ἅδ’ ἐγὼ ἁ περίβωτος ὑπὸ πλακὶ τῇδε τέθαμμαι
μούνῳ ἐνὶ ζώναν ἀνέρι λυσαμένα.
Here I lie buried under this flat stone, a woman much talked about,
who took her clothes off for a single man alone.
Anonymous Greek Anthology 7.324
Today, it is axiomatic in the field of classics to observe that women in antiquity were as a class treated quite differently from men, both in law and in practice, in Greek as well as Roman culture.
One can always point in the ancient world to fictional and actual exceptions to the general rule. The Greeks had their fictive powerhouses in the female goddesses of the Homeric poems and the commanding presences of a Clytemnestra or Medea on the tragic stage; among the Romans, such real personalities as the destructive Cleopatra or a scheming Agrippina (mother of Nero) became in turn legends in their own right.
My attributes for the latter two, whose ontological status is beyond question, are, however, deliberate and telling: viewed through the antithetical eyepiece of male magnification, so to speak, Agrippina’s “scheming” would after all merely become a skillful securing of her own and her son’s political interests, and Cleopatra — a highly intelligent woman, well educated and fluent in numerous languages — simply played a fast game of power politics with an ambitious ruthlessness more compelling than that of most men in her circles.
The characterized “monstrousness” of these women, then, resides not really in any manipulations more chilling than what the great men of the age engineered, but only in the frightening syzygy of female nature and male accomplishment.
But these types were, as I said, exceptional. And their stories are those memorialized for more than a thousand years of classical antiquity in the canonical works of the high literature of Greece and Rome — and in the West for another 2,000 years.
Recently I called attention to the light that nonliterary papyri, discovered by chance, can throw on the quotidian realities of life in antiquity among the lowly and humble — who, as in all ages, were certainly more numerous than the high and the famous. Tombstones, similarly, speak with a constricted eloquence to aspects of the nameless lives of men and women alike, whether slave or free.
Although the anonymous epitaph at the head of the present column may well have been a fictional one (such literary exercises were common among both the Greeks and Romans), the tone is real enough and reflects the kinds of sentiments found in genuine inscriptions. It rings true.
Think about this for a moment:
Imagine that you were to read in today’s New York Times or Chicago Tribune obits (or even on a real grave marker) an encomium of a woman “much talked about,” the entire point of which was to praise her because she had been faithful to her husband. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Many such inscriptions from antiquity will elaborate a bit more — she spun the wool faithfully, she raised her children, she was kind to her household, etc. etc.– but on the same restricted scale. Frankly, some ancient pets like a beloved songbird or caged grasshopper freshly deceased got more heart-felt (from our modern point of view) send-offs.
My concern here is certainly not to push some compensating or politically correct view about women (or men), or rage about the evils of antiquity (or modernity), or promote an amorphous cultural relativism (or rigidity). It is, rather, to note something about the historical baggage we all carry with us as we make our daily sorties into the front lines of the P.C. wars, including those of gender. We – all of us — should not, I believe, try to forget our many varied and appalling cultural heritages, but nor, I believe, should we allow ourselves to become trapped in the sticky dishonesties of omissions from our fabricated histories.
I make this point without wishing to embroil myself in an invidious, ahistorical imprecation of another era’s cultural norms that a later society sees as blindness and an outright mockery of its own strong convictions about human gender, human beings and our human interactions with each other.
Can anyone of us safely say that future generations will look back to our own era and our own preoccupations and not be puzzled, perhaps even outraged by at least some of the primitive and unenlightened “truths” that we — or our government — take as axiomatic?