Women in the Ancient Record: A Brief Discussion of Ideas

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George Eliot wrote that ‘the happiest women…have no history’; such a philosophy embodies that for women in the ancient world there is a great lack of communication from women themselves.  So to what extent is the historian thwarted by this lack of communication?

One of the biggest problems facing the historian of women in the ancient world is that there are very few sources that are written by women themselves; there is a general lack of communication.  So is it possible to trace their history even without their own sources? Gould describes women in the ancient world as a muted group, made inarticulate by the lack of a language in which to communicate their particular sense of society and its relationship to the totality of experience.  While other academics believe that the history of women can be interpreted through numerous sources contributed by males, such as tragedies and comedies, this lack of communication that Gould alludes to leading to a great sense of ignorance about women appears to be far more realistic.  After all, Pericles stated, according to Thucydides, that the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men.  If this was the general accepted train of thought in the ancient periods then is seems likely that historians of women are only presented with evidence about women in unusual circumstances.

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The lack of communication from women themselves leaves the historian faced with the vast amount of evidence which is presented by male figures.  This in itself creates further issues for the historian.  Gould explains that the material is derived from the male portion of society and from a male world.  As Ben Jonson asserts ‘women are men’s shadows.’  This thwarted the historian as the majority of evidence for women in basically all ancient societies comes from a male perspective and is written for a primarily male audience.  It is often argued, for instance by Gomme, that we do in essence have a women’s voice; this though is more so seen as a mirage.  Through such texts we see the men’s perspective only; such as how Pomeroy explains that the beliefs of a patriarchal society maintained that men are born to rule, and women to obey.  This presents a great challenge for the historian to work out what in these texts allude to the truth and what are the result of male thought and opinion.

Despite the general lack of communication by women, especially in Greece and Rome, there are a few examples of women’s voice which can be used by the historian to help interpret the lives of women.  In Egypt, a large number of papyri have been uncovered over the last few centuries which include private letters and diaries written by or for women.  These papyri have proven prime sources for the lives of women especially in the later eras and illustrate that while the historian is thwarted by a lack of communication there are exceptions to the rule.  These papyri are from women of Greek as well as Roman and Egyptian culture in Egypt.  However, compared to the vast amount of evidence detailing women written by males, this group of evidence is particularly small in comparison and so historians have often in the past overlooked this information as they have the archaeology relating to women.

The historian in light of a lack of sources by women is also prone to oversimplification, antagonism and ambivalence when interpreting the lives of ancient women.  Gould discusses this in relation especially to the works of Gomme and his attempts to evaluate women through Greek Tragedy.  He assesses that the historian of faces problems in methodology and are prone to a definite oversimplification.  Gomme says there is nothing remarkable, for instance, about the position of women in Athens except perhaps the special honour paid to them.  While Gould thinks that Gomme’s conclusion is a simplistic fantasy.  As the historian is faced with using evidence that only presents certain sides or opinions of women, it is a fair assertion that they settle for oversimplifying or makes assumptions based on the evidence that they do have, without taking into account other possibilities and assessing how much their conclusions are influenced by the male ordered society from which they have gathered evidence.

The historian also faces problems in relation to the evidence which is available to them in light of women’s lack of communication.  Many scholars believe that in imaginative literature of classical Athens we have what seems to be a highly articulate and prominent, not marginal, presentation of women, and their role in society.  Pomeroy and Gould though again agree that this is a mirage of women’s voice.  In light of this a constant effort of thought and imagination is required by the historian to remember that the words of a Lysistrata or a Medea, for example, are in fact a product of the imagination of men and addressed to men, as S.Ardener perceives.  Pomeroy explains that different investigators have drawn on quite different, indeed mutually exclusive, categories of evidence to support their case; including myth and imaginative literature and orations of the fourth century and inscriptions.  Each category presents problems in itself and historians must be aware of counter examples and the danger of making assumptions. For instance, Le Gall on the proof of female heritage makes assumptions on the basis on only a few pieces of evidence and overlooks the one piece of text that does actually does make his conclusions plausible which is presented in Glotz-Cohen.

The biggest way that the lack of communication by women seems to thwart the historian of women in the ancient world is that the historian often gives in to the danger of deducing things that lack cogency.  There is a characteristic marked tendency to demonstrably false assertion. For instance, Gomme and the question of seclusion in relation to fifth century tragedy concludes that women had freedom to come and go on stage and hence did so in reality; ie. Ismene does not censure Antigone for appearing outside the gynaikonitis.  Gomme’s assertion ignores a fair number of counter-examples from tragedy itself such as in Euripides’ Electra, where her husband criticises her for talking to strange men outside the house.  Pomeroy asserts that the question of seclusion and social status on women in both Greece and the Roman Empire is part of a larger dispute concerning the appropriate source of evidence for women’s life.  A number of scholars find relations between women in myth and tragedy and real women, from these theories they deduce that real women were neither secluded nor repressed.  Pomeroy explains that these theories lack cogency like many other theories concerning women, in this case due primarily to the fact that scenes in tragedy are usually outdoors and the female characters could scarcely interact or be portrayed if they had kept indoors.

Like all historians, the historians of women in the ancient world face bias and issues of interpretation which are exacerbated by the lack of female written texts and the reliance on a male centred ideology concerning women.  Pomeroy explains that for a start there is a great tendency to focus on only a small group of women in societies; an emphasis on the upper classes as well as a tendency to focus on famous women.  The papyri before mentioned in Egypt tell us something about more ordinary women but as discusses, they are not used as frequently as they should be over other male sources.  Cicero and Pliny highlight women in the Roman period through their knowledge of women in their classes but it must be remembered that yet again these were women belonging to the wealthy or intellectually elite groups of society.  As Dixon discusses, there are few sources for the lower tiers of the social pyramid in relation to females.  In danger of being too general one sees hat scholars do not give equal weight to all sources and in recent centuries there has even been a broad range of scholarly opinion based on the treatment of women as an undifferentiated mass which blurs the interpretations. In short there is a tendency for the modern ideologies to impress on the ancient.

The historian of women in the ancient world in very thwarted by the lack of communication from women themselves.  The lack of sources makes it difficult to interpret and understand the lives of women in all Greece, Roman and Egyptian society and though there are a few sources by women they are often overlooked in favour of those more available and more defined which are written by men.  In attempting to interpret women in light of this, the historian is in danger of deducing things with a lack of cogency as well as oversimplifying and submitting to objective arguments created by bias and modern opinions.  In a male world there is a mirage of women’s voice but hardly do they really have a voice of their own, by this the historian is greatly thwarted in their studies of women in the ancient world.

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One thought on “Women in the Ancient Record: A Brief Discussion of Ideas

    Jennifer Carey said:
    February 18, 2013 at 3:55 am

    Reblogged this on Indiana Jen.

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