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Finding women in Greek literature

Updated Thursday 6th December 2007

Sam Newington explains that discovering the real lives of Greek women takes more than just a first read of the texts


The Essay: Greek and Latin Voices introduces listeners to ancient Greek texts drawn from a range of literary genres. These genres include: the epic of Homer, lyric poetry of Sappho, tragedy of Euripides, political history of Thucydides and the anthropological and historical writings of Herodotus. These authors and their surviving texts provide invaluable evidence concerning the culture of ancient Greece. I want to look at a topic which is of great interest to students and scholars of the classical world – namely Greek women – and to consider some of difficulties involved in reading what are essentially literary texts for historical information. To what extent can such texts offer any real insight into ancient Greek attitudes towards women?

To answer this question we need to think about how we might approach reading an ancient literary source as evidence.

First, we must read each text as a literary work looking at its internal dynamics: factors such as language, narrative voice and characterisation come in here – as does the concept of focalisation: what does the author dwell on in his or her narrative and what does he or she leave out? The next step is to compare the features of the text with other literary sources: how are the author’s language, subject matter and emphases distinct? To what extent is the work typical or atypical of its genre? Lastly: does the author have an identifiable agenda?

Arguably, it is when themes recur in a number of literary sources that the social historian has the most to work with. The subject of female virtue is a good case in point. Perhaps most interesting is the tendency of authors to offer up examples of what men consider to be bad female behaviour – caused, according to Greek male thought, by women failing to fulfil their natural potential (physis). Interestingly, a negative model is often juxtaposed with an example of virtue; that is, good behaviour that women can and do achieve – despite what might be said about them.

A good example of this is the chorus of Euripides’ Medea who speak of the male poets’ tendency to cast women in a negative manner (lines 1081ff). This protestation from the female chorus does not come out of the blue – rather it follows various negative characterizations of the female sex earlier in the play. For instance, Euripides (a tragic poet himself, of course) has Jason state that women are governed by sexual desire (569-573) and even Medea confesses that her "passion is stronger than reason" (1079). Further evidence for the supposedly passionate and irrational behaviour of women can similarly be found in the earlier work of Sappho, whose poetry frequently alludes to the sexual energy of women. Poems 94 and 96 utilise a rich canvas of language with natural imagery as metaphor for female eroticism.

Yet Sappho’s account of women’s sexuality, unlike Euripides’, shows a largely positive approach towards female passion. Importantly, too, there is also recognition of how women can demonstrate virtue through marriage. This idea is found in a number of classical authors, but perhaps most notably in Homer where, in the Odyssey, we learn of Penelope’s loyalty towards her absent husband and her repulsion of the suitors. Even in Euripides, though, we learn of the importance of marriage unions between Greeks and, in particular, aristocratic citizen Greek families. The importance of lineage and female virtue forms a central feature of Jason’s union with the King of Corinth’s daughter in Medea, for example. The idea of appropriate marriage is also explored in Book 6 of Homer’s Odyssey. Here, the fact that Nausicaa is ready for marriage is symbolised by her wandering from the house to wash the clothes with her fellow maidens. On meeting Odysseus at the beach, however, she is so concerned to preserve her reputation for virtue that on offering Odysseus hospitality at her father’s house, she insists that they travel separately back through the city in fear of what people may say. Thus, through the fictional character of Nausicaa, we get a sense of ancient Greek values towards women and their position within the wider community.

The lesson from tragedy is that when women are removed from their natural environment of the household (oikos) and come to occupy any sort of prominent position in the city (polis), then they become most dangerous. In Homer, too, as well as in Euripides, women are shunned and feared should they demonstrate intellect within the public space – especially as ancient Greek men regarded a woman’s mind as devious. These texts seem to be articulating genuine male anxieties about the dangerous power that women might display should they be allowed to participate in polis affairs. Concerns about the potential hazards of women participating in civic life are also specifically mentioned by Herodotus and Thucydides.

Herodotus and Thucydides are different from the authors we have been discussing so far. Up to now the women we have met are those belonging to the world of myth and fiction: Nausicaa and Penelope are women from the legendary past; Medea is a figure linked from myth; and arguably in the case of Sappho, her female figures are largely literary creations. However, the works of Herodotus and Thucydides owe less to myth (although this does feature, especially in Herodotus’ more anthropological narratives) and more to history. Yet crucially to this discussion, the importance of female virtue remains constant.

Women figure very little in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War – but when they do, he comments on their virtue. At 2.45.2 Thucydides has the Athenian general Pericles urge the war widows in Athens to exercise constraint, stating that ‘your reputation is glorious if you do not allow yourself to be inferior to your nature’ and adds that they should be honoured for their resolve and virtue. Elsewhere, women are exhorted to retain bodily virtue even in times of war. Thus in Thucydides women’s roles are clearly subordinate to those of men and their key goal in life is to fulfil their natural potential and thus avoid causing shame. Women maintain an obligation to honour their family and city through virtue.

In his anthropological writings Herodotus, too, allocates a specific role to women: that of being a good wife, producing legitimate offspring and maintaining the oikos. Interestingly, his work also contains a number of examples of bad female behaviour and these often take the form of tales from mythology and/or accounts of barbarian tribes. A prime example is the account he gives of the Amazons and their man-eating barbarism which he sets in opposition to Greek ideals of female behaviour. It appears, then, that attitudes concerning women and marriage that we find as early as Homer are also largely current in the contemporary reality of Herodotus and Thucydides – and these same attitudes also permeate other post-Homeric literary texts in varying degrees.

In conclusion: this essay has highlighted just some of the features of men’s attitudes towards women in the Greek world. With the exception of Sappho, these are all male perspectives – and this is no coincidence since so few works by female authors survive. Certainly attitudes towards women were more complex than can be outlined in a short essay like this, but the aim here has been primarily to suggest some starting points for reading and interpreting the literary evidence left to us by the ancient world. Despite difficulties in interpretation, ancient texts provide a rich way of understanding the culture of ancient Greece – as well as an enjoyable read!


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