Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.58

Sarah B. Pomeroy, Pythagorean Women: Their History and Writings.   Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.  Pp. xxii, 172.  ISBN 9781421409566.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Kai Brodersen, Universität Erfurt (


In the midst of the revolutionary events of 1789, the celebrated German author Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813), a contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, having just finished his translation of the works of Lucian, published in a Calender für Damen (Calendar for Ladies) an essay on “Die Pythagoreischen Frauen” (“The Pythagorean Women”). Wieland’s translation was reprinted, with the Greek texts, two years later; it was republished in his Sämmtliche Werke (Complete Works) in 1796, and has been in print ever since.1 For the Greek texts, Wieland used the collection edited by Johann Christian Wolf in 1735 (not the first Aldine edition published in 1499); they have since been re-edited repeatedly, notably by Rudolf Hercher in 1873, Mario Meunier in 1932, Holger Thesleff in 1965, and Alfons Städele in 1980.2 A collection of apophthegms attributed to the Pythagorean woman Theano, transmitted in Syrian, was published by Ute Possekel in 1998, and more recent studies include one by Rosa Reuthner (2009).3

A study by Sarah B. Pomeroy, then, whose seminal work on women in the ancient world has been an important influence on more than one generation of scholars, was thus, as it were, overdue, though her claim that “no one had preceded me in writing a comprehensive study” (p. xvi) is perhaps neither necessary nor fair, especially when some of the old (Wolf, Wieland) and some of the recent studies (Possekel, Reuthner) are simply ignored, and a view “which I adopted in 1977” remains undisputed (p. 44). As for the texts, Pomeroy, against more recent scholarship, follows Thesleff (1965), “who is the only scholar who demonstrably read all the texts by both women and men” (p. 43; a rather bizarre and at any rate unsubstantiated claim) in dating the texts she discusses to the classical and Hellenistic periods, none later than the 2nd century BC, and thus to what she calls “the heyday of the Greek bluestocking” (p. 44).

Taking these assumptions as given, Pomeroy presents six chapters, first asking “Who were the Pythagorean women” (ch. 1), and continuing with a survey of women’s roles as “wives, mothers, sisters, daughters” (ch. 2), before focusing on the question “Who were the Pythagorean women authors” (ch. 3). Pomeroy then presents an “introduction to the prose writing of Neopythagorean women” (ch. 4) and continues to present the “letters and treatises” of such authors in the East (ch. 5) and in the West (ch. 6). A final chapter, contributed by Vicky Lynn Harper, discusses the Neopythagorean women as philosophers (ch. 7). There is no conclusion, but there is an appendix with endnotes (which present the full bibliographical data only once, which makes finding other scholars' research rather awkward) and a very useful index. The book is presented in a readable style, and beautifully produced.

If the present reviewer has some reservations, all the same, these are mainly due to the sometimes slightly dated state of the research presented in it. Given the scarcity of the material, one would expect at least that all of it be used. However, taking Thesleff (1965) as a starting point has led Pomeroy to ignore some of the evidence not discussed by him: When presenting Theano’s apophthegms (pp. 68-69), for example, she gives only one of those quoted by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 4,7,44,2-3), while ignoring others quoted by the same (4,19,121,2-4) and other authors, and three transmitted in the Florilegium Monacense of Stobaeus (268-270), while discussing neither the four other apophthegms transmitted in Stobaeus 4,23 (43, 49a, 53, and 55) and elsewhere, nor the Syrian tradition mentioned above.

On the other hand, Pomeroy deviates from Thesleff (1965, 48-50) by joining some earlier studies in identifying an extra female Pythagorean philosopher. Thesleff had attributed the text preserved in Stobaeus 1,49,27 p. 355 to the (male) Aresas (Ἀρεσᾶ Πυθαγορείου Λευκανοῦ). As Thesleff’s critical apparatus shows, Codex F reads Αἰσάρας Πυθαγορείου Λευκάνας, while Codex P has Αἰσάρας Πυθαγόρου Λευκάνας. The reading Πυθαγορείου in Stobaeus can only refer to a man, since the author refers to female Pythagoreans in the genitive as Πυθαγορείας (3,1,120 Περικτιόνης Πυθαγορείας; 4,23,61 Φιντύος τᾶς Καλλικράτεος θυγατρὸς Πυθαγορείας; - note that Stobaeus never uses the patronymic Πυθαγόρου -, 4,25,50 and 4,2819 Περικτιόνης Πυθαγορείας). Taken ‘at face value’, then, Stobaeus refers to a male Pythagorean from Lucania named, like a Lucanian mythical figure, and river, Aisaros. Since such a name is not attested elsewhere for a Pythagorean, Thesleff assumed that this is a scribal error for Aresas, whom Iamblichus refers to in his Vit. Pyth. 266 (χρόνῶ μέντοι γε ὕστερον Ὰρέσαν ἐκ τῶν Λευκανῶν, σωθέντα διά τινων ξένων, ἀφηγήσασθαι τῆς σχολῆς—note the masculine σωθέντα). To turn this philosopher into a woman, one would have to change the transmitted Πυθαγορείου into Πυθαγορείας (a problem Pomeroy does not address), and to assume that there was a female Pythagorean called Aisara named after one of the daughters of Pythagoras, when such a name is not, as Pomeroy claims (without giving a reference), attested in “some biographical traditions” (p. 99), but a mere conjecture for the transmitted Σάρα in Photius’ survey of Pythagoras’ life (Bibl. cod. 249) which names καὶ Σάρα καὶ Μυῖα αἱ θυγατέρες. Simply to claim that it “is difficult to follow Thesleff’s arguments because they are presented in the highly condensed style appropriate to an apparatus criticus” (p. 99) is not really appropriate to a scholarly study, and to claim that Thesleff “seems to base his identification of the author as male on two emendations” (ibid.) is simply wrong. So the conclusion that one can take Stobaeus “at face value” (ibid.) as referring to a female philosopher ignores the transmitted text, and the plausibility of philological conjectures.

There are some other infelicities as well. We get mixed messages on whether the Pythagorean philosopher Perictione is Plato’s mother (she is introduced as such on p. 43; cf. pp. 51, 56) or perhaps not (pp. 44 and 48 present a caveat); it is at any rate unfair to claim that Thesleff “believes” that she was Plato’s mother (p. 70), when all Thesleff does is to state “The name of Plato’s mother was Periktione” (1965, 142). Occasionally, the interpretation seems to be rather forced: Diogenes Laërtius (8,43) attributes a witty remark of Theano (which Pomeroy refers to on p. 6, but does not list among the apophthegms she discusses on pp. 68-69), who is said to have advised a woman going to her husband to take off her modesty with her ἐνδύματα, and when asked, which ones, said “ταῦτα δι’ γυνὴ κέκλημαι”. Pomeroy translates this as “those which cause you to be a woman” and continues: “This interesting response suggests that Theano believed women and men were essentially the same and only a particular costume, which could be easily removed, constructed womanhood” (p. 6). The apophthegm does not, however, support such a claim: The Greek does not say that the clothes “cause you to be a woman”, and the context refers to sexual intercourse. Rather than making a point about women and men as being “essentially the same”, it seems to refer to all garments, not just the woman’s outer ones (vividly compared by Pomeroy p. 34 to “the Japanese women who wear twelve silk kimonos”), but the specifically female undergarments, which should all be shed before intercourse. Another apophthegm (again not treated by Pomeroy with the others on pp. 68-69, but on p. 21) in Plutarch (mor. 142c) refers to Theano baring her πῆχυς when putting on her ἱμάτιον, and replying to the compliment καλὸς πῆχυς with the retort ἀλλ’ οὐ δημόσιος. The apophthegm was quoted by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 4,19,121,2), Theodoretus of Cyrrhus (Graecarum affectionum curatio 12,72), and Anna Comnena (Alexias 12,3,3) - none of which feature in Pomeroy—and cannot be reduced to the deduction “that the sight of a wife’s arm can be sexually provocative” (p. 21) or that “Pythagorean women approved of seductive dress and behavior, but only in private and only to enhance their relationship with their husband” (p. 103): It says nothing about seductive dress, and is specifically referring to the forearm or cubit (πῆχυς) in a witty pun on the standard cubit measure as publicly displayed in a Greek city.

But enough of such quibbles. It is clear that the Pythagorean women (and men) deserve more, and more thorough, research. That a scholar of the eminence, experience, and influence of Sarah Pomeroy has chosen to focus on their history and writings is all to her credit. Her book will be a major impulse for future scholars to study these texts and their authors, which have fascinated the public, and some scholars, ever since Wieland published his article on the Pythagorean women in the Calendar for Ladies in 1789.


1.   Ch. M. Wieland, “Die Pythagorischen Frauen”, Historischer Calender für Damen für das Jahr 1790, Leipzig 1789 (again in: Id., Sämmtliche Werke, Vol. 24, Leipzig 1796, pp. 245-300; Id., Sämmtliche Werke, Vol. 32, Leipzig 1857, pp. 277-310 and 430-433; Id., Gesammelte Schriften, Abt. I, Vol. 15, Berlin 1930, pp. 230-253; Theano, Briefe einer antiken Philosophin (Reclams Universalbibliothek 18787), Stuttgart 2010.
2.   M. Musuros, Epistulae diversorum philosophorum, Venice (Aldus) 1499; J. Ch. Wolf, Graecarum, quae oratione prosa usae sunt, fragmenta et elogi, Hamburg 1735 (repr. Göttingen 1739); R. Hercher, EpistolographiGraeci, Paris 1873; M. Meunier, Femmes Pythagoriciennes, Paris 1932; H. Thesleff, The Pythagorean texts, Åbo 1965; A. Städele, Die Briefe des Pythagoras und der Pythagoreer, Meisenheim 1980.
3.   U. Possekel, “Der Rat der Theano: Ein pythagoreische Spruchsammlung in syrischer Übersetzung”, Museon 111 (1998), 7-36; R. Reuthner, “Philosophia und Oikonomia .als weibliche Disziplinen in Traktaten und Lehrbriefen neupythagoreischer Philosophinnen”, Historia 58 (2009), 416-437.

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