Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Women in the Ancient World

views updated



[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


SOURCE: Coole, Diana H. "The Origin of Western Thought and the Birth of Misogyny." In Women in Political Theory: From Ancient Misogyny to Contemporary Feminism, pp. 10-28. Brighton, Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books, 1988.

In the following excerpt, Coole probes the sources of Western misogyny in the philosophy, literature, and social structure of classical Greece.

Western political philosophy first flourished in Athens, in the fourth century b.c.; it is the names of Plato and Aristotle that are most often associated with these origins. Their concern with arrangements for a just and stable state involved more than constitutional organization, however. Questions regarding the nature of virtue and the good life were meshed with broader inquiries regarding the status of knowledge; birth and death; the order of the universe. Such fundamental questions involved speculations about woman's place in the design of Being and her role in the city-state (polis). The answers given would exert a strong influence on more than two millennia of subsequent political theory, offering both assumptions and explicit arguments to its expositors. Over and again we will find the debate between Plato and Aristotle regarding women's nature and role, echoing across the centuries. For their pronouncements on the subject have remained influential well beyond the function they actually ascribed to women in the well-ordered state. Powerful associations between the female and certain qualities viewed as antithetical to politics, even to civilization itself, have also been inherited from these early examples of political thought. Yet Plato and Aristotle were by no means the first to make such allusions. They already wrote within a cultural tradition of misogyny and a social context of women's subjugation. In order to understand the premises underlying their references to woman, it is first necessary, therefore, to look back to the origins of Greek civilization itself.

It is tempting to think that such an excursion into the past might answer that ubiquitous question: how and why did women's oppression begin? The earliest records of Greek life cannot, however, resolve this conundrum; at best they yield a glimpse of the late Bronze Age, when a sexual division of labour and a general pattern of male dominance were already well established. What they do offer us are the earliest literary presentations of women in the West and an opportunity to speculate on the reasons for the generally unfavourable nature of these.

Peoples speaking an early form of Greek began to infiltrate the Attic and Peloponnesian region early in the second millennium b.c. Here they encountered a Near Eastern culture, some of whose elements became integrated into their own. The Greek-speaking Dorians probably arrived as a second wave around 1200 b.c., shortly before the Trojan War. It was about this time that the Mycenean-Minoan civilization that preceded Iron Age Hellenic Greece, mysteriously disappeared. We know very little about this earlier Bronze Ageculture apart from the obscure Linear B Tablets. These already record women spinning, weaving, grinding corn, reaping, fetching water and drawing baths.1 There are great kings who rule yet the priests apparently worship the Great Mother. Subsequently, the art of writing was lost and the first Greek literature appears with the poems of Homer and Hesiod, probably composed around the eighth century b.c.. These were constructed from myths and histories passed verbally across the generations of the Dark Age and were facilitated by the introduction of the alphabet.

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey tell of the Trojan War and its aftermath, ostensibly depicting something of the older twelfth-century culture, although scholars now locate the social structures described more in the tenth and ninth centuries.2 Although most commentators find little trace of misogyny in Homer,3 some of the images that would later degrade women were already present. A misogynous approach is more readily discernible in the work of Hesiod, who recorded events of daily life in Archaic Greece in his Works and Days and offered a mythical account of cosmic evolution in his Theogony. Over the next three centuries, a clear picture of woman's lesser status and qualities would emerge via equivalent and interlocking accounts offered in myth, drama, science and philosophy. Although these early works were not political tracts, then, they did articulate those ideas pertaining to the sexes that later political writers would adopt.

Homer's depiction of women, in an age he associated with the Heroic past, would be of lasting significance since his poems were still read and recited in Plato's day as an authentic narrative of Greek history, as well as a source of moral exhortation. While the chief females of the Iliad and Odyssey appear as strong characters and avoid the sort of denigration women would receive in subsequent literature, their subordinate role in the household (oikos) remains unquestioned. Indeed, it was the arrangement presented here that Engels would later describe as a manifestation of the new relations imposed after the 'world-historical defeat of the female sex'.4

The heroes of the Homeric epics are the kings who went to fight Sparta in the Trojan Wars, among whom attention focuses on Odysseus and Agamemnon. The heroic virtues they display are manly qualities: courage, physical strength, bravery, prowess. For this was an age when status and duty were defined by one's position in the social structure and virtue was manifested by performing with excellence the virtues ascribed to a given station. The role of the hero is defence of homeland and household.5 There is no role women can perform that will allow them to excel in this manner, and the term 'hero' has no feminine form.6 Nevertheless, women's social position does allot them a function and thus an opportunity to display excellence of a different kind. The unity of the household depends upon the loyalty of its members and so the key virtue of the women is fidelity.7 It is Helen's infidelity that starts the Trojan War to begin with, while Agamemnon's faithless wife Clytemnestra brings political chaos when she takes a new lover. In stark contrast, there is the chaste and honourable Penelope, who maintains Odysseus' kingdom for him during his ten years of wandering. While it is true that fidelity is also demanded of men, it does not in their case have a sexual implication: the husbands are hardly monogamous.

Homer's leading women are powerful agents who use intelligence and cunning to further their ends; they are never passive figures in this virile world. If Penelope cannot become queen in her own right but must choose a new husband who will replace the missing Odysseus as king, and if her son Telemachus is able to silence her and bid her depart to engage in womanly tasks during the proceedings, she is nevertheless successful in deflecting her suitors and in sustaining a public presence that would be denied to women of a later age. And although Penelope and Helen are frequently to be found engaged in domestic pursuits like weaving, no denigration is applied by Homer to such activities.

Nevertheless, the tapestry that underlies the main characters of the Homeric epics tells a rather different tale of women: one where they are viewed merely as pieces of movable property, to be allocated as prizes of war like other booty. The first book of the Iliad is illustrative here. Agamemnon has been awarded Khryseis, a beautiful captive, by the army. At first he refuses to return her to her father, swearing he will have her back in Argos 'working my loom and visiting my bed'.8 He rates her higher than his wife in beauty, womanhood, mind and skill. Learning that Apollo has put a curse on the Greek army while the girl is kept captive, however, Agamemnon agrees to send her home provided the army supplies him with an equivalent prize. This provokes a violent quarrel with Achilles, also recipient of a lovely female captive, whom Agamemnon now seizes. Achilles laments that she is 'my prize, given by the army'9 and persuades his mother to take his case to Zeus. But Zeus is also having woman trouble: he agrees to help but fears the wrath of his wife Hera, who 'will be at me all day long. Even as matters stand she never rests from badgering me before the gods'. We thus find women depicted in unflattering terms and ones with which they already seem to be stereotyped: the beautiful slave/concubine, unwitting cause of rage and jealousy among men; the nagging and scheming wife (Hera, Clytemnestra) versus her pure and patient antithesis (Penelope).

The background against which these roles were performed was one where society and state had not yet clearly emerged from kinship structures. The household was the unit for the satisfaction of material needs but also the locus of ethical norms and values, obligations and responsibilities, personal and religious relations. When crimes were committed, it was the family which pursued retribution. In so far as public life existed, its main concern was with defence, and its authority relations were understood by analogy with those of kinship roles.

The world of which Homer wrote was therefore one where social relations still centred on oikos (household) rather than polis (city-state) and where the oikos was identified with property rather than with affective bonds. The household did not refer simply to the family but included land, goods, slaves, wives, relatives' wives and children all under the patriarchal authority of the male head. Throughout archaic and classical Greece, emotional bonds between husband and wife would remain weak. Women functioned predominantly as bearers of children and servicers of the household, and their performance was evaluated accordingly.10 When their husbands took female slaves as sexual partners, no jealousy was expected (although Clytemnestra clearly fails to rise to the occasion when she kills Cassandra, whom Agamemnon brings back from the war as his concubine).

Gods and goddesses perform a significant role in the Homeric poems. Indeed, myth figured strongly in Greek culture as a whole and the line between historical and mythic events or actors is not drawn with any clarity. The function of such myths remains controversial: whether they symbolize real historical events or merely justify a status quo whose origins are unknown; whether they are the playing out of oppositions or emotions underlying all cultures or a primitive attempt to understand and systematize the world. Whatever the answer, it is certain that the male-female antithesis provides a central theme for Greek mythology. And when the conflict is played out between gods and goddesses, it drags in its train a whole series of related oppositions, since the notions of male and female already resonate with a powerful symbolism. Reconciliation is required, but in successful resolutions it is invariably the male principle which triumphs and this result is implied to be necessary if progress is to occur. One account of such a process can be found in Hesiod's Theogony.

The Theogony became the standard Greek account of creation, although it was composed in a tradition of theogonies (of which Genesis is another example) and probably owed much to Near Eastern models.11 It tells of the evolution of the gods and of a cosmos personified in deities. Thus Hesiod begins with the Earth, who is mother of all and gives birth parthenogenetically to Sea and Sky. She needs no sexual partner; she is the first and supreme matriarch. However, she subsequently mates with Sky, thereby initiating the line of the gods. In the fourth generation the Olympians, headed by the patriarchal Zeus, appear. While early male gods had played only a hazy role compared with the more significant mothers, it is they who come to the fore once Zeus claims ascendency. The divine hierarchy now moves from female to male dominance and also, with the passing of power from Mother Earth to Sky God, it shifts from material to non-material hegemony.12 Zeus is himself equated with the law as opposed to an original chaos. The poem thus tells how the earth goddesses, associated with fertility cults and nature, were defeated by the Olympian patriarchs, who represent reason, order and wisdom. It is an account that probably bears some relation to the actual replacement of one religion by another.

The Theogony is of symbolic interest vis-à-vis its attitudes toward the female in two additional ways: the generation of woman and generation per se. First, although its subject is divine creation, it also explains how woman appeared.13 Angry at Prometheus for stealing the secret of fire, Zeus contrives an 'evil' for all men that will destroy their sojourn in peace and plenty: he bids his codeities create a 'modest' maiden out of clay and proceeds to parade her for all to see:

Immortal gods and mortal men / were amazed when they saw this tempting snare / from which men cannot escape. From her comes the fair sex; / yes, wicked womenfolk are her descendants. / They live among mortal men as a nagging burden / and are no good sharers of abject want, but only of wealth. / Men are like swarms of bees clinging to cave roofs / to feed drones that contribute only to malicious deeds; / the bees themselves all day long until sundow / are busy carrying and storing the white wax, but the drones stay inside in their roofed hives and cram their bellies full of what others harvest. / So, too, Zeus who roars on high made woman / to be an evil for mortal men, helpmates in deed of harshness.14

A yet nastier version of this story of Pandora's creation is told by Hesiod in his Works and Days. Here the various divinities teach woman her work ('intricate weaving'). They give her 'stinging desire and limb-gnawing passion', 'the mind of a bitch' and a 'thievish nature'. She is made full of 'lies' and 'coaxing words'. She is a 'scourge to toiling men'; with her arrival, 'toilsome hardship' and 'painful illness' appear. For 'the woman with her hands removed the lid of the jar and scattered its contents, bringing grief and cares to men'.15 It is woman, then, who brings a whole series of misfortunes into the world and whose very existence is but the infliction of punishment. In the Theogony, Hesiod says that even he who marries a woman of sound and prudent mind, will spend his life trying to balance the good and bad in her. But he does acknowledge a wife's benefits: she will look after a man in his old age and give him descendants to inherit his property, so her malice must be suffered.16

Since the account suggests that men did originally live happily without women, it seems that their birth must have been somehow accomplished without female assistance. Such a possibility is made more explicit in a further passage in the Theogony, where Hesiod describes the birth of the goddess Athena. Thus a second level of significance relates to Hesiod's account of generation itself.

Prior to Zeus' rule, there had been a pattern of depositions of male rulers by mothers and sons in alliance. Zeus is warned that the pregnant Metis, goddess of wisdom, will bear him a son and repeat the syndrome. So he swallows her. Eventually, he gives birth, out of his skull, to a fully-armed Athena.17 A number of benefits accrue to this solution. Zeus ends threats to his sovereignty by giving birth to a female. She has no mother to ally with and is also sufficiently androgynous both to identify with him and to remain impotent. By swallowing Metis he appropriates wisdom, rendering it a male prerogative. And finally, the myth achieves a further erosion of female power by reversing the natural order of generation. It is now the male who gives birth to the female and reproductive capacity is transferred from womb to head, suggesting that the male version is of a superior kind, rooted in reason rather than in the dark recesses of the flesh.

On a more mundane level, Hesiod's Works and Days, which gives counsel to tillers of the soil, is sprinkled with misogynous advice. Thus: 'you trust a thief when you trust a woman';18 'Five years past puberty makes a woman a suitable bride. Marry a virgin so you can teach her right from wrong';19 'Nothing is better for a man than a good wife, and no horror matches a bad one'.20

Four major themes pertaining to the female thus appear in Hesiod's poems: the overthrow of the old fertility goddesses by the rational, patriarchal Olympian deities; the explanation of men's woes as a function of woman's creation; the myth of male generation and the more prosaic anecdotes concerning women's generally amoral and unpleasant nature. Such themes reappear in subsequent Greek literature; it is instructive to look at some of the later dramatic presentations of the conflict between male and female principles.

Drama flourished in classical Athens during the fifth century b.c. The three major playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, all produced plays which enacted conflicts related to the male-female opposition. In the tradition of the Theogony, the male order is associated with reason and the polis; with political and legal relations, justice, progress and good organization. The female is correspondingly aligned with the old world of kinship bonds and family honour; with a certain madness that threatens the impersonal relations of justice, with chaos and prejudice. Thus in Sophocles' Antigone, the heroine opposes the rational laws of Creon's polis in favour of the traditional duties owed to blood relatives. The consequences are tragic. In Euripides' Bacchae, failure to reconcile male and female elements ends in disequilibrium and disaster when the irrational forces associated with the women are left to run their course.21 But it is Aeschylus' Oresteia which offers the most resonant account of sexual contradiction across a variety of levels.

The Oresteia is a trilogy whose component parts—Agamemnon, The Choephorae and The Eumenides—tell a continuous story. This draws on Homer's Odyssey for its narrative, but its theology is taken from Hesiod. When Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon and takes a new lover, a series of tragic consequences ensues. Orestes slays his mother to avenge his father and thereby reestablishes male authority. But he is in turn pursued by the female Erinyes, who seek retribution on his mother's behalf, for the Erinyes are beings from the Underworld who punish murderers of kin. Orestes turns to Apollo for help, and the god purifies him, insisting that Orestes' crime is a justifiable one, whereupon conflict erupts between the female goddesses and the male Apollo. Crucial to its outcome is the question of whether matricide or homicide is the greater crime and therefore whether blood-bond or bed-bond, kinship or legal relations, mother-right or father-right, takes precedence. Eventually, Orestes flees to Athens, where Athena herself agrees to mediate. She refers the conflict to a tribunal over which she presides. The Erinyes prosecute, Apollo is Orestes' advocate; the tribunal votes inconclusively; Athena intervenes in support of Orestes and the latter wins his case.

What does this victory symbolize? It is not insignificant that Apollo is the son of Zeus, who is identified with law and order. Nor is it incidental that it is a human court that is engaged in judicial procedures and judges the crime, for it represents the polis and impersonal justice. The outcome means that marital relations take precedence over those of kinship, and this suggests both control over women's sexuality by the male and the dominance of legal over familial bonds. Furthermore, it is appropriate that the androgynous Athena should be the one to tip the tied vote in Orestes' favour: she argues that she is unable to sympathize with a mother's position, lacking one herself. But most important of all, the outcome is a victory for the new order over the old, since the defeated Erinyes belonged to the ancient pre-Olympian divinities and were regarded as defenders of the natural order of things. Daughters of the Night, they represent primitive incarnations of the female, bloodsucking and oozing poison from every orifice. Thus Clytemnestra exhorts them: 'waft your bloody breath upon him! Dry him up with its vapour, your womb's fire!'22 And Apollo refers to them as 'gray virgins, ancient maidens, with whom no god or any among men nor any beast has intercourse'.23 Yet their association with the female, with kinship bonds and Mother Earth, gives the Erinyes power over fertility, and this is not something that can be banished from the new patriarchal order. Only its control is called for. Accordingly, the Erinyes are placated with the offer of a special cult in Athens. If they promise to refrain from causing 'all things that bear fruit not to prosper',24 they are promised 'sacrifice in thanks for children and the accomplishment of marriage'.25 Their bargain is homologous with the judgement that marital relations have priority over blood bonds, in so far as women's ancient powers of fertility are retained but controlled within the restraints of a patriarchal legal order. Social advance is won only by the subjugation of the female. Freud and Engels would both see in these events a dramatization of the overthrow of matriarchy.26

There is yet a further dimension to this defeat, however. The female's power emanates from her ability to create new life, and this must be defused if male sovereignty and the rationality associated with it, are to be ensured. Thus when the Erinyes ask Apollo how he dares petition for Orestes' acquittal, given that he has spilt his mother's blood ('How else did she nourish you beneath her girdle, murderer?' they ask Orestes. 'Do you disown your mother's blood?'27), the god replies that although she might have nourished the embryo, the mother is not strictly a parent:

She who is called the child's mother is not its begetter, but the nurse of the newly sown conception. The begetter is the male, and she is a stranger for a stranger preserves the offspring28

As proof he cites the birth of his sister: 'There can be a father without a mother; near at hand is the witness, the child of Olympian Zeus'. Athena was 'not nurtured in the darkness of the womb, but is such an offspring as no goddess might bear'.29 The idea of male generation that appears in The Eumenides evokes the mythic account given previously by Hesiod.

The belief that the male plays at least the more important role in reproduction, was to remain a popular one throughout Greek thought. It appeared in a rather different form, for example, in Plato's Symposium. Here, not only is spiritual love, of which men alone are held to be capable, praised as superior to carnal pleasure, but its outcome is also claimed a superior progeny:

Men whose bodies are only creative, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and give them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But creative souls—for there are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or retain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general.30

In so far as the purpose of reproduction is immortality, the latter are superior products. The Republic will manage … even to eliminate women's special relationship with the generation of material beings.

It was in the new scientific theories, however, that the notion of a more important male contribution to reproduction was most literally stated. Although these theories were based on observation and deduction, it is difficult to imagine that they would have taken the form they did had they not arisen within a cultural paradigm already ascribing inferiority to things female. And they, in turn, clearly reinforced the equation. They receive their clearest expression in Aristotle's Generation of Animals, but this only represents a more sophisticated version of earlier themes.

For Aristotle, the respective and hierarchical functions of the two sexes are evident: 'the male as possessing the principle of movement and of generation, the female as possessing that of matter'.31 There emerges a series of opposed terms related to the sexes: soul-body (the 'physical part, the body, comes from the female and the soul from the male'32); active-passive (she is the one who 'receives the semen' but is unable to discharge or shape it. Male semen is the 'active and efficient ingredient' which sets and gives form to, the female residue33); ability-inability (the colder female body lacks the heat needed to 'concoct' or 'act upon' her own seminal—menstrual—fluid in order to make it fertile: 'the male and female are distinguished by a certain ability and inability'34); form-matter ('the contribution which the female makes to generation is the matter used therein; semen possesses the "principle" of "form").35 These equations are all finally ranked as better-worse, superior-inferior. The male is the norm and the female but an 'infertile male'; a 'deformity' identified by an 'inability of a sort':36

And as the proximate motive cause, to which belongs the logos and the form, is better and more divine in its nature than the matter, it is better also that the superior one should be separate from the inferior one. This is why whenever possible and so far as is possible the male is separate from the female, since it is something better and more divine in that it is the principle of movement for generated things, while the female serves as their matter.37

While the female provides the 'stranger' receptacle that nourishes, it is thus the male who imparts life, soul and reason. Such theories, harking back to the mythical belief in the head as the organ of generation, held that seminal fluid originated in the male's head, flowing down the spine and out through the genitals.

We have already seen how Plato took this idea a stage further, claiming that the soul could actually produce a superior creation—virtue, wisdom—when unadulterated by carnal imperatives. As far as real offspring were concerned, however, Plato evidently believed in an explanation resembling that of Aristotle. Discussing the origin of the universe in the Timaeus, he uses the human experience as an analogy, likening the mother to the receptacle and the father to the model. The qualities of the former are that 'it continues to receive all things, and never itself takes a permanent impress from any of the things that enter it; it is a kind of neutral plastic material in which changing impressions are stamped by the things that enter it'.38

Finally, these mythic, dramatic and scientific equations between male and female and related oppositions, were reinforced in and by Greek philosophy. Already in the sixth century b.c. the Pythagoreans had seen a universe riven by dualisms. In the table they drew up to classify these, male-female was aligned with light-dark, good-bad, limited-unlimited and so on. Femaleness was linked to that which lacked form; with vagueness, indeterminacy, irregularity. It was the male principle that brought order and rational organization; that gave shape to the indeterminate, in much the same way that Aristotle's male would shape offspring out of the indeterminate female fluids, to suggest a correspondence between embryology and epistemology.

The question remains how and why a whole culture evolved such powerful symbolic associations with the sexes. Clearly, they do not rest upon simply functionalist or empirical arguments about the different physical or emotional capacities related to a sexual division of labour (although they would eventually be used to underpin these).39 We need to explain why women were seen not merely as different but also as synonymous with a whole host of negative qualities. Our conclusions are important since the equations and deprecations traced thus far reappear in Greek political writing and achieve considerable endurance within the genre.

From the beginning women seem to have been associated with certain natural phenomena, and this is perhaps unsurprising. Their power to create new life was wondered at long before any male contribution was recognized. This power seemed to ally them with the earth and with a nature whose fecundity they shared. The early fertility cults would naturally have been presided over by female goddesses. Plato shows himself still immersed in the equation when he suggests that in conceiving and generating, women imitate the earth, such that there is a correspondence between the milk of motherhood and the grain the earth yields to men.40 However, women's identification with the earth also seems to have suggested an allegiance with dark powers inimical to the mind (but related to the womb). Most Greek daemons were born of the earth (chthonic) and were female. They threaten their victims with madness. Thus Aeschylus has the Erinyes chant:

Over our victim / we sing this song, maddening the brain, / carrying away the sense, destroying the mind, / a hymn that comes from the Erinyes, / fettering the mind41

By linking woman to darkness via the earth, the Greeks associated her with insanity and also with death. The latter was in turn identified with contamination and women were seen as having an affinity with polluting forces, with which they mediated on men's behalf in religious rituals.42 At the same time, women's fertility related them to the flesh in a culture that maintained a strict mind-body dualism and hierarchy in its thought. This had important consequences for the theories of knowledge that developed as well as for a political thought which equated the good life with the capacity to subordinate body to soul and a virtuous existence with contemplation and rational discourse.

A variety of explanations has been offered for the misogyny that accompanied this symbolism. From a political perspective it is suggested that the historical overthrow of matriarchal religion and/or matriarchy itself, was sufficiently recent for the new patriarchal order to yet be on the defensive against women's power.43 It is evident from Homer's account of Heroic Greece that kinship bonds had only recently yielded precedence to the authority of the city-state, and the women associated with familial loyalties are still greeted with suspicion by Plato several centuries later.

City-states first appeared in Greece around the seventh century b.c., bringing with them a decline in tribal and familial authority. Civic republics of a small and intimate nature, they drew no distinction between society and state, fulfilling equally both moral and material needs. They aspired to a harmonious existence; to a community wherein values and destinies were shared, shaped by the rational discourse of virtuous citizens who inhabited the public realm. Citizenship was nevertheless extended only to a minority: women, as well as slaves and foreign residents, were excluded. It brought with it both a sense of membership and a right to participate, in what was perceived as the highest association known to humanity; an association which transcended and bestowed meaning upon lesser groupings such as the family. Since the polis defined and facilitated the good life, there was no room for a counter-realm of privacy into which one might retreat. Liberty meant the political autonomy of the republic rather than the rights of individuals within it; justice meant performing the civic role associated with one's station, in order to strengthen the whole. Law meant an escape from arbitrary or customary decrees; an impartial and rational expression of what was objectively right. Against this background, the oikos could only represent threats of factionlism, partiality, privacy and avarice.

Engels would associate the Heroic family form with a transition to father-right, engendered by the development of new wealth, private property and a desire by husbands to bequeath that property to legitimate sons, which required rigorous policing of women's sexuality.44 Certainly, Solon's reforms in the sixth century achieved the latter, while simultaneously freeing individual property from clan control.

As well as the Marxist account, which anchors misogyny in the development of private property, there is a more Hegelian theme implicit in the work of many scholars. This suggests that reason itself could not have emerged in political or philosophical form, without the suppression of all that women had come to represent.45 Certainly, the Greeks themselves seem to have proffered such a view and it is impossible to conceive whether this type of judgement would even be possible for us, had they not started philosophy off on a course that associated reason with the subjection of a flesh identified with woman.

Genevieve Lloyd develops this theme when she argues that the Greeks associated femaleness with that which reason must leave behind: the vagueness and unboundedness equated with the female were seen as anathema to the clear and ordered thought identified with reason and the male. Although this did not necessarily imply that women themselves lacked reason, 'the very nature of knowledge was implicitly associated with the extrusion of what was symbolically associated with the feminine'.46 With Aristotle the association becomes explicit and it is tempting to discern it, too, in Plato's allegory of the cave. For the cavernous domicile of the uninitiated has a certain affinity with the darkness/earth/womb metaphors equated with woman, while the state of enlightenment is quite literally that: its protagonists escape into the sunlight of knowledge (light/head/sky/male).47

A variety of analogous explanations, similarly equating women with phenomena to be transcended in the name of historical progress, has proliferated. Thus it is claimed that the emotion and sexuality linked with the female were perceived as a threat to the polis; that their closeness to biological rhythms associated them with the seasons, with birth and death (transitional processes that threatened the desire for permanence, independence and autonomy); that women threatened the clear antimonies (like nature/culture, barbarian/civilization) so dear to the Greek mind.48 The homosexual practices of the upper classes are also offered as a reason for widespread misogyny,49 although it is difficult here to disentangle cause from effect. Finally, Simone de Beauvoir suggests that, among other things, men might simply have railed against 'the adversities of married life'.50

Perhaps there is some truth in all of these speculations, for as Greek society evolved, so religious, sexual, literary, philosophic, scientific and political attitudes towards women reinforced one another until a coherent dialectical unity, characterized by misogyny, crystallized. The question would then arise as to whether this ideology served some underlying economic purpose, and with this in mind it is salient to look briefly at the socioeconomic conditions under which Greek women lived. Before doing so, however, it should be noted that none of the above accounts of misogyny suggests a simple desire by men to dominate women, although the very fact that the culture described was one devised by men should alert us to women's powerlessness in defining a more positive image of themselves. Women have left virtually no record of their own attitudes and aspirations, apart from the work of a rare poet like the sixth-century Sappho. This is unsurprising since, as we will see below, women in ancient Greece, and especially in the Classical Age, when the arts flourished, had little opportunity for public expression.

Since it was in classical Athens that political thought reached its zenith, it is most useful to concentrate on arrangements here. The position of women can perhaps be understood best if we think of them merely as functionaries of a state conceived as a simply male institution. Their role was to produce legitimate sons who would carry on the family cult and property of the oikos, and also to provide the polis with new citizens and warriors. They did therefore perform a civic duty, but from within the privacy of the family and with none of the privileges accorded to male citizens. By marrying, women were simply being used as a medium of exchange between men of different households. They were ideally married off at the age of 18, when their father would select a suitable husband and pay him a dowry for his new wife's keep. Divorce was easy for a man provided he returned the dowry, along with his bride, to her father. Husbands might also give their wives to another or fathers might themselves decide to terminate a marriage. Thus women could be transferred to several households during their lives, engendering suspicions among men that their loyalty was suspect.

During this process, women remained under the guardianship of the male to whose oikos they currently belonged; they were permanent legal minors. Although they might inherit property, they could not own it. If her father had no sons, then the household property went to the daughter, but only as a means of transmission to another male. For a female heiress, an epikleros, was obliged to marry her oldest male relative on her father's side so that the property might remain within the family. Such an arrangement must have had an important economic function in preserving the household property against subdivision.51

For the women, one household must have been much like another. Whether young girls or married citizens, they were confined together in the women's quarters, the gynaeceum. They were not allowed into the inner courtyard lest they be espied by male relatives; they went out rarely, and then never unescorted. Family festivals offered infrequent opportunities to meet with male kin. There was little education for such persons beyond the learning of skills from older women. These, of course, focused on domestic labours: cooking, cleaning, weaving, childbearing. All of a woman's relationships thus revolved around the home, but these remained strictly limited. There remains no evidence of the sort of relations they might have enjoyed with one another, although the familiar stories of women's love of gossip circulated among the men.52 In fact, however, it was the men who met for discussion and enjoyed public life. They spent little time at home but visited the market, the assembly, the gymnasium or the symposium, for civic discussion, feasting and drinking. Women were allotted no political responsibilities or privileges; they had no access to the assembly. The only virtue available to Athenian women was sophrosyne, meaning modesty, self-restraint, especially over their passions.53 Strict monogamy was demanded, though rape was seen as an insult to the husband and retribution was settled between the men involved.

This picture of the secluded Athenian woman nevertheless fails to tell the whole story. Female slaves were sent into public places to perform necessary functions (often including sexual availability to the master). Then there were the wives of metics—the foreign residents who worked in Athens—who were obliged to seek employment. Records tell of freewomen in a number of professions: sesame seed-seller; wet-nurse; wool-worker; groceress; harpist; horsetender; pulse vendor; aulos-player; honey-seller.54 Moving down the social scale, the differences between the lives and status of the sexes undoubtedly diminished.55 There were also large numbers of prostitutes, many of whom worked in state brothels and received wages from the public purse. And there were free courtesans, among them the hetairas who might strike up relationships with important men (even with Socrates himself) and who might alone acquire the intellectual skills and personal property that would make them welcome in male company. Athenian men, it follows, were bound by no monogamous restraints. As one fourth-century representative put it, 'we have courtesans for pleasure, concubines to perform our domestic chores, and wives to bear us legitimate children and be the faithful guardians of our homes'.56 They also had young boys for homosexual relations and older male friends for intellectual discussion. As one author sums up the situation: public life in Athens was a 'men's club'.57

The classical situation was far more oppressive than anything portrayed in Homer and had largely resulted from reforms enacted by Solon in the sixth century. It would therefore be wrong to suggest that no alternative was imaginable, and this is especially true since different practices pertained in some of the other Greek city-states. In Sparta, for example, women had much more freedom and public presence. Eugenics rather than legitimacy was the concern of this society with its communal property and military ambition. Thus girls exercised in public to become fit, and clandestine marriages were practised to ensure that a partnership would be a fecund one. Satires like Aristophanes' play the Ecclesiazusae, in which the women take over the assembly to institute common property, wives and children, further suggest a familiarity among the theatre-going public with questions of gender relations. There is some evidence to suggest that the woman question was even then in the air.

In conclusion, it is evident that women's social and political position was fully consonant with the misogyny manifest in Greek culture. How far that ideology might have been used to legitimize an arrangement whose true raison d'être was an economic one, is hard to say. The greater liberty and esteem accorded to Spartan women in a society that sustained communal property, might be compared with the confinement of Athenian women in a culture favouring private property, to support this view. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly true that male Athenians, qua men, reaped benefits from the sexual division. And it would certainly be grossly reductive to suggest that the interlocking facets of Greek culture, with their elaborate images of woman, were but a reflection of economic imperatives. A certain autonomy must surely be granted to the ideas that gave birth to Western thought and that were destined to endure across the millennia, even if they did help to sustain a system of which both men and the institution of private property were beneficiaries.


  1. Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), p. 30.
  2. M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 48.
  3. Pomeroy, Goddesses, p. 28; Marilyn Arthur, 'Early Greece: The Origin of the Western Attitude Toward Women' in J. Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan (eds) Women in the Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984). Okin rightly points out, however, that in the Iliad at least, women are hardly shown in an elevated light. See Susan Moller Okin, Women in Western Political Thought (London: Virago, 1980), p. 16.
  4. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), p. 68.
  5. Finley, World of Odysseus, p. 28; A. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Duckworth, 1982), ch. 10.
  6. Finley, World of Odysseus, p. 33.
  7. A. MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 116.
  8. Homer, Iliad, trans. R. Fitzgerald (New York: Anchor Press, 1975), I, lines 1-10.
  9. Ibid., lines 310-74.
  10. See Finley, World of Odysseus, pp. 48-130; Arthur, 'Early Greece'; Mary O'Brien, The Politics of Reproduction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981); M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973), p. 18; T. Sinclair, A History of Greek Political Thought (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), ch. 1.
  11. A. N. Athanausakis, Introduction to Hesiod, Theogony, Works and Days, Shield, trans. A. N. Athanausakis (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).
  12. Ibid., p.7.
  13. Ibid., Theogony, lines 570-612.
  14. Ibid., lines 588-601.
  15. Ibid., Works and Days, lines 56-105.
  16. Ibid., Theogony, lines 602-10.
  17. Ibid., lines 886-926.
  18. Ibid., Works and Days, line 375.
  19. Ibid., lines 693-9.
  20. Ibid., lines 702-3.
  21. Regarding Antigone, see Hegel's account where he speaks of an antagonism between 'female' law, the law of the ancient gods, and public law. 'This is the supreme opposition in ethics and therefore in tragedy; and it is individualised in the same play in the opposing natures of man and woman'. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). §166, pp. 114f. Also, see Charles Segal, 'The Menace of Dionysus: Sex Roles and Reversals in Euripides' Bacchae' in Peradotto and Sullivan, Women in the Ancient World.
  22. Aeschylus, The Eumenides, trans. H. Lloyd-Jones (London: Duckworth, 1979), lines 137-8.
  23. Ibid., lines 68-70.
  24. Ibid., line 831.
  25. Ibid., lines 835-6.
  26. Engels, Origin pp. 29f; S. Freud, Moses and Monotheism in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), vol. 23, pp. 113f. Freud writes that the transition from a matriarchal to a patriarchal culture must have 'involved a revolution in the judicial conditions that had so far prevailed' and 'a victory of intellectuality over sensuality—that is, an advance in civilization, since maternity is proved by the evidence of the senses while paternity is a hypothesis, based on an interference and a premiss'. (p. 114). See additionally Froma Zeitlin, 'The Dynamics of Misogyny in the Oresteia' in Peradotto and Sullivan, Women in the Ancient World.
  27. Aeschylus, Eumenides, lines 604-8.
  28. Ibid., lines 658-61.
  29. Ibid., lines 663-6.
  30. Plato, Symposium, lines 208-9. All references to Plato's writings are taken, unless otherwise stated, from The Dialogues of Plato, B. Jarrett (ed.), 4 vols, 4th edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953).
  31. Aristotle, De Generatione Animalium, trans. A. L. Peck (London: Heinemann, 1943), 716a.
  32. Ibid., 738b.
  33. Ibid., 729a, 729b, 733b, 765b.
  34. Ibid., 765b.
  35. Ibid., 727b, 765b.
  36. Ibid., 728a, 783b, 766a.
  37. Ibid., 732a.
  38. Plato, Timaeus, trans. D. Lee (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 50, pp. 68f.
  39. The later Greeks did move nearer to Aristotle's functionalist view. Xenophon based different sexual functions on differential biological capacities in his fourth century Oeconomicus, where he claimed that the gods prepared woman's nature for indoor work while man's body and soul were endowed with the ability to endure extremes of temperature and long journeys. Women were given greater affection because their role was to nourish children. See excerpt in Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant (eds), Women's Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation (London: Duckworth, 1982), p. 100. The relevant lines are from Oecomomicus, lines 7-10.
  40. Plato, Menexenus, lines 237-8. See also Aristotle, De Generatione, 716a, where he relates earth to female and heaven/sun to father.
  41. Aeschylus, Eumenides, lines 328-32.
  42. See Ruth Padel, 'Women: Model for Possession by Greek Daemons' in Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhrt (eds), Images of Woman in Antiquity (London: Croom Helm, 1983).
  43. Thus Bachofen, one of Engels' main sources, sees religious change as responsible for the transition to father-right. Both Engels and Freud believed in a prehistoric matriarchy. See also O'Brien, Politics of Reproduction, pp. 123-7.
  44. Engels, Origin, Pt. 2.
  45. See, for example, Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 106-8.
  46. Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason: 'Male' and 'Female' in Western Philosophy (London: Methuen, 1984), p. 4.
  47. Plato, Republic, lines 514-17. All references to the Republic are to the F. M. Cornford edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941).
  48. Segal, 'Menace of Dionysus', p. 196.
  49. Victor Ehrenberg, The People of Aristophanes (Oxford: Blackwell, 1943), pp. 142 f.
  50. De Beauvoir, Second Sex, p. 123.
  51. This function is supported by Aristotle when he criticizes the Spartan constitution for allowing unregulated subdivision of land among the children of large families, reducing many to poverty. Aristotle, Politics, trans. Sir Ernest Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), 1270b. For further discussion, see G. E. M. de ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (London: Duckworth, 1981). He argues that Greek wives constituted 'a distinct economic class, in the technical Marxist sense', although he sees in Athenian inheritance a safeguard against concentrations of wealth since women could not be married into wealthy families in order to amass property there, pp. 98-103.
  52. See for example Aristophanes' satire The Ecclesiazusae, trans. B. Rogers (London: Heinemann, 1931), lines 118-20.
  53. R. Flacière, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles, trans. P. Green (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965), p. 69. Also MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 128.
  54. Lefkowitz and Fant, Women's Life in Greece and Rome, p. 29.
  55. De ste. Croix, Class Struggle, pp. 100f.
  56. Pseudo-Demos in Against Neaera.
  57. Sir Ernest Barker, Greek Political Theory, Plato and his Predecessors (London: Methuen, 1918), p. 218.


SOURCE: Sheridan, Jennifer A. "Not at a Loss for Words: The Economic Power of Literate Women in Late Antique Egypt." Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 128 (1998): 189-203.

In the following excerpt, Sheridan discusses female literacy in Roman Egypt during the early centuries of the common era.

A literate woman was a rarity in the Graeco-Roman world. Only among the upper socio-economic classes could one expect to find any women who could read or write.1 Ancient men, themselves mostly illiterate, were clearly unsettled by the idea of a literate woman. It is apparent, in a number of sarcastic quips preserved from antiquity, that men understood the power that literacy might bestow on a woman. A fragment of a comic play, for example, reads "The man who teaches a woman letters does not do well; he gives more poison to a frightening asp."2 In Roman Egypt, schoolboys were taught to write by copying the phrase "Seeing a women being taught letters, he said 'What a sword she is sharpening.'"3

Graeco-Roman Egypt provides more information concerning women's literacy than the rest of the ancient world because of the large number of everyday documents, recorded on papyrus, which survived from it.4 Nevertheless the papyri, plentiful as they are, are still an inadequate source of evidence for women's literacy because they are the products of a world to which women were not privy in large numbers. Women do not appear as frequently in the papyri as men, and when they do, it is very often in a secondary role; women who appear in the documents are often from a select group, the higher socio-economic classes.5 Women, of course, sent and received letters, but this proves nothing about their literacy, since they could and did employ scribes and readers. Furthermore, since women rarely acted on their own in legal, official, or commercial situations (i.e., the transactions that prompted the creation of papyri), we have less opportunity to see whether they are literate.6

Socio-economic forces can also distort our notions of women's literacy. It appears, for example, that there is an increase in the ratio of illiterate women to illiterate men in the papyri during the first and second centuries c.e. Pomeroy argues that this situation is a by-product of the Roman tolerance of woman landholders: it is not that more women are illiterate than at earlier periods, but that more illiterate (normally) women are landholders and accordingly produce documents.7 Although the papyri can therefore give false impressions, one cannot argue that there was widespread literacy among women, because that is certainly not the case. Still, one must keep in mind that the sources are not telling us all we need to know about this society that excluded women from much of the public sphere.8

Rates of female literacy in Egypt seem to have changed over time. In the Ptolemaic era, the education of girls was common, at least in literate Alexandria, where, of course, a number of female authors were well known, who could serve as role models. With the coming of the Romans, however, female literacy rates dropped off, only to increase again in the second and third centuries c.e. Certainly there are a number of factors at play here, including where a woman lived and what social class she belonged to,9 not to mention other cultural changes in the Empire itself, but—since we are dealing with an imperfect body of data—what appear as changes in the literacy rates of women over time may just be distortions of the facts.

The actual number of literate women known to us from Graeco-Roman Egypt is extremely small. There is no evidence, direct or indirect, for a single literate woman in the countryside, and only a handful from the cities are known. A comprehensive statistical study of women's literacy would yield the same results that a quick impression does: the level of female literacy in Graeco-Roman Egypt was negligible.10

The literate women we do know about are statistical abnormalities; that is, they cannot be used in a general argument concerning female literacy rates, since they are such a deviation from the norm. Yet these are the only literate women in antiquity whose lives we can delve into in any depth, because we have actual contact with them through their documents. For this reason, these women from late antique Egypt should be of great interest to scholars of women in the ancient world; and it is that group of scholars to whom this paper is particularly addressed.11 The women discussed here are not legendary literates like Sappho or Hypatia, but ordinary people whose unself-conscious documents tell us of their histories. From their papyri, we can learn what circumstances in their lives led them to literacy, and what significance literacy had in their lives. Most importantly, we can explore whether these ancient women understood, like their male counterparts, that the ability to read and write endows its holder with power.

This paper will center on one particular literate woman, Aurelia Charite. An extensive papyrus dossier12 provides us with a great deal of biographical information about her, much of which is relevant to her literacy. As Worp notes in the introduction to that dossier, Charite prospered in the middle Egyptian city of Hermopolis between 320 and 350 c.e. She is mentioned in forty-two documents, five of which are written wholly or partially by Charite herself, and two of which specifically mention her literacy. Hers is one of the few woman's signatures to survive from Graeco-Roman antiquity.

Hermopolis, like other nome capitals, was overlaid with a thick veneer of Hellenism. Its streets were lined with Greek-style buildings interspersed with those in an Egyptian style, and its governmental forms mimicked those of earlier Greek cities. The ruling class of the city, members of the boule, also bear many marks of Hellenization, not least of which are their names, many of which are Greek. Because we view this group through their documents in Greek, it is impossible to conclude anything about the actual ethnicity of individuals; many with Greek names may have been Egyptian in origin.

Whether or not it contained an ethnic mix, the bouleutic class was small and exclusive. The boule itself comprised approximately one hundred men;13 the entire class was composed of those men and their female relatives and children. Since the group was heavily intermarried, the total number of bouleutic citizens probably numbered no more than five hundred.14

Members of the bouleutic class were the movers and shakers of the city and the entire nome. It was the councillors who held all the important governmental positions in the city. The influence of the bouleutic class was also based on its wealth, i.e., its landholding. Among the councillors would be a small number of the super-rich; the rest, we can assume, were comfortable enough to live on the income from their holdings.15 Poorer city dwellers and residents of the rest of the nome regularly came into contact with members of the bouleutic class, since councillors were both tax-collectors and landlords; they also owned many of the businesses in the city.

Among groups of landholders it would not be unusual to find a woman. In Roman Egypt, there were no prohibitions against women holding land, and they regularly acquired it through inheritance or as part of their dowry. The overall percentage of landholders who were women is impossible to determine with the information available to us, but approximately thirty-three percent of land at Soknopaiou Nesos was owned by women; forty percent of landholders in a tax roll from Karanis were women,16 and in a Hermopolite land list fourteen percent of the land was held by women.17 Thus women had some access to power through wealth; their independent landholding would add to that of their husbands, augmenting the status of the family, and they themselves could act as landlords.18 But it is rare to see a woman managing her own properties.19

Aurelia Charite was born into the affluent, landed upper class of Hermopolis at the end of the third century c.e. Her father, Amazonios, who lived from around 275 until the mid-310s c.e., was a councillor and gymnasiarch. Her mother Demetria, also known as Ammonia, was the daughter of Polydeukes, also a city councillor.20 Demetria herself was literate.21

By the year 314 c.e., Charite had married Aurelios Adelphios, son of Adelphios.22 Adelphios, also known as Dionysodoros, held the usual offices of a wealthy city dweller—councillor, prytanis (proedros), gymnasiarch, strategos, and logistes.23 Charite and Adelphios had at least one child who can be identified in the papyri. Their son, Aurelios Asklepiades, was praepositus pagi of the fifteenth pagus of the Hermopolite Nome in 340 c.e.; he was also a magistrate and councillor at Hermopolis. Charite may have had other children, but they are not documented.24 We can assume that when Charite disappears from the papyri, around 350 c.e., she has died. She outlived her husband by about thirty years.

The remainder of Charite's biography concerns her fiscal status and business dealings. Charite was quite wealthy. She belonged to an elite group of metropolitan landholders who not only owned urban properties but also had land in the countryside. Charite's mean property holding in the countryside was 410 or more arouras.25 The documents do not quantify the property she must have owned in the city of Hermopolis, where she lived.


NEFERTITI (C. 1390 B.C.-1360 B.C.)

Nefertiti became one of the most famous women in antiquity with the discovery in 1912 of a limestone bust sculpted and painted in her image by Tutmose during the 18th dynasty. Her name means "The Beautiful One is Come," and Nefertiti is known not only for her great beauty, but for her role as the wife of Akhenaten, the first Egyptian pharaoh to worship only one god. During the early years of Akhenaten's reign, Queen Nefertiti enjoyed significant political importance, evidenced by the large number of carved scenes in which she is shown accompanying Akhenaten during the ceremonial acts he performed. She is depicted taking part in acts quite unlike those relegated to the generally subservient status of previous chief queens, including daily worship and making offerings similar to those of the king. Images of Nefertiti and Akhenaten were erased from Egyptian history after Akhenaten's death, when the succeeding pharaoh denounced monotheism and returned to polytheistic worship.

CLEOPATRA (69 B.C.-C. 30 B.C.)

Cleopatra VII Philopator was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. She was notorious in antiquity and has been romanticized in modern times as the lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Following the death of her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, in 51 b.c., the ministers of Cleopatra's brother Ptolemy XIII feared her ambition to rule alone and drove her from Egypt. Cleopatra was determined to use Roman power and when Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria in 48, she established a union of mutual benefit with him. Caesar helped Cleopatra to reestablish her place on the Egyptian throne and then returned to Rome, followed by Cleopatra in 46. When the emperor was assassinated in 44, Cleopatra returned to Egypt and awaited the outcome of the political struggle in Rome. She soon seduced Mark Antony, who was consolidating his power on the Roman throne. In Rome, however, Octavian was gaining power. Antony later married Cleopatra, but Roman sentiment was against the union. Octavian turned against Antony and defeated a fleet commanded by Antony and Cleopatra in 31 at the Battle of Actium. Antony killed himself. Cleopatra tried, but failed, to captivate another Roman emperor. Rather than suffer humiliation, she also committed suicide, and was buried beside Antony.

Although we do not know her absolute wealth, we are able to compare Charite's landholdings with those of her neighbors in the so-called Hermopolite landlists of the mid-fourth century c.e., just before her death. In the landlists,26 which record the country holdings of residents of the city, Charite is said to own 376 arouras, less than her personal average; but by this late point in her life she may have already distributed some property to her children or grandchildren. Even with 376 arouras, though, she is among the top six percent of landholders in the city, and well above the mean holding of only sixty-three arouras.27

The papers in Charite's dossier are those we would expect of a landholder. Twenty-one documents record the payment of taxes on her property. These are typical land taxes for the period, which collect items needed by the army, such as wine, fodder, and barley. Eight documents record Charite's leasing property to others. She let farm land, fodder land, and orchards. A number of her tenants appear repeatedly in the documents and must have had long-term business relationships with her.28 According to a few documents she also lent money.

Six of Charite's forty-two documents are either written by her or mention her literacy. The number itself is not significant; of the forty-two documents in the dossier, twenty-four are addressed to Charite, eight are lists, one is a letter written by Demetria, Charite's mother, and two are of questionable content. There is only one other document in the dossier that could have been written by Charite (or at least mentioned her literacy) but was not composed by her.29

Of the just mentioned "literacy" documents, the only one that contains a definitive date is a receipt for a paid lease, dated 348 c.e. (PCharite 8). In the opening lines of the receipt, Charite is referred to as

Aurelia Charite, daughter of Amazonios, from splendid Hermopolis, a knower of letters, acting without a guardian and with the ius liberorum.

The body of the receipt is written by a scribe, but Charite wrote the subscription:

I, Aurelia Charite, was paid in full as set forth above.

Charite is again described as a "knower of letters" (ϵἰδυϵῖα γρἀμματα) in a money loan dated either 331/2 or 346/7 (PCharite 33).30

Three additional documents are written either wholly or partially in Charite's hand. These include a four-line order to pay for the value of green fodder written entirely by Charite (PCharite 27), a list of deliveries dated circa 322 (PCharite 36), and a small two-word fragment that includes her name (PCharite 41).31 Charite also signed an acknowledgment of a receipt (PCharite 37).

Charite's claims to literacy appear genuine. Her hand is neat but not elegant, the hand of a literate, not a semi-literate, person. Charite's letters are written with definitive strokes, indicating that she wrote somewhat regularly and without hesitation.32 She was practiced enough in writing to ligature some letter combinations, such as alpha-iota and epsilon-iota.33 She uses abbreviations and symbols, which again displays her comfort with writing.34 Yet she was not the greatest speller, and her documents show some fairly typical misspellings: she regularly confused ϵι and ι, for example.35

We can only conjecture why Charite, or any other literate woman, was taught to write. Charite's mother Demetria was literate and may well have been her daughter's teacher since their hands are strikingly similar.36 The fact that the family was wealthy may have allowed them the luxury of educating their daughter. If economics alone affected literacy, however, we might expect to encounter many more rich, literate women in the papyri. But this is not the case.…


  1. On women's literacy in general in the ancient world, see Cole and Harris 22-24 et passim.
  2. γυναῖχ´ ό διδάςκων γράμματ́ ού καλῶς ποεῖ / ἀςπἰδι δἑ φοβερᾳ̑ προςπορίζει φάρμακον. [Men.] 702 Kock.
  3. Ιδών γυναῖκα διδαςκgομἐνην γράμματα εἴπεν οἴον ξίπος ἁκονᾶται. PBouriant. 1.153 (fourth century c.e.).
  4. Literacy in Roman Egypt, of course, refers to the ability to read and write Greek. See Youtie 1975a.
  5. Pomeroy 1988: 720.
  6. Under the Lex Julia of Augustus, women could act without a guardian after they had produced a certain number of children (three in the original law; later fewer children may have been required). One hundred and twenty-three legally independent women are known from Roman Egypt. They are listed in Sheridan.
  7. Pomeroy 1988: 718.
  8. As Bowman and Woolf so eloquently point out: "Power exercised over texts allows power to be exercised through texts" (1994b: 8).
  9. Pomeroy 1988: 717-19.
  10. That literacy rates were small but the percentages themselves were not very significant is true of Egypt in general. See Bowman 1991: 122 and 1994a: 111-12, passages in which he argues that the percentage of literates is not so important as the extent to which the society functioned in a literate mode without many literates.
  11. As I am hoping to reach a non-papyrological audience with this essay, I have provided a fairly extensive introduction to literacy and life in late antique Egypt, including information which, while well known to papyrologists, may not be as familiar to other classicists.
  12. Worp 1980. There is one further document ("Anhang B") concerning Charite in Worp 1991. The term "archive" is now reserved for papers which were gathered together in antiquity. This is not the case with either of the collections cited in this note.
  13. Bowman 1971: 22.
  14. I have estimated elsewhere (Sheridan 129) that the maximum size of the female bouleutic population in a city would be one thousand, allowing ten female relatives per bouleutic man. But there probably were fewer, perhaps only a few hundred at any given time, since the women's family roles would overlap, i.e., one man's wife was another's daughter and still another's sister.
  15. Rowlandson 115-22, who notes, however, that a small number of members of this class lacked the financial resources needed to bear its burdens, such as liturgies.
  16. Hobson 315.
  17. Bagnall 1992: 138.
  18. Rowlandson 113-15 and 132-35 discusses two very wealthy Oxyrhynchite landholding women.
  19. Rowlandson 284.
  20. Worp 1980: 5-7.
  21. She writes on behalf of her daughter in PCharite 38.
  22. Adelphios also left a substantial group of papers, published in Worp 1991. That Adelphios was Charite's husband is virtually, but not absolutely, certain.
  23. Worp 1991: 8-10.
  24. Worp 1980: 9 points out that Charite is likely to have had a son named Amazonios after her father. Diokles, son of Adelphios, was at one time believed to be Charite's son, but that identification has now been called into question. The fact that Charite had the ius liberorum, however, does not necessarily mean that she had three or more children.
  25. Worp 1980: 11.
  26. PCharite 9 = PHerm. Landl. I.252-56, II.466-69.
  27. Bowman 1985: 146. There was an extremely unequal division of landholding in the Hermopolite Nome. The landlists show that ten percent of the landholders held seventy-eight percent of the land (Bagnall 1992: 142).
  28. On Charite as landlord, see Kehoe 123 n. 6.
  29. PCharite 34, a money loan. Although literate, like most wealthy people Charite regularly used scribes (see Bagnall 1993: 247). This document is fragmentary, so it is possible that she wrote a subscription which is now lost; she signs PCharite 37 without first being introduced as literate in its opening (this signature is partially lost, but the restoration is appropriate, since the first four letters of her name, written in her hand, are visible).
  30. The word είδνεῖα is restored in a lacuna, based on the formula in PCharite 8.
  31. Worp (1980: 103) identified this fragment as probably coming from the hand of Charite; my examination of the photograph concurs with this identification.
  32. Bagnall 1993: 247.
  33. Both alpha-iota and epsilon-iota are ligatured in the word χαίρειν in PCharite 27.2; the epsilon-iota combination is ligatured in … μονειων in PCharite 41.2.
  34. Αν for Αν́ρηλία in PCharite 8.24; ιδικ (sic) for ίνδικτίωνος in PCharite 27.3; κν for κνίδιον/α in PCharite 36.1, 2, 3, 6, 7. PCharite 27.3 preserves the symbol for τάλαντα; the symbol for γίνεται must have preceded it but is lost in a lacuna.
  35. There are other errors in PCharite 8, 27, and 36.
  36. Worp 1980: 2.

Works Cited

Bagnall, R. S. 1992. "Landholding in Late Roman Egypt." JRS 82: 128-43.

——. 1993. Egypt in Late Antiquity. Princeton.

——. 1995. "Charite's Christianity." BASP 32: 37-40.

Bowman, A. K. 1971. The Town Councils of Roman Egypt. Toronto.

——. 1985. "Landholding in the Hermopolite Nome in the Fourth Century A.D." JRS 75: 137-63.

——. 1991. "Literacy in the Roman Empire: Mass and Mode." In Humphrey 1991. 119-31.

——. 1994a. "The Roman Imperial Army: Letters and Literacy on the Northern Frontier." In Bowman and Woolf 1994c. 109-25.

——, and G. Woolf. 1994b. "Literacy and Power in the Ancient World." In Bowman and Woolf 1994c. 1-16.

——, and G. Woolf, eds. 1994c. Literacy and Power in the Ancient World. Cambridge.

Cole, S. G. 1981. "Could Greek Women Read and Write?" In H. Foley, ed., Reflections of Women in Antiquity. New York. 219-45.

Harris, W., 1989. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA.

Hobson, D. 1983. "Women as Property Owners in Roman Egypt." TAPA 113: 311-21.

Kehoe, D. 1992. Management and Investment on Estates in Roman Egypt during the Early Empire. Bonn.

Pomeroy, S. B. 1988. "Women in Roman Egypt: A Preliminary Study Based on Papyri." ANRW II.10.1: 708-23.

——. 1997. Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece. Oxford.

Rowlandson, J. 1996. Landowners and Tenants in Roman Egypt. Oxford.

Sheridan, J. A. 1996. "Women Without Guardians: An Updated List." BASP 33: 117-31.

Worp, K. A. 1980. Das Aurelia Charite Archiv. Zutphen.

——. 1991. Die Archive der Aurelii Adelphios und Asklepiades. CPR XIIA. Vienna.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

About this article

Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Women in the Ancient World

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Women in the Ancient World