Previous visitors to this site will know I’ve been slowly posting articles I wrote for a website dedicated to historical fiction. Looking back, I notice I’ve accidentally posted one of the articles twice, though with different pictures each time! Must have been tired.
The post below is a brief attempt to write something useful for anyone interested in the portrayal of women in ancient Greece and Rome. I hope you enjoy it.
One of the most appealing aspects of the ancient world is that it is full of strong female characters. This is particularly true of Greece, especially if one includes mythology. Personalities such as Helen, Clytaemnestra, Penelope, Medea and Antigone have maintained the power to fascinate throughout the centuries, enthralling and appalling in equal measure because they embody what lies at the heart of the female psyche. More accurately, they represent the fears and desires about women that lie at the heart of the male psyche.
This is what makes Greek mythology so enduring. Its stories tell a universal truth in a way that people can digest and understand, hence the continuing homage in literature, TV and film. From a historical perspective, it also tells us so much more about the psychology of the Bronze Age and Classical eras than the archaeological record could ever do. In Homer’s epics we see women as figures around whom power revolves. Helen, for example, attracts political power because the throne of Sparta is inherited through her. (Note that when Menelaus was chosen to be her husband, he also became king of Sparta.) Penelope also has a political attraction. Even though she becomes queen of Ithaca through her marriage to Odysseus, when her husband does not return from the war she is surrounded by suitors who want to marry her and become king in Odysseus’s place.
Penelope and the Suitors, J W Waterhouse
Helen is also a daughter of Zeus. This divine ancestry makes her a focus of the gods, to be tossed around like a hand grenade until she finally lands in Troy and brings doom to that city. It also gives her her infamous beauty and perhaps her greatest asset – the power of her sexuality. Though many a pub fight has broken out over a woman, very few wars can claim to have been started for the same reason. Yet for ten years the Greeks and Trojans fought each other to destruction, ostensibly because of Helen’s beauty. This is one of the reasons I find her a fascinating character. In my series on the Trojan War, Helen despises being a political prize to be fought over for the throne of Sparta. But rather than taking her medicine like a good girl, I have her use her sexual power to find a man who will take her away from the straitjacket of palace life. Unfortunately, her sexuality is so powerful that when she does escape, the armed might of Greece comes sailing after her.
There are other types of female power in mythology that continue to provoke the modern imagination. Take the Amazons, a race of warriors who represent the imbalance that occurs in nature when women assume the roles of men – in this case by taking up spears and shields and venturing into battle. They represent one of those deep-seated fears held by ancient men about women that I mentioned earlier, and usually end up being put in their place by equally excessive macho-types such as Heracles or Achilles.
Another form of “bad” female power that has echoed through the centuries is witchcraft. There are many notable witches in mythology, all of whom spell trouble for men. Circe, the witch encountered by Odysseus on his travels, has the power to reduce his crew to swine and delays him for at least a year on his homeward voyage. Then there is the fascinating figure of Clytaemnestra. As with witches throughout history, when a woman has magical power it is usually associated with evil. But what made Clytaemnestra truly evil in the eyes of the ancient Greeks was that she was unfaithful to Agamemnon while he was away fighting the Trojan War (ignoring the fact of his own infidelity with Cassandra and others). Worse still, when he finally returned home he was either murdered by his wife’s lover, according to Homer, or, if you prefer Aeschylus’s version, slain in his bath by Clytaemnestra herself. The latter death probably represents the fear that a woman so-minded can murder her husband when his guard is down. Though my own series of books has not reached this point yet, I have to say my sympathies are with Clytaemnestra. After all, Agamemnon sacrificed her daughter to the gods simply to gain favourable weather for his fleet to sail to Troy!
Agamemnon about to get his just desserts
Penelope, on the other hand, is a model of positive femininity in the eyes of the ancient Greeks. She has the qualities of her intellect and her loyalty to save her from the suitors. But though she employs a level of cunning equal to that of her husband’s, his faithfulness during their years apart doesn’t match hers. This is perfectly acceptable from an ancient Greek viewpoint. At least from the only viewpoint that counted – the man’s.
Although most of Greek mythology is set in the Bronze Age, many of the stories we know today come from the Classical Athenians. 5th Century Athens was a cultural hotbed that produced a revolution in art, philosophy, architecture, politics, drama, sport, science and literature that has never been rivalled. But the revolution did not extend to women’s rights. For that you had to go to their enemies, the Spartans, who taught women to read, write and fight and who gave them the right to own possessions or to divorce their husbands. But Athens was a strict patriarchal society where self-control and chastity were highly valued in a woman (at least in a wife – slaves and prostitutes were a different matter). Female sexual desire was deliberately oppressed to discourage wives from having affairs and risking the man’s inheritance being passed on to an illegitimate child. Some say the Minotaur, the son of King Minos, is a mythological representation of an illegitimate child – an unwanted monster that poses a threat to civilized order. That’s why Penelope’s fidelity mattered more than Odysseus’s. It’s probably also why the only truly good women we see in Greek mythology are the sort that stay at home and look after the kids.
Helen of Troy
Our image of Roman women is also given to us entirely from the viewpoint of Roman men. Like their Athenian counterparts, the ideal Roman woman was first and foremost to be faithful, sexually controlled and a good mother. Other values that were impressed upon her were concordia – being a good wife – and piety – a follower of the gods. Because of this rigidly enforced model and the fact most Roman characters come to us through historical writings, rather than mythology, there are fewer well-known Roman women than there are Greek. The more interesting ones are usually remembered for exceeding their roles. Take Augustus’s wife, Livia, who Tacitus implied was the political schemer behind her husband’s throne. Robert Graves portrays her wonderfully in I, Claudius as poisoning all opposition to Augustus and her son Tiberius, while justifying this with her desire to stabilise Rome and prevent it slipping into another costly civil war.
For an author, then, the ancient world offers a rich choice of female characters to play with. Rather than being limited to passive roles such as obedient wife, stay-at-home mother or acquiescent love interest, they have political, religious and sexual power that makes them difficult to tame, even in a testosterone-filled world of larger-than-life men. And whereas from an ancient viewpoint many of these unfaithful wives, overly protective mothers or ambitious harlots are meant to serve as a warning against female transgression, these often tragic characters are rarely so two-dimensional that their faults can’t be understood or even excused. Think of the beautiful Helen risking everything for love, or Clytaemnestra avenging the death of her murdered child. From a liberalised modern perspective, they can even be admired.