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. 3/3 |

Plato’s discussion of guardians in the Republic is particularly compelling. Plato writes that for an effective social life, a city requires guardians – soldiers and rulers who defend the state and make political decisions.25 There has been much scholarly debate regarding the eligibility of women for becoming guardians, but the claim that women were ultimately incompetent for the position is the best-supported. Plato, who writes that the guardians should refrain from excessive contempt of their enemies and from stripping or mutilating their corpses after battle, adds, “And does it not seem bigoted and greedy to strip the corpse, and does it not seem to be a womanly and small-minded idea to think that the body of the dead is an enemy, especially if the real enemy has already flown away […]?” (Plat., Rep., 5.469d). This misogynistic portrayal of women serves to reinforce the notion that women were unfit to be guardians.

Kochin (1999) also presents a convincing argument regarding women’s participation in war: “By bringing women into the city’s army Socrates breaks the connection between the manly activity of war and actual men: the warrior’s life will no longer seem overwhelmingly appealing because it is no longer the exclusive sphere of the valorized gender. War is less noble if women can do it too” (p. 420-421). Calvert, like several other scholars, notes the inconsistencies in Plato’s arguments. By saying that women and men should not be employed separately on account of their sex (Plat., Rep., 5.453e-455a.), Plato implies that women can also be guardians. However, Plato also portrays men as superior to women,26 a view which, according to Calvert (1975), would be “rather embarrassing for those who regard him as a champion of the equality of the sexes.

In particular, it would involve Plato’s argument in a major inconsistency, for it would mean his advocating for women a position that, on his own account, they did not justly deserve” (p. 231). Furthermore, Plato’s qualifications for an individual to become a guardian severely restrict women from occupying the position. He writes that guardians must imitate “brave, prudent, pious, and free” (Plat., Rep., 3.395c) men, and not “women, young or old, or abusing her husband or quarreling with the gods and bragging, thinking to be fortunate, or involved in tragedies, sorrows, or lamentations” (Plat., Rep., 3.395d). Because almost all women are in one or more of these conditions, therefore, most women are unqualified to become guardians.

Aristotle similarly portrays women in a negative light. By condoning the exclusion of women from the public, for example, Plato reinforces the gendered social division and the isolation of women from the public sphere (Dobbs, 1996, p. 74). In Politics, Aristotle promotes the idea that the subjection of women was part of a natural social and political order and that the household was subordinate to the political community dominated by men (Stauffer, 2008, 929-930). In short, maintaining the two separate spheres is for the common good of the city, as discussed previously, yet it still reinforces the seclusion and marginalization of women in ancient Greece. Stauffer (2008) further maintains that this dichotomy was maintained by force, implying the subordination and suppression of women (p. 930).

Other misogynistic perceptions pervade Plato’s and Aristotle’s works. Plato compares cowards and unrighteous men to women in the Timaeus,27 constantly mentions male superiority over females throughout the Republic (Plat., Rep., 455b-c, referred to earlier), degrades women as sexual prizes of bravery in war,28 and laughs at the idea of women receiving the same education as men.29 Aristotle also equates women to slaves, both of which are considered “workers” – the females’ sole job is to produce children – that are to be ruled for the greater good of the community.30 To summarize then, the women of these philosophical works are largely depicted as resources to be exploited for the common good of the city and as incompetent dependents on the men of society.

Ancient history is often regarded as one of the most reliable literary sources for the study of ancient women (Pomeroy, 1976, p. xvi). Because of its seemingly objective nature with its relatively simple narrative, there is a tendency in modern scholarship to use historical accounts as direct evidence for the realities of ancient societies. However, this is in fact untenable and flawed. Culham (1987) writes,

[the notion that] the narratives of authors in the ancient genre of history are distinguished from other narratives not by “factual” content but by the claim to intellectual detachment […], and […] the frequently encountered beliefs that historical texts as a genre are somehow more primal, or closer to reality, or safely composed of predigested historical data which require less manipulation before use, are simply naïve. (p. 15-16)

Thus, as with tragedy, comedy, and philosophy, historical works too much be regarded as differing portrayals of women, rather than as reflections of the realities of the women of Classical Greece.

One of the most prominent historians of the time, Xenophon portrays women as primarily inept. He explains in his Oeconomicus that because of their natural, physical incompetence, they are assigned to the “indoor,” or private, spheres:

And since both these things, of indoors and outdoors, require labor and care, God immediately prepared, according to the nature of woman, it seems to me, the labors and cares of indoors, and by his nature, man to the outdoors. For he equipped the body and soul of man to be more able to endure the cold, heat, marching, and military campaigns; so he assigned to him [man] the outdoor labors. For the woman, whose body is less able [to endure these things], because of her nature, it seems to me that God assigned the indoor labors to her. (Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 7.22-23)

It is clear here that Xenophon portrays women as inferior to men by nature, and thus, inadequate to participate in any outdoor or public activities, much less military engagements. As have several of the other writers discussed above, Xenophon also reinforces the notion of a distinct division between the public and private, or male and female, spheres. Earlier in the Oeconomicus, Xenophon, through dialogues between Ischomachus and Socrates,31 also indicates that women are to be trained by men; in other words, they are unable to learn for themselves how they must act as wives:

“Did you yourself teach your wife so that she would be the sort of woman that was necessary, or did you take her as a wife already having learned of the household duties from her father and mother?” “And what, Socrates,” he [Ischomachus] said, “Did you think she knew, when she came to me not even fifteen years old, and until that time she lived with great care so as to be seen, heard, and spoken about as little as possible?” (Xen., Oec., 7.4-7.5)

The image of the incompetent and helpless woman is prevalent. The helplessly lamenting women similar to those depicted in the aforementioned tragedies are also portrayed in Thucydides’ works. On the eve of the Sicilian Expedition, the women sent off their husbands “[…] with hope and lamentation of their journey, thinking of what they might acquire and if they may see them again, and of the great expedition from their homeland for which they were sent” (Thucydides, 6.30.2). While mourning the loss of their husbands and sons, the women also cannot help feeling excitement and anticipation for the great riches from Sicily; the selfish, private interests displayed by the women in the comedies are also portrayed here in Thucydides’ historical account.

Thucydides also writes of several occasions in which women were passive objects of military circumstances, perhaps in an effort to underline the tragic effects of warfare (Wiedemann, 1983, p. 163). The enslavement of women, as mentioned above with regards to the tragedies, is particularly prevalent.32 This exploitation of women adds to the notion that women were helpless victims of male aggression and corruption, and reinforces the subordinate and inferior status of women. Thucydides also attributes to Pericles the famously misogynistic idea that women should never be talked about,33 further suggesting that women should be secluded and invisible.

Despite these images of the oppressed, victimized, and helpless women, however, there are accounts of women taking on a more active role in warfare. Thucydides mentions women assisting their men during the Theban invasion of Plataea: “the men threw themselves upon them with great shout and the women and household slaves together yelled screams and shouts from the houses and threw roof tiles […]. Some men slipped through one of the gates, and having been given an axe from a woman, cut through the bar” (Thuc., 2.4). During the Corcyraean civil war, too, Thucydides writes that “women also daringly partook in the cause and threw tiles from the houses and stayed a part of the confusion, unexpected of their nature” (Thuc., 3.74).

Furthermore, 110 women remained at Plataea to cook for the 480 men,34 and the women and slaves helped the building of the Long Walls in Argos35 and Athens.36 Excepting the mention that the women’s assistance is “beyond their nature (παρά φύσιν),” there is no suggestion that these female were behaving inappropriately; contrary to the depictions of active women in the tragedies and comedies, there is no connotation of masculinity or abrasive dominance in these accounts. In fact, the women are simply portrayed in a positive light as helpful and beneficial contributors to the war cause.

It is difficult to reconcile the drastically contrasting portrayals of women throughout the historical works. On the one hand, women are depicted as helplessly incompetent victims of war, while on the other hand, there are several accounts of women actively participating in battle and assisting with the war causes. It remains a challenge, therefore, to define the portrayal of women in ancient history as either strictly negative or positive. Conversely, the women in tragedy, comedy, and philosophy are all portrayed negatively; although the individual depictions of each genre range from helpless victimization and exploitation to selfish dominance, an underlying, misogynistic image of women as inferior subordinates remains constant throughout.

In the end, it becomes abundantly clear that there are distinctly contrasting depictions of women within the various genres. Yet, modern scholars continue to haphazardly extract bits of each, in an effort to provide more primary evidence for their claims. Given the fact that these different bits are pulled out of context from their original, distinct portrayals of women, the modern scholarship loses, to a certain degree, credibility and persuasive effect. As is the case with the study of any aspect of antiquity, the study of ancient women, particularly in the context of war, therefore must be treated with the utmost vigilance and subtlety.


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1.) Although the literary and archaeological data can be brought together to enhance one another, the subsequent account still may not be entirely comprehensive. Tim Cornell (1995) makes reference to Jacques Poucet in an effort to define the situation: “Historians should be very careful when they appeal to archaeology to ‘confirm the tradition’ […] In a number of cases, archaeology provides only vague indications which are capable of several possible interpretations, one of them tending in the same direction as the tradition […] One should be under no illusions: often the archaeological picture will be neutral, and will permit no conclusion one way or the other” (p. 30).

2.) This, however, has been disputed, as discussed further below.

3.) Here, Gomme is referring more specifically to the view that the status of women of the Classical Period was degrading and undignified, but his words apply to the present argument, as well.

4.) Like Gomme, Richter criticizes his predecessors for misapplying the extant evidence and for letting their personal biases affect their work. One of Richter’s most intriguing arguments cites Solon’s restrictive legislation. The fact that Solon enacted laws forbidding certain women from participating in funerary rituals or from displaying certain actions of lamentation, in Richter’s mind, is an indication that women’s influence over men could reach such proportions that it necessitated legal restraints.

5.) D. Nash. (1977). [Review of the book Goddesses, whores, wives, and slaves: Women in classical antiquity, by S. B. Pomeroy]. Social History 2(6), 810.; den Boer, W. (1976). [Review of the book Goddesses, whores, wives, and slaves: Women in classical antiquity, by S. B. Pomeroy]. Menmosyne 29(3), 320.

6.) Rabinowitz, N. & Richlin, A. (Eds.) (1993). Feminist theory and the classics. New York: Routledge.; Blundell, S. (1995). Women in ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.; Scheidel, W. (1995). The most silent women of Greece and Rome: rural labor and women's life in the ancient world (1). G&R, 42(2), 202-217.; Scheidel, W. (1996). The most silent women of Greece and Rome: rural labor and women's life in the ancient world (2). G&R, 43(1), 1-10.; Gold, B. K. (1997). Feminism and classics: framing the research agenda. The American Journal of Philology, 118(2), 328-332.; MacLachlan, B. (2012). Women in ancient Greece: A sourcebook. New York: Continuum.

7.) Throughout his work, Schaps makes numerous references to Herodotus, Polyaenus, Plutarch, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, and Diodorus Siculus. He even cites Livy, though briefly.

8.) Throughout his work, Barry refers to Strabo, Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus, and Thucydides, as well as additional non-Greek historians, such as Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius.

9.) The words considered, only counted if they are used with regards to women, include the following: δύστηνος (Persae [3 counts], Antigone [4], Troades [10]); ἀλγέω and ἄλgος (Persae [9], Antigone [4], Troades [28]); στένω, καταστένω, and στενάζω (Persae [26], Antigone [2], Troades [9]); μέλεος (Persae [11], Antigone [7], Troades [45]); ἄχος (Persae [17], Antigone [9], Troades [0]); and λυπρός (Persae [1], Antigone [0], Troades [3]).

10.) All translations are my own.

11.) “The Trojans died first for their fatherland, earning the most honorable fame, and those whom the spear defeated, their bodies are in their embracing fatherlands, carried by friends into their homes, wrapped by duteous hands for their funeral rites” (Eur., Tro., 386-390).

12.) “I will not speak of […] the contest (ἀγῶνας) that will surely kill my mother” (Eur., Tro., 361-364).

13.) “There are other arable (ἀρώσιμοι) women” (Sophocles, Antigone, 569).

14.) “We are, by nature, women, and at a loss concerning good, but the most skillful masters regarding everything evil” (Euripides, Medea, 408-409).

15.) “Women always are naturally meddling in the doings of men, leading to misfortune” (Eur. Orestes, 605).

16.) “But you women have gone so far [into folly] that you think you have everything straight in bed, and if some tragedy occurs in bed, you make even your most desirable and beautiful things hateful” (Eur., Med., 569-573).

17.) “You are, by nature, wise and knowledgeable of all things evil” (Eur., Med., 285); “For an irritable woman, as are men, is easier to guard than a secretive, clever one” (Eur., Med., 319-320).

18.) “For stepmothers are said to hate their children” (Eur., Ion, 1025); “We suffer greatly indeed from stepmothers” (Eur. Ion, 1330).

19.) “May some terribly bad thing destroy she who began to defile the beds of other men! This evil began to happen from women of noble birth” (Eur., Hippolytus, 409-410).

20.) It is quite peculiar, if not slightly unnerving, that Pomeroy, despite acknowledging that comedies were written solely for entertainment purposes here, still claims that they are a reliable source for constructing the realities of ancient Greek women (1976, p. xvi).

21.) Shaw’s argument eloquently reiterates this point: “Literature and the social documents, as we have seen, both describe what women should do, what we will call the ‘image of women.’ In both cases, the image of women described is essentially the same, although this similarity is obscured by the fact that women in drama are all doing what women should not do. (Indeed, by the very act of being in a drama, which always occurs outside the house, they are doing what women should not do.) However, it is always clear in the drama that these are not foreign women acting normally but Athenian women acting abnormally, intruding into the male domain. They are all, to borrow T.B.L. Webster’s phrase, ‘bad women’” (p. 256).

22.) Lysistrata says to her companions, “I am fairly certain that all of our men have left us [for battle]” (Aristoph. Lys. 100-101) and complains that “not even the impression of a lover (μοιχοῦ; adulterer) has been left behind” (Aristoph., Lys., 107).

23.) Saxonhouse (1980) writes, “Within the context of the comedy, Lysistrata’s plan succeeds because, as she herself explains, the men have no pleasure without women. Lysistrata assumes that war is not enough for men and that their public lives are insufficient to sustain them. They need the private world of sex and the family as well. The sex strike, Lysistrata expects, will force men into an awareness of their own neglect of that part of their lives for which they engage in battle” (p. 71).

24.) Okin (1989) writes that Plato can properly be seen as a pioneer with his argument that women are equal, yet, the elements of misogyny found in other parts “limits the relevance of Plato’s argument to contemporary feminists” (p. 31-42), and Julia Annas, according to Forde (1997), “rejects the notion that Plato can be seen as any sort of feminist on the basis of his argument in the Republic” (p. 657).

25.) “Do you not think, as I do, that things concerning war seem to be a profession?” (Plato, Republic, 2.374b).

26.) When Socrates asks “So do you know anything practiced by men, in which the race of the men does not stand differently than the women?” (Plat., Rep., 5.455c), the answer is “You are correct; one race is stronger by far in everything than the other race, as it is said” (455d).

27.) “Those of the men who are cowards and live their lives unjustly, according to this account, are transformed as women in the second generation” (Plat., Timaeus, 90e).

28.) “And to the good men, perhaps from the ship or another place in war, gifts and other prizes must be given, and especially the power to sleep with women” (Plat., Rep., 460b).

29.) From 452a to d, there are seven occurrences of “γελοῖα,” as well as “jokes (σκώμματα),” and a “comedy (κωμῳδεῖν)” This laughter is stimulated by the suggestion that women should engage in the same education as men. Rosen (2005) writes, “Since it is more difficult to be angry when one is laughing, Socrates tries to blunt the offensive aspects of his proposal about women by beginning with its humorous side” (p. 171).

30.) “First there is a necessity to join those who are unable to live without one another, such as the union of female and male for the sake of reproduction […] and the ruler and the ruled, for safety. For the one able to see with his mind is, by nature, the ruler and master, and the one able to work with her body is, by nature, ruled and a slave” (Aristotle, Politics, 1252a). Here, Aristotle attributes the origin of the ruler-ruled relationship between men and women to the common benefit of both. This also further reinforces the notion that women were dependent upon their husbands and unable to live on their own.

31.) Oost (1977) writes, “Another complicating factor, however, in trusting his work as historical evidence is that it is one of Xenophon’s ‘Socratic’ books; he is trying, presumably, to reflect the opinions of Socrates, who is to be understood as approving all the propositions in this work, in which he appears as a speaker […] the views are probably Xenophon’s, whether originally those of Socrates or not, for it is generally agreed that the Ischomachus of the dialogue is more or less identical with Xenophon himself” (p. 226). It must be stressed that, regardless of whose views or opinions are depicted here – whether they be Xenophon’s, Socrates’, or Ischomachus’ – the present work only focuses on the portrayal of women, that is, simply, what is said about them.

32.) “And around these times of the summer, the Athenians having forced Scione to surrender, killed the young men and enslaved the children and women” (Thuc., 5.32); “And they killed the young men of Melos whom they took, and enslaved the children and women” (Thuc., 5.116.4); Gylippus declares that the Athenians had invaded Sicily with the intention of delivering the “most dreadful things for the men and the most indecent things for the children and women” (Thuc., 7.68.2); “When it became day, the Corcyraeans, having thrown them [the men] into the wagons, led them out of the city. And the women, whom they led to the walls, were enslaved” (Thuc., 4.48.4).

33.) “And if I must keep in mind the issue of female excellence, to those who now will be in widowhood, I will advise you in everything with this short comment: there is a great expectation for you all to not fall short of your natural circumstances, and fame will be hers who is the least [talked about] among the men whether for her excellence or her flaws” (Thuc., 2.45.2).

34.) “Plataeans had brought their children and women and oldest men and many of the useless men first to Athens, so that those left behind (four hundred men, eighty Athenians, and a hundred and ten women to bake bread) were besieged” (Thuc., 2.78.3).

35.) “Some of the cities in the Peloponnese knew to build walls. And Argives, with all their people, even women and slaves, built” (Thuc., 5.82.6).

36.) “[…] and everybody in the city, together, the men and the women and the children, all built” (Thuc., 1.90.3).

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The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt is a novel that explores the conditions of grief and escalating lengths characters will go to survive the traumas and mysteries of life. This story of guilt and loss—intermixed with love and longing&mdash... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife presents a fresh outlook on myths and fairy tales, by retelling them through sociosexually liberated women. The poems feature many themes such as murder, sexuality and childhood... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
The 17th and 18th centuries saw a wide proliferation of aesthetic discourse through which the picturesque emerged to capture the type of beauty derived from the exchange of in vivo vigor for the spirit of artistic medium. While the metaphysical... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 03
This paper explores the complexity of Whitman’s nationalism and, with reference to Leaves of Grass (1856), examines the apparent paradox between Whitman’s poetry of love and recognition and his imperialistic impulses. This paper draws... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
This article explores the expression of the Gothic romance genre in the 21st century, by examining Mike Flannagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor. Very little literature focuses on contemporary expressions of this genre. The Gothic reflects the... Read Article »

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