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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in