Greek Women Classical to Hellenistic: A Brief Discussion of Changing Factors

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With the loss of political autonomy and the change of men’s relationships to their societies and each other it is hardly surprising that the position of women was also effected in both family and society in the Hellenistic period.  But to what extent does our image of the position of women in Hellenistic societies offer a contrast to that of women’s positions in classical Greek societies? Remembering that the Hellenistic period was not in actual fact a transitional period, this post will look at briefly answering this question by exploring women in relation to their place in Hellenistic societies and their representation, growing competence in public realms and the philosophies associated with them. It will explore aspects also of education, sexuality and women of respectable and supposedly morally bankrupt natures.

Statues of Kybele; Hellenistic period; Museum ...
Statues of Kybele; Hellenistic period; Museum of Anatolian Civilizations; Ankara, Turkey

The contrast between the position of women in Hellenistic societies and Classical societies is especially seen in relation to royal women in the Hellenistic period.  Pomeroy explains that with the conquests of Alexander the Great there was a significant introduction of new ideologies and views.  For instance, royal women among the Macedonian ruling families began to compete in a traditionally male arena with the power struggle created from the significant relationships between mothers and sons and polygamist nature of the kings.  In this period a number of royal women came to the forefront of political and imperial power such as Olympias the mother of Alexander who would look after the court of Macedonia in her son’s absence.  Women also began to use their talents to gain political power where they could not have in the classical period and they were also more so used in passive roles, for instance in political marriages, such as that between Berentice and Antiochus.  While this was done throughout all preceding periods the political aspirations of the female are more so illustrated in the Hellenistic period rather than those just of the men.  Women could gain a politically power through their marriage.

Our image of the position of women in Hellenistic societies offers a contrast in relation to the growing competence of women in public realms.  Pomeroy explains that during the Hellenistic period the legal and economic responsibilities of women dramatically increased and women more frequently received honours for their services, especially in religious spheres.  Even in Athens, Pericles idea that the greatest glory of women was to be least talked about by men was no longer prevailing.  Tarn and Griffith explain that honourary citizenship and rights of proxeny were more commonly given to women by foreign cities for their services.  This is in contrast to the social standings of women in the classical period where they were only associated to citizenry through their husbands.  We even have evidence in the Hellenistic period of women holding offices such as Phile of Priene who was the first woman to build a reservoir and aqueduct which is task usually done by magistrates!

The evolution of woman’s legal rights in contrast to the classical period is seen in many documents of the Hellenistic period, for instance, papyri from Egypt that have recently been studied by Preaux.  Such documents show that for at least Egyptian women it was not necessary for them to have a guardian, though for Greek women it still was.  Egyptian marriage contracts such as one from 311BC also show a contrast from the classical traditions as they illustrate a sense of mutuality and an expansion of rights and protection for the bride. Gleeson asserts that these contracts show a contract between husband and wife rather than with the wife’s guardian and insurance was made in terms of the dowry in favour of the bride.

The Hellenistic period also saw a marked gain in economic responsibility on the part of women.  For instance, inscriptions from Delos illustrate that the women were in charge of their own debts and funds in many regards and had a control over slaves and property. In Sparta we see also that women could now hold property and funds more in their own right compared to the classical period.  The mother and grandmother of King Agis were remarkable wealthy women and in Sparta women owned and controlled two fifths of the land.  Aristotle and Pausanias also indicate an increase in female economic freedom with the exhibition of wealth and property.  They show that the exhibition of horses at the Olympics was one such form of showing this, with Bilistiche of Argos exhibiting horses and winning races.  In comparison to the classical period though, in Athens there was still little emancipation of citizen women as seen with Demetrius’ regulation of women; his gynaikonomoi.

With the Hellenistic period we also see a vast improvement of female education which is not so pronounced in Classical society, and with this we see an altered ideology of the position of women in society.  For instance, in this period we see a number of female philosophers, poets and writers who show the increased value of female education.  Hippachia for one was a cynic philosopher woman who went around in public with her husband and was proud of her education, as Diogenes recounts. Erinna of Talos is also a prime example of the educated female with her writing of her ‘Distaff’ being a feat of poetry.  Erinna and Hippachia are two of a host of women which also includes the like of Cleopatra VII who were distinctly educated.  Physical education also became more available to women in the Hellenistic period with a focus on athletics such as in the games of Hera.  Moretti illustrates this move towards female athleticism with the account of Hedea who won foot-races at Nemea and horse racing at Isthmia.  These pieces of evidence are indicative of the movement of the position of women since they show that women now had a more distinguished place outside the home and were more of a prominent part of culture and society than in the classical period.

The philosophers and philosophies of the time also illustrate a marked contrast between the position of women in classical and Hellenistic periods.  The large retention of traditional roles shows that women’s positions were altered as society changed during the Hellenistic period.  With the fluctuating mores of the Hellenistic period the Neopythagoreans in particular were concerned about the proper behaviour of women.  Pomeroy explains though that there were a number of philosophies which were on the side of the changing position of women such as the Epicureans and the cynics who were oriented towards happiness of the individual rather than that of the state and community.

Head of the poetess Sappho, Smyrna, Marble cop...

Art and New Comedy provide us with another medium with which to compare the ideologies and values of the classical period with those of the Hellenistic period.  New Comedy for a start provides us with insight into sexual experiences and everyday life of women in this period which was not illustrated by the works of the Classical period and shows a new interest in the eroticism of women in the Hellenistic period.  Ovid also shows that the position of women in society as sexual creatures is more defined in the Hellenistic period with his advice for personal gratification.  Pomeroy also explains that there was a marked shift in poetry and that it was now acceptable for female narrators to appear.  This indicates a change in the position of women within the mind set of society.

Art and representation of women also is indicative of the contrast between the two periods as Webster asserts we see a startling increase in the number of depictions of women in the latter period and a marked change in how women are represented.  Art has always been a good indicator of changing social attitudes and this is particularly true in this case as we witness a re-evaluation of the aesthetics of the female body.  The increase in depictions of women in sculpture, a distinctly public form of art, illustrates a marked change in the general mind set towards the female body; it is no longer seen as second rate but rather art-worthy. In Greek art female nudity is for the first time introduced starting with depictions of goddesses before moving towards ordinary women and fully naked women (most likely prostitutes) depicted on more private forms of art such as vase paintings.  The Capitoline Aphrodite is a prime example of this change in ideology as though naked she is making a token effort to cover herself up showing a modest nature.  Even not so perfect women are considered art worthy, which is a very significant change to how women were viewed and their position in society.  One such example of this is a sculpture of a female dwarf show dancing with a great sense of fun.

Through the image we get of women in Hellenistic societies we are able to distinguish a marked contrast to women in classical societies.  We see a growing competence in public realms as well as a change in ideologies seen throughout the representation and depiction of women in art and New Comedy.  We also we a change in relation to education and philosophy and how women were seen and used in political realms as well as in economic and legal realms.  New questions are brought up about women which also show that the view of women has suffered change between the periods, such as Plutarch’s question of the arête of the female in comparison to the male.


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