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Sappho and Her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece

Author(s): Marilyn A. Katz


Source: Signs, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Winter, 2000), pp. 505-531
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3175564
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Marilyn A. Katz

Review Essay

Sappho and Her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece

A 1976 review essay on "Classics" in Signs encompassed ancient Greece,


the Hellenistic period, and ancient Rome (Arthur 1976). In that re-
view it was possible to survey the entire field of recent scholarship on
women in all of classical antiquity by focusing on one book, one special
issue of the journalArethusa, and a handful of articles.' The eighteen works
under review in this essay, by contrast, represent just a selection of just the
books published in just three years on (principally) just women in ancient
Greece. Another ten or twelve recent books could easily be added to the list
of those reviewed here, since scholarship relevant to the study of women
in ancient Greece now includes discussions of gender, the body, sexuality,
masculinity, and other topics.2
This burgeoning of interest and this plethora of new scholarship are
remarkable- especially considering the character and history of Classics as
a discipline. Classics encompasses the study of the languages, literatures,
histories, societies, and cultures of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The
enterprise is associated generally with traditionalism and conservative val-
ues - and this is not without reason, for Greek and Latin formed the core
of the oldest curricula in the college and university systems, and classical
texts constitute the heart of the canon of Western literature that has been
the subject of so much recent debate.3

Thanks to Jay Katz, David Konstan, and Ann Louise Shapiro for helpful suggestions
and comments.

The book was Sarah Pomeroy's Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (1975). The journal
wasArethusa, vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring 1973). For a lively review of trends in classical scholarship
with reference toArethusa, see Konstan, in press.
2 Most of these are mentioned in the final section below; some are referenced in notes to
other sections of this essay.
3 There are many specialized studies of both the classical tradition and the history of the
university, but Lawrence Levine's The Opening of theAmerican Mind (1996) is a recent and
accessible discussion of the checkered history of the canon and the place of the classical curric-
ulum within it. As its title indicates, Levine's book was conceived as a rejoinder to Allan

[Signs:Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2000, vol. 25, no. 2]


? 2000 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2000/2502-0009$02.00

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506 I Katz

This debate is not a new one, of course: curricula


form have often targeted the role of Greek and Lati
table, given the position of prestige assigned to classica
ern tradition. In 1827, for example, a committee o
charged to investigate whether the requirement
should be abolished. The resulting 1828 Yale Repo
strong answer in the negative and affirmed that clas
necessary branch of education in the present state of
does "classical discipline [constitute] the best preparat
study," the report claimed, but, more specifically:
Greek and Roman writers is especially adapted to f
discipline the mind, both in thought and diction, to
elevated, chaste, and simple" (329).5
Beyond this, the study of classical literature, with
tism, freedom, and right government, was particular
young men of Jacksonian America. Without Classics,
"the general standard of intellectual and moral worth
and our civil and religious liberty jeoparded, by ul
our citizens for the exercise of the right and privile
(346). Thus, classical learning was an essential com
of a gentleman, and the study of ancient Greek a
early days implicated in the moral and social gro
(white) men of America for their roles as the country
ical elite. (It is worth remembering that the Yale Rep
on the relationship among Classics, citizenship, an
more than a decade before slavery was definitively a
cut and almost fifty years before the first black stu
Yale College.)6
Classics was professionalized as a discipline in thi
nineteenth century on the German university model o
of antiquity" (Altertumswissenschaft). Its focus was
of culture through texts, and the flagship journal of

Bloom's conservative appeal for a return to traditionalism in edu


AmericanMind (1987).
4 The so-called Yale Report comprised both a longer "Report o
committee had solicited, and a shorter "Report of the Committe
5American Journal of Science andArts 1829, 330. The "profess
three: theology, law, and medicine. On the professionalization of
6 Slavery was outlawed completely in Connecticut in 1840; E
from Yale in 1874.

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SI G N S Winter 2000 I 507

the American Journal of Philology (AJP), founded in


ersleeve at Johns Hopkins University. With the establi
as a field, the means were at hand for achieving the tr
schoolboys of Yale and other colleges into "the old boys
that they call philology, their philology" (Nagy 1990, 4
a discipline devoted not just to studying the past but t
whatever form that past was construed by the nostalgia
By 1987 the past was a hypothesized golden age of
fracted facts" before the disruptions of theory and
before structuralism, and, especially, before feminis
that had appeared on the scene as "the latest enemy of t
texts."7 A programmatic editorial statement in AJP th
that the journal's emphasis was "still on rigorous sch
that special attention would be paid to research on "lin
papyrology, [and] textual criticism."8 Even without ph
was not difficult for readers to understand that the ed
was calling for a return to a traditional, positivist rese
that it was pledging its allegiance to the "objectivist cr
A response followed swiftly, in the form of a public
the 1987 annual meeting of the American Philologic
by the Women's Classical Caucus and in a 1989 volu
"the crisis in Classics" generally.10 Editorship ofAJP w
tally to the University of North Carolina from the Cla
Johns Hopkins University (although the original affilia
and the department itself was moribund and in disarra
Today the reconstituted department at Johns Hop
woman, Giulia Sissa, whose areas of specialization inc
history of sexuality. " The department's main orientati
focus on language, is toward anthropology on the one h
with contemporary issues on the other hand.12 And tod

7 To borrow from the title of John J. Peradotto's "Texts and Unref


Hermeneutics, and Semiotics" (1989); Bloom 1987, 65. For the lat
nism and other alleged assassins of classical learning, see Hanson an
8American Journal ofPhilology (1987) 108(3), vii.
9 See Novick 1988. On positivism and idealism in nineteenth-ce
ship, see Blok 1987. On the early nineteenth-century struggle bet
narrowly text-based approach to classical studies, see Selden 1990.
10 Culham and Edmunds 1989. For a recent assessment of the per
rosch 1995.

1 Sissa is the author of Greek Virginity (1990).


12 See its website: http://www.jhu.edu/ admis/catalog/artsci/classics/classintro.html.

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508 I Katz

of AJP acknowledges that "in recent years, AJP ha


wider variety of contemporary approaches than wa
The mini-saga ofAJP and the Classics department
the last decade is symptomatic of recent changes in
a whole. Philology retains an important place, and i
as Ferdinand de Saussure once defined it: "to establi
ment upon texts ... [to] make use of its own me
criticism" (1922, 13).14 But the center of creative f
for example, when war and politics come up for
just as likely to be "The Ideology of the Athenian W
Artillery in Fourth-Century Towers," just as likely
and Politics in Classical Athens" as "The Number of Athenian Citizens in
the Fifth Century."

Classics, classicism, and classicists


Feminists had a great deal to do with this shift of focus, especially, insofar
as the incorporation of women's studies into Classics functioned as the
Panathenaic way by which a variety of new approaches - which had been
milling around in the agora of ideas for some time- finally reached the
acropolis of respectability.15 Barbara McManus offers a lively account of
the impact of feminism and feminists on the discipline and profession of
Classics in her book Classics and Feminism (1997). Her discussion encom-
passes both the practices and the practitioners of classical scholarship, and
one chapter includes a practicum - a fine discussion of feminism and Vir-
gil's Aeneid.
In her chapters on Classics as a discipline McManus reviews early stud-
ies of ancient Greek and Roman women, outlines the new approaches in-
augurated by the scholarship of the early 1970s, and then surveys work in
the field since 1968. She demonstrates that the nature and focus of classical
scholarship have been affected significantly by feminism and feminist per-

13 This statement no longer appears on the journal's Web site but was posted there as
recently as May 1998; cf. the similar, updated statement on the current (August 1999) Web
site: http://control.press.jhu.edu/press/journals/titles/ajp.html.
14 The phrases cited are Watkins's translation (1990, 21).
15 For example, before the early 1970s not much notice had been taken in the Anglophone
world of a group of French scholars (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Marcel
Detienne), whose structuralist and sociological interpretations of Greek literature, culture,
and history exercised a decisive influence on feminist classicists in the 1970s. Since then,
their major works have been translated into English, and Detienne is now Basil Gildersleeve
Professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins.

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S I G N S Winter 2000 I 509

spectives and concludes with a useful outline of current sch


the recent emphasis on gender, ideology, and sexuality.
McManus explores women's relationship to Classics in
women as classicists, showing how women's education in
and early twentieth century marginalized Classics and how
tion marginalized women. Women's erasure from Classic
plex than their simple exclusion: the network of (private) w
meant that American women in the nineteenth century ha
for study that were closed to their European counterparts
period, and Frances Jackson Coppin, a former slave, bec
Latin and Greek after graduating from Oberlin, the first c
stitution in America.'6 Some (white) women went on to ent
sion of Classics, and from its earliest days women were
APA, founded in 1869. McManus shows also how women
rated into the profession as "honorary men," consigned to
en's colleges and discounted as scholars. She touches on t
women's simultaneous participation in and exclusion fro
group," a topic that still awaits discussion within a framew
account of the elitism of Classics as a site at which race, clas
intersect with gender to construct parables and practices o
The history of women as Classicists is a fascinating story
tells it with skill and verve, bringing the account up to th
the early 1990s in the APA over electoral politics and sex
In Gendering Classicism, Ruth Hoberman reveals a differen
relationship between women and Classics (1997). She disc
women writers who were drawn to Classics by its cultu
she offers access to some intriguing and original early twe
reconstructions of classical antiquity by women.18 All of the
ical fiction set in the patriarchal world of antiquity, and H
that in their novels these women appropriated the paternal
classical antiquity and adapted modernist techniques of
sciousness to the project of destabilizing a masculinist v
Greece and Rome.

Hoberman's book adds an important dimension to the study of the

16 From the time of its foundation in 1833 Oberlin had admitted women; its doors were
opened to "people of color" in 1835, and by 1837 women were allowed to matriculate for
the regular college course (rather than the curriculum of education in the domestic arts). On
Coppin, see Haley 1993.
17 See Homans 1986.

18 Hoberman discusses novels by Naomi Mitchison, Mary Butts, Laura Riding, Mary
Renault, Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), and Phyllis Bentley.

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510 I Katz

classical tradition, a branch of the history of ideas t


ration of the classical heritage by successive genera
and other intellectuals. Some of the novels she d
torn between the project of self-authorization on
recuperation of an all-too-familiar archetype of wo
sence on the other hand. And while Hoberman is sensitive to this "tension

between reinscription and resistance" (179), she does not always distin-
guish clearly between emancipatory and reactionary strains in these women
writers' reinventions of antiquity or attempt systematically to isolate the
specifically feminist dimensions of their constructions of the feminine.
Studies of the classical tradition and of the history of classical scholar-
ship are areas with long traditions of research from which both women
and considerations of gender conventionally have been absent. McManus's
and Hoberman's books are important interruptions of these established
dialogues of antiquity with modernity that call into question their masculi-
nist biases and reveal the "blind spots" in their self-definition as enterprises.
But much remains to be done before we have an account of Hellenism that

situates its obsession with antiquity in an authoritative sociopolitical and


gender-specific context or a comprehensive study of classical scholarship
that eschews celebratory and commemorative rhetoric in favor of a sus-
tained critical analysis of the development of the discipline.19
Compromising Traditions, edited by Judith P. Hallett and Thomas Van
Nortwick, constitutes a very different kind of intervention into ongoing
critical discourse. It is subtitled The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship,
and its nine contributing authors present a variety of autobiographical ac-
counts of their experiences as classical scholars and personalized interpreta-
tions of classical works.20

The collection was assembled from contributions to panels on "personal


voice criticism" presented at national meetings of American and British
classical associations; it is conceived as a practicum in a type of criticism
that eschews the traditional scholarly stance of objectivity and detachment
and incorporates "the critic's own story" into the analysis of classical litera-
ture. This is tricky terrain: the move to authenticate subjectivity may end
up (also or instead) authorizing various forms of self-indulgence. Not all
essays avoid this pitfall, although several include meditations on the practi-

19 For two otherwise excellent recent studies of Hellenism, see Dowling 1994 and
Marchand 1996. A special double issue of the journal Classical World, vol. 90 nos. 2-3
(1996), celebrates the life and work of six North American women classicists of the late
nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

20 There are opening and closing essays by Thomas Van Nortwick and contributions by
Susanna Morton Braund, Vanda Zajko, Charles A. Martindale, Patricia Moyer, Judith P. Hal-
lett, Charles Rowan Beye, and Susan Ford Wiltshire.

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S I G N S Winter 2000 I 511

cal and theoretical implications of these self-conscious


positioning within the critical enterprise. There is less ex
with the idea that the confessional "I" is not itself an un
of truth that transcends social and ideological constraint
inevitably implicated in the very categories it seeks to res
lection as a whole is an engaging and stimulating set of e
tives, and it succeeds in opening up an oppositional d
which many readers- not only classicists, and not on
find identifying points for self-reflections of their own.

The "women" of ancient Greece

"Women," as Denise Riley showed in a now classic text of feminist th


"is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differe
positioned" (1988, 2), and "being a woman," likewise, "is a state
fluctuates for the individual, considering what she and/or others con
to characterise it" (6). Against a variety of reifications of the categor
the female Riley raised the paradoxical possibility that there were no
"women" and, if there were, there was no possible history of the
Perrot 1984).
Classical scholars have a particular stake in these theoretical disp
committed as they are to a discipline in which the women of an
Greece and Rome have an all-too-long history constructed around
ing and repetitive hypothesized collectivity. From that perspective, the
(Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves) as well as the content of Sarah
eroy's 1975 work announced a rupture with customary practice. Since
the conglomerate of scholarship on women in antiquity has largely br
down into smaller corporations investigating sexuality, the famil
other topics. But there are periodic efforts at synthesis, too, such as
Blundell's Women in Ancient Greece (1995) or the multiply-author
ford University Press volume on Women in the Classical World (
which covers both Greece and Rome.22 Such works inevitably run the
of homogenizing the women of antiquity into new forms of collectiv
and the two volumes adopt different strategies for endowing their d
sions with specificity and texture.23

21 See, e.g., Felski 1989, esp. chap. 3, "On Confession."


22 The authorial collective comprised Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie
Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H. Alan Shapiro.
23 Other comprehensive overviews include Cantarella 1987; Just 1989; Keuls 19
Demand 1994. Among recent edited collections of essays, see esp. those in Reed
which is also a stunningly illustrated exhibition catalog; Hawley and Levick 1995; Ra
itz and Richlin 1993; and Pantel 1992. For brief surveys, see Katz 1998a and 1998b

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512 I Katz

The Oxford volume is subtitled Image and Tex


throughout incorporates visual representations as
merely as illustrations, of textual material. The sect
chapter "Women in Archaic Greece," for example, t
of Sappho and the "maiden songs" of Alcman togeth
of choruses of dancing maidens and archaic statues
organization of Blundell's book is more conventional
first two-thirds of Pomeroy's 1975 volume. Separate
ics such as "Women in the Poems of Homer" or
Drama"; illustrations are grouped together into t
and discussed largely in two brief thematic chapter
Blundell's volume is a valuable compendium of i
sufficiently inclusive to serve as a comprehensive in
subject. Her chapter on "Women in Athenian Law
ample, encompasses legal status, dowry, inheritan
dings, concubines, adultery, divorce, and politica
topics are treated in the Oxford volume, too, but m
topics like marriage, for example, are not gathered
but tend, instead, to emerge sporadically from disc
variety of visual and textual primary sources.
Other differences beyond those of organization, s
these two books as quite distinct. The informing int
Blundell's book is that "almost everything we kn
is derived ultimately from a masculine source," a
women of Ancient Greece are to a large extent c
invented by men" (10). This perspective dominate
the evidence, and the overall picture of women that
ably gloomy one. The Oxford volume, by contrast,
struct social life generally in the ancient world and
tualize women's lives and roles within it. The ancient Greek women of

this book seem better integrated into their society and emerge as active
participants in the sociocultural life of the ancient polis (city-state), for all
of the acknowledged (few) legal restrictions and (many) social constraints
to which they were subject.
Both books devote separate chapters to the subjects of Amazons, Spar-
tan women, and women in medical writings, and on these topics and oth-
ers they can profitably be read in conjunction. The discussion of Amazons
in the Oxford volume, for example, shows how the representation of the
legendary defeat of this band of women warriors was adapted to the needs
of different ideological agendas. Blundell's account of Amazons is some-
what fuller on the details reported by ancient authors, but she eschews

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S I G N S Winter 2000 I 513

judgment on the meaning of the myths. She recognizes that


story seems to have been important to the Athenians" but ex
"Whatever the reason for this, we can be sure that it had
with heartwarming messages about the empowerment of
Here and elsewhere Blundell's interpretations lack subtlety, e
refreshing bluntness also has a certain appeal.
Both of these books are important contributions to a g
standing of women in ancient Greece, and both are valuab
to and correctives of contemporary discussions of ancient
zation that, while including women, ordinarily consign th
chapter. These volumes fill out our picture of ancient Greek
through their differences in organization and interpretive a
also make it clear that the evidence can be made to yield v
reconstructions of the past. Overall, Blundell includes mor
and more detail (with the exception of the treatment of
Hellenistic period [323-30 B.C.E.], where the chapter in th
ume is fuller, more detailed, and more nuanced). In addit
more conventional organization of the material makes it easi
general sense of the evidence, issues, and problems of interpre
ing women in ancient Greece. But the Oxford volume is m
in approach, more challenging in its interpretations, and mo
with recent trends in scholarship that aim at understandi
women within a larger sociocultural context and at specifyin
function of the category of the female within a given societ
constructs.

The views of Plato and Aristotle appear regularly in discu


women in ancient Greece, with those of Plato often examined for
of protofeminism, and Aristotle's usually condemned as straightf
misogynistic. The corpus of surviving works by each of these writ
ever, is large, complex, and varied. Thus, comprehensive femi
pretations of Plato and Aristotle in recent years have been perfo
political theorists, by classicists specializing in the history of anc
cine, and by classicists with specialized training in philosophy.24
andAncient Philosophy (1996), edited by Julie Ward, is a recent a
this substantial literature, although not as new as it might ap
about half of the articles are reprinted. The volume includes
each on Plato and Aristotle, and conflicting interpretations show

24 For interpretations of Plato and Aristotle, see Okin 1979; and Saxonhou
1992. On ancient medicine see Dean-Jones 1994 and many articles by Ann Ellis
classicists in philosophy, see Bluestone 1987; Bar On 1994; Tuana 1994; and F

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514 I Katz

writings of these philosophers remain contested


nist theory.25 There is one essay on women in S
of six essays that examine ways in which asp
(principally, ideas in Aristotle) can contribute to
theorizing on women and moral philosophy.26 O
collection are not as original or provocative as t
Bar On (1994). But Ward's volume and others
strategies of interpretation are useful in reinvig
of classical antiquity and in identifying within
(Bar On 1994, xv) to hegemonic constructions
cient Greek patriarchy.

Goddess and heroine

The ancient Athenian city-state is often described as a "men's club" on


grounds that women played no significant role in public life; women
in fact, excluded from participation in those institutions of
government that loom so large in recent studies of "democracy ancien
modern" (e.g., Ober and Hedrick 1996). But the polis is perhaps b
described comprehensively as "a sacrificial community" (Burkert
256), since ritual and religion were central to all forms of both priva
communal life in ancient Athens and all activities in the political, mil
and judicial domains were conducted under the auspices of the g
Women were central to this central aspect of polis life, a fact that is
obscured by descriptions of the ancient city-state that instantiate a d
distortion by marginalizing religion into a subsidiary aspect of comm
life and then acknowledging women's participation in it as an excepti

25 Julia Annas, in "Plato's Republic and Feminism" (originally published 1976), argu
the equality of sexes proposed in Republic V is utilitarian and unconcerned with wo
status; Susan B. Levin, in "Women's Nature and Role in the Ideal Polis: Republic V Rev
contests Annas and suggests that, insofar as Plato's proposal is elaborated with refere
the soul, it has significant feminist implications. Daryl McGowan Tress, in "The Meta
Science of Aristotle's Generation of Animals and Its Feminist Critics" (originally pu
1992), argues that male and female are both causally effective in Aristotle's theory of ge
tion; Kathleen C. Cook, in "Sexual Inequality in Aristotle's Theories of Reproduct
Inheritance," maintains that their contributions are unequal.
26 Elizabeth Asmis, in "The Stoics on Women," discusses a range of sources fr
fourth century B.C.E. through the second century C.E. and argues that the Stoics in
women among the "community of the wise." The section on ancient philosophy's co
tion to contemporary theory includes essays by Deborah Achtenberg, Marcia Homiak
cia Curd, Julie K. Ward, Anne-Marie Bowery, and Martha Nussbaum.

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S I G N S Winter 2000 I 515

the general rule of their exclusion from the public


women and the female in the religion and ritual practi
thus contribute not only to an expansion of our knowl
damental aspect of polis life but also to a reevaluati
generally in the ancient city-state.
The Panathenaia celebrated the birthday of Athena, t
of the Athenian polis, in the first month of the ritual y
of about 150 festivals of the gods scattered throughout
but it was the most important and elaborate of the
observances. Its focus was the presentation to the go
(peplos), which Athenian women wove and offered to h
city. The girls and women of Athens also undertook th
ing of the goddess's cult statue and participated in dan
other celebratory aspects of the festival.
These and other topics on the Panathenaia and the
cussed in detail in Jenifer Neils's excellent Worshippin
volume comprises a selection of papers (along with two
tions) presented in connection with the exhibit "Go
Panathenaic Festival in Athens," whose catalog of the s
able supplement and complement to the conferenc
exhaustive discussion by E. J. W. Barber in Goddess and
weaving of Athena's peplos; Mary Lefkowitz in Worship
teresting and informative on women's roles in the Pan
festivals; there is a provocative new reconstruction of
festivals by Noel Robertson; and other contributors
the athletic contests of the festival and its sociopol
particular interest are two defenses, by Neils and Evely
traditional explanation of the Parthenon's east friez
represent the procession of Athenian maidens prese
Athena. Joan Connelly (1996), in a controversial inte
posed that it depicts instead the daughters ofErechtheu
sisters who sacrificed themselves to secure the city's safe
but scholarly opinion on the question of mortals ve
mains divided.

These heroines and others are the subject of two recent studies that take

27 Compare Sourvinou-Inwood's claim: "An articulation such as 'women were excluded


from public life in Classical Athens except for the religious sphere' is already not neutral: it is
weighted by culturally determined assumptions and implicitly places this religious role in a
position of marginality" (1995, 115).
28 For a more detailed overview of women's roles in ritual and cult, see Zaidman 1992.

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516 I Katz

up the much-discussed topic of hero and hero cul


and add to it the dimensions of gender and the f
restricting her study in Greek Heroine Cults to fe
ship, identifies about 175 heroines; Deborah Lyon
tality, by including the female figures of myth
is attested, is able to catalog around 575 heroin
figures are barely more than names; some, like
and Penelope, are familiar from Greek literature;
the daughters of the Athenian hero Leos, are reco
ancient testimonia in both well-known and relati
Heroines were worshipped most commonly i
heroic husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons with
ated, and Larson argues that this pattern replicat
acteristic of ancient social life. But there were also what Larson calls inde-

pendent heroines, usually virgins who sacrificed themselves (or were


sacrificed) on behalf of the community. Some of these were invoked as
examples of civic virtue and as exemplars for young men setting out on
military missions. Larson's study, which is largely descriptive, provides a
valuable overall picture of the wide range of female figures who were hero-
ized by the ancient Greeks and the wide variety of contexts (both civic and
private) in which they were worshipped.
Lyons is more interested in exploring how gender figures in the well-
known pattern of mythic antagonism between god and hero and cultic
symbiosis and in how gender affects the relationship of mortals to immor-
tals. Heroines, she finds, are subject to metamorphosis more than heroes,
and while heroes occupy an intermediate position between mortals and
gods, heroines more readily take on a mediating or intercessory role. Ly-
ons's analyses are more complex than Larson's, but her interpretations are
correspondingly more speculative. Taken together, these studies establish
that myths and ritual worship of heroines were widespread throughout
ancient Greece and that heroines occupied a central place in the religious
life of the polis and its many constituent groups (see also Kearns 1998).

Familiarities

The single most salient factoid about women in ancient Greece over th
course of the two hundred years or so of popular and scholarly discussion
of their status has been their alleged confinement to what used to be calle
"oriental seclusion." Nowadays the implied ethnocentric analogy with the
harems of the Ottoman Empire has been discarded, along with anachronis-
tic comparisons between ancient and modern notions of public and private

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S I G N S Winter 2000 I 517

spheres.29 Contemporary scholars acknowledge that, in anci


in other premodern societies, the household and family w
pects of women's social lives. But a meaningful understandin
tually universal institutions requires particularization wi
priate historical and sociocultural context. Two recent books
task for ancient Greece, and a third book, by Cynthia Patte
in summer 1998.

Sarah Pomeroy's Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece presents new


studies on a variety of topics from heredity to death ritual, naming prac-
tices, epitaphs, and the family archives of Ptolemaic Egypt; one chapter
("Defining the Family") compares family structure in Athens and Sparta.
Cheryl Ann Cox's Household Interests treats the Athenian family squabbles
that figure so largely in fourth century B.C.E. orations and shows how a
pattern of family dynamics and marriage structures can be derived from
these disputes over property and inheritance.
Pomeroy's study adopts a diachronic approach and argues, along with
other recent work, that "family and kin groupings were fundamental to
the political structure of the Greeks" (75) until the Hellenistic period.30
Citizenship in the classical polis, that is, derived from family membership
and was heritable. Kin groupings in Athens and other city-states of the
classical period took three principal forms: the smallest and most intimate
family, the oikos, or household proper; the extended family, or anchisteia
(close relatives), oriented toward the public sphere, comprised of men,
women, and children related by birth, marriage, or adoption, and usually
focused, at any one point in time, on three generations; and a fictive broth-
erhood (phratry) or pseudokinship group, including only men, that func-
tioned as both a religious and political unit. Men predominated in all three
forms, Pomeroy argues, and some recent scholarship agrees that patriarchal
dominance was particularly marked in the oikos; other scholars, however,
attach more importance than Pomeroy does to the role of females in the
anchisteia.

Pomeroy includes intriguing and novel discussions of families noted for


athletic excellence and of families of physicians, musicians, actors, priest-
esses and priests, and artists and sculptors. Of particular interest is her fasci-
nating treatment of funerary foundations in the Hellenistic period, estab-
lished by the wealthy "to institutionalize offerings to [themselves and]
dead members of their family" (108). One was set up by a woman ofThera

29 For recent studies of the public/private debate in sociology, political theory, and femi-
nism, see Weintraub and Kumar 1997; and Landes 1998.
30 See Patterson 1994.

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518 I Katz

in the late third century B.C.E. to honor the Muses,


ceased sons, and herself, and included a wide variety
and apparently unrelated individuals. The example o
shows that opportunities for some women to acquir
in the Hellenistic period, although it is notable also
nated and that the original beneficiaries of her fou
In her study, Pomeroy draws principally on evide
inscriptions, and (for Hellenistic Egypt) papyri. The
in Ptolemaic Egypt is interesting and informativ
mented with Pomeroy's own more exhaustive Wome
(see also Montserrat 1996). Much of the analysis
mography, a tool that for Greek antiquity must nece
instrument, given the paucity of data; the discussio
omits reference to recent disputes on the topic. But
overall substantiates the important claim that the t
dichotomy does not accurately describe ancient Gre
and that it is more appropriately characterized as "p
and domestic/private" (18-19).
Cox's Household Interests is an exhaustive and deta
texts commonly relied on to substantiate Aristotle's
as a small, closed holding corporation consisting o
children, slaves, and property. Ideally and as the
have it, household property was dispersed to son
the dowry constituting a daughter's share. In the ab
daughter inherited the estate but was married with
to his brother or to a cousin on her father's side. In the absence of heirs
(or husbands for an heiress) in the patriline, inheritance devolved on male
members of the matriline.

This legal system is well known and figures prominently in most discus-
sions of marriage and inheritance among the ancient Greeks. In actual prac-
tice, however, as Cox's innovative study makes clear, things were often
quite different. The oikos was a structure with fluid boundaries, which were
reconfigured often through the institutions of guardianship, adoption, and
remarriage and permeated frequently by the influence of a variety of out-
siders: friends (both local and foreign), neighbors, lovers (both male and
female), and slaves.
Cox's study of marriage patterns shows that neighbors were often se-
lected as affines (in-laws) and that the agnatic (patrilineal) bias in inheri-
tance law was not only manifested through endogamy (in-marriage) but
also commonly reinforced through the use of endogamy in the next gener-
ation, following the exogamous marriage of a female or the adoption out

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S I G N S Winter 2000 I 519

of a male. From this perspective women in particular may


more than pawns" (67). But the agnatic bias often led to
male heirs, and the result was to promote "the role of the w
a man's sister, but sometimes his widowed mother] in the pr
the ... estate" (129). Thus, in contrast to studies that emp
legal inferiority, Cox shows how women "gained power at th
through their role in inheritance processes and marriage pra
In one intriguing and original chapter, Cox discusses the inf
oikos exercised by nonkinsmen- courtesans, concubines, s
neighbors, and foreigners--who often resided within it a
times even took over its management. Throughout her book
rates illuminating comparisons with social practices and
other cultures of the Mediterranean and early modern Europ
These two books are important new reconfigurations o
standing of the family and household in ancient Greece, e
can be said to supersede W. K. Lacey's classic The Family in C
(1968). Of the two, Pomeroy's book is briefer, more descript
accessible to the general reader; Cox's is more detailed and an
directed more toward the specialist, but she also includes a n
ful summaries and statements of conclusions. And one chapt
an Oikos?" summarizes recent research and adds a wealth of new informa-
tion and analysis to demonstrate that "the oikos was . . . not a static unit
and sometimes was not [even] a stable one" (166). For Pomeroy, too, "the
family is a dynamic entity that reconfigures itself over time" (23), and, like
Cox, Pomeroy draws attention to the effect and power of a man's connec-
tions to his maternal line (159). Overall, however, Pomeroy emphasizes
strongly the patriarchal character of the ancient Greek family: "the history
of the Greek family," as she says, "must be largely the history of an institu-
tion dominated by men" (16). Cox's study does not contradict this view,
but it shows that women, neighbors, friends, slaves, and other "outsiders"
were also major players in the ancient Greek game of family politics.

The "woman" of ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks canonized nine "earthly Muses," and for them, as
us, Sappho's star was the brightest in this galaxy of woman poets.31 L
other archaic poets of ancient Greece, Sappho survives mostly in
ments - there are one or two complete poems, a dozen or so longer pi
and some two hundred scraps, one-liners, or, sometimes, just single w

31 For recent discussions of the others, see Synder 1989; and Gutzwiller 1998.

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520 I Katz

Interpretation of Sappho's poetry thus necessarily in


reading between and around the lines and inevita
reconstruction of poetic context, sociocultural situat
detail. As the principal female voice to survive from
pho is pressed into service to speak for all women, a
cient, modern, and contemporary commentary on S
into a study of critical stereotypes of the ancient G
"I" seems always to precipitate our own: there is
work that does not, willy-nilly, fall into the catego
criticism.?

Two collections of critical writings by Ellen Green


California Press series Classics and Contemporary Th
the most interesting new perspectives on Sappho
last thirty years and a decade or so of scholarship o
(Nachleben)- studies of how Sappho has been con
ured by successive generations of European and Ame
and scholars. No fewer than four new full-length tr
ety of feminist perspectives to offer a stimulating a
pretations of the writings of Greek antiquity's leadi
Reading Sappho presents a broad spectrum of new
Sappho. Some essays reassess the biographical an
(Mary Lefkowitz, Gregory Nagy); others discard the
as artless and spontaneous and analyze her soph
of language and literary convention (Giuliana Lan
duBois, Jack Winkler). Some writers address the per
social function of Sappho's poems, arguing that t
public, largely choral performance (Andre Lardinois
nucleus of a woman's culture (Marilyn Skinner), or t
in Sappho's circle served either to initiate them i
female sexuality (Claude Calame, Judith Hallett) or t
native, lesbian and female-centered experience of lo
group of essays discusses the specific character of S
Stehle, Margaret Williamson, and Ellen Greene emph
around intersubjectivity, mutual desire, and recipro
focus on dominance and submission in representa
sire; Anne Carson sees continuities between Sapph
tice and the poetic tradition generally.
Sappho's Sweetbitter Songs takes up and expand
themes, and Lyn Wilson's concluding chapter on
created by Sappho's poems is a very effective formu

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S I G N S Winter 2000 1 521

sees Sappho's world as female-centered by contrast with t


of"hierarchical, agonistic relations" (188). Most of the disc
ative, but Wilson also "hears" the cadences of Sappho
other archaic poems with a practicing poet's ear, and this
sensitive and unusual insights about words, images, and p
The performance contexts and social functions of an
elaborated more fully in Stehle's Performance and Gender
subtly argued, and complex study that combines discussio
mony with detailed analysis of texts to show how male an
are constructed in three principal settings: "community p
choral song), bardic recitations, and symposium songs.
men, through a variety of gender-specific strategies, enact
and establish their voices as authoritative in both publi
tings. The female choral voice, by contrast, is consistentl
women in choral song speak as "subjects [without] control
ies" (107) and "stage their own subordinate status in
(113). Only through writing do women gain access to a
representation: in dedicatory inscriptions and in Sappho's
etry is detached from performance, and the textual "I
sumes autonomy and immediacy. Sappho's love poems w
presentation to other women, Stehle argues, and the poet
the recipient a form of imaginative reconstruction that re
cancelled absence and loss.

Stehle's thesis is challenging: few scholars will be able to read the perfor-
mance poetry of ancient Greece again without considering the function of
gender. But not everyone will agree with her views on the construction of
female identity: the fragmentary texts on which the analysis depends are
open to other interpretations, and the contexts Stehle reconstructs can be
envisioned quite differently. Professions of virginal modesty in Alcman's
maiden songs, for example, do not necessarily undercut but may, instead,
enhance sexual self-display. And while Stehle rightly discards the notion
of Sappho as schoolmistress, priestess, or cult-leader, the singularity of
Sappho's poetic voice is not necessarily best explained by hypothesizing a
scenario of epistolary exchange for which there is little ancient evidence.32
The "love-letter" theory, in any case, seems largely irrelevant to Stehle's
original and subtle discussion of the poems themselves, in which she ana-

32 See Parker's discussion, "Sappho Schoolmistress," in Rereading Sappho (Greene 1996b).


Jesper Svenbro (1993) claims that Sappho's poems were written (perhaps by her), and, like
Stehle, compares Sappho's voice to that of inscriptional speech-act markers.

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522 I Katz

lyzes their communicative strategies and shows co


subject postions within them conscript the audien
logue with the poet.
Jane Snyder's Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sapp
ent aspect of Sappho's erotics, discussing the cons
around the qualities of grace (charis), lushness (
(poikilia) and bringing alive, in the analysis of the
and specificity of their sexual passion. Snyder's
discussions of Sappho's relationship with the godd
revision of Homeric themes, and a wide range of
final chapter offers an interesting account of Sap
modern American lesbian poets: Amy Lowell,
Olga Broumas.
Snyder's book is a masterful and comprehensive
phic corpus. Informed throughout by scholarly ex
ward translations and lucid explanations of termi
mission also make the poems accessible to the non
trenchant, concise, and funny on scholarly homo
approach is "woman-centered," and Snyder's focus
in readings that seem uniquely attuned to the lan
poems themselves. Eschewing direct engagemen
social context and the culturally overcharged "did
tion,33 Snyder concentrates exclusively on analys
guage and content.
The title of Margaret Williamson's book Sapph
(1995) derives from the description in a Hellenist
songs, to which the book's final chapter is given o
and illuminating analyses, Williamson discusses po
ates eight of the longer poems and fragments in
and cultural context. In her view, Sappho was an
composed poetry within the politically charged
in an era when "the cultivation of beauty in w
martial prowess in men" (85). Sappho's celebrat
among both girls and women reflects a cultur
women's social identity was eroticized and enac
tional, religious, and political settings and in w
to forge sociopolitical links among powerful fami
would cast women as mere pawns of patrician p
argues that Sappho's poetry and its celebration of

33 For Synder's views and speculations on these and other

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S I G N S Winter 2000 1 523

to women's "active negotiation with social norms" in a w


"love really [was] on a par with war" (173). A well-chosen
tions complements the discussion, and two of them support
love between women was not marked by the asymmetry
erotic protocols (124-25).
As background to her treatment of sociocultural settin
middle chapters, Williamson's opening chapter presents a
count of the Sappho "legend" among the ancient Greeks and
the fourth-century Greek stories about her male lovers to h
as the tenth Muse in Hellenistic times and construction by t
sexually deviant. Chapter 2 is a lucid and informative gen
the process of transmission through which Sappho's poem
us and of the conventions that inform the establishment and
of her texts. Overall, Williamson's book is an informed, enli
entertaining discussion of Sappho and most of what is w
about her.

Ten years ago, a pathbreaking study by Joan Dejean showe


and homophobia had shaped reconstructions of Sappho's
(1989). Greene's Rereading Sappho brings together a variety
ducted mostly since then on Sappho's "afterlife" (Nachleben)
essay by Dejean on Sappho's conscription by German phi
ideology of "Platonic love." Two chapters by Erika Rohr
Gubar adopt conflicting perspectives on the biographical
H.D.'s Sappho fragments; Elizabeth Harvey discusses Don
phosis, in "Sappho to Philaenis," of Ovid's heterosexual S
to Phaeon") into his own lesbian Muse; and Harriett An
how readings of Sappho in sixteenth- and seventeenth-ce
eventuated in her construction as the chief exemplar of fem
chopathogy. An influential and widely cited article by Holt
cates discarding most of the biographical tradition in favor o
Sappho's circle, like those of male poets of the period, "
women tied by family, class, politics, and erotic love" (1
Most shows how Sappho reception has been dominated by th
for reconciling the conflict in the biographical tradition be
who was a lover of girls and one whose hopeless passion for
ferryman Phaon drove her to suicide.
Glenn Most, Dolores O'Higgins, and Yopie Prins all dis
famous fragment 31 ("He seems to me like a god") and its m
and transformations. Most shows how the emendation o
within it changes the poem's meaning; O'Higgins, compar
tion by Catullus, contrasts the Roman poet's "narrative of d

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524 I Katz

with Sappho's "drama of seduction" (77-78). And


discussing English translations of fragment 31 over
turies, is a subtle and intriguing discourse on the u
recuperating fragment 31 into "the simple assertion
feminine voice, or a transcendant lyric voice" (66).
Sappho Is Burning is both a book about Sappho
of Sappho reception: it reimagines the poet and her
for a uniquely postmodern sensibility. In a series of
nal essays, Page duBois interrogates a relationshi
that, she argues, is predicated on mastery, narrativ
tive to restore plenitude, to pursue a "dream of w
fragmentary "body-in-pieces," her archaic anteriorit
her specifically female sexuality, her "Asiatic" hedo
tures of duBois's Sappho, a figure of radical alterity
digm of classical order" (177) but who also resists re
nist and other forms of utopianism and integration
Drawing on but also contesting a variety of th
from Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche through Benjamin
duBois situates a range of Sappho's fragments in rela
festations of ancient and modern constructions of Hellenic coherence. For

example, she juxtaposes a provocative reading of fragment 31 against both


the fragmented body of the warrior in Homer and the ancient Greeks'
own sense of themselves as an original unity dispersed throughout cities,
settlements, and colonies. DuBois disputes the postmodern rehabilitation
of Plato, arguing that Sappho disrupts his "transcendent and totalizing
project" (85), and she contrasts Socrates' invocation of Sappho and his
own discourse on love in the Phaedrus with the insistent materiality of
Sappho's erotics. Discussing other scenes of Platonic philosophy, she
shows how Plato both systematically appropriates the feminine and expels
the female. In other chapters duBois invokes Foucault as "an exemplar [of]
a certain utopian model of eroticism" (162) but also draws on Sappho to
contest his focus on "the philosophical subject's drive for austerity and self-
mastery" (134).
In her final chapter, duBois discusses the dispute between Asianism and
Atticism during the second Sophistic (c. 60-230 C.E.)- the period of su-
premacy of declamatory rhetoric - showing how Atticism, "the cold, clear
light of classical prose and poetry" (176) was configured as a virtuous Attic
wife, in contrast to an Eastern style represented as a promiscuous Asian
slut. Through Sappho and her distinctly "Asiatic" constructions of plea-
sure, duBois argues, we can subvert Atticism's "theft of enjoyment" and

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S I G N S Winter 2000 I 525

recover an ancient version of multiculturalism located, like S


at "the very farthest edge of the West, between Europe and
Sappho Is Burning is a sophisticated, challenging, and excit
Sappho and the difference Sappho makes. It will also be ea
even dismiss - since its style and rhetoric replicate both the
and excess of its subject matter: for example, "Fragmentary
But duBois poses a multitude of provocative and import
about Classics, postmodernism, and "the fiction of subjectivi
gins" (6), which we would do better to ponder than to discha
answers and facile critiques.

Gender and the body


The plethora of recent scholarship reviewed here embraces an impressively
wide range of subjects within the general area of women, gender, and an-
cient Greece. But there are just as many recent works omitted that study
women and gender in traditional areas of research like tragedy, in newly
defined fields like masculinity, or in currently "hot" areas like the body
and sexuality.34 Off with Her Head! a collection of essays edited by Howard
Eilberg-Schwartz and Wendy Doniger is the only book of those under re-
view that addresses the subject of women's bodies. They are studied here
in a variety of ancient and modern traditions under the rubric of decapita-
tion in order to illustrate the thesis that female corporeality is objectified
through a process of symbolic beheading. The volume includes essays cov-
ering traditions and cultures from Hindu myth through ancient Bud-
dhism, ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and modern Islam. There is a
fascinating essay by Molly Myerowitz Levine showing how the manipula-
tion of hair in ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish cult and culture was
governed by gender-specific practices, and one essay by Amy Richlin on
cosmetology in ancient Rome, illustrating "the idea that the female body
is something that needs to be fixed" (205).
In Of with Her Head! the investigation of sexuality is displaced upward,
and Freud, whose preoccupations included sexual symbolization, accord-
ingly replaces Foucault as the principal theoretical presence. But it was the
publication in 1984 of L'usage desplaisirs, the second volume of Foucault's

34 On tragedy, see, e.g., Wohl 1998; Zeitlin 1995; Rehm 1994; Rabinowitz 1993. On
masculinity, see, e.g., Cornwall and Lindisfarne 1994; Loraux 1995; Bassi 1998; Foxhall and
Salmon 1998a; and Foxhall and Salmon 1998b. On the body and sexuality, see, e.g., Porter
1999; Monserrat 1998; Koloski-Ostrow and Lyons 1997; Stewart 1997; Wyke 1997; and
Kampen 1996.

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526 I Katz

History ofSexuality (1978-86), that inaugurated th


going debates on the character and practices of an
notorious omission of female desire has provoked
sicists as well as others, and his skewed perspecti
by studies emphasizing the protocols and implicat
tations of sexuality and the body or offering new
violence (Deacy and Pierce 1997).35

Before the 1970s, the scholarly study on the wom


confined largely to the question of their status
despised. As the books reviewed here show, femin
has discarded this issue and has moved on to prov
innovative reconceptualizations of women, the fe
ancient Greek culture, society, and ideology. This
the disparate perspectives on all the subjects di
the corpus of ancient Greek texts and the body o
practices continue to engender exciting new know
women in Greek antiquity.36
But traces of the old pattern persist--in the ten
of the interpretive conflicts discussed in this essay
women of ancient Greece as subjects within a div
tural plenitude and constituting them, instead, as
pression.37 Settling the difference is not now any
matter of splitting it -of even-handed readings b
one hand" and "on the other hand." Rather, th
resist the seductions of a "misogyny model" that
of the cultural text and to which classicists, traine
to textual authority, succumb all too easily. Fo
agency does not easily resolve itself into a questio
tioned claims to authority- in our own society an
ancient Greeks. In consigning ancient Greek w

35 See Larmour, Miller, and Platter 1998, and in particular


Unbound: A Feminist Critique of Foucault's History of Sexu
tory of Sexuality: A Useful Theory for Women?"), and du
after Foucault").
36 The best source for up-to-date citations of ongoing
Greece and Rome is Ross Scaife's Web site, "Diotima: Materia
Gender in the Ancient World," http://www.uky.edu/AS/Classi
37 Compare Richlin's contrast between "optimists" and "p
pher's Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age" (19

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S I G N S Winter 2000 1 527

conscription into the very system that we should be contest


the plethora of fine books discussed here, my own favorites
disrupt familiar consolidations of ancient Greek women a
of patriarchy and, while taking account of women's subjecti
attempt to retrieve their subjectivities.

Department of Classical Studies


Wesleyan University

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