WOMEN IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Sue Blundell, published by the British Museum Press at £12.99. 224pp. ISBN: 0-7141-2219-X
I suspect that most readers of WD will, like myself, have some knowledge of the classical “civilisations” of the ancient Mediterranean - we do, after all, “do” them at school and the Greek and Roman myths are some of the first that children encounter and read, and we are also told that the Greeks gave us “democracy”, though of course their idea of democracy was not ours. However in this book Blundell has produced a very thorough work indeed on this hitherto neglected and hidden aspect of Greek society and culture and seems to have examined the position and image of women from all conceivable angles.
One of the problems of the book is that it while it seeks to give both an overview and an in-depth analysis of the position of women across the Greek world, much of the illustrative material is drawn from Athens which appears to have been the most profoundly and systematically misogynistic of all the Greek city states. This bias is largely forced upon Blundell by the fact that the amount of material and evidence surviving from the other city states and areas of Greek culture and settlement are relatively meagre, or indeed absent, compared to those for Athens. Although the distinctive military culture of Sparta, and the position of women within it, is examined in some detail, evidence for the rest of the Greek world. As well as examining the realities of life for women in Athens, and in particular their involvement in the various cults open to them, the book also addresses the images of womanhood presented by the myths and by the Goddesses, by the substantial corpus of classical Greek drama and poetry and in the writings of philosophers and doctors.
In many respects this is a very depressing book and one which women at least may find difficult to read without a growing sense of anger. It's certainly not a book you can just sit down and read - it needs to be taken in measured doses and put down when necessary while you cool off. Seen from another angle, it provides a fascinating insight into the Hellenic culture and mindset from which ermerged St Paul, whose attitudes and bigotries shaped (or do I mean perverted?) early Christianity into the misogynistic, control-obsessed and intolerant monolith it later became. Without Paul, or if Paul had been the product of almost any culture but the Hellenic one, the history of Christianity would probably have been entirely different.
I suspect you will need something of a masochistic streak to actually enjoy this book, but there is enough disturbing material here to make it a rewarding read for those prepared to face the material. The intellectual equivalent of a hair shirt, but recommended for those with a serious interest in Greek culture or with a rosy view of the pagan past.