Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Athens vs Sparta: Distaff Side

When I had a look at the requirements for England's Ancient Greek GCSE (O-level), I was astonished that students have to know about the role of women in Athenian society. Of all the reasons Greek civilization is perennially worth studying, the Women of Attica are not one. In a nutshell, Athenians thought women were for bearing inheritors, weaving, housework, fieldwork and, if of a Certain Class, entertainment. The Spartans thought Spartan women were for bearing Spartan soldiers, full stop. Everything else could be left to slaves.

As Athenian women's feminine genius was for weaving beautiful cloth--which does not last through the ages, alas--they have left us very little of their work. We have some poetic scraps of Sappho (not a Woman of Attica but of Lesbos) and, thanks to Catullus and other Roman fans, her undying literary reputation, but that's just about it. We have statues (and Roman copies of statues) and paintings (on pottery), so we know roughly what Women of Attica looked like and definitely what they wore. We also know what (a few) men thought of them, and we know this was greatly at odds with Athenian respect for female deities. Why so important for the GCSEs?

Are the GCSEs being used to enforce contemporary feminist ideology?

I ask this question because when I told my students that the Woman of Attica (who was so unpolitical, she was not even called an Athenian) spent most of her time indoors weaving, one piped up that that sounded wonderful. And while I respected that refreshingly pro-weaving point of view, I wondered what grade she would get if she wrote this during her GCSE exams.

Another problem with teaching Catholic girls about Women of Attica is that these represented only a certain percentage of the female population of Athens. From a feminist point of view, and possibly even an empiricist point of view, students ought to know about Athens' female slaves and the teeming throngs of prostitutes: the concubines (mistresses---or live-in girlfriends, for men who didn't want a proper wife), the heteirai (the witty, musical, high-class and expensive entertainment) and the pornai (sex workers).

The big danger here, I always think, is the idea that it might be better to be a heteira than a proper wife of an Athenian, as the heteirai were educated in philosophy and the fine arts, could go to men's parties and the theatre, and could earn and save money. Associating women's education with sexual licentiousness is just awful, but because we have so little evidence of educated wives and daughters of Athenians, that's what we're left with.

Fortunately, the wives and daughters had religious duties and only their children had inheritance rights, so it is not too difficult to communicate to young minds that it was best, should you have been born in Classical Attica, to have been a plain ol' respectable female who married shortly after puberty and spent as much time as possible weaving. (This rather depended on how many slaves your husband had and if he needed you to assist him in his trade or in the fields.)

Sparta is less embarrassing as abstinence was part of the Spartan way of life, and Spartan men had to sneak out of their military barracks to visit their wives. (My pupils thought this must have been great fun.) Spartan women had to spend all their time in athletics because the Spartans thought strong mothers = strong babies. They also had to be emotionally tough, informing their sons that they had to come back from battle with their shields "or on them" and pretending to rejoice when these sons were slain.

Amusingly, Spartan women were also expected to sing songs of praise to Spartan men who behaved well and mock the ones who did poorly, which shows that the Spartans certainly knew all about male psychology.

Unfortunately, while looking up a primary source in my undergrad-era "Women in Classical Antiquity" book, I got stuck reading aaloud about Spartan weddings, which involved kidnapping, the bride having her hair chopped off and being dressed in men's clothes, and then being left on a pallet.

"Well, that's enough now, girls."

Happily, the GCSEs are not so interested in ephebophilia, so I will never have to mention it. Nor will I ever mention the heiteirai & pornai again, except just before the exam, in case it demands a frank discussion of Women's Lot.

The GCSE wants students to know how the lives of the Women of Attica differed from those of Spartan women, and possibly we are supposed to intimate to our students that the lives of Spartan women were better. I'm not convinced. At least in Athens, there was a peacetime and there was no perpetual sense of dread that the slaves might revolt. (Ninety percent of the population of Sparta were slaves, which is why the Spartans trained for war whenever not actually at war.) If you were lucky, you would derive great artistic enjoyment from your ornate and intricate weaving. But on the other hand, it might be more fun to exercise and compete than to weave all day and then at night hear the men downstairs laughing at the witty remarks of the heiterai. Personally I would love to praise men who do well and mock the ones who do badly. I can do the first, but the second is harder to get away with these days--unless you're in Scotland and can call it "banter."

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