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Hellenistic Women - Historical Essay Example

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Sewanee University of the South
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In most societies, women have always held a lower position as compared to men (Ilan). While men have always been associated with power and authority, the position of women in the society has always varied. This ranges from women with more power to women with less power in the society. While some women in history were allowed to participate in politics, other societies were very strict on rules barring women from politics and leadership. According to Constantelos to (pp. 1), the period of Hellenism is believed to have lasted for over three thousand years. According to this author, some women during this period had a significant role in the society. However, accounts of different authors reveal that the roles of Hellenistic women varied. This paper will focus on the different roles of Hellenistic women as documented by different authors.

According to the publication made by Constantelos to (pp. 1), most women during the Hellenistic period were associated with philanthropism. Some of the characters that the author has included to describe women during this period include faithfulness and sacrificial love. These roles were evident in the position women held in the society. It is believed that women during the Hellenistic period held an important position in in the family, entire society, politics and religion. It has been revealed that some women during the Hellenistic period were able to read and write. Evidence of this exists in the beautiful poetic works made by women during the Hellenistic period. The nature of poetry that these women wrote can be categorised as philosophical. One of the poets that have been identified by Constantelos includes Sappho of Lebos who has also been described as the tenth muse. Another woman poet during the sixth century is Corinna of Tanagara, Boeotia. In the fourth century, a famous female poet was known as Erinna also existed. More love poems and epigrams were also composed during the fourth century by female poets from Epizepheros, Locris. This implies that some women during the Hellenistic period were philosophers. It has also been documented that some of the disciples of Pythagoras and Plato were women. These women included Theano, Melissa, Axiotha, Pythagoras daughter and Pythagoras wife. The fact that these women had an opportunity to play an active role in the lives of the philosophers and philosophies of Plato and Pythagoras implies that they were a philosopher in their rights. The author admits that very little exist on women writing about fellow women during both the pre-Christian Hellenism and Christian Hellenism. This has been cited as one of the main reasons women were documented as being inferior to men.

According to Pomeroy (pp. 41), women during the Hellenistic period were required to be submissive to their husbands. The Classical democratic polis positioned men as the head of the house to rule over the wife and children. Pomeroy further indicates that some women during this period were brave enough to retaliate from what the society had prescribed. Popular literary forms of the Hellenistic period have presented Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes and Euripides as women who resisted the authority of their husbands. This move became of the reasons these Hellenistic women were regarded as heroines. The book by Pomeroy explains that women and men during the Hellenistic period often experienced a hostile relationship. Women began to gradually understand their rights as well as new positions they could hold in this society. Despite the fact that Greek women during the Hellenistic period were second to men, there was a notable difference between women of different social classes. For instance, women considered to be part of the ptolemaic nobility were greatly honoured (Pomeroy pp. 42). These were the wives as well as the daughters of prime-ranked military officials in Ptolemaic. The Hellenistic statues that in Cyprus of women considered to be of the Ptolemaic nobility are evidence that these women were highly respected in the society.

Tetlow (pp. 167) has documented the state of Hellenistic women in Macedonia before the reign of Alexander. It has been stated that children born in royal families had a status but not power. The aspect of power and influence was only acquired after one had proven to be intelligent, diplomatic, married or slaying a rival. The tendency of the Kings to mary many wives meant that power of individual women in the royal family was greatly reduced. However, it has been indicated that the Hellenistic women during this time established a strong bond with their children. Tetlow has also indicated that women from Illyrian during the Hellenistic period were very powerful. These women were strong to the extent that their authority could be an exercise in sensitive areas such as military and politics. One woman identified to have had such power is Eurydike, the mother of Philip II. Eurydike was ruthless in helping her younger son ascend to the throne. It is believed that Eurydike could read and write which helped her control power within her kingdom. She exercised total authority over her son Philip II despite the fact that the latter was the king. It has also been documented by Tetlow that the Illyrian women held powerful positions within the military. During this time of the reign of Philip II, women had a unique role in unifying different kingdoms. Through marrying a Thessalian woman, Philip II was able to consolidate Thessalia. This King also married the daughter of the King of Thrace as part of the peace agreement between the two territories.

According to Bach (pp. 104), there was a gap between the type of privileges awarded to men and those awarded to women. These disparities are reported to have been reduced during the Hellenistic period. As a result, men became willing and allowed their women to enjoy some of the privileges that were considered to have a low value. On the other hand, the Hellenistic women from the upper social class had more access to power. One of the ways these women exercised their powers was through their children. Bach has explained that women were very close to their sons and daughters and as a result, they exercised total control. These are some of the conditions that made women stronger in a kingdom after their sons ascended to power. The condition has been described as female imperil royalty and allocated more power and influence after the death of kings (their husbands). From various accounts, it is evident that mothers of kings had more power as compared to the wives of kings. A word from a kings mother could be considered as an order. A unique account of sexual politics has also been describing by Bach through an example of Olympias. This is a classic tragedy that saw a queen assume power while Alexander was away at war.

In a book authored by Ilan (pp. 4), the topic of the position of women in the society during the Hellenistic period has always had different accounts. An example from the Bible reveals that women such as Esther had a powerful influence in their societies through their kings. According to the description provided by Ilan, the power and influence of women during the Hellenistic period depended on social stratification. For instance, women in the royal family could exercise authority over men outside the royal family. However, wives remained submissive to their husbands but had authority over their sons.

It has been established that women during the Hellenistic period had different influence in the society. Some were very powerful while some were powerless depending on the aspect of the social class. For instance, wives of Kings had a lot of authorities over their sons who in most cases ascended to power. One can agree with the argument presented by Constantelos that very few literate women during the Hellenistic period wrote about women. This makes it challenging to reveal all the powerful and different roles that women played outside the family setting. It is possible that some women such as the followers of Pythagoras and Plato made a positive contribution to some of the most famous philosophies. Other women rebelled and became heroines. It has also been established that the wives of highly ranked soldiers were highly honored during the Hellenistic period. Despite all these different accounts, Hellenistic women were still expected to play their roles at the family level.


Works Cited

Bach, Alice. Women, Seduction, and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Constantelos, Demetrios. "Women and philanthropy in the history Hellenism." Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (2003).

Ilan, Tall. Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006.

Pomeroy, Sarah. Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra. Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

Tetlow, Elisabeth Meier. Women, Crime and Punishment in Ancient Law and Society: Volume 2: Ancient Greece. New York: A&C Black, 2009.


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