I went through thirteen years of Classical education and only read ancient work by one woman in one of my classes. And that was in high school when we were preparing for the Catullus AP exam: we read a little bit of Sappho to help contextualize Catullus’ Carm. 51 (Ille mi par…). It is not that Sappho was not on the official courses when I was an undergrad or graduate student—I either missed the subject in rotation or skipped it.
My scholarly world was not wholly barren of Sappho, however. When I was in graduate school I worked my way through a fairly extensive reading list of Roman and Greek authors. I had some of it completed before I arrived, but spent the better part of every break and summer for three years working on a pared down canon of Classical texts. Of all those authors, there Sappho was the only woman on the list.
(And, to make matters worse, I am sure I encountered articles equivocating on whether or not Sappho’s poems can even be taken seriously as compositions by women).
PhD comprehensive exams are not just about reading Latin and Greek: you also need to pass topic exams and literature exams. I read the Conte, the Pfeiffer; with my peers I made bibliographies and Oxford Classical Dictionary-like summaries for all the authors on the reading lists. I passed my exams and the worst error I made was confusing Plato’s Gorgias and Protagoras.
These exams are both about providing students with sufficient exposure to the CANON! Of ancient literature as it has been passed down for us to do a credible job at imitating our betters. They also prepare us with the raw knowledge to speak and teach in the field. So, I made it through a PhD and into a tenure track teaching job knowing the names of only two women authors from the ancient world: Sappho and Sulpicia (and the latter only because I was a research assistant and got tasked with finding citations of an article about her). The Latin poet has also had her existence questioned.
And, I suspect like my own teachers, I perpetuated what I had learned. The first few years after the PhD are hectic, especially if you end up in a teaching heavy program where you are also expected to publish. When I taught a “Classical Literature Survey” course in my first year, it was pretty much the authors from my PhD reading lists (excepting those I really didn’t like.)
So I taught and wrote—I professionally professed!—with such an impoverished knowledge of the ancient world that I shudder to admit it know. I somehow didn’t know of the fragmentary work of Korinna—who allegedly made Pindar a better poet—or Praxilla. I did not learn of Nossis or Erinna until I started reading through the Greek Anthology to find more material for this website. I did not learn of dozens of other names until I received an email from a professor from my undergraduate English department. Certainly, some of this is my fault since I did not go looking for these authors. (And the list of the books below makes it clear that it was possible to learn more.) But the way we build and prioritize the received canon of works that a Classicist needs to read exacerbates it.
One gets the impression from reading overviews of ancient literature that women were not engaged in its production with the exception of a very few. Given the pervasive nature of song culture in early Greece, however, it seems incredible that there were not many more women’s songs. (And Andromache Karanika does a fabulous job of thinking about this in her book Voices at Work, 2014.) We see depiction of women playing instruments and singing in art and we hear them depicted singing while weaving. And this is just the beginning.
Well into the imperial age, we have evidence that elite women were engaged in activities similar to those of men. But we have limited examples of their work because ancients did not keep them. While we have the work of Julia Balbilla (see Patricia Rosenmeyer’s book for more), it survives in inscriptions and not because it was preserved intentionally. The marginalization of women authors started when contemporary male audiences and subsequent editors did not record and circulate their poetry and songs. As Classicists we need to admit and publicize more broadly that the canon we have is not purely accidental. Women authors have been systematically left out for millennia.
And it is not just poetry and literary evidence which is either lost or ignored. We have, I think, sufficient evidence that women were actively engaged in philosophy as well. The philosophical fragments of Perictione—pseudonymous and attributed to Plato’s mother—the Pythagorian Aesara (5th Century BCE), and the Spartan Phintys (3rd Century BCE) are not included in any of the new philosophical collections in the Loeb Classical Library. Even though the editors find the time to track down nearly every testimony for most minor philosophers. A small part of Perictione’s fragmentary text preserved by Stobaeus is printed on LCL 527 (437-8) in support of other Pythagoreans.
Last year I spent some time reading through and translating poets like Nossis; this year I pushed myself through the fragments of the philosophers above. While the provenance and authority of the texts are beyond problematic, their content is important. Perictione and Phintys present what is purportedly treatises on how to be a good woman from a philosophical perspective. And they read more like male fantasy screeds. But I think we could also see them as engaged in some cultural and intellectual realpolitik. Perictione’s emphasis on what “likemindedness” really means to a wife (basically accepted everything her husband says, likes, and does) should make us re-think how audiences received Odysseus’ wish for Nausikaa in the Odyssey and reconsider James Redfield’s arguments for homonoia/homophrosune as signaling consent. Aesara’s work is fascinating to me because it breaks down the soul/body dichotomy which Plato really solidifies in Greek philosophical traditions and sees a more complex engagement between thought, anger, and desire.
I have made a little noise talking about the problem with canons in classical curricula and how we overlook that what we have been taught is beautiful shapes what we look for in the world. We have to be critical in examining the way previous generations’ curation of the canon has shaped what we consider marginal and what we pass down to our students. We need women philosophers in the Loeb Classical Library. We need handbooks of the history of Classical literature and scholarship that do a more accurate job of telling us what women were doing in the ancient world and why we have such little extant evidence. And I don’t mean to imply that there are not scores of people doing this work already; but I think we need to make this kind of work more central to what we do as a discipline.
Yes, the ancients did not preserve much of the work created by women. This does not mean that it did not exist. Our discipline’s history until very recently is shaped by not having the evidence and by not teaching it. (And thanks much to the work of the Women’s Classical Caucus.) But part of figuring out whether or not Classical Studies as a discipline can survive is a critical re-evaluation of how we teach and learn about the ancient world at every level.
There are many good texts about women in the ancient world. Below are some about women authors. Please email or comment to add some more. For great resources, please visit Diotima.
Balmer, Josephine. 1996. Classical Women Poets.
Greene, Ellen. 2005. Women Poets in Ancient Greece and Rome. Oklahoma.
Plant, I.M. 2004. Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology. Oklahoma.
Raynor, Diane J. 1991. Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece. Berkeley and Los Angeles
Snyder, J. M. 1989. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Southern Illinois.
The title of this post is in part inspired by Sarah Bond’s repeated reminders that the women in the ancient world are more than Sappho.