Out of the Gynaeceum: A New Look at Ancient Greek Society

Deprived of Culture?

By Madalina Dana

Hydrie à figures rouges

Fig. 1: Sappho: Red-figure hydria, attributed to the Group of Polygnotos, 440-430 B.C., National Archeological Museum of Athens. Inv. 1260. Photographer: Giannis Patrikianos. ©Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports/Archaeological Receipts Fund. Photo: DR.

The stereotypical image of Greek women propagated by classical authors is that of the good housewife, whose job is to oversee the household beginning at a very early age: by the age of 14, a girl could draw up a list of domestic objects (Xenophon, Economics IX, 10). Accordingly, Theophrastus advised teaching women to read so that they could better perform their domestic responsibilities. Menander, on the other hand, claimed that educating a woman was akin to “giving a serpent more venom” (F 702, Kock).

 Various accounts show that sometimes the city-state itself was responsible for educating its future citizens, boys and girls alike (up to a certain point). Thus, in the 5th century B.C., Herodotus, in his Histories (VI, 27), recounts the distress of the inhabitants of Chios when the roof of the school collapsed on the 120 children learning their letters within. We must note that Herodotus does not specify that these students were boys, which leads us to believe that the school was co-educational. An inscription from three centuries later in Teos, in Asia Minor, mentions the foundation established by a rich citizen named Polythrous to finance the education of young people, both boys and girls (Syll.3, 578). Paintings on vases represent schoolgirls learning to read and write, with tablets, styli, and scrolls of papyrus (1). Ultimately, the education of girls, like that of boys, depended on the social status of their families. On the island of Lesbos, Sappho (6th century B.C.), daughter of a rich family and, together with the poet Alcaeus, a pre-eminent representative of the tradition of lyric poetry (2), was the very picture of a cultivated woman (today we would call her an intellectual) (3).

(1) Beck, Frederick A.G., Album of Greek Education: The Greeks at School and at Play, Sidney, Cheiron Press, 1975; on young women, see Bielman, Anne, “Une vertu en rouleau ou comment la sagesse vint aux Grecques,” in Regula Frei-Stolba, Anne Bielman, Olivier Bianchi, eds., Les femmes antiques entre sphère privée et sphère publique. Actes du Diplôme d’Études Avancées. Universités de Lausanne et Neuchâtel, 2000-2002, Berne, Peter Lang, 2003, p. 79-81.
(2) See Yatromanolakis, Dimitrios, Sappho in the Making: The Early Reception, Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenistic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2007.
(3) Zanker, Paul, The Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity, University of California Press, Berkeley-Los Angeles-Oxford, 1995; Bottini, Angelo, ed., Musa pensosa. L’immagine dell’intellettuale nell’antichità, Milano, Electa, 2006.
Lysandra (Byzance) : Stèle funéraire de marbre

Fig. 2: Lysandra (Byzantium). Marble funeral stele, 1st century A.D., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Inv. 75.AA.49. © The J. Paul Getty Museum. Photo: DR.

Women of the Scroll

 Learned women were often called “friends of the Muses”—the Muses were patronesses of all literary, artistic, and scientific activities—and each of the most famous poetesses was referred to as “the tenth Muse.” In art, the Muses are represented holding a scroll or tablet, symbols of intellectual activity. On funeral steles from the Hellenistic period, the equivalent to a reference to the Muses in the text of an epigram was the image of a scroll of papyrus in the hand of the deceased. Women almost always appear associated with their husbands when they are depicted reading in banquet scenes: the man, reclining on a bed (klinê) holds a half-unrolled papyrus scroll in one hand; the woman, seated at the end of the klinê or on a chair, holds her veil with one hand in a posture of reserve, while the other hand holds a scroll or tablet. However, a stele from Byzantium (1st century A.D.) bears an unprecedented scene: it is not the husband, nor the two spouses, but rather the woman alone who is represented holding a scroll. Even more notable, only the woman’s name is written: Lysandra, daughter of Dôlês, a patronym of Thracian origin (I. Byzantion, 368). Seated on an imposing armchair that resembles a seat of honor in a theatre, the deceased woman holds in her left hand a large volumen partially unfurled on her knees. We may wonder what is revealed in this representation of wives in Byzantium, who are shown to be as learned as their husbands—as well what kind of increased status this would result in for their families.

Ménophila (Sardes) : Stèle funéraire de marbre

Fig. 3: Marble funeral stele, 2nd century B.C., Archeological Museum of Istanbul, Inv. 4033. Photo: DR.

A famous stele from the end of the 2nd century B.C. in Sardis, erected in honor of Menophila, daughter of Hermogenes (SEG IV, 634) is one of the most precious and unique artifacts we have from the Greek world. On the left, we see bound scrolls and a wool basket; beneath the objects the letter alpha (the number 1) is engraved; at the top on the right is a lily flower, and below the young woman’s head is a crown. The epigram provides a code for deciphering the image: “An elegant and precious woman, that is what this stone shows. Who is she? The writings of the Muses tell you: Menophila. […] The book indicates her wisdom, what she is wearing on her head represents her magistracy, the number 1 reveals that she was an only child, the wool basket is the sign of her well-ordered virtue, and the lily symbolizes her youth.” The text affirms that the deceased possessed sophia, which was given by the Muses, and establishes a connection between this feminine sophia and the papyrus scrolls. This wisdom is not the sôphrosynê that consisted in being able to run a household and raise children, but rather the wisdom that comes from books. Menophila was an only child, and it was because of this that she served as stephanophore, a very important office in Sardis: her family put all their hopes in her, and she accrued the rights and obligations of a male heir. In addition, the city honored her by organizing public funeral rites for her.

Mousa (Byzance) : Stèle funéraire de marbre

Fig. 4: Mousa (Byzantium): Marble funeral stele, 2nd century B.C. Archeological Museum of Istanbul, Inv. 5029. Photo: DR.

Sometimes, in addition to indicating education or an interest in letters, the scroll represents a profession. This is the case of the iatreinê (female doctor) Mousa, daughter of Agathocles (I. Byzantion, 128), the only woman in the city’s iconography to be represented alone, rather than in a typical couple scene. She is standing in the posture of a learned person—though she holds her veil in one hand, in the posture of modesty befitting a woman of rank, and the scroll in her other hand. The connection between her name, Muse, the reference to her profession, and the volumen of papyrus is undeniable. She bears a Berufsname (“professional name”) that indicates beyond any doubt that she came from a family of physicians, for we know that medical knowledge was transmitted within the framework of the family. The name fits with the presence of the scroll, which refers to this woman’s command of the medical art (technê). Although her skills no doubt were broader than those of a mere midwife (maia), she would have practiced her profession within a very similar sphere of activity. Indeed, an ancient “gynecologist” was a generalist devoted primarily to a clientele of women and children, which makes it no less a matter of public interest.

A Public Space for Learned Women

In order to understand representations of women holding scrolls on steles, these monuments must be put in context—that is, they must be situated within a particular space and time. Recent studies point to the “intellectualization” of portraits of citizens in images from the late Hellenistic period. In the 2nd century B.C., the motif of a young woman reading was added to the canonical representation of reading, which consisted in an image of a young man reading. In the Hellenistic era, the scroll symbolized culture (to which people of modest means could henceforth aspire)—but it also represented a revolution in gender, as culture took on a greater role in the repertory of images used to honor deceased women.