- What light is thrown on Archaic and Classical Athenian bel...
What light is thrown on Archaic and Classical Athenian beliefs about gender by artistic representations of any one aspect of contemporary life? Illustrate your essay with specific examples.
A great deal of attention has been focused on the role of women
in antiquity, in particular those during the Classical Athenian
period. It is common for these scholars to regard the social status
of women during this period as appallingly low. Many assert that at
this time they were considered little better than slave or
children, and that they were much worse off than the women of other
periods in Greek history (e.g. Cantarella, 1987). This low status
was apparently noticeable by their confinement to the home, and
almost total exclusion from public life. Many have based their
studies primarily on literary sources, rather than material
evidence. However, by the very nature of these sources they are
often over-dramatized or biased, which can lead to scholars forming
a hasty interpretation. The material evidence, actual depictions of
women from this time, is highly subjective and interpretations are
often influenced by the scholars own literary knowledge. With this
in mind, this study attempts to show the usefulness, as well as the
shortcomings of artistic representations of women from this
The evolution of Greek art and the portrayal of women should
first be set against the background of social, political and
economic conditions. The Archaic Age, 750-479 BC, was a time
when a revolution in Greek culture took place. New political and
social structures and artistic and intellectual traditions
emerged. Most of the evidence we have about society and women
from the Archaic Age is from literary sources written by men.
Hesiod and Semonides saw the role of woman as a curse sprung from
the first female Pandora (Cantarella, 1987). The Greek household
was patriarchal, and most women were denied a public role. The only
women in Greece who enjoyed a full public life were the courtesans.
Women in art during this time were mainly presented in a very
modest but enchanting manner. This portrayal reflected the
attitudes of the time.
It should be noted that this idealism is not only limited to
depictions of women. Images of men from this period are also
highly stereotypical of their roles in society. They are shown
carrying the military equipment of the hoplite, or preparing for an
athletic competition or as bearded older men carrying staffs. The
stele of Chairdernos and Lykeas from Salamis (Fig. 6) dates from
around 400 BC and shows too young men, both carrying a round shield
in one arm and a spear in the other. We cannot assume that these
men died in battle, as at this time the Athenian's buried their war
dead every year at the same tomb at Kerameikos. The image of a
soldier was a potent symbol of a man's duty to the city and might
have been chosen to commemorate a man who died at the age of
military service. These are not images of specific individuals,
anymore than the images of women are.
Artistic representations of women can throw much light on
Archaic and Classical Athenian beliefs about gender. Images can
show the various occupations and duties expected of women, as well
as provide some insight into their status in society. Added to
literary sources from the same period they can expand and develop
our knowledge of Greek culture. They were obviously required to
look after the home, but were not kept in isolation as classical
opinion would suggest. The various activities depicted shows that
they lived lives comparable to most women in Mediterranean society
during this period. To say that women were more oppressed at this
time is largely an unfair analysis. Men and women obviously had
clearly defined roles in society, both subject to various
traditions and taboos. However, these images should not be
considered 'snap-shots' of the time; rather they often represent
the stereotypical and idealized views of Athenian life. They were
either commissioned or produced to be appealing to the observer.
They can therefore be as equally biased as a literary account, and
even more open to interpretation.