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week 6: the female body ii

This week we move to a different kind of conceptualisation of the female body, and the role of prostitution in the ancient world.

In the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, we find a prostitute figure — Shamkatum — called a harimtu, a kind of prostitute attached to the temple (Lerner p131), acting as a civilizing force, a source of knowledge. Enkidu, the wild man, is brought by several stages into contact with civilization: first through sex with Shamkatum, next through food and drink, next through cohabitation with other men. See Gerda Lerner’s discussion of the passage (p132):

Gerda Lerner p132.png

Here is Andrew George’s Penguin translation of the passage (pp103-104):

“Enkidu was sitting before the harlot.

While the two of them together were making love,
he forgot the wild where he was born.
For seven days and seven nights
Enkidu was erect and coupled with Shamkatum.

The harlot opened her mouth,
saying to Enkidu:
‘As I look at you, Enkidu, you are like a god,
why with the beasts do you wander the wild?

‘Come, I will lead you to Uruk-the-Town-Square,
to the sacred temple, the home of Anu!
Enkidu, arise, let me take you
to the temple Eanna, the home of Anu,

‘where [men] are engaged in labours of skill,
you, too, like a man, will find a place for yourself.
You have been enough in the shepherds’ domain.’

Her words he heard, her speech found favour,
the counsel of a woman struck home in his heart.
She stripped and clad him in part of her garment,
the other part she put on herself.”

In Athens and Rome, prostitution itself seems to have been legal, yet a number of laws developed in each society around the idea of prostitution that seem intended to regulate the behaviour of those who were not prostitutes.

In classical Athens we hear of laws which punish those who attempted procurement, proagōgeia (McGinn 2014: 85). These laws were subject to the graphē, i.e. any Athenian (male) citizen could prosecute an offender, not simply the victim of dishonour. But it seems pretty clear that what is intended with these laws is not that prostitutes be discouraged, but that free-born women and boys be protected from being “turned out”. So McGinn (2014: 86): “Anyone who lured, compelled, or somehow transposed a free female or boy from the former category to the latter was liable to prosecution.” McGinn (2014: 89) interprets evidence of “contracts” between prostitutes and clients in classical Athens as part of this protection from liability: to prove that you had not seduced or prostituted a free born woman or boy, you could make sure that you had some evidence that the person you were sleeping with was in fact a prostitute. Lysias 3.22 (Against Simon) refers to such a contract, where 300 drakhmai were promised to secure access to a certain Theodotus. Male prostitutes were also forbidden from the regular life of free citizen Athenian males: according to Aeschines (1.19-20) they could not speak in the Assembly or hold public office, and they may have been forbidden from entering temples and agora (McGinn 2014: 90). Because of this law, charges were made against prominent Athenians in order to create political problems for them: one of Athens most famous orators, Aeschines (389–314 BCE), accused Timarchus of male prostitution (Against Timarchus, 346/5 BCE). The speech, which you can read in full here, is an interesting example of the political weaponization of contemporary sexual mores; the ostensible problem is not that Timarchus had sex with other men, but that he had debased himself by accepting money for sexual favours.

We find a similar use of law surrounding prostitution to solidify social structures in early imperial Rome. Augustus (ruled 27 BCE – 14 CE) introduced in 18 BCE a series of laws which were designed to return Rome to a state of morality, and were the most serious intrusion into the private lives of aristocratic citizens up to that date. This legislation incentivized marriage, and criminalized adultery. If a woman was caught having an extramarital affair, she was to be divorced by her husband and prosecuted. The consequences for the woman were relegatio (exile to an island), partial confiscation of property and dowry. Her husband was to make a charge within 60 days (anyone could prosecute within 4 months); if he refused to divorce his wife, he could be charged with being a pimp (lenocinium). Female adulterers were to wear the toga, a piece of clothing worn by men and prostitutes. A famous and embarrassing case of adultery took place in 2 BCE, when Julia, Augustus’ daughter, was caught in several extra marital affairs: she was relegated to the island of Pandateria, and her lovers were exiled (Sempronius Gracchus), and forced to commit suicide (Iullus Antonius, son of Marc Antony). You can read the primary sources for the Augustan legislation here.

In both Greek and Latin, the lexicon of prostitution circumscribes it as a business in strongly economic terms: the Greek porneion, “brothel” and pornē, “prostitute” come from the verb pernēmi, “to sell”; the Latin meretrix, “prostitute”, literally means “she who earns money” (~ merx, mereo). In Greek we also have the word hetaira, “companion”, which describes a more elevated woman for sale — describing an educated, beautiful, sophisticated, often powerful woman, such as Pericles’ Aspasia (whom we met in the Pomeroy readings of wk 3). Latin also had other expressive terms, such as scortum, “leather bag”, and lupa, “she-wolf”.

According to one source (Alexis, fr. 18 PCG. G, 4th c. BCE Athens = Lefkowitz-Fant 287), prostitutes were solely interested in making money:

First of all, they care about making money and robbing their neighbours. Everything else has second priority. They string up traps for everyone. Once they start making money they take in new prostitutes who are getting their first start in the profession. They remodel these girls immediately, and their manners and looks remain no longer the same. Supposed one of them is small; cork is sewn into her shoes. Tall? she wears thin slippers and goes around with her head pitched towards her shoulder; that reduces her height. No hips? she puts on a bustle, and the onlookers make comments about her nice bottom. They have false breasts for them like the comic actors’; they set them on straight out and pull their dresses forwards as if with punting poles. Eyebrows too light? They paint them with lamp-black. Too dark? she smears on white lead. Skin too white? she rubs on rouge. If a part of her body is pretty, she shows it bare. Nice teeth? then she is forced to keep laughing, so present company can see the mouth she’s so proud of. If she doesn’t like laughing, she spends the day inside, like the meat at the butcher’s, when goats’ heads are on sale; she keeps a thin slip of myrtle wood propped up between her lips, so that in time she will grin, whether she wants to or not. They rebuild their bodies with these devices.

In 79 CE, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius covered over parts of the bay of Naples, leaving for us miraculously preserved archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii. At Pompeii it has been supposed that there were 35 (or more!) brothels — a seemingly huge number, given the population of the town is thought to have been around 10 000 (McGinn (2006: 161ff.) . Among these is the so-called “Purpose built Lupanar”, a structure that was originally two storeys and contained a now infamous brothel. In addition to its five rooms, stone beds, and latrine, this brothel has yielded eight pictures in fresco. Of these Balsdon (1962: 225) somewhat demurely wrote: “it would be difficult to imagine pictures more obscene.” Because of the obscene character of these images, interpretations of their purpose has been somewhat wild. On this, see the optional reading by Sarah Levin-Richardson. Wikimedia provides us with nice images of the Pompeian frescoes (NSFW!!):

You can also watch this video tour of the Pompeian brothel (2 mins long) = Student Presentation for this week:

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 5.06.47 PM.png

McGinn (ibid.) rightly stresses the fact that sex for sale does not require a brothel to take place, and he points out that, in archaeological contexts, it is therefore hard to know exactly what spaces we should assign to “sex work.” It has often been noted that no brothel has ever been found at Ostia, but this does not mean that sex was not sold there. It is clear, though, that in both Greek and Roman contexts, prostitutes could be found where there was food and drink — such at the symposia in Athens (richly documented in vase painting); or in tabernae, cauponae, popinae, deuersoria in Italy (various kinds of lodging, inns, or “hotels”) as well as other public spaces, such as baths, circuses, temples.

From Aesernia, in Campania, we have a nice tombstone which tells a “joke” (called by Balsdon 1962: 226 a kind of “hotel bill”). The tombstone belongs to one Lucius Calidius Eroticus. Here is a translation by famed classicist Mary Beard on the TLS (=ILS  7478/CIL IX 2589,101 CE – 200 CE); she translates his name, Eroticus, as “Mr. Hot Sex.” The original object is now in the Louvre:

ILS 7478.jpg

*note that an as is a small unit of currency in Rome

Customer: “Innkeeper. Let’s work out the bill”
Innkeeper: “You’ve got a sextarius of wine there, that’s one as. Bread, one as. And the dips, two asses.”
Customer: “That’s right”
Innkeeper: “You had a girl. That’s eight asses
Customer: “That’s right too.”
Innkeeper: “And hay for the mule. Two asses.”
Customer: “That mule will be the ruin of me”

— Shamkatum
— “Purpose Built Lupanar”
— Pompeii
— Lucius Calidius Eroticus


week 5: the female body i

This week we shift from looking at how women are portrayed in literature, theatre, and oratory, and see how their bodies were conceptualized in the context of ancient medicine. We have from the ancient world a large body of medical work known as the Hippocratic Corpus, dating to 5th/4th century BCE. Although associated with the name of the famous Greek doctor, Hippocrates, the texts in the Hippocratic corpus seem to come from different times, and different authors. Instead of seeing the corpus as the output of Hippocrates, modern scholars rather see it as a collection of medical knowledge, in analogy with the Homeric tradition, which ascribed different poems — composed over time by many different poets — to a singular “Homer”.

Our study of ancient medical conceptions of women connects with our readings from the beginning of the semester in which Freud viewed women in terms of anatomical difference. Consider Lesley Dean-Jones’ opening paragraph of Women’s Bodies in Classical Greek Science (1994: 1):Screen Shot 2017-09-30 at 12.38.16 PM.png

Ancient medical texts attempt to account for sexual difference in terms of anatomy and physiology, and often remark upon the differences between male and female bodies. The female body is variously described as porous, soft, wet, glandular — “like wool” (Gynaecia 1.1; W in the C W p185); men’s bodies are hard, firm, warm, dry — “like cloth” (Glands 16; W in the C W p185). See Regimen 1.34 (W in the C W p186):

The males of all species are warmer and drier, and the females moister and colder, for the following reasons: originally each sex was born in such things and grows thereby, while after birth males use a more rigorous regimen, so that they are well warmed and dried, but females use a regimen that is moister and less strenuous, besides purging the heat out of their bodies every month. 

The idea that women were naturally “wetter” came from the idea that their health was associated with blood flow. Women, unlike men, had the ability to evacuate blood, which was seen by the Hippocratics as healthful: “Though many women fell ill, they were fewer than the men and less frequently died” (Epidemics 1.16, W in the C W p188). Any kind of expulsion of blood was more or less a good thing for women, including epistaxis (nose bleeds), according to the Hippocratics (although not always according to Aristotle). Aristotle understood that menstruation was a painful time for women (History of Animals 572b5-9, W in the C W p191). Greek medical theory warned of a threat to female health — “wandering womb” syndrome — in which a dried out womb would be “attracted” to wetter organs within the female body, such as the liver, brain, heart, diaphragm. If the womb settled there, women suffered symptoms of speechlessness, loss of consciousness, and general “hysteria.” The methods used to lure the womb back to its rightful place were the use of sweet and foul smells — to repel the womb from its displaced position, to entice it back. This suggests that the Hippocratics thought that the womb had a sense of smell (W in the C W p189), and, to some extent, had a “mind” of its own.

Women are not only described as naturally “softer” but their softness is also attributed to their perceived inactivity, relative to men. In Glands (1.1, W in the C W p185), women are described as more glandular not simply because of the physical makeup of their body (i.e. they have breasts which produce milk) but also because of their less active lifestyles:

In men the denseness and compactness of the body contributes greatly to these glands not becoming large. For the male is firm and like close-woven cloth both to the sight and to the touch. But the female is porous and loose and like wool to the sight and touch, with the result that as a porous and soft thing she does not give up moisture, while the male does not absorb any, being compact and hard; moreover, labor strengthens his body so that he does not have anything from which he might take any excess fluid. This account demonstrates that of necessity both the chest and the breasts and the rest of a woman’s body are loose and soft both on account of her inactivity and on account of what has been said. With men the opposite is the case.

In Aeschylus’ Eumenides (458 BCE), women are described as merely the vessels for conception — not a vital contributor of biological, life-giving material. Mary Lefkowitz (1981: 21) noted that “popular belief and formalised philosophy denied the womb its basic creative powers.”

In the above passage, Apollo argues that Orestes’ crime (killing his mother) was less serious because his mother was not the important contributor to his birth.

For Aristotle women were not capable of creating ‘seminal’ fluid; men, whose bodies were higher temperatures, could create semen, but a woman’s cooler body could only make blood into menstrual fluid (W in the C W p191). The essentially hotter nature of man also accounted for his intellectual (and moral) superiority. To some extent, Aristotle was capable of seeing men and women as greater biological reflections of one another, seeing them in a hierarchy rather than a dualism. But this hierarchy had long term consequences on the understanding of women in the west. Herophilus (4th/3rd c. BCE), the Alexandrian physician, understood that women had Fallopian tubes which produced a ‘female seed’, but under Aristotelian influence theorized that this was expelled from the body, and had no role in the conception of children (W in the C W p195). Soranus (early 2nd c. CE) also thought that women only contributed her menstrual fluid — he advised the prospective husband to ask after his bride’s menstruation before marrying her (Gynecology 1.34, W in the C W p197).

In the Roman period a woman did not necessarily need to menstruate to be healthy; Soranus thought that menstruation was harmful to women (Gynecology 1.29; W in the C W p198). There is a sense in which this detachment of a woman from her period created some fear of it:


— Hippocratic corpus
— wandering womb
— Herophilus
 Fallopian tube

Further reading:
in the Oxford Classical Dictionary
Hippocrates in the Oxford Classical Dictionary 
L. Dean-Jones, Women’s Bodies in Classical Greek Science (1994) [online access]
H. King, Hippocrates’ woman : reading the female body in ancient Greece (1998) [online access]

Week 5 Student Presentations:

Thursday 5th October

Presentation 1, Galen On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body 14.6 = Lefkowitz-Fant #351

The female is less perfect than the male for one, principal reason because she is colder, for if among animals the warm one is the more active, a colder animal would be less perfect than a warmer. A second reason is one that appears in dissecting …

All the parts, then, that men have, women have too, the difference between them lying in only one thing, which must be kept in mind throughout the discussion, namely, that in women the parts are within [the body], whereas in men they are outside, in the region called the perineum. Consider first whichever ones you please, turn outward the woman’s, turn inward, so to speak and fold double the man’s, and you will find them the same in both in every respect. Then think first, please, of the man’s turned in and extending inward between the rectum and the bladder.

If this should happen, the scrotum would necessarily take the place of the uteri, with the testes lying outside, next to it on either side; the penis of the male would become the neck of the cavity that had been formed; and the skin at the end of the penis, now called the prepuce, would become the female pudendum [the vagina] itself. Think too, please of the converse, the uterus turned outward and projecting. Would not the testes [the ovaries] then necessarily be inside it? Would it not contain them like a scrotum? Would not the neck [the cervix], hitherto concealed inside the perineum but now pendent, be made into the male member? And would not the female pudendum, being a skinlike growth upon this neck, be changed into the part called the prepuce? It is also clear that in consequence the position of the arteries, veins, and spermatic vessels [the ductus deferentes and Fallopian tubes] would be changed too. In fact, you could not find a single male part left over that had not simply changed its position; for the parts that are inside in woman are outside in man. You can see something like this in the eyes of the mole, which have vitreous and crystalline humours and the tunics that surround these and grow out from the meninges, as I have said, and they have these just as much as animals do that make use of their eyes. The mole’s eyes, however, do not open, nor do they project but are left there imperfect and remain like the eyes of other animals when these are still in the uterus …

So too the woman is less perfect than the man in respect to the generative parts. For the parts were formed within her when she was still a foetus, but could not because of the defect in the heat emerge and project on the outside, and this, though making the animal itself that was being formed less perfect than one that is complete in all respects, provided no small advantage for the race; for there needs must be a female. Indeed, you ought not to think that our creator would purposely make half the whole race imperfect and, as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great advantage in such a mutilation.

Let me tell what this is. The foetus needs abundant material both when it is first constituted and for the entire period of growth that follows. Hence it is obliged to do one of two things; it must either snatch nutriment away from the mother herself or take nutriment that is left over. Snatching it away would be to injure the generant, and taking left over nutriment would be impossible if the female were perfectly warm; for if she were, she would easily disperse and evaporate it. Accordingly, it was better for the female to be made enough colder so that she cannot disperse all the nutriment which she concocts and elaborates … This is the reason why the female was made cold, and the immediate consequence of this is the imperfection of the parts, which cannot emerge on the outside on account of the defect in the heat, another very great advantage for the continuance of the race. For, remaining within, that which would have become the scrotum if it had emerged on the outside was made into the substance of the uteri, an instrument fitted to receive and retain the semen and to nourish and perfect the foetus.

Forthwith, of course, the female must have smaller, less perfect testes, and the semen generated in them must be scantier, colder, and wetter (for these things too follow of necessity from the deficient heat). Certainly such semen would be incapable of generating an animal, and, since it too has not been made in vain, I shall explain in the course of my discussion what its use is: The testes of the male are as much larger as he is the warmer animal. The semen generated in them, having received the peak of concoction, becomes the efficient principle of the animal. Thus, from one principle devised by the creator in his wisdom, that principle in accordance with which the female has been made less perfect than the male, have stemmed all these things useful for the generation of the animal: that the parts of the female cannot escape to the outside; that she accumulates an excess of useful nutriment and has imperfect semen and a hollow instrument to receive the perfect semen; that since everything in the male is the opposite [of what it is in the female], the male member has been elongated to be most suitable for coitus and the excretion of semen; and that his semen itself has been made thick, abundant, and warm …

It is clear that the left testis in the male and the left uterus in the female receive blood still uncleansed, full of residues, watery and serous, and so it happens that the temperaments of the instruments themselves that receive [the blood] become different. For just as pure blood is warmer than blood full of residues, so too the instruments on the right side, nourished with pure blood, become warmer than those on the left … Moreover, if this has been demonstrated and it has been granted that the male is warmer than the female, it is no longer at all unreasonable to say that the parts on the right produce males and those on the left, females. In fact, that is what Hippocrates meant when he said, ‘At puberty, whichever testis appears on the outside, the right, a male, the left, a female.’ That is to say, when the generative parts first swell out and the voice becomes rougher and deeper-for this is what puberty is-Hippocrates bids us observe which of the parts is the stronger; for of course, those that swell out first and have a greater growth are the stronger.

Presentation 2, “Votive Womb”, with Helen King’s “When is a womb not a womb?” (2017) on


Terracotta wombs in the Casa Buonarotti (photo: Helen King).

Paper topics

paper 1 topics (due 10/24 wk 8)

— What obstacles stand in the way of our understanding ancient women, and how do they limit, warp, or alter our view? In your answer, you may consider: assumptions of scholarship; ancient evidence from male perspective; survival of ancient evidence.

— What are the main characteristics of women, according to ancient sources?

— Consider the characters of Helen, “Sappho”, and Medea. What are their similarities and differences? How does each contribute to our understanding of women in antiquity?

**Note that your midterm is Tues. 17th October — wk 7**

Write a 4-5 page paper answering **one** of the above questions. Format all papers double-spaced with Times New Roman, 12-point font, 1” margins at top and bottom, 1.25” margins on sides. Papers must be printed and handed in (not emailed) in class on Tuesday 24th October. All papers must include BOTH references to primary text AND citations of scholarly works. Late papers will be subject to -5% deductions from the paper grade for every day that it is late.

Essays will be graded according to the following criteria of content, style, citation. Note that I expect you to use the scholarly resources with I have assigned as part of your readings, e.g. Page duBois, Sarah Pomeroy, Women in the Classical World, etc. You may use other sources, but make sure they are appropriate scholarly resources.

Exemplary: A (95-100%), A- (90-94%)
Answers the question with a sophisticated argument and is eloquently written.
Many well chosen quotations from ancient sources, properly cited.
Supported by quotations and references to scholarly articles, properly cited.

Good: B+ (87-89%), B (84-86%), B- (80-83%)
A good argument, which may come close to answering the question.
Some contact with ancient sources, scholarly articles.
Perhaps occasional slip of grammar or spelling.

Adequate: C+(77-79%), C (74-76%), C- (70-73%)
A vague argument, does not answer question.
No contact with ancient sources, scholarly articles.
Several problems with grammar or spelling.

Insufficient: D+ (67-69%), D (65-66%)
A weak or non-existent argument.
Does not answer question.
Contains factual errors or irrelevant details.
Uses inappropriate or unattributed sources.

F (0-64%)
Does not complete assignment or inadequately completes assignment.


weeks 4-5: Euripides’ Medea

This week we’re reading one of Euripides’ best known plays, the Medea, first staged at Athens in 431 BCE. Ancient papyri uncovered from Egypt demonstrate the play’s continued potency throughout the classical period; take, for example, the 4th century CE papyrus fragment from Oxyrhynchus which contains parts of lines 131, 139-148 (pp78-79 of our translation).

Medea is the quintessential emblem of female power and fury; a fearful icon situated in the male imagination. The ancients connected her name with the Greek word μήδεσθαι (mēdesthai), ‘to devise’ — her identity is deeply rooted in cunning, a quality which, as we’ve seen, the Greeks deeply feared in women. Take, e.g. Creon’s reason for exiling Medea in Euripides’ version (lines 282-296, p84):

I am afraid of you — no point in mincing words —
I am afraid you’ll work incurable mischief
upon my daughter.

And many things combine towards this fear of mine:
you are by nature clever and well versed
in evil practices;

5th c. Athenians generally had an anxiety about too much intellectualism; in the context of democratic Athens, where each man theoretically had his say, the ability of an individual to overpower proceedings via natural or instructed cunning was greatly suspect. That women, who are characterized as developing cunning to circumvent the controls carefully placed around them, should succeed via their intellect, also fit into this greater civic anxiety about how the state should function. bell hooks demonstrates fear of truth, intelligence, and resulting secrecy as part of a broader marketplace economy within coercive hierarchies:

The tale of Medea existed before Euripides’ stage version. As early as Hesiod (Theogony 992–1002), Medea is figured helping Jason get the Golden Fleece. In this passage of Hesiod, Medea appears in a list of goddesses who slept with mortal men; she appears as a divinity, too, in the song of the 5th c. poet, Pindar (Pythian Odes 4. 11). The “witchy” Medea appears with her cauldron on an Etruscan bucchero olpe from c. 630 BCE, discovered at Cerveteri, on which her name is inscribed in Etruscan as Metaia (see above). In different literary manifestations of the Medea tale, she uses her magic to overcome her lover’s obstacles, with devastating consequences for those around her — e.g. she convinces Pelias’ daughters to cut up their father and boil him in a cauldron to return him to his youth, and Pelias dies (line 486, p92; 504, p93). It is through Medea’s magic that Jason is able to defeat the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece and achieve his mission. In a famous account of Jason’s voyage from the 3rd c. BCE by Apollonius of Rhodes (the Argonautica), Medea’s love for Jason is created by the direct intervention of the goddesses Hera and Athena (which recalls Aphrodite compelling Helen to love Paris). Here is an excerpt from Book 3 of this poem which describes the moment Medea is compelled to love Jason (you can read the whole poem here):

[3.275ff] Meantime Eros passed unseen through the grey mist, causing confusion, as when against grazing heifers rises the gadfly, which oxherds call the breese. And quickly beneath the lintel in the porch he strung his bow and took from the quiver an arrow unshot before, messenger of pain. And with swift feet unmarked he passed the threshold and keenly glanced around; and gliding close by Aeson’s son he laid the arrow-notch on the cord in the centre, and drawing wide apart with both hands he shot at Medea; and speechless amazement seized her soul. But the god himself flashed back again from the high-roofed hall, laughing loud; and the bolt burnt deep down in the maiden’s heart like a flame; and ever she kept darting bright glances straight up at Aeson’s son, and within her breast her heart panted fast through anguish, all remembrance left her, and her soul melted with the sweet pain. And as a poor woman heaps dry twigs round a blazing brand — a daughter of toil, whose task is the spinning of wool, that she may kindle a blaze at night beneath her roof, when she has waked very early — and the flame waxing wondrous great from the small brand consumes all the twigs together; so, coiling round her heart, burnt secretly Love the destroyer; and the hue of her soft cheeks went and came, now pale, now red, in her soul’s distraction.

The vision of Medea as an erotic victim in Apollonius’ poem is not the same as the Medea we encounter on the Athenian stage. There, though affected, Medea is the image of self-control, cunning, and ruthlessness. Medea’s description of her relationship with Jason is situated within Athenian legal and civic vocabularies — we are often reminded that Medea is a foreigner, that her livelihood is dependent on Jason, that the city is inherently hostile to her. Although we are asked to view Medea and her status as women, her problems also reveal the anxiety of being a foreigner — or immigrant — in a city.

How should we understand Medea’s relationship with her rival, Jason’s new bride? In previous weeks, we discussed the powerful bonds that women could create, through intimacy, song (Sappho, Alcman), shared space (Lysias). Consider, in this context, Sarah Pomeroy (1975: 20):

“the matrilineal and matrilocal pattern of marriage did give the woman the benefit of remaining with the strongly supportive environment of her close relatives and friends, while her husband was essentially an alien.” 

Why is Medea’s act at the end of this play so horrific? It may be worth revisiting a citation of Freud which Page duBois made in Sowing the Body (1988: 11):

“Speaking of the anatomical distinction in the same essay, [Freud] says: I cannot evade the notion (though I hesitate to give it expression) that for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men. Their super-ego is never so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men.

From the Freudian perspective, then, women are less capable of ethical action — more prone to acts of extreme emotion. Is this what is happening in Medea’s case? What if, instead of placing Oedipus at the centre of psychoanalysis, we had placed Medea?

— Medea
— mēdesthai
— witchcraft
— female intellect

Week 4 Student Presentations:

Tuesday 24th September

Presentation 1, Euripides’ Medea 230-251 (p82)
Trans. Oliver Talpin (2013)

We women are the most beset by trials
of any species that has breath and power of thought.
Firstly, we are obliged to buy a husband
at excessive cost, and then accept him as
the master of our body — that is even worse.
And here’s the throw that carries highest stakes:
is he a good catch or a bad?
For changing husbands is a blot upon
a woman’s good repute; and it’s not possible
to say no to the things a husband wants.
A bride, when she arrives to join new ways
and customs, needs to be a prophet to predict
the ways to deal best with her new bedmate —
she won’t have learned that back at home.
And then…then if, when we have spent a deal of trouble
on these things, if then our husband lives with us
bearing the yoke without its being forced,
we have an enviable life.
But if he does not: better death.
But for a man — oh no — if he ever is irked
with those he has at home, he goes elsewhere
to get relief and ease his state of mind.
He turns either to some close friend or to someone his age.
Meanwhile we women are obliged
to keep our eyes on just one person.
They, men, allege that we enjoy a life
secure from danger safe at home,
while they confront the thrusting spears of war.
That’s nonsense: I would rather join
the battle rank of shields three times
than undergo birth-labor once.

Presentation 2, Euripides’ Medea 522- 551 (p94)
Trans. Oliver Talpin (2013)

It seems I’m going to have to prove myself as orator,
and, like a skillful captain, reef my sails
in to the very edge, if I’m to navigate
before your windy and unbridled talk, woman.
For my part, since you emphasize so much my debt to you,
it’s my belief that it was Cypris
alone of the gods and humans steered my voyage clear of harm.
You may well have a subtle mind,
but modesty forbids me to relate just how Desire
compelled you with unerring shafts to keep my body safe…
but I’ll not go into too fine detail there.
The benefits you really did for me were well and good.
Yet in return for my survival you’ve received
far greater profits than you have contributed —
as I’ll explain. First you inhabit Greece
instead of some barbarian land;
you’ve gotten to experience the rule of justice and the law,
without consideration for the threat of force.
The Greeks have all found out about your cleverness;
you’re famous for your gifts.
If you inhabited the furthest fringes of the world,
then no one would have heard of you.
I would not ask for vaults of gold, or for the gift to sing
yet more melodiously than Orpheus,
unless my fortune brought me also great celebrity.
So much then for my efforts made on your behalf —
it was you after all embarked on this debate.
I turn now to your condemnations
of the royal match that I have made.
Concerning this I’ll demonstrate that I was clever first,
second restrained, and third I’ve been
a constant friend to you and to my sons.
No, please keep quiet.

Thursday 26th September

Presentation 1, Euripides’ Medea 1081-1116 (pp118-119)
Trans. Oliver Talpin (2013)

CHORUS [chanting]
Repeatedly I have explored
ideas of intricacy
and entered on deeper disputes
than usually womankind does.
We have inspiration as well
that prompts dialogue leading truly
to wisdom (not everyone,
you’ll only discover a few,
one woman among many more,
with true inspirational thought).

My conclusion is this:
that people who’ve never had children,
and have no experience of them,
are certainly happier far
than those under parenthood’s yoke.
With no opportunity to 

experience children as joy,
nor as causes of pain — 
they steer clear of many ordeals.

And those with that sweetness of growth,
with children as plants in their house —
I notice how all of the time
they are worn down to shadows with cares.
Struggling with how to nurture good health,
then how they can leave them well off…
and, after that, it’s still unsure
just whether this labor is spent
to raise them as bad or as good.

And lastly I have to include
one final disaster of all
for humans. Supposing all’s well — 
they’ve put aside plentiful means,
their children have grown to the full,
their character makeup is good —
still, if destiny has it this way,
then Death takes their bodies below,
abducting your child’s lovely life.
Yet how can it profit the gods
to pile upon humans this worst 
and most agonizing of blows —
a fine for the bearing of children.

Presentation 2, Euripides’ Medea 1323-1350 (pp128-129)
Trans. Oliver Talpin (2013)

You thing of hate, woman most loathsome
to the gods, and me, and all humanity.
You who could steel yourself to drive your sword
into the children you yourself had borne;
and you have ruined me with childlessness.
Now you have done these things,
how can you dare to look upon the sun and earth,
when you’ve committed this abominable act?
To hell with you. Now I see straight: back then I was not thinking,
when I conveyed you from your home in a barbarian land to my household in Greece —
already then a powerful evil,
traitor to your father and the country that had nurtured you.
The gods have sprung on me the demon of revenge
that came with you, because you killed
your brother at the hearth, and then embarked
upon the Argo‘s glorious deck.
You started out from things like that;
and then, when you had married me
and borne my children, you murdered them —
all for the sake of sexual pride, the bed.
No woman born a Greek would ever have gone through
with such a crime; yet I saw fit to marry you,
in preference to one of them — a loathsome
and destructive union it has proved to be for me.
A lioness, not a woman, you,
more cruel in nature than the Etruscan Scylla.
But not even with a thousand insults
could I pierce your skill, so toughened is your callousness;
so go to hell, foul creature, and defiled with children’s blood.
All I can do is grieve for my own destiny.
I never shall enjoy my new-laid marriage bed;
I never shall share words again
with these two children that I sowed and bred,
not in this life — no, they are lost to me.

Week 5 Student Presentations:

Tuesday 3rd October:

Lucanian calyx-krater, c. 400 BCE [Cleveland Museum of Art 1991.1]; Taplin fig. 35 p122f.

Medea kalyx krater

Lucanian calyx-krater, c. 400 BCE [Cleveland Museum of Art 1991.1]; Taplin fig. 35 p122f.


week 3: spaces of women



Red-figure kalathos (c. 470 BCE) from Akragas (Sicily) depicting the poets Sappho and Alcaeus (left). Brygos Painter. Berlin, Staatliche Mus. Image: wikimedia.

You read for this week excerpts from Anne Carson’s translation (If not, Winter) of the fragments of the Greek lyric poet, Sappho (7th-6th centuries BCE). Sappho was a prolific poet (her corpus could fill 9 volumes in antiquity) but today we have very little of her works (~1%). The two best preserved poems (fr. 1, fr. 31) come to us because later writers quoted the poems more fully; but we also have many smaller fragments of her poetry which were found on papyri uncovered from Egypt. In 2014, Professor Dirk Obbink of Oxford University announced that he had recovered previously unknown fragments of Sappho; you can listen to Obbink alongside Professors Edith Hall and Margaret Reynolds in the optional listening — In Our Time episode on Sappho. Sappho’s poetry was composed to be sung and performed; what we read are therefore lyrics. She is classed as one of several lyric poets of this period; you also read, for this week, a performance piece by the 7th century, Spartan lyric poet, Alcman. Sappho is famous for singing about deeply personal subjects — love, desire, beauty, longing, loss, passion, nature; and the experiences of women. But she is also famous for describing the sexual desire and relationships between women and other women, including her own homosexual relationships with women.


B029703c - Attic hydria Eriphyla.jpg

Red-figure hydria (c. 440-430 BCE)
depicting a woman (Eriphyle) suckling her child (Alcmeo) in the courtyard while the husband (Amphiaraus) looks on. Berlin, Staatsliche Mus. Image: Scalar Archive

This week you also read Lysias 1, On the Murder of Eratosthenes, a forensic speech from early 4th c. BCE Athens. In this speech, an Athenian husband describes his perception of his cheating wife, drawing attention to a number of important elements of the life of Athenian husbands and wives, their cohabitation, their legal relationship, their separate and mutual responsibilities, their separate worlds and spaces. A clear and persistent theme throughout the evidence, both literary and material, from classical Athens (c. 480-323 BCE), is that women and men at this time lived and worked in different spaces. In his Oeconomicus (7.35-37), Xenophon (c. 430–354 BCE) explicitly says that the woman’s work takes place inside, while the work of men is outside (see W in the C W p109). The sequestering of women within the household had multiple purposes; it can be seen from the perspective of preserving moral standards (we should ask ourselves what happens to Euphiletus’ wife when she leaves the house in On the Murder of Eratosthenes…); as well as from the perspective of economic stability. Remember that the modern term “economy” derives from the ancient Greek word for taking care of household affairs (οἰκονομία, oikonomia), the traditional work of women during this period. Your readings for this week also emphasize the perceived importance, as well as the biological effects, of women’s child rearing duties. Above, you see the image of a woman nursing her child inside the house, as her husband looks on. Below, see an excerpt from your reading of Sarah Pomeroy which suggests the impact that rearing children had on the ancient female body.

— lyric
— papyrus
— marriage + divorce
— epiklēroi
— oikonomia

Week 3 Student Presentations:

Tuesday 19th September

Presentation 1, Sappho 31
Trans. Anne Carson (2002) —  If Not, Winter

He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty

Presentation 2,  Sappho P. Lond. Lit. 43

Sappho P. Lond. Lit. 43.png

Thursday 21st September

Presentation 1, Lysias 1.10-14:
Trans. Caroline L. Falkner (2001)

[10] From that time, then, it became such a regular arrangement that my wife would often go downstairs to sleep with the child to nurse it and to stop it crying. This was the way we lived for quite a while, and I never had any cause for concern, but carried on in the foolish belief that my wife was the most proper woman in the city.

[11] Time passed, gentlemen, and I came home unexpectedly from the farm. After dinner the child started to cry and become restless. It was being deliberately provoked by our slave girl into behaving like this because that individual was in the house; I found out all about this later.

[12] So, I told my wife to go away and nurse the child to stop it crying. To begin with, she did not want to go, claiming that she was glad to see me home after so long. When I got annoyed and ordered her to leave she said, “Yes, so you can have a go at the young slave here. You made a grab at her before when you were drunk.”

[13] I laughed, and she got up, closed the door as she left, pretending it was a joke, and drew the bolt across. Thinking there was nothing serious in this, and not suspecting a thing, I happily settled down to sleep as I had come back from my farm work.

[14] About dawn my wife returned and opened the door. When I asked why the doors had made a noise in the night, she claimed that the lamp near the baby had gone out, and so she had gone to get a light from the neighbours. I said nothing, as I believed this was the truth. I noticed though, gentlemen, that her face was made up, although her brother had died not thirty days earlier. Still, I said nothing at all about it, and I left without a word.

Presentation 2, Epinetron — Athens, Nat. Arch. Museum 1629



week 2: woman as gift or curse

The above pictured 5th c. BCE drinking cup (skyphos), currently in the Boston MFA, depicts both the departure and the recovery of Helen. The bottom image is a continuous photograph of the object in the round. On side A (upper left), Alexander (=Paris) leads Helen from Sparta — Paris’ hand on her wrist symbolizes both marriage and forced abduction; Aphrodite and Eros attend to Helen, with Peitho (Persuasion) following Aphrodite. On side B (upper right), at Troy, Helen flees to the sanctuary of Apollo; Menelaus draws his sword, about to kill her. Aphrodite appears with Helen, intervening between the two. The images of the cup therefore represent the beginning and end of the Trojan War. In our readings this week, we see how the Trojan nobility views Helen, the cause of their suffering; and we see Helen back at home in Sparta with Menelaus, after the Trojan War is over. How should we interpret Helen’s role in the Iliad and Odyssey? To what extent does she represent real womanhood? What does Helen’s relationships with gods and men tell us about the society that created her tale?

The historian, Herodotus, writing in the 5th c. BCE, was sceptical that the Trojans would engage in a protracted war over Helen. Read his account below in the Histories (2.112-20), translated by Robin Waterfield (1998). Thucydides, the 5th c. historian who immediately followed Herodotus, also considered the war between Greeks and Troy to have been waged for different reasons — Histories (1.9.3-4), translated by Robert B. Strassler (1996):

Amazons appear as characters throughout Greco-Roman culture, but we do not know whether our evidence represents a historical society of women that existed outside of the imagination. In your reading of Iliad 3, you may have noticed that Priam says that he had fought Amazons as a younger man. In many cases, Amazons appear as a female “bogey-man” — an aberration that must be subdued. The “eastern” association of the Amazons suggests that they were an other against which Greeks defined themselves. As Pomeroy (1975: 24) notes, every time a male figure from Greek literature encounters an Amazon, he defeats her; see above the image of Achilles killing the Amazon, Penthesilea. Herodotus also describes the all-female society of the Amazons, and their eventually “intermarriage” with the Scythians — Histories (4.110-117):

In our further readings this week, we encounter the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. This poem describes the abduction of the young woman, Persephone, and the subsequent grief of her mother, the goddess Demeter. What connections does this tale have to the realities of marriage and cult worship? What is the connection between sexuality, death, fertility? What is the connection between agriculture and the woman, according to Page duBois? How are young women portrayed in the contemporary period? How do older and younger women interrelate? In your readings from Women in the Classical World, you have seen a number of korai, such as the dedication by Nikandre, a Naxian woman, to Artemis on Delos (see below).

Nikandre Kore

Video taken by F. Tronchin at the Athens National Archaeological Museum of the Nikandre Kore

The inscription, which was incised into the side of her garment, reads as follows (see W. in the C. W. p36):
Nikandre dedicated me to the far-darter, the maiden who showers arrows, I, the daughter of Deinodikus of Naxos, distinguished among women, sister of Deinomenes and wife of Phraxos. (Lazzarini 1976: no. 157; Richter 1968: 26)

Another famous kore (below)discovered in 1972, is the Phrasikleia kore (c. 530 BCE). Ornatedly dressed, the inscription describes her as a bride that never was (see W. in the C. W. p21):
The tomb of Phrasikleia. I shall always be called kore,
Having received this name as my lot from the gods,
Instead of marriage.
Aristion of Paros made [me]. (Jeffrey 1962: 138)



— Helen
— Amazons
— exchange of women
— praise and blame
— korai 

Further reading:
Barbara A. Olsen, Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets From Pylos and Knossos. 2014. [online access]

Week 2 Student Presentations:

Tuesday 12th September, Helen in the Iliad
Trans. Robert Fagles (1990): Iliad Bk 3.167-195 = pp133-134

And with those words
the goddess filled her heart with yearning warm and deep
for her husband long ago, her city and her parents.
Quickly cloaking herself in shimmering linen, [3.170]
out of her rooms she rushed, live tears welling,
and not alone — two of her women followed close behind,
Aethra, Pithheus’ daughter, and Clymene, eyes wide,
and they soon reached the looming Scaean Gates.

And there they were, gathered around Priam,
Panthous and Thymoetes, Lampus and Clytius,
Hicetaon the gray aide of Ares, then those two
with unfailing good sense, Ucalegon and Antenor.
The old men of the realm held seats above the gates.
Long years had brought their fighting days to a halt [3.180]
but they were eloquent speakers still, clear as cicadas
settled on treetops, lifting their voices through the forest,
rising softly, falling, dying away…So they waited,
the old chiefs of Troy, as they sat aloft the tower.
And catching sight of Helen moving along the ramparts,
they murmured one to another, gentle, winged words:
“Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered
years of agony all for her, for such a woman.
Beauty, terrible beauty!
A deathless goddess–so she strikes our eyes! But still, [3.190]
ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long ships
and not be left behind…for us and our children
down the years an irresistible sorrow.” They murmured low
but Priam, raising his voice, called across to Helen…

Thursday 14th September, Homeric Hymn to Demeter
Trans. by Gregory Nagy

Presentation 1, lines 30-46:

She was being taken, against her will, at the behest of Zeus,[30]
by her father’s brother, the one who makes many semata, the one who receives many guests,
the son of Kronos, the one with many names. On the chariot drawn by immortal horses.
So long as the earth and the star-filled sky
were still within the goddess’s [Persephone’s] view, as also the fish-swarming
pontos, with its strong currents,
as also the rays of the sun, she still had hope that she would yet see [35]
her dear mother and that special group, the immortal gods.
For that long a time her great noos was soothed by hope, distressed as she was.
The peaks of mountains resounded, as did the depths of the pontos,
with her immortal voice. And the Lady Mother [Demeter] heard her.
And a sharp akhos seized her heart. The headband on her hair [40]
she tore off with her own immortal hands
and threw a dark cloak over her shoulders.
She sped off like a bird, soaring over land and sea,
looking and looking. But no one was willing to tell her the truth [etetuma = etuma],
not one of the gods, not one of the mortal humans, [45]
not one of the birds, messengers of the truth [etetuma = etuma].

Presentation 2, lines 97-117:

Until, one day, she came to the house of bright-minded Keleos, [97]
who was at that time ruler of Eleusis, fragrant with incense.
She sat down near the road, sad in her philon heart,
at the well called Parthenion [= the Virgin’s Place], where the people of the polis used to draw water.
She sat in the shade, under the thick growth of an olive tree, [100]
looking like an old woman who had lived through many years and who is
deprived of giving childbirth and of the gifts of Aphrodite, lover of garlands in the hair.
She was like those nursemaids who belong to kings, administrators of divine ordinances [themistes],
and who are guardians of children in echoing palaces.
She was seen by the daughters of Keleos, son of Eleusinos, [105]
who were coming to get water, easy to draw [from the well], in order to carry it
in bronze water-jars to the phila home of their father.
There were four of them, looking like goddesses with their bloom of adolescence:
Kallidike, Kleisidike, and lovely Demo.
And then there was Kallithoe, who was the eldest of them all. [110]
They did not recognize her [= Demeter]. Gods are hard for mortals to see.
They [= the daughters] stood near her and spoke these winged words:
“Who are you, and where are you from, old woman, old among old humans?
Why has your path taken you far away from the polis? Why have you not drawn near to the palace?
There, throughout the shaded chambers, are women [115]
who are as old as you are, and younger ones too,
who would welcome you in word and in deed.”


week 1: introducing women

Pandora Boston MFA theoi

Pandora (? or Gaia) rises up from earth. 5th c. BCE red-figure skyphos in the Boston MFA. 

Page duBois — feminist classicist and cultural critic — starts off our readings, and the course, by asking us to step back from our assumptions about the ancient world, about women, about gender (1988: 7): 

“Critics, like artists, must ‘defamiliarize’ the historical world for themselves and their readers. Otherwise we are operated by the assumptions, by the ideologies, of our own world, devoured by habitudinization, unable to think toward change because we accept the categories of our own ideological location. Our own critical practices, like artistic practices, are sustained ideological labor…Our views about gender, like other categories of existence, must be defamiliarized, interrogated, not taken for granted as universal constructs. Feminist criticism has sought to disrupt what we might see as the male narcissism of traditional scholarship, which considers only the role of the male in culture, by looking at women in history.”

The idea here is that the way in which we live in the world, based on historical and cultural processes, has privileged the male experience over the female. And duBois points out that, when theorists (especially in the psychoanalytic tradition) try to write about the world, they write their own perception of female subordination into their theories, as though subordination were women’s natural state, rather than created by cultural perspective. Throughout this chapter, duBois draws attention to attempts to categorize women as “other” because they are anatomically different from men. She refers in passing, for example, to Hesiod’s (ancient Greek poet of 8th/7th c. BCE) phrase  genos gunaikōn, “race of women.” In Hesiod’s poem, Theogony (590ff.), he says that Pandora — a kind of female automaton (and first woman, according to Hesiod) made by the gods to punish mankind, was the mother of this “race of women”, suggesting that woman is a different kind of animal than man. Page duBois compares Hesiod’s genos gunaikōn to the taxonomic categories described by the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus (e.g. homo sapiens). Attempts to categorize women have had a hierarchizing effect; a suggestion that women are something like a “subspecies”.

Gerda Lerner likewise draws attention to the fact that how we view the writing and art which we study alters the outcome of that study (1986: 15):

“The approach we use in interpretation — our conceptual framework — determines the outcome. Such a framework is never value-free. We ask the questions of the past we want answered in the present.” 

Again, theories of science are relevant here. Lerner (p15) draws attention to the fact that Darwinian theory, which suggests a forward momentum towards an ever superior future, implies that the past is inferior, obsolete, or “primitive.” Additionally, Lerner writes, we backproject the system of gender under which we currently live into the ancient world. Such an assumption blinds us to what the evidence — fragmented or problematic as it may be  — could be telling us. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility that the ancient world is telling us something new about itself  — something that cannot be easily fit into a scheme of continuity. Lerner, like duBois, notices the “sexual asymmetry” (p16) between men and women. And Lerner has us ask — is male dominance in any culture “natural” or “inevitable”? What is the “function” of a woman, in biological or social terms? Does the female body have a preordained destiny? What role does the female body or female labour play in the economic structure of society? Has there ever been a “matriarchal” society?

– theōria
– anatomical difference
– genos gunaikōn
– matriarchy vs. matrilocality