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Women In The Hellenistic World
Women’s lives were improved and expanded in the Hellenistic age more so than at any other time prior Greek history. Papyri from Egypt and Coele-Syria have led to the discovery of documents on marriage contracts, inscriptions of philanthropy, and the daily lives of the women in that period. The Hellenistic woman changed in many ways. She became more educated, more cultured, and she received domestic freedom and her new legal and occupational advancements and a whole other myriad of news liberations. The ideal of the Classical obedient Greek wife was turned upside down. She no longer had to be escorted to places outside her home and to issue legal documents. She also could now have contracts drawn up to secure her position in a marriage contracts that would cover adultery and her right to divorce.
Before the Hellenistic age Greek wives were looked down upon. They were seen as a means to produce kin, take care of the domestic duties, and be subordinate to their husbands. In a speech by King Eteocles in 467 BCE to some Theban women who have thrown themselves to his feet in a desperate attempt to lift his besiegement of Thebes, he says: “I ask you, you intolerable creatures, if you think that your behavior will be helpful to the state and will bring salvation, or support the army that is besieged, if you fall on the statues of the gods who protect the state, and wail and scream – to the disgust of sensible people?” (Lefkowitz and Fant, 28) He uses the term intolerable creatures to characterize these women. He here practices the common Greco-chauvinistic idea of male dominance over female. He even goes as far as reducing them to a less than human state by using the word creatures.
He goes on to say to the Thebans: “I would not choose to live with the female sex either in bad times nor during a welcome peace… The outside is a man’s concern – a woman should not consider it; she should stay inside and not cause damage. Have you heard me or not? Or am I talking to a deaf woman?” (Lefkowitz and Fant, 28)
This was furthered by Euripides in the Worthlessness of Women, 428 BCE. Euripides went beyond Eteocles. He said: “I hate clever women. I don’t want a woman in my house thinking more than a woman ought to think…” (Lefkowitz and Fant, 29). Euripides here degrades women as was the custom of Greek men of that time. Too often did men speak of these ideals and this perpetuated the polarization of male to female relationships
But not all women were demonized. On an epitaph there is inscribed: “This dust hides Archedice, daughter of Hippias, the most important man in Greece in his day. But though her father, husband, brothers, and children were tyrants, her mind was never carried away into arrogance.” (Lefkowitz and Fant, 16) This inscription from the 5th century BCE shows how some women were remembered for good deeds done – and not just their duties as homemakers. It also recognized the humane side of the Classical Greek woman.
Philosophers and philosophies were developed in the Hellenistic period that allowed women to join schools of thought that expanded their freedom. Education became available for an array of Greek women in this time. A little before the Hellenistic age came to be, the ideas of the loosening of social constructs for women were taking place that led to the foundation of other schools of thought such as that of Epicureanism and Cynicism. But these ideas came from a couple of the Classical philosophers.
One example of this is a discussion between Plato and Glaucon. The topic of interest to these men was that of the education of women. The point that was made was that since there are only a couple of distinctions between men and women, i.e. physical attributes and things like pot making and bread making – although really only social constructs that forced women to be engaged in these services day in and day out that would have made them better then men at those said duties – that men aren’t superior to women on the intellectual plane and better able to perform those duties therein. They thought primarily because women, with the same education as men, can perform and execute those tasks just as proficiently as men can.
But in contrast to this is Plato’s student Aristotle. Who wrote why freedmen (Greek citizens) should rule slaves. He stated: “The freeman rules over the slave after another manner that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty to all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.” (Lefkowitz and Fant, 39)
Here he shows that women have the ability to reason and think but that they lack the authority that the man does. This leaves her out of making decisions such as that of a man would make outside the house; being in the polis or in an army.
But later, those two schools of thought believed that women did have those faculties and the authority and inducted them into their schools – Epicureanism and Cynicism. Both of these schools of thought were founded in or about the Hellenistic period – but both taking root and expanding their thoughts throughout the Hellenistic world therein at the least. One famous female Cynic was one by the name of Hipparchia, the wife of Crates. “Who appeared in public and went to dinner parties, and was proud to have spent time in education rather than working at the loom.” (Pomeroy, 132) She stood out among her peers as an independent woman without the need for a chaperone – when one was required to have a chaperone. A Classical Greek institution that required Greek women to have at all times when they leave the house a male escort – presumably a family member.
Lefkowitz and Fant touch on this a little more. They site an example of papyri that was discovered that gave a short narrative of two women who go out without escorts. Gorgo, a housewife who visits her friend Praxinoa on the day of the festival of Adonis in Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE makes small talk before going to the ‘house of the king, rich Ptolemy’. They’re excited because the queen has done a beautiful job of decorating the palace – a story about seemingly nothing. But really of common life and housewives being allowed out of the domestic sphere and able to visit their friends and go to public places without escorts.
Another improvement in the lives of Hellenistic women that they enjoyed was that of a heightened amount of legal rights. One of these and most prominent is that of the right for women to not need an escort or chaperone to places or in legal matters. A guardian was required in the legal field when a Greek woman made a public declaration or incurred a contractual obligation concerning persons or property. This is most notable in the distinction between the women in mainland Greece and those of Egypt. In the Hellenized world women were now allowed to leave the house and do the projects that the slaves would do – such as buying food and other commodities. But women’s emancipation in the legal realm reached further than this. Women now were able to construct marriage contracts that ensured a myriad of legal binding conditions.
One case is that of a marriage contract between a man and a women in Egypt – Heraclides of Temnos and Demetria, respectively – that ensured that if Heraclides brings home another woman or begets a child with another woman or indulges in fraudulent machinations against Demetria – and she proves it in front of three men that they both know and have picked – he shall have to return the dowry of 1000 drachmas and pay another 1000 drachmas in fines of his own to her. Also, this contract was legally binding anywhere that those two shall have moved. This means that because of the time – where travel among the Hellenistic kingdoms was common practice and each place had it’s own laws – contracts needed to constructed as to be able to circulate in and out of each kingdom.
In a rare case a woman was awarded a position as a magistrate. A one Phile of Priene. She became the first woman to construct a reservoir and an aqueduct. Her position as a magistrate was awarded to her probably because she contributed to the public works out of her private funds. But this shows that women were capable to function on a legal level, as was the case here.
The next new rights of women in this period come from the arena of the new found domestic and civic freedoms. This is the new institution of educating women which I have already touched upon in the discussion between Plato and Glaucon. But I shall elaborate in more detail. A couple of examples of women’s literacy come from two places; poetry and the ability to sign one’s own marriage contract. We know of female poets in Classical Greece but now in Egypt with the new amounts of papyri women’s works remained intact as proof of their literacy. But the important part is that of women being able to sign their marriage contracts.
Education became available to women in this period as well. Hipparchia, one of the first female Cynical philosophers even received an education based on the curriculum of a Greek boy. She received an education in rudimentary mathematics, music, literature, and of physical education. The aspect of women even being allowed to be involved in physical education is a radically new ideal. This because “Athletics were an essential part of the male curriculum that was opened to women in the Hellenistic period precisely because the Classical ideal no longer prevailed.”(Pomeroy, 137) This now allowed women to enter gymnasiums and exercise nude in the close proximity to men – although this happened quite rarely.
The next aspect of the liberation of Hellenistic women is that of the strength and cleverness of the royal women. Three of these women come to the table when considering who they are; Alexander’s mother, Bernice II and Cleopatra VII. All three of these women used their cunning and influence to get what they wanted. With Alexander’s mother she had to compete with other women to get her son into position to take the throne after Philip II’s death. As Pomeroy put it: “Many Macedonian kings indulged in both formal and informal polygamy, and because they often chose not to confer most-favored status on one of their wives – thereby making clear as well which of their sons was the designated successor to the throne – they fostered a climate of intrigue and struggle for power within their courts which could end in their own death at the hands of a power-hungry mother plotting of behalf of her son.” (Pomeroy, 121) This caused Alexander’s mother to have to conspire against the other women in Philip’s court and lie and deceive the king himself to put Alexander where she wanted him.
Bernice II was the wife of Ptolemy III. She exercised real political power and who left her mark on poetry and religion. She had access to a large fortune, which she spent on perfume of roses and racehorses (traditionally a male hobby). Her income was from the shipping in her city of Cyrene. She owned ships that transported grain on the Nile, which also added to her wealth. Her power came not from the trickery that she had to perform, but from her economic situation. She came to the table with wealth and didn’t have to fight to be able to ensure her kin to the throne.
But Cleopatra VII was the most famous. Cleopatra inherited the throne at seventeen with her brother Ptolemy XVII, then ten. Pomeroy states on Cleopatra: “…the phenomenon of Cleopatra must be set firmly in the context of Ptolemaic queens, shrewd, able and ambitious. She was not a courtesan, an exotic plaything for Roman generals. Rather, Cleopatra’s liaisons with the Romans must be considered to have been, from her viewpoint, legitimate dynastic alliances with promises of the greatest possible success and profit to the queen and to Egypt.” (Pomeroy, 124) She used Caesar to ensure the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt even under Roman control. She even had a son with Caesar and traveled to Rome to stay as a courtesan until his assassination.
The final aspect of female Hellenized liberation was represented in their news occupations. There are four categories of these occupations; arts and literature, practical jobs, medicinal jobs and prostitution. The first of these, arts and literature involved some of the following; dancers, musicians, painters and poets. The first three showing the depth of Classical Greek arts transposing into the Hellenized world. But the latter, the poets, show the literacy of the occupational women that lived in the Hellenistic period.
The next group, the practical jobs, show how women are now able to come out of the house and find applications of their capabilities in the world. Some of these jobs included; weavers, pot makers, launders, grocers and bar-maids. All that these show is an ability to prove women’s ability to function outside of the domestic sphere. This contradicts the ideals of Aristotle that were stated earlier. Although most of these jobs just included an extension of their domestic duties as they were in Classical Greece, they did show an integration among the Hellenistic women into the work force of that time – a distinction between those said women and those of Classical Greece.
The third category of occupations among Hellenistic women is that of the medical field. While most men of that time stayed with the healing of diseases most women in the medical field were midwives and wet-nurses. They handled such applications as the functions of menstruation, childbirth, nursing and menopause.
The fourth category is that of the prostitute. The distinction between primarily two types of prostitutes should be made. The first is that of the freed woman’s and the second is that of the exposed or enslaved woman’s. Pomeroy stated that one of the main reasons for why women were exposed and forced into enslaved prostitution was a result of the requirement of the family of that girl to pay a dowry to her husband. For lower class families this could have been devastating, especially if there was more than one daughter.
But prostitution could be very rewarding. There were even recorded cases when prostitutes had to pay higher taxes when traveling from one country to the next. It was the case that these women had to pay more not because of moral reasons but simply because they could afford to do so.
The new Greek woman – the newly Hellenized liberations – left her Classical Greek heritage behind. But this is so only in the new spectrum of her rights in the new world. Never did she leave her Greek heritage behind in the aspect of being Greek. She was still Greek in the ethnic sense but not in the ideal sense. She brought a whole new definition onto the women of the Hellenized world.
She raged against the Classical Greek ideal of what a women should be – as Aristotle saw it, a obedient women working on the domestic sphere being devoid of any intellectual prowess and cleverness and barely better than a slave. But Plato saw, as the Epicureans and the Cynics did some time later, that women were just as capable at thinking intellectually and having the faculties to compete in something like the political sphere.
She also acquired a myriad of legal rights. With her literacy came an ability to sign marriage contrasts which helped secure her rights in a marriage and dull her exploitation. It also allowed her to no longer need an escort in such matters that would have been needed in Classical Greece. She could in some places have become a magistrate because of her economic status as was the case with Phile of Priene.
Her education allowed to become more literate, become better founded in mathematics, have a knowledge of ancient Greek literature and even participate in the gymnasiums that allowed her to join the ranks of the educated class in Classical and Hellenistic Greece.
The royal women in this time also experienced as new found power. Alexander’s mother biding and successfully instituting her son into position to the throne. Bernice II found that her economic status could carry her a long way. Leaving marks on the arts and poetry especially. Cleopatra VII found that her beauty and cleverness could help to secure the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt for years. She even had a child with the famous Roman emperor Caesar. Showing her strength and intelligence in the political sphere as well.
And the occupations of Greek women in this time were expanded. Now women could leave the house and pursue other jobs of interest. And at least earn an income on her own.
Women in the Hellenistic age were allowed to enter all of the above fields. They became smarter, legally freer and economically stronger. But what was the real zeal that made these ideas reality? In a quote form Fantham it is made clear: “In the Classical period, respectable women – at least those of Athens – had been able to look forward to only two journeys: the first from their fathers house to heir husband’s, the next from their husband’s house to the grave. But in the Hellenistic period both women and men migrated to the newly conquered territories and forged new lives for themselves in the frontier outpost of Hellenism.” (Fantham, 140) A rebellion against the classic ideal of the Greek woman became inevitable.
Word Count: 3023
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