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.” Pomeroy’s main interest is in Greek literature, but her training in other fields has provided essential background. Two-thirds of the book is devoted to Greece, perhaps partly because a useful book on Roman women, by J. P. V. D. Balsdon, already exists. A cursory initial chapter deals with “Goddesses and Gods,” examining mythological relationships between males and females where at least one party was divine. It is inconsistent in detail, and the whole view of Greek goddesses as “archetypal images of human females as envisioned by males” comes from the stock Greek Mythology course and rests on a narrow literary basis. Actual cults—showing what the various deities meant to living Greeks in their infinite variety of time, place, and culture—are hardly examined. It might have been better, both for the book and for the title (which they encumber), to omit the goddesses.
Pomeroy goes on to “Women in the Bronze Age and Homeric Epic” (unfortunately not distinguishing between the two, as Moses Finley has repeatedly shown us that we must) and, after the “Dark Ages and Archaic Period”—a varied chapter, demonstrating her skill at drawing on evidence from law codes and tombs, art and literature—she settles down to three chapters (over a quarter of the book) on classical Athens. A far-ranging Hellenistic chapter includes a discussion of the whole history of Greek erotic art. The last eighty pages briefly deal with Rome of the Late Republic and the Early Empire. A short epilogue of general reflection is followed by twenty pages of notes, a bibliography (including a good selection of major works on the various aspects of the whole field, and an index. The few plates are carefully chosen, but (alas) shoddily printed.
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There is no end to the qualifications that were required for this work: an acquaintance with the whole sweep of Greek and Roman history and literature; a working knowledge of ancient art and archaeology, epigraphy and papyrology, philosophy, law, and religion; also (very prominently) an interest in such modern pursuits as anthropology and sociology. Few other scholars could provide an approach to this combination of skills, and it was complemented by proper willingness to take advice: the help of several scholars is acknowledged in the introduction, more advice in notes referring to private communications. (Pomeroy’s academic correspondence should be worth publishing.) There must be much that could not be specifically acknowledged, as your reviewer had occasion to note.
That the approach is to be sane and objective is made clear from the outset. The introduction properly recognizes the restrictions on the life and development of ancient (as of modern) women, but it ends with a challenge to extremists: Pomeroy thanks her husband and children for their “support” (her words are always carefully chosen), without which her life would have been lonely. She clearly has no patience with those women who feel guilty about not being in the kitchen when they are writing poetry or history. Such security in her own role was no doubt the necessary basis for the objectivity of her judgment.
Traces of feminist clichés can be found, perhaps a survival of preconceived ideas. But the actual evidence is fairly presented. In a discussion of three early law codes she hints at a gradual deterioration in the status of Greek women, yet the fact that the codes belong to different parts of the Greek world and that their sequence cannot be precisely established is made clear. The “misogyny” of Greek literature is often referred to in general terms, yet Pomeroy properly recognizes the very opposite in various male poets of all periods, as she does to some extent in Plato. (Male suprema-cism, of course, is almost universal and is quite another matter.) Indeed, the specimens of “misogyny” come from authors like Hesiod or satiric and comic writers, where they could easily be matched by passages implying equal “misandry”—perhaps “misanthropy” would cover it.
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It is one of the satirists (a mysterious early figure called Semonides) that Hugh Lloyd-Jones, the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, has presented to us in Females of the Species. There is a scholarly Greek text of Semonides’ satire on women, with all the academic paraphernalia, a prose translation (which helps to correct a gross blunder near the beginning of the one printed in Pomeroy), an introduction, and several appendices—one of them a scholarly edition of a newly found, and already much discussed, long erotic fragment by Archilochus (unfortunately with an appalling verse translation, inaccurate and insensitive—there are far better ones available, e.g., one by Peter Green). But the highlight is a series of photographs of sculptures by a friend of Lloyd-Jones, delightfully illustrating the “animal women” of the poem. For the reader willing to pay a luxury price for an academic book there is a bonus: a portrait of the Regius Professor in the same style, depicted as that pugnacious animal, homo academicus, adorns the jacket.
Semonides’ satire describes all women as made of Earth or Sea or one of eight animal species. All but one of them are unpleasant, and Pomeroy rightly points out, in her comments, that the only “good” one, the bee woman, is sensible and frigid. (We shall see that the satirist’s “ideal” must not be overgeneralized.) Lloyd-Jones properly places the satire against its background of literary convention, surprisingly developed even at that early time (seventh century BC?), and rightly warns us against using it as evidence for “misogyny” among Greek males. Indeed, if anything, even he goes too far in generalizing about the “basic Greek [i.e., male Greek] attitude to women”—his own discussion shows that any such formulation is about as useful as a generalization about the “modern European” attitude, including everything from Iceland to the Urals, to this or any other subject. One could quarrel with some other formulations, but it is a scholarly book and a delightful one at the same time.
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Overgeneralization is the chief characteristic of Riencourt. Basing himself on psychoanalysis, romantic anthropology, and outdated archaeology, but ignorant of ancient sources (he calls the god “Dionysius” throughout), he spins exciting myths about biologically based differences between men and women and supports them by exciting comparisons taking in apes and early homi-nids, prehistory and history, interpreted as suits the case. Pomeroy, by contrast, is a scholar aware of the actual evidence, and of its limitations.
A test case is the theory of the universal primitive worship of the Great Goddess and the consequence for social history supposedly following from it. This is one of the basic elements in Riencourt’s “historical” argument. Pomeroy fairly states recent doubts on the very existence of such a universal primitive cult; and whatever the truth of this, she refuses to speculate about the social order in prehistory or to subscribe to the myth of a primitive gynecocracy. (The term “matriarchy,” with all its ambiguities, ought at last to be dropped.) Though she is right in admitting the possibility of such a cult, the fact is that on present evidence we are entitled to treat it like the Greek belief in the existence of Amazons. Its popularity has various reasons, from plain faulty scholarship to the ineradicable human (in this case feminist) quest for “historical justification.” Other areas of modern life supply warning examples in plenty.
In a sense, scholars often bear the prime responsibility. Pre-existing scholarly error lends itself to exploitation as political myth. Hitler’s racial theories can trace an impeccable line of descent to the scholarly error of confusing the spread of languages and of objects with the spread of anthropologically definable populations (the “Aryans”—as “Indo-Europeans” still well known to some of our textbooks). The theory of primitive gynecocracy rests on similar nineteenth-century errors, no less often exploded. Irrelevant argument characterizes such political exploitation. As Pomeroy points out, the worship of a Mother Goddess, or even the existence of powerful queens, in prehistory tells us no more about the status of women in societies we do not know than the adoration of the Virgin, or the existence of Queen Victoria or Mrs. Gandhi, tells us in the case of societies we know.
What must be resisted is the principle of basing a political myth on historical theory, whether clearly erroneous or generally accepted. Whether or not there was a primitive gynecocracy is no more relevant to present-day moral and social problems than the known fact that until last century all civilized societies recognized slavery. And the practical ambivalence of historical myth is beautifully illustrated by these two works. While Pomeroy, familiar with the feminist myth based on primitive gynecocracy, rightly refuses to follow it, Riencourt, enthusiastically accepting the same “historical” basis, constructs a theory of permanent and indelible differences between men and women on it, with women naturally inferior.
Since historical situations change, this ambivalence is always inherent, not accidental. For the feminist, the existence of primitive gynecocracy provides historical justification; for Riencourt the central fact is that mankind progressed by overcoming it! Worse still: historical theories also change, and what was accepted yesterday is recognized as erroneous today. Moral systems based on them are only too likely to drift into banning the pursuit of truth, in order to fix their foundations for all time. The “patriotic” scholar is expected to provide “evidence” for the struggle, until history and archaeology are allowed to function only as tools of propaganda. Pomeroy’s book, properly read, should be salutary for responsible supporters of the women’s movement, no less than for scholars honestly pursuing the search for truth.
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The tenuousness of modern hypotheses is in fact well illustrated by what Pomeroy calls her “demographic speculations.” “Ancient demography” has been around for a long time—again, no connection with the new cliometricians should be claimed. In 1886 K.-J. Beloch wrote a book in which he conjectured the population of the Greek and Roman world, largely from modern parallels; and since we have practically no statistics for any part of that world (except for a series of figures, difficult to interpret, from the Roman Republic), all kinds of methods have been tried—chiefly the use of tombstones; but that (as Keith Hopkins has pointed out) produces such irrational results that its general reliability must be doubted. An alternative is to follow Beloch in using modern data, e.g. (as proposed by Hopkins), to apply UN mortality tables for nonin-dustrial nations to antiquity. But that is an act of faith, presenting theoretical and practical problems of its own, especially since the results arrived at conflict with one relatively sound kind of ancient evidence (available, unfortunately, only for Egypt), that of tax records.
Elaborate schemes of population changes can be built on a series of axioms and postulates in an almost Euclidian manner, with conflicting ancient sources argued out of the way—and as the eminent Dutch scholar den Boer has pointed out, a slight change in one or two minor postulates will produce totally different results. It is a game for the initiate, unrelated to the splendid demographic work carried on, with more and more refinement of technique, for periods of medieval and later history. It often, however, impresses the classicist and the general reader who, lacking scientific training, is ready to believe in the oracle of the statistical table.
That there were fewer women than men living at most times in classical antiquity is a proposition that will readily be granted. It has been attacked by some experts (notably Hopkins) on a priori grounds, but the total evidence seems overwhelming. Partially selective infanticide is probably one of the factors responsible, as is the practice of giving girls less food in times of shortage (which were frequent), and perhaps less general care; and, at a later age, marriage at around puberty, and frequent childbirth and abortion after. But in detailed comparative counts in epigraphic or literary sources, the “invisibility” of women must constantly be borne in mind. Few such counts have been done with sufficient accuracy, and with their methods clearly enough set out, for the results to have much value.
However, the figures for fecundity and fertility used by Pomeroy are certainly worthless. They are mostly based on anthropological projections from the analysis of skeletons, and the evidence simply does not get anywhere near justifying the conclusions. The work on the skeletons has been done without much warning of the precariousness of the method. Fecundity figures over immense areas and periods of time were based by J. Lawrence Angel on damage due to childbirth in a very few female public bones he examined. It should have been obvious to common sense that the number of children born cannot be determined in this way, since such factors as the genetic make-up of the woman and the weight of the child will be of primary importance. But the tool was used with far more enthusiasm than discretion. It has now been shown to be useless. Gilbert and McKern, in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology 38, 1973, concluded after careful tests on identified skeletons that “it does not presently seem possible to determine the number of pregnancies…simply by noting the degree of damage done to the os pubis.” For that matter, ages at death worked out by analysis of skeletons are also of very little use, unless the skeletons survive in good condition, so that several indicators can be used. (This is rare: more often there is a heap of bones.)
Telling the age at death from the public bone, which was a method freely employed, may produce reasonable data for males (see papers in Personal Identification in Mass Disasters, Smith-sonian Institution, 1970), but has led to wildly erroneous ones for females (see Gilbert and McKern, op. cit.), and even the more careful standards worked out for females by Gilbert and McKern (and not yet used in the work on which Pomeroy bases her conclusions) still show “disappointingly large standard deviations” (in fact their Table 2 shows standard deviations of 4.97 to 9.00 years for adults). It is time the games played by nonscientists in the name of modern science were clearly labeled as “dangerous to the unqualified user.” Few serious scientists would disagree.
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The life of an Athenian citizen woman was, as Pomeroy rightly insists, on the whole segregated and (to our way of thinking) intolerable. Yet certain exaggerations and errors have become conventional, and some even turn up in her book. One can easily get the impression that wives remained at home all day while the men were out, and that at night the men preferred to consort with courtesans and boys (and with all the women slaves of the household), while regarding their wives merely as machines for the procreation of legitimate children. That grotesque, and fairly general, picture is due to various causes: misreading of ancient evidence by scholars, as so often happens; but also a convergence of a romantic vision of Greece as an innocent paradise of sexual freedom ruined by Christianity (“Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilaean”) and (perhaps a special case of this) a vision of Greece, and Athens in particular, as a male homosexual paradise, which we owe largely to a long German tradition starting with Winckelmann. (It can, of course, readily become a Sodom when the attitude is inverted.)
Now, there is obviously a kernel of truth in all of this. It is certainly true that Athenian men did not think much of their wives’ intellectual abilities and did not talk to them about “men’s business” such as politics; also that the education given to citizen girls was such as to stunt their minds. And there was undoubtedly more open sex and more acknowledged homosexuality than, until quite recently, in any modern Western society. But the stereotypes, as so often, must be discarded.
The stereotype, as always, is what Riencourt thrives on. Greek men “held a contemptuous view of the opposite sex.” And “the Greek example makes it plain that the prevalence of male homosexuality in any given society [note the scientific-sounding formulation!] is tightly linked with increasing misogyny…;a kind of horror femi-nae pervades the social atmosphere.” Havelock Ellis is cited in support, linking homosexuality with infanticide as an expression of the death-wish of a society.
Even Pomeroy does not altogether escape the stereotype, and the baneful psychoanalytic influence. Take the odd notion that “in the homosexual context of Greek antiquity, buttocks, not breasts, were the most attractive feature of a female figure.” Fashions in what parts of the human figure to admire have changed through the ages, and in fact changed in the course of Greek history (as Pomeroy shows). But the psychoanalytic explanation here suggested will astonish the author of Fear of Flying (who gives due prominence to that anatomical feature). The sight of Helen’s breasts was said to have kept Menelaus from punishing her after the Trojan War, and breasts are frequently discussed as very desirable features in the Lysistrata. On the other hand, it ought surely to be mentioned, as relevant to any discussion of Greek homosexuality, that explicit depiction of male homosexual acts on vases is rare at any period, compared with heterosexual ones, and most of the known examples from Athens are confined to a short period about 500 BC. Furthermore, and to clinch the particular point: one of the earliest and best-known of homosexual scenes (on the Peithinos cup in Berlin) shows all the action in face-to-face positions.
In archaic and in classical Greece, homosexuality is particularly linked to aristocratic warrior societies. In democratic Athens, although homosexual practices undoubtedly continued (as in all known societies), the cult and the glorification were suspect: the famous vases with KALOS inscriptions disappear, and the attitude as a whole tended to be regarded as aristocratic and pro-Spartan, therefore un-Athenian. (Indeed, it probably was, as in the known examples of Plato and his circle.) By the fourth century, orators could routinely accuse their opponents of running after boys, and the Athenian state took good care to protect its ephebes against such practices during their military training—in opposition to the well-known aristocratic theory that it was owing to homosexual attachments that Sparta had become invincible and the Sacred Band in Thebes for a time the best small fighting force in Greece.
On all these questions, sources like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Ecclesia-zusae repay study. It is a truism that the evidence of comedy must be used with caution where the author makes a satiric sally. But it is no less true that the basic social picture must be recognizable to the audience. The basic point of the Lysistrata, with its famous “sex strike” confined to citizen wives, is that the ordinary Athenian depended on his wife for sexual satisfaction, and indeed was attached to her by strong emotional (no less than physical) bonds. The picture of Athenian marriage that emerges is not unlike that of the average more recent marriage where Woman’s Place is in the Home. The only alternative seriously mentioned is resort to the brothel keeper (obviously not in good repute)—and that only where a husband is being unbearably tormented by his wife as part of the strike. Not a word about boys as an alternative; more significant still, not a word about slave women being available.
Of course, such alternatives must have existed. But it is evident that they were not part of the basic pattern of life—after all, Aristophanes had to be sufficiently realistic to get his prize from a citizen audience which would recognize itself. No less significant: the author imagines that the situation is the same everywhere in Greece, even at Sparta. With assumed naïveté, he caters to the real naïveté of ordinary people who (as we know in our own society) cannot readily imagine a pattern of life radically different from their own, even if they have read and heard about it. The pro-Spartan upper-class elements, so important to many modern interpreters of antiquity, could be ignored by the dramatist with impunity.
It also becomes clear that women did not stay locked up in their women’s quarters all day. For one thing (as Pomeroy rightly notes), many had to go out to work: we again often think of a small leisure class, familiar from the philosophers. But even the socially prominent women in the two comedies mentioned—who do not work for a living—clearly all know one another very well and are even accustomed to lending prized possessions to one another. Although sequestered from males, they move freely within a social circle of their own.
Finally, there is the much distorted passage of Demosthenes, so often quoted out of context as illustrating the Athenian’s low view of his wife (e.g., Riencourt, p. 102): “We have mistresses for our enjoyment, concubines to serve our person, and wives for the bearing of legitimate offspring” (Pomeroy’s translation, p. 8). The whole speech, however, ends with a eulogy of the status and dignity of Athenian citizen wives, and the passage is almost its climax. It is by no means the intention to divide women (from the male point of view) into three exclusive categories, but to establish a hierarchy, with the citizen wife at the top.
The bearing of legitimate offspring and the guarding of the household (mentioned straight after) are obviously matters of serious social consequence, concerning the very foundations of the city, and so, on any ancient view, high above individual considerations: the individual, not least in what is often thought of as the libertarian milieu of classical Athens, was strictly subordinated to the state and its laws, as Plato’s Socrates fully recognized. What the speaker here means to show is that a courtesan and a concubine (i.e., a woman slave whom the master sleeps with) have only a limited personal value and no public functions or recognition. That wives have at least the two personal functions specified for women of low status as well, as the more serious ones detailed is not only not excluded: it is taken for granted. One need only, once more, read the Lysistrata.
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That Athenian citizen women were on the whole kept from meeting men is certain. (To what extent were the frequent festivals, including the dramatic performances, an exception? It would be important to know, but Pomeroy is aware of the fact that we do not.) Those scholars who, like A.W. Gomme, have tried to deny it were indeed “reluctant to believe that the Athenians might not have treated their wives the way cultivated gentlemen in the twentieth century treat theirs.” The tendency to think of classical Athenians as English liberals has always been an amiable failing of British scholarly tradition.
As a serious scholar, however, Pomeroy duly recognizes that we have no reason to think Athenian wives were generally dissatisfied or unhappy, or to idealize the lot of the hetaera (which she describes with proper detachment) as compared to theirs. A status society in which men and women know their places and are brought up to fit into them may well produce far less unhappiness than a highly mobile and competitive society. Unfortunately happiness is not measurable. Unhappiness to some extent is. We cannot say whether there were more neurotics among segregated |Athenian wives than there are among liberated modern American ones, but it is certain, at any rate, that there were far fewer alcoholics and suicides among them—indeed, such things are practically unheard of.
Like the historical fallacy, noted above, what we may call the psychological fallacy exerts a powerful attraction. It is emotionally disturbing to imagine that a system of which we disapprove (oppression on a class or racial or sexual basis) may have failed to produce general unhappiness, even among its victims: it makes us unsure of our grounds for condemning it, since we all still suffer from the consequences of being taught that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the proper aim of a democratic society. It is only too clear that this aim is far from being achieved, to judge by the obvious indicators of unhappiness at our disposal. So it is comforting to simplify the moral universe, after the fashion of the fairy tale or the old-style western.
Pomeroy will no doubt be attacked for resisting that temptation. But again, she deserves our thanks. Those who believe in freedom of human choice and development must not base that belief on the psychological any more than on the historical fallacy. The consequences can again be disastrous, and again not only in the inevitable repression of the search for truth, which we have recently seen at work in this very sphere. Worse still: faced with really overwhelming evidence of the erroneousness of the factual premise, we are then only too likely to opt for giving up the principle of freedom for the sake of the promise of greater happiness, for ourselves or for the majority; and there are always those ready to advise us to do so.
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Like all important works, Pomeroy’s is a beginning and not an end. She very properly refuses to claim “definitive” status for it, but it will remain a basic synthesis for what it covers. What this discussion has tried to show is that there is much more in this book. This modest and balanced summary of an immense and hitherto rather neglected area of the human past has both firmly established the history of ancient women as a legitimate field for future academic research (indeed, as one in which much further research is needed) and helped to remind us of the interest of the study of the past—even the remote past—in the present-day world: an interest that does not depend on facile and fallacious “conclusions” drawn from history.
October 30, 1975
In any paperback or book club edition, such as we may surely hope for, this distracting source book element ought to be largely removed, and references to perfectly adequate published translations substituted for the interested reader. ↩