and dived beneath the waves, cutting the moorings loose, causing the ships to drift and damage other vessels. The Greeks eventually defeated the Persian forces at Salamis, in no small part to the massive oceanic feat of Hydna and her father.

Melina Mercouri, 1985. Photo from the National Archive.

Melina Mercouri (1920 - 1994)

A striking woman, Melina Mercouri was a Greek actress and politician who became an international ambassador for Greece and passionately campaigned for the return of the Parthenon marbles.

She was born in 1920 and made her stage debut in 1944. Her first cinematic role was as leading lady in Michael Cacoyannis’ Stella (1955), and Mercouri rose to international stardom when she played the role of Ilia in the Academy Award-nominated Never on Sunday (1960). The actress received an Academy Award nomination and won a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award for this role. Mercouri was nominated for three golden globes and two BAFTA awards throughout her acting career.

Mercouri protested the military junta in Greece from abroad, returning to her country of birth once democracy was restored. She became Minister of Culture and Sciences in 1981 and was the first woman to ever hold this position, and did so for eight years. Her primary goal as the Minister of Culture was to secure the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles; identifying them as the essence of Greekness, Mercouri emphatically asserted that they must be returned. She also created “Municipal Regional Theaters” to bring theater to the Greek provinces. Mercouri also proposed the program of the European Capital of Culture in 1983, which was then implemented two years later by the European Union.

19th-century painting. National Museum of History, Athens.

Laskarina Bouboulina 1771 - 1825

Born in Constantinople, Bouboulina’s father was a sea captain who had been imprisoned for his participation in a Greek uprising in the Peloponnese. Married twice, Bouboulina inherited her second husband’s fortune when he died shortly after the outbreak of revolution. Using this fortune, she had ships built which she then commanded and financed. She distinguished herself on the sea, assisting with the blockades at Nafplio and Monemvasia, and helped relieve towns under Ottoman siege. She was killed during a family feud in 1825.


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