Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 28.

Sue Blundell, Women in Classical Athens. Classical World Series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 106. ISBN 1-85399-543-6. UK£8.95.

Jo-Marie Claassen
Department of Ancient Studies, University of Stellenbosch

As a lecturer in classical culture at a South African university, where one cannot always assume a broad base of common 'cultural literacy', to use the now much-disparaged term originally coined by E.D. Hirsch,[[1]] I am always on the lookout for possible teaching texts for undergaduate courses in this field. Seldom have I come across a text so admirably attuned to what I consider should be included in my own second-year course in gender relations in the ancient world. The book can also work as a high school reader in the context of the wider learning areas envisaged by the South African Curriculum 2005 approach, but also in the embryonic new 'Learning Programme for Latin and Classical Culture' at present under consideration by our local education authorities.[[2]]

Blundell does not assume any great knowledge of matters Greek in her intended readership and very kindly and explicitly takes her lay readers by the hand. She has constructed her study of the women of Classical Athens very clearly around the functions of women relating to the cult of Athena, particularly as illustrated in the sculptures of the Parthenon. There are illustrations of other monuments, taken from museum resources scattered throughout Europe and the United States, but seven of the 22 illustrations (which include a time chart and a chart of the sculptures) relate directly to the Parthenon, and this emphasis is carried through in the text. Its chapter headings do not make this relationship so explicit, but clearly show the ground to be covered: after an 'Introduction' (pp. 1-9), follow chapters on 'Unmarried Women' (pp. 10-28), 'Married Women' (pp. 29-80), 'Goddesses and Characters from Myth' (pp. 81-93), 'Other Women' (pp. 94-100) and a 'Conclusion' (pp. 100-02). Appendices include 'Suggestions for Further Reading' (pp. 102f.) and 'Suggestions for Further Study' (pp. 103f.) and an index (p. 105).

The further reading list gives brief resumés of texts I should myself suggest for any undergraduate reading, including, beside recent collections of essays, Pomeroy's seminal Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves and the useful collection of readings from sources by Lefkowitz and Fant, as well as Reeder's exhibition catalogue featuring the Pandora myth, and Just's monograph on Women in Athenian Law and Life.[[3]]

The introduction starts, predictably, with a brief history of the Parthenon and an excerpt from Pericles' funeral oration, his famous dictum on the desirability of anonymity for women. Blundell then sets out her scheme for her treatment of what can be known about Athenian women and lists the familiar problems besetting any such study: lack or bias of sources, dearth of women writers from the ancient world, and the colouring of much of what we have 'by male misunderstanding or prejudice' (p. 2). The chapter then places Athens in the Greek scheme of things for Blundell's lay readership, and concludes with a discussion of the Parthenon, its sculptures and what may be deduced about women by looking at these.

The second chapter starts with the manner of distinguishing the marital status of girls and women by their dress, as depicted on the Parthenon frieze, and then goes on to treat growing up in Athens, the role of women in public religious practices, Plato's revolutionary proposals for the 'gender-bending' integration of women (as the equals of men) in education and government and the consequent total erosion of all family life in his ideal state, and then gives a sober account of the most famous of female figures who may be seen as the prototypical 'gender-bender', Athena in her helmet, shield and spear (p. 14). Blundell intersperses discussion of various topics with frequent anecdotal vignettes, such as the trial of Hagnodike for wearing men's clothing, which ended in permission for any Athenian citizen women to become gynaecologists (Hyginus, Fab. 274). This precedes a continuation of her discussion of dress as female marker and change of dress as signifying change of status.

Blundell manages to incorporate feminist theory without a heavy theoretical apparatus, briefly dealing in this context, for instance, with 'gaze theory' in relation to women's non-attendance at athletic shows, and the post-Classical portrayal of naked goddesses, which she takes pains to set into social and religious context, with reference, also, to the taboos connected with Teiresias and Actaeon, who were both punished for viewing a goddess naked. Useful at undergraduate level is Blundell's easy manner of relating past and present: tales of male infatuation with female statues are, she says, '[no more bizarre than] tales about blow-up dolls which circulate in our own society' or 'infatuation with a TV or pop star' (p. 21).

In any treatment of unmarried women the onset of puberty cannot be neglected, and for this Aristotle is quoted as a source, including his stress on the necessity of marriage for young women as 'marriage, sex and motherhood were seen as the only long-term roles available to a woman' (p. 25). This leads to a case study under the next heading 'Phrasikleia: a woman who died before she was married', which quotes the epitaph of the unfortunate maiden. The chapter ends with a discussion, again in jargon-free language, of men's fears of the Mystery that is Woman as embodied in the story of Pandora, complete with quotations from Hesiod, but ending with another reference to the cult statue of Athena as perhaps the reminder of 'what to them was the downside of femininity -- women's ability to trap and deceive men' (p. 28). This is one of the few instances where the author's scheme of arrangement around the Parthenon as cult centre serves perhaps to distort her interpretative use of available material.

From the above detailed discussion of a single chapter, the general tenor of the work may be deduced, and it is not my intention to treat each of the subsequent chapters in similar detail. This slim volume (106 pages in all) clearly does not intend to be exhaustive, but I did feel that the last chapter, 'Other Women', could have extended a little further that its five and a half pages. In the South African context students are greatly interested not only in the social lives of the upper classes in the ancient world, but also in the lives of slaves, aliens and the dispossessed of any ilk. Blundell gives a short overview each of metics, slaves, and prostitutes, briefly speculating on the dimensions of extra- marital sex in the lives of Athenian men and then ends with a few case studies ('a prostitute goes into retirement'; the affluent Theodote, from Xenophon's Memorablia 3.11.4 as an example of a 'success story'; Neiaira, from Demosthenes 59.114, whose sad history Blundell calls 'one of the most depressing stories' [p. 97]; and Aspasia, the one woman at Athens with supreme political influence).

The work is useful and unassuming. Yet in the context of the 'student-centred learning' which is so prominent in educational thought at present, its short overview of feminine life at Athens may perhaps be considered too well packaged. Its very strengths are in that sense its weaknesses. A lecturer prescribing Blundell's volume to, say, a second-year class may be tempted to feel that the picture given is complete enough. My personal preference is for a messier approach: students should grapple with some excerpts from Plato and Aristotle (in translation), should themselves deduce the role of a Greek housewife from the self-satisfied Ischomachus' precepts to his dear little wife from Xenophon's Oeconomicus 7-10, or should themselves judge what male attitudes about the ideal woman are evidenced by Plutarch's advice to newly-weds. They should have read more than a single sentence from Pericles' funeral oration. In short, they should study evidence from the ancient world at first hand. But, once they have done that, they will find Blundell's judicious compilation of sifted ancient evidence and measured modern comment informative and satisfying as a back-up, giving order to what they have themselves discovered.


[[1]] E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. (Boston 1987); E.D. Hirsch, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy(Boston 1988); E.D. Hirsch, A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Our Children Need to Know (Boston 1989).

[[2]] Still incomplete, and unpublished; originally initiated by a committee instituted at the behest of the Western Cape Education Department, but now also under consideration by the National Education Department. The 'learning experiences' (description of academic content) for Grades 10 to 12 still need to be written.

[[3]] S.B.Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves (London 1975); M.R.Lefkowitz and M.B. Fant (edd.), Womens' Life in Greece and Rome (London 1989); E.D. Reeder (ed.), Pandora: Women in Classical Greece (Baltimore & Princeton 1995); R. Just, Women in Athenian Law and Life (London 1989).