Ancient Greek Women and Warfare: Building a More Accurate Portrait of Ancient Women Through Literature

By A. H. Aghababian
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 2/3 |

In this way, women are consistently only portrayed as victims of war; their lamentations and cries dominate the scenes in which they are featured, and rarely (if ever) do they actively participate in battle. The image of a helpless and powerless victim is extremely prominent. Of course, men also suffer the consequences of war: they sacrifice their lives for battles, which, particularly in tragedy, are especially disastrous. However, because death in combat is seen as an honorable feat, as Cassandra declares,11 ultimately, one can argue, war is not as detrimental to the men.

Women, on the other hand, are victims of war in the sense that they not only suffer from the grief of losing their husbands and sons, but they are also subject to rape and enslavement, “to a life of drudgery if they were old or ugly, degradation if they were young and beautiful” (Schaps, 1982, p. 204-205). This is especially apparent in Troades, which focuses on the Trojan women about to be taken to Greece as prizes for the victors. Here, Talthybius announces to the women that they are to be assigned to certain Greek generals:

Talthybius: Hecuba, you know me as the one having frequented the roads between Troy and the Achaeans as a herald; I come bearing a new message

Hecuba: Alas, this, dear Trojans, was my fear for a long time.

Talthybius: You all have been appointed by lot (κεκλήρωσθ᾽) already, if this was your fear.

Hecuba: Alas, what city, Thessalian, Phthian, or Cadmian land did you say?

Talthybius: You were not all chosen together; each woman is assigned to one man.

Hecuba: Who obtained whom? Which Trojan was allotted the lucky destiny?

Talthybius: I know all this, but you must learn one at a time, not all at once.

Hecuba: Tell me, which young man was given my wretched Cassandra?

Talthybius: Lord Agamemnon, having chosen her (ἐξαίρετον), takes Cassandra. (Eur., Tro., 235-249)

It is clear that women were seen as objects to be exploited by men; κεκλήρωσθ᾽ (to have been appointed by lot) conveys the image of men drawing lots in order to determine what (or who) their prize may be, and ἐξαίρετον (to be picked out) connotes an aggressive snatching of Cassandra by Agamemnon, especially given the root of the verb (αἱρέω, which means to seize or grab). Cassandra also likens her fate with Agamemnon to a contest with a prize12 and in Antigone, Creon refers to women as “fields to plow.”13 Women are thus portrayed as helpless victims of war and of male aggression.

Additionally, women who do attempt to take control of their fate or take on a more active role are nonetheless portrayed negatively. When Antigone buries Polynices in Antigone, for example, Creon continuously directs insults towards his niece: “You, having snuck into my house like a viper, sucking the life out of me, while I was unaware of the two rebels to the throne that I was raising” (Soph., Ant., 531-533); “I despise evil women for my son” (Soph., Ant., 571); “spit her out as if she were an enemy, let her go find a boy to wed in Hades” (Soph., Ant., 653-654).

Furthermore, Antigone’s actions are regarded as masculine, hardly a compliment to a woman. Ismene reminds her sister that they are born women, and by nature not meant to fight with men (Soph., Ant., 61-62), yet Antigone is determined to take on an active, and consequently masculine, role. Her actions are so abrasively unfeminine that the men initially suspect that a man had buried Polynices, until she confesses, referring to herself with a masculine participle (κατθανὼν) (Soph., Ant., 464). Creon also makes reference to Antigone’s manliness with the masculine pronoun (ὅστις) (Soph., Ant., 479) and participle (ἁλοὺς) (Soph., Ant., 496). As a woman who by nature (ἔφυμεν, from φύσις) (Soph., Ant., 62) must abide by the men’s laws, Antigone’s masculine defiance is depicted in a highly negative light.

Other negative views of women pervade the Classical tragedies, especially in those written by Euripides. Characters declare that women are the best devisers of evil,14 a source of sorrow,15 only happy if sexually satisfied,16 and that clever women are dangerous,17 stepmothers are malicious,18 and upper-class women are adulterous.19 It is noteworthy that the women portrayed in these plays are all upper-class women, usually of the ruling class. Gomme (1925) explains that the playwrights adopted the heroic women (and the plot-lines) from the Homeric epics (p. 5), so readers are only exposed to the sufferings and experiences of the women of higher social and economic statuses.

Thus, it can only be tentatively concluded that, if the upper-class, female characters are depicted as helpless, pitiful, and powerless victims, then the lower-class women also likely endured similar or worse miseries. Again, whether this can be applied to the real-life women, however, is still dubious; it must simply be accepted that this is merely how women are portrayed in ancient tragedy, not perceived.

Similar to Antigone, one of the few women who take on active roles in tragedy, the women of the Classical comedies are given considerable authority and dominance. For example, Lysistrata declares a sex strike and occupies the acropolis in hopes of ending the war and bringing the men back. Similarly, Praxagora, in Ecclesiazusae, establishes a communist-like government in Athens with other women. By leading their comrades and seizing control of the political situations of the city, these women are literally overstepping the boundary between the private and public spheres, taking on much more active roles than those of the tragic heroines. MacLachlan (2012) posits that the amount of power exercised by the comic heroines represents a “new and more independent voice emerging from the cracks in the social structure” (p. 141), and Pomeroy (1976) declares that because comedy focuses on ordinary people rather than epic heroes and heroines, it is a more reliable source for the social historian (p. xvi).

As stated above, however, the assumption that literary depictions reflect the realities of women in Greek society is flawed. According to Pomeroy (2004), the plots and characters of the comedies were nothing more than preposterous parodies or exaggerations that incited laughter, and they were written for the specific purpose of entertaining the audience (p. 230).20 Shaw (1975) writes, “[…] we can assume that drama is about the fantasy of Athenians, not about their lives” (p. 255). Thus, if anything, the female characters should be regarded as the opposite of what the real women experienced.21

As in tragedy, the women in comedy are not portrayed in a favorable light. One of the reoccurring images throughout Aristophanes’ works is that of women as ardent lovers of sex and wine. In the opening of Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, for example, Praxagora describes all that the lantern, to which she is speaking, sees: “you stand by so as to assist us stealing from the cellars of fruity and flowing wine” (Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 14-15). Her communist political plans also eliminate poverty, trials, theft, adultery, private property, and marriage, and, in the words of Saxonhouse (1980), leaves “only the pleasures of food, wine, and sex” (p. 77).

And at the beginning of Lysistrata, Lysistrata is frustrated that the women of the city do not appear for her meeting, in which she intends to propose a sex strike, and complains that: “if someone called them to a Bacchanal or a festival of Pan or Aphrodite, no one would be able to get through the streets because of the women’s festive drums” (Aristoph., Lysistrata, 1-3). Yet when the women finally gather, they all turn away when they learn of Lysistrata’s plan: she asks, “Why do you turn from me? Where are you all going?” (Aristoph., Lys., 125). It is abundantly clear that sex and wine are of utmost importance to the women; as Saxonhouse (1980) writes, “[The women’s] is the realm of giving and receiving sexual gratification and it is this role which they want to reinstitute by turning men away from martial endeavors” (p. 69).

The literature’s portrayal of this persistent passion for sex and wine expressed by the women serves two purposes. First, it portrays women as single- and simple-minded beings with only physical desires. Unable to show commitment to anything else (particularly politics, at which they fail in Ecclesiazusae), the women are portrayed as weak victims of physical cravings. Second, it highlights and reinforces the social division of men and women into the public and private spheres of Classical Greece. Saxonhouse (1980) states that the loves of wine and of sex both “provide private pleasures and […] are unrelated immediately to the public activities of war. The love of wine and sex are apolitical” (p. 69-70).

Thus, women are only concerned with their private, domestic interests. Furthermore, the women’s excuses for secretly meeting their men outside the acropolis (one must tend to her wool, another needs to flay her flax, and another is suddenly pregnant) are all tied to their attachment to the home, and by extension, the domestic, private sphere. For this same attachment to the domestic sphere, Praxagora’s radical proposals are ultimately unsuccessful; her politics are only concerned with women’s private interests.

Not only do the comedies reinforce the women’s ignoble confinement to the domestic spheres, they, like the tragedies, highlight the fact that warfare is a natural cause of suffering and grief for women. Unlike the tragedies, in which women for the most part grieved for the deaths of their male relatives, however, the grievances of the comic heroines are largely selfish. As discussed above, women are primarily concerned with being sexually satisfied, and the fact that their needs are not fulfilled in their husbands’ absences is their chief complaint with war.22 Thus, women are depicted as lonely and dissatisfied victims of war, but at the same time, they are being criticized for their dependence on men and sex.

The women express no concern for the physical or economic consequences of war – particularly the destructions of cities and crops and the disruption of commerce, all of which would leave the women essentially helplessly stranded without the men – but go to great measures (i.e. organize a sex strike or communist political reorganization) to ensure that their sexual needs are satisfied. It is fortunate for Lysistrata that men also require sex, because otherwise, the sex strike likely would not have succeeded, leaving the women to fend for themselves in the unfamiliar public world.23

Furthermore, the dominance and authority enjoyed by the women in the comedies, as is the case with the tragedies, contribute to an overall, negative portrayal of women. The etymology of Lysistrata’s name (λύω + στρατιᾷ), which literally translates to “army-disbander” renders Lysistrata as a destructive and harmful force. The image of active women is again, associated with masculinity. Shaw (1975) articulates how female dominance is simply destructive: “If she is dominant, her husband will appear to lack decisiveness himself, and therefore she will harm his honor. Since his honor is in fact the standing of the house in the community, a woman’s domination eventually harms the oikos itself” (p. 257). And because the oikos, or the home, is the only realm in which Classical Greek women existed, her domination would also be self-destructive.

The portrayal of women during war in the philosophical works of the Classical Period, particularly those of Plato and Aristotle, is not as apparent or conspicuous as in the dramas discussed above. The philosophers hardly discuss women in warfare explicitly, so it becomes necessary to make inferences from loosely related statements about women and warfare separately. However, as Kochin (1999) writes, one must keep in mind that warfare permeated the time period during which the two were writing and no doubt affected their writings (p 404).

There is a considerable amount of what appears to be feminist views and ideas in Plato’s and Aristotle’s works. Stauffer (2008) writes, for example, that Aristotle views the household, the domestic sphere occupied by women, as playing an important role in sustaining political health for the greater good of the city by providing moral education (p. 930). Allen (1975) similarly points out the “vision of equality between the sexes” in the Republic and the Laws of Plato (p. 131).

Modern feminists and scholars searching for evidence of gender equality in the ancient texts often refer to these remarks by Plato and Aristotle, but there are conflicting ideas within the texts that require further investigation.24 Plato, for example, regards gender equality in the ideal city simply as an efficient use of resources. As Annas (1981) states, “Plato’s interest is […] with production for the common good, and a state where all contribute the best they can according to their aptitude. This, he thinks, will best fulfill women’s natures” (p. 181). Plato also implies that gender equality can only be achieved under the communist ideal that he describes in Book Five of the Republic because the exclusion of private property reduces the seclusion of women. Allen (1975) further contends that:

Plato’s discussion of the equality of the sexes should be read by connoisseurs of a priori absurdity […]. For various unplausible reasons Socrates suggests that these proposals will give unity and cohesion to the community. The most charitable comment to make on this passage is to suggest that Plato’s purpose is to pull the legs of those who attach undue value to family ties (p. 131).

Furthermore, Plato seems to acknowledge the fact that his ideas are utopian ideals that are largely unrealistic and unattainable: Allen (1975) writes, “Plato scholars deemphasize the significance of the vision of equality of the sexes by claiming either that Plato was only discussing a utopian vision of society and that he had no illusions about its practical implementation, or that he was not at all serious about it, even as an ideal” (p. 131). Lewis (1995) similarly writes that Plato recognizes that only a few of his readers would “make a sustained effort to penetrate beyond a superficial surface meaning” (p. 379); in other words, very few individuals, in Plato’s mind, would likely attempt to implement the ideas and reforms suggested by Plato.

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