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. 1/3 |


The present study explores the portrayal of women in ancient Greek literature within the context of warfare. More specifically, this work focuses on Classical Period Greek literature, particularly between 450 and 350 BCE, written by Athenian men. The genres studied include tragedy, comedy, philosophical works, and histories. As a highly elusive and largely unexplored subject, the lives of the women of antiquity are often generalized by modern scholars. Feminists and classicists tend to recombine all the information they find, regardless of genre or context, attempting to produce a well-supported argument. By conducting a close analysis of the ways in which women are represented in the various literary genres, however, it becomes clear that different genres portray women in different lights. Therefore, not only is it difficult to come to any conclusion regarding the portrayal of women in literature, it is an extremely challenging endeavor to determine how women were perceived at the time, or even the realities of their lives.

It is almost foolishly redundant to say that an understanding of the Classical world relies upon the study of the ancient literature. Ancient texts have been translated, analyzed, and interpreted since antiquity, and they continue to reveal new information on virtually everything pertaining to the ancient world. From legislative operations, social demographics, commercial activities, and political deliberations, to religious practices, urban design, fashion, and cultural norms and taboos, the wealth of information that the literature provides is astounding. In terms of primary sources, the written and archaeological records are regarded as the two most important types of evidence for interpreting the ancient world, and utilizing the two, which coexist by complementing and reinforcing one another, enhances our understanding of the various aspects of antiquity.1

Or so scholars had hoped. This perception that a clear understanding of the ancient texts would automatically illuminate the mysteries of the ancient world is, in fact, merely an unattainable ideal, or at best, a heavily obstacle-ridden endeavor. Not only is the literature often extremely elusive and vague, hardly any of it is a straightforward, objective narrative of the realities of the ancient world; there is a pressing need to consider the texts’ authors, dates, purposes, genres, and audiences.

Each of these factors can have a tremendous effect on the nature of the text and consequently, its contents. Modern scholars, however, tend to conveniently ignore or overlook this complication. Although problematic, this tendency is certainly understandable; the topic being considered may be so severely underrepresented that scholars feel the need to gather any piece of evidence they can find in order to present what appears to be a well-supported idea.

This endeavor, this effort to cite every single piece of literature without any regard to its context, is overwhelmingly abundant in the study of ancient Greek women. In an age when the history of men is still obscure to modern scholars, the documentation of women is even more fragmented and scarce. As a result, scholars employ as many resources as possible to put together a portrait of women in the period. Based on this methodology, it has generally been agreed upon that the women of the ancient world were considered subordinate to men and were confined to their houses.2 Gomme’s (1925) words can be applied to the present work: “This paper is not an attempt to prove that this view is untrue; but that there is a conflict of evidence; that much that is relevant is ignored and other evidence misunderstood and misapplied; that is, that the confidence in the prevailing view is quite unjustified” (p. 5).3

Although commendable for its far-reaching nature, this all-inclusive method of creating a comprehensive account of women in antiquity is fundamentally flawed. It is hardly deniable that works of different genres, time periods, purposes, or audiences would portray women in different lights. Thus, it becomes extremely difficult to use ancient literature, as a generalized whole, to illustrate the realities of women in ancient Greek society. Instead, one must carefully approach the analysis of these resources meticulously and scientifically, using strict controls and constants. All but one factor that could affect the outcome of an experiment, or in this case, the portrayal of women in literature, must be kept constant. This exposes the impacts that the one isolated factor may have. Only once a single factor has been isolated, can results be gathered and analyzed to produce a general conclusion.

Taking this into consideration, this study focuses on how works of various genres portray women of ancient Greece differently, with authorship and age of publication limited to males and the Classical Period. The focus is further restricted to works produced by Athenians (with the exception of Aristotle, who, having been born in Chalcidice, spent a large portion of his life in Athens), roughly between 450 and 350 BCE, with emphasis on the years of the Peloponnesian Wars. Because of the specified timeframe, this study necessarily investigates the portrayal of women in literature within the context of warfare. In short, this study is an attempt to demonstrate that works of varying genres – namely dramatic tragedy and comedy, philosophy, and history – written by Athenian men in the Classical Period portray women in contrasting ways, and that therefore, it is extremely difficult to paint a generalized picture of the realities of women during ancient Greek war.

Because modern scholars typically fail to recognize the complexities of genre and its effects on content and interpretation, they have arrived at fundamentally different conclusions regarding various aspects of the ancient women’s lives. One of the most compelling debates has centered on the nature of the women’s statuses in antiquity. As alluded to above, while the traditional orthodoxy had maintained that the position of women remained ignoble and subordinate to men throughout antiquity, some scholars have argued that, especially in the Classical Period, women enjoyed more social freedom and independence.

In his famous article, “The Position of Women in Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries,” Gomme (1925) suggests that the traditional view is held too confidently, considering the discrepancies in the evidence (p. 2). Gomme claims that Pericles’ funeral speech indicates a slight decline in women’s freedom, whereas the later tragedies point to a revolutionary elevation of status and freedom (p. 7). Gomme further criticizes his predecessors, condemning them for selectively making references to out-of-context passages from tragedy and other ancient works, using them to build a “fanciful history” (p. 8). As a recent supporter of Gomme’s works, Richter (1971) concludes that “the special circumstance of the cloistered, secluded and servile Athenian wife living quietly in an ‘oasis of domesticity’ needs further examination before definite conclusions can be reached” (p. 8).4

Pomeroy’s book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1976), on the other hand, assumes the traditional view that women of antiquity were secluded and subordinate to their men; her evidence all “contribute to painting a considerably bleaker picture of Greek and Roman women” (p. xiii). Incorporating a wide variety of mostly literary sources, Pomeroy attempts to relate the realities of women’s existence in chronological order, beginning with the Homeric and Bronze Ages (p. 229).

Most scholars commend Pomeroy’s work as a necessary response to the lack of focus on the women of antiquity. Some, however, criticize her unoriginality and failure to provide new evidence.5 Regardless of whether or not Pomeroy’s individual views are new, her synthesis work undoubtedly can be regarded as an invaluable starting point for the study of women in antiquity.

Following Pomeroy’s work, a number of contributions have been made to the scholarship regarding women in antiquity. By 1981, for example, Foley was able to compile various essays from Women’s Studies (volume 8, issues 1-2) in a work entitled Reflections of Women in Antiquity. The book contains ten articles by notable scholars, such as Pomeroy, Amy Richlin, and Marilyn Katz, with topics ranging chronologically from Bronze Age Greece to the early Roman Empire. The writers’ variety of sources and approaches together present a complex picture, illustrating the difficulties in making easy generalizations about women in antiquity.

It is hard, for example, to reconcile the discrepancies between the strong women of tragedy and the muted existence portrayed in prose of the Classical Period, and Foley notes in her article, “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama,” that in tragedy, the simple female-male/oikos-polis dichotomy becomes more complex, and “helps us to define a norm against which to read the inversions and aberrations of drama” (p. 161). Similarly, Blok’s compilation of articles, Sexual Asymmetry: Studies in Ancient Society (1987), contains works pertaining to women from Homer and Hesiod, women of Athens, and ancient infanticide, to the women of Republican and Late Empire Rome. Again, the wide range of evidence employed by the various authors – including history, social anthropology, literature, iconography, and archaeology – poses problems when attempting to make concrete conclusions about the realities of women in antiquity (p. vii).

The publication of these volumes, in addition to various other articles and books,6 truly speaks to the increased scholarly interest in the study of women in antiquity, especially during the last quarter of the 20th century. By no stretch of the imagination, however, are all of these works necessarily successful. As previously mentioned, efforts to make reference to virtually all of the ancient evidence, although admirable, is ultimately untenable. When discussing the apprehension felt by young girls facing marriage, for example, MacLachlan (2012) refers to mythology, Plutarch’s biographies, and Apollodorus’ (contested) poetry (p. 56).

It must be stressed that, although they may be referring to the same issues (in this case, a bride-to-be’s concerns), literature from differing genres, each written for different contexts, motivations, and audiences, produce conflicting portrayals of their subjects. Some scholars, however, seem to be at least partially aware of this. In her chapter entitled “Images of Women in the Literature of Classical Athens,” for example, Pomeroy carefully focuses on portrayals of women in tragedy, comedy, and philosophy in turn (p. 93-118), and avoids making any generalizations based upon any sort of recombination of literary evidence. Therefore, she is able to make clear distinctions between the portrayals of women in each genre.

The limited scholarship concerning women in the context of warfare, however, is almost entirely guilty of broad over-generalizations or conclusions, reached without any regard for the genres of which the literary evidence is a part. In “Women, War, and Warlike Divinities” (1984), Graf argues that women were largely passive participants in war, but in order to reach this conclusion, he makes reference not only to ancient histories and epic poetry, but also to artistic representations (p. 245-254). Schaps similarly utilizes a variety of genres for his literary evidence. In “The Women of Greece in Wartime” (1982), Schaps also attempts to provide a general overview of the extent to which women participated in armed conflict. His citations, although admittedly history-heavy,7 also include substantial references to Aristophanes’ comedies and Aeschylus’ tragedies.

Loman, contrary to Graf and Schaps, argues in his article, “No Woman No War: Women’s Participation in Ancient Greek Warfare” (2004), that women’s participation in Greek warfare was extremely important and indeed, necessary (p. 54). Unfortunately, Loman also cites literature of various genres; Anyte and Nossis’ lyric poetry, Herodotus’, Xenophon’s, Plutarch’s, Thucydides’, and Polybius’ histories, Aristophanes’ comedies, Aristotle’s philosophical works, and even fragments of Athenaeus’ publications, are all heavily cited. Barry, in “Roof Tiles and Urban Violence in the Ancient World” (1996), is one of the very few scholars who are able to restrict their sources to one literary genre. Barry makes reference to ancient histories exclusively, and thus is able to provide an uncompromised deduction about historians’ depictions of women as active participants in urban conflict.8

As Culham (1987) astutely admonishes, there is a fine line between parts of text that represent an image and those that depict a reality, a line which is too often crossed by scholars on the basis of unarticulated preconceptions (p. 15). It is pertinent, therefore, to recognize the interrelationship of text, genre, and reality, and its associated complications. A great majority of the modern scholarship concerning ancient women in warfare, not to mention ancient women in general, however, fails to acknowledge these complexities.

Given the diverse, and yet limited, nature of the extant literary evidence, it is extremely challenging to paint a comprehensive picture of women in antiquity, much less during armed conflict. I would argue, therefore, that the best one can do is accept that the literary sources are merely male-oriented portrayals of women, limited by various constraints and conventions prescribed for each genre. This work, then, is a literary analysis in which I attempt to highlight the conflicting portrayals of women in each genre and to emphasize the flaws in modern scholarship of using multiple literary genres to support a claim.

In the context of war, the women of Classical tragedy, in one word, can be described as pathetic. Whether these female characters evoked pathos or were simply seen, by the male audiences of the time, as a representation of what is only natural is certainly worth exploring, but regardless, it is evident that the women were depicted as wretchedly helpless victims of war. The number of times certain words pertaining to suffering, distress, and lamentation occur within the texts truly speaks to the constant misery experienced by women during war: when considering one tragedy by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides each, these words occurred 72 times in Persae, 46 times in Antigone, and 108 times in Troades.9 As Pomeroy (1976) writes, “Women glory especially in being the mothers of sons, and the lamentation of mothers over sons killed in war is a standard feature in Euripides’ […] plays” (p. 110). Hecuba’s monologue at the beginning of Euripides’ Troades is especially poignant:

Alas, alas, to groan in lamentation (στενάχειν) is the wretched fate for me (μελέᾳ), who lost her fatherland, children, and husband. Oh, all of the ancestors humbled, as if you all amounted to nothing. What woe shall I keep silent? What shall I lament? What dirge shall I sing? Wretched me (δύστηνος), my unfortunate limbs lie here, having been laid on the firm ground. Alas my head, my temples, and my ribs; I long to turn and to rest my back and spine, constantly wailing the elegies of anxieties (μελέων). But this is music to the wretched (δυστήνοις), this singing of joyless ruins (ἄτας). (Euripides, Troades, 105-121)10

The chorus in Euripides’ Phoenissae alludes to not only its own misery, but also to the wretched state of Jocasta, a mother about to lose her two sons in battle:

Alas, alas, I hold my trembling, trembling heart with shudders; and pity, pity for the wretched mother goes through my flesh. Which of the two sons will stain the other with blood – oh, my suffering; oh, Zeus; oh, Earth – a brother’s throat, a brother’s life, with shields and blood? […] I will wail a cared-for cry, to be mourned with tears, for the dead; their light is about to go out. This murder is unhappy, ill-starred because of the Furies. (Euripides, Phoenissae, 1284-1306)

And when Jocasta finds her dead sons, she laments (ᾤμωξεν) (Eur., Pho., 1432), wails (ἔκλαι) (Eur., Pho., 1434), sings a dirge (ἐθρήνει) (Eur., Pho., 1434), groans (στένους) (Eur., Pho., 1435), and kills herself (Eur., Pho., 1455-59).

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