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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Glazed brick panel showing a roaring lion from the Throne Room of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 BC. From Babylon, southern Iraq. On loan from Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.
Share your photos using #mybritishmuseum and tagging @britishmuseum.
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Book now for #SicilyExhibition, opening 21 April 2016 at britishmuseum.org/sicily 
Mosaic of the Madonna originally from Palermo Cathedral. Sicily, AD 1130–1189. © Museo Diocesano di Palermo.
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