Women In The Hellenistic World

.. . A couple of examples of women’s literacy come from two places; poetry and the ability to sign one’s own marriage contract. We know of female poets in Classical Greece but now in Egypt with the new amounts of papyri women’s works remained intact as proof of their literacy. But the important part is that of women being able to sign their marriage contracts.

Education became available to women in this period as well. Hipparchia, one of the first female Cynical philosophers even received an education based on the curriculum of a Greek boy. She received an education in rudimentary mathematics, music, literature, and of physical education. The aspect of women even being allowed to be involved in physical education is a radically new ideal. This because “Athletics were an essential part of the male curriculum that was opened to women in the Hellenistic period precisely because the Classical ideal no longer prevailed.”(Pomeroy, 137) This now allowed women to enter gymnasiums and exercise nude in the close proximity to men – although this happened quite rarely. The next aspect of the liberation of Hellenistic women is that of the strength and cleverness of the royal women.

Three of these women come to the table when considering who they are; Alexander’s mother, Bernice II and Cleopatra VII. All three of these women used their cunning and influence to get what they wanted. With Alexander’s mother she had to compete with other women to get her son into position to take the throne after Philip II’s death. As Pomeroy put it: “Many Macedonian kings indulged in both formal and informal polygamy, and because they often chose not to confer most-favored status on one of their wives – thereby making clear as well which of their sons was the designated successor to the throne – they fostered a climate of intrigue and struggle for power within their courts which could end in their own death at the hands of a power-hungry mother plotting of behalf of her son.” (Pomeroy, 121) This caused Alexander’s mother to have to conspire against the other women in Philip’s court and lie and deceive the king himself to put Alexander where she wanted him. Bernice II was the wife of Ptolemy III. She exercised real political power and who left her mark on poetry and religion. She had access to a large fortune, which she spent on perfume of roses and racehorses (traditionally a male hobby).

Her income was from the shipping in her city of Cyrene. She owned ships that transported grain on the Nile, which also added to her wealth. Her power came not from the trickery that she had to perform, but from her economic situation. She came to the table with wealth and didn’t have to fight to be able to ensure her kin to the throne. But Cleopatra VII was the most famous.

Cleopatra inherited the throne at seventeen with her brother Ptolemy XVII, then ten. Pomeroy states on Cleopatra: ” .. the phenomenon of Cleopatra must be set firmly in the context of Ptolemaic queens, shrewd, able and ambitious. She was not a courtesan, an exotic plaything for Roman generals. Rather, Cleopatra’s liaisons with the Romans must be considered to have been, from her viewpoint, legitimate dynastic alliances with promises of the greatest possible success and profit to the queen and to Egypt.” (Pomeroy, 124) She used Caesar to ensure the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt even under Roman control. She even had a son with Caesar and traveled to Rome to stay as a courtesan until his assassination.

The final aspect of female Hellenized liberation was represented in their news occupations. There are four categories of these occupations; arts and literature, practical jobs, medicinal jobs and prostitution. The first of these, arts and literature involved some of the following; dancers, musicians, painters and poets. The first three showing the depth of Classical Greek arts transposing into the Hellenized world. But the latter, the poets, show the literacy of the occupational women that lived in the Hellenistic period. The next group, the practical jobs, show how women are now able to come out of the house and find applications of their capabilities in the world. Some of these jobs included; weavers, pot makers, launders, grocers and bar-maids.

All that these show is an ability to prove women’s ability to function outside of the domestic sphere. This contradicts the ideals of Aristotle that were stated earlier. Although most of these jobs just included an extension of their domestic duties as they were in Classical Greece, they did show an integration among the Hellenistic women into the work force of that time – a distinction between those said women and those of Classical Greece. The third category of occupations among Hellenistic women is that of the medical field. While most men of that time stayed with the healing of diseases most women in the medical field were midwives and wet-nurses.

They handled such applications as the functions of menstruation, childbirth, nursing and menopause. The fourth category is that of the prostitute. The distinction between primarily two types of prostitutes should be made. The first is that of the freed woman’s and the second is that of the exposed or enslaved woman’s. Pomeroy stated that one of the main reasons for why women were exposed and forced into enslaved prostitution was a result of the requirement of the family of that girl to pay a dowry to her husband. For lower class families this could have been devastating, especially if there was more than one daughter. But prostitution could be very rewarding.

There were even recorded cases when prostitutes had to pay higher taxes when traveling from one country to the next. It was the case that these women had to pay more not because of moral reasons but simply because they could afford to do so. The new Greek woman – the newly Hellenized liberations – left her Classical Greek heritage behind. But this is so only in the new spectrum of her rights in the new world. Never did she leave her Greek heritage behind in the aspect of being Greek.

She was still Greek in the ethnic sense but not in the ideal sense. She brought a whole new definition onto the women of the Hellenized world. She raged against the Classical Greek ideal of what a women should be – as Aristotle saw it, a obedient women working on the domestic sphere being devoid of any intellectual prowess and cleverness and barely better than a slave. But Plato saw, as the Epicureans and the Cynics did some time later, that women were just as capable at thinking intellectually and having the faculties to compete in something like the political sphere. She also acquired a myriad of legal rights.

With her literacy came an ability to sign marriage contrasts which helped secure her rights in a marriage and dull her exploitation. It also allowed her to no longer need an escort in such matters that would have been needed in Classical Greece. She could in some places have become a magistrate because of her economic status as was the case with Phile of Priene. Her education allowed to become more literate, become better founded in mathematics, have a knowledge of ancient Greek literature and even participate in the gymnasiums that allowed her to join the ranks of the educated class in Classical and Hellenistic Greece. The royal women in this time also experienced as new found power.

Alexander’s mother biding and successfully instituting her son into position to the throne. Bernice II found that her economic status could carry her a long way. Leaving marks on the arts and poetry especially. Cleopatra VII found that her beauty and cleverness could help to secure the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt for years. She even had a child with the famous Roman emperor Caesar. Showing her strength and intelligence in the political sphere as well. And the occupations of Greek women in this time were expanded. Now women could leave the house and pursue other jobs of interest.

And at least earn an income on her own. Women in the Hellenistic age were allowed to enter all of the above fields. They became smarter, legally freer and economically stronger. But what was the real zeal that made these ideas reality? In a quote form Fantham it is made clear: “In the Classical period, respectable women – at least those of Athens – had been able to look forward to only two journeys: the first from their fathers house to heir husband’s, the next from their husband’s house to the grave. But in the Hellenistic period both women and men migrated to the newly conquered territories and forged new lives for themselves in the frontier outpost of Hellenism.” (Fantham, 140) A rebellion against the classic ideal of the Greek woman became inevitable. History Essays.