BMCR 2006.01.20

Women, Crime, and Punishment in Ancient Law and Society. Vol. 2. Ancient Greece

, Women, crime, and punishment in ancient law and society. New York and London: Continuum, 2004-2005. 2 volumes : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0826416284. $35.00.

This is an ambitious work, which aims to explore the way in which crime and punishment impinged on the lives of women in ancient Greece. But such a study is only possible, its author affirms, if both the victims and the perpetrators of crime are viewed within the framework of their respective societies. We are thus promised not just a study of law but a form of social history. And more, since the General Introduction lays the groundwork for a feminist work reevaluating earlier interpretations in order “to enable the silent voices of ancient women to speak” (xiv). The author, E. M. Tetlow, seems eminently qualified to undertake this task, having already published an earlier and well-received volume (Volume 1) on the Ancient Near East.

The work has three parts, Mykenean and Archaic Greece, Classical Greece, and The Hellenistic Period. Each in turn is broken down into a number of subsections, all addressing the same topics: status of women, women victims, women offenders, punishment, and summary. Part 1, for example, discusses Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, and Formal Laws and Lawgivers, including Lycurgus, Draco, and Solon. It then offers a brief Conclusion, followed by three pages of black-and-white illustrations. The longest and most detailed section of Part 1 is Homer, which I propose to discuss at some length in that it illustrates the preconceptions and method of the author, as well as a number of problems that recur throughout the book.

First, status. Here Tetlow establishes a firm dichotomy between Mycenaean women, as depicted by Homer, and “real” Greek women of the early archaic period. The former, she believes, lived free and independent lives, often endowed, like the Scherian queen, Arete, with great authority. They were also guilty of crimes like murder, treason, adultery, and incest, which they “boldly” committed (27). The prime example here is Clytemnestra. Their later counterparts, on the other hand, led secluded lives, with little freedom, their inferior status symbolized by the veil. When “civil law” was replaced by military law (17),they became the victims of war, taken captive like Briseis and Andromache and forced into sexual slavery. The crimes of women of the archaic age were less dramatic than those of Mycenaean women, since their freedom for bold action was limited. Eumaeus’ Phoenician nurse, for example, was guilty of kidnapping, having seized and attempted to sell her ward into slavery. Similarly, Odysseus’ female slaves betrayed their master and his house, being guilty of the “capital crime of treason” (26). No one questioned Odysseus’ right to execute them summarily.

There are two problems here, both methodological. The first is the attempt to read into Homer a real history of the Mycenaeans, turning myth into historical fact. The remnants of the Bronze Age in Homer remain few indeed, material objects like the boar’s tusk helmet and Nestor’s cup, along with curious references to war-chariots, mere echoes of a distant and only vaguely understood past. That past, if Linear B, our only extant written evidence, is taken into account, was far different from the world portrayed by Homer. A palace civilization it was, but also a bureaucratic state on the model of contemporary states in the Near East. This does not mean that Homer fails to reflect or even depict a coherent society. M. I. Finley’s early work, The World of Odysseus,1 established that coherence, dating Homer’s society to the early Dark Age, the tenth or ninth centuries. Others have subsequently lowered the date to the eighth or even the early seventh century. All agree, however, on the coherence of Homer’s institutions and customs.2 For the purpose of historical analysis and reconstruction then, it is impossible to divide Homeric women into Mycenaean and archaic, with all the attendant judgments about the status and crimes of each noted above.

The second problem is less fundamental but also distorts the picture of Homer’s world. I have already noted the “capital crime of treason” attributed to Odysseus’ female slaves. This is far too complex a characterization of what amounted to an act of disloyalty against a master, who ultimately inflicted punishment as he saw fit. This was his right, but not a right enshrined in law. For in Odysseus’ world there was no central state, no laws, and no courts but rather, as Tetlow herself acknowledges, “private jurisdiction” was the rule (21). In other words, there was no authority to distinguish what we call crime from less serious offences and to decree modes of punishment. Certainly, there was no division of offences into civil and criminal.3 Thus, it is jarring to find the terminology of a later era applied to Homer’s world. There was no such entity as “civil law,” Greek or Trojan (15), nor was Briseis Achilles’ “legal” wife (18). Such terms are anachronistic and only serve to misrepresent a very simple, pre-legal society.

The rest of Part 1 has little to tell about women victims or offenders. The few offences of women described by Hesiod, for example, are drawn from myth, with Clytemnestra and Helen once more given prominence.4 Similarly, the extant lawgivers have little or nothing to say about criminal law (Lycurgus, e.g.) or about women and law (Zaleukus or Charondas, e.g.). Even the laws of Solon, which are wide-ranging in their effect on the family, indicate no more than that criminal offences like rape and adultery, as well as lesser offences like excessive mourning, did exist and were punished. On the other hand, what Solon’s laws, the culmination of an era of lawgiving, do reveal is the transformation of most forms of private jurisdiction to state systems for the administration of justice. They also allow Tetlow to conclude that by the end of the archaic era women “had lost their legal and societal personhood and were becoming almost invisible” (55).

The conclusion of Part 1 is picked up at once in Part 2, which discusses Orators, Historians, Art and Archaeology, Drama, and the Philosophical Ideal. In classical Athens, Tetlow argues, women’s status reached a nadir: without legal capacity, the right to inherit, their lives and even their speech controlled by men, they lived in virtual seclusion, segregated in the women’s quarters. This picture of women as passive victims, however, is often disturbed by contradictions. Women worked and left the home for many other purposes, they were often literate, they owned money, jewelry, and slaves, and might inherit from a brother. The list could be extended. Tetlow has confused ideal with reality and seems not to know of scholarship extending back several decades distinguishing separation from seclusion.5 In addition, few today believe that Athenian women, who had serious responsibilities and full authority in the home, could carry out their daily tasks while relegated to the women’s quarters.

Material on victims and offenders is sparse, doubtless because of the paucity of evidence. Among the former are the Athenian women kidnapped and finally murdered by the Pelasgians at the end of the sixth century (Her. 6.138) and Hipparete, the wife of Alcibiades, the victim of “domestic abuse” and “forcible abduction” (81). Such unimpressive examples, the one legendary, the other anecdotal, are supplemented by general statements about victimization based on little or no evidence. Husbands, for example, often mismanaged dowries for their own benefit (63), while mothers were subjected to physical and economic abuse, often at the hands of their children (83). The list of offenders is no more impressive, including a step-mother on trial for murder (Ant. 1) and two adulteresses (And. 1.124-129 and Lys.1). What Tetlow lacks in evidence for historical victims and offenders she makes up by drawing extensively on tragedy. The tragedies themselves are described as “criminal cases” (104). Once again the names of Clytemnestra and Helen appear, along with Hecuba, Electra, Cassandra, and many others. Play after play is summarized to illustrate crimes like murder, adultery, rape, and treason, some perpetrated, some suffered. Not everyone, however, will accept Tetlow’s view that the examples of women in tragedy are confirmed by crimes committed by or against “real women” in classical Athens (145). Far from being criminal cases or even narratives exclusively concerned with women, tragedies reflect the larger societal and cultural concerns of a city-state undergoing vast transformation, the result of the acquisition and loss of empire, of war, of the proliferation of laws and decrees, of the introduction of new philosophies and techniques of education, especially rhetoric, and of attendant moral decline. And that for a start.

The Philosophical Ideal concentrates on women’s status in the law-codes of Plato and Aristotle, as discussed in the Laws and the Politics. Needless to say Plato and Aristotle are a study in contrasts, with the former raising the status of women to unparalleled heights and the latter advocating more or less the status quo. While the laws of both applied equally to men and women, neither philosopher gave much thought to women and crime.

Tetlow concludes Part 2 by suggesting that in the classical era women were on the threshold of change from “the lowest status” in Greek history (160) to recognition as persons with thoughts and feelings, as they were represented in drama. Plato crossed that threshold by advocating equal rights for women, whom he viewed as full persons.

Part 3 has two large topics, Macedonia, Alexander the Great, and the Empire and The Hellenistic Kingdoms. For the most part, this is a study of crimes committed by and against Hellenistic queens and their rivals. There are few references to laws and law-codes, since such queens were above whatever law existed. Still, Tetlow does not hesitate to point out that the lives of royal women were the opposite of those of Athenian women, since they were free and independent, led armies, and killed their rivals in a struggle for political power. This may be, but these women were hardly typical. Virtually no evidence is extant for the crime and punishment of ordinary women until we reach Hellenistic Egypt with its wealth of papyrological evidence. Here women were no longer housebound but active in all aspects of Egyptian life, inheriting and owning property and transacting business. Granted there are some few examples of women assaulting others and being assaulted, but they are too few to reveal much about the variety and number of crimes committed by and against women in this era. Tetlow believes, however, that, by the mere fact of being independent, women were now more often in situations where they could be victims and offenders.

In the end this book proved disappointing. Far too much of its exposition of women, crime, and punishment is drawn from dubious sources such as myth, tragedy, and accounts of the intrigues of Hellenistic queens. None of these offers a secure entry into legal issues or even into the lives of ordinary women as victims or offenders. Once, however, these sources are brought into question, the remaining evidence is sparse indeed, with many crimes, among them rape and seduction, deduced mainly from contemporary law-codes. On the other hand, as the Conclusion suggests, the work is primarily a study of the status of women and their evolution “from object to subject” and “from invisibility to visible and significant membership in society” including legal personhood (238). Here, alas, there is little that is path-breaking, since Tetlow remains heavily dependent on the work of classicists whose views on the passivity and seclusion of Athenian women represent a new kind of orthodoxy. Tetlow never questions these views or cites scholars with a contrary view. For these several reasons, this work will probably prove only minimally useful to scholars or students of Greek law and society. On the other hand, it may well find a niche in Women’s Studies courses.

As a literary product, this book is impressive. Along with three sets of black-and-white illustrations, it has an appendix on the Hellenistic Dynasties, two maps, and three indexes. In addition, I noted very few typographical errors. On the other hand, the book needed further editing to catch a number of unfortunate errors of substance, of which the following are just a few examples: there was no court of appeal in Athens (59); the assembly did not meet daily (60); Demosthenes’ mother did not sell ribbons in the market-place (61, 72); Socrates did not die with dignity in his home (93).


1. Second Revised Edition (Harmondsworth, 1979).

2. Tetlow does not cite Finley or other important scholars in this field, which has burgeoned in the past number of years. Names like Donlan and Van Weesen come to mind.

3. Even in classical Athens, where there was a strong central authority and judiciary, civil and criminal offences were only vaguely distinguished.

4. What the author emphasizes is Hesiod’s misogynistic utterances, which she contrasts to Sappho’s poetry and accomplishments. The latter offer no evidence of crime and punishment (for Sappho does not allude to either) but of the higher status of women in some parts of the Greek world.

5. See, e.g., D. Cohen, Law, Sexuality, and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1990) Chapter 6.