BMCR 1999.06.12

Women in Classical Athens. Classical World Series

Sue Blundell, Women in classical Athens. Classical world series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1998. viii, 106 pages : illustrations, plan ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9781853995439 £8.95.

Women in Classical Athens is a concise summary (one hundred and six pages) of the information known about women and their status in Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. The purpose of this compact book, as stated by the author, is to examine the contradictory attitude toward women of that period and polis. Blundell (hereafter B.) explicates this contradiction by posing two questions, “what women meant to men in Classical Athens” and “what it meant to be a woman” (1), and by finding the answers in data collected from the everyday lives, religious activities, personal relationships, and places in society of women who were primarily from the citizen class. B. advises, however, that “much of what we learn about their lives is coloured by male misunderstandings or prejudices” (2), and accordingly exact and full answers to her questions may be difficult to obtain. Moreover, indifference to the lives and activities of women of the lower classes hinders us from arriving at a complete understanding.

B. takes an interesting approach to the arrangement of the material by involving in her analysis the sculptures that decorate the Parthenon and the statue of Athena Parthenos. This approach allows the author to compare the literary evidence in accounts about women with comparable representations in the pediments, metopes and frieze of the Parthenon. The categories of women addressed in this correlation are unmarried girls, married women, goddesses and individuals from myth, foreigners and slaves. Moreover, a fundamental element of this analysis is an attempt at clarifying the inconsistency of the typical woman, who is kept in domestic seclusion but yet is allowed to lead the Panathenaic procession. B. matches most of the women included in this analysis with illustrations of art from the Parthenon (e.g., the women from the Panathenaic procession found on the frieze [9]), depictions from vase paintings (e.g., the story of Demeter and Persephone as depicted on a vase attributed to Makron [36]), and sculpture (e.g., a Roman copy of Praxiteles’ statue of Aphrodite [22]). The twenty-two illustrations in the text are well chosen and unobtrusively inserted into the narrative.

The text is divided into six chapters: 1. Introduction, 2. Unmarried women, 3. Married women, 4. Goddesses and characters from myth, 5. Other women, 6. Conclusion. Each chapter, except for the last, has numerous divisions with such interesting titles as “Female Figures in the Parthenon sculptures” (ch. 1), “Growing up in Athens” (ch. 2), “Deadly dresses” (ch. 2), “Puberty, and a warning about wells” (ch. 2), “Marriage, abduction and ritual death. The bride as Persephone” (ch. 3), “The other woman. Mistresses and adultery” (ch. 3), “Weaving wisdom, weaving wiles” (ch. 3), “Metics, or resident aliens” (ch. 5), and “Aspasia” (ch. 5). Two appendixes are also included, “Suggestions for Further Study” (102) and “Suggestions for Further Reading” (103-104), which classify this work as an undergraduate text. The former appendix consists of nine questions that would be of use to the student who is trying to put into focus the vast amount of information included in the six chapters. Representative questions are as follows: “Would the life of a hetaira really have been preferable to that of a respectable Athenian woman?”, “Which of our sources suggest that women were not always submissive?”, “Can we believe what Aristophanes tells us about women?” and “Do we really need ‘Women in …’ books?” The latter appendix reveals a minor weakness in the text: the dense amount of information contained in this slim book is at times too general or lacking in depth, and therefore additional reading may be necessary for some of the topics covered in this book. For example, in the division entitled “Athens in the classical period” of the first chapter, B. gives a synopsis of the major political, economic, military and social events that occurred from 500 to 336 BC — all in less than two pages and without including any entry in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” list that may help in getting a better grasp on this crucial and complex period of Greek history. It is true that this is not a historical text, but rather a survey of women in Classical Athens. Nevertheless parts of the text that are included for discussion should have been treated more fully. For example, only one paragraph is devoted to the intriguing question “Did women go to the theatre?” (ch. 3). The answer supplied is “we are unable to answer this question — the evidence is inconclusive” (75). It would have been nice if the author had at least cited and discussed some of the evidence, inconclusive or not. However, in other sections B. is exhaustive — especially in the third chapter where she discusses marriage. The information for this issue consists of the role of the kyrios, the engue, dowries and their importance and use, the marriage procession, the ritual of marriage and the importance of love in this convention. The author even provides a brief reflection on the interrelation between marriages and funerals in “Procession of all kinds: festivals, weddings and funerals” (32-34).

In her questions included for further study Sue Blundell asks (102), “Does our practice of studying women as a separate category tend to confirm the notion that women are a ‘special case’ and ought to be treated differently from men?” I’m not sure what is meant by “differently from men” but I am confident that the two questions with which the examination started must be addressed. Indeed they have been in this book. Aside from the minor fault of being sketchy at times, the methodology of presenting information and then corroborating it with mythological, literary, sculptural and historical evidence is laudable and makes Women in Classical Athens an excellent companion to any text that includes Greek texts on women. It also can be read as a good introduction to the lives of women in Classical Athens. The accurate and precise fashion in which Sue Blundell presents her outline answers in the affirmative to another question included in the first appendix, “Do we really need ‘Women in …’ books?”