Aspasia’s Sisters

Mary Lefkowitz

  • The Family, Women and Death: Comparative Studies by Sally Humphreys
    Routledge, 210 pp, £15.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9322 5
  • The Golden Lyre: The Themes of the Greek Lyric Poets by David Campbell
    Duckworth, 312 pp, £28.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 7156 1563 7

A generation ago, standard ancient history courses paid little attention to domestic life. I vaguely remember being told that Aspasia was Pericles’s ‘mistress’ and that hetairai like her were often well-educated, and thus able better to serve as ‘companions’ for men than their less cultivated wives. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that undergraduates were encouraged to know how such women were educated not only to discuss poetry and philosophy but also to carry out the less academic functions of their profession. Such information had in fact survived antiquity, and much of it had already been translated into English, but the required texts concentrated on war, politics and ethics. Now, by contrast, the life story of the notorious courtesan Neaera, with its episodes of gang rape, blackmail and fraud, is parsed, discussed and analysed in the first-year Greek book used by many schools and universities. The consciousness (apparently) even of Classical scholars had been raised by the civil rights movement of the Sixties, so that in the Seventies and Eighties it became possible to study, sometimes for the space of an entire term’s course, Blacks or Slaves or Women or the Family in Antiquity.

In her new collection of essays Sally Humphreys tries to ask of ancient society the kinds of question anthropologists would want to be able to answer when they seek to explain to their colleagues the customs of a remote tribe. She is keenly aware that, as anthropologists have often done, she may be asking the wrong questions, and relying too heavily on modern analogies or notions. Her task is further complicated because there are no living natives to study or examine. The ancients speak to us, but cannot answer our inquiries; virtually every text that has meaning for the anthropologist was written down, and naturally not in the forms best suited for cultural analysis. Different kinds of evidence must be elicited over and over again from the same documents, much as if an anthropologist studying a modern society were allowed to view his subjects only on certain days of their own choosing, and then at a great distance, and constantly required to put on different pairs of spectacles. The only natives who address the foreign stranger directly are dead, speaking from their gravestones, on their own initiative and not in response to the questions he wants to ask.

Not surprisingly, given the nature of the material at her disposal, the most detailed and informative essay in the book describes what can be learned about family life from gravestones. Humphreys read hundreds of inscriptions, contemplated the scenes represented on pottery and stone tomb monuments, painstakingly reconstructed family trees, and analysed the patterns of burial in a number of different sites. She found that nuclear families tended to be buried together, and that starting in the fifth century both the monuments and inscriptions stress relationships within the family. In sixth-century iconography the dead person is depicted as separate from the family group, either laid out for burial or dressed to enter his tomb. In fifth and fourth-century gravestones he is shown as he was in real life, often talking to or reaching out to other relatives: ‘I hold the child of my daughter, whom I used to hold on my knees when we both saw the light of the sun; now dead, I hold him, dead too.’ Some inscriptions address the dead person directly: ‘What a good girl you were.’ Or: ‘You loved your husband Onesimus; he loved you in return. You were the best, and so he laments your death, for you were a good woman.’ Here the dead woman answers: ‘And to you farewell, dearest of men, kiss my children.’ In the fourth century, as the importance of the Athenian state declined, increasing emphasis was placed on family unity.

The contrast with current practice is illuminating, since it explains why it is so hard for modern audiences properly to appreciate the importance given in Greek tragedy to the treatment of the dead. Antigone was admired by the composer Mendelssohn as a Christian martyr, and has been held up to feminists as a model of ‘masculine’ initiative. But Sally Humphreys’s findings suggest that Sophocles’s audience – despite what Creon says – would not have regarded Antigone’s determination to bury her dead brother as inspired by masculine character or political motives. Nor would they have thought it remarkable that she speaks of her dead brother as if he were somehow still alive, when she explains that she had to prevent him from decomposing in death, because her parents were dead and could have no son to replace him. But once he is buried Antigone imagines that he will be able to join his parents in the lower world, and that they will each be there to greet her when she herself arrives. Electra, too, when in Sophocles’s drama she weeps over the urn that – as she supposes – holds her brother Orestes’s ashes, asks him to take her with him into his tomb, so that they may live together beneath the earth for the rest of time. When Orestes and Electra in Aeschylus’s Libation-Bearers call upon their father’s ghost, they are not so much performing a magical incantation as rallying the family together for the next dreadful challenge that faces them. The 19th-century scholar Fustel de Coulanges had on the basis of current practice among the French nobility supposed that the Greeks worshipped their ancestors, and that from that practice developed the notion of the larger kinship groups called phratriai which survived as political entities in Greek cities. But Humphreys’s data indicate that families visited their more illustrious ancestors principally to remind themselves of their family’s distinctions.

Humphreys would perhaps be less confident than I about applying her evidence to the interpretation of Greek tragedy. Literature, especially dramas set in mythic time, stands at a second remove from reality. She herself prefers to cite situations in comedy and fourth-century courtroom speeches as evidence of actual practice, and even then seems more comfortable looking at texts from a distance, noting situations and plots rather than quoting specific lines. From this perspective, what she discerns most clearly about Athenian life is the tension between polis (the state) and oikos (the household). Women move only in the world of the oikos, but men have access to both. By the fourth century, as the gravestones show, the oikos was the more important. Not that the shift in emphasis accorded women greater rights: they were still regarded as irrational, capable, like men, of great deeds and of intelligent action, but unreliable and physically anomalous. It was therefore necessary for them to remain subordinate to men, even to the point of having husbands rather than mothers or mothers-in-law teach new wives how to manage their households. Even in Rome, where women could own property and visit friends outside their home, and actually attend dinner-parties, they risked being censured and ridiculed if they did not conform to the ideals set for them by men.

Staying at a distance enables Humphreys to avoid the moralising tone that often emerges in modern commentaries on the status of women in the ancient world. But at times the scheme of the essays requires her to remain at too great a distance from the primary sources. In a chapter on women that was originally written as an introduction to a book of essays by various scholars, Humphreys provides brief summaries of their conclusions, with some commentary of her own, without saying much in detail about the evidence they considered. Most of the essays have not yet been published, but I have seen in manuscript an admirable survey by Geoffrey Lloyd of doctors’ attitudes toward their women patients. Humphreys observes in her commentary on this paper that the doctors’ questioning of women patients constitutes ‘almost the only source we have for communication between men and women in strictly practical matters’. She leaves the impression that doctors regularly asked their patients to describe their symptoms: but evidence of such diagnostic inquiry, as Lloyd shows, is found only in a relatively few instances. When one reads through the treatises on gynecology, one finds instead that doctors for the most part applied their theories without much regard for the patients’ comfort or, from our point of view, health. If a woman behaved irrationally, she was regarded as ‘hysterical’, i.e. ‘womb-y’, as suffering from dislocation of the womb, which some doctors believed could become dislodged and travel around the woman’s body, causing problems with breathing and with thinking, since many still thought that the mind (phrenes) was located in the lungs, near the source of breath. If medical treatises indeed comprised our main evidence for communication between men and women in practical matters, relations between the sexes were far less open and comfortable than literary sources like comedy suggest. Certainly men and women managed to work together: we know, for instance, of a group of launderers, 12 men and two women, slaves or freedmen, who set up a tablet to the gods of the river in which they washed their clothes.

By talking about texts, rather than from them, Humphreys sometimes fails to distinguish clearly whether ideas belong to an author or to his characters. For example, when Apollo states in Aeschylus’s Eumenides that the father is the true parent and the mother only a vehicle for carrying the child, one need not necessarily assume that Aeschylus himself is advocating women’s subordination, or that his audience thought Apollo was expressing what ordinary people believed. Apollo in the drama is speaking, not ex machina, as a spokesman for accepted practice (or the nomos), but as an advocate for Orestes, who is seeking to prove that Clytemnestra committed a worse crime in killing her husband than did their son Orestes in killing his mother. If anything, Aeschylus suggests that the Athenians would find Apollo’s argument less than perfectly convincing, because the jury in the drama casts an equal number of votes for Clytemnestra’s side. Similarly, Humphreys suggests that a ‘companionate marriage’, like that of Alcestis and Admetus, was anomalous, because Plato in his Symposium likens it to a homosexual partnership, with its bonds not only of intense affection but of mutual defence in war or danger. But again it is not Plato who discusses Alcestis’s decision to die for her husband, but the first (and in many ways the least adequate) speaker about love in the Symposium – the enthusiastic but uncritical Phaedrus. In fact, if one looks at the text, Phaedrus contrasts rather than compares Alcestis’s self-sacrifice with Achilles’s decision to die in order to avenge his lover Patroclus. The gods, he says, gave more honour to Achilles because his devotion, as the younger member of a homosexual couple, was extraordinary: by implication, Phaedrus thinks the gods would expect a wife or husband to wish to die for one another.

In the last two chapters in the book, Humphreys provides a brief but informative overview of Greek attitudes toward dying and death. Comparative study reveals that the process of dying was longer than what is now permitted by medical technique, allowing time for the relatives to gather, and for the dying man to tell his family what was written in his will, or to have a final conversation with friends and colleagues. Once death itself came, the body was quickly disposed of either by burial or cremation in order to avoid decay. The Greeks knew from the Egyptians about embalming and mummification, but seemed to consider these practices barbaric. Men dealt with the public aspects of the funeral, women with the private, since they were better suited by nature for emotional display. Memorials represented the dead as they were in life, not as they would be in their existence hereafter. The dead themselves were thought to exist in a timeless state, without reproducing, and, after drinking the water of oblivion (lethe), without the memory or the capacity for verification (aletheia) that allows knowledge of the past, present and future.

Death, Humphreys concludes, particularly deserves study because it elicits ‘reflections on the paradoxical mixture of the transient and the permanent which constitutes society’. The Greeks more than other peoples were concerned to situate the individual within the generic, and the tendency to try to capture the essence of experiences perhaps shows up most clearly in their poetry. But while the Iliad and the Odyssey and most Greek drama manage to survive translation, Greek lyric poetry, even in plain prose translation, requires commentary, both to suggest lost context and to explain allusions to unfamiliar places and names. In what was for many years the standard general textbook, Sir Maurice Bowra attempted to set the poems in a biographical and historical setting. David Campbell instead organises his survey by themes, thus avoiding speculation about chronology and political events for which little evidence exists other than the poems themselves. Unlike Richard Jenkyns in his recent essay on Sappho, Campbell interposes as little of himself as possible. Succinct comments on style and word choice (Campbell is especially acute about Homeric resonances) help to convey to the reader who knows no Greek nuances that cannot be reproduced even in the most successful poetry translations.

Many of the aspects of the behavioural patterns described by Humphreys come alive in the poetry that seems so unreliable a subject for anthropological research. The one woman poet, Sappho, speaks eloquently of an inner world of passion for other women, of the sorrow caused by a lover’s departure, of her perceptions of trees, moonlight and meadows. Her male contemporary Alcaeus vividly describes civil disorder, drinking parties, weapons, and a political exile that compels him to be absent from the city assembly and state council – ‘what my father and my father’s father grew old possessing’ – and from beauty contests ‘where the girls of Lesbos in trailing robes go back and forth and the sacred sound of women’s voices rings out’. The sense of family unity expressed in the configurations of graves in Athenian cemeteries has its living counterpart in Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus, with their loyal slaves – an oikos that Homer sets in deliberate contrast to Clytemnestra’s love affair with Aegisthus and the murder of Agamemnon. The previous achievements of distant ancestors and close relatives are detailed in the special odes commissioned to celebrate victory in the great athletic festivals. References to death crop up in the most cheerful contexts, almost always to signify the abrupt ending of recent pleasure, and to suggest that existence will continue only as a shadow in a dim insensate nothingness. One can only be remembered if one has accomplished something significant, whether in war or games or in the composition of song. There are occasional but memorable glimpses into the mind of the dying and the despair of the bereaved. Sappho writes about someone who ‘gets no pleasure from being above the earth and longs to see the dewy banks of Acheron with their lotus blossoms’. Pindar describes how Polydeuces, Zeus’s immortal son, and the twin brother of Castor, who is mortal like his father Tyndareus, finds Castor at the point of death and ‘cries out loud in lamentation’ to ask Zeus to let him die with his brother. Neither Sappho nor Pindar avoids the gruesome but telling signs of approaching death. Sally Humphreys’s research makes it possible to see what is characteristically Greek in this poetry, and not simply what modern taste or experience would lead us to emphasise: but I cannot help thinking that we would enjoy what she says more and remember it better if along with the grave inscriptions and legal cases she were to cite, however cautiously, more of the poets’ own words.