“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” This is the question Faustus asks upon seeing Helen enter in Act 5, Scene 1 of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.  It is true that mythology tells us of the female power (both mortal and immortal) to condemn empires to ruin and birth new ones into existence. The beauty of Helen (and the lust of Paris) ignited the Trojan War, the beauty of Rhea Silvia (and the lust of Mars) birthed Romulus and Remus, and the beauty of Lucretia (and the lust of Tarquinius) ignited the fall of the Roman monarchy. Pandora, the first woman made in the image of an immortal man, brought forth the evils of the world by virtue of naïve curiosity. One of the first primordial deities, Gaia (ostensibly female), birthed the natural world.  Why is it then that women who appear to play so central a role in the stories of antiquity were subject to subordination by men? Were these females forever doomed to brighten the pages of Homer, Hesiod, Livy, Ovid, and Vergil as mere beautiful mutes, whose physical violations propelled stories not their own? Or perhaps as jealous goddesses constantly out to exact revenge on any who pose a threat to their beauty? Were those who spoke out against the cruelties and infidelities of men fated to be deemed maniacal she-devils? The name Medea, even today, conjures images of a foreign madwoman. We remember her for her atrocious crime of filicide. But what of her husband Jason? He used Medea to get what he wanted and tossed her to the side once she got in his way of acquiring more fame and fortune. Medusa, the most famous Gorgon, is remembered for her head full of snakes and ability to turn all those who gaze upon her to stone. Although there is debate as to her origins, Ovid posits that she was initially a beautiful maiden who was raped by Poseidon. Athena, enraged, transformed her into a monster. Men call these women crazy – most contemporary women follow suit.

Among the male writers of antiquity who wrote about women, there is one in particular who appears unique. Apuleius was a Numidian Berber from Madauros who purportedly lived from 125 -180 CE. Apuleius received his education in Carthage and Athens. After a somewhat scandalous marriage to a wealthy widow, whom he was accused of using magic to seduce, he retired to Carthage were he held the chief priesthood of the province. The contemporary world knows him best for his most famous work The Golden Ass, which is written in Latin. While the story is centered on Lucius and the metamorphosis of men’s shapes and fortunes, it is propelled by the stories of women. Lucius becomes a plaything of Fortune – anthropomorphically feminine. In a twist of fate, the voice of the author fades into that of the narrator and is controlled by the events of the story, which (as author) he had purported to control. Upon losing control, the females of the story rule his fate. In the following paragraphs I will examine the different types of women that Apuleius writes about and the uniqueness of their voices. I will then draw a parallel to representations of women in post-modern America.

There are a slew of powerful, “evil” women that cause quite a commotion in The Golden Ass. Many are demonized for their witchcraft or licentious behavior. How curious that an adulterous man is considered unable to control his lust and therefore doing nothing outside of his nature, while an adulterous women is being savagely immoral! Lucius comes upon Aristomenes who tells him the story of his involvement with a powerful woman named Meroe who sought vengeance upon her lover, Socrates. Aristomenes describes how Meroe retaliated when the indignant townspeople agreed upon stoning her to death: “However, she thwarted this move by the strength of her spells – just like the famous Medea when, having obtained a single day’s grace from Creon, she used it to burn up the old king’s palace, his daughter, and himself, with the crown of fire. Just so Meroe sacrificed into a trench to the powers of darkness…” (12). Here, Meroe is likened to Medea: both women evil in their ways. She goes on to cut Socrates’ throat, pee on Aristomenes, fool them into thinking the violence of the night before never happened, and finally reveal that she did indeed cut Socrates’ throat, causing Aristomenes to flee to exile. While Meroe’s actions appear rash, it is an interesting role reversal. In this sequence, the women are in power and the men are powerless. This is not a common occurrence in antiquity, especially among mortals. Also, early on in the segment, Aristomenes comments on Socrates’ haggard state in an unusual manner: “You deserve anything you get and worse than that, for preferring the pleasure of a leathery old hag to your home and children” (11). Despite his use of derogatory jargon, Aristomenes is calling Socrates out on his infidelity, placing the blame on him rather than the woman. This is a rarity.

As Lucius’ journey continues, he encounters Byrrhena, the woman who raised him. Byrrhena is a strong female character. She rules over her household and seems to be lacking neither in disposition or circumstance. She warns Lucius to, “Watch out for the wicked wiles and criminal enticements of that woman Pamphile, the one that’s married to Milo, him you call your host” (24). However, it is Lucius who reveals himself to be lacking in character, as he is obsessed with magic and refuses to heed the words of advice from Byrrhena. The fool will become an ass. But first, he diverts his attentions to Photis, Pamphile’s maid, whom he says he’ll “have a go at” (25). To him, she is merely an object – the object of his desire. His behavior is voyeuristic as he watches her sway her hips while she cooks. He comments about her hair, suggesting that, “it’s only a woman’s head and her hair that I’m really interested in” (26). By objectifying her, he succeeds only in making himself look like a fool. He is so desirous of her body that he can barely contain himself, while Photis remains collective and tells Lucius to keep calm. How interesting that women are often depicted as the irrational ones!

Book 2 of The Golden Ass finishes with a story given by the disfigured Thelyphron at Byrrhena’s dinner party. Thelyphron tells of the evil women who steal body parts to conduct spells. Thus, every corpse must be carefully guarded in the night. Thelyphorn is enlisted to guard a prominent dead man for the evening, but ends up getting his nose and ears cut off by the witches who mistake him for the man. Here again, the women have the upper hand. Even the man who has died insists his death was at the hands of his adulterous wife. The men appear helpless, even foolish, in the face of these women. The consequence for Lucius’ own foolishness rears its head once he insists that Photis help turn him into a bird like Pamphile. As she does so, his persona is amplified by his unexpected metamorphosis into an ass, thus beginning the succession of unfortunate events that befall him.

Shortly after his transformation, Lucius is robbed and taken to the robbers’ stronghold. Not long after he arrives, a kidnapped girl of noble birth named Charite is also brought to the stronghold. The robbers remark about the profit the girl will bring them – another woman as object. The old woman who takes care of the robbers (old women in this story are not respected for their age but are instead disdained for their haggard appearance) tries to comfort the young girl by telling her the story of Cupid and Psyche. Though I will not relay the entire story, it is unique in that the protagonist is a strong female who endures and overcomes trials and tribulations much like Hercules and Odysseus. Psyche is punished for her beauty by her evil sisters and the jealous tyranny of Venus. Her naïveté and curiosity get her into even more trouble, much like Lucius. Apuleius seems to parallel the two stories throughout the book: of the misfortunes of Lucius and the misfortunes of Psyche. However, it appears to me that Lucius escapes his misfortunes out of sheer luck. Though Psyche is aided in her various trials by those who take pity on her, it is her love for Cupid that enables her to endure; exacting revenge on her sisters and escaping the brutality of Venus. In the end, she is not raped or killed, but is rewarded for her bravery with immortality.

As Lucius’ own story continues, Charite’s lover comes to rescue her in disguise. By this time Charite has proven herself a strong-willed individual, despite her initial bouts of weeping, when she attempted to flee her captures on Lucius’ back. Before Lucius is aware of Charite’s relationship with the new addition to the crew of robbers, he is all to quick to pass judgment on her behavior: “That, I felt, justified me in condemning the entire female sex, when I saw this girl who had pretended to be in love with her betrothed and to be pining for a chaste marriage, now suddenly delighted by the mention of filthy sordid brothel” (117). Who was there to pass judgment on Lucius when he had his way with Photis or the many women before her who do not appear in the book? Perhaps fortune turned him into an ass in order to better embody his true character?

Charite’s story comes to a tragic end – an end quite unlike the tragedies of Lucretia and Philomela. A man who lusts after Charite and slyly ingratiates himself into her family kills Charite’s husband. When her husband appears to her in a dream and tells her the truth of his death, she exacts a violent revenge: “So she prophesied; then, taking a hairpin from her head, she plunged it deep into both eyes, leaving him totally blinded” (135). In exacting her revenge, the reader is not horrified by her behavior, as one may be of Medea, but is instead elated by her success. How the tables have turned! Suddenly, the women are calling the shots.

But Apuleius does not waste too much time on the righteous young woman and goes on to tell a story about a poor man with a wife “notorious for her outrageously immoral behavior “ (149).  The wife was engaged in extramarital affairs when her husband came home early. The cunning wife devised a plan to deceive her husband, who never suspected her treachery. While the reader is meant to sorry for the poor husband, one cannot help but be in awe of the brilliant trickery of the wife. Following this story is another one about a woman who successfully cheats on her husband, with help from a fickle slave, Myrmex, who “was haunted by the fiery vision of that gleaming gold” (157). Again, Apuleius has turned things around. Men typically talk about women’s unruly desire for gold, diamonds, jewelry, and all material things, yet here Apuleius presents his readers with a man who loses himself to the allure of gold.

When Apuleius is sold to a miller he encounters another “evil” woman, the miller’s wife. I say “evil” because one must remember that we are looking at these women through the eyes of a man. Whomever a man has deemed evil may not be so, although it is hard to find redeeming qualities in the miller’s wife. She does, after all, cheat on him with a much younger and somewhat reluctant boy, gets caught, and conjures up a ghost to kill her husband in retaliation for him divorcing her. But her story is far less depraved than the one Lucius tells of a “wicked” stepmother who falls in love with her stepson. The story echoes that of Phaedra’s, who appeared first in Euripides’ Hippolytus, and later in Seneca the Younger’s Phaedra. The story is about a woman who is lovesick for her stepson. When he refuses her advances, she frames him with the death of her biological son. Though the case goes to trial, the woman is eventually undone by her own wrongdoings. Apuleius seems to be unable to decide whether the women of his story should be punished for their crimes or allowed to roam free in comedic recompense.

The final female who appears in The Golden Ass is perhaps the most significant. As Lucius is on the seashore he appeals not to the gods, but the goddesses of his realm. The goddess who appears to him is Isis, “Mother of the universe, mistress of all the elements, first-born of the ages, highest of the gods, queen of the shades, first of those who dwell in heaven, representing in one shape all gods and goddesses” (197).  Isis is an Ancient Egyptian goddess whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. She was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife as well as the patroness of nature and magic. She was a representation of the pharaoh’s power, as the pharaoh was depicted as her child. In a reversal of Hesiod’s Theogony, she was born of Geb, god of Earth, and Nut, goddess of Sky. She is Lucius’ savior and appears the almightiest of the mighty, a female at the head of the totem pole.

What does Apuleius’ host of adulterers, goddesses, witches, young virgins, old hags, and obstinate maidens say about women in antiquity? Not much. His story is unique because of the abundance of female voices present – a breath of fresh air from the usual mute maidens of Vergil, Livy, and others. But it is still not clear on which side of the gender scale he slides towards. It is even less clear what the women of his time more likely embodied.  As we search for women in the gaps and silences of history, we are able to piece together more of their lives, but what does the ever-present voice of women in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass tell us about women today?

It tells us that gender binaries are very much present and these typical female personas constructed by men still permeate society. All one must do is turn their skeptical glance to the film and television industry. Look at Disney. Almost 90% of the time, the villain is a female – a maniacal witch jealous of the beauty of the princess. Sounds familiar? The princess does not do much but look pretty and await the arrival of her prince to thwart her impending death. Where are the strong female leads? They often take the shape of coldhearted, bitchy businesswoman or generally unpleasant individuals who need to “lighten up.” When a woman takes control she is condemned for it, when a man takes control he is praised for it. As we fully embrace our post-modernity, I believe we are seeing rapid changes to technology and our social structure. Women are finally beginning to level the playing field. But is it enough? Will it ever be enough? Can we truly make ourselves heard while men still pull the strings, produce the movies, write the novels, and run the country? When do we finally get to write our own past, present, and future? When we write it, what will it be? What is the voice that will emerge from a group of people who has long been thought of as “Other”?

Just the other day I was with a few friends and one of the boys in the group remarked, “It seems like things are really getting better for women. I mean aren’t we all almost equal now?” This sparked a protracted response from me about how things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go. Somehow the conversation turned to whether a female president would be the next thing in store for America. “But that will never work,” another guy said, “Women are way too emotional. The country will fall to pieces.” “Yes,” I thought, “We still have a long way to go.” 

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“He who knows only his own generation remains always a child”

-Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE- 43 BCE)

The question of scholarship’s ability to effectively initiate social change is a difficult one. Additionally questioning how said change can impact women only serves to complicate matters. How can we seek to effect change through examination of the past when we know so little about women’s place in antiquity?

When we began this class I labeled myself an Optimist on all levels of the ethnographer’s scale. Now, as I begin to re-label myself more toward the middle ground, I realize that these labels Amy Richlin constructs in The Ethnographer’s Dilema are superficial. Why must I compartmentalize my approach to history into two categories: the past is our model/the past is our curse? Labels are often arbitrary and not conducive to answering underlying issues. As Richlin points out herself, generalizations can get messy when it comes to Classics: “Many categories have grown blurry: “Greece and Rome” is used interchangeably with “the ancient Mediterranean” (excluding Africa and Asia); fifth century BCE Athens is often made representative of all antiquity; “Greece” is used when only “Athens” is meant; “Rome” is used without much consideration of the hugeness and ethnic variation of the empire; the Iron Age cultures of northern Europe are left to archaeologists” (290).

I do not lean on the Pessimist side of this created spectrum because while I recognize differences between societies, I do not believe that any culture develops in isolation of another — especially when it comes to Classics. One could argue that, on a large scale, local-historical differences are not so significant. Also, the differences are “a part of reality, not a sign of demise” (281). The past is not our curse. However, I am not a complete Optimist because I do not believe in the long-held notion of the past as a golden age to be emulated in the future. As this class has taught us, women (for the most part) did not have a voice in antiquity. Is that the golden age we hope to see re-envisioned in the future?

Creating boundaries within the confounds of an epistemological approach halts scholars from breaking through preconceived notions and stereotypes. I believe history to be an ebb and flow. Yes, we can look far back enough and find egalitarian societies. Richlin writes of a “time in the distant past when egalitarian societies gave way to male-dominated ones. This time began with the rise of states and would come to an end with revolution in the means of production” (280). This reminds me of Hesiod’s Theogony in which there is a shift from supreme matriarch to supreme patriarch! Was Hesiod mimicking history? In our post-modern era, are we moving towards a reanimation of a matriarchal past? Or are we creating a new future? No one may ever get to Z (as Richlin posits), but perhaps we will never get there because we are constantly creating a new future for ourselves. We learn from the past, but I do not believe we recreate it.

Examining the past in relation to the present gets tricky. Can we really judge a culture so far removed in space and time from our own? Contemporary Western civilizations in particular try to project their own values on other cultures. Is this fair? As Richlin suggests, this creates an “imbalance of power between observer and observed” (285). When we look back to the past, on a certain level, we see what we want to see. Richlin talks about Roman women having a group identity. She may see this as a positive thing. I look at it and think, “Yes, but that does not negate the fact that the collective identity was still oppressed.” Neither of us is wrong. Also, we must remember that there are several different female voices echoing from the past. What about the women who oppressed other women; who abused female slaves? Women in the past are a web of sociocultural interactions with males and other females. Nothing is ever as clean cut as we want it to be.

What should really be focused on is recovering women’s agency along with their oppression. Both play into our understanding of history. The past “illuminates contemporary problems in relationships between men and women” (287). By reading the gaps and silences, we can hope to extract more and more female voices from the distant past. As Elizabeth Fiorenza says, “Remembering the sufferings of women in the past is reclaiming them” (286). The ultimate point is, we are talking about it — we are questioning all that we know. I believe this approach not only makes us better scholars, but better people as well.

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I feel that it’s very hard to take what little we know of childbirth in ancient times and cross reference it with contemporary midwifery to construct some semblance of a historical picture. Ina May Gaskin’s efforts to bring birthing back to it’s natural state are commendable, but were women in ancient times as blissful in their pregnancies as Ina May’s patients?

Let’s look at what little we know about childbirth in the Roman world. Death in childbirth was much more common. Was this because of the nature of natural births or the remedies being prescribed? Pliny had some wild ideas for aiding childbirth. In Midwives and Maternity Care in the Roman World, Valerie French recounts some of his folk medicine remedies: “According to Pliny, fumigations with the fat from hyaena loins produce immediate delivery for women in difficult labor… A drink sprinkled with powdered sow’s dung will relieve the pains of labor, as will sow’s milk mixed with honey wine… Delivery can also be eased by drinking goose semen mixed with water or ‘the liquids that flow from a weasel’s uterus through its genitals'” (2). Imagine being in the throws of labor and having to drink vile concoctions on top of trying to push a baby out! While these alternative methods may strike contemporary humans as grotesque, they may have proven beneficial on the basis of placebo effect. But, even so, it’s hard to imagine the placebo effect would outweigh the disease and infection that surely spread with such unsanitary conditions!

However, there is something to be said about the placebo effect. I am a firm believer in the power of the mind. I imagine that the state of a woman’s mind has a lot to do with her pregnancy. 1st century BCE Greek physician Soranus recognized “that a woman’s attitude and state of mind can have an important bearing on the ease of her delivery” (9). A woman in fear is going to restrict her muscles in response to said fear, thereby making her birth even more difficult. What can allay a pregnant woman’s fears? It seems that women under the tutelage of Ina May and those of ancient times had something in common. A pregnant woman in Rome “had the constant company of some of her female relatives and the midwife to encourage her and to divert her mind from the pains of labor” (4). This setting sounds very familiar to the births depicted in the film Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives. Perhaps this is why Soranus suggests that midwives must be highly competent, free from superstition, and learned. A good midwife insured the safety of the mother and child, just as she does today. Her temperament can have a great effect on the mother’s psyche.

Valerie French posits that “well trained midwives were more likely to come from the Eastern, Hellenized end of the Mediterranean Basin” where midwifery was a more esteemed profession. Practitioners in the west were of a servile origin and were placed in a relatively low social status. Whether it is true or not that infant mortality in the Greco-Roman world depended on the socio-economic class of an individual (which appears logical) I think, comparatively speaking, those who were lucky to come under the care of a midwife who was trained by someone like Soranus would find themselves in better care than those drinking animal semen.

Were any of these ancient women really experiencing what a birth would be like on “The Farm”? Ina May’s community of midwives seems not only to be unique in the history of the world, but unique in contemporary times when the majority of women opt to give birth in a hospital. In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Ina May talks about how “Ecstatic birth gives inner power and wisdom to the woman who experiences it” (xiii). Is this ecstatic birth, as she calls it, not achievable in a hospital setting? I have yet to experience a birth in a hospital, so I cannot personally speak to the matter, but I imagine it may not have the same effect. It seems logical to me that something as natural as birth should be performed in a natural setting. After watching the intriguing film Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives, I am personally ready to hand myself over to Ina May if I ever have a child. Her wealth of knowledge and confidence in her work is inspiring. I have admittedly harbored anxiety about birth since I was old enough to understand the meaning of the word. I always viewed it as a necessary event in the average woman’s life; an event that most cannot wait to get over with. To have my preconceived notions of birth turned on their head and to be reminded of the power of thought was comforting.

“The use of the will as the projector of mentative currents is the real base of all mental magic”

– William Walker Atkinson

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As I began to read the second half of this week’s articles, I was unsure of my stance on Ovid’s rapes. There are a few running themes that appear to be present in most of his works. We consistently see women silenced through violence. In the tragic story of Philomela and Procne, Ovid tells his audience of their transformation (along with Tereus) into birds. However, the story is not focused on their transformation. Their metamorphosis into animals is fleeting and depicted with the utmost brevity. Instead, Ovid spends his time detailing the violent events that led to their transformation. In particular, we are left remembering Philomela who is raped by her sister’s husband Tereus, who then silences her by cutting out her tongue. In Ovid’s Fasti we are also told the story of Lara, the mother of the Lares, who warns the nymph Juturna (who ends up also being raped) that Jupiter intends to rape her. As punishment, Jupiter rips out her tongue and gives her to Mercury who later rapes her on the way down to Hades. Both of these women were silenced through violence.

There is another theme permeating the literature of the time: the birth of power through violence (towards women). We have seen this all over the place, but particularly in the origin myths of Rome. “Illicit sexuality is the catalyst for metamorphosis,” says Amy Richlin in her Reading Ovid’s Rapes (165). We see this metamorphosis extend beyond the transformations of individuals to the transformation of Rome itself. In Ovid’s version of the rape of Lucretia, the focus of the reader becomes voyeuristic. We are watching as the men spy on Lucretia. She is the object of gaze: as so many victims of rape in these stories are. Lucretia is raped and kills herself, becoming a “model” for chaste women and a catalyst for the overthrow of the monarchy. At the end of the story, Lucretia’s body is exhibited to arouse anger in the people of Rome. As Richlin points out, “She ends as she began, as object of the gaze” (172). Why must sex and violence be so connected? Why do we continuously see chastity being used as a metaphorical bargaining chip for the well being of Rome?

Was Ovid really being subversive? Was he commenting on the bad politics of Rome? After all, he was exiled by Augustus, giving him good reason to be unhappy with him. Vergil was somewhat of a contemporary to Ovid and in The Aeneid we see several occurences of women who come into the story and disappear or are silenced; all for the sake of the foundation of Rome. Creusa, Aeneas’ wife, falls behind and dies, only to come back as a ghost and tell Aeneas that it is okay for him to marry someone else! Dido, in heartbroken agony, kills herself. Nurse Caieta appears for a moment and dies. Camilla is killed in a way that closely represents rape: the huntress who is hunted by a man who penetrates her with his sword. By the end of the twelfth book, the only two females that are left are Lavinia (who never had a voice to begin with) and Juturna (who is later raped and turned into a nymph). In The Aeneid Vergil portrays women who are forced to live under an empire and who are suffering for it. Was Vergil really a champion of ancient women’s rights? Or was he commenting on the injustice of the empire as a whole? After all, by the end of the book we come to a realization that the new empire is just as bad as the old (Aeneas shows no mercy for the fallen Turnus): the movement to empire is the rape of the Roman nation and Roman identity by Augustus himself.

Richlin offers interesting insight into Ovid’s techniques as a writer. Richlin first taps into the way Ovid portrays the rape victims’ fear transforming into beauty. What does this tell us about Ovid? “The narrator’s consciousness of the victim’s fear shows his empathy for them; but surely the narrator stresses how visually attractive the disarray of flight and fear itself, made the victim” (162). Which side is Ovid on? Also, when Ovid writes about Philomela being raped by Tereus he starts out metaphorically comparing the two to a lamb and a wolf. Yet, once Philomela’s tongue gets cut out she is likened to a snake. Has Ovid shifted sympathies? Richlin points out that, “The cutting out of Philomela’s tongue is a transformative point in the tale, turning her from object of violence to perpetrator” (165). Is Ovid demonizing the sisters who retaliate with the killing of Procne’s son? Are they being punished for their rape and mutilation? The thought makes one cringe, but it must be taken into consideration that women in Ovid’s comic rapes are often portrayed as “asking for it” (since when does no mean yes??). Again, what does this say about Ovid’s stance on women? We see that when male rapists are dressed as women (and in one or two instances are raped because of this) everything turns out “well”. But when the role reversal is the female acting as a male, the result is the “unmanning of all men, and the narrative makes it clear that this is a bad thing” (166). So, is Ovid just another chauvinist?

The syntax of Ovid is also intentional. Latin is a gendered language, therefore it is easy to denote who is the subject of an action and who is the object. In almost all cases, women are the object. In Ovid’s recount of the rape of the Sabine women “the narrator tells us how to read this, declaring that he would volunteer as a soldier himself if he could get such a reward” (168). Is this Ovid’s real opinion? Should we be taking Ovid’s rapes literally? If Ovid sympathizes with his victims, it seems that he does so with only temporary pity (Richlin likens him to a pantomime). One of her other arguments that I find myself aligning with is the idea that Ovid is in fact using the rapes as a literary trope to comment on the politics of the time, in particular the transformation of Rome from a Republic to an empire. Richlin talks about the Metamorphoses as a “dissolution of the boundaries of body, genus, gender, and genre” (176). We all know that Roman culture was all about boundaries. So was this Ovid being subversive after all?

Whether it is wise to give credence to Richlin’s analysis of the text or not, the fact remains that there is an excess of violence against women in the literature of the time. Rape is rape. I believe the fact that these male authors felt the need to use rape as a greater literary device tells us something about the social mores of their time.

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Background on Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso was born on March 20th in 43 BCE. He came from a landowning family of the equestrian class in Sulmo, a town forty miles east of Rome. Ovid’s birth year was a significant political year for Rome. Julius Caesar had been murdered a year earlier and by 43 BCE the Roman Republic finally collapsed. After Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus formed a political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate. This did not last long, for a little over a decade later Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. By 27 BCE, Octavian was able to consolidate power and establish his own dynastic rule in Rome. Despite the confiscations of property and wealth that were common at this time, Ovid’s family did not suffer from the political unrest.

Ovid’s father sent him and his older brother to Rome for their education where they were encouraged to pursue careers in law. They were educated in rhetoric under the tutelage of Arellius Fucus and Porcius Latro, two of the most important teacher of rhetoric at the time. According to Seneca the Elder, Ovid tended to be emotional and was more interested in writing verse. Ovid’s father attempted to encourage him to suppress his poetic talents, but Ovid found this hard to do.

Ovid’s brother died at the age of 20, at which time Ovid renounced law and began traveling to Athens, Asia Minor, and Sicily. During this time, he held minor public posts but he eventually gave himself over to a life of poetry and self-indulgence. It may have occurred to Ovid that with all political power now in the hands of Augustus, a political career would have been pointless and potentially dangerous — “Ambition for civic honor could not match the lure of the Muses” (Introduction to the Metamorphoses by Charles Martin).

The Roman literary world at the time was influenced by earlier generations of poets, whose work would soon become canonical (authorized, recognized, accepted). Lucretius and Catullus were dead before Ovid was born, and both Vergil and Horace were quite a bit older than Ovid. The latter two had lived and suffered through the political chaos of Rome that was the 1st century BCE. They had reason to support Augustus, who brought peace to a war-weary nation.

Ovid fell into different, younger circle of poets. Following the examples of his peers who he spent time traveling with, Ovid wrote erotic poems in elegiac couplets.

Each couplet consist of a hexameter verse followed by a pentameter verse. The following is a graphic representation of its scansion. The – is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U either one long or two shorts:

– U | – U | – U | – U | – u u | – –
– U | – U | – || – u u | – u u | –

The poems were immediately popular. He began publishing in his early twenties: five books of his Amores (series of poems written in elegiac couplets whose subjects were love and poetry), the Heroides (series of 15 verse epistles in the voices of the abandoned women of myth and legend), and a tragedy in Latin, his Medea, which has not survived.

While older writers’ works, such as Vergil and Horace, could be seen as propaganda for Augustus, supporting his attempted reformation of Roman morals, Ovid was anything but a supporter of Augustan morality. His collection of erotic poems and those in the voices of women who had crossed the line between propriety and publicity were entertaining to the young people of Rome, but most likely did not win favor among the aristocrats.

Ovid’s writing was inspired by his indulgent life style. He married three times (two were brief, youthful marriages): according to him the first was unworthy of him, the second gave him a daughter who married twice and gave him grandchildren, and the third, whom he wrote of with respect and adoration, brought along a stepdaughter.

After the Amores, three didactic poems added to his reputation for lewdness: Medicamini Faciei (The Art of Cosmetics), the Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), and the Remedia Amoris (Remedies for Love). The Ars Amatoria is a parody of didactic poetry, a how-to book that teaches men the art of seducing women. In the Remedia Amoris, Ovid offers advice and strategies to avoid being hurt by feelings of love. 

In Ovid’s time, privileged women were commonly forced into marriage against their will. A case in point at the time was Augustus’ daughter Julia who went through dynastic marriages to the emperor’s nephew Marcellus, the emperor’s lieutenant Agrippa, and the emperor’s successor Tiberius. Likely in an attempt to find personal satisfaction, she carried on a slew of notorious affairs, which (considering Augustus’ harsh laws against adultery) led to her exile. In this sense, one could argue that Ovid’s poems are geared towards those who suffered from the policies of Augustus’ regime.

Now we come to the Metamorphoses, which Ovid began writing around the year 1 BCE when he was in his early forties. The epic poem on transformations was arranged in fifteen books of dactylic hexameter (sounds like he was trying to upstage Vergil). At the same time he was writing Fasti: six books of elegiac couplets on the first six months of the Roman calendar; an aetiological work inspired by Callimachus’ Aetia. These books explain the origins of various religious rituals. However, the Metamorphoses is Ovid’s most famous work. In 8 CE, when Ovid was almost finished writing, something happened that forever changed his life. Augustus ordered him exiled to the settlement of Tomis on the Black Sea. Though able to retain his property and allowed to communicate with his wife and friends, he never returned from exile.

Ovid is the only source for the cause of his banishment, which makes it hard to decipher what was really going on. He explains that the cause was “carmen et error“; a mistake and a song (poem). Ovid claims that the poem was Ars Amatoria, though critics are skeptical because the time frame is a little off (the poem had appeared 8 years earlier — what would have taken Augustus so long?). It may have been the Metamorphoses that ignited Augustus’ anger:

“It is difficult to ignore that a poem built on constant metamorphosis points to a radical instability in the social world, a concept totally opposed to the secure dynasty that Augustus had hoped to leave behind” (Introduction to the Metamorphoses by Charles Martin)

The mistake Ovid may have made could be connected to the exile of Augustus’ daughter Julia. Seeing as Ovid does not speak of the details of the mistake, it is hard to discern its true nature. What is certain is that Ovid spent the rest of his life in exile and it had a profound effect on him, which is evident in his works while there: Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae ex Pontus (Letters from Pontus). These works were elegiac poems in which Ovid pleads with friends to help get him back to Rome and one in particular in which he appeals to Augustus to restore him.

Living out the rest of his days in isolation; often sick, not knowing the language (until later), and fearing barbarian attacks, Ovid died in 17 CE. 


The History of Everything

It is changing realities that consititue the only real permanence in the universe”

– W.R. Johnson on Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Ovid may have chosen to center on the theme of transformation because it allowed him to retell stories that were drawn from Greek myths that he liked (Roman conquest extended beyond just territory). These myths focused on how certain beings, both semi-divine and human, came into existence and why they were transformed into various animals, vegetables, and minerals.

Ovid was also influenced by the politics of his time. During his lifetime, Rome was going through a political, economic, and military “metamorphosis”. Diodorus of Sicily, a writer a generation before Ovid, wrote a universal history of the known world beginning with the Middle East and ending with Caesar’s invasion of Gaul. Diodorus was also convinced that the success of Caesar had ignited a transformation of the known world.

Like Hesiod’s Theogony, Ovid begins his work with Chaos, although it is somewhat different from Hesiod’s primordial deity — something similar to contemporary atomic theory! After Chaos “some god, or superior nature” (1.21) comes in and sorts everything out, as Ovid tells us. This seems to be a combination of Epicureanism and Stoicism. However, while the gods are present in Ovid’s work, the poem is not about them. Ovid sets his work outside the realm of religious mythology and instead is focused on nature and her progeny.

Opening of Metamorphoses:


My mind leads me to speak now of forms changed                                                                       into new bodies: O gods above, inspire                                                                                           this undertaking (which you’ve changed as well)                                                                           and guide my poem in its epic sweep                                                                                           from the world’s beginning to the present day

The Creation

Before the seas and lands had been created,                                                                                        before the sky that covers everything,                                                                                             Nature displayed a single aspect only                                                                                                   throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name,                                                                                       a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk                                                                                           and nothing more, with the discordant seeds                                                                                                            of disconnected elements all heaped                                                                                             together in anarchic disarray.

A few lines down he discusses the birth of man:

Man was born, whether fashioned from immortal seed                                                               By the Master Artisan who made this better world,                                                                     Or whether Earth, newly parted from Aether above                                                                           And still bearing some seeds of her cousin Sky,                                                                               Was mixed with rainwater by Titan Prometheus                                                                                                And molded into an image of the omnipotent gods.                                                                     And while other animals look on all fours at the ground                                                            He gave to humans an upturned face, and told them to lift                                                              Their eyes to the stars. And so Earth, just now barren,                                                               A wilderness without form, was changed and made over,                                                           Dressing herself in the unfamiliar figures of men.                                                                                        (1.79-89)

As W.R. Johnson writes in his introduction to the Metamorphoses, “But in this passage the two strains of thought [Stoicism and Epicureanism] conspire to provide nature (here Earth) and humankind (in its noblest aspect) with a unity that can be seen independently of the traditional mythologies that religion and politics nourish and depend on” (xv). What would Hesiod think of this?

It is clear that Ovid often parallels the Metamorpohses with political figures from contemporary Rome. He parallels Jupiter, who comes off as a wayward tyrant, to Augustus. Was this his way of being subversive? At the end of his poem he claims immortality for himself, one that rival’s Augustus’ divinity and may surpass it. This closing line may have been written after Ovid had been exiled by Augustus. It is also important to note that Ovid was committed to “deflating the world of epic”. You could even call the Metamorphosis “pastiche epic”.

Ovid introduces a long speech by philosopher Pythagoras toward the beginning of Book 15. Pythagoras’ speech is significant because it provides a counter-perspective just as the poem is coming to its close. Pythagoras argues for a world “governed by unending and dynamic mutability, one in which the souls migrate forever from body to body, both the spiritual and the physical realms being subject to transformations without end” — a representation of the world as a metamorphosis (xx)! Pythagoras worships nature, which is tied to the earth. Now we see this binary between the gods and nature emerge. The gods are portrayed as contemptuous, vindictive beings! Even among the gods, it is the nature gods such as Demeter (Ceres) and Dionysos (Bacchus) (who were not admired by Homer and his patrons) whose virtues outweigh their vices. We also see Ovid subversively hinting at Rome’s eventual decline — what rises must also fall.

For those who want to take the time to get a little nerdy:



Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Comp. W. R. Johnson. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2010. Print.

Ovid. Metamorphoses: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism. Trans. Charles Martin. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Charles Martin. Comp. Bernard Knox. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004. Print.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A. D. Melville. Comp. E. J. Kenney. Oxford [Oxfordshire: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

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sadness_gaiaDepiction of sorrowful Mother Earth

The contemporary world often looks upon the classical world with a kind of nostalgia. There is a general consensus that the present is a devolved version of the past. To the masses, classical times appear better: they boast a slew of famous intellectuals, grandiose architecture and sculpture, and extraordinary mythology. And who wouldn’t want to roam around in chitons? But what did those who lived in classical times think of their contemporary world? Longing for the past seems to be a trend among humanity. Both Hesiod and Livy were nostalgic for a better time, when Greeks and Romans had honor and reverence for the gods. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, he talks about the final race of men, a race which he wishes he had not been born into: the race of iron. When describing the follies of these men he says, “Sons and daughters will be quick to offend their aging parents and rebuke them and speak to them with rudeness and cruelty, not knowing of divine retribution; they will not even repay their parents for their keep — these law-breakers — and they will sack one another’s cities” (71). Sound familiar? If Hesiod thinks 6th century Greece is bad, it’s probably best that he lived when he did. What would he say about us today?

While we already have an idea of the women’s place in the oikos of Greece, where were the women in the times when men were created from gold? According to Hesiod, Zeus had Hephaistos create Pandora (Πανδώρα, derived from πᾶς “all” and δῶρον “gift”, thus “all-gifted” or “all-giving”) in retaliation to Prometheus stealing fire for men. How interesting that female conception stemmed from retribution! Pandora was made from earth and water and given a jar holding all the evils of the world. In Hesiod’s Theogony, it appears as though the evils were already molded into her. Whether in the jar or not, there is a parallel drawn between the body, earth, and the jar; all of which are similar vessels. Woman as a vessel for evil? It seems that Hesiod is suggesting that evils are inherent in women. Where did this belief stem from? Were the female ties to nature something foreign to men and thus (as with all things foreign) they deemed it evil?

What about female presence at the conception of the cosmos? While I personally believe Chaos (χάος) is not gendered (the Greek word is not gendered — how can void be anything but neuter?), after Chaos came Gaia (Mother Earth) who is female. Out of nothingness comes a female and, more importantly, a mother — the progenitor of the physical universe. What does this mean? For the Greeks, it demonstrates the primacy of the maternal body. If a female is at the head of the genealogical tree, why do we not see a society that reveres women as the creator of all things? Why worship Zeus when you have Gaia? The introduction to the Theogony, written by Apostolos N. Athanassakis talks about the exceptional nature of Hesiod’s work: “For most of the poem it is the mother who matters. The male partner is much less prominent or altogether obscure. Given the fiercely patriarchal character of Hesiod’s own society this is a remarkable departure from his familiar world…” (7). Is this so remarkable? Hesiod was most likely a part of a community of peasants and thus agriculture and reproduction were seen as similar activities. The female is a vessel, a vase; she holds all things and thus all things come from her. But despite her sacredness, she holds no real power over those she “births” into the world. I mean, look how we are destroying the Earth today.

There is a significant transition that takes place in the Theogony from a female dominated world of the elemental gods to a male dominated world of the anthropomorphized gods; from supreme matriarch to supreme patriarch; from Chaos to Law. Does this evolution parallel a shift in ideology from the institution to the individual? Or is it much simpler than that? Hesiod may be implying that while women are the creators of the world, they cannot rule the world they create (there is chaos, they are irrational) and thus men must come in and with them bring order. But why have female characters in the origin myth at all? The Theogony manages to separate sex and gender by taking away birth from the female. There are elements that are “born” out of nothing, those who are “born” from a mother who has not mated with a male, and those (like Athena and Aphrodite) who are “born” from men. If Hesiod is turning the traditional notion of conception on its head, then why not have a purely male world where males beget males? In a way, he has created a world with such potential: “By carrying out a function that properly belongs to the female partner [birthing Athena], Zeus breaks the chain of female supremacy” (11).

The introduction talks about why the female primordial deities lose their power. “The inability of the female spouse to find a solution by herself” led to conspiring wives, according to Athanassakis (10). Is this true that  the females were always conspiring? In line 154, Hesiod talks about Ouranos’ trickery: “All these awesome children born of Ouranos and Gaia hated their own father from the day they were born, for as soon as each one came from the womb, Ouranos, with joy in his wicked work, hid it in Gaia’s womb and did not let it return to the light” (17). In this case, it is the male character who conspires first (the men were always afraid of being overthrown by their children). Gaia “conspires” in retaliation by having Kronos hack off Ouranos’ genitals, and thus came Aphrodite. Sounds like he deserved it to me! Plus, the only reason Zeus comes to acquire his power is because he swallows Metis (his wife) and assimilates her power! Conspirators aside, the question remains: was Hesiod perpetuating a general Greek opinion of women as inherently evil and “chaotic”, or is his writing indicative of the opinions of his time?

In Livy’s History of Rome we see the presence of women in the origin stories in a different way more appropriate to Rome’s intensely imperialistic and militaristic culture. Women are used as a vehicle for story, a catalyst for major events, and a justification for male action. They appear in the narrative briefly, are defiled in various ways, and disappear. Livy writes about Rea Silvia who is raped by “Mars” and gives birth to Romulus and Remus, thus igniting the origins of the monarchy. He also writes about the she wolf who nurses Romulus and Remus (she is wild, but she can be domesticated). He writes about the Sabine women who are “raped” by the Romans who are in desperate need of women for their city (how interesting that the first women of Rome are foreign). When the Sabine soldiers come to battle the Romans, a Roman girl Tarpeia betrays her kin and lets the Sabines in only to be crushed by them. Lucretia is  raped by the king’s son, thus serving as a catalyst for the overthrow of the monarchy. Verginia is threatened with rape by a tyrannical magistrate and is killed by her own father to perserve her chastity, thus ousting the decemvirate.  In Sandra R Joshel’s The Body Female and Body Politic: Lucy’s Lucretia and Verginia, she sums up the presence of women in Livy’s construction of early Rome: “Livy’s narrative of Rome’s political transformation revolves around chaste, innocent women raped and killed for the sake of preserving the virtue of the body female and the body politic; Roman men stirred to action by men who take control; and lustful villains whose desires result in their own destruction” (117).

What was the purpose of the women in these stories serving as catalysts for major Roman political events? Are they simply there to drive the narrative forward? In Vergil’s The Aeneid we see women coming in and out of the play in different ways, though most either die or do not have a voice. Dido kills herself, Amata kills herself, Creusa is left behind and dies, Lavinia does not speak, and Juno comes off as a psychopath. Livy and Vergil were writing around the same time, during Augustus’ regime. Augustus tried to reform Rome, bringing it back to its “old ways.” His reforms included harsh laws against adultery. As Joshel writes, “Uncontrolled female sexuality was associated with moral decay, and both were seen as the roots of social chaos, civil war, and military failure” (119). It is as though Livy is using the beauty of women to explain the rapists’ actions, suggesting that men’s desires are outside their control. Yet, a women’s are within her control? Women’s bodies were connected to the male body and their death deadened the male body, thus allowing it resume control, which was necessary in a new empire that was focused on discipline. In Livy’s stories, women were “a blank space — a void, for Livy effectively eliminates her voice, facilitating the perpetuation of male stories about men” (121). Joshel’s comparison to women as a void draws my attention back to Chaos, and the assumption that the first element was female. If females are Void/Chaos and thus they birth everything into existence, could there ever be a world without women? Or, more importantly, could there ever be a world without men?

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LYSISTRATA: A Breakthrough or a Literary Trope?

Lindsay 1

What happens when a playwright inverts the norms of Ancient Greece? What is the intention behind the inversion? Is he making a statement about society at large or simply offering comic relief? Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is unique in more than one way. Its heroine is bold and outspoken, its female chorus resilient and proud, and its male chorus desperate and weak. Is this what contemporary scholars think of when they conjure up images of antiquity? Or has Aristophanes broken through a barrier of misogynistic sentiment?

When I think of Greece and Rome I think of male dominated societies. In Thucydides’ Histories Pericles offers a funeral oration. The speech consists mostly of praise for the dead’s heroic deeds and commendation for Athens as a model city. A very short excerpt of the oration sums up the Grecian ideal of women: “Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among men whether for good or bad” (117). The archetypal woman was seen, but not heard. And what of her “natural character”?

Xenophon seems to think that a female’s natural character has to do with her position in the oikos and that the role of women in the household was ordained by the gods. In his How to Train a Wife, Socrates and Ischomachus have a conversation about how Ischomachus is able to enjoy a leisurely life while his wife attends the estate. He convinces his wife that her place inside the house and his place outside of it work to the advantage of both of them. He leads her to believe that she assumes authority in the one sphere, while he assumes authority in the other. The reality of the situation is that his wife is still accountable to him. His “training” of her is for his benefit, not hers. When he speaks of his wife to Socrates he sounds as if he is referring to cattle: “Since she was already manageable and domesticated enough to participate in a discussion…” (7.11). Really? Ischomachus tries to rationalize his wife’s place in the house by suggesting that, “If anyone does something contrary to the nature the god gave him, it is quite possible that his disorderliness will not escape the notice of the gods and that he will pay the penalty for ignoring his proper work or doing a woman’s work” (7.30). His rational reasoning is thinly guised by his use of misogynistic adjectivals such as the “fearful soul” of a woman versus the “courageous soul” of man. The misogynistic undertones of the text also become clear when Socrates likens Ischomachus’ wife’s intelligence to that of a man; suggesting the inferiority of “female” intelligence. It is also clear from this text and the works of others, such as Hesiod, that producing children was the main reason for marriage because it ensured protection and caregiving to the parents in old age. Ischomachus tells his wife, “If god allows it, children will be born, and then we will consult together how we will best educate them. This will be an advantage that we can share, to obtain the best allies and supporters in our old age” (7.12). The stability of the oikos was essential to Greek life because having a wife to take care of the home enabled the husband to participate in public life: the polis. Men did not trust a wife who was thought to be more loyal to the oikos she grew up in than the strange household she had married into. Until the woman gave birth, a symbol of her being tied to her new oikos, men were liable to assume their wives were participating in thievery and adultery. What is interesting to note about this passage describing the perfect compliant wife is that Ischomachus’ wife Chrysilla seduced and had a son by her son-in-law Callias. Perhaps women in the oikos were not as compliant as men were prone to believe!

Moving onto Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, we must examine the time period it was written in, as it was likely to affect the subject matter. The introduction provides necessary background information: “Lysistrata was produced in 411, twenty years into the peloponnesian War, a Panhellenic struggle pitting Athens and her inland empire against Sparta and her allies” (35). In his early plays Aristophanes championed the wealthy land-owning aristocracy and denounced the popular military leaders. But what is the real message behind Lysistrata? It’s a play about women participating in a conjugal strike in an effort to force their husbands to lay down their arms. Lysistrata’s name even means “Disbander of Armies.” Is the ultimate theme of the play peace?

In Aristophanes’ plays, the main character, whether a hero or heroine, “the goal is likely to be shared by most spectators because the arguments (s)he uses to defend it appeal to their interests to their sense of justice and to their resentment of the powers that be” (38). Did it matter that Lysistrata was a woman? Perhaps the reversal of roles in this play was intentional given the touchy subject matter. This play came out when Greece was still in the throws of war. For Aristophanes to comment on the politics of the time, he had to do so in a safe way. Were women his theatrical scapegoat? Comedy was a form of experimental politics. Audience members would attend comedies to experience a catharsis similar to tragedies. The catharsis allowed them to rid themselves of their resentment and ultimately return to the norm. Does the end of the play not return to the norm with the men back in power and the women in the oikos? Were the women just an effective and perhaps the only available solution? The introduction of Lysistrata sheds light on the use of effective literary tropes: “Insofar as the release was motivated by the acceptable civic ideals (peace and solidarity) and achieved in humorous fantasy (wives determining policy), it was safe and festive” (38). Did Aristophanes create a heroine in order to save face in his appeal for peace? Lysistrata was definitely unique from other comic plays. There were no comic heroines before Lysistrata. The fact that she acts in concert with all women is a further innovation — implementing the play’s running theme of solidarity. But the fact remains that, “the volatile political atmosphere discouraged the usual finger-pointing, and an appeal for solidarity ruled out a hero representing any of the embattled factions” (39). Using women enabled Aristophanes to take a nonpartisan stance while criticizing the current political climate.

While the women of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata do not question their roles in society and, in fact, return to the norm at the plays’s conclusion, the play is unique in that it shows women in a positive light. The reversal of roles extends beyond the strength and independence of the women and the weakness and dependency of the men. The women who hole up in the Acropolis and refuse to let the men in are turning the tables on the men. The men who, in reality, are exclusively allowed in the political sphere of Greece are now shut out from the exclusivity of the women’s “oikos” — the Acropolis. Also, though the women are characteristically portrayed as “sex crazed,” the men of the play are just as obsessed (if not more) with sex as their wives. The old men in the play are “aligned with the vulgar strata of jurymen and popular politicians, both targets of consistent abuse from Aristophanes and other comic poets” (42). Just like the neoterics who came after him, Aristophanes used his writing as a vehicle through which to comment on his disdain for the oligarchy.

What is significant about the individual character Lysistrata? She seems to possess eloquence and intelligence that were unusual for both men and women. Does this place her outside of the gender sphere altogether? The introduction suggests that, “she finds her closest analogue in Athena herself” (43). Is Lysistrata yet another powerful woman whose strength renders her ambiguous? Or is her connection to Athena tied back to the foundation myth of Athens in which Athena challenged Poseidon for the city and won? Most of the mythic references in the play appear to draw attention to the takeover of the city by outsiders (the women) during a time of political unrest, ultimately leading to the reaffirmation of male order. Did we not see this in our exploration of the Amazons as well, who were also depicted in an ambiguous manner — the “other”?

Perhaps Aristophanes is comparing Lysistrata to Lysimache who was the Polias priestess during the time of the play. Lysimache whose name means “Disbander of Battles” acted as the household manager of the Acropolis: the ideal Athenian household. This assimilation between Lysistrata and Lysimache serves to strengthen Lysistrata’s association with Athena. “The apparent comparison of a comic heroine to an actual woman who was prominent and respected in civic-religious life suggest that Aristophanes represents the views not merely of the theatrical construct “women” but of real women” (43). Perhaps Lysistrata was more than a theatrical scapegoat?

Whether a breakthrough or not, it appears that even Lysistrata is aware of the perpetuated myth of female inferiority as evident when she addresses the male chorus: “I am a woman, but still I’ve got a mind: I’m pretty intelligent in my own right, and because I’ve listened many a time to the conversations of my father and older men I’m pretty well educated too” (83).

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As a USC student I am generally skeptical of everything I encounter in life. Whether ultimately good or bad, this means I do not take anything at face value (especially after this class). I think it is important to enter every museum with this mentality. The Getty Villa is famous for its Villa dei Papiri inspired architecture and carefully manicured gardens. It is also infamous for its history of scandalous acquirement of artifacts, though I doubt the general public is aware of this ignominious past. In fact, before the resource presentation on Monday, I was completely unaware of its questionable and messy history, which further illustrates my cynicism. After an in depth analysis of the museum’s collection, the question at large remains: What can we take away from a museum that was born as a tax write off?

I would first like to touch upon some interesting and I think very important points that were made in class discussions this past week and then I will examine some specific pieces in the museum. It could be argued that the complicity of the museum begins even before you walk in. The design of the entrance is intentional. It is supposed to imitate the process of walking into an archaeological dig. Was this done to lend more credence to the artifacts that visitors may enjoy once they complete the inane ascension and subsequent declension into the museum’s main grounds? One could assume so. But what does this analogy say about the abundance of artifacts with no known provenance? Furthermore, while we are on the subject of archaeological digs, wouldn’t it make sense to further emulate a dig site by arranging the museum in a stratigraphic manner? Digs are usually sorted by general context, chronology, and interrelationships. However, the Getty Villa’s organization of their collection appears more haphazard and somewhat thoughtless. Is its thematic organization targeted towards the masses in an effort to make the material more digestible? The objects that are in the collection are at the whim of the collector and Jean Paul Getty often chose pieces for their aesthetic quality. The museum’s lack of organization may also stem from the hodgepodge manner in which many of the antiquities were acquired.

On that note, who is the museum targeted for? It seems to me that the answer to this is: the general masses. Is there anything wrong with this? Is it okay for those who have only superficial knowledge of Classics to have a place where they can simply enjoy the “art” and splendor of a period in the distant past? A place where they can feel like they are spending a cultured afternoon? I personally believe that the mentality of only acquiring superficial knowledge is detrimental. What is the point? Whether Classics is your field of study or not you should go to a museum with the intent of extending your knowledge base. You should be encouraged to seek more in depth information. When objects are removed from their contexts they lose their importance and many of the objects are not simply “art.” Visitors may walk by and appreciate the beauty, but they cannot hope to understand the cultures at large. The Villa is illustrative. Its gaudy architecture and lush gardens are supposed to offer an insight into what it would be like to live an aristocratic life. In this sense, the collections are reinforcing the idealization of a time period that is already highly fantasized. Additionally, the representation of women in the collection is weak and though it may be due to the questionable way in which the antiquities were acquired it serves to reanimate and reaffirm the male dominance of the period.    

IMG_4584 IMG_4591

I chose these figures because this room was my favorite in the museum. I think these sculptures are incredibly beautiful (Hey, they inspired Picasso). It was also nice to see a room that has a large female presence and interesting to note the apparent regression of the female’s place in society over time. It seems that there is still so little we know about these cultures and apparently cannot hope to learn much more in the future. It is disheartening to know that all the sites containing Cycladic figurines have been looted and that we will essentially never be able to recover the history of prehistoric women. Have these figures then been reduced to novelty status in museums? Is all that we are left with a guessing game?

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O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night
                       – William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”; Act One, Scene 5


I memorized this passage from Romeo and Juliet for an English class when I was thirteen years old. To this day, I can recite it without hesitation. Despite my unfailing ability to recall the words, I am less sure about the significance of their meaning to me. What is Shakespeare saying and why is he saying it? What does it tell us about him? Why has it stuck with me all these years? Who is the real man (or woman) behind the pen? It is often hard to extrapolate clues to the identity of writers from the distant past. Even to this day, people argue the authorship of Shakespearean literature. Those who contest believe that Shakespeare’s reported humble origins and obscure life seem incompatible with his poetic eminence and his reputation for genius. William Shakespeare’s lack of education, aristocratic sensibility, or familiarity with the royal court is at odds with the abundance of nobility present in his plays. This controversy aside, next to Charles Dickens, Shakespeare is the most cited author in the world.

I opened my post with Shakespeare because I feel that a parallel can be drawn to Sappho. Who is Sappho? To whom was she writing for? Why was she writing? Was she really a lesbian? All these questions come to mind when (appropriately) piecing together Fragments of Sappho. We know that she was alive in the 6th century BCE and was living on the island of Lesbos. We know that she was a poet and (as is extant in her work) was educated. Scholars have deduced that her work was divided into three groups: choral wedding songs, female symposium poems, and love poems. Despite her abundant use of “I”, we cannot assume that she is speaking about herself in every poem. This is, after all, poetry and Sappho appears to make great use of personification and metaphors. I am hesitant to assume that I really know anything about her. To me, she remains shrouded in a cloud of ambiguity. Whether she was a actually a lesbian or not is not necessarily evident in her poems either. I can see how it is rather easy for someone to mythologize her as a great lesbian poet. It adds to the allure of her writings. Yet, perhaps that part of her life has been magnified to the point where the beauty and diversity of her poems have been forgotten. In general, people cite her first and foremost because of her “taboo.” As Jody writes in her article Lesbians are from Lesbos: Sappho and Identity Construction in “The Ladder”, to the Daughters of Bilitis, “Sappho was a sensuous poet who had not been ashamed of being a lesbian, and a lesbian whom society (at least sometimes and in some ways) respected, and so she was a projection of the image they wanted for themselves” (158). Sappho was singled out not for her poetry, but for her symbolic lesbian identity. Interestingly enough, Sappho was initially used to promote the Daughters of Bilitis’ assimilation to the norm, which I found upsetting. Why would you want to assimilate to the norm when the norm is imperfect and discriminate? Why would you not want to create a new norm where everyone is accepted? Why not create a world, reportedly like Sappho’s, where women were able to speak freely without being judged? It became clear that this ideology was, in fact, adopted later on by the Daughters of Bilitis.

Poem 94 of Sappho’s is one we looked at more closely. At first it appeared to be a love poem about Sappho lamenting the loss of a female from her circle to marriage. After further examination, we decided that it may have been recited at a wedding. This did not make sense in a contemporary context. If this was the case, the poem would be incorporating into the ritual of marriage what seems to us to be a contradiction. Performance context aside, I think the poem also shows that the strength of the patriarchal society was incredibly strong.

I would like to end on my favorite poem, Poem 55, which appears to be a lament over the loss of life. Who has died? Why was Sappho writing this? To whom was she speaking? These are just some questions that are difficult to answer.

Dead you lie and never memory of you                                                                                                will there be nor desire into the aftertime–for you do not                                                           share in the roses                                                                                                                                            of Pieria, but invisible too in Hades’ house                                                                                   you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out.

An aside….

This is what Sappho has come to represent in contemporary times:

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This week’s readings were incredibly interesting and somewhat perturbing. I’d like to approach them on two fronts. First, I would like to examine the way men viewed women from a biological standpoint. Second, I would like to take the biological construct of female inferiority and see how it was superimposed ideologically through culture (i.e. literature). Men in antiquity reasoned female biological inferiority as the root of their sociocultural inferiority. At the beginning of this class we talked about how men equate women with nature and that it is their proximity to nature that makes them inferior. In the medical texts, we can see this reasoning being deconstructed a step further. Men believed that women’s inferiority began from conception. They point to various phenomena that they observe, but appear to have no real understanding of the female anatomy from which to lend credibility to their argument.

Ancient male physicians believed that a woman was less perfect than a man due to the fact that she was colder, more porous, and possessed more blood. A woman’s parts are within her body compared to a man’s, which are outside of his body. This must indicate female inferiority, right? After all, Eve was made from Adam, wasn’t she? In Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, 2nd century physician Galen writes about why women are less perfect than men: “That the parts of the female cannot escape to the outside; that she accumulates an excess of useful nutriment and has imperfect semen and a hollow instrument to receive the perfect semen” (245). I have highlighted these two words because similar words describing the deficiency of the female body are used in abundance in the medical texts. Words such as failure, inability, and weak are equated with the female menstrual system. Women were compared to children and eunuchs; all thought to be less than a man, ‘stymied’ in their growth. By comparing a woman’s body to a child’s, men were inherently assuming the woman’s less intelligent and undeveloped nature. Other fallacies that permeated the ancient world were that “stronger” sperm created boys and “weaker” sperm creating girls: inferiority originating in conception. Men also believed that when the fetus was male, the mother had an easier delivery. Is there any scientific evidence to this date to suggest this reasoning is true? Of course not. Hippocrates also believed that during intercourse a woman “experiences pleasure throughout the whole time, until the man ejaculates” (230). A little presumptuous, no? If you take into account that young teenage girls were likely marrying much older men who were strangers to them, I think it’s safe to say that not all sexual experiences were enjoyable.

Addressing the supposed presence of more fluid in women, the Hippocrates suggested that, “the fact that a man works harder than a woman contributed greatly to this; for hard work draws off some of the fluid” (234). Again, is this assertion found in anything other than scanty empirical evidence of the time? The fact that many physicians believed in the “wandering fetus” that was attracted and repelled by smells is alarming. However, taking into account the mythology subscribed to during the classical era, it is understandable. We see in Pliny the Elder’s writings that he believed, “Yawning can be lethal during delivery, just as sneezing after intercourse can cause abortion” (260). To contemporary humans these assertions may seem laughable, but during a time when medicine and anatomical knowledge of the body were not abounding, it is understandable that people would extend mythology to the human genome. Lesley Dean-Jones, author of The Cultural Construct of the Female Body, believed that biological polarization of the sexes was at the root of female subjugation in the sociocultural sphere. “Once a cultural archetype was shown to be grounded in nature, a man or woman who deviated from this norm could be viewed as aberrant” (112), Dean-Jones writes, suggesting that a woman or man who did not display typical behavior or physiology was deemed lacking in femininity or masculinity. The medical text Epidemics talks about the veins running to each breast that are the seat of consciousness. The author deduced that blood would collect in the breasts if a person was about to be mad. Dean Jones responds to this: “That women would always be more susceptible to having more blood in their breasts than men, would give a scientific basis to the belief that women were always closer to the irrational than men” (115). Supposedly women’s skins are loose and spongy while men’s are tight and impermeable. Which one denotes superiority to you? Soranus, a Greek physician from Ephesus, believed that “if women lived more like men, their bodies would become more like men’s” (117), hence promoting the idea that men’s bodies are the ultimate goal and thus superior. Dean-Jones suggests that even the wandering womb theory (it was wandering because they thought the body had no special place for it – another impediment of the female’s anatomy) served to deprive women of their control over their own sexuality. The womb was a separate animal, which was a danger to the woman’s life without help from a man (am I sensing a theme?). Ancient physicians also promulgated the idea that the path from the vagina to the womb was blocked in young girls and the only way “to remove the impediment is to be married as soon as possible” (121). What a way to promote women having sex! To me, this all sounds like a patriarchal society attempting to promote AND maintain control over women’s procreation. Men constructed an image of the female body as inherently weak. This weakness influenced women’s emotions, which promoted the idea that women needed male subordination. Dean-Jones says something important that ties back into my first post on women as “other.” Commenting on the Hippocratic view of women she says, “Because they thought woman was a completely different creature and not simply a substandard man, the Hippocrates did not have to look for a correspondence between all male and female body parts. They felt woman was inferior, of course, but her “otherness” allowed her body to be defined more by its own parameters” (130), while men’s bodies served to promote their strength and intelligence.

As we turn our attention to the portrayal of women in literature, let’s examine it with an understanding of the male view of the female body. Knowing that their inferiority was thought to be biologically inherent, how were women fantasized in the world of the play? Suzanne Dixon writes in Reading Roman Women, “In Latin literature generally female desire is played down, ridiculed, or associated with transgression” (29). How interesting, considering we know that some physicians of the classical era were fabricating myths to encourage women to have sex for their biological benefit! Or was it just young women, as older women who tried to impose their sexual will were thought to be repellent (while the rapes performed by the male author and hero were not stigmatized)? Were these portrayals of uppity, gossiping, flaunting, vain, and frivolous women giving a false impression of cultural consistency? Were women behaving like this? Were men actually thinking these things about women? Why were women demonized in more than one respect? Catullus writes about Lesbia, his muse who he depicts in a sensual, erotic, and yet unobtainable way, forcing his relations with her to become voyeuristic. In the end, she becomes a prostitute. What does this transformation mean? Is she simply a metaphor for Catullus’s own persona, devoid of any personality? Was she a poetic device? What about in Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus where the prostitutes are astute and intelligent women? Was this a breaking from convention? Or is Plautus only undermining the social hierarchy of Rome through his characters, while the play in its entirety reaffirms it? Is the male failure to give the female a voice a result of narcissism or fear? Dixon writes, “It is notable that women who appear in the historical narratives as transgressing in one way, for example by intruding in the masculine political sphere, are usually credited with sexual transgressions as well” (33). Were powerful, outspoken women demonized as a form of social propaganda? Did men fear what they did not understand? Are these authors emulating literary conventions or pervasive cultural norms? Was a woman merely an object of chastity whose worth was diminished if she willing or unwilling allowed another man sexual access to her? Whether there are concrete answers to all these questions or not is up for debate.

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