BMCR 1994.05.05

1994.05.05, Keuls, Reign of the Phallus (rev. ed.)

, The reign of the phallus : sexual politics in ancient Athens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 1 online resource (viii, 477 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0520912896. $45.00.

In this era of Lorena Bobbitt, the otherwise highly improbable hypothesis that the mutilation of the hermai in Athens in 415 B.C. was carried out by repressed women may enjoy greater credibility. If the sales of Keuls’ 1985 book, now reissued in a second paper and hardback edition, are any indication, English readers now know more about sexual politics in ancient Athens than politics as usual (tyranny, democracy, Middle Eastern relations, and wars between the [city] states). The publication of a second edition of this book raises two questions: 1) How is it different from the first edition, and 2) can Keuls’ thesis be validated eight years later by any additional or new reading of the evidence?

In terms of new scholarship, this re-edition is disappointing. The author has made small textual changes, has added a supplementary bibliography of works published between 1984 and 1992, and has appended 17 new illustrations, all of which are simply enlargements of illustrations already in the text. It is a pity that, for instance, when the author in the first edition (260) refers the reader to a note for a newly discovered illustration of a rare cash transaction, this important evidence is not incorporated into the second edition with an illustration and discussion. However, since the vase in question (Harvard University Art Museums 1977.216.2236) shows a woman with a money pouch, instead of the usual man, it does not support Keuls’ premise that Athenian women had no power, economic or otherwise, and so is better left in a footnote. The new edition refers to the cover illustration (4) in which the male killer plunges his weapon into his female opponent’s breast “as if to dramatize his assault on her femininity”, when in fact the paperback edition shows Zeus embracing Ganymede! And figure 13 is again printed backwards, to name a few instances in which the new publication could have been improved.

This brings us to the question of evidence to support Keuls’ characterization of Classical Athens as a phallocracy prompted by male gynophobia. She adduces a wide variety of literary sources from Homeric myth to medical treatises such as Soranus’Gynaicia of the 2nd century A.C. Few of these references, however, pertain to 5th and 4th century Athens.

The most numerically significant and perhaps reliable body of evidence for women’s lives in Classical Athens is artistic, namely sculpted grave stelai and painted vases. One of the great merits of this book is that it illustrates over 300 of these objects which depict scenes, albeit idealized, of daily life. Her reading of images is consistently singleminded: the ubiquitous column becomes in her parlance a phallic pillar, the money pouch connotes an “economic phallus”, heroes carrying unsheathed swords or spears are in “phallic pursuit”. A survey of hundreds of Athenian women as depicted on grave stelai and 5th century red-figure and white-ground vases shows them to be modest (fully draped), affluent (seated on klismoi), respected (attended to by servants), devoted to children (admittedly predominantly male), industrious (fetching water or spinning wool), literate (holding scrolls), and musical (playing the lyre). They are shown playing key roles in religious rites, occupying pride of place, for example, on the east frieze of the Parthenon. That they could attain economic status is surely indicated by the wealth of grave goods associated with female burials throughout Attica. Even hetaiai who ranked lower on the social scale are usually shown as equals with their customers, standing in face to face negotiations or enjoying the symposium, and only rarely are we shown the drunken orgies which took place afterwards.

One cannot deny that women in Classical Athens lacked rights, but that they were more repressed than other ancient Greek women is not demonstrable. And could women, who rarely went out of doors, have organized themselves into a nocturnal band which then mutilated every herm in the city save one? Would yet another military expedition on the part of their husbands have prompted them to desecrate the religious idols that stood guard in their very courtyards? Not likely, except in a play by Aristophanes. Perhaps if the Athenians had been as quick to repair the damage as Mr. Bobbitt, the repercussions of this act of impiety might not have been quite so severe.