Thursday, April 18, 2013


Bonnie Maclachlan, Women in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook. Bloomsbury sources in ancient history. London; New York: Continuum, 2012. Pp. xii, 232. ISBN 9781441179630. $39.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Marguerite Johnson, The University of Newcastle, Australia (

Version at BMCR home site

[A list of the book's contents appears at the end of this review.]

Bonnie MacLachlan's book is one of the titles in the series 'Bloomsbury Sources in Ancient History.' As with nearly all sourcebooks dealing with antiquity, the books in this series contain material gathered from varied sources – literature, epigraphy, legal writings, religious works and, in this instance, medical treatises – but the majority of sources are literary. The series is primarily targeted at undergraduates.

In a short Introduction the author provides a stylishly written and academically concise overview of the topic. In addition to introducing the volume and its structure and aims, MacLachlan provides some excellent interpretive parameters for students, including much needed information on how one should approach such a broad range of source material on the lives of ancient Greek women. Her conceptual framework, designed with an astute pedagogy, is underpinned by New Historicism, which is extended to entail a discussion of genre – all of which is needed in the classroom. The ex planation of the chronological division of the book, 'Part 1: The Archaic period,' 'Part 2: The Classical period,' and 'Part 3: The post-Classical period,' for example, is a useful means by which to show students the impact of cultural specifics and cultural developments on women's lives and on the written artefacts that record these lives. The inclusion of some theoretical approaches to the sources (for example, feminist theories, various gender theories, Foucauldian and queer discourses) would have been useful.

MacLachlan's translations work well and are reader-friendly. Her decision to print poetry as such, rather than rendering it as prose is, as always, a wise decision as it provides a 'sense' of the original genre and its stylistic features (useful for undergraduates in Ancient Civilisation courses). The selection of materials is also admirable. MacLachlan is attentive to variety (as mentioned above). Thus, there is deference to the Classical canon, such as excerpts from the Homeric epics (Hera's seduction of Zeus in Iliad 14 and Aphrodite's encounter with Helen in Iliad 3) and Platonic texts (women in the Republic and the Laws), as well as important and well-known passages from the Hippocratic tracts (Diseases of Women and On Generation). Additionally, there are less-known but equally informative texts, such as poems from the Greek Anthology, translations of inscriptions and papyri, and extracts from the works of authors such as Isaeus. These selections from more obscure sources include some of the 'gems' of the book, such as the touching inscription from an Athenian grave monument, which reads: "I am holding this dear son of my daughter; when we were alive we looked with our eyes on the rays of the sun. I held him on my lap, and now in death I hold him, dead." (IG II2 10650).1 Far less mournful is the fascinating snippet from Diogenes Laertius on the female followers of Plato: "There were many others [pupils of Plato], among whom were two women, Lasthenia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius, who dressed as a man, as Dicaearchus says."2

In essence the chapters tend to work as narratives, with MacLachlan's voice interspersed with ancient voices. For a sourcebook this approach is not entirely effective, since except for the introductory passage that opens each chapter the paragraphs inserted by MacLachlan often take the form of narrative/textual summations that curtail the opportunity to provide in-depth historical or cultural information consistently. When information is provided in these segues, the narrative format tends to obscure it, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the format does not include notes that might have designated the commentaries in a clearer way, nor are the ancient passages made discrete by indentation or font variation.

To overcome the results of these technical or layout problems the book would be best used in a classroom situation, with the instructor discussing the passages with students and, where necessary, elaborating on the information. It could also be used in conjunction with other sourcebooks set as additional reading, such as Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant's Women's Life in Greece and Rome. A Source Book in Translation and Women in the Classical World. Image and Text by Elaine Fantham and others.3 MacLachlan notes the importance of these works in her Introduction, acknowledging her use of Lefkowitz and Fant in identifying some of the material used in her own book.

The bibliographies at the end of each chapter are at times too brief (with some important material omitted), and while MacLachlan directs her readers to additional bibliographical sources in her Introduction, a detailed list in the book itself would have been more effective.

It is unfortunate that MacLachlan's scholarship is, ultimately, not presented as effectively as it could have been. Clearer layout (in particular), a slightly extended Introduction and expanded reading lists would have made this a much improved text.

Table of Contents

Introduction (vi-x)
Abbreviations for works cited (xi-xii)
Part 1: The Archaic Period
1. Where it all began: women in Hesiod (3-6)
2. Aphrodite and Demeter: goddesses in the Homeric Hymns (7-11)
3. Women divine and mortal in the Homeric epics (12-31)
4. Women and gender in the melic and lyric poets (32-49)
Part 2: The Classical Period
5. The lived experiences of girls and women (53-85)
6. Women and property (86-93)
7. Foreign women (94-97)
8. Prostitutes (98-114)
9. Religious life of girls and women (115-130)
10. Gender performed on the Athenian stage (131-150)
11. Dorian girls and women (151-164)
12. Women and the state: Plato and Aristotle (165-179)
13. Warrior women (180-186)
14. The female body (187-201)
Part 3: The Post-Classical period
15. Women in the Hellenistic era (205-222)
General bibliography (223)
Index of ancient authors and texts (225-228)
General index (229-232)


1.   MacLachlan introduces this passage with a nuanced blend of sensitivity and informed commentary: "Older women doubtless acted as helpers and attendants within the family. This grave monument was set up in the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens commemorating a grandmother. With the poignant inscription is an image of a seated woman holding a child in her arms." A photograph of the piece would have been effective and it is unfortunate that the book is without a few well-selected plates.
2.   Lives of Famous Philosophers 3.46 = Dicaerchus fr. 44 Wehrli.
3.   M. R. Lefkowitz and M. B. Fant, Women's Life in Greece and Rome. A Source Book in Translation, Third Edition (Baltimore, 2005), reviewed in BMCR 2006.07.22. E. Fantham, H. P. Foley, N. B. Kampen, S. B. Pomeroy, H. A. Shapiro, Women in the Classical World. Image and Text (New York and Oxford, 1994).

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