Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Tondo from an Attic red figure kylix of a man and a sex worker reclining on a bench at a banquet, c. 490 BCE.
The women of ancient Greece are a largely silent group in the face of historical inquiry, and what we know of them from the Archaic to the end of the Classical period is limited. A major part of the reason for this is that women in ancient Greece didn’t have a recognised public voice. Those who did speak were derided as androgynes (‘men-women’); ‘proper’ women in ancient Greece were neither seen nor heard. As a result, it is the male voice that we read in the literary and cultural outpourings of ancient Greece.
In Archaic and Classical Athens women’s and men’s domains within society were sharply divided. Politics and commerce were men’s business, while the household and family were seen as the women’s domain. Poetry and plays written during these periods reinforced these social norms; even when the narrative is set in a different, or ‘mythological’ time, the ethical and social values described in the literature are generally consistent with the period in which the work was written. Consequently, the portrayal of women in literature most often falls within the tropes of goddess, virgin, wife, mother, androgyne or whore.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, is the archetype of the perfect woman - virtuous and loyal. She waits patiently for twenty years for her husband to return from war while simultaneously running his estate and cleverly thwarting the attempts of her many suitors. However, when she confronts a bard outside her home and requests he sing a happy song, her son orders her back inside, telling her that speech is the business of men. She dutifully follows his order.
Even in works that are seemingly progressive from our modern perspective, gender bias is still present. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the women of ancient Greece instigate a sex-strike to try and stop the Peloponnesian War. Although the women move the plot forward and are outwardly represented as a strong unit, their strength becomes a tool for humour and their bold sexual desire, which was thought to be non-existent or unacceptable for women, was shown satirically. The fact that men would perform the roles of female characters would have added to the comedic nature.
Illustration of Lysistrata by Norman Lindsay, 1930. Aristophanes "Lysistrata: The Grecian Temptress".
Euripides’ Medea steps well outside the boundaries of what was considered appropriate for a woman in either fifth-century Athens or the mythological world. She often speaks of herself as an equal to men, including her husband Jason. Her refusal to accept her position of natural inferiority ultimately led to the deaths of her children, Jason’s new bride, and would-be father-in-law. Clytemnestra (who ruled Mycenae during the Trojan War) is another ‘unnatural woman’. Described by Aeschylus in Agamemnon with masculine language, she is a ‘woman with a man’s heart’ whose sense of purpose, skill at oration and unwillingness to give up her newfound power leads to the destruction of her house and the murder of her husband. Medea and Clytemnestra are both portrayed as the antithesis of womanhood - murderers who seized power illegitimately, inevitably leading to chaos and death, an ominous reminder of the perils of women with too much power.
The phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history” was first uttered by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in an article published in 1976. Taken out of context, the quote intended to convey that well-behaved, ordinary women should make history, not to encourage rebellious behaviour. However, taken in its literal sense, it succinctly describes the situation of ancient Greek women. Historical accounts of living women from ancient Greece are rare; women are generally written about as a collective with few instances of named, individual women. The women that have survived to be known by us are typically outliers or renegades, those outside the boundary of ‘respectability’.
From L-R: Clytemnestra on the Battlements of Argos by Frederic Leighton (1874), The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Culture Service, Leighton House Museum; Aphrodite of Knidos. Roman copy of a Greek original from the 4th century BCE; Grave stele of Hegeso, c. 410-400 BCE.
Arguably the most well-known woman from Classical Greece, Aspasia (c. 470-400 BCE), was a hetaira (a type of courtesan) and mistress to famed Athenian statesman, Pericles. She was celebrated for her witty and intelligent speech and well-known in the public sphere, a position generally unknown to, and unacceptable for, Athenian women. Although she was written about favourably by some scholars, she was also attacked for her influence, supposed corruption of Athenian women, and blamed for the Samian and Peloponnesian Wars. One of the primary indicators of respectability for women at this time was to be out of the public eye, and this included not being named. When it came to legal cases in court, care was taken by orators not to mention women by name - for those that were named, the implication was that they were not respectable. In the prosecution speech Against Neaera, the best surviving biography of a woman from the Classical Period, Neaera, a foreign courtesan in her fifties, was accused of unlawfully living with an Athenian citizen as his wife. Apollodorus of Acharnae, the prosecutor, was fervent in his denouncement of Neaera and went into great detail of her sexual history, stating that her daughter, Phano, “hankered after her mother’s habits”. Apollodorus ended his argument by asking the jurors to “prevent respectable women from acquiring the same standing as the prostitute” by voting against her. Phryne (c. 371 BCE), another hetaira, was also a famous beauty and it is said that she was the model for Praxiteles’ statue of Aphrodite of Knidos. This sculpture was the first, full-scale naked statue of the female form. While the original is lost, it was such a revolutionary sensation in antiquity that hundreds of copies were made across the ancient world, furthering Phryne’s notoriety. A self-made woman, she became so rich that she offered to pay for the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes, which were destroyed by Alexander the Great in 335 BCE. Her only demand was that the wall should be inscribed with the statement “Destroyed by Alexander; restored by Phryne the Courtesan”. The town’s patriarchs would not have a woman, let alone a courtesan, be commemorated for such a feat and rejected her offer, leaving the walls in ruins.
It is highly unlikely that we would know any of these women’s names had they been ‘well-behaved’. Their refusal to fit within societal norms has indelibly inked them into the history books. However, what of all the others? What do we really know of the Pythia at Delphi – the most powerful woman in ancient Greece? What about the priestesses, the festival participants, the everyday women who lived and loved and died? Their anonymity is neatly summed up in a quote from Perikles’ Funeral Oration by Thucydides which advises women that the “greatest glory will be hers who is least talked of among men, whether good or bad”. This inevitably raises the question: can we ever have a holistic view of any culture or time period when we’re missing out on the lived accounts of half its population?