Ancient Greek women who left their mark in history

Mosaic, today in the Louvre, from Daphne, suburb of Antioch, showing a Greek horseman seizing the cap of an Amazonian warrior. Credit:

Women in ancient Greece had few rights compared to male citizens and were mostly housebound. History books are generally silent on the achievements of women.

Unable to vote, own land, or inherit, a woman’s place was at home and her purpose in life was to raise children.

Despite their social isolation, ancient Greece worshiped a number of powerful female goddesses.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Demeter was able to get his daughter Persephone back, Artemis could send a fatal arrow, and Athena had the ability to resist marriage and motherhood, and to give advice to respected Greek heroes.

Aphrodite, Hera, Hestia and Hekate were also powerful goddesses, intensely honored and greatly admired by women and men.

Notable ancient Greek women

Beyond female deities, several Greek women succeeded in defying the extraordinary obstacles that weighed against them and established themselves as respected doctors, philosophers or mathematicians.

Some ancient Greek women exceeded the limits of Greek society and gained lasting fame as poets (Sappho of Lesbos), philosophers (Arete of Cyrene), rulers (Gorgo of Sparta and Aspasia of Athens) and physicians (Agnodice of Athens).

Sapho from Lesbos

Ancient Greek Women's Art
One of the earliest surviving images of Sappho, from c. 470 BC Public domain

Sappho was a prolific poet, probably composing around 10,000 verses in her life. She was known for her lyrical poetry, written to be sung with the accompaniment of a lyre.

In ancient times, Sappho was widely regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets and was given names such as the “Tenth Muse” and “The Poetess”.

Most of Sappho’s poetry is now lost, and what exists has mostly survived in fragmentary form; two notable exceptions are the “Ode to Aphrodite” and the poem by Tithon.

Sappho’s poetry is still considered extraordinary and his works continue to influence other writers.

Beyond her poetry, she is well known as a symbol of love and desire between women, with the English words sapphic and lesbian being derived respectively from her own name and the name of her native island.

While his importance as a poet is confirmed from early times, all interpretations of his work have been colored and influenced by discussions about his sexuality.

Cyrene ridge

Arete was a philosopher who lived in Cyrene, Libya. She was the daughter of Aristippus of Cyrene who himself had learned the philosophy of Socrates.

Although no credible historical source has survived on Arete’s teachings, the principles of the Cyrene school founded by his father are known.

He was one of the first to offer a systematic view of the role of pleasure and pain in human life.

The Cyrenaica argued that discipline, knowledge, and virtuous actions are more likely to result in pleasure. Whereas negative emotions, such as anger and fear, increased the pain.

Towards the end of Plato’s Protagoras, it is believed that the “salvation of our life” depends on the application to pleasures and pains of a “science of measure”.

The school of Cyrene provided one of the earliest approaches to hedonism, which resurfaced in 18th and 19th century Europe and was advanced by thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham.

Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

Gorgo was the wife of King Leonidas I, Cleomen’s half-brother, who fought and died at the Battle of Thermopylae.

She is known as one of the few ancient Greek women to have been appointed by Herodotus and was known for her political judgment and wisdom.

Two events in Herodotus’ stories show that Gorgo gives advice to his father Cleomen I and the Spartans.

Herodotus says that Gorgo, about eight years old, managed to prevent her father, Cleomena I, from being bribed by Aristagoras of Miletus to aid in the Ionian revolt.

The second time Gorgo helped Sparta was when Demaratus sent the Spartans a tablet with a secret message. Herodotus says that Gorgo was the only person to discover the hidden message, ordering the Spartans to “scrape the wax” to find the secret message.

This indicates either that Gorgo was highly regarded by Herodotus, who often omitted the names of female characters he included in his books, or that as the wife of Leonidas I, his actions and advice were all the more remarkable. .

Plutarch quotes Queen Gorgo as follows: “When a woman from Attica asked her, ‘Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule over men?’ she said, “Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men. “

Aspasia from Athens

Aspasia was an ancient Greek woman
Herma in marble in the Vatican Museums inscribed with the name Aspasia at the base. Discovered in 1777. Public domain

Aspasia was the influential lover and partner of the Athenian statesman Pericles during the classical period of Athens.

According to Plutarch, his house became an intellectual center in Athens, attracting the most eminent writers and thinkers, including the philosopher Socrates.

Aspasia was a metic, or a foreigner who spent most of her life in Greece, who had certain credentials of Greek citizenship. Although she spent most of her adult life in Greece, few details of her life are fully known.

Several scholars have credited with ancient depictions of Aspasia as a brothel runner and prostitute, although this has been disputed. Aspasia is mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon and others.

Aspasia’s role in the story provides crucial insight into the understanding of ancient Greek women, as very little is known about the women of her day.

One scholar said that “To ask questions about the life of Aspasia is to ask questions about half of humanity.”

Hydne of Scione

Hydna was trained to swim by her father, Scyllis de Scione, a diving instructor and expert swimmer who taught the art of swimming for a living.

He educated his daughter from a young age, and she became well known for her ability to dive very deep and swim long distances.

When the Persians invaded Greece in 480 BC, they sacked Athens and crossed the continent after defeating the Greeks at Thermopylae.

The Persian Navy then sought to destroy the rest of the Greek force in the Naval Battle of Salamis. As any student of Western history knows, if the Persians had won at Salamis, Greece would have been lost.

Hydna and her father dove under the Persian ships and cut their moorings, causing those ships to drift and run aground or damage other ships.

This feat is all the more impressive considering that in order to accomplish it, Hydna and Scyllis had to swim ten miles in the sea in the midst of a storm.

The story of these two ancient Greek women comes from the Greek historian Pausanius in his Description of Greece, and he further relates that, for their heroism, statues of them were erected at Delphi after the Persian defeat.

Telesilla d’Argos

Originally from Argos, Telesilla was a prominent lyric poet, considered one of Greece’s nine female lyric poets by Antipater of Thesaloniki.

As she was constantly ill in her youth, she consulted an oracle, who told her to dedicate her life to the Muses.

She studied music and poetry and was quickly healed. She not only became an influential poet, but also rose to fame for pushing Spartan forces away from her hometown.

King Cleomena of Sparta defeated the Argian soldiers in the Battle of Sepeia, but when the Spartans were ready to take the city, they discovered that Telesilla had rounded up and armed the city’s remaining women, slaves, and men.

The makeshift army fought so valiantly that the Spartans fled.

Agnodice of Athens

Women in ancient Greece
Agnodice. Public domain

Agnodice, or Agnodike, is a legendary figure believed to be the first female midwife or physician in ancient Athens.

Its story is told by the Roman author Gaius Julius Hyginus in his work “Fabulae”.

Agnodice studied medicine under Herophilus and worked as a doctor in his hometown of Athens disguised as a man, as women at the time were not allowed to practice medicine.

As his popularity with female patients increased, rival doctors accused him of seducing the women of Athens.

She was tried and revealed her gender to the jury by lifting up her tunic (a gesture known in ancient Greek as anasyrma).

Accused of practicing medicine illegally as a woman, she was defended by the women of Athens who praised her for her effective treatments.

She was acquitted and the law against female doctors in Athens was repealed.

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