Prelude: We Magna Graecians do everything better – including women

Or Hate the Athenians, not the Greeks

I get so fucking sick of hearing about how “the ancient Greeks” were misogynist pigs. Ever notice that 90% of the evidence these people cite comes from Classical Athens? By Herakles, it’s as if the only two cities that existed in all Greece were Athens and Sparta!

Of course, even then there’s really no excuse for this idiocy since as Plutarch ably demonstrates Spartan women were totally badass and didn’t take shit from anybody, least of all a man. Plutarch was so fond of women (he addressed several of his most important treatises – including his masterpiece On Isis and Osiris – to his colleague at Delphi the Thyiad Klea and wrote a tender and touching letter of consolation to his wife when their daughter died while he was abroad) that he put together several pieces defending their virtue and taking their side in mythological disputes, such as that between Circe and Odysseus. Note that he came from Chaironeia in Boiotia not Athens.

Also not Athenians were the Epizephyrii Locrians, whom Polybios describes in the following manner:

For I know for certain that the inhabitants themselves acknowledge that the report of Aristotle, and not of Timaeus, is the one which they have received from their ancestors. And they give the following proofs of this. In the first place, they stated that every ancestral distinction existing among them is traced by the female not the male side. For instance, those are reckoned noble among them who belong to “the hundred families”; and these “hundred families” are those which were marked out by the Locrians, before embarking upon their colonisation, as those from which they were in accordance with the oracle to select as virgins to be sent to Ilium. Further, that some of these women joined the colony: and that it is their descendants who are now reckoned noble, and called “the men of the hundred families.” Again, the following account of the “cup-bearing” priestess had been received traditionally by them. When they ejected the Sicels who occupied this part of Italy, finding that it was a custom among them for the processions at their sacrifices to be led by a boy of the most illustrious and high-born family obtainable, and not having any ancestral custom of their own on the subject, they adopted this one, with no other improvement than that of substituting a girl for one of their boys as cupbearer, because nobility with them went by the female line. (Histories 12.5)

In fact most of the Magna Graecian colonies had a pretty high regard for women.

Angry over the treatment of their mothers, a group of Spartan men left with them in tow to found a new colony, Taras or Tarentum, where such sexual bigotry would not be tolerated:

A number of young men were sent back to Sparta with permission to form promiscuous connexions with all the women of the city, thinking that conception would be more speedy if each of the females made the experiment with several men. Those who sprung from these unions were called Partheniae, as a reflection on their mothers’ violated chastity; and, when they came to thirty years of age, being alarmed with the fear of want (for not one of them had a father to whose estate he could hope to succeed,) they chose a captain named Phalantus, the son of Aratus, by whose advice the Spartans had sent home the young men to propagate, that, as they had formerly had the father for the author of their birth, they might now have the son as the establisher of their hopes and fortunes. Without taking leave of their mothers, therefore, from whose adultery they thought that they derived dishonour, they set out to seek a place of settlement, and being tossed about a long time, and with various mischances, they at last arrived on the coast of Italy, where, after seizing the citadel of the Tarentines, and expelling the old inhabitants, they fixed their abode. (Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 3.4)

Another foundation-myth of Tarentum enshrines the love and support of spouses for each other:

Tarentum is a colony of the Lacedaemonians, and its founder was Phalanthus, a Spartan. On setting out to found a colony Phalanthus received an oracle from Delphi, declaring that when he should feel rain under a cloudless sky (aethra), he would then win both a territory and a city. At first he neither examined the oracle himself nor informed one of his interpreters, but came to Italy with his ships. But when, although he won victories over the barbarians, he succeeded neither in taking a city nor in making himself master of a territory, he called to mind the oracle, and thought that the god had foretold an impossibility. For never could rain fall from a clear and cloudless sky. When he was in despair, his wife, who had accompanied him from home, among other endearments placed her husband’s head between her knees and began to pick out the lice. And it chanced that the wife, such was her affection, wept as she saw her husband’s fortunes coming to nothing. As her tears fell in showers, and she wetted the head of Phalanthus, he realized the meaning of the oracle, for his wife’s name was Aethra. And so on that night he took from the barbarians Tarentum, the largest and most prosperous city on the coast. They say that Taras the hero was a son of Poseidon by a nymph of the country, and that after this hero were named both the city and the river. For the river, just like the city, is called Taras. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.10.6-8)

Likewise, the men of Cumae were famed for enjoying the company of their wives:

And the people of Cumae in Italy, as Hyperochos tells us, or whoever else it was who wrote the History of Cumae which is attributed to him, wore golden brocaded garments all day, and robes embroidered with flowers; and used to go to the fields with their wives, riding in chariots. (Athenaios, Deipnosphistai 12.37e)

While the men of Sybaris were fond of their wives showing off and gave them pride of place at their festive banquets:

But Phylarchus, in the twenty-fifth book of his History states that the Sybarites, having given loose to their luxury, made a law that women might be invited to banquets, and that those who intended to invite them to sacred festivities must make preparation a year before, in order that they might have all that time to provide themselves with garments and other ornaments in a suitable manner worthy of the occasion, and so might come to the banquet to which they were invited.

Of course the medal for progressive gender relations goes to the Tyrrhenians whom I’m going to pretend are descended from Greeks since their origins are hotly disputed (and were equally so in antiquity) and it serves my argument to do so:

Sharing wives is an established Tyrrhenian custom. Tyrrhenian women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often, sometimes along with the men, and sometimes by themselves. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They do not share their couches with their husbands but with the other men who happen to be present, and they propose toasts to anyone they choose. They are expert drinkers and very attractive.  The Tyrrhenians raise all the children that are born, without knowing who their fathers are. The children live the way their parents live, often attending drinking parties and having sexual relations with all the women. It is no disgrace for them to do anything in the open, or to be seen having it done to them, for they consider it a native custom. So far from thinking it disgraceful, they say when someone ask to see the master of the house, and he is making love, that he is doing so-and-so, calling the indecent action by its name. When they are having sexual relations either with courtesans or within their family, they do as follows: after they have stopped drinking and are about to go to bed, while the lamps are still lit, servants bring in courtesans, or boys, or sometimes even their wives. And when they have enjoyed these they bring in boys, and make love to them. They sometimes make love and have intercourse while people are watching them, but most of the time they put screens woven of sticks around the beds, and throw cloths on top of them. They are keen on making love to women, but they particularly enjoy boys and youths. The youths in Tyrrhenia are very good-looking, because they live in luxury and keep their bodies smooth. In fact all the barbarians in the West use pitch to pull out and shave off the hair on their bodies. (Theopompos of Chios, Histories Book 43)

And the Epizephyrii Locrians loved their women so much that they went to fairly extreme lengths in defending their virtue:

And Clearchus, in the fourth book of his Lives, writes as follows:—“But Dionysius, the son of Dionysius, the cruel oppressor of all Sicily, when he came to the city of the Locrians, which was his metropolis, (for Doris his mother was a Locrian woman by birth,) having strewed the floor of the largest house in the city with wild thyme and roses, sent for all the maidens of the Locrians in turn; and then rolled about naked, with them naked also, on this layer of flowers, omitting no circumstance of infamy. And so, not long afterwards, they who had been insulted in this manner having got his wife and children into their power, prostituted them in the public roads with great insult, sparing them no kind of degradation. And when they had wreaked their vengeance upon them, they thrust needles under the nails of their fingers, and put them to death with torture. And when they were dead, they pounded their bones in mortars, and having cut up and distributed the rest of their flesh, they imprecated curses on all who did not eat of it; and in accordance with this unholy imprecation, they put their flesh into the mills with the flour, that it might be eaten by all those who made bread. And all the other parts they sunk in the sea. But Dionysius himself, at last going about as a begging priest of Cybele, and beating the drum, ended his life very miserably. We, therefore, ought to guard against what is called luxury, which is the ruin of a man’s life; and we ought to think insolence the destruction of everything.” (Athenaios, Deipnosphistai 12.58)

Strabo provides confirmation of Dionysius’ abuse of the Locrian maidens:

After the Locrians had lived under good laws for a very long time, Dionysius, on being banished from the country of the Syracusans, abused them most lawlessly of all men. For he would sneak into the bed-chambers of the girls after they had been dressed up for their wedding, and lie with them before their marriage; and he would gather together the girls who were ripe for marriage, let loose doves with cropped wings upon them in the midst of the banquets, and then bid the girls waltz around unclad, and also bid some of them, shod with sandals that were not mates (one high and the other low), chase the doves around—all for the sheer indecency of it. (Geography 6.1.8)

And unlike far too many in contemporary neopaganism the Temesans took a clear stance against rape:

Odysseus, so they say, in his wanderings after the capture of Troy was carried down by gales to various cities of Italy and Sicily, and among them he came with his ships to Temesa. Here one of his sailors got drunk and violated a maiden, for which offence he was stoned to death by the natives. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 6.7)

Women played an important role not only in religion (which is true of most parts of ancient Greece, even Athens) but in the arts and intellectual lives of their cities as well.

For instance, there was Nossis whom Antipater of Thessalonica (Palatine Anthology 9.26) included among the pantheon of female poets alongside Sappho:

Such women with divine tongue raised with hymns the Helicon and so did the peak of the Macedonian Pieria, Praxilla, Moero, the mouth of Anyte, the female Homer, Sappho jewel of Lesbos’ women by the beautiful hair, Erinna, the famous Telesilla and you, Corinna, who sang the fearsome shield of Athena, Nossis by the soothing female voice and the sweet song of Myrtis, all authors of immortal texts.

And justifiably so, for this Locrian maiden penned lovely verses on local subjects such as:

Away from the wretched shoulders threw these shields the Bruttii,
beaten in the fray by the Locrians fast in the fight,
now, laid down in the temple, devote hymns to their bravery,
neither regret the arms of the cowards left without them.
(Palatine Anthology 6.132)

Nothing is sweeter than Love; and every other joy
is second to it: even the honey I spit out of my mouth.
Thus Nossis says: and who didn’t love Kypris,
doesn’t know what sort of roses her flowers are.
(Palatine Anthology 5.170)

Pass by over me with a ringing laugh, and then tell me
a friend word: I am Rinthon, the one of Syracuse.
A small nightingale of the Muses; from the tragic phliaxes
I was able to pick an ivy different and mine.
(Palatine Anthology 7.414)

And women were especially prominent in the Pythagorean communities in Southern Italy.

Iamblichos, for instance, provides the following list of female members of the sect:

The most illustrious Pythagorean women are Timycha, the wife of Myllias the Crotonian. Philtis, the daughter of Theophrius the Crotonian. Byndacis, the sister of Ocellus and Occillus, Lucanians. Chilonis, the daughter of Chilon the Lacedaemonian. Cratesiclea the Lacedaemonian, the wife of Cleanor the Lacedaemonian.  Theano, the wife of Brontinus of Metapontum. Mya, the wife of Milon the Crotonian. Lasthenia the Arcadian. Abrotelia, the daughter of Abroteles the Tarentine. Echecratia the Phliasian. Tyrsenis, the Sybarite. Pisirrhonde, the Tarentine. Nisleadusa, the Lacedaemonian. Bryo, the Argive. Babelyma, the Argive. And Cleaechma, the sister of Autocharidas the Lacedaemonian. (Life of Pythagoras 36)

Diogenes Laertios relates a story about one of the most illustrious of these women:

Telauges wrote nothing, so far as we know, but his mother Theano wrote a few things. Further, a story is told that being asked how many days it was before a woman becomes pure after intercourse, she replied, “With her own husband at once, with another man never.” And she advised a woman going in to her own husband to put off her shame with her clothes, and on leaving him to put it on again along with them. Asked “Put on what?” she replied, “What makes me to be called a woman.” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.43)

Another important Pythagorean woman was Perictyone, who wrote:

A woman should be a harmony of thoughtfulness and temperance. Her soul should be zealous to acquire virtue so that she may be just, brave, prudent, frugal, and hating vainglory. Furnished with these virtues, when she becomes a wife, act worthily towards herself, her husband, her children and her family. She should venerate the gods, thereby hoping to achieve felicity, also by obeying the laws and sacred institutions of her country. For no greater error or injustice can be committed by men than to act impiously towards their parents.

And Phintys, also of the sect, provided this defense of female philosophical aspirations:

Now some people think that it is not appropriate for a woman to be a philosopher, just as a woman should not be a cavalry officer or a politician. I agree that men should be generals and city officials and politicians, and women should keep house and stay inside and receive and take care of their husbands. But I believe that courage, justice, and intelligence are qualities that men and women have in common. Courage and intelligence are more appropriately male qualities because of the strength of men’s bodies and the power of their minds. Chastity is more appropriately female. Women of importance leave the house to sacrifice to the leading divinity of the community on behalf of themselves and their husbands and their households. They do not leave home at night nor in the evening, but at midday, to attend a religious festival or to make some purchase, accompanied by a single female servant or decorously escorted by two servants at most. They make modest sacrifices to the gods also, according to their means. They keep away from secret cults and Cybeline orgies in their homes. For public law prevents women from participating in these rites, particularly because these forms of worship encourage drunkenness and ecstasy. The mistress of the house and head of the household should be chaste and untouched in all respects.

So there you go. Greek men’s attitudes toward women were hardly monolithic, even in this particular region. Though clearly women were much better treated in Italy than in Attica.