Demeter's Olympian world was a patriarchal one, governed by Zeus, "father of gods and men." But in her myth, Demeter successfully resists the arbitrary and tyrannical exercise of patriarchal power, circumscribes her own areas of potency and authority, and celebrates her affinity with other female divinities. Similarly, the women of ancient Greece inhabited a polis ("city-state") which was governed by male authority, but in whose social, economic, and religious dimensions they participated actively. The ideology of women's place, along with representations of women in myth, literature, and art, sometimes conforms to this social reality but, just as often, contradicts it. A comprehensive understanding of women's role in the ancient Greek polis, and of the particularitiy of ancient Greek patriarchy, thus requires that we juxtapose ideology with social practice, and attempt to recover a notion of the polis as a cultural totality. Within it, elite women of all periods enjoyed special privileges. Women of the poorer classes, who were required to work for a living, escaped the dictates of a cultural ideal which associated the female with the inner spaces of the home. And women whose lives conformed to the cultural ideal nevertheless enjoyed the pleasures of formally sanctioned and informal associations with other women.
DAUGHTERS OF DEMETER
Marilyn A. Katz
Visible: Women in European History, ed. Bridenthal,
Stuard and Wiener (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1998),
The temple was dedicated to Athena Parthenos ("Virgin"), who as Athena Polias was "guardian of the city." Her miraculous birth from Zeus' head was celebrated in the center of the east pediment, just over the temple's main entrance. Athena's special powers of military prowess and wisdom derived from her special relationship to Zeus, and symbolize the magnitude and beneficence of female potency when submitted to benign male control.
In the sculpted panels (metopes) on the western end of the temple--the side first visible on approach--appeared the battle between the Greeks and Amazons, mythical warrior women who lived at the boundaries of the civilized world free of men and male domination. Metopes on the other three sides represented battles between gods and giants (east), Greeks and Trojans (north), and Lapiths and Centaurs (south). Amazons were thus associated by analogy with the monstrous opponents of the Olympian order (giants), the traditional eastern enemies of the western Greeks (Trojans), and the drunken half-animals (Centaurs) who disrupted the wedding feast of the horse-taming Lapiths.
A festival procession leading up to the Parthenon was part of a yearly polis celebration commemorating Athena's birth, celebrated with special grandeur every fourth year. Girls and women were part of this Panathenaic festival, in which they presented to the goddess the robe they had woven for her and carried the sacred implements for sacrifice. Their participation testifies to the centrality of women's role in religious celebrations, which were themselves a major aspect of the city's public life. In Athens, major religious celebrations occupied approximately one-third of the year, and some of these, like the Thesmophoria in honor of Demeter, were restricted to women, while in others, like the Lenaia in honor of Dionysus, women played a prominent part.
To the north of the acropolis, in the plain stretching out below, lies the agora or civic center; on a hill to the west was the Pnyx, site for the meeting of the Athenian assembly; and on the southern slope of the acropolis was the theatre of Dionysus. From the first of these two centers of civic life women were excluded, and they may also have been restricted from the third, for women were prohibited by law from transacting business exchanges in significant amounts, and they were also barred from appearing as witnesses or litigants in the many law courts located in and around the agora. Thus, only poor women, non-citizen women, or slaves formed part of the daily hustle and bustle of the agora. Furthermore, citizen women were not voting members of the body politic, and so did not participate in the assembly deliberations about which we read so much in our ancient sources. And while women were represented freely on the dramatic stage by male actors, they may not have attended the performances of the tragedies which form such a prominent part of the ancient Athenians' cultural legacy.
Women were part of ancient Greek communal life then, but not of its political or judicial dimensions. Women and the category of the female, however, were central to what might be called the communal imagination of the ancient Greeks. This 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.
For example, among fourth-century BCE Pythagorean philosophers, who were organized as philosophical and 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:
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
The Pythagorean Table of Opposites articulates the opposition between male and female starkly, but the distinction in the Parthenon sculptures between the warrior-goddess Athena and the warrior-women Amazons expresses similar ideas in a subtler and more complex way: the goddess who acknowledges submission to the male is contrasted with the mythical females who refuse it. The women who took part in the Panathenaic procession were neither Athenas nor Amazons, of course, but in our ancient sources we encounter the divine, mythical, or generic female far more often than we do actual women. Attempts to distinguish the lived reality of women's lives from ideological representations of the female inevitably compromise understanding of the ancient Greek cultural totality, in which, with some exceptions noted below, remarkable similarities in our information about women persist across time, space, and genre.
Accordingly, in this chapter I discuss representations of women in myth, literature, and art along with the social realities that conditioned their lives. Sources for the latter are almost exclusively Athenian, and while the situation of Athenian women cannot be regarded as typical, it is also equally unlikely to have been unique in the world of the ancient Greeks. Moreover, it is the situation of Athenian women which has been regarded, from antiquity to the present day, as paradigmatic for the women of ancient Greece generally.
The human world of the polis, too, was governed by the principle of male authority over females, and the laws regulating succession and inheritance authorized men's appropriation of women's reproductive potential. Women in the polis were subject to kyrieia ("guardianship"), which gave fathers, husbands, brothers, or adult sons both the authority to act on their behalf and the responsibility for their support and well-being. Children were also subject to their fathers' guardianship--the boys until they reached majority, the girls until it was transferred to their husbands. A woman's chief civic privilege and duty was to bear legitimate children to her husband--the sons who would become his heirs and citizens of the polis, and the daughters through whose marriages alliances would be forged with other households.
When a man had a daughter but no sons, then his daughter became an epiklêros ("heiress"), endowed like Athena with the authority to transmit his legacy. She was married to her father's nearest male relative (usually his brother and her paternal uncle), and her sons became their maternal grandfather's heirs.
Only in myth and legend could men reproduce without women, but on the tragic stage male characters like Jason in Euripides' Medea express the wish that it were possible to "procreate children otherwise" than with women. The myth of Pandora, who was represented on the base of Athena's cult-statue in the Parthenon, explicitly embodies this theme of woman as curse. In Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days she is "a beautiful evil" created from clay by the potter-god Hephaestus on Zeus' orders, bedecked by Aphrodite, Athena, and Hermes and transferred to earth by Hermes, who gives her to the unsuspecting Epimetheus to be "a curse to men who eat bread." In the Works and Days, Pandora uncaps the jar and releases upon the earth evils for men who, before her advent, had lived "apart from evils and difficult toil and without the painful diseases which cause death for men."
As in the Bible, agricultural labor and sexual reproduction are analogous necessities which define the human condition and set it apart from that of the gods. These imperatives testify to man's mortality at the same time as they remedy it, by supplying nourishment to sustain life on a daily basis and heirs to ensure continuity through time. In the Hesiodic view, the "race" (genos) of women is both the cause and effect of the human condition, and the establishment of civilized order is contingent upon the regulating power of patriarchal authority.
The Iliad's "inner" space is the world of Troy, the domain of old men, women and children: it is glimpsed only briefly in the poem, when Hector returns home from the battlefield. Upon leaving, Hector admonishes his wife Andromache to return home and attend to her spinning and weaving, while he concerns himself with battle. And the same lines recur in the Odyssey, on two occasions when Telemachus sends his mother Penelope from the great hall, so that the men may occupy themselves with male pursuits. But both poems also idealize the marriage-relationship as a union of complementarities. Hector, taking leave of Andromache, formulates a heroic ideal in which he fights on behalf of her and their young son, and she rejoices in their prowess. And the plot of the Odyssey centers on its hero's return to a wife whose cleverness and perspicacity match his own.
Achilles is a figure of mênis, of the "vengeful wrath" that sends him from the battlefield when his honor is insulted, and drives him back to it when Patroclus is killed. But Odysseus is a man of mêtis, of the "cunning wisdom" personified by Zeus' first wife in the Theogony, and associated with the wiles of women. The world of the Odyssey is one dominated by its female figures--the goddess Athena who protects its hero, the women both divine and human who attempt to detain him from his goal or to help him reach it, and above all Penelope, the wife celebrated for her steadfast faithfulness to her absent husband. The reunion of Odysseus and Penelope is the emotional highpoint of the poem, and their relationship embodies Odysseus' praise of marriage spoken earlier in the poem: "For nothing is finer than this: / when a husband and wife live together in their home, / alike in mind and thought--a great distress to their enemies / but a joy to their friends, as they themselves know best."
When their husbands are present the aristocratic women of the Odyssey join the men in the great hall, while in the classical period respectable women did not appear in the andrôn or men's quarter of the house where men gathered for feasting and entertainment. And in the utopian world of the Odyssey's Phaeacia, its queen Arete is celebrated as a woman "of noble intelligence," honored outstandingly by her husband, children, and people, among whom she circulates freely, giving counsel, and "dissolving quarrels, even among men."
Penelope's loyalty to her husband in the Odyssey is configured against the paradigms of the faithless Helen, who caused the Trojan War by succumbing to the seductions of Paris, and of the treacherous Clytemnestra, who took a lover and conspired with him to kill her husband upon his return from the war. And Penelope's faithfulness is imbued with the authority of an autonomous moral choice by the combination of Odysseus' absence with Telemachus' youth: Penelope is married, and thus not under her father's guardianship; her husband, who would normally be her guardian, is absent; her son is too young to assume control of the household. Penelope is thus anomalously exempted from male control and free to make her own decisions about her marital status. Once Odysseus returns, however, the customary boundaries reassert themselves: Penelope is entrusted with guardianship of the stores within, and Odysseus goes off to replenish the household herds and flocks.
We are not in a position to determine how well the representations of men and women in Homer's poems accorded with the social realities of the time when they were composed, in the eighth or seventh century BCE. But discounting the archaic and aristocratic ambience of their settings, women's principal activities and concerns in the epic are the same as those of the classical era: they are preoccupied with spinning and weaving, with safeguarding the household stores, and with the care of their children; they are responsible for petitioning the gods in times of war and for mourning over the dead; and they are the victims consigned to slavery when the city falls.
Songs and Marriage Rituals
In all likelihood Sappho's lyrics, like those of the contemporary Spartan poet Alcman's maiden songs, reflect the existence in her time of ritual associations in which girls were trained in singing and dancing in preparation for their transition into adulthood and marriage. In one of the lyric fragments, Aphrodite is invited to appear in "a lovely grove of apple trees," and invited to "gently pour forth in golden cups / nectar mingled with our festivities." Several of the fragments elaborate the vocabulary of physical beauty and erotic desire. Recalling one departed companion, Sappho remarks: "But now she stands out among the Lydian women / as after sunset / the rosy-fingered moon / Surpasses all the stars." And in a fragment of Alcman, the erotic effect of one girl's touch is described: "...and with desire that looses the limbs, but she looks glances more melting than sleep and death...."
In the classical period, too, girls in both Athens and Sparta participated in ritual associations. Spartan girls competed in athletic contests at Olympia in honor of Hera, goddess of marriage, and Athenian girls took part in races in honor of Artemis at her sanctuary at Brauron, on the east coast of Attica. And representations of choral dance on vases from both the archaic and classical periods suggest that such activities were a persistent feature of citizen women's lives.
A number of Sappho's fragments lament the departure of one of its members, most likely for marriage, and in one remarkable fragment of a hexameter poem by the fourth-century Erinna, the poet appears to recall her beloved friend Baucis' abandonment of childhood games for marriage and subsequent death. In poetry as well as in sepulchral epigrams, a girl's marriage is commonly represented as an abrupt transition from childhood joys to adult responsibilities, and the death of a young maiden is frequently figured as marriage to the god of the underworld. The formulations of these themes may have been conditioned by the young age (fourteen) at which girls usually married a man some fifteen years their senior, but they reflect also a proclivity to configure rituals of separation and transition using metaphors of death and rebirth.
Marriage in the polis was virilocal (centered in the husband's house), and so entailed a woman's transfer from both her father's house and his authority to those of her husband. The wedding was an event celebrated with feasting, dance, and song; its highlight was the torchlight evening procession which brought the bride to the groom's house, accompanied by special attendants for each and by the bride's mother. The groom's mother awaited the couple's arrival in the marital home, and the bride's entrance into her new home was celebrated with a special ritual of incorporation performed at the hearth. On the following morning, another day of festivities began, on which friends and relatives brought gifts to the new husband and wife.
Although the fact that a wedding-feast had taken place could be cited later as proof of the marriage's legitimacy, its legally binding moment was the betrothal, a contract between the groom and the bride's father, which also fixed the terms of the dowry. For example: "Father: I give you this woman for the procreation (literally, "ploughing") of legitimate children. Young Man: I take her. Father: And three talents as dowry. Young Man: Fine."
Procne in Sophocles' Tereus claims that "we women live most happily as young girls in our fathers' homes, where innocence is our nursemaid." And it is true that for women the passage into adulthood brought accommodation to new social circumstances and to the authority of a man who might have been a relative stranger. Thus, the literary theme which represents marriage as rape or associates it with death may also attest to one aspect of the lived reality of women's lives in ancient Greece. It might just as well, however, reflect the convention of modesty which required women to disavow sexual desire and eagerness for the privileges of an adult status which, even as children, they practiced to assume: among collections of bridal vases, we find some miniature examples depicting little girls dressed up as brides, and these were doubtless girls' toys.
Plato is alluding to the myth of Demeter, goddess of grain, who, in the seventh-century BCE Homeric Hymn which canonized her attributes and achievements, afflicted the earth with a devastating drought and famine when her daughter Persephone was carried off by Hades, god of the Underworld, to be his bride. Zeus, Persephone's father, had given her to Hades, arrogating to himself the same prerogative which belonged to mortal fathers in the polis. Other, later authors, like Xenophon, writing in the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE, adopted a more enlightened view, regarding it as normal for both parents to choose their daughter's husband together.
But in the Homeric Hymn, Demeter only hears her daughter's shrieks as she is carried off from the field where she had been playing with the daughters of Ocean, and Demeter wanders the earth searching for Persephone. Helios, god of the sun, explains to Demeter that Zeus "gave the slender-ankled girl to Hades, his own brother, to be his blossoming bedmate and wife." Enraged, Demeter abandons the heavenly company of the Olympians and, disguising herself as an old woman, lives among mortals. Later, she withdraws further, into her luxurious temple, and, "wasting away with longing for her deep-girdled daughter, brought on a harsh and most terrible year for mortal men, all over the all-nourishing earth: no seed sprouted in the earth, for fair-wreathed Demeter kept it concealed."
The oxen draw their ploughs in vain; men sow their seeds of grain fruitlessly. The whole race of mortals is threatened with extinction, and Demeter would have deprived the Olympians too of "the glorious privilege of their honors and sacrifices," if Zeus had not intervened. Hermes is sent to retrieve Persephone, and she is reunited with Demeter in a celebration that includes Rhea, Demeter's mother, and Hecate, a kindly goddess of the older generation of Titans, who "ever after is [Demeter's] attendant and follower."
Zeus promises that Persephone will spend two-thirds of the year with her mother and the other immortals, and one-third in the Underworld, as Hades' bride. And so Demeter "swiftly brought forth grain from the dark, rich fields, and the whole expanse of earth blossomed with leaves and flowers."
In the hymn, Demeter goes on to instruct Triptolemus and the other princes of Eleusis in her rites, the Eleusinian mysteries, which were celebrated every year over the course of a week at Eleusis, an Attic town about 10 miles northwest of Athens. But in other myths, on several vase-paintings, and in Plato's allusion referenced above, Triptolemus is an Athenian culture hero, to whom Demeter taught the art of agriculture, and who transmitted it to other peoples.
The Eleusinian mysteries were open to all Greeks, male and female, citizen and non-citizen, Athenians and foreigners, free and slave. We know little about their content and meaning except that they held out to initiates the promise of immortality. Other cults of Demeter, however, were concerned more directly with agriculture and fertility, and were celebrated in tandem with important events in the farming year. These were widespread throughout the Greek world and were open only to citizen wives.
At Athens, the Stenia, Thesmophoria, and Skira were exclusively women's festivals; the first two were held in October/November, just before the autumn ploughing and sowing of grain and vegetables, and the third occurred in June/July, just after the harvesting of the winter barley and wheat. The Stenia was a nocturnal festival, in which women sought to distract Demeter from her grief with jesting and ritual insults. It was a preliminary to the Thesmophoria, a major, three-day festival which celebrated the reunion of Demeter and Persephone; and in the Skira, the women observed rites which prepared the threshing-floors for the processing of the harvested grain.
Thus, at the times when men occupied themselves with "the works of Demeter"--ploughing, sowing, reaping, and threshing--the women of the polis assumed responsibility for soliciting divine benevolence from Demeter and Persephone so that the crops of wheat, barley and vegetables would sprout, grow, and flourish. These foods formed the staple of the Greeks' everyday diet, and women's rites, evoking divine solicitude for the prosperity of the crops, complemented men's agricultural labors. Furthermore, this cultural discourse between male and female spheres of responsibility for cereal cultivation and agricultural growth was overseen and sanctioned by the polis: the state council offered sacrifices to Demeter and Persephone on the occasion of the Stenia, and during the Thesmophoria the women appropriated the assembly meeting-place for the celebration of their rites.
Such celebrations were an important aspect of women's participation in the communal life of the polis; they provided occasions also when the women of the city gathered together on their own, in "assemblies" reversing the male ones in the political arena from which women were excluded. Participation in such religious rituals, then, represented the public life of the Athenian wife. Through the festivals of Demeter and Persephone, Athenian women confirmed their own associations with fertility, enacted their own reunions with married daughters, and endowed their procreative capacities with both cosmic and political significance.
Drama of Social Life
Furthermore, the conventions of the Greek tragic stage required mimetic disguise, and its male actors assumed the masks and costumes of both gods and heroes, men and women, in tribute perhaps to the god's power as master of transformations, and especially to his androgynous character as "the double god," at once both masculine and feminine. Both by its ritual setting and its conventions, then, the world of Greek tragedy was marked as anomalous from the perspective of ordinary social life.
But these same features also combined to transform the tragic stage into a realm of the imaginary: a site where the tensions, ambiguities, and contradictions of the polis and its ideals could be freely explored. And among these, none was so fraught with complex meaning as the dimorphic social organization which divided male from female within the polis, consigning women to subordinate social status and reserving for men the privileges of autonomy and power.
From this perspective, then, it is not surprising that the drama of the Athenian tragic stage focuses on conflict, and that its clash of opposites often sets male against female--a conflict which frequently serves as the vehicle for dramatizing larger social and cultural discontinuities within the polis. Orestes' acquittal of the murder of his mother Clytemnestra, for example, becomes the founding act through which the blood-vendetta is displaced for the rule of law in Aeschylus' Oresteia. In Sophocles' Antigone, its heroine defies the edict against her brother's burial, issued by Creon, her uncle and the city's ruler, by invoking her allegiance instead to the customs of religious practice; these called for family members to bury their dead, and they, she claims, are sanctioned by "the gods' unwritten and unfailing laws." And in Euripides' Bacchae, it is the women of Thebes led by their king's mother who succumb to the power of the new god Dionysus, but who also, in the throes of their ecstatic transport, dismember the young ruler who had opposed the god's advent.
In these tragedies, social, judicial and religious issues are played out as family dramas, and their polarities are expressed in the language of sexual conflict. Athena, for example, casts the deciding vote for Orestes on the principle, as she says, of male superiority: "I am wholly for the male...and entirely on the father's side." Creon refuses to bend in the face of public opposition because, as he says, "she is the man and not I [if I yield]." And Pentheus is outraged that, under the influence of Dionysus, the women have "left their looms and spindles" and "abandoned their homes".
Greek drama also explored the cultural ambiguities which conditioned a wife's status within the polis. A new bride, for example, upon entering her husband's home for the first time, was incorporated into its domestic cult through a ritual of adoption performed at the hearth which duplicated the rite through which both strangers and slaves were welcomed. A wife, then, was in some respects an outsider in her husband's home, and indeed legally she never abandoned her ties to her natal family, into which she might be recalled if she became an epiklêros ("heiress"), and to which she, along with her dowry, returned in the event of divorce (and also if she was widowed and childless). And, although its particulars are disputed, the institution of aphaeresis ("carrying-off") apparently permitted a father under certain circumstances to remarry his daughter to a more desirable husband. A free man, incidentally, would employ the same institution (aphaeresis) to assert the freedom of a friend who had been seized as a slave.
In Euripides' Alcestis, these issues are played out as the problem of the wife's proper role in the hierarchy of outsiders: strangers, guest-friends, and slaves. The faithful Alcestis undertakes to die in place of her husband, but when Admetus' period of mourning is interrupted by the arrival of Heracles, he abandons grief for the role of host, explaining that the one who has died was a "stranger" or "outsider" (othneios), not a sungenês or relative. Heracles, upon discovering the truth, undertakes to retrieve Alcestis from the dead, and at the end of the play hands over to Admetus a slave, the veiled woman whom he has won as a prize, and who may or may not be Alcestis herself: the play leaves her status ambiguous.
Greek tragedy, then, addressed itself to the socio-political ideals of the polis, but through its characters, subjects, and setting it was also removed from ordinary social life. Greek comedy, by contrast, reintroduces the commonplace into dramatic performance through its focus on the particulars of contemporary social and political debate, its irreverent treatment of the gods, its free recourse to both the fantastic and grotesque in plot and costume, and above all its rampant use of vulgarity and interest in the elemental aspects of bodily functions. Comedy was performed both at the City Dionysia and also at the Lenaea, a mid-winter Dionysiac festival in which women played a prominent role.
Several of Aristophanes' plays exploit the cultural preoccupation with the opposition between male and female by staging a full-scale battle of the sexes in which women vanquish men in the service of the polis. Here, citizen women, far from representing alienation from, or hostility to, the structures of civilized life, can claim plausibly to embody them better than the men. In the Lysistrata, for example, women occupy the acropolis to carry out a sex strike and force an end to the Peloponnesian War. They lay claim to special prestige within the city on account of their history of religious service to Athena, and to a particular wisdom in guiding its affairs because of their expertise in handling wool: just as they clean the wool and pick out burrs and thistles from it, they will purge the city of all worthless elements and pluck out all the political cabals and conspiratorial coteries.
In the Ecclesiazusae ("Women in the Assembly"), the women of Athens contrive to take over the masculine preserve of the assembly on the Pnyx, and vote through a revolution abolishing the family and private property, but not, significantly, slavery. And an ancient myth preserved in a late source explains the aetiology of the name of Athens by referring to the time when Cecrops, Athens' first legendary king, called an assembly of all the citizens, "male and female" to decide between Athena's and Poseidon's claims to serve as the city's tutelary deity. When the women, who outnumbered the men by one, voted for Athena, Poseidon took revenge by flooding the countryside, and was only appeased when the women of Athens were disenfranchised.
The ancient Greeks took account, then, in both myth and drama, of the disparities in civil status between men and women and of the ambiguities of women's role in the family. In the political sphere where thoughts and ideas had practical consequences, the status quo was never, apparently, questioned. But in tragedy, comedy, and myth--in the realm of the imaginar--Athenian dramatists and their audiences explored freely both the dangers of female "otherness" and the potential remedies for women's subordination.
Politics of Public Life
Other myths and stories, to be sure, testified to women's capacities as rulers and warriors, even as they consigned such peoples and exploits to the geographical borders of the Greek world or the margins of its historical memories. Among these, none exercised such fascination as the Amazons, those warrior women "more men for their courage than women for their sex" whom every hero, from Achilles to Heracles, was required to vanquish, and whose defeat by Theseus, when they invaded Attica, was central to his role as the legendary founder of Athenian democracy. Amazons figured prominently in the public iconography of the polis in Athens and elsewhere, but their representation found its way into the private domain as well, including on the ceramic implements with which Athenian women protected their knees when they carded the wool.
Several of these knee-guards represented Amazons armed, arming, or on horseback. On one of them, Amazons arming in preparation for battle are shown on one side, while the other side of the knee-guard depicts proper Athenian wives working wool in the women's quarters of the home. We find analogous juxtapositions of contradictory themes on other vases, too: one, for example, represents a scene of homosexual courtship between boys and men in the gymnasium on one side, while the other side depicts a scene of heterosexual courtship between men and, apparently, respectable women (i.e., not hetaeras or courtesans).
Mythical, legendary, and some historical women appear frequently in Herodotus' Histories. But in Herodotus' historical vision neither events nor their causes were limited to either the human realm or to the public domain of strictly political action. And the Histories, consequently, are a repertory for the many myths, legends, and stories which conditioned the Greeks' understanding of their historical past, as well as for ethnographic particulars about the social and sexual mores of those peoples who constituted the "other" of the known world.
But in the account of the military campaigns and battles of the Persian War itself, only one Greek woman appears--Artemisia, the Carian queen of Herodotus' native city Halicarnassus (in Asia Minor), who fights on the Persian side. Other Greek women do not figure in the account, except incidentally, as when, for example, they are evacuated from Attica before the battle of Salamis. And women generally are even more strikingly absent from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, whose concept of historically significant action was restricted to the domain of military and political events, and for whom women's chief glory in respect to the historical record, as with regard to the public arena generally, consisted in being "talked about least among men, whether for praise or blame."
Nevertheless, women were the ones who provided the polis with its soldiers, and among the Spartans this contribution was marked by the construction of an equivalence between the warrior who perished in battle and the woman who died in childbirth, providing exemption for both from the normal prohibition against named tombstones. In Athens, women's contribution of their sons to war was commemorated most visibly in the many scenes of the warrior's farewell on vase-paintings, where a woman helps him arm or, even more frequently, holds the pitcher and bowl for the ritual libation at the family's altar preceding the warrior's departure.
When their city fell, as we have noted, its women suffered enslavement, the fate of the women of Troy in myth, but no less that of the historical women of Melos, when their island was reduced to submission by the Athenians in 416 BCE, during the Peloponnesian War. And when the city was under siege, women did not hesitate to take up whatever arms were available. On Achilles' shield in the Iliad they and their children defend the city from atop its walls, and this generic scene has a correlate in the historical record when, during the siege of Plataea, the women pelted the invaders with stones and tiles from the rooftops. And although the women of Sparta were especially renowned for the fierceness of their patriotism, Athenian women too, on one occasion at least, imitated their husbands' public action: the men in the assembly had stoned a councilman to death when he proposed capitulation to Persia during the Persian Wars; the women ran to the councilman's home and killed his wife and children by the same means.
When warriors fell in battle, women in epic poetry and art joined in the public lamentations in the archaic period, both as family members and as professional mourners, and they are often depicted tearing their hair and lacerating their flesh in grief. Both sumptuary legislation in the sixth century, and the fifth-century custom of a communal burial and commemoration of the war dead in Athens, restricted women's public roles in funerary ritual, but family members, including especially its women, played an important part in the prothesis ("laying out") and ekphora ("funeral procession") of their own dead, as well as in periodic commemorative rites for ancestors. And women appear frequently on the many funerary vases of the fifth century which represent visits to the tomb and offerings left in memory of its occupant.
Greek women did not, then, participate directly in the political and military affairs of the city. And during their lives, even their public visibility was circumscribed by a number of restrictions both formal and informal, such as the custom observed by the orators of not identifying respectable women by name. When women died, however, both their names and their lives were celebrated and enshrined on marble grave steles erected and sometimes inscribed by husbands, children, and other family members. On them, the dead woman frequently clasps her husband's or mother's hand, in a gesture of last farewell, and inscriptions, when they appear, proclaim her virtue and record the grief of those she leaves behind.
Philosophy of Private Life
Among these issues was the proper relationship between men and women in the polis, conceptualized often as the appropriate relation of oikos, the private space of the household, to the public doman of the polis. In Xenophon's Oeconomicus ("Household Management") and in the Oeconomica attributed to Aristotle, men and women are provided by nature with opposite faculties which nevertheless tend toward the same end, the "partnership" of the household. Men, for example, are naturally adapted for movement, while women's nature is sedentary and patient; courage is assigned to men and fear to women so that he can defend the household and she can preserve and protect it.
In the Politics and Ethics Aristotle defends the subordination of wife to husband on the basis of the principle that the male is by nature superior and the female inferior. Consequently, he is made to rule and she to be ruled, but not, however, in the manner of a slave, from whose status Aristotle frequently takes pains to distinguish that of women.
Plato, Aristotle's predecessor and teacher, had argued differently in the Republic, where, as in Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae, the proposal of equality for women is contingent upon the abolition of private property and the family. Justice, in both the human soul and in the state, he claims, is genderless, and while differences in the capacity for it exist, they are correlated more closely with distinctions of class or type rather than sex.
Plato's ideal state has much in common with Spartan political institutions, where both the private and public life of the citizen was organized communally, with public education (the agôgê) structured around a system of age-grades, and military training provided in the syssitia ("dining clubs") to which men of twenty were elected and where they dined daily even after marriage. The upbringing of girls in Sparta was also state-supervised, and included institutionalized training in dancing and athletics. In Plato's Republic, boys and girls are given the same education, with an emphasis on mathematics, but we have no evidence that girls in the historical Sparta learned to read and write.
The Spartan polis was possibly less idiosyncratic in the ancient Greek world than our sources on the subject, which are uniformly biased and tendentious, would have us believe. Women in Athens, for example, though not trained in athletics, seem nevertheless to have had opportunities for sport and exercise. And it is certain that, among the wealthy, at any rate, they learned to read and gathered in private homes to share music and poetry. On a series of vases beginning in the mid-fifth century BCE, women are depicted reading together from papyrus book-rolls, playing the lyre while deciphering the notes from a papyrus "score", and checking boys' recitations against a papyrus text. On other vases, groups of women appear to be holding contests in singing and recitation among themselves.
The syssitia at Sparta were public, compulsory, and universal. Their analogue in Athens was the symposium, a private and voluntary institution which, like the gymnasium, provided the setting also for philosophical dialogue. The symposium more commonly, however, provided an occasion for drinking, music, dancing girls, and sexual encounters. The women whose presence at symposia is attested on numerous vases were exclusively pornae ("prostitutes"), slave women, or hetaerae (courtesans, literally, "female companions"), who were usually either free foreigners or resident aliens.
Slave boys, too, were available to satisfy men's sexual desires, but at Athens sexual relations between citizen men were institutionalized by a ritualized form of courtship which encouraged homoerotic and paederastic relations between an older and younger man (the erastês or lover and erômenos or beloved). And in Sparta, institutionalized pederasty functioned both as a general political phenomenon and as a feature in the formation of political alliances. The form of intercourse practised between Athenian men was ideally intracrural ("between the thighs"), and did not involve penetration, submission to which violated bodily integrity and was regarded as appropriate for only women or slaves. Male citizens who prostituted themselves by accepting payment in return for sex suffered the penalty of partial disenfranchisement.
Communal life for men in Athens was not restricted to its centers of political activity, but included institutions where the physical, intellectual, and aesthetic aspects of their lives might also find expression. Communal associations among women, except in the sphere of religion, were not institutionalized. Among the wealthy, however, where the daily drudgery of childcare and household labor could be entrusted to slaves, opportunities for informal social gatherings seem to have been exploited freely.
Disorders of the Body
Furthermore, intercourse was regarded as beneficial to women because the uterus (hystera), which was naturally light, dry and liable to desiccation, was then suffused with the moisture of the man's semen. Deprived of wetness, the womb would seek to restore the imbalance by wandering throughout the body and lodging itself near moister organs, producing the condition known as "hysteria." The physician could coax it back into place through the use of foul-smelling fomentations applied from above, or sweet-smelling ones burned below.
But as Plato described it, hysteria resulted when the womb (the "animal" within women), desirous of procreation and frustrated by infertility, "becomes furiously angry and wanders everywhere throughout the body." It is cured when "desire and passion" bring man and woman together in sexual intercourse, through which "tiny formless animals" are sown in the womb.
For Aristotle, the male endows the fetus with form through his semen in conception and generation, and the female supplies it with matter from her menstrual blood. Semen, in Aristotle's view, is a more refined form of blood, "concoted" through the male's greater bodily heat to a higher state of purity than menstrual blood. Menstrual blood is also "concocted," but remains impure, lacking the consitutent of "soul." For the female, Aristotle claims, endowed by nature with less bodily heat, is thereby "a kind of incapacitated male."
A similar view of conception and generation appears in Aeschylus' Oresteia, where Apollo, defending the primacy of father over mother, argues that "the mother is not parent of her child, / but nurse only of the new-planted seed that grows; / the parent is he who mounts." Medical writers, however, saw things differently; some claimed that seed was contributed by both parents and that it was drawn from all the parts of the body. Nevertheless, from the point of view of their bodies, women were constituted by the medical writers principally through their reproductive capacities. The treatises on women address only this aspect of their bodily functioning, whereas "the patient" in Hippocratic writings on such topics as "Regimen in Acute Diseases" is generically male. Thus, for the medical writers, women's anatomical form followed their sociological function.
Conventions of Everyday Life
We have seen something of her domestic duties already, chief among which was the care of her children, whose upbringing she oversaw until her sons reached the age of seven, when their education was taken over by the men, and until her daughters departed for marriage. As wives in their turn, daughters performed the tasks they had watched their mothers doing and which they had learned by practicing at their sides.
Spinning and weaving were, above all, the province of women, an activity which might be performed by slaves as grueling household labor, by wives to exercise and display their artistic skills, or by heroines and goddesses--Penelope as proof both of her virtue and her wiliness, Athena Erganê ("Worker") in her function as patron of the women's craft, or the Moirae ("Fates"), who spun out the thread of life and cut it at life's end. Socrates advised Aristarchus, burdened with the support of his female relatives, to set them to work at the loom, but for a citizen woman spinning and weaving was creative as well as practical, both a daily occupation in the home and an act endowed with religious significance.
In the Republic, Socrates catalogues (only to dismiss as trivial) women's customary occupations: "weaving and baking and cooking." And whereas the variety of tasks involved in wool-working is represented frequently on vases, kitchen tasks appear only in the more humble medium of terracotta figurines, which may have served as toys.
Meat was normally consumed only on festival occasions, and its consumption was always preceded by sacrifice. An extensive series of ritual actions--in some of which women participated--governed the preparation and slaughter of the domestic animal, as well as the cooking and distribution of its parts. The transformation of flour into bread, by contrast, was an everyday task, although religious celebrations of various kinds also called for the preparation of ritual cakes, and some vase paintings depict women patting them into form.
"We have hetaerae for pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be the trusted guardians of our household." So proclaims one speaker in a fourth-century oration, and another reports that "after the birth of my child, I had every confidence [in my wife] and entrusted all of my affairs to her, presuming that there was complete intimacy between us." A woman's interest in her husband's household was thought secure only once it was consolidated through the birth of children, but thereafter she became guardian of the household stores, and was entrusted with oversight of its day-to-day functioning.
We have seen what this entailed, and most of this activity was not performed as solitary labor, but in the company of slaves or, sometimes, freedwomen, like the one who was found lunching in the courtyard with a citizen wife and her children when some men came to collect a debt. On vase paintings representing a variety of other activities in the women's quarters, women are often shown as a group, and usually without signs of status distinction. We have noted that they are represented together spinning and weaving and reading and singing, and they are also shown washing, grooming, dressing, and adorning themselves.
During the day, the house was the province of women, and both in town, where private homes were close together, and in the country, where dwellings were further apart, there would have been many occasions for socializing. Chief among these were daily excursions to the well, and a large number of the vases used for water-carrying were decorated with women gathered at the fountain-house. On some vases we see also the unsupervised encounters with men against which women's restriction to indoors, enshrined in countless proverbs and adages, was intended to safeguard.
And indeed it was when she went to the river with her maids to launder the clothes that Nausicaa came across Odysseus, although we hear of only one occasion in the classical period when a chance meeting outdoors led to subsequent adultery, and that was during a funeral procession.
A man who committed adultery with another man's wife could be killed on the spot, whereas rape was punishable by a fine. For adultery, which required a wife's collusion, brought into question the legitimacy of her husband's children. A husband was required to divorce an adulterous wife, and she was punished further by exclusion from the city's religious rituals. This dual sanction was the equivalent of disenfranchisement for women, since the citizen women's entitlements in the polis involved principally the rights to bear legitimate children, to participate in religious festivals for women, and to assume an honored place in other public religious celebrations.
Aristotle reports that in democracies it was impossible to keep poor women from going out, and it was in fact not just a sign of immodesty, but also of poverty for free women to circulate in the public spaces of the polis. They are found there in our sources as vendors of bread, garlands, vegetables, perfumes, and other goods, and Demosthenes talks about a time when poverty forced citizen women into wet-nursing, wool-working, or grape-picking. Some of these working women appear on vases engaged with men in commercial encounters, and while those represented on drinking-cups are probably hetaerae ("courtesans"), others may be poor citizen women supporting themselves by their labor. In extreme circumstances, citizen women might be forced to sell themselves, and we hear of one who became a hetaera because of poverty, and another because she was "bereft of guardian and relatives".
The sanction against adultery for women, as we saw above, amounted to a kind of excommunication, and participation in the religious life of the polis was not just a woman's chief public function, but also a part of her daily life in the home. Upon entering her husband's oikos (household) for the first time, a wife was initiated into its cult, and she maintained it on a regular basis thereafter, sacrificing either by herself or with her family at the many shrines which were to be found both within the home and at the point of its boundary with the world outside.
In the ancient polis, no domain of the secular was marked off from that of the religious, and no activity was too mundane to be exempt from supervision by one or another of the many divinities of the Greeks in one or another of their many embodiments. The same was true of the oikos which, organized ritually like the polis around its central shrine, was not only a site for many religious observances, but a sacred space whose ritual integrity was maintained by means of the daily activities that took place within it. Women's confinement to the household in the ancient Greek polis, then, did not entail the kind of exile from the centers of significant social, political, and economic activity that it has for Western women in the modern era. At the same time, it was also the unmistakable sign of women's inferiority within a cultural order constructed around a complex system of analogies and polarities, that is, complementaries and oppositions between male and female.
By the end of the fourth century the political landscape of the polis had been transformed in ways which were to remain permanent: power and prestige were concentrated in the hands of the rich, and political offices were increasingly monopolized by a propertied elite who expended their wealth conspicuously in public benefactions. Among the members of this urban elite women are to be counted as well, especially in the Greek cities of Asia Minor, where women held public offices, acted as benefactors of their cities, and were rewarded for their generosity with public dedications of statues, honorific inscriptions, and the like.
Evidence for such public activity derives mostly from the second century BCE and later: for example, several decrees from Cyme, in the province of Aeolis, on the west coast of Asia Minor, dating to the second half of the second century, honor Archippe, the daughter of Dicaeogenes, for her distributions to the populace and her construction of a council-house, and reward her with the dedication of a statue in the agora. But beginning with the late fourth century, there is also evidence that respectable women were artists, musicians, poets, philosophers, actresses, and physicians.
Most of this evidence attests to women's activities in parts of the Greek world other than Athens, but one fourth-century Athenian epitaph for Phanostrate records that she was a midwife and physician who "caused pain to none, and was mourned by all upon her death." A biographer of Plato includes two women among his disciples, neither of whom, however, was herself an Athenian. And Arete, the daughter of Aristippus, who came to Athens from Cyrene to study with Socrates, was one of her father's disciples; she reportedly trained her son herself, so that he bore the nickname Metrodidaktos ("Mother-taught").
Inscriptions and other testimony to women's activities in the public sphere proliferate in the Hellenistic period. These cannot, however, be regarded as a secure basis for asserting that women's status or roles generally underwent a significant transformation. For this evidence must be evaluated in the context of the political transformations of the period, the persistence of traditional ideology, and continuities with inscriptional evidence from the earlier periods.
Thus, wealth combined with the new political prominence of urban elites to make it possible for the women of propertied families to play a role as benefactors in the public domain. But in the Hellenistic kingdoms generally, women of royal families often assumed public duties. And, one might add, they sometimes met with death as a result.
The example of Mania, wife of Zenis of Dardanus, a Greek city on the Hellespont, is a case in point, and it dates from the early fourth century. Zenis had been appointed governor of the Persian province of Aeolis in 399 BCE, and upon his death, Mania approached the satrap Pharnabazus and asked to be appointed in her late husband's place. Pharnabazus agreed, and Mania served him well, using a Greek mercenary force to subdue the independent Greek cities on the coast. During the battles, she herself "looked on from a carriage." Later, however, her son-in-law, stung by gossip claiming that it was shameful for a woman to rule while he was a mere private person, murdered both Mania and her son.
Throughout this period, just as in the late fifth century, philosophical arguments that some virtues were common to both men and women were combined with advocacy of traditional role divisions. Among Pythagoreans in the third and second centuries BCE, for example, seventeen women were numbered as members of the community. But Phintys, in her treatise "On Chastity," claims that "serving as generals, public officials, and statesmen is appropriate for men," while "keeping house, remaining within, and taking care of husbands belongs to women."
And women of all periods offer dedications of money, statues, crowns, ritual vessels, and the like, although less frequently than men. In the early fifth century BCE, a washerwoman offered a tithe of her earnings in a dedication recorded on the acropolis of Athens ; a woman of the early fourth century claimed in a dedication that she was a "thrifty worker" ; and in the second half of the fourth century Melinna dedicated a share of her earnings to Athena Erganê ("Worker"), in thanks for the goddess's beneficence, and proclaiming that by her own handiwork and skill she had raised her children.
The ideology which restricted women to the private, and men to the public, sphere did not, then, restrict either the minority of elite women of the Hellenistic age from engaging in public benefactions or the majority of women of modest means in all periods from working for their livelihoods. Propriety, or adherence to widespread social ideals, was always and everywhere contingent upon property-status.
Summary and Conclusion
Our literary sources and other sources abound in contradictory evaluations of the quality of women's lives in ancient Athens. The anonymous young wife mentioned in a dramatic fragment, for example, objects to her father's plans to divorce her from her now impoverished husband and marry her to a wealthier man, protesting that "my husband has been to me everything I wanted, and all that pleases him, father, pleases me." The heroine of Euripides' Medea, by contrast, complains bitterly about woman's lot, claiming that, as for the complementarity between bearing children and bearing arms for the city, she for her part "would rather stand in battle three times than bear one child."
These lines were written by men, of course, but even if we had access to the voices of ancient Greek women themselves, it is not clear that this would settle the much-debated question of women's status. Comparisons with the situation of women in Western democracies, traditional societies, or sex-segregated modern states are easy, but they are inevitably misleading, since the position of women in a given society is meaningful only with reference to the overall social, political, and economic character of the cultural order in which it is inscribed.
From the perspective of its constitution and political institutions, the ancient polis was unquestionably a "male club" from which women were excluded and to which their only significant contribution was through childbearing. But the city was also a socio-cultural, religious and economic community, and women had an important role to play in each of these domains. Even the home-keeping women of the wealthier classes were active and regular participants in the broadly comprehensive socio-cultural arena of the city's rituals and festivals. Women's confinement to the household in the ancient Greek polis, then, did not entail a wholesale exile from the city's institutionalized communal life.
But ancient Greek cultural ideals, as we have seen, insisted upon a strict polarity between male and female, and upon a hierarachy which elevated men over women. Cultural ideals have a power of their own, and we have no reason to think that Greek citizen women did not, in their own way and for their own reasons, subscribe to an ideology which proclaimed a person fortunate if he had been born "human instead of beast, man instead of woman, and Greek instead of barbarian."