Ancient Greece was dominated by men: women were denied legal personhood, meaning they were seen as part of a man’s household and expected to act as such. Records on women in Athens during the Hellenistic Period are relatively rare, and no woman ever achieved citizenship, effectively barring every woman from public life.
Despite these restrictions, remarkable women did, of course, exist. Whilst many of them have had their names and deeds lost to history, here are 5 ancient Greek women who were celebrated in their day, and are still noteworthy over 2,000 years later.
One of the most famous names in ancient Greek lyric poetry, Sappho was from the island of Lesbos and probably born to an aristocratic family around the year 630 BC. She and her family were exiled to Syracuse, in Sicily, around 600 BC.
During her lifetime, she wrote around 10,000 lines of poetry, all of which were designed to be accompanied by music as per the tradition of lyric poetry. Sappho was greatly admired during her lifetime: she was viewed as one of the canonical Nine Lyric Poets praised in Hellenistic Alexandria, and some have described her as the ‘Tenth Muse’.
Sappho is perhaps most famous for her erotic poetry. Whilst she is known today for her homoerotic writing and expression of feeling, debates have raged amongst scholars and historians as to whether her writing was actually expressing heterosexual desire. Her poetry was predominantly love poetry, although ancient scripts suggest some of her work was also concerned with family and familial relations.
Her work is still read, studied, analysed and enjoyed today, and Sappho remains an influence on contemporary writers and poets.
2. Agnodice of Athens
If she exists, Agnodice is the first recorded female midwife in history. At the time, women were forbidden from studying medicine, but Agnodice disguised herself as a man and studied medicine under Herophilus, one of the leading anatomists of his day.
Once she had trained, Agnodice found herself predominantly helping women in labour. As many felt embarrassed or ashamed in the presence of men, she would gain their trust by showing them she was a woman. As a result, she became more and more successful as the wives of prominent Athenians requested her services.
Jealous of her success, her male counterparts accused her of seducing her female patients (believing she was a man): she was put on trial and revealed she was a woman, and thus not guilty of seduction but of practising illegally. Fortunately, the women she had treated, many of whom were powerful, came to her rescue and defended her. The law was changed as a result, allowing women to practise medicine.
Some historians doubt whether Agnodice was actually a real person at all, but her legend has grown over the years. Women struggling to practise medicine and midwifery later held her up as an example of social change and progression.
3. Aspasia of Miletus
Aspasia was one of the most prominent women in 5th-century BC Athens. She was born in Miletus, presumably to a wealthy family as she received an excellent and comprehensive education which was unusual for women of the time. Exactly when or why she came to Athens is unclear.
The details of Aspasia’s life are somewhat sketchy, but many believe when she arrived in Athens, Aspasia ended up running a brothel as a hetaera, a high-class prostitute valued for her conversation and ability to provide good company and entertainment as much as her sexual services. Hetaera had more independence than any other women in ancient Athens, even paying taxes on their income.
She became the partner of the Athenian statesman Pericles, with whom she bore a son, Pericles the Younger: it is unclear whether the pair were married, but Aspasia certainly had a great deal of influence on her partner, Pericles, and met with resistance and hostility from the Athenian elite at times as a result.
Many held Aspasia responsible for Athens’ role in the Samian and Peloponnesian Wars. She later lived with another prominent Athenian general, Lysicles.
Nevertheless, Aspasia’s wit, charm and intelligence were widely recognised: she knew Socrates and appears in the writings of Plato, as well as several other Greek philosophers and historians. It’s thought she died around 400 BC.
4. Hydna of Scione
Hydna and her father, Scyllis, were revered as heroes by the Greeks for sabotaging the Persian fleet. Hydna was an accomplished long-distance swimmer and free diver, taught by her father. When the Persians invaded Greece, they sacked Athens and crushed Greek forces at Thermopylae before turning their attention to the Greek navy.
Hydna and her father swam 10 miles out to sea and dove underneath the Persian ships, cutting their moorings so that they began to drift: either into each other or running aground, damaging them to the extent that they were forced to delay their planned attack. As a result, the Greeks had more time to prepare and eventually managed to achieve a victory.
In some versions of the story, Scyllis was in fact a double agent, who the Persians believed was working for them, diving to try and find sunken treasure in the area.
In a show of gratitude, the Greeks erected statues of Hydna and Scyllis at Delphi, the most sacred site in the Greek world. The statues are believed to have been plundered by Nero in the 1st century AD and taken to Rome: their whereabouts today are unknown.
5. Arete of Cyrene
Sometimes recognised as the first female philosopher, Arete of Cyrene was the daughter of the philosopher Aristippus of Cyrene, who was a student of Socrates. He established the Cyrenaic School of philosophy, which was one of the first to pioneer the idea of hedonism in philosophy.
The followers of the school, the Cyrenaics, with Arete among them, argued that discipline and virtue resulted in pleasure, whereas anger and fear generated pain.
Arete also championed the idea that it was perfectly acceptable to possess and enjoy worldly goods and pleasures as long as your life was not controlled by this and that you could recognise that their enjoyment was transitory and corporeal.
Arete was said to have written over 40 books, and she ran the Cyrenaic School for many years. She is mentioned by many Greek historians and philosophers, including Aristocles, Aelius and Diogenes Laërtius. She also educated and raised her son, Aristippus the Younger, who took over the running of the school after her death