Monday, October 27, 2014


Sandra Boehringer, Violaine Sebillote Cuchet (ed.), Des femmes en action: l'individu et la fonction en Grèce antique. Mètis, hors-série. Paris, Athènes: Éditions de l'Ehess, Daedalus, 2013. Pp. 225. ISBN 9782713223808. €27.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Irene Salvo, Royal Holloway, University of London (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In everyday life as well as in intellectual enquiry, it is not banal to ask whether the same thing can be indifferently done by a woman or by a man; in other words, whether gender determines the social, economic, or political activities of a person. The first out-of-series volume of the journal Mètis reflects upon the relationship between the gendered individual and her/his social function in Classical and Hellenistic Greece within three main contexts: i) identities and fields of action; ii) politics; iii) human and divine bodies.

The introduction provides an overview of the history of gender and sexuality studies bridging the divide between modern social sciences and ancient history, in particular those produced by the French school. Differentiation in sexuality has attracted the attention of scholars publishing their work in Mètis since the 1990s.1 The current volume maintains this continuity and innovation. Editors Sandra Boehringer and Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet set out to show that women and men should not be considered as two distinct groups; rather, the category of the individual allows us to explore the peculiarities of single women and men in their respective contexts. This focus on 'the individual' prompts us to reflect upon the degree to which gender influences function in society and the social criteria and personal qualities which determine the choice of a man or a woman for a particular role. Boehringer and Sebillotte Cuchet employ the word 'function' in its broadest sense to describe interaction with administrative, institutional, and religious spheres as well as career and personal life.

In a demanding first chapter, Claude Calame invokes Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in his analysis of Pindar's poetry (fr. 94b Maehler). Pindar's dynamic style and rhythmic construction of the subject eschew gender differentiation: for Calame, the poetic performance reinforces the male voice of the poet as well as the female action of the choreutai.

Annalisa Paradiso traces the function of the Spartan Gorgo in Herodotus as a daughter, a wife, and a mother of three Spartan kings. She become idealised as the bearer of Lacedemonian values. Following Herodotus, the moral apophhtegmata in Aristotle and Plutarch crystallise the single person of Gorgo as a paradigmatic woman and mother of citizens.

Maria Cecilia D'Ercole explores ancient economies for analysing the relationship between gender and social status. Using lexical analysis, she notes that despite the great variety of Greek words for 'merchant', only kapêlos and pôlês have a feminine equivalent. The low reputation of female merchants is ascribed to the different social representations of the disgraceful tenuis mercatura and of the more aristocratic magna mercatura (long-distance commerce). In Athens, women were mainly local sellers at the bottom of the hierarchy of trade professions. They were not secluded in an agora gunaikeia, but the high concentration of women in a sector of the ancient agora is explained by the internal organisation of the agoraic space, and by the presence of women predominantly in the production and trade of food, textiles, and cosmetics. This clear chapter would have benefited from a deeper discussion of the connection between the reputations of female merchants and prostitutes, a point which D'Ercole only touches upon when mentioning two epigrams of the Anthologia Palatina (p. 61, AP 5.81, 5.181).2

Anna Chiaiese has produced two case studies which challenge the assumption that women were excluded from war and military activities unless they masculinised themselves. According to Pausanias, Telesilla and Marpessa tenaciously defended Argos and Tegea against almost overwhelming Spartan odds. While the historical credibility of the two episodes is not strong, these two aitia for religious rituals testify to the importance of women in Greek politics. However, Chiaiese's emphasis on the logic of inversion, that is, invisible women excluded from war and animal sacrifice taking the place of men, might well reinforce the idea that women were socially marginalized.

Louise Bruit Zaidman richly argues that there were no radical differences between priests and priestesses in terms of their functions and privileges. Focusing on the conflicting relationship between religious and political power, she inquires whether gender was relevant to priesthood. The four case studies she produces suggest that it was not. Starting with Theano and Chryses from Homer's Iliad, she analyses how in Herodotus a priestess of Athena Polias and a priest in Argos responded to challenges posed by the Spartan king Cleomenes. In the Euripidean Iphigenia in Tauris, the power of Iphigenia over king Thoas derives from her cultic knowledge rather than from female cunning. Finally, Bruit Zaidman accepts the historical authenticity of Plutarch's information on Theano, the priestess at Eleusis who refused to curse Alcibiades. Contrary to Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood's claim of a later moralization of this character, Theano might have given voice to those families supporting Alcibiades. For Bruit Zaidman, the priestly function clearly plays a more significant role than the male/female opposition in defining religious-political conflicts.

Claire Jacqmin relies upon the story of how the conflict between the cities of Pisa and Elis was resolved thanks to the arbitration of sixteen Elean women (Paus. 5.16.5-6), to argue that women might have functioned as arbitrators in the archaic period. Selected because of their good reputation, consideration, and advanced age, these women were preferred to men because they were not directly involved in political clashes. Their experience and wisdom gave them the authority to enforce reconciliation. Previous scholars have considered this episode as a mythic aition of the Hereia: the sixteen organised the contest, wove the peplos for the goddess, and arranged two choroi. Interestingly, Jacqmin interprets the weaving of the peplos as a political metaphor for the cohesion between the cities, rather than as just another typical female activity. Although she reinforces her argument with parallels from other sources, such as Diodoros's account of the role of Demarata and her peace negotiations with the Carthaginians (Diod. 11.26.1-2), it is hard to find any epigraphic parallel.

Sandra Péré-Noguès discusses two female protagonists from Plutarch's Life of Dion who are not frequently mentioned, Aristomache and her daughter Arete, Dion's sister and wife. Unfortunately the author errs towards a more descriptive rather than analytical style here; one feels the need for a deeper examination of the influence of these two women who were so intimately concerned with the political intrigues underpinning the civil wars in Syracuse in the years 357 and 354 BC.

Stefano Caneva leads us behind the scenes of the Hellenistic courts in an engaging way. Ancient historiography has often delegitimised Hellenistic queens because of moralistic prejudices regarding the practice of endogamy. There is a need to underline, instead, the socio-political and economic reasons for royal succession. Caneva therefore traces the political strategies of the early queens, which were mainly concerned with empowering their offspring through sexual and political plotting; legitimising their status in the royal court; identifying themselves with one or more divinities; and distributing their wealth to the public to curry favour in the civic community. He notes that the meaning of the term basilissa changes from case to case; not simply the feminine of basileus, it can indicate any kind of relationship with the king, such as wife, daughter, or courtesan. This chapter clearly shows how cultural and socio-economic conditions enabled royal women to participate in political life.

Gabriella Pironti's fascinating exploration of the relationships between anthropomorphism, metamorphism, sex difference, epiphany, and spheres of influence of Greek gods and goddesses focuses upon archaic epic. She emphasizes how the discrepancy between humans and the divine powers alters the construction of gender inequalities. For example, divine status and genealogy, rather than gender, determine the mythical and cultic importance of a divinity. The functions and spheres of competence of tutelary and poliadic deities further complicate the picture. Considering divine pairs such as Athena and Ares, she notes that the functional complementarity of such pairs needs to be stressed, at the expense of sex difference.

Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet shows how Herodotus's passage on the Amazons in Scythia (Herod. IV 110-117) challenges the anthropological norm that assigns the marital function to women and the war function to men. The Amazons can be warriors and mothers at the same time: the Sauromates were born from the union of Amazons and young Scythians. Following the history of the mythical representations of the Amazons in literary sources, Sebillotte Cuchet demonstrates that gender did not diminish Amazon power. From the seventh century BC the myth of the Amazons as wives to be conquered was developed in the Athenian context. The idea of women that were able to fight was not confined to a 'savage' world or heroic past: women could be armed and serve the city in time of need. These conclusions rightly avoid an evolutionistic approach to the Amazons and reject a sharp gendered division between the affairs of marriage and war.

Pauline Schmitt Pantel offers a new reading of Damocrita's story, from Plutarch (Plut. Mor. 775b-775e). This Spartan woman set fire to the sanctuary where the wives of the civic magistrates were celebrating a pannuchis, killed her two daughters and then commited suicide. Rather than personal revenge for the exile of her husband Arkippos and the prohibition to marry and procreate imposed on her two daughters, Damocrita's action was political in nature, as Schmitt Pantel vividly argues. She was behaving just as a male citizen would have behaved in response to such attacks on his social status.

Dress and, in particular, the wearing of trousers, has played an important role in balancing power relations between the sexes in contemporary history. Adeline Grand-Clément investigates the difference between ancient Greek perceptions of this item of clothing and our own. Interestingly, this is one of the few chapters in the collection which is focused on issues of masculinity. In the literary sources trousers (anaxyrides) are worn by effeminate men from Media, Persia, and Scythia, while on the Attic vases the garment identifies warriors other than the hoplite, such as archers, horsemen, and the Amazons. The ancient imaginary of trousers not symbolising male social power is cogently delineated, but the chapter is less convincing in considering the conclusions from the literary and iconographic sources to be different and complementary; it seems that in both cases the alterity of trousers was connected to ethnicity.

Many of the contributors to this collection respond to the groundbreaking work on gender and the categories of thought in ancient Greek societies carried out by Nicole Loraux and Jean-Pierre Vernant, refreshing their conclusions in the light of recent research in the historical and social sciences. The cutting-edge approach that privileges function over gender seems to make more sense in some chapters than in others. The only typo is the misspelling of the name of the linguist and anthropologist, Kenneth Pike (p. 15; p. 15, n. 37). In addition, the policy relating to quotations from Greek primary sources is inconsistent: in some essays, they are transliterated into Latin characters and in others are in the original Greek. However, these are just quibbles. We should thank the editors and contributors for reinforcing the idea that sex difference was not a discriminant factor in ancient Greece. The object of academic publication is to inform and to inspire further research; this valuable book successfully satisfies both desiderata.

Table of Contents

Sandra Boehringer, avec la collaboration de Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet – Vingt ans de réflexion Métis et le genre (1992-2012)
Première partie. Les identités et les champs d'action
Claude Calame – Soi-même par les autres: pour une poétique des identités auctoriales, rythmées et genrées (Pindare, Parthénée 2)
Annalisa Paradiso – Gorgô et les manipulations de la fonction
Cecilia d'Ercole – Marchands et marchandes dans la société grecque classique
Anna Chiaiese – La guerra dentro e fuori: giochi di genere tra Argo e Tegea
Deuxième partie. Femmes et actions en politique
Louise Bruit Zaidman – La prêtresse et le roi. Réflexions sur les rapports entre prêtrise féminine et pouvoir
Claire Jacqmin – Arbitres et règlements de conflits: Pausanias et le cas des seize femmes des cités d'Élide
Sandra Péré-Noguès – Aristomaché et Arétè, deux femmes dans la tourmente des guerres civiles à Syracuse
Stefano Caneva – La face cachée des intrigues de cour. Prolégomènes à une étude du rôle des femmes royales dans les royaumes hellénistiques
Troisième partie. Des corps, des déesses et des guerrières : l'imaginaire du genre
Gabriella Pironti – Des dieux et des déesses: le genre en question dans la représentation du divin en Grèce ancienne
Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet – Femmes et guerrières, les Amazones de Scythie (Hérodote IV 110-117)
Pauline Schmitt Pantel – L'histoire de Damocrita dans les Histoires d'Amour de Plutarque: la vengeance d'une mère épouse de citoyen à Sparte
Adeline Grand-Clément – Porter la culotte: enquête sur l'imaginaire du pantalon dans le monde grec
Abstracts in French and English


1.   See the workshop Autour d'une anthropologie des sexes organized by Stella Georgoudi within the conference La Grèce ancienne et l'anthropologie de l'Antiquité (Athens 1992); the proceedings were published in Mètis 9-10, 1994-1995.
2.   On hetaeras in epigrams see L. McClure, Courtesans at Table: Gender and Greek Literary Culture in Athenaeus, New York 2004, 161ff.

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