BMCR 2009.11.23

The Feminine Matrix of Sex and Gender in Classical Athens

, The Feminine Matrix of Sex and Gender in Classical Athens. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xii, 208. ISBN 9780521899987. $80.00.

Table of Contents

In this volume, Kate Gilhuly presents a number of case studies helpful in understanding the various roles assigned to females in the Athenian imagination. This matrix, as she calls it, centers upon three categories of the feminine: the prostitute, the wife, and the ritual agent. In varying manifestations, hierarchies and conflations, this structure not only informs our understanding of how the Athenians envisioned the female but also directly pertains to issues of Athenian civic identities and attitudes toward sexuality, exchange, and female performance. Additionally, it is by examining the constantly contested and negotiated roles of the female in literary production that we can better explicate evolving Athenian constructions of masculine subjectivity; it is in this focus that Gilhuly’s book excels.

Gilhuly’s Introduction contains a notable although brief tracing of classical scholarship on women to date. She deftly discusses the interplay between these works and concomitant and recent trends in studies of ancient pederasty, homosexuality, and sexuality; here she stresses the importance of the often ignored discourse of heterosexuality and rightly categorizes her own work as an all-encompassing study both in constructions of gender and in the history of sexuality. Her work concentrates not on the reality of ancient sexualities as much as on the imagination of social reality and the construction and maintenance of it through the malleable categories and performance of these three female roles. Here Gilhuly also demonstrates the polysemy involved in each role. She notes broad contexts in which each wide-ranging category served a useful function: e.g., the prostitute in conversations about conflict and instability; the ritual performer in contexts of historical upheaval between elite and demos; the wife in the middle as the seeming lack between both these public roles.

Gilhuly’s Introduction is the weakest section of the book. Here some of Gilhuly’s attempts at theorizing these three female roles fall into what seem like already well-understood categories. After discussing the varied roles that both the prostitute and the ritual performer enact, for example, Gilhuly states “both the prostitute and the ritual agent played a public role and could therefore signify different facets of public feminine performance” (19). It is not clear why this relatively obvious conclusion needed so much background comment, except to serve as a possible foil to Gilhuly’s next point about the wife envisioned as the female occupying the space between these two more public roles. Gilhuly’s Introduction also suffers from a problem common enough in preludes to more complicated accounts: condensed versions of upcoming chapters often fail to convince because they must omit so much of the real core of the argument; the supporting details fall through the cracks and the conclusions begin to sound like assumptions.

Gilhuly’s chapters are stronger individually. In Chapter Two she discusses pseudo-Demosthenes’ Against Neaira and demonstrates how the speech regulates masculine identity and its associations with various types of transactions through the lens of the “tripartitite discourse of the feminine.” Gilhuly opens by noting that the same three divisions of the feminine outlined in her Introduction also operate within the Athenian penalty of atimia, the very charge which the accused Stephanos tried to impose upon Apollodoros, the prosecutor of the speech. That this evidence comes from outside the literary works that Gilhuly discusses in this book adds credence to her argument; she could have emphasized this point more strongly.

In this chapter Gilhuly also notes the synchronicity between Apollodoros’s portrayal of Stephanos’s dealings with women and each of the three spheres of the feminine. She argues that through consistent portrayals of Stephanos’s exchanges of women as short-term transactions, the prosecution essentially accuses Stephanos of disregarding Athenian social ideals of exchange and democratic citizenship. Apollodoros establishes both his own and Stephanos’s masculine subjectivity through lengthy analysis of the kind of transactions of women both men make; this focus helps explain the speech’s obsessively detailed narration of the story of Neaira and Phano. Gilhuly also finally and persuasively contextualizes Apollodoros’s description of Pausanias, the infamous Spartan king, who appears in this speech linked to Plataia, the Boiotian city-state allied to Athens that received harsh treatment at Theban and Spartan hands both in Apollodoros’s narrative and in Thucydides (although the two accounts differ on noteworthy points). Gilhuly argues that Pausanias’s appearance in the speech, juxtaposed with the emphasis on Plataian loyalty to Athens, historically grounds the present opposition between Apollodoros and Stephanos; the insane medizer Pausanias corresponds to Stephanos in terms of his extremism and his threat to the stable order of civic life; Plataia, Athens’ faithful friend since the late sixth century, mirrors Apollodoros’s character as a victim of aggression still loyal to the long-term goals of the Athenian community. Gilhuly’s reading provides a coherent and meaningful way in which to read the speech as a whole and those parts of it that have troubled previous commentators in terms of their length and relevance to the charge.

In her third chapter Gilhuly turns to Plato’s Symposium, a work so overanalyzed that taking it on here voluntarily makes a bold statement in itself. Gilhuly concentrates, however, not only on Diotima, whose identity has encouraged countless speculations, but also on the other women in the text. To Gilhuly the auletris, the women inside the house (but outside the symposium), and Diotima herself offer a structural continuum of the feminine that simultaneously informs Plato’s model of pederasty. Gilhuly’s Introduction to this chapter, much like her Introduction to the work as a whole, foreshadows her upcoming conclusions too briefly; this reviewer would have rather seen less a general prelude than an immediate beginning to the argument, which Gilhuly takes up only after nearly ten pages of introductory comment.

Gilhuly ultimately observes that by structuring the masculine identities of the Symposium against this feminine matrix (which includes the present but absent Diotima), Plato’s Socrates offers a more complex image of masculinity than merely the binary opposition often found in analyses of this dialogue. She nicely explicates the first triad of speeches (of Phaedrus, Pausanias, and Eryximachos) as ultimately espousing a negative, often hostile attitude toward women and a binary understanding of female sexuality in opposition to the purest expression of physical eros through homosexuality. The speeches of Aristophanes, Agathon and Socrates, however, are shown to offer a more nuanced approach to eros by complicating the canonical gender categories in the first triad of speeches. After persuasively problematizing the case for modern positivistic acceptance of Aristophanes’ famous speech, Gilhuly argues that, by speaking through Diotima, Socrates presents the feminine matrix in the service of defining the eros of the philosopher, an eros which should be seen as the transcendent apex of metaphysical contemplation, much as Diotima’s role as female ritual agent symbolizes the topmost position in the feminine matrix imagined in the Symposium. Further, Diotima’s status in this speech as a “discursive absence,” rather than as a person imagined as attending this gathering, emphasizes the absent (but also formulaically real) realm of philosophic eros which Socrates espouses. This vertical hierarchy of the feminine also informs the model of pederasty, which should thus be seen as more of a mutual path of ascent toward what is philosophically beautiful and beyond the polis as opposed to a more canonically interpreted binary power relationship. The chapter as a whole is undoubtedly interesting, but to this reviewer at times the conclusions did not seem fully proven but rather more suggested by the discussion offered.

Gilhuly follows her interpretation of Plato by resuscitating Xenophon’s Symposium, a work which has historically suffered in comparison (Chapter Four). Here Gilhuly argues that the feminine continuum, moving from the prostitute to the priestess, structures Socrates’ argument for improved relations between the demos and the elite of the polis. In doing so she details how aristocratic masculine identity is figured in the text as a spectacle with both public and private viewing in mind. Gilhuly’s descriptions of the characters involved and each spectacle make this chapter a good candidate as a reading for advanced undergraduates and graduate students. In her first section and through direct reading of the text, Gilhuly nicely explicates the latent (and historical) hostility between Socrates, Kallias, and various other guests at the party; she deftly illustrates Xenophon’s creation of the erotic spectacle and the symposiasts as objects of the text’s gaze; and she contextualizes the difficult position of Autolykos, the eroticized performer who both needs to exhibit elite decorum as a passive recipient of the symposiasts’ gaze but also to display his individual prowess as an athletic victor and thus as a visible actor in his own right. Throughout Gilhuly pays close attention to scholarship on civic viewing in other works by Xenophon, in other genres, and also in an Athenian context generally. She argues that Xenophon objectifies the symposium itself as a means of allowing this elite gathering to function comfortably within the now democratic civic gaze.

Working off of Kurke (1999),1 Gilhuly returns to the categories of the feminine by arguing that Xenophon uses the three levels of the feminine matrix to delineate the Athenian demos. She makes a particularly nice point about the demos (who historically judged Socrates) cast as the hired entertainment (read: prostitutes) and thus as a malleable group interested in furthering its own interest with the elite; the entire trial and condemnation of Socrates is thus subtly called into question. Moreover, she suggests that the entertainers embody the full range of the female continuum: from the porne as acrobat to the ritual agent as wife, seen in the basilinna-like re-creation of the marriage between Dionysos and Ariadne. Gilhuly thus also suggests that the troupe, in playing the role of the demos, offers a image of itself as hetairai in relation to the elite, a still-restricted status which limits any true reciprocity between the two. In the end, however, to Gilhuly Socrates constructs a new vision of the proper relationship between the demos and the elite in his concluding speech (and here I do a disservice to the complexity of Gilhuly’s argument): the philosopher becomes the erastes of the city itself, and the demos becomes a subject desiring elite culture. Complementing Socrates’ redefinition of the city into a pederastic polis, at the same time Xenophon offers a speech in which the female entertainer is transformed into the quasi-ritual agent (as wife of Dionysos), thereby emphasizing the importance of heterosexual norms on which the citizenry is based.

Gilhuly’s final and most convincing chapter treats Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Gilhuly nicely historicizes the play as she unpacks the multiplicity of meanings behind its display of cultic and erotic roles for women; she rightly often sees both roles as embodied within one character, such as Myrrhine. Elaborating on the work of Stroup and Faraone, Gilhuly suggests that the play’s confusion of female categories, such as the cultic figure and the prostitute, leads to their convergence via complementary sacrificial and symposiastic imagery. Further, in interpreting female ritual practice in terms of potential political implications, Gilhuly argues that the ritual agents Lysistrata (as Eteoboutad Lysimache) and Myrrhine (associated with Athena Nike, chosen by lot) present an Aristophanic model of successful interaction between the elite and demos respectively. Lysistrata controls Myrrhine much as the elite ought to direct the demos; here Gilhuly draws the reader to Aristophanes’ Frogs where the poet may be espousing a similar view of an inclusive demos with elite leadership. Further, Gilhuly reads Lysistrata’s weaving metaphor both as evidence for the conflation of different roles of women through habitual engagement in the same pastime and also as a positive political prescription for inclusivity. This reviewer would have liked to hear more on the weaving metaphor, as the brevity of Gilhuly’s account did not answer a niggling concern I have always had with its appearance: how might the Athenian audience have perceived a feminine weaving metaphor applied to the demos in 411? Could a positive message from Aristophanes about inclusivity (via imagery of female weaving) really have resonated at this time?

Gilhuly’s historical analysis of the Lysistrata, however, remains impressively convincing. The convergence between ritual and sexual agents, together with Gilhuly’s plausible identification of Lampito as an allegory for Sparta (through the very real Agis II) also suggests to Gilhuly that the women from Sparta, Boiotia, and Corinth introduced in the beginning of the play represent Athens’ main enemies at the time of the play’s production. This supposition is nothing new, but Gilhuly’s reading of these historical enemies through the lens of the sacrificial imagery that is involved in the language of relevant passages as well as through the identities of Lysistrata and other Athenian characters as ritual agents, underscores a dark yet simultaneously comic brutality against Athens’ enemies inherent in Aristophanes’ presentation. Likewise the language denoting the Spartan, Boiotian and Corinthian women transforms from hetairai-like descriptions to their literal embodiment at the end of the play as Diallage, an anatomically and geographically-divided porne and thus as a “sacrificial surrogate” for the earlier women; the end result of these embodied women is a complete physical objectification and thus metaphorical subjugation of Athens’ traditional enemies. On the basis of these and other details of the play, then, Gilhuly concludes that the while the women of Greece presented in the Lysistrata are overtly involved in suggesting peace with Sparta, in a less obvious but deeper way, the women at the same time present a dark critique of the enemy in terms of ritual sacrifice and subjugation.

In this chapter Gilhuly also details the various animals with which women are associated and explicates the sacrificial and sexualized imagery that each animal evokes in the play: the heifer, the Boiotian eel, and the white horse. By unpacking various references to the eel in both the play and other literature, Gilhuly argues for the eel as symbol of the female as a sexualized ritual victim. Gilhuly also nicely contextualizes Lysistrata’s joking about acquiring a white horse as a reference to Spartan women: not only to the Leukippides but also to the white horse involved in Tyndareus’ oath before marrying Helen, as described by Pausanias.

Aside from matters of content, at times Gilhuly’s writing confuses the issues. Occasionally she seems not to return to themes promised in the beginnings of chapters or describes them obliquely with a confusing result. In discussing Xenophon, for example, Gilhuly spends many pages dealing with issues not directly related to this matrix of sex and gender, at least on the surface. In setting up her argument (Chapter Four, pp. 100-10), then, it would have been nice for her to reassure her reader how these larger issues would bear more directly on the themes of the book, since it is not always clear where the argument is heading. At times this chapter reads more like a series of erudite discussions than complementary parts of a coherent picture. The middle sections of Chapter Two in particular would benefit from reminding the reader how the discussion pertains to the strands of argument that Gilhuly identifies as her goal in each subsection (pp. 100-19). Such confusion could have easily been cleared up by adding incisive concluding commentary at the end of each internal chapter division instead of immediately turning to the next subsection.

Minor typographical errors are minimal (p. 102, fortitude, in quotation at top of page; p. 119, problem in printing elision in the first line of the Greek text; p. 130 aspazomenon printed with a grave accent instead of a smooth breathing). Certain more substantive errors occur in bibliography and citation. Kurke is incorrectly cited on p. 112 by both date of publication and page number for a quote of huge length (footnote 41; the proper citation should be Kurke 1999, 219). Moreover, at the footnote’s end Gilhuly shortly adds that Xenophon actually inverts the paradigm Kurke outlines in the quote. To this reader an explanation of this assertion would have been preferable . In terms of the symposium (not to mention Aristophanes), Gilhuly is also missing the work of Nick Fisher from Harvey and Wilkins’ collection The Rivals of Aristophanes (London 2000; Chapter 22: “Symposiasts, fish-eaters and flatterers: social mobility and moral concerns”), in which Fisher argues that the symposium of the late fifth century, precisely the time in which both Plato’s and Xenophon’s works are set, was not at all an elite event. More also could be made, particularly in Gilhuly’s discussion of Xenophon, of the historical distinctions between the terms polis and demos, which are not synonyms. Less important but also missing from the bibliography is my own article on the anonymity of respectable women in Herodotus ( CJ 101.3, 1-20), which, although not entirely relevant to any of the authors Gilhuly treats per se, would have strengthened Gilhuly’s tangential remarks, made repeatedly throughout the book, about the general tendency of fifth and fourth-century Athenians to refrain from naming citizen wives in public.2

Gilhuly’s work concentrates on four pieces of literature dating from 411 to 343, but she treats them in a confusing chronological order: Demosthenes first; followed by Plato; then Xenophon; with Aristophanes last. This order was not satisfactorily explained, particularly in light of the focus of Chapters One, Three, and Four on the feminine continuum in relation to themes of long-term civic order. Chapter Two on Plato’s Symposium understandably rather more concerns the world beyond the polis. The reader would have liked more of a stated rationale for this thematic and chronological scheme.

Whatever the weaknesses of the book, however, Gilhuly has written an admirable study of the interplay between the three female roles of prostitute, the wife, and the ritual agent in late fifth and fourth-century Athenian literature. The implications of the combination and conflation of these roles in the works she has selected should have far-reaching effects on how we read additional texts that depend on these roles as part of their cultural code in defining both the female and also the masculine subject constructed upon it.

Table of Contents 1 Introduction
2 Collapsing Order: Typologies of Women in the Speech “Against Neaira”
3 Was Diotima a Priestess? The Feminine Continuum in Plato’s Symposium
4 Bringing the Polis Home: Private Performance and the Civic Gaze in Xenophon’s Symposium
5 Sex and Sacrifice in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata
6 Conclusion


1. L. Kurke 1999, Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece, Princeton.

2. Cp., D. Schaps 1977, “The Woman Least Mentioned: Etiquette and Women’s Names,” CQ 27, 323-331.