British Museum blog

Did women in Greece and Rome speak?


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, Cambridge University
Did women in Greece and Rome speak? Stupid question; of course they did. They must have chattered and joked together, laughed at the silliness of their menfolk, advised (or chatted up) their husbands, given lessons to their children… and much, much more.

But nowhere in the ancient world did they ever have a recognised voice in public – beyond, occasionally, complaining about the abuse they must often have suffered. Those who did speak out got ridiculed as being androgynes (‘men-women’). The basic motto (as for Victorian children) was that women should be seen and not heard, and best of all not seen either.

This streak of misogyny made a big impression on me when I first started learning ancient Greek about 45 years ago. One of the first things I read in Greek back then was part of Homer’s Odyssey – one of that pair of great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey that stand at the very beginning of the whole tradition of western literature.

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily GR 1867,0508.402

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily. GR 1867,0508.402

I remember even now coming across an extraordinary passage in the first book of the poem. Penelope, who is waiting loyally for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the Trojan War, comes downstairs from her apartment in the palace to find a bard singing. His song tells of the terrible and deathly struggles the Greek heroes are having in getting back home after the war to conquer Troy. Not surprisingly Penelope, thinking of her own husband’s troubles, is upset and asks the bard to choose a happier theme. But no sooner has she spoken than her son Telemachus – not much more than a wet-behind-the-ears teenager – tells her to pipe down and go back upstairs to her weaving, “for speech is the business of men”.

It stuck in my mind (as I kid, I always rather admired the Greeks, but this seemed a terrible black spot almost to match slavery). I never imagined then that I would come back to reflect on this incident again, when I was thinking about how the voices of modern women have often been silenced too. Of course, that silence isn’t so dramatic. But when I agreed to give a London Review of Books Winter Lecture at the British Museum, on the public voice of women today, I kept coming back to the ancient world – and to the sense that women’s silence was very deeply embedded in our culture.

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper.  Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, 'The Legend of Goode Wimme’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper. Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, ‘The Legend of Goode Wimmen’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

It was fascinating (if slightly chilling) to collect some of the different ways that the Greeks and Romans so clearly paraded the idea that women should not speak out. These ranged from Ovid’s story in his Metamorphoses about the rape victim Philomela having her tongue cut out to prevent her naming her rapist (though she eventually managed to denounce him by weaving an account of what happened) to the abuse of one Roman woman who did get up to speak in the forum as a ‘barking’ (that is, non-human) androgyne.

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena's temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena’s temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

In fact, it was hard to choose which examples to use for my lecture, and many people have written in since with even more, and sometimes even better, examples. One of the very best is the myth of the virgin prophetess Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy, who was – when the city fell – taken by king Agamemnon to be his concubine (she was eventually murdered, with the king, by his wife Clytemnestra). But before that, Cassandra’s lot was always to prophesy the truth but never to be believed. It is a wonderful twist on the idea that women’s speech is never authoritative: even when it really is true, it doesn’t seem so to listeners.

In antiquity, it is true that – almost without exception (perhaps the weird Diotima in Plato’s Symposium is one) – you only hear a woman speak when she is about to die, or when she is speaking up for the concerns of women and the home (as did Antigone, when she defends the proper burial of her dead brother). Otherwise, as Telemachus put it, speech is for men.

Now, of course, I don’t think that the classical tradition simply explains why many women have such a hard time getting their voice heard even now. We have come a long way since then. All the same, my lecture does argue that if we want to do something about some of the current issues women face when they try to speak up, it’s important to think of the very long western history of women being shut up.

Mary Beard blogs at A Don’s Life.
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36 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. John M says:

    I don’t recall Xanthippe being known for her silence.

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    • Mary Beard says:

      True, but she was derided for being a shrew — the antitype of the brilliant and persuasive Socrates. No one listened to Xanthippe, esp. not Socrates

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  2. Richard Frost says:

    Minoan art suggests the women of that culture were at least the equals of their men – indeed several frescoes show women unmistakably chatting freely. But since the Minoans were pre-Classical, I presume Prof. Beard does not regard them as Greek.

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    • mb127 says:

      Have to be careful here. Of course Linear B is a form of Greek, but M. I. Finley long ago insisted that we do not confuse language and culture (the Minoan palaces have much more in common with Near Eastern palace societies). Whether women were the equals of men, we really dont know. It is always very risky to go from visual — and often religious — images to social reality (cf Athena..). But the point surely is (as I say at the beginning… of course women “chatted”. The culture refuses them access to the voice of authority.

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    • Richard Frost says:

      Thanks MB for explaining your thoughts on the Minoan question. I think the gender issue is more pertinent pre-Linear B ( Crete seems to have been ruled subsequently by patriarchal Mycenaeans.) Bull-leaping images suggest both sexes took part, but men are depicted with red-brown skin and women with white. This might indicate an ‘Er Indoors’ division of labour, or possibly (as Bettany Hughes believes) the women in the frescoes are either high status (and perhaps suntan phobic) or goddesses. Until Linear A is deciphered, Minoan men and women are equally silent.

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  3. Mary,
    Fascinating survey of women, and very important to me. I am pleased to tell you that my new book “Farms, Factories and Families: Italian American Women of Connecticut” allows women to reconstruct their own history in their own words, through the oral tradition. The book begins with the Greeks of southern Italy in the 8th century BC and wends its way to the present. You can see it on my website

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  4. I can’t help but notice it is two men attempting to diminish the speech of a woman professor. The irony is amusing, and a little sad.

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  5. Actually, Xanthippe is an interesting example. Who knows how much she talked and about what? Where the expectation is that women are quiet and docile, wives who aren’t doormats are “shrews.”

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  6. rogerjsmith58@btinternet.com says:

    I would never ever dream of telling Mary Beard to shut up. She is a wonder.

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  7. How interesting although very sad. Thank you for this insight.

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  8. Marilyn Todd says:

    I’m not sure how this squares with the Oracles. Especially the one at Delphi.

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    • Oracles are not women’s voices, but divine voices through the medium of the oracle. (But perhaps such indirections were ways sometimes used to find a public voice?)

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    • absconn says:

      [Posted this before, but seems to have been eaten by gremlins.]

      Oracles are not the public voice of women, but the voice of the gods through the women’s bodies — if anything, this backs up Beard’s point, given that a woman’s body was a safe and unambivalent vehicle for divine voices, unlike a man’s. (But whether women used such means to inject their voice into the public sphere…?)

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      • Mary Beard says:

        Yes, I agree. Delphi is the classic example of the god speaking through the empty vessel of the woman.

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      • absconn says:

        But, like the nomothete, they’re not a player in the game. (At least, they are not perceived that way … hence my utter speculation about underground usage of this role.)

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  9. absconn says:

    1) Re: Telemachus. Not that this changes your point — perhaps it underlines it — but his story seems to me to be presented as a positive: he now is man enough to assert himself in the family, & hence man enough to take action. P. could defend the house, but no more.

    2) Later, the equation of public voice (e.g., ballot) linked to brute strength & violence (e.g., bullet) is made explicit Would you care to comment on this as a factor defining public speech: speaking in public as contest and combat?

    3) The Biblical witnesses show some interesting cases. In line with your analysis, Miriam, Moses’ sister (but Aaron’s at fault, too). But the stories of women speaking in 1-2 Samuel are interesting. Abigail needs to take extraordinary action, speaks brilliantly (the longest speech in the book) and is praised for it; Bathsheba is fascinatingly a cipher (maybe something is being left unsaid?); & so on. The Hebrew midwives, Ruth & Naomi, Esther, & Judith all know how to take action when needed, without direction or permission (& can speak as needed) — not public speech, but effective behavior. (I’m neither promoting or demoting the importance of public speech, but noting other modes of public influence.) (Obviously, see Phyllis Tribble’s work.)

    Thanks for an interesting post!

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    • mb127 says:

      Thanks very much for that. I love the ballot/bullet point. I hear people sometime saying (re academic seminars) “That was a really killer point”.. I always want to say “But I didnt think a seminar was a battlefield”. I need to think harder about some of those biblical example, eg Abigail. But as you say, sometimes women’s interventions are defined as NOT speaking,

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  10. George Pounder says:

    Is Theocritus Idyll 15 relevant here? Praxinoe tries to be feisty at least!

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  11. Fiona Hayes says:

    Check out the bible with reference to ‘a virtuous wife’ whilst she may not have spoken in the synagogue – it seems a jewish wife had plenty authority and respect. Not afraid to run husbands affairs and certainly not downtrodden!

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    • absconn says:

      “The bible” — i.e., a section of Proverbs. And, as MB would say, this is control in a private sphere, not a *public* voice. (& so Sarah at home.) Abigail’s story is interesting in this regard, since the two spheres are overlapping: she tells off David (but in an amazingly graceful way — by praising him for having made the decision she wants him to make!), but in the context of saving her household. Her speech is a wonder of practical rhetoric: no wonder David respects her so much.

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  12. Tom says:

    I’m not going to argue against the premise, but I do think that relegating Antigone to a half of a sentence does the discussion a disservice. Also, how does Cleopatra fit in? (People think of her as an Egyptian pharaoh, but she was Greek, of the Ptolemaic dynasty.) I assume we’re only discussing ancient Greek culture and not later individuals such as Hypatia, but those two examples bring up an interesting question / observation — namely, what of Greeks Abroad? In those two examples, we see Greek women in Egypt being vocal. (Leading to another observation, Greek women who speak up seem to die prematurely.)

    It’s been years since I read much Greek mythology, but weren’t the goddesses (e.g. Hera, Aphrodite, the Muses) fairly vocal? (Not that Aphrodite or Hera would necessarily be considered good examples of women speaking up, but the male deities weren’t terribly good examples either, see petty jealousies, etc.)

    Also, if you make the case for Roman gender bias, couldn’t that be what we’re seeing in the Greek records that survive as well? i.e. the works that survive have been filtered by the Roman / early Christian / Ottoman curators that selectively preserved Greek culture and weren’t particularly well known for gender equality.

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  13. Tom says:

    I’m not going to argue against the premise, but I do think that relegating Antigone to a half of a sentence does the discussion a disservice. (The exception giving insight to the rule, etc.) Also, how does Cleopatra fit in? (People think of her as an Egyptian pharaoh, but she was Greek, of the Ptolemaic dynasty.) I assume we’re only discussing ancient Greek culture and not later individuals such as Hypatia, but those two examples bring up an interesting question / observation — namely, what of Greeks Abroad? In those two examples, we see Greek women in Egypt being vocal. (Leading to another observation, Greek women who speak up seem to die prematurely.)

    It’s been years since I read much Greek mythology, but weren’t the goddesses (e.g. Hera, Aphrodite, the Muses) fairly vocal? (Not that Aphrodite or Hera would necessarily be considered good examples of women speaking up, but the male deities weren’t terribly good examples either, see petty jealousies, etc.)

    Also, if you make the case for Roman gender bias, couldn’t that be what we’re seeing in the Greek literature that survives as well? i.e. the works that survive have been filtered by the Roman / early Christian / Ottoman curators that selectively preserved Greek culture and weren’t particularly well known for gender equality.

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  14. absconn says:

    Many here are not hearing the specification of context: woman’s voice in the public arena (and I use that term on purpose). So, many forms of female speech are excluded, as in examples above, especially in the privacy of home. Of course, other voices were excluded too: slaves; poor; & youth at least. We have a bright spotlight on one part of the stage, but a theater-full of actors & crew all around it.

    This also raises a question I learned from John Boswell: why accept the privileging of this one arena? (Specifically, in our study of history — the contemporary political ramifications are another matter.) Which women were excluded (i.e., would have but couldn’t)?

    How else were their voices introduced into the masculine public arena? E.g., discussions at home in one way or another, as individual talents and relationships functioned (I can imagine a woman coaching or encouraging her husband, having an unrecorded effect on the arena).

    And, why is this arena the most interesting or important? It’s well-recorded, but so much of life went on elsewhere.

    All this calls for further pondering, sharpening the questions (are questions swords for combat?) and suggesting new ways of looking at data.

    But MB’s basic thesis — that women’s voices in the contemporary public sphere are still often unheard, even unhearable, and that the weight of history suggests this is a deep and hard problem — remains.

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  15. P Myers says:

    Women are not WRITTEN about as speaking, and are written about being silenced. The role of writing is worth considering.
    I started wondering a few years ago, why Sappho, then no women writers? A colleague suggested reading The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess (L. Shlain (1999, Penguin)). Shlain makes a case that there may have been an evolutionary, biological basis for men having been more adept at writing due to technological aspects of writing that corresponded with particular strengths in the use of the right hand and the eyes that had developed more in males than in females. Then writing itself was used to magnify male dominance at the expense of women, as culture after culture discovers writing and converts from goddess worship to a mythology of the sort of male domination described by Mary Beard above.
    With the evolution of the technology of communication (typing, computers) and the re-emergence of imagery as a dominant form of communication (photos, film as opposed to script), that IS changing. The “problem” of excluding women’s voices from public remains, but better days are ahead, a decommissioning of literacy as a weapon of gender based oppression. That is Shlain’s case in his speculative archeopsychological work “The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess” which I have found persuasive and useful as a teacher of classics. Anyone out there familiar with that work with a critical point of view?

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  16. LuckyLuigi says:

    Gorgo is a classic example of a female voice in ancient Greece.

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  17. Emil P says:

    Dear Professor Beard,

    Women did in fact have a recognized voice in public in Greece. That would of course be in Sparta. It is possible that you are mostly referring to references in ancient literature to women having a public voice. Even so, there is an example of that; Plato writing in “Protagoras” about Spartan women being encouraged to train in public speaking and being skilled in philosophical debate.

    I’d say something about classical scholars worshipping Athens, a society just as slave-owning as Sparta, but where women were treated as mindless property, while repeating Athenian propaganda when it came to Sparta (where bold independent women were admired) but I don’t think you’re one of those individuals. Seeing how so much surviving Greek literature is Athenian, it’s understandable that Sparta would get overlooked in your survey.

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    • Mary Beard says:

      Trouble about Sparta is that we only know about it from the outside, and part of that image (“the Spartan mirage”) is that it was a symbolic inversion of (largely ) Athenian values.. so women talk and exercise, children are removed from their families etc. Still no Spartan female political leaders

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  18. Kane says:

    I appreciate the discussion of the role of women and their silence but I’m always careful that the we not overdo our modern moral template & judgment on ancient cultures. And I think this goes far beyond “..the very long western history of the treatment of women”, a phrase that might seem to infer that women’s poor treatment is limited to western society.

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    • mb127 says:

      wasnt meant that way.. but I am not really qualified to talk about other areas (and I was trying not to make the conflation of “the west” = “the world’

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  19. Gabrielle Story says:

    I can’t agree with the statement “But nowhere in the ancient world did they ever have a recognised voice in public – “, remember the Vestal Virgins? Not only did they have a say, but they changed things as well, they were very powerful women in Ancient Rome. #TheFlametenders

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    • mb127 says:

      Indeed I remember the Vestal Virgins (wrote my first academic article about them). Important yes. A voice? no.

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  20. Amana Mission says:

    No less a luminary than Socrates credited females for his learning: Diotima of Mantinea, for example, to whom he attributed his views on Love; Asphasia of Miletus, who instructed him in rhetoric; and the aforementioned Pythian priestess of Delphi, who inspired the Socratic method. The premise of classical minimization of the feminine, while certainly valid enough, conveniently neglects such counterexamples, which indicate that this marginalization was hardly universal, and that female intellectuals had a marked influence, albeit on a small segment of clever men with open ears.

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    • mb127 says:

      Diotima is a tricky one. In many ways she falls into the inspired prophetess class…(Socrates not always known for his respect of women: see Xanthippe)

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