BMCR 2004.03.37

Women of Ancient Greece. First published in France as Les Femmes grecques à l’époque classique (Paris, 2001). Translated by Antonia Nevill

, Women of ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003. 240 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0748616438. $75.00.

I confess that I approached this book questioning the usefulness of yet another book on the history of women in ancient Greece. Twenty-nine years have passed since Sarah Pomeroy’s pioneering book (Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity), which was the beginning of a steady stream of publications on the topic. The bibliography of Brulé’s book lists notable contributions published in the intervening years. I look forward to the time when histories of ancient Greece incorporate the women’s contribution as a matter of course. In the meantime, this is a particularly readable offering on the subject.

Brulé’s book consists of six chapters framed by prologue and epilogue. The prologue presents the limitations to knowledge on the topic of women in ancient Greece, namely that women’s voices from that time are silent and that the little that is known must be pieced together from the writings of men. The richness of a woman’s experience in ancient Greece can be glimpsed from the heroines of myth and theater and the maidens of epic, while views on women’s anatomy and physiology come from Hippocrates and Aristotle. The main object of the book is “to breath fresh life into accounts of Greek women,” by examining anew women as found in the accounts primarily of Homer, Aristotle, Hippocrates and the Hippocratics, Plutarch, the Palatine Anthology, Xenophon, and Apollodorus.

The first chapter, “The feminine and the sacred,” begins with a discussion of the various goddesses in the Greek pantheon. Brulé concentrates on their powerful nature and near-equality to the gods in terms of their influences and status. The role of mortal women in religious rites is addressed by focusing on parthenoi, but also includes a section on antiquity’s most famous priestess, the Pythia of Apollo at Delphi. The focus of the chapter is, however, on the bacchic revelries of women in festivals of Dionysos, which Brulé considers a kind of safety valve for the usually constricted role of women in Greek society. But, in spite of powerful goddesses and the involvement of women in Greek religion, in Brule’s opinion, the women are never there on their own account. Rather, women were used by men as instruments to maintain masculine domination. The last half of the chapter is a discourse on the origins and perpetuation of Greek misogyny through myth and religious rituals.

Chapter two, “Women of the epics,” finds no women’s lives, but only silhouettes of women in the form of wives and daughters. Brulé focuses on four of Homer’s women, Briseis, Chryseis, Nausicaa, and, of course, Penelope. As to the historicity of Homer, Brulé reasons that because a number of the customs, practices, ideas and rules of law described in Homer are either identical or similar to those found later in the historical period, then it has a reality that should be accepted by modern scholars. He concludes that the feminine element of the Homeric poems presents many aspects that later Greek women will illustrate. But before discussing women as described by historians of the classical period, Brulé turns to medical literature in search of the biological description of women by ancient Greek male writers.

In the next chapter, “On the body and sexuality,” the polarizing effect upon thought presented by Aristotle and the Hippocratics shows how the world is divided with the organizing forces of sex and gender defining the “natural” characteristics of men and women. Aristotle presents evidence from the animal world to support his view that women are an inferior version of men. Analogous to women are children and slaves in their soft forms, higher pitched voices and servile natures. The differences between male and female enumerated by Aristotle are usefully summarized in a table (p. 88). The sexuality and sexual pursuits of men and women take up the second half of the chapter. The polysexuality of men, which permitted sexual relationships with boys, wives, and hetairai, is accounted for through the myth of amorous desire presented in Plato’s Symposium. The violent aspects of sexual encounters of men with women are discussed through the range and variety of violent verbs found in Aristophanes and in visual imagery seen on vases. Unreasonableness, uncontrolled feelings, and loss of control including abandonment to lust are all feminine characteristics to be avoided by men, thereby justify the seclusion of women within the home.

Chapter four, “Joys and miseries of married life,” describes the movement of women from place to place. The brief account contained in Plutarch (Life of Pericles) of the private life and genealogy of the celebrated Pericles gives three fundamental characteristics of Athenian marriage in the classical period: his wife is unnamed, therefore anonymous; he is married to a relative; he has a mistress, Aspasia. And then Brulé carries out an interesting exercise in presenting a reconstruction (the compilation of work of unnamed historians) of the probable family tree of Pericles and his wife, who might be called Dinomache and whom Brulé dubs D. (pp. 116-17). The point of this is to demonstrate close ties between the ruling families of Athens, for it appears that D. was the granddaughter of Cleisthenes, who first was married to Hipponicus 2, then Pericles, then Clinias I, bearing sons to all three husbands, with Alcibiades one of those by the last man. This passing of certain elite women from husband to husband created a close family network among those who governed Athens and was made possible by the fact that a woman’s guardian, usually her father, had the legal power to give her to another in marriage with the ultimate aim of producing legitimate children. The role of the dowry was critical in the contract between the two men. Brulé nicely summarizes the differences in coming of age for girls and boys, the girls given in marriage while still girls, the boys allowed a period of years of initiation before taking on the responsibilities and rights of adult citizens. Brulé does not shy from the harsh facts that sources impart, e.g., the pederasty of Greek men and their power over the household by choosing which children should live or die. Although most of the evidence presents an Athenocentric account of women, Brulé includes a discussion of the polyandry practiced in Sparta. Women were the producers of the future soldiers and so were encouraged to produce children by procreating with the finest men, but all under the control of their legitimate husbands. This practice implies a shortage of women, while the converse seems to be the case in Athens. The chapter ends with a description of the marriage ceremony and transfer of the girl to her new home in the marriage procession.

“The woman in the ‘house’,” traces the path of women from the time of marriage. Coming of age, boys are bound for a warrior’s apprenticeship, whereas girls arrive at the point of marriage. And the marriage is not to a contemporary, but to an older man, exemplified by Xenophon’s models in the Oeconomicus, Ischomachus and his wife. The purpose of marriage is the procreation of children and maintenance and prospering of the household. The production of children is essential, but their numbers appear to have been limited through infanticide and the practice of coitus interruptus, but only by the woman. The good wife is likened to a Queen Bee in her role of making the household flourish under her guidance. A woman’s place was home-based; she appeared outside only at religious ceremonies, funerals, marriages, and in visits to neighboring women where she helped the sick and those in childbirth. Only poor women were seen routinely in masculine places like the agora. So, although women had authority within the confines of the house, the work they did was concealed and therefore, counted little. Brulé terms it an exploitation of gender. Spinning and weaving were the major operations in the household, with workrooms housing assemblages of free women, young, adult and old, alongside slaves of all ages. This communal work suggests conditions in which the feminine sociability of the house might have appeared and been expressed.

The sixth and final chapter, “The women on the outside,” concerns the greater number of women in ancient Greece of whom virtually nothing is known, that is, the tens and hundreds of thousands of slaves. In addition, there was an ill-defined population of free women who did not belong to an oikos. The more infamous courtesans are named in various literary and legal sources, such as in the account of the 4th century Athenian lawsuit against Neaira. Included is a useful section on the vocabulary of prostitution, with etymological explanations of hetaira, pallake, and porne. Short biographical accounts are given of the well-known courtesans: Aspasia, Miltos, and Neaira.

The epilogue asks, “How shall we take our leave of them?” and lets a woman, the poetess Sappho, have the final word by ending the book with fragment forty-two. It is a fitting poetic ending to a personal and poetic history of Greek women. The strength of Brulé’s work is that is almost completely based on primary sources, with very little theorizing. He lets the ancient authors provide us with the misogynistic picture that inevitably develops. Over fifty authors cited in passages from more than 100 works and fragments of works create a mosaic of rich information on the life of women in ancient Greece. It is not a scholarly work, but an erudite one, providing the novice a readable account, but also supplying the specialist a handy compilation of most of the ancient sources on the subject of Greek women.