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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 period.

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.

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