BMCR 2022.08.04

Women and the polis: public honorific inscriptions for women in the Greek cities from the late Classical to the Roman period

, , , Women and the polis: public honorific inscriptions for women in the Greek cities from the late Classical to the Roman period. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. xx, 1239. ISBN 9783110640618. $195.99.


The two volumes by Przemyslaw Siekierka, Krystyna Stebnicka, and Aleksander Wolicki are devoted to the general topic of women within Greek poleis, as the title indicates. But this work is neither a monograph, nor a corpus, even if it consists of a rich collection of epigraphic texts.

The first volume opens with a long introduction on the historical evolution of honors for women and on the language of honorific inscriptions between the fifth century BC and the Constitutio Antoniniana. The rest of Volume 1, as well as the entire second volume, instead contain a selection of inscriptions that testify to honors granted to women by public bodies. The authors explain in the preface to these volumes the criteria they used: the selection of the honoring public bodies is rather inclusive; for example, the authors also considered religious associations as public bodies. More difficult, as the authors stress, is the selection criterion for the women who were honored: the authors decide to include inscriptions for women who either belonged to the honoring community or were not strangers to it, namely those who could be identified as participating in the civic/cultural setting of a given community. The authors admit that this choice sometimes led to arbitrary decisions regarding the inclusion or exclusion of an epigraphic testimonium. The granting communities can all be identified as city-states, wherever they happen to be located in the Greek world. The evidence is organized geographically into individual chapters that roughly follow the SEG standard order, and inscriptions within these chapters are listed chronologically. A distribution criterion for the epigraphic material that is notable for its absence is the typology of inscriptions: the authors address this point in their preface as well, stressing that one can find statue bases and decrees listed together in any given chapter. Each entry of the inscriptions contains the edition of reference of the text, a very short description of the stone, the Greek text, and a translation. The Greek texts are normally derived from their main edition. The translations are mostly by the authors, but sometimes older translations are reproduced, in which case the authorship is recorded and the authors signal that they modified the texts. In a few cases, the authors add comments that are not thematically consistent in that they seem to be based on the authors’ individual fields of research. The volumes include 1128 inscriptions in total, and indices of women and of selected Greek terms close out the work together with a bibliography.

In their long introduction, the authors recognize the importance of what they call two historical turning points for the progressively increasing visibility and role of women in public life, namely the appearance of influential female members of Hellenistic royal families and the expansion of Rome. The authors do not collect evidence about the former, but investigate the origins of the practice of honoring women, i.e., public bodies recognizing their contribution to a given sphere of society and setting this down on stone, and wonder whether external or internal factors triggered this practice. In their quest, they turn to examining, for example, the women of the Hekatomnids and women within the Macedonian aristocracy, as well as other social contexts in Northern Greece. They reach the sound conclusion that geographic differences, which are at the end a mirror of different social practices, can be detected. Religion as a social space for women and the development of their active role within it is then thematized and the authors conclude that, as far as pre-Hellenistic grants for women are concerned, internal factors had probably played a larger role than influence from women of Hellenistic dynastic families. Poleis developed their own social space as a natural historical consequence of events and social practices, while external influence was limited.

The second part of the introduction is devoted to the Hellenistic period, and here the authors, once more recognizing religion as an outlet for women’s activities, look at the role this had for family self-promotion. They conclude, on examining the ways in which men promoted themselves, that their female family members also garnered attention in similar ways. Consequently, women were granted honors on their own or, very often, in association with male family members. The authors stress the economic contributions that must have been made by male family members on behalf of women and seem to see little independent initiatives or possibilities for women to work within the communities in notable roles. In this section the authors also address the complex issue of the emergence of women benefactors by referring to the differing interpretations of this phenomenon by scholars such as Philip Gauthier and Riet van Bremen. Both of these scholars have offered important contributions on the issue of benefaction either touching upon or focusing on women and have reached different conclusions.[1] The authors of the work under review here tend to side with van Bremen, thus interpreting the evolving role of women benefactors as a social process within the civic space. They, however, do not offer additional arguments, since they rely on basically the same set of evidence with only very marginal additions. They discuss anew famous cases of women benefactors — for instance the well-known case of Archippe from Kyme — but, as noted above, they cannot reach extraordinarily new conclusions. More original and certainly useful are the sections they devote to the language of honors: the authors show great knowledge of the evidence and try to sketch a vocabulary map for the honorific language of inscriptions by drawing parallels between men and women as defined in the texts. A similar analysis can be found later in the book for the language of the inscriptions from the Imperial period. The authors stress that the overwhelming majority of the texts come from these later centuries, and they focus on epithets and the clearer roles women took up within society. Finally, they devote a last chapter to women who were honored for their professional achievements: we have only 9 cases with poets dominating the field of activities.

In their preface, the authors stress repeatedly that this is not a corpus “in the strict sense of the word” (vii) and they had no ambition to cover every inscription. While this is perfectly understandable, the reader may be left wanting. For example, there is very little in the way of bibliography on individual inscriptions, which is almost always limited to the reference to the edition used. When they list more than one edition, they underline the one they used for the text they reproduce, but very rarely is an app. crit. added. Finally, I sometimes questioned the decision to include texts that are so fragmentary as to record barely two or three words (as examples, see no. 173 or no. 486). Another idiosyncratic trait of this work is that, as noted above, ad hoccomments rarely follow the recorded inscriptions but, when they do, they can be very detailed and seem to respond to individual research interests.[2] It is almost as if little effort was made in the way of consistency throughout the volumes. The practice of using existing translations, marking them as “slightly modified” within parentheses, also left me wondering whether it would not have been better to provide a completely new translation of the texts.

One final remark on the editing of the language and the editorial work: as a non-native speaker of English, I deeply sympathize with the authors. It is not easy to be clear and eloquent in a second language. For this reason, I find the work of professional editors essential. Reading the two volumes one could see that this process had not taken place. This does not detract from the scholarly effort, as I can imagine that this work could become a useful research tool for those who are interested in this topic, but there indeed are mistakes, or not entirely idiomatic formulations, that are not helpful to the reader.

The authors are clearly knowledgeable and have worked hard to produce a potentially useful research tool for gender studies. Interested scholars, however, should approach this tool knowing that for any topic they wish to pursue, they will find a good collection of evidence and inspiration but will also have to integrate those with their own research at the most basic level. Yet, good scholarship starts with primary sources and this is what the authors here focused on.


[1] In particular the authors reflect on the seminal works by Ph. Gauthier, Les cités grecques et leurs bienfaiteurs (Athens 1985) and R. van Bremen, The Limits of Participation: Women and Civic Life in the Greek East in the Hellenistic and Roman Period (Amsterdam 1996).

[2] See for example the extensive prosopography and family stemmata that complete some lemmata, e.g. no 246 or 379.