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Sarah B. Pomeroy-Goddesses,Whores, Wives And Slaves-Women in Classical Antiquity


Today’s sharings from the Blue House of HYGEIA are two excerpts from Sarah B. Pomeroy’s ground braking, trail blazing and influential work, ‘Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity’. Schocken Book, New York. 1975 first publication, 1995 for this re-issue.

From her Wikipedia:

Pomeroy’s first book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity was published in 1975 and is one of the first English works on women’s history in any period. Its lasting influence led to its reissue in 1994, and it has been described by an editor at Random House as “one of the five paradigm-changing books of the 20th century.” The work has been translated into German, Italian and Spanish.:  It has since been used as a textbook in many university-level courses on gender studies, and Pomeroy herself describes the book as being part of her teaching the “first course in America on women in antiquity.”

Her other works include Xenophon, Oeconomicus: A Social and Historical Commentary (1994), Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Representations and Realities (1998), Spartan Women (2002), and, with Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, the textbooks Ancient Greece: a Political, Social, and Cultural History (4th edition, 2017) and A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture (3rd edition, 2011).



This book was conceived when I asked myself what women were doing while men were active in all the areas traditionally emphasized by classical scholars. the overwhelming ancient and modern preference for political and military history, in addition to the current fascination with intellectual history, has obscured the record of those people who were excluded by sex or class from participation in the political and intellectual life of their societies.

The “glory of classical Athens” is a commonplace of the traditional approach to Greek history. The intellectual and artistic products of Athens were, admittedly, dazzling. But rarely has there been a wider discrepancy between the cultural rewards a society had to offer and women’s participation in that culture. Did his wife Xanthippe ever hear Socrates’ dialogues on beauty and truth? How many women actually read the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides? What did women do instead? Most important, why was it necessary for the Athenians to make such a distinction between the culture of men and that of women? When pagan goddesses were, in their way, as powerful as gods, why was the status of human females so low?

The “grandeur of Rome” is another axiom of ancient history. The focus of Roman history has also tended to be on the political deeds of male society—winning and governing an empire. Roman women were not in practice excluded from participation in social, political, and cultural life to the same extent as Greek women. Yet the prevailing scholarly opinion that some Roman women, at least, were emancipated likewise needs revision. In comparison to Athenian women, some Roman woman appear to have been fairly liberated, but never did Roman society encourage women to engage in the same activities as men in the same social class.

This book spans a period of more than fifteen hundred years. The Greek section begins with Bronze Age mythology and legends surrounding the fall of Troy, traditionally fixed at 1184 B.C., and proceeds through the Dark Age and Archaic period to the Classical world of the fifth century B.C. and the Hellenistic period. The Roman section covers the Roman Republic and the transition to Empire with the advent of Augustus in 31 B.C., and ends with the death of Constantine in A.D. 337, but concentrates on the late Republic and early Empire. My aim was to write a social history of women through the centuries in the Greek and Roman worlds. There is no comprehensive book on this subject in English.

I have had to make some difficult decisions concerning the ancient sources which were appropriate for use in this study. The available evidence is archaeological and literary. The literary testimony presents grave problems to the social historian. Women pervade nearly every genre of classical literature, yet often the bias of the author distorts the information. Aside from some scraps of lyric poetry, the extant formal literature of classical antiquity was all written by men. In addition, misogyny taints much ancient literature. The different genres of ancient poetry vary in reliability for the social historian. How much of what satirists or rejected lovers pour out in elegiac poetry about women can be acceptable evidence for the modern historian? I believe it is also necessary to avoid drawing conclusions about Greek women of the Classical period from the depiction of Bronze Age heroines in Greek tragedy. Tragedies have been examined to provide insight into the attitudes of particular poets toward women—in them the poet reveals his ideals and fantasies about women—but tragedies cannot be used as an independent source for the life of average women.

Greek comedy, on the other hand, of both the Classical and Hellenistic periods, shows ordinary people rather than heroes and heroines, and is a more reliable source for the social historian. Among prose authors, ancient historians, biographers, and orators provide the soundest and most extensive information about women. Although Herodotus and Thucydides are poor sources for the lives of Greek women, later historians and biographers were frequently fascinated by the activities and personalities of famous women. Of course, many ancient historians, influenced by their ideal of womanhood, were led to bitter disapproval of the actual women who were being described. The numerous orations surviving from antiquity also provide a wealth of material about women’s roles and legal status, although, of course, their bias is polemical.

Lastly, the writings of ancient philosophers are useful, for most of them propound moral views on women rooted in contemporary society, whether they accept or reject them. In addition to history, biography, oratory, and philosophy, for the Roman period there are extensive collections of legal texts and judicial commentary. Among Latin prose literature, the letters of Cicero and Pliny are fruitful sources for the private lives of women in their social class.

Ancient history, to a considerable degree, has been basically the study of the ruling classes. The women who are known to us from the formal literature of antiquity are mainly those who belonged to or associated with the wealthy or intellectually elite groups of society. It must also be recognized that there is more information available on women who were famous—whether for good or evil. I have felt that my task was to examine the history of all women, and to avoid the emphasis on the upper classes and their literature. There is not much material available, but I was greatly aided in the Roman section especially by the recent publication of several scholarly works by historians who included women and the lower classes in their studies.

Evidence from the fine arts, including sculpture, vase painting, frescoes, mosaics, and depictions of women on tombstones and coins, as well as objects used by women—e.g., ornaments, kitchen utensils, looms, and furniture—are useful in reconstructing the private life of women. Written evidence that would not be classified as formal literature can be found in the graffiti on ancient buildings as well as in the inscriptions on ancient monuments. Documents written on papyrus are a most important primary source for studying the economic, legal, and social aspects of women’s lives in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Since most of the extant papyri come from Egypt, these texts record the activities of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian women living in that country. Among the papyri are letters, legal documents, prayers, and charms written by or for women. These texts are the ancient equivalent of the private letters and diaries which have proven prime sources for the lives of women in later eras.

The story of the women of antiquity should be told now, not only because it is a legitimate aspect of social history, but because the past illuminates contemporary problems in relationships between men and women. Even though scientific technology and religious outlook clearly distinguish ancient culture from modern, it is most significant to note the consistency with which some attitudes toward women and the roles women play in Western society have endured through the centuries.



IN 18 B.C. according to the historian Cassius Dio there were more upper-class men than women. Such is my perception of the ratio of males to females, not only in the Roman upper class in the days of Augustus, but, with few exceptions, in all social strata throughout classical antiquity. A selection from the crude and haphazard data of various periods and places in antiquity shows that males outnumbered females by at least two to one. These are the sex ratios to be deduced from the funerary artifacts of the Dark Age and Archaic period, the prosopographical studies of propertied families in Classical Athens, sepulchral inscriptions of slaves and freedmen in the early Empire, and the list of children receiving the alimentary fund at Veleia.

Were there actually fewer females than males in antiquity, or is the apparent disproportion between the sexes illusory? Demographers point Out that when a census is taken in an underdeveloped country, women are not adequately counted. Certainly statistics cannot be based on the sort of evidence cited here. Demography, in any case, is a dangerous field, and it would be incautious to argue that the disproportion between men and women was as vast as our evidence indicates. Either women were underenumerated when living and undercommemorated after death to an extent that can only be described as startling, or there actually were fewer women than men, or both of these factors operated simultaneously. If, following years of civil war and proscriptions—when far more men than women were killed and, in the aftermath of war, huge contingents of veterans were exported as colonists—as Cassius Dio records, there were still more men than women at Rome, then it is likely that in periods of peace the disproportion between the sexes was even greater. There can be little doubt that female infanticide was practiced, apparently more in Hellenistic than in Classical Greece; the parents’ financial situation and the general political climate probably were the major determinants in deciding whether infant girls would be raised. Moreover, poor health resulting from a diet inferior to that accorded boys—as indicated by the writings of Xenophon, the Persepolis inscriptions, and the discriminatory alimentary allotments at Rome —followed by childbearing at an immature age, resulted in women’s life expectancy being shorter than men’s by five to ten years. If fewer female infants were raised, and if women’s lives were shorter, the result would inevitably manifest itself in a disproportionate sex ratio.

Certainly the attitude of ancient society toward the relative importance of the activities of men and women was such that most women were less likely to be described by ancient historians or to be commemorated by enduring sepulchral monuments. The glaring exception to undercommemoration is noted by Keith Hopkins, who points out that, among women whose ages are recorded on their tombstones, wives who died in their childbearing years and predeceased their husbands are more likely than other women to be commemorated. We tend to forget that—despite a dazzling veneer of literary and artistic achievements—Greece and Rome were warrior societies. What really mattered, even to the Athenians, the most intellectual of all, was winning wars and maintaining an empire, along with the training that was an essential prerequisite for these goals. Except in their role as bearers of future soldiers, most women were peripheral to these concerns.

The women who are known to us are those who influenced matters of interest to men. Most is known on the lowest level of society—about prostitutes, and—on the highest level—about women who played a role in politics: Hellenistic queens and those Roman women who asserted themselves in traditionally masculine spheres of activity. The names of a few poetesses have been immortalized but, for the majority of them, little remains beyond their names and the comments of later critics. It is no surprise that the only woman in antiquity who could be the subject of a full-length biography is Cleopatra. Yet, unlike Alexander, whom she rivals as the theme of romance and legend, Cleopatra is known to us through overwhelmingly hostile sources. The reward of the “good” woman in Rome was likely to be praise in stereotyped phrases; in Athens she won oblivion.

In contrast to the scarcity of reliable historical information about women are the abundant portrayals of women in art and literature, from the Neolithic figurines and nameless mourners and flute girls depicted on pottery to the well-known heroines of tragedy and the fictionalized mistresses of elegiac poets. It would appear that in Classical Athens, where respectable women were ideally in little evidence, artists were most prolific and inventive in creating them. Banished from participation in men’s lives, women returned to haunt men’s imaginations, dreams, and nightmares. Poets, Athenian and otherwise, were not uniformly misogynistic, and the literary portraits of women, even when monstrous, show self-assertion, self-esteem, dignity, and rage at injustice—and not all of them were monstrous. I can think of no other literature in which women are such compelling figures, beginning with Andromache and Penelope. These Galateas are so seductive that scholars have chosen to pursue them with greater zeal than they display in their attempts to study flesh-and-blood women: no one yet has adequately explained the relationship between, for example, the heroines of epic or Athenian drama and the women who were living contemporaries of the poets. It may be that the gulf between fact and fiction was so broad and the relationship so obscure that it is not to be perceived from this vantage point.

In this account I have attempted to find out about the realities of women’s existence in the ancient world rather than concentrate on the images that men had of women. Yet to compose a polemic against the men of Greece and Rome and to write a brief in defense of their women are not the proper objectives of a historian. Nor would it be defensible to pronounce a verdict based on modern preferences, noting that although the basic patriarchal power structure was similar in Greece and Rome, Roman women appear to have led more satisfying lives as a result of the deepening of the marriage relationship and the transference of the possibilities of the finer kind of love from homosexual to heterosexual relationships. I hope I may be forgiven for suggesting that the modern woman would have felt more at home among the Romans, since despite the perspective of some 2,000 years the women of classical antiquity evoke an emotional response. For the ancient views of women, as well as what can be determined about their actual lives, remain valid paradigms for the modern world.

To redress the balance, something can be said in favor of the men of classical antiquity. The Greeks were the first we know of to consider and question women’s role. This did not happen in other societies at the time or indeed much later. Whether they took actual notice of the women around them as they formulated their theories is debatable. The product is a variegated fabric so finely woven that we cannot tell how much to attribute to the living women of the period and how much is due to men’s imagination.

A chasm gapes between the beastlike women in the verses of Semonides and the female watchdogs of Plato’s Republic; yet, upon closer analysis, the attitudes of one of the most celebrated misogynists and one of the greatest philogynists of antiquity show more similarities than differences. Even Plato—of ancient authors one of the most sympathetic to women—found that the one sex was in general inferior to the other, although he allowed for exceptions. Plato had strayed far from the mainstream of Greek thought. The views of Aristotle were more representative: he elucidated in detail the range of woman’s inferiority, from her passive role in procreativity to her limited capacity for mental activity. Serious intellectual thought about women continued: Stoicism, the most popular of the Hellenistic and Roman philosophies, directed women’s energies to marriage and motherhood. The argumentation is brilliant and difficult to refute. And this rationalized confinement of women to the domestic sphere, as well as the systematization of anti-female thought by poets and philosophers, are two of the most devastating creations in the classical legacy.

Sarah B. Pomeroy


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Sarah B. Pomeroy-Goddesses,Whores, Wives And Slaves-Women in Classical Antiquity

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