Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity
Females of the Species: Semonides on Women
Sex and Power in History
It is characteristic of the historical “invisibility” of women that no serious and comprehensive account of ancient women has hitherto existed. Naturally, historians of antiquity have concentrated on the kind of history made possible by the very limited evidence available to them. But they have long been using this to good effect, for social no less than for political or military history. The proliferation of detailed research in the last generation has inevitably included a proportionate increase in detailed social history. But the coming of the “new history”—loudly acclaimed by some, and hailed by Sarah Pomeroy as a “new trend…directed at finding out about the lower classes”—has made little difference in the ancient field.
It was in 1837 that the French Academy set the (highly topical!) subject of Ancient Slavery for a prize essay. The prize was won by a young scholar, Henri Wallon, whose three-volume work was published in 1847, dedicated to the Duc de Broglie (“defender of human rights to liberty”) and preceded by a long comparative essay on “Slavery in the Colonies.” The second edition (1879) is still one of the basic works in this field. Wilhelm Liebenam’s (also still basic) study of Roman trade associations appeared in 1890, and even Rostovtzeff’s unsurpassed Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire is about fifty years old. (The parallel Hellenistic work appeared in 1941.)
These are only a few of the highlights in a consistent record of interest in the social history of antiquity. Yet women have, on the whole, been as consistently overlooked. As I had occasion to point out to Pomeroy, there is no entry for “Women” in the index to either of Rostovtzeff’s great works. The women’s movement and International Women’s Year were bound to secure proper attention. But the question was: what kind of work would set the tone for future research? A slim German volume, glorifying the Atheni-an courtesan as the height of ancient feminine fulfillment, recently aroused justified fears. Books like Amaury de Riencourt’s (which admittedly deals with the whole of history, covering antiquity only in passing), written usually at two removes from knowledge of the actual sources, only help to confirm them. The field was wide open for the romantic, the propagandist, and the fraud.
It is a relief to see the fears dispelled by Pomeroy. She is well known in Classics circles as a founder and leader of the Classical Women’s Caucus and is much in demand as a lecturer on ancient women. The book owes its inception largely to the patent lack of a textbook on the subject, and a splendid textbook it is: not only courses on women’s history and on classical antiquity but courses on Western civilization will be ill-advised to ignore it. It aims at incorporating its own source book. A team of translators under Pomeroy’s direction has produced renderings of masses of relevant source material, chiefly literary.*
The book does indeed “cover a long period of history and a wide range of topics.”…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.