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Ancient Greek Women Who Left Their Mark in History

Ancient Greek women and their role in Greece
Actress Lena Heady played ancient Greek Queen Gorgo in 300. Photo: Still from ‘300’

Ancient Greek women had few rights in comparison to male citizens and were mostly confined at home. History books are usually silent on female accomplishments.

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

Despite their social isolation, Ancient Greece revered a number of powerful female goddesses.

Demeter was able to retrieve her daughter Persephone, Artemis could send a fatal arrow, and Athena had the ability to resist marriage and motherhood, and to provide advice to respected Greek heroes.

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

Notable Ancient Greek Women

Beyond the female deities, several Greek women were successful in defying the extraordinary odds stacked against them and established themselves as respected doctors, philosophers or mathematicians.

Some ancient Greek women rose above the limitations of Greek society and gained lasting acclaim as poets (Sappho of Lesvos), philosophers (Arete of Cyrene), leaders (Gorgo of Sparta and Aspasia of Athens), and physicians (Agnodice of Athens).

Sappho of Lesvos

Ancient Greek Women 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 lines in her life. She was known for her lyric 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 is extant has mostly survived in fragmentary form; two notable exceptions are the “Ode to Aphrodite” and the Tithonus poem.

Sappho’s poetry is still considered extraordinary and her 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 from her own name and the name of her home island respectively.

While her importance as a poet is confirmed from the earliest times, all interpretations of her work have been colored and influenced by discussions of her sexuality.

Arete of Cyrene

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

While no credible historic source has survived on Arete’s teachings, the tenets of the School of Cyrene which her father founded are known.

It was one of the first to advance a systematic view on the role of pleasure and pain in human life.

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

Towards the end of Plato’s Protagoras it is reasoned that the “salvation of our life” depends upon applying to pleasures and pains a “science of measurement”.

The School of Cyrene provided one of the first approaches to hedonism, which surfaced again 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, Cleomenes’ half-brother, who fought and died in the Battle of Thermopylae.

She is noted as one of the few ancient Greek women who was actually named by Herodotus, and was known for her political judgment and wisdom.

Two events in Herodotus’ histories show Gorgo giving council to her father Cleomenes I and the Spartans.

Herodotus says that Gorgo, aged around eight years old, managed to stop her father, Cleomenes I, being bribed by Aristagoras of Miletus to help out in the Ionian Revolt.

The second time Gorgo aided Sparta was when the Spartans were sent a tablet by Demaratus that contained a secret message. Herodotus says that Gorgo was the only person to uncover the hidden message, instructing the Spartans to “scrape the wax away” to find the secret message.

This indicates either that Gorgo was highly thought of by Herodotus, who often left out the names of the female figures he included in his books, or that as the wife of Leonidas I, her actions and counsel were all the more noteworthy.

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

Aspasia of Athens

Aspasia was an ancient Greek woman
Marble herma in the Vatican Museums inscribed with Aspasia’s name at the base. Discovered in 1777. Public Domain

Aspasia was the influential lover and partner of Athenian statesman Pericles in Classical-era Athens.

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

Aspasia was a metic, or a foreigner who spent most her life in Greece, who had some powers 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 ancient depictions of Aspasia as a brothel keeper and a prostitute, though this has been disputed. Aspasia is mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon and others.

Aspasia’s role in history provides crucial insight to the understanding of the ancient Greeek women because so very little is known about women from her time period.

One scholar stated that, “To ask questions about Aspasia’s life is to ask questions about half of humanity.”

Hydna of Scione

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

He instructed 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 marched across the mainland after defeating the Greeks at Thermopylae.

The Persian Navy then sought to destroy the rest of the Greek force in the naval battle at 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 beneath the Persian ships and cut their moorings, causing these ships to drift and run aground or damage other vessels.

This feat is even more impressive when one considers that, in order to perform it, Hydna and Scyllis had to swim ten miles into the sea in the middle 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 following the Persian defeat.

Telesilla of Argos

A native of Argos, Telesilla was a prominent lyric poet, considered one of the nine Female Lyric Poets of Greece by Antipater of Thesalonike.

As she was constantly sick as a young woman, 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 gained fame by pushing the Spartan forces away from her hometown.

King Cleomenes of Sparta defeated the Argive soldiers in the Battle of Sepeia, but when the Spartans were ready to take the city they found that Telesilla had gathered and armed the women, slaves and remaining men of the city.

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 credited as the first female midwife or physician in ancient Athens.

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

Agnodice studied medicine under Herophilus, and worked as a physician in her home city of Athens disguised as a man, because women at the time were forbidden from practicing medicine.

As her popularity with female patients grew, rival physicians accused her of seducing the women of Athens.

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

Accused of illegally practicing medicine 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 physicians in Athens was revoked.

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