LLR Books

Ancient Greek Women and Warfare: Building a More Accurate Portrait of Ancient Women Through Literature

By Anoush H. Aghababian

The present study explores the portrayal of women in ancient Greek literature within the context of warfare. More specifically, this work focuses on Classical Period Greek literature, particularly between 450 and 350 BCE, written by Athenian men. The genres studied include tragedy, comedy, philosophical works, and histories. As a highly elusive and largely unexplored subject, the lives of the women of antiquity are often generalized by modern scholars. Feminists and classicists tend to recombine all the information they find, regardless of genre or context, attempting to produce a well-supported argument. By conducting a close analysis of the ways in which women are represented in the various literary genres, however, it becomes clear that different genres portray women in different lights. Therefore, not only is it difficult to come to any conclusion regarding the portrayal of women in literature, it is an extremely challenging endeavor to determine how women were perceived at the time, or even the realities of their lives.
It is almost foolishly redundant to say that an understanding of the Classical world relies upon the study of the ancient literature. Ancient texts have been translated, analyzed, and interpreted since antiquity, and they continue to reveal new information on virtually everything pertaining to the ancient world. From legislative operations, social demographics, commercial activities, and political deliberations, to religious practices, urban design, fashion, and cultural norms and taboos, the wealth of information that the literature provides is astounding. In terms of primary sources, the written and archaeological records are regarded as the two most important types of evidence for interpreting the ancient world, and utilizing the two, which coexist by complementing and reinforcing one another, enhances our understanding of the various aspects of antiquity.1
Or so scholars had hoped. This perception that a clear understanding of the ancient texts would automatically illuminate the mysteries of the ancient world is, in fact, merely an unattainable ideal, or at best, a heavily obstacle-ridden endeavor. Not only is the literature often extremely elusive and vague, hardly any of it is a straightforward, objective narrative of the realities of the ancient world; there is a pressing need to consider the texts’ authors, dates, purposes, genres, and audiences.
Each of these factors can have a tremendous effect on the nature of the text and consequently, its contents. Modern scholars, however, tend to conveniently ignore or overlook this complication. Although problematic, this tendency is certainly understandable; the topic being considered may be so severely underrepresented that scholars feel the need to gather any piece of evidence they can find in order to present what appears to be a well-supported idea.
This endeavor, this effort to cite every single piece of literature without any regard to its context, is overwhelmingly abundant in the study of ancient Greek women. In an age when the history of men is still obscure to modern scholars, the documentation of women is even more fragmented and scarce. As a result, scholars employ as many resources as possible to put together a portrait of women in the period. Based on this methodology, it has generally been agreed upon that the women of the ancient world were considered subordinate to men and were confined to their houses.2 Gomme’s (1925) words can be applied to the present work: “This paper is not an attempt to prove that this view is untrue; but that there is a conflict of evidence; that much that is relevant is ignored and other evidence misunderstood and misapplied; that is, that the confidence in the prevailing view is quite unjustified” (p. 5).3
Although commendable for its far-reaching nature, this all-inclusive method of creating a comprehensive account of women in antiquity is fundamentally flawed. It is hardly deniable that works of different genres, time periods, purposes, or audiences would portray women in different lights. Thus, it becomes extremely difficult to use ancient literature, as a generalized whole, to illustrate the realities of women in ancient Greek society. Instead, one must carefully approach the analysis of these resources meticulously and scientifically, using strict controls and constants. All but one factor that could affect the outcome of an experiment, or in this case, the portrayal of women in literature, must be kept constant. This exposes the impacts that the one isolated factor may have. Only once a single factor has been isolated, can results be gathered and analyzed to produce a general conclusion.
Taking this into consideration, this study focuses on how works of various genres portray women of ancient Greece differently, with authorship and age of publication limited to males and the Classical Period. The focus is further restricted to works produced by Athenians (with the exception of Aristotle, who, having been born in Chalcidice, spent a large portion of his life in Athens), roughly between 450 and 350 BCE, with emphasis on the years of the Peloponnesian Wars. Because of the specified timeframe, this study necessarily investigates the portrayal of women in literature within the context of warfare. In short, this study is an attempt to demonstrate that works of varying genres – namely dramatic tragedy and comedy, philosophy, and history – written by Athenian men in the Classical Period portray women in contrasting ways, and that therefore, it is extremely difficult to paint a generalized picture of the realities of women during ancient Greek war.
Because modern scholars typically fail to recognize the complexities of genre and its effects on content and interpretation, they have arrived at fundamentally different conclusions regarding various aspects of the ancient women’s lives. One of the most compelling debates has centered on the nature of the women’s statuses in antiquity. As alluded to above, while the traditional orthodoxy had maintained that the position of women remained ignoble and subordinate to men throughout antiquity, some scholars have argued that, especially in the Classical Period, women enjoyed more social freedom and independence.
In his famous article, “The Position of Women in Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries,” Gomme (1925) suggests that the traditional view is held too confidently, considering the discrepancies in the evidence (p. 2). Gomme claims that Pericles’ funeral speech indicates a slight decline in women’s freedom, whereas the later tragedies point to a revolutionary elevation of status and freedom (p. 7). Gomme further criticizes his predecessors, condemning them for selectively making references to out-of-context passages from tragedy and other ancient works, using them to build a “fanciful history” (p. 8). As a recent supporter of Gomme’s works, Richter (1971) concludes that “the special circumstance of the cloistered, secluded and servile Athenian wife living quietly in an ‘oasis of domesticity’ needs further examination before definite conclusions can be reached” (p. 8).4
Pomeroy’s book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1976), on the other hand, assumes the traditional view that women of antiquity were secluded and subordinate to their men; her evidence all “contribute to painting a considerably bleaker picture of Greek and Roman women” (p. xiii). Incorporating a wide variety of mostly literary sources, Pomeroy attempts to relate the realities of women’s existence in chronological order, beginning with the Homeric and Bronze Ages (p. 229).
Most scholars commend Pomeroy’s work as a necessary response to the lack of focus on the women of antiquity. Some, however, criticize her unoriginality and failure to provide new evidence.5 Regardless of whether or not Pomeroy’s individual views are new, her synthesis work undoubtedly can be regarded as an invaluable starting point for the study of women in antiquity.
Following Pomeroy’s work, a number of contributions have been made to the scholarship regarding women in antiquity. By 1981, for example, Foley was able to compile various essays from Women’s Studies (volume 8, issues 1-2) in a work entitled Reflections of Women in Antiquity. The book contains ten articles by notable scholars, such as Pomeroy, Amy Richlin, and Marilyn Katz, with topics ranging chronologically from Bronze Age Greece to the early Roman Empire. The writers’ variety of sources and approaches together present a complex picture, illustrating the difficulties in making easy generalizations about women in antiquity.
It is hard, for example, to reconcile the discrepancies between the strong women of tragedy and the muted existence portrayed in prose of the Classical Period, and Foley notes in her article, “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama,” that in tragedy, the simple female-male/oikos-polis dichotomy becomes more complex, and “helps us to define a norm against which to read the inversions and aberrations of drama” (p. 161). Similarly, Blok’s compilation of articles, Sexual Asymmetry: Studies in Ancient Society (1987), contains works pertaining to women from Homer and Hesiod, women of Athens, and ancient infanticide, to the women of Republican and Late Empire Rome. Again, the wide range of evidence employed by the various authors – including history, social anthropology, literature, iconography, and archaeology – poses problems when attempting to make concrete conclusions about the realities of women in antiquity (p. vii).
The publication of these volumes, in addition to various other articles and books,6 truly speaks to the increased scholarly interest in the study of women in antiquity, especially during the last quarter of the 20th century. By no stretch of the imagination, however, are all of these works necessarily successful. As previously mentioned, efforts to make reference to virtually all of the ancient evidence, although admirable, is ultimately untenable. When discussing the apprehension felt by young girls facing marriage, for example, MacLachlan (2012) refers to mythology, Plutarch’s biographies, and Apollodorus’ (contested) poetry (p. 56).
It must be stressed that, although they may be referring to the same issues (in this case, a bride-to-be’s concerns), literature from differing genres, each written for different contexts, motivations, and audiences, produce conflicting portrayals of their subjects. Some scholars, however, seem to be at least partially aware of this. In her chapter entitled “Images of Women in the Literature of Classical Athens,” for example, Pomeroy carefully focuses on portrayals of women in tragedy, comedy, and philosophy in turn (p. 93-118), and avoids making any generalizations based upon any sort of recombination of literary evidence. Therefore, she is able to make clear distinctions between the portrayals of women in each genre.
The limited scholarship concerning women in the context of warfare, however, is almost entirely guilty of broad over-generalizations or conclusions, reached without any regard for the genres of which the literary evidence is a part. In “Women, War, and Warlike Divinities” (1984), Graf argues that women were largely passive participants in war, but in order to reach this conclusion, he makes reference not only to ancient histories and epic poetry, but also to artistic representations (p. 245-254). Schaps similarly utilizes a variety of genres for his literary evidence. In “The Women of Greece in Wartime” (1982), Schaps also attempts to provide a general overview of the extent to which women participated in armed conflict. His citations, although admittedly history-heavy,7 also include substantial references to Aristophanes’ comedies and Aeschylus’ tragedies.
Loman, contrary to Graf and Schaps, argues in his article, “No Woman No War: Women’s Participation in Ancient Greek Warfare” (2004), that women’s participation in Greek warfare was extremely important and indeed, necessary (p. 54). Unfortunately, Loman also cites literature of various genres; Anyte and Nossis’ lyric poetry, Herodotus’, Xenophon’s, Plutarch’s, Thucydides’, and Polybius’ histories, Aristophanes’ comedies, Aristotle’s philosophical works, and even fragments of Athenaeus’ publications, are all heavily cited. Barry, in “Roof Tiles and Urban Violence in the Ancient World” (1996), is one of the very few scholars who are able to restrict their sources to one literary genre. Barry makes reference to ancient histories exclusively, and thus is able to provide an uncompromised deduction about historians’ depictions of women as active participants in urban conflict.8
As Culham (1987) astutely admonishes, there is a fine line between parts of text that represent an image and those that depict a reality, a line which is too often crossed by scholars on the basis of unarticulated preconceptions (p. 15). It is pertinent, therefore, to recognize the interrelationship of text, genre, and reality, and its associated complications. A great majority of the modern scholarship concerning ancient women in warfare, not to mention ancient women in general, however, fails to acknowledge these complexities.
Given the diverse, and yet limited, nature of the extant literary evidence, it is extremely challenging to paint a comprehensive picture of women in antiquity, much less during armed conflict. I would argue, therefore, that the best one can do is accept that the literary sources are merely male-oriented portrayals of women, limited by various constraints and conventions prescribed for each genre. This work, then, is a literary analysis in which I attempt to highlight the conflicting portrayals of women in each genre and to emphasize the flaws in modern scholarship of using multiple literary genres to support a claim.
In the context of war, the women of Classical tragedy, in one word, can be described as pathetic. Whether these female characters evoked pathos or were simply seen, by the male audiences of the time, as a representation of what is only natural is certainly worth exploring, but regardless, it is evident that the women were depicted as wretchedly helpless victims of war. The number of times certain words pertaining to suffering, distress, and lamentation occur within the texts truly speaks to the constant misery experienced by women during war: when considering one tragedy by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides each, these words occurred 72 times in Persae, 46 times in Antigone, and 108 times in Troades.9 As Pomeroy (1976) writes, “Women glory especially in being the mothers of sons, and the lamentation of mothers over sons killed in war is a standard feature in Euripides’ […] plays” (p. 110). Hecuba’s monologue at the beginning of Euripides’ Troades is especially poignant:
Alas, alas, to groan in lamentation (στενάχειν) is the wretched fate for me (μελέ), who lost her fatherland, children, and husband. Oh, all of the ancestors humbled, as if you all amounted to nothing. What woe shall I keep silent? What shall I lament? What dirge shall I sing? Wretched me (δύστηνος), my unfortunate limbs lie here, having been laid on the firm ground. Alas my head, my temples, and my ribs; I long to turn and to rest my back and spine, constantly wailing the elegies of anxieties (μελέων). But this is music to the wretched (δυστήνοις), this singing of joyless ruins (τας). (Euripides, Troades, 105-121)10
The chorus in Euripides’ Phoenissae alludes to not only its own misery, but also to the wretched state of Jocasta, a mother about to lose her two sons in battle:
Alas, alas, I hold my trembling, trembling heart with shudders; and pity, pity for the wretched mother goes through my flesh. Which of the two sons will stain the other with blood – oh, my suffering; oh, Zeus; oh, Earth – a brother’s throat, a brother’s life, with shields and blood? […] I will wail a cared-for cry, to be mourned with tears, for the dead; their light is about to go out. This murder is unhappy, ill-starred because of the Furies. (Euripides, Phoenissae, 1284-1306)
And when Jocasta finds her dead sons, she laments (μωξεν) (Eur., Pho., 1432), wails (κλαι) (Eur., Pho., 1434), sings a dirge (θρήνει) (Eur., Pho., 1434), groans (στένους) (Eur., Pho., 1435), and kills herself (Eur., Pho., 1455-59).Continued on Next Page »
In this way, women are consistently only portrayed as victims of war; their lamentations and cries dominate the scenes in which they are featured, and rarely (if ever) do they actively participate in battle. The image of a helpless and powerless victim is extremely prominent. Of course, men also suffer the consequences of war: they sacrifice their lives for battles, which, particularly in tragedy, are especially disastrous. However, because death in combat is seen as an honorable feat, as Cassandra declares,11 ultimately, one can argue, war is not as detrimental to the men.
Women, on the other hand, are victims of war in the sense that they not only suffer from the grief of losing their husbands and sons, but they are also subject to rape and enslavement, “to a life of drudgery if they were old or ugly, degradation if they were young and beautiful” (Schaps, 1982, p. 204-205). This is especially apparent in Troades, which focuses on the Trojan women about to be taken to Greece as prizes for the victors. Here, Talthybius announces to the women that they are to be assigned to certain Greek generals:
Talthybius: Hecuba, you know me as the one having frequented the roads between Troy and the Achaeans as a herald; I come bearing a new message
Hecuba: Alas, this, dear Trojans, was my fear for a long time.
Talthybius: You all have been appointed by lot (κεκλήρωσθ) already, if this was your fear.
Hecuba: Alas, what city, Thessalian, Phthian, or Cadmian land did you say?
Talthybius: You were not all chosen together; each woman is assigned to one man.
Hecuba: Who obtained whom? Which Trojan was allotted the lucky destiny?
Talthybius: I know all this, but you must learn one at a time, not all at once.
Hecuba: Tell me, which young man was given my wretched Cassandra?
Talthybius: Lord Agamemnon, having chosen her (ξαίρετον), takes Cassandra. (Eur., Tro., 235-249)
It is clear that women were seen as objects to be exploited by men; κεκλήρωσθ (to have been appointed by lot) conveys the image of men drawing lots in order to determine what (or who) their prize may be, and ξαίρετον (to be picked out) connotes an aggressive snatching of Cassandra by Agamemnon, especially given the root of the verb (αρέω, which means to seize or grab). Cassandra also likens her fate with Agamemnon to a contest with a prize12 and in Antigone, Creon refers to women as “fields to plow.”13 Women are thus portrayed as helpless victims of war and of male aggression.
Additionally, women who do attempt to take control of their fate or take on a more active role are nonetheless portrayed negatively. When Antigone buries Polynices in Antigone, for example, Creon continuously directs insults towards his niece: “You, having snuck into my house like a viper, sucking the life out of me, while I was unaware of the two rebels to the throne that I was raising” (Soph., Ant., 531-533); “I despise evil women for my son” (Soph., Ant., 571); “spit her out as if she were an enemy, let her go find a boy to wed in Hades” (Soph., Ant., 653-654).
Furthermore, Antigone’s actions are regarded as masculine, hardly a compliment to a woman. Ismene reminds her sister that they are born women, and by nature not meant to fight with men (Soph., Ant., 61-62), yet Antigone is determined to take on an active, and consequently masculine, role. Her actions are so abrasively unfeminine that the men initially suspect that a man had buried Polynices, until she confesses, referring to herself with a masculine participle (κατθανν) (Soph., Ant., 464). Creon also makes reference to Antigone’s manliness with the masculine pronoun (στις) (Soph., Ant., 479) and participle (λος) (Soph., Ant., 496). As a woman who by nature (φυμεν, from φύσις) (Soph., Ant., 62) must abide by the men’s laws, Antigone’s masculine defiance is depicted in a highly negative light.
Other negative views of women pervade the Classical tragedies, especially in those written by Euripides. Characters declare that women are the best devisers of evil,14 a source of sorrow,15 only happy if sexually satisfied,16 and that clever women are dangerous,17 stepmothers are malicious,18 and upper-class women are adulterous.19 It is noteworthy that the women portrayed in these plays are all upper-class women, usually of the ruling class. Gomme (1925) explains that the playwrights adopted the heroic women (and the plot-lines) from the Homeric epics (p. 5), so readers are only exposed to the sufferings and experiences of the women of higher social and economic statuses.
Thus, it can only be tentatively concluded that, if the upper-class, female characters are depicted as helpless, pitiful, and powerless victims, then the lower-class women also likely endured similar or worse miseries. Again, whether this can be applied to the real-life women, however, is still dubious; it must simply be accepted that this is merely how women are portrayed in ancient tragedy, not perceived.
Similar to Antigone, one of the few women who take on active roles in tragedy, the women of the Classical comedies are given considerable authority and dominance. For example, Lysistrata declares a sex strike and occupies the acropolis in hopes of ending the war and bringing the men back. Similarly, Praxagora, in Ecclesiazusae, establishes a communist-like government in Athens with other women. By leading their comrades and seizing control of the political situations of the city, these women are literally overstepping the boundary between the private and public spheres, taking on much more active roles than those of the tragic heroines. MacLachlan (2012) posits that the amount of power exercised by the comic heroines represents a “new and more independent voice emerging from the cracks in the social structure” (p. 141), and Pomeroy (1976) declares that because comedy focuses on ordinary people rather than epic heroes and heroines, it is a more reliable source for the social historian (p. xvi).
As stated above, however, the assumption that literary depictions reflect the realities of women in Greek society is flawed. According to Pomeroy (2004), the plots and characters of the comedies were nothing more than preposterous parodies or exaggerations that incited laughter, and they were written for the specific purpose of entertaining the audience (p. 230).20 Shaw (1975) writes, “[…] we can assume that drama is about the fantasy of Athenians, not about their lives” (p. 255). Thus, if anything, the female characters should be regarded as the opposite of what the real women experienced.21
As in tragedy, the women in comedy are not portrayed in a favorable light. One of the reoccurring images throughout Aristophanes’ works is that of women as ardent lovers of sex and wine. In the opening of Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, for example, Praxagora describes all that the lantern, to which she is speaking, sees: “you stand by so as to assist us stealing from the cellars of fruity and flowing wine” (Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 14-15). Her communist political plans also eliminate poverty, trials, theft, adultery, private property, and marriage, and, in the words of Saxonhouse (1980), leaves “only the pleasures of food, wine, and sex” (p. 77).
And at the beginning of Lysistrata, Lysistrata is frustrated that the women of the city do not appear for her meeting, in which she intends to propose a sex strike, and complains that: “if someone called them to a Bacchanal or a festival of Pan or Aphrodite, no one would be able to get through the streets because of the women’s festive drums” (Aristoph., Lysistrata, 1-3). Yet when the women finally gather, they all turn away when they learn of Lysistrata’s plan: she asks, “Why do you turn from me? Where are you all going?” (Aristoph., Lys., 125). It is abundantly clear that sex and wine are of utmost importance to the women; as Saxonhouse (1980) writes, “[The women’s] is the realm of giving and receiving sexual gratification and it is this role which they want to reinstitute by turning men away from martial endeavors” (p. 69).
The literature’s portrayal of this persistent passion for sex and wine expressed by the women serves two purposes. First, it portrays women as single- and simple-minded beings with only physical desires. Unable to show commitment to anything else (particularly politics, at which they fail in Ecclesiazusae), the women are portrayed as weak victims of physical cravings. Second, it highlights and reinforces the social division of men and women into the public and private spheres of Classical Greece. Saxonhouse (1980) states that the loves of wine and of sex both “provide private pleasures and […] are unrelated immediately to the public activities of war. The love of wine and sex are apolitical” (p. 69-70).
Thus, women are only concerned with their private, domestic interests. Furthermore, the women’s excuses for secretly meeting their men outside the acropolis (one must tend to her wool, another needs to flay her flax, and another is suddenly pregnant) are all tied to their attachment to the home, and by extension, the domestic, private sphere. For this same attachment to the domestic sphere, Praxagora’s radical proposals are ultimately unsuccessful; her politics are only concerned with women’s private interests.
Not only do the comedies reinforce the women’s ignoble confinement to the domestic spheres, they, like the tragedies, highlight the fact that warfare is a natural cause of suffering and grief for women. Unlike the tragedies, in which women for the most part grieved for the deaths of their male relatives, however, the grievances of the comic heroines are largely selfish. As discussed above, women are primarily concerned with being sexually satisfied, and the fact that their needs are not fulfilled in their husbands’ absences is their chief complaint with war.22 Thus, women are depicted as lonely and dissatisfied victims of war, but at the same time, they are being criticized for their dependence on men and sex.
The women express no concern for the physical or economic consequences of war – particularly the destructions of cities and crops and the disruption of commerce, all of which would leave the women essentially helplessly stranded without the men – but go to great measures (i.e. organize a sex strike or communist political reorganization) to ensure that their sexual needs are satisfied. It is fortunate for Lysistrata that men also require sex, because otherwise, the sex strike likely would not have succeeded, leaving the women to fend for themselves in the unfamiliar public world.23
Furthermore, the dominance and authority enjoyed by the women in the comedies, as is the case with the tragedies, contribute to an overall, negative portrayal of women. The etymology of Lysistrata’s name (λύω + στρατι), which literally translates to “army-disbander” renders Lysistrata as a destructive and harmful force. The image of active women is again, associated with masculinity. Shaw (1975) articulates how female dominance is simply destructive: “If she is dominant, her husband will appear to lack decisiveness himself, and therefore she will harm his honor. Since his honor is in fact the standing of the house in the community, a woman’s domination eventually harms the oikos itself” (p. 257). And because the oikos, or the home, is the only realm in which Classical Greek women existed, her domination would also be self-destructive.
The portrayal of women during war in the philosophical works of the Classical Period, particularly those of Plato and Aristotle, is not as apparent or conspicuous as in the dramas discussed above. The philosophers hardly discuss women in warfare explicitly, so it becomes necessary to make inferences from loosely related statements about women and warfare separately. However, as Kochin (1999) writes, one must keep in mind that warfare permeated the time period during which the two were writing and no doubt affected their writings (p 404).
There is a considerable amount of what appears to be feminist views and ideas in Plato’s and Aristotle’s works. Stauffer (2008) writes, for example, that Aristotle views the household, the domestic sphere occupied by women, as playing an important role in sustaining political health for the greater good of the city by providing moral education (p. 930). Allen (1975) similarly points out the “vision of equality between the sexes” in the Republic and the Laws of Plato (p. 131).
Modern feminists and scholars searching for evidence of gender equality in the ancient texts often refer to these remarks by Plato and Aristotle, but there are conflicting ideas within the texts that require further investigation.24 Plato, for example, regards gender equality in the ideal city simply as an efficient use of resources. As Annas (1981) states, “Plato’s interest is […] with production for the common good, and a state where all contribute the best they can according to their aptitude. This, he thinks, will best fulfill women’s natures” (p. 181). Plato also implies that gender equality can only be achieved under the communist ideal that he describes in Book Five of the Republic because the exclusion of private property reduces the seclusion of women. Allen (1975) further contends that:
Plato’s discussion of the equality of the sexes should be read by connoisseurs of a priori absurdity […]. For various unplausible reasons Socrates suggests that these proposals will give unity and cohesion to the community. The most charitable comment to make on this passage is to suggest that Plato’s purpose is to pull the legs of those who attach undue value to family ties (p. 131).
Furthermore, Plato seems to acknowledge the fact that his ideas are utopian ideals that are largely unrealistic and unattainable: Allen (1975) writes, “Plato scholars deemphasize the significance of the vision of equality of the sexes by claiming either that Plato was only discussing a utopian vision of society and that he had no illusions about its practical implementation, or that he was not at all serious about it, even as an ideal” (p. 131). Lewis (1995) similarly writes that Plato recognizes that only a few of his readers would “make a sustained effort to penetrate beyond a superficial surface meaning” (p. 379); in other words, very few individuals, in Plato’s mind, would likely attempt to implement the ideas and reforms suggested by Plato.Continued on Next Page »
Plato’s discussion of guardians in the Republic is particularly compelling. Plato writes that for an effective social life, a city requires guardians – soldiers and rulers who defend the state and make political decisions.25 There has been much scholarly debate regarding the eligibility of women for becoming guardians, but the claim that women were ultimately incompetent for the position is the best-supported. Plato, who writes that the guardians should refrain from excessive contempt of their enemies and from stripping or mutilating their corpses after battle, adds, “And does it not seem bigoted and greedy to strip the corpse, and does it not seem to be a womanly and small-minded idea to think that the body of the dead is an enemy, especially if the real enemy has already flown away […]?” (Plat., Rep., 5.469d). This misogynistic portrayal of women serves to reinforce the notion that women were unfit to be guardians.
Kochin (1999) also presents a convincing argument regarding women’s participation in war: “By bringing women into the city’s army Socrates breaks the connection between the manly activity of war and actual men: the warrior’s life will no longer seem overwhelmingly appealing because it is no longer the exclusive sphere of the valorized gender. War is less noble if women can do it too” (p. 420-421). Calvert, like several other scholars, notes the inconsistencies in Plato’s arguments. By saying that women and men should not be employed separately on account of their sex (Plat., Rep., 5.453e-455a.), Plato implies that women can also be guardians. However, Plato also portrays men as superior to women,26 a view which, according to Calvert (1975), would be “rather embarrassing for those who regard him as a champion of the equality of the sexes.
In particular, it would involve Plato’s argument in a major inconsistency, for it would mean his advocating for women a position that, on his own account, they did not justly deserve” (p. 231). Furthermore, Plato’s qualifications for an individual to become a guardian severely restrict women from occupying the position. He writes that guardians must imitate “brave, prudent, pious, and free” (Plat., Rep., 3.395c) men, and not “women, young or old, or abusing her husband or quarreling with the gods and bragging, thinking to be fortunate, or involved in tragedies, sorrows, or lamentations” (Plat., Rep., 3.395d). Because almost all women are in one or more of these conditions, therefore, most women are unqualified to become guardians.
Aristotle similarly portrays women in a negative light. By condoning the exclusion of women from the public, for example, Plato reinforces the gendered social division and the isolation of women from the public sphere (Dobbs, 1996, p. 74). In Politics, Aristotle promotes the idea that the subjection of women was part of a natural social and political order and that the household was subordinate to the political community dominated by men (Stauffer, 2008, 929-930). In short, maintaining the two separate spheres is for the common good of the city, as discussed previously, yet it still reinforces the seclusion and marginalization of women in ancient Greece. Stauffer (2008) further maintains that this dichotomy was maintained by force, implying the subordination and suppression of women (p. 930).
Other misogynistic perceptions pervade Plato’s and Aristotle’s works. Plato compares cowards and unrighteous men to women in the Timaeus,27 constantly mentions male superiority over females throughout the Republic (Plat., Rep., 455b-c, referred to earlier), degrades women as sexual prizes of bravery in war,28 and laughs at the idea of women receiving the same education as men.29 Aristotle also equates women to slaves, both of which are considered “workers” – the females’ sole job is to produce children – that are to be ruled for the greater good of the community.30 To summarize then, the women of these philosophical works are largely depicted as resources to be exploited for the common good of the city and as incompetent dependents on the men of society.
Ancient history is often regarded as one of the most reliable literary sources for the study of ancient women (Pomeroy, 1976, p. xvi). Because of its seemingly objective nature with its relatively simple narrative, there is a tendency in modern scholarship to use historical accounts as direct evidence for the realities of ancient societies. However, this is in fact untenable and flawed. Culham (1987) writes,
[the notion that] the narratives of authors in the ancient genre of history are distinguished from other narratives not by “factual” content but by the claim to intellectual detachment […], and […] the frequently encountered beliefs that historical texts as a genre are somehow more primal, or closer to reality, or safely composed of predigested historical data which require less manipulation before use, are simply naïve. (p. 15-16)
Thus, as with tragedy, comedy, and philosophy, historical works too much be regarded as differing portrayals of women, rather than as reflections of the realities of the women of Classical Greece.
One of the most prominent historians of the time, Xenophon portrays women as primarily inept. He explains in his Oeconomicus that because of their natural, physical incompetence, they are assigned to the “indoor,” or private, spheres:
And since both these things, of indoors and outdoors, require labor and care, God immediately prepared, according to the nature of woman, it seems to me, the labors and cares of indoors, and by his nature, man to the outdoors. For he equipped the body and soul of man to be more able to endure the cold, heat, marching, and military campaigns; so he assigned to him [man] the outdoor labors. For the woman, whose body is less able [to endure these things], because of her nature, it seems to me that God assigned the indoor labors to her. (Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 7.22-23)
It is clear here that Xenophon portrays women as inferior to men by nature, and thus, inadequate to participate in any outdoor or public activities, much less military engagements. As have several of the other writers discussed above, Xenophon also reinforces the notion of a distinct division between the public and private, or male and female, spheres. Earlier in the Oeconomicus, Xenophon, through dialogues between Ischomachus and Socrates,31 also indicates that women are to be trained by men; in other words, they are unable to learn for themselves how they must act as wives:
“Did you yourself teach your wife so that she would be the sort of woman that was necessary, or did you take her as a wife already having learned of the household duties from her father and mother?” “And what, Socrates,” he [Ischomachus] said, “Did you think she knew, when she came to me not even fifteen years old, and until that time she lived with great care so as to be seen, heard, and spoken about as little as possible?” (Xen., Oec., 7.4-7.5)
The image of the incompetent and helpless woman is prevalent. The helplessly lamenting women similar to those depicted in the aforementioned tragedies are also portrayed in Thucydides’ works. On the eve of the Sicilian Expedition, the women sent off their husbands “[…] with hope and lamentation of their journey, thinking of what they might acquire and if they may see them again, and of the great expedition from their homeland for which they were sent” (Thucydides, 6.30.2). While mourning the loss of their husbands and sons, the women also cannot help feeling excitement and anticipation for the great riches from Sicily; the selfish, private interests displayed by the women in the comedies are also portrayed here in Thucydides’ historical account.
Thucydides also writes of several occasions in which women were passive objects of military circumstances, perhaps in an effort to underline the tragic effects of warfare (Wiedemann, 1983, p. 163). The enslavement of women, as mentioned above with regards to the tragedies, is particularly prevalent.32 This exploitation of women adds to the notion that women were helpless victims of male aggression and corruption, and reinforces the subordinate and inferior status of women. Thucydides also attributes to Pericles the famously misogynistic idea that women should never be talked about,33 further suggesting that women should be secluded and invisible.
Despite these images of the oppressed, victimized, and helpless women, however, there are accounts of women taking on a more active role in warfare. Thucydides mentions women assisting their men during the Theban invasion of Plataea: “the men threw themselves upon them with great shout and the women and household slaves together yelled screams and shouts from the houses and threw roof tiles […]. Some men slipped through one of the gates, and having been given an axe from a woman, cut through the bar” (Thuc., 2.4). During the Corcyraean civil war, too, Thucydides writes that “women also daringly partook in the cause and threw tiles from the houses and stayed a part of the confusion, unexpected of their nature” (Thuc., 3.74).
Furthermore, 110 women remained at Plataea to cook for the 480 men,34 and the women and slaves helped the building of the Long Walls in Argos35 and Athens.36 Excepting the mention that the women’s assistance is “beyond their nature (παρά φύσιν),” there is no suggestion that these female were behaving inappropriately; contrary to the depictions of active women in the tragedies and comedies, there is no connotation of masculinity or abrasive dominance in these accounts. In fact, the women are simply portrayed in a positive light as helpful and beneficial contributors to the war cause.
It is difficult to reconcile the drastically contrasting portrayals of women throughout the historical works. On the one hand, women are depicted as helplessly incompetent victims of war, while on the other hand, there are several accounts of women actively participating in battle and assisting with the war causes. It remains a challenge, therefore, to define the portrayal of women in ancient history as either strictly negative or positive. Conversely, the women in tragedy, comedy, and philosophy are all portrayed negatively; although the individual depictions of each genre range from helpless victimization and exploitation to selfish dominance, an underlying, misogynistic image of women as inferior subordinates remains constant throughout.
In the end, it becomes abundantly clear that there are distinctly contrasting depictions of women within the various genres. Yet, modern scholars continue to haphazardly extract bits of each, in an effort to provide more primary evidence for their claims. Given the fact that these different bits are pulled out of context from their original, distinct portrayals of women, the modern scholarship loses, to a certain degree, credibility and persuasive effect. As is the case with the study of any aspect of antiquity, the study of ancient women, particularly in the context of war, therefore must be treated with the utmost vigilance and subtlety.
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1.) Although the literary and archaeological data can be brought together to enhance one another, the subsequent account still may not be entirely comprehensive. Tim Cornell (1995) makes reference to Jacques Poucet in an effort to define the situation: “Historians should be very careful when they appeal to archaeology to ‘confirm the tradition’ […] In a number of cases, archaeology provides only vague indications which are capable of several possible interpretations, one of them tending in the same direction as the tradition […] One should be under no illusions: often the archaeological picture will be neutral, and will permit no conclusion one way or the other” (p. 30).
2.) This, however, has been disputed, as discussed further below.
3.) Here, Gomme is referring more specifically to the view that the status of women of the Classical Period was degrading and undignified, but his words apply to the present argument, as well.
4.) Like Gomme, Richter criticizes his predecessors for misapplying the extant evidence and for letting their personal biases affect their work. One of Richter’s most intriguing arguments cites Solon’s restrictive legislation. The fact that Solon enacted laws forbidding certain women from participating in funerary rituals or from displaying certain actions of lamentation, in Richter’s mind, is an indication that women’s influence over men could reach such proportions that it necessitated legal restraints.
5.) D. Nash. (1977). [Review of the book Goddesses, whores, wives, and slaves: Women in classical antiquity, by S. B. Pomeroy]. Social History 2(6), 810.; den Boer, W. (1976). [Review of the book Goddesses, whores, wives, and slaves: Women in classical antiquity, by S. B. Pomeroy]. Menmosyne 29(3), 320.
6.) Rabinowitz, N. & Richlin, A. (Eds.) (1993). Feminist theory and the classics. New York: Routledge.; Blundell, S. (1995). Women in ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.; Scheidel, W. (1995). The most silent women of Greece and Rome: rural labor and women's life in the ancient world (1). G&R, 42(2), 202-217.; Scheidel, W. (1996). The most silent women of Greece and Rome: rural labor and women's life in the ancient world (2). G&R, 43(1), 1-10.; Gold, B. K. (1997). Feminism and classics: framing the research agenda. The American Journal of Philology, 118(2), 328-332.; MacLachlan, B. (2012). Women in ancient Greece: A sourcebook. New York: Continuum.
7.) Throughout his work, Schaps makes numerous references to Herodotus, Polyaenus, Plutarch, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, and Diodorus Siculus. He even cites Livy, though briefly.
8.) Throughout his work, Barry refers to Strabo, Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus, and Thucydides, as well as additional non-Greek historians, such as Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius.
9.) The words considered, only counted if they are used with regards to women, include the following: δύστηνος (Persae [3 counts], Antigone [4], Troades [10]); λγέω and λgος (Persae [9], Antigone [4], Troades [28]); στένω, καταστένω, and στενάζω (Persae [26], Antigone [2], Troades [9]); μέλεος (Persae [11], Antigone [7], Troades [45]); χος (Persae [17], Antigone [9], Troades [0]); and λυπρός (Persae [1], Antigone [0], Troades [3]).
10.) All translations are my own.
11.) “The Trojans died first for their fatherland, earning the most honorable fame, and those whom the spear defeated, their bodies are in their embracing fatherlands, carried by friends into their homes, wrapped by duteous hands for their funeral rites” (Eur., Tro., 386-390).
12.) “I will not speak of […] the contest (γνας) that will surely kill my mother” (Eur., Tro., 361-364).
13.) “There are other arable (ρώσιμοι) women” (Sophocles, Antigone, 569).
14.) “We are, by nature, women, and at a loss concerning good, but the most skillful masters regarding everything evil” (Euripides, Medea, 408-409).
15.) “Women always are naturally meddling in the doings of men, leading to misfortune” (Eur. Orestes, 605).
16.) “But you women have gone so far [into folly] that you think you have everything straight in bed, and if some tragedy occurs in bed, you make even your most desirable and beautiful things hateful” (Eur., Med., 569-573).
17.) “You are, by nature, wise and knowledgeable of all things evil” (Eur., Med., 285); “For an irritable woman, as are men, is easier to guard than a secretive, clever one” (Eur., Med., 319-320).
18.) “For stepmothers are said to hate their children” (Eur., Ion, 1025); “We suffer greatly indeed from stepmothers” (Eur. Ion, 1330).
19.) “May some terribly bad thing destroy she who began to defile the beds of other men! This evil began to happen from women of noble birth” (Eur., Hippolytus, 409-410).
20.) It is quite peculiar, if not slightly unnerving, that Pomeroy, despite acknowledging that comedies were written solely for entertainment purposes here, still claims that they are a reliable source for constructing the realities of ancient Greek women (1976, p. xvi).
21.) Shaw’s argument eloquently reiterates this point: “Literature and the social documents, as we have seen, both describe what women should do, what we will call the ‘image of women.’ In both cases, the image of women described is essentially the same, although this similarity is obscured by the fact that women in drama are all doing what women should not do. (Indeed, by the very act of being in a drama, which always occurs outside the house, they are doing what women should not do.) However, it is always clear in the drama that these are not foreign women acting normally but Athenian women acting abnormally, intruding into the male domain. They are all, to borrow T.B.L. Webster’s phrase, ‘bad women’” (p. 256).
22.) Lysistrata says to her companions, “I am fairly certain that all of our men have left us [for battle]” (Aristoph. Lys. 100-101) and complains that “not even the impression of a lover (μοιχο; adulterer) has been left behind” (Aristoph., Lys., 107).
23.) Saxonhouse (1980) writes, “Within the context of the comedy, Lysistrata’s plan succeeds because, as she herself explains, the men have no pleasure without women. Lysistrata assumes that war is not enough for men and that their public lives are insufficient to sustain them. They need the private world of sex and the family as well. The sex strike, Lysistrata expects, will force men into an awareness of their own neglect of that part of their lives for which they engage in battle” (p. 71).
24.) Okin (1989) writes that Plato can properly be seen as a pioneer with his argument that women are equal, yet, the elements of misogyny found in other parts “limits the relevance of Plato’s argument to contemporary feminists” (p. 31-42), and Julia Annas, according to Forde (1997), “rejects the notion that Plato can be seen as any sort of feminist on the basis of his argument in the Republic” (p. 657).
25.) “Do you not think, as I do, that things concerning war seem to be a profession?” (Plato, Republic, 2.374b).
26.) When Socrates asks “So do you know anything practiced by men, in which the race of the men does not stand differently than the women?” (Plat., Rep., 5.455c), the answer is “You are correct; one race is stronger by far in everything than the other race, as it is said” (455d).
27.) “Those of the men who are cowards and live their lives unjustly, according to this account, are transformed as women in the second generation” (Plat., Timaeus, 90e).
28.) “And to the good men, perhaps from the ship or another place in war, gifts and other prizes must be given, and especially the power to sleep with women” (Plat., Rep., 460b).
29.) From 452a to d, there are seven occurrences of “γελοα,” as well as “jokes (σκώμματα),” and a “comedy (κωμδεν)” This laughter is stimulated by the suggestion that women should engage in the same education as men. Rosen (2005) writes, “Since it is more difficult to be angry when one is laughing, Socrates tries to blunt the offensive aspects of his proposal about women by beginning with its humorous side” (p. 171).
30.) “First there is a necessity to join those who are unable to live without one another, such as the union of female and male for the sake of reproduction […] and the ruler and the ruled, for safety. For the one able to see with his mind is, by nature, the ruler and master, and the one able to work with her body is, by nature, ruled and a slave” (Aristotle, Politics, 1252a). Here, Aristotle attributes the origin of the ruler-ruled relationship between men and women to the common benefit of both. This also further reinforces the notion that women were dependent upon their husbands and unable to live on their own.
31.) Oost (1977) writes, “Another complicating factor, however, in trusting his work as historical evidence is that it is one of Xenophon’s ‘Socratic’ books; he is trying, presumably, to reflect the opinions of Socrates, who is to be understood as approving all the propositions in this work, in which he appears as a speaker […] the views are probably Xenophon’s, whether originally those of Socrates or not, for it is generally agreed that the Ischomachus of the dialogue is more or less identical with Xenophon himself” (p. 226). It must be stressed that, regardless of whose views or opinions are depicted here – whether they be Xenophon’s, Socrates’, or Ischomachus’ – the present work only focuses on the portrayal of women, that is, simply, what is said about them.
32.) “And around these times of the summer, the Athenians having forced Scione to surrender, killed the young men and enslaved the children and women” (Thuc., 5.32); “And they killed the young men of Melos whom they took, and enslaved the children and women” (Thuc., 5.116.4); Gylippus declares that the Athenians had invaded Sicily with the intention of delivering the “most dreadful things for the men and the most indecent things for the children and women” (Thuc., 7.68.2); “When it became day, the Corcyraeans, having thrown them [the men] into the wagons, led them out of the city. And the women, whom they led to the walls, were enslaved” (Thuc., 4.48.4).
33.) “And if I must keep in mind the issue of female excellence, to those who now will be in widowhood, I will advise you in everything with this short comment: there is a great expectation for you all to not fall short of your natural circumstances, and fame will be hers who is the least [talked about] among the men whether for her excellence or her flaws” (Thuc., 2.45.2).
34.) “Plataeans had brought their children and women and oldest men and many of the useless men first to Athens, so that those left behind (four hundred men, eighty Athenians, and a hundred and ten women to bake bread) were besieged” (Thuc., 2.78.3).
35.) “Some of the cities in the Peloponnese knew to build walls. And Argives, with all their people, even women and slaves, built” (Thuc., 5.82.6).

36.) “[…] and everybody in the city, together, the men and the women and the children, all built” (Thuc., 1.90.3).

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