It’s a Man’s World: the lives of ancient women

Classics Competition Winner and creator of The Mythology Manifest Sixth Former Connor Irving explores the oppression of women in Greek and Roman society and refutes the ancient idea that a woman who defies authority must be evil, as he seeks to understand why some women were worshipped whilst others were demonised.

Succubus, Harlot, Witch: these are just three of the modern offensive words used to describe strong and powerful women within Greek and Roman society, religion and literature. The idea of a powerful woman terrified the men in power during these times and so the patriarchy oppressed women, demonised female sexuality and made independence seem nothing short of infernal.

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‘She’s sweet but a psycho’ [Ava Max, 2018]

Those of you who attended the LSA CA Classics Competition earlier this year will know that one of my favourite mythological characters is Medea who I described as the “sweet but psycho” Colchian Princess from the land of witches. I think she is the perfect example of a powerful woman in a patriarchal society and her story reveals exactly what the men of these times wanted to show. Medea helped Jason retrieve the Golden Fleece and together they fled from Colchis; this is the point where Euripides picks up her tale in his play Medea. Before this point, Medea has been shown as a beautiful innocent woman who needs help in escaping her “wicked witch” father, Aeëtes; however, when Euripides takes over the story, he makes her seem empowered and strong and, in the manner of tragedy, documents her downfall to show the audience that powerful and strong women are evil and should not be allowed to achieve any level of power.

Medea shows strength when she kills her brother to escape Aeëtes and when she defies her father, we then see the power go to her head as her mind seems to slowly unravel until she kills her own children and Jason’s’ new wife when he cheats on her. It’s my view that the gods along with Jason created the angst and misery of Medea and should largely hold responsibility for her actions. Tragedians, even the controversial Euripides who wrote plays which often showed stronger female leads, would never have entirely blamed the gods or a man for their mistakes when they could be put down to female misdemeanour.

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Medea escapes in her chariot

At the end of this play, Medea flies away in a chariot pulled by dragons in search of a new kingdom to control; in other versions of the story she kills herself. Suicide is usually the way out for “over empowered women” in mythology and tragedy because Greek and Roman society instilled the belief in women that their reputation was everything and if they ruined it by being viewed as evil or having power, then life was no longer worth living. I think that Medea is a prime example of the sexism faced by women in these societies because, along with her aunts Pasiphaë and Circe who were also witches, she faces punishment for her power, whereas her father Aeëtes is only ever respected or feared for the same qualities.

Another play which depicts the tragic downfall of powerful or independent women is Sophocles’ Antigone, the first (although third chronologically) of his Theban trilogy. The character of Antigone is a rebellious woman who is fighting against her Uncle Creon as she wants to bury her dead brother with the correct burial rights. Since she defies authority, she is locked in cave and eventually kills herself. Again this shows that strong women who defy authority end up facing disastrous consequences which can only be escaped in death, however, suicide was also seen as incredibly blasphemous meaning that not only would strong women defy men in life, they would also defy the will of the gods when dying and so would never achieve peace in the afterlife, a double punishment for “evil” women.


In the Roman myth of Cupid and Anima, Anima is told that she is not allowed to see her husband in light but only in darkness; she is told by Cupid that this to protect her as he is a god but curiosity gets the better of her and she accidentally injures her husband with candle wax whilst trying to take a peek. Later in the myth she endures endless torture tasks set by Cupid’s protective and vengeful mother Venus, and curiosity gets the better of her again when she opens a box which leads to her demise.  This is similar to the myth of Pandora who unleashes misery and misfortune upon the world because of her curiosity. Time and time again curious women are portrayed negatively because of the endemic fear that curiosity leads to knowledge and knowledge leads to power; therefore, demanding obedience and denying women access to education deprived them of the tools to wield power in society.


Cupid and Anima

However, some women were respected in both Greek and Roman times. I recently read an interesting article written by Mary Beard for the British Museum in 2017 where she listed the Queen of the Amazons (Penthesilea), the Vestal Virgins, the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy (Athena), Cleopatra, and an anonymous Roman Woman as her top five powerful women in Ancient Greece and Rome. When reading the article, I came to the conclusion that these historical women were respected and allowed power in a patriarchal society because they either were, or were in some way connected to, the gods. In Greek and Roman society mortal women may not have been respected, but goddesses definitely were, for fear that they would strike down the impious!


Athena, goddess of war and wisdom

Cleopatra believed and had her subjects believe that she was a living embodiment of the Egyptian goddess Isis (the equivalent to the Greek Hera and Roman Juno) – the most powerful goddess and queen of the gods. This meant that her subjects had to respect her or risk being killed by the goddess she claimed to be. The Vestal Virgins, who preserved the sacred flame in the temple of Vesta (the virgin goddess of the Roman hearth, home and family) were respected because they were said to be protected by their divine patron. As for Athena, she was a very powerful and vengeful goddess, as can be seen in the myths of Medusa and Arachne, two mortal women who were cursed for comparing themselves to the goddess. This made sure that people didn’t offend Athena because they would be scared of her omnipotence and vindictiveness.


The Vestal Virgins

These female figures were respected and for a long time they were not victims of the patriarchal Greek and Roman worlds. However, people figured out that Cleopatra was not a goddess as she claimed and she was eventually stripped of her power and committed suicide; Rhea Silvia who was the leader of the Vestal Virgins was assaulted by the god Mars; and even the actual goddess Athena was disrespected when the Romans demoted her and took her title of goddess of warfare because they had Mars, a man, for war. These three women may have been powerful, but they were not an exception to the patriarchy which sought to remove power and protection from women.

As for the final two on Mary Beard’s list, they were powerful because they could fight off men when they needed to. For example, Penthesilea was an Amazonian queen who was said to have killed Achilles, but the story was quickly changed so that Zeus resurrected Achilles and the warrior instead killed Penthesilea. She is similar to the mythological women of Lemnos who killed their husbands in order to gain equality; this murder does however feed the fact that women who try to gain power end up being portrayed as evil.


Achilles locking eyes upon Penthesilea before delivering the fatal blow

In The Iliad, women are seen as nothing more than prizes, that is unless they are goddesses; even royal women are not excluded from the clear sexism of the times. Reputation was everything, so when Helen of Troy runs away with Paris, her reputation as a woman is tarnished and even she knows it, calling herself to Priam “cold, evil slut that I am”. Starkly, no one tries to convince her otherwise. Helen is forced to stay in Troy by Aphrodite but also by Paris and Priam; she is even forced to sleep with Paris showing that she, a royal, lacks agency and free will because of her gender. Although Hector criticises Paris strongly and Paris himself draws attention to the role of the gods in the abduction, it is still Helen who is blamed and accursed on all sides (as is underscored in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and counteracted in Euripides’ reimagining of the myth in Helen).

Virgil’s Aeneid presents female characters as obstacles to Aeneas’ pious and fated mission to found the city of Rome on the Italian shores and even though Dido, queen of Carthage, is characterised with empathy by Virgil, she curses Aeneas and attention is drawn to the madness of her ‘desperate woman’s heart’. However, the Aeneid does also show a slight change in approach with the character of Camilla who was a female, but also a strong warrior who is respected by Turnus, the Italian leader.


Dido is captivated by Aeneas’ charms and storytelling in the palace at Carthage

It goes without saying that women in the ancient world, despite some local and individual exceptions, were largely excluded from the worlds of work, politics, battle and even from performance – both as viewers and actors, since we must remember that men played the ‘strong female’ lead roles in the theatre that we have discussed. It was also illegal for women to practice medicine because men were scared that women would have power over them if they knew how to heal or infect them.

The one story that I think shows the oppressive rule of the patriarchy in Ancient Greek and Roman culture the most, is the story of Agnodice, as told by the writer Hyginus. Agnodice disguised herself as a male and began to study the art of medicine and became very skilled in the field and eventually she surpassed her teacher, Herophilus, and people were okay with this because they thought she was a man. Agnodice opened her own practice and she became very popular with both genders, but especially with women as she knew what they needed more than the male doctors; because of her popularity with women and the fact that people thought she was a man, the other men from Athens accused her of seducing their wives. Agnodice tried to protest but was taken to court by these men – it was okay for a man to cheat on his own wife, as long as he wasn’t caught trying to take another man’s wife.


During the trial, Agnodice pulled off her fake beard and lifted up her tunic to show she was a female, thinking that this would get her off of the trial; in fact, her sentence was toughened and more of the jury turned against her. The men of Ancient Athens were enraged that a woman had been better at medicine than them and also tried to accuse her of witchcraft because a woman with the power to heal things, even using the same ingredients as a man, must have been evil. The judge and jury tried to sentence Agnodice to death for illegally practising medicine, which was a worse sentence than she would have got for trying to steal another man’s wife, and they were ready to take her to be executed when all of the women she had helped burst into the court and defended her saying that if it wasn’t for Agnodice, many men would’ve lost their wives to death. After many hours of arguing, the sentence was removed and eventually the law preventing women from becoming doctors was removed, this was one of the first movements away from the patriarchy.

After discussing all of this, I think it is fair to say that ancient women were oppressed through laws, through the demonisation of their sexuality, through the retelling of history, and even through literature. In epic, tragedy and poetry, women displaying frightening levels of independence or free thought would either be ostracised or forced to kill themselves for fear that they had ruined their reputation. These were story lines written by men and, as the scholar Farron says, “it is the callous sexism of the male characters that force women into the background”. The men of ancient Greece and Rome were scared to let women have a voice and so created rules and stories in order to subdue them, but luckily, many women in both stories and real life said no to the patriarchy, even if they had to die for their cause. If we learn anything through history, it should be that none of us should have power over others – we are more powerful and formidable as a society of equals.