Marilyn A. Katz
Aristotle reports that among Pythagorean philosophers, who were organized as religious societies in the southern and Greek parts of Italy, one group taught that there was not one principle underlying the sensible universe, but ten, and that these were organized in contrasting pairs: Limit and Unlimited, Odd and Even, One and Plurality, Right and Left, Male and Female, Rest and Motion, Straight and Crooked, Light and Darkness, Good and Evil, Square and Oblong (Aristotle, Metaphysics).
The ideological space of the polis was structured through the principles of polarity and analogy, and the opposition between male and female was one of its governing categories. The Pythagorean Table of Opposites (above) articulates this contrast starkly, and a saying attributed by a late author to Thales of Miletus (585 bce), traditionally the first of the Greek philosophers, elaborates an analogous but considerably less abstract set of contrasts. Thales was reportedly thankful to Fortune on three accounts: 'that I was born a human and not a beast, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not a barbarian'.
The opposition between civilized and monstrous, Greek and barbarian, however, was not always represented as analogous to that between male and female. For example, the distinction in the Parthenon sculptures between the warrior-goddess Athena and the warrior-women Amazons suggests a contrast instead between the goddess who acknowledges submission to the male and the mythical females who refuse it.
Translated to the human sphere and to the domestic realm, a version of this same ideology found expression on even humble artistic media. For example, one side of the knee-guard illustrated here, which was used by women in working wool, represents Amazons arming in preparation for battle. The other side of the vase, however, depicts proper Athenian wives working wool in the women's quarters of the home: embodiments in their own way of Athena who, as Athena Erganê ('Worker') was also the patron of their domestic skills.
The city of Athens was named in honour of its tutelary deity, Athena, but Greek mythology elaborated two different aetiologies of the contest between Athena and Poseidon which resulted in the goddess' victory: in both Athena was credited with the city's first olive-tree, and Poseidon with a spring or lake. In the account of Apollodorus, a second-century bce mythographer, Zeus entrusted the decision between the two divinities to a jury of the twelve gods, who found in favour of Athena, since Cecrops, Athens' first legendary king, bore witness that she had been the first to plant the olive tree.
Varro, however, the great first-century bce Roman scholar, gave a different account of how the ultimate decision was reached, and this was preserved by Saint Augustine in his City of God:
called an assembly of all the citizens, male and female, to
vote on the question; for at that time and in that part of
the world the custom was that women as well as men should
take part in deliberations on matters of state. Now when the
matter was put before the multitude, the men voted for
Neptune [Poseidon], the women for Minerva [Athena]; and, as
it happened, the women outnumbered the men by one; and so
the victory went to Minerva.
Augustine, in commenting on this myth, does not hesitate to express his disapproval of Athena's failure to come to the defence of her champions: 'Minerva could at least have ensured them the right to be called "Athenian women", and to be rewarded by bearing the name of the goddess to whom their votes had brought victory over the male divinity'.
The Agora, Athens' main gathering place, flourished in the fourth century as both a political (including religious) and a commercial centre. Traversed by the city's major processional way, the route taken by the annual Panathenaic procession, and flanked by political,legal and religious structures, it stood not so much in the shadow of the Acropolis as in a complementary and almost equal relationship with it. To enter the Agora was to enter space that was in some sense sacred, and certain classes of convicted criminals were therefore formally barred. On theother hand, it was not a space reserved only for adult male citizens. What the plan cannot show is the mass (and mess) of temporary booths and stalls of hawkers and peddlers selling a whole range of articles from trinkets and gewgaws to staple necessities. And the sellers and customers included citizen women, and foreigners and slaves of both sexes, the latter not always there of their own volition (slaves both bought and were themselves bought). Strict regulations were supposed to ensure fair andpeaceful trading, but fighting as well as faking was not unknown. Aristophanes in his Knights comedy of 424 gives to the Sausage Seller character the speaking name of 'Agoracritus', meaning (so the Sausage Seller himself claims) 'reared on disputes in the Agora'. Rarely can a name alone have conveyed so much precise information.
As Katouchios ('Constrainer'), the god Hermes was called upon in curse-tablets to ratify imprecations against male and female shopkeepers together with their shops and their manufacturing skills. Curse-tablets are thin lead sheets inscribed with maledictions and often divinities associated with the underworld are invoked to ensure that the curse is efficacious. Most curse-tablets, like the one cited below, date from a late period, but there are earlier examples which are similar in form. Imprecations might be directed against competitors in the areas of love, sports, the lawcourts, or commerce.
Typically, in the tablets concerned with commerce, a shopkeeper is 'bound' together with his wife, male and female associates, and along with their workshops, skills, and profits. Perhaps these retailers had cheated their customers: a character in Aristophanes' Plutus, for example, complains that 'the (female) tavern-keeper in my neighbourhood is always short-changing me in the drinks'. And Plato, in the Laws, says that disparagement and abuse are commonly heaped upon 'the whole class of shopkeepers and traders' since they are always trying to maximize their profits.
But it is more likely that these katadesmoi ('binding spells') reflect the spirited and agonistic context of commercial competition. In one set of Attic tablets from the third century ce, a group of men and women is cursed either separately or together with a number of (presumably) their neighbours and/or associates. Their occupations are not indicated, but the imprecator presumably represents a rival group of entrepreneurs who are seeking the aid of the god of commerce and other deities in order to gain an advantage in the market over their chief competitors:
I bind Ophilion (m.) and Ophilime (f.) and Olympos (m.) and Pistias (m.) and Magadis (f.) and Protos (m.) and Kados (m.), Thoukleides (m.) and Melana (f.) and Komos (m.) and Bakkhis (f.) and Kittos (m.), and these men's and women's expectations [of livelihood] (elpidas) from both gods and heroes, and all their [manufacturing] skills (ergasias), by Hermes Katoukhios and by Hekate and by Earth and by all the gods and by the Mother of the Gods.
Spartan society in our ancient sources, which are almost exclusively non-Spartan, was notoriously militaristic and regimented. A strict system of age-grades (the agôgê or 'upbringing'), dating traditionally from the time of the legendary lawgiver Lycugus, separated boys of seven to seventeen (paides, 'boys'), who learned dancing and singing, from those of eighteen to nineteen (paidiskoi, 'older boys'), whose training encompassed survival techniques, and those of nineteen to twenty-nine (hêbôntes, 'youths'), who underwent rigorous military indoctrination. Spartan 'youths' (hêbôntes) were full citizens and were entitled to marry.
From the earliest period of the agôgê, Spartan boys lived in barracks, separately from their families, and as adults all citizen men belonged to syskania or 'messes', small groups meeting and dining communally and housed in individual 'men's houses'. Institutionalized pederasty, beginning for boys at about age thirteen, was a well-known feature of Spartan communal life, and Spartan syskania are sometimes compared inexactly with Athenian symposia.
The Lacedaemonian perioikoi ('dwellers-round') were obliged to provide military service, but were excluded from the privileges of citizenship, which encompassed membership in the assembly and the right to stand for election to the five-member civil magistracy, the ephorate. Since Spartan citizens were prohibited from engaging in mercantile activities, the management of trade and manufacture was in the hands of the perioikoi.
The servile population of Sparta, the helots, was owned by the Spartan community as a whole, and the ephors declared war annually upon them. Helots supplied the bulk of the agricultural produce upon which the rest of the population depended and thus formed a permanent population of serfs; those of Messenia (the south-west region of the Peloponnese) engaged in periodic revolts.
A modified form of physical training for Spartan girls apparently focused on gymnastics and choral song and dance. Some of our sources indicate that institutionalized homoeroticism was also part of girls' upbringing, and we encounter explicitly erotic language in fragments of the Partheneia (choral 'Maiden-Songs') of the seventh-century Spartan poet Alcman. In one, for example, a girl (or choral group) sings of desire for Astymeloisa: '... and the desire that looses the limbs, but she looks glances more melting than sleep and death ... . If she [Astymeloisa] should come near and take me by the soft hand, at once I would become her suppliant'.
The goal of a Spartan woman's training was to make her a mother of warriors, according to Xenophon, who reports that Lycurgus 'instituted competitions in running and physical strength for women as for men, believing that if both parents are strong they produce more vigorous offspring'. Xenophon also says that Lycurgus thought woolworking and the sedentary life associated with it in other city-states was better left to slavewomen. But in Elis, another Peloponnesian polis, a group of 'sixteen women' was entrusted with the honour of weaving a peplos for the goddess Hera. It was presented to the goddess at the Heraea, the festival in honor of Hera analogous to the Athenian Panathenaea. These same women managed the games in honour of Hera, foot-races run by girls according to age-group, and supervised girls' choral dances in honour of the goddess. The victorious maidens in the foot-race were honoured with olive-crowns, a choice portion of the sacrificial offering, and the right to dedicate statues inscribed with their names.
The cup illustrated here celebrates victory of a different sort: one having to do with skill in woolworking. It was a prize won in a girls' carding contest, which required speed and dexterity in the disentangling and drawing out of woollen fibres. The mid-sixth-century cup comes from Tarentum, a Spartan colony in South Italy known for fine wool and weaving; it is a drinking-cup and is decorated with large eyes and battle scenes, including one in which a female captive is led away. Perhaps the conjunction of themes is meant to suggest the fate that might await women who did not support their warrior sons and husbands by confining themselves to conventional female pursuits.
Traditionally, however, Spartan women disdained weaving and sedentary occupations. Among the sayings attributed to Spartan women by Plutarch, for example, a Spartan woman responded to an Ionian woman who showed pride in her weaving by pointing to her four well-behaved sons and saying, 'These should be the occupation of a good and noble woman, and over these she should be exhilarated and proud.' (Plutarch, Moralia)