BMCR 2023.02.47

Féminités hellénistiques: voix, genre, représentations

, , , Féminités hellénistiques: voix, genre, représentations. Hellenistica Groningana, 25. Leuven: Peeters, 2020. Pp. vii, 630. ISBN 9789042940697

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This volume, which collects the papers delivered in Lyon at a 2017 conference of the same title, explores how the increased social freedoms and political visibility of women in the Hellenistic world informed the representation of women in contemporary literature and art. Given the rich vein of material, this topic is nearly inexhaustible, and the editors have encouraged a wide scope of approaches and perspectives. Sandwiched between a brief introduction and end matter comprising chapter abstracts and a trio of indices are 25 contributions, which are divided into four (unequal) sections on “Pratiques, objets et symboles,” “Figures et types,” “Voix, parole et silence,” and “Intertextualités.” Requirements of length permit me to focus my discussion on only a selection of this rich and rewarding volume of papers. In such a wide-ranging collection, scholars of Hellenistic culture and literature are sure to find numerous discussions both of great interest and as jumping off points for further research.

Pierre Belanfant, one of the editors of the volume, pens the short introduction, highlighting various themes and connections raised by the volume’s chapters. Regrettably, it is only here in the introduction that the ideas and arguments of various chapters are placed into dialogue, as cross-referencing, let alone direct engagement, is notably absent in the chapters themselves. Given the number of notable connections across the papers, we as readers surely miss out on what one can imagine was a robust and enriching exchange at Lyon.

Section one (“Pratiques, objets et symboles”) collects five papers that variously explore women as agents, objects, and symbols. In the section’s opening chapter, Gutzwiller surveys how Hellenistic poets, both male and female, adopt and adapt the practices and objects of female labor for aesthetic purposes. Here Erinna, as is becoming increasingly appreciated in scholarship on developments in Hellenistic poetry, is a key figure. Kampakoglou’s lengthy treatment of Callimachus  Hymn 5 explores the poet’s manipulation of parthenaic discourse and its imagined performance context in Argos. This reader wishes that amidst the excursuses on “gaze” and “theatricality,” Kampakoglu had expanded on his closing suggestion that references to choral performance that locate the internal audience in Argos encourage the external audience at Alexandria “to create Argos not in Greece, but in Egypt.” (46) How does reading the poem “as an epiphanic moment that defines Ptolemaic Alexandria through an Argive prism” (46) interact with and enrich our understanding of Callimachus’ engagement with Ptolemaic ideologies of space and identity? Next, inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s conceptual mapping of men/masculine onto light and order and women/feminine onto darkness and chaos, Wolff focuses on the intersection of nighttime activity and female heroism in Apollonius and situates this association within the larger interrogation of epic models in the Argonautica. While an overly schematic approach for some readers, Wolff’s treatment of day/night and light/dark polarities in the Argonautica is a topic ripe for rich and extended analysis, and this chapter surely functions as a Vorarbeit for a larger treatment; discussion of Apollonius’ manipulation of Homeric scenes, however, and a sensitivity to intertextuality more generally would have shed additional light on this subject. From the temporalities of the feminine, Remond takes the reader next on an investigation of the materiality of the feminine through a case study of objects that Praxinoa and Gorgo both use and view in the course of their day at the Adonia in Theocritus Idyll 15. Great attention is paid to the objects on display at the Adonia, which Arsinoe is described as having arranged (κοσμεῖν [24], thus suggesting a sense of feminine agency), and to how these objects, for example, evoke the increased geopolitical reach and control of Ptolemy II and thus function in a way akin to the Lithika of Posidippus. Objects, matter, and the material world in general are topics of increasing concern in classics, and theoretical work from outside disciplines including the New Materialism singificantly informs their analysis.[1] Engagement with these works and their theoretical frameworks are absent from the chapter’s bibliography. Integration of this scholarship would further enrich our appreciation of Remond’s provocative claim that “les objets sont au coeur de la poétique de Theocrite” (85). The reader moves from objects in literature to the realia of female funerary stelai in Pampany’s closing chapter on a set of funerary reliefs in which the deceased woman is given prominence and depicted as facing the passerby, thus investing the figure with increased agency. Pampany contextualizes this development in female funerary art as an index of the increased social independence of certain classes of women in Hellenistic society. The turn to the material representation of women at the close of this section is welcome.

Section two (“Figures et types”) comprises eight chapters that explore representations of women, particularly royal women, as equestrian victors, gods, wives, mothers, and poets among other figures. The size and diversity of subject matter and approach in this section underscore the richness of this topic in Hellenistic literature and art. Newman and McCauly offer a diptych of studies on representations of Ptolemaic queens, Arsinoe II and Berenice II respectively. Both chapters have a shared interest in how images of these two queens in various media from poetry, art, and coins in the case of Berenice II, to reliefs in Egyptian temples in the case of Arisnoe II communicated the queens’ divinity and legitimacy. McAuley convincingly argues that the representations of Berenice II, as queen, virgin, spouse and sister, evoke Hera as a divine analogue. In a more focused and theoretically informed discussion, Newman reads the incorporation of images of Arsinoe II as a synnaos thea on wall-reliefs in the sacred precincts of Egyptian temples as an important tool in Ptolemaic attempts to gain ideological inroads in Egyptian cultural contexts. While the editors wisely placed these two contributions next to one another in the section, this reviewer missed cross-referencing or other forms of direct acknowledgement of the similar questions and evidence explored through different cultural lens—Greco-Macedonian and Egyptian—in these complementary studies. Following after Prioux’s exhaustive and deeply researched chapter on the visual depictions of female poets, Kanellou provides a thorough study of Aeschiron’s mock first-person epitaph of Philaenis, who denies authorship of a notorious erotic treatise. Considering issues related to authorship (both of the erotic treatise and the epigram itself) and genre (a very early example of skoptic epigram?), she goes on to offer a close reading of the poem. Philaenis rails against the attribution of authorship (it was Polycrates!) only to offer an aporetic conclusion: ἐγὼ γὰρ οὐκ οἶδα. Kanellou successfully highlights Aeschiron’s larding of the poem with linguistic ambiguity and wry double entendres, and thus reveals to her reader an epigram of humor and subtle genius. At the same time, the chapter might have benefited from more explicit framing of the discussion within the rubric of figures and types, addressing, for example, where Aeschiron’s Philaenis stands in relation to representations of hetairai in epigram or indeed first-person female epitaphs in general. Acosta-Hughes also explores female figures in epigram, focusing on the notable representation of women in the Milan papyrus collection of Posidippus. Acosta-Hughes observes that the “vast majority of the figures named in the collection of more than 100 epigrams are women” (295) and that many of these epigrams celebrate women in their public and private lives.[2] The chapter charmingly retains much of the breezy tone of a conference paper as it offers up a series of loosely connected but perceptive readings of individual epigrams on women from the collection. If the Lithika was the first thematic section of the collection, might the movements of gemstones, as Acosta-Hughes notes, from far-flung locales to the bodies of women in Alexandria function as an analogy for the collection as a whole? Indeed, likening the collection to a “modern book of…photographs of women,” Acosta-Hughes concludes with the provocative (though not entirely original)[3] suggestion that the work might have had a “woman or women among the original destinee(s)” (307).[4]

Section three (“Voix, parole et silence”) explores aspects of female speech and silence. Starting from the messenger’s comparison of Cassandra’s oracular speech to the final song of the Sirens at the end of Lycophron’s Alexandra, Kidder opens this section with a thoughtful exploration of how the suicide and silencing of the Sirens informs our understanding of the doubly male-mediated female voice that is at the core of the work. Indicative of the “paradox of the female voice in the Alexandra” (363), it is only through the everlasting silence of death that the Sirens and Cassandra can access commemoration and fame. The next four papers in the section by Kossaifi (the Syrinx), Nelson (Simathea in Idyll. 2), Cusset (Idyll 27) and Richer (Idyll 15) provide a megaphone for female voices in Theocritean poetry. Among the four, the papers of Nelson and Richer are the standouts. Epic intertexts feature prominently in Nelson’s successful and engaging treatment of Simathea as narrator in Theocritus Idyll 2, who has been read both as naive and manipulative in the recounting of her failed love affair with Delphis. Building a convincing case for Simathea’s self-fashioning as another Penelope, which both evokes pity and clashes with further allusions to Helen, Nelson locates fittingly nuanced middle ground between previous readings of Theocritus’ development of Simathea. Richer makes metapoetic meaning out of the Alexandrian stranger’s command to Praxinoa and Gorgo to quit their chattering (l.87: παύσασθ᾽…κωτίλλοισαι), reading the command itself and the larger scene in which it appears as pivot points in the poem between the traditions of urban mime and bucolic song. While the invective tossed at the bothersome chattering of the Syracusan women evokes mime, the verb also has associations with birdsong and persuasive speech, and Richer finds in the semantic richness of the term an emblem of the generic interchange of Theocritus’ poetic project. This conclusion will hopefully spur further investigation into the intratextual nature (particularly between bucolic and non-bucolic poems) of the Theocritean corpus. The section closes with a trio of papers on epigram. Cannavale and Tueller both take as their subject representations of women in epigram. Cannavale focuses on how male epigrammatists, here restricted to Posidippus and Callimachus, contextualize and represent female speech, noting a thematic association between voice, labor, and death. Tueller presents a lucid survey of three early Hellenistic epigrammatists–Perses, Nossis, and Anyte–and demonstrates how the poets, though they all present their female subjects sympathetically, each “chose a different path” (481), ranging from Perses’ preference for analogizing women to men to Anyte’s side-stepping of a male-female binary by constructing an epigrammatic world “in which men, women, and non-human animals are interconnected” (481). While his overall conclusion is unsurprising, the value of Tuller’s treatment, like all of his scholarship, resides in his illuminating readings of individual epigrams. Lastly, Nardone offers a contribution to the study of Leonidas of Tarentum and his poetics of humility or poverty through the lens of a mother’s dedication of a poorly rendered portrait of her son (AP 6.355).

The final section of the volume explores intertextuality and the feminine, though of course an intertextual approach is present in many other papers throughout the volume. Looking back to the theme of the previous section, Pace offers an intriguing precis of her recent doctoral dissertation on Apollonius’ engagement with female speech acts in Homer. Beyond simple oppositio in imitando, Apollonius, so Pace argues, selects and combines aspects of Homeric female speech acts in a manner that raises a cumulative awareness of the uniformity of female speech as it works to subvert and reformulate the inherited tradition (on the feminine and epic tradition in Apollonius this article can be read productively alongside that of Wolff in section 1). The remaining three chapters all look forward to the reception of women and Hellenistic poetry in Latin verse from Catullus to Valerius Flaccus, exploring the gendering of hair, propemptika, and war. In a subtle and standout chapter, Klein examines how Catullus, Vergil, and Ovid read one another reading Callimachus’ “Lock of Berenice” through their alterations of the gender assigned to the piece of hair.

Ultimately this volume is a success. Many chapters will prove fruitful resources and intellectual interlocutors for scholars working on specialist topics in Hellenistic literature and art; others offer enticing intimations of future, comprehensive treatments. One could lament that there is no cohesive or driving, collective force to the volume or that a more streamlined table of contents would have been more congenial, but I rather suppose that was not the purpose. Instead, the editors have mustered together a variegated, polyglot collection of papers that demonstrate the wealth of approaches, questions, and directions that remain for studying “féminités hellénistiques.”


Works Cited

Bernsdorff, H. 2002. “Anmerkungen zum neuen Poseidipp (P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309).” Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft 5: 11-44.

Bing, P. 2005. “The Politics and Poetics of Geography in the Milan Posidippus, Section One: On Stones (AB 1-20).” In K. Gutzwiller, ed. The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book. Oxford: 119-40.

Canevaro, L. G. 2019. “Materiality and the Classics: (Re)Turning to the Material.” JHS 139: 222-32.

Coughlan, T. S. 2020. “The Poetics of Dialect in the Self-Epitaphs of Nossis and Leonidas of Tarentum.” CPh 115.4: 607-29.

Gutzwiller, K. J. 1998. Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigram in Context. Berkeley.


Authors and Titles

Pierre Belanfant, “Introduction”


1. Pratiques, objets et symboles

Kathryn Gutzwiller, “Female Practices as Models for Hellenistic Poetry”

Alexandros Kampakoglou, “Maidens and the city: Argive ritual and Choreia in Callimachus’ Hymn 5

Nadège Wolff, “Nuit et féminité dans les Argonautiques d’Apollonios : vers l’émergence d’un héroïsme (au) féminin?”

Myrtille Rémond, “Le « portrait en objets » d’Arsinoé II dans l’ Idylle xv de Théocrite. Vers une poétique littéraire et politique des objets l’ Idylle xv de Théocrite.

Élise Pampanay, “Des femmes à part : symboles de frontalité dans les représentations de femmes de pouvoir sur les monuments funéraires d’époque hellénistique”


2. Figures et types

Massimo Giuseppetti,  “‘Aurea notizia’. Mito e occasione nella Victoria Berenices di Callimaco”

Alana M. Newman,  “Arsinoë II as Sunnaos Thea: the significance of the display context of the deified queen’s relief portraits in the Egyptian temple complex”

Alex McAuley, “Between Hera and heroine: The Virginity, Marriages, and Queenship of Berenike II”

Flora P. Manakidou, “Maternity in Callimachus’ Hymns 1 and 4: Interweaving poetics and politics”

Évelyne Prioux, “Les Portraits de poétesses, du IVe s. avant J.-C. à l’époque impériale”

Maria Kanellou, “The Curious Case of Philaenis in AP 7.345 = Ath. Deipn. 8.335B: an Early Fictitious Mock Epitaph by Aeschrion”

Benjamis Acosta-Hughes, “Gems for a Princess. Female Figures in the Posidippus Papyrus”

Andreas Fountoulakis, “Refashioning Femininities: Emotion and Gender in the Fragmentum Genfellianum


3. Voix, parole et silence

Kathleen Kidder, “The Virgin Suicides: The Silence of the Sirens in Lycophron’s Alexandra

Christine Kossaifi, “La belle à la voix qui défaille. La femme dans les Idylles bucoliques de Théocrite : une présence dans l’absence”

Thomas J. Nelson, “Penelopean Simaetha: a flawed paradigm of femininity in Theocritus’ Second Idyll

Chrostophe Cusset, “Le dialogue dérangeant de l’Idylle 27 : une mise en scène de la voix féminine”

Hamidou Richer, “Le babil des femmes de des oiseaux : κωτίλλω et κωτίλος dans l’Idylle XV de Théocrite”

Serena Cannavale, “The song and the loom, Women’s voices in Hellenistic epigrams”

Michael A. Tueller,  “Women in early Hellenistic epigram: Perses, Anyte, and Nossis”

Claire-Emmanuelle Nardone, “Féminité, pauvreté et poésie dans l’epigramme 39 GP = AP VI, 355 de Léonidas de Tarente”


4. Intertextualités

Valeria Pace, “Homeric intertextuality and the female epic voice in the Argonautica of Apollonius: subversion or eternal recurrence?”

Florence Klein, “Métamorphoses intertextuelles et intersexuelles d’une voix ‘transgenre’ : la « Boucle de Bérénice » relue par Catulle, Virgile et Ovide”

Oriane Demerliac, “Propemptikon et voix féminine, de la poésie hellénistique à la poésie augustéenne”

Bénédicte Delignon, “La voix d’une femme en armes: Hypsipylé et la représentation des genres à l’époque hellénistique”



[1] Canevaro (2019) provides an informative review of the recent “material turn” in classical scholarship.

[2] Cf. the earlier observations of Bernsdorff (2002), 38, Bing (2005) (140: “we may even contemplate a collection shaped to the interests of a Ptolemaic queen, or one in her service”), and Cannavale’s analysis in this volume of some epigrams from the Epitymbia section whose subjects are almost entirely female.

[3] Peter Bing, in his influential study of the Lithika (2005), with the observation that given the prominence of women in the collection “we may even contemplate a collection shaped to the interests of a Ptolemaic queen, or to one in her service” (140).

[4] Further comparison with the surviving epigrams of Nossis, which have also been profitably read as constructing a female-centered narrative world through their shared gaze, topics, and language (cf. Gutzwiller 1998 and Coughlan 2020), and possibly an entire poetry collection, would be informative.