Women of Classical Greece

Although ancient Athens was an intensely masculine society, there were some women that proved exceptional rulers and personalities at a time when women couldn’t even vote. Artemisia, 480 BC, queen of Halicarnassus (now Bodrum) reigned for 24 years. She was very useful to the Persians – she supplied five galleys to the Persian fleet. Herodotus described them as the best ships in the battles off Evia. Her father was King Lygdamis, a Carian. Her mother was a Cretan aristocrat. She advised Xerxes not to attack the Greek fleet, but her advice was not taken. That led to Persia’s great defeat. Later, she ordered the construction of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the 7 wonders of the world. But, what’s she doing helping the Persians un the first place? She was described as devious and cunning. Well, I can agree to that!

Aspasia, Pericles’ lover, came from Miletus, the most advanced city in the Greek world until it was sacked by the Persians in 493 BC. An adventurous Ionian, she migrated to Athens in search of a better life. It was there she met Pericles, who had just divorced his first wife. Highly intelligent and beautiful, she was accepted to join the conversations of philosophers like Protagoras and Anaxagoras. Plays on stage depicted Pericles as being under her influence. That was clearly not true, according to Plutarch. They had a son named Pericles, who, unlike Pericles’ other sons, inherited many of his father’s talents. Aspasia helped raise one of Pericles’ sons, Alcibiades, who was intelligent but very troublesome; she took him in hand to influence him towards more serious pursuits, and Pericles was grateful when it had a profound effect on the son.

They were very happy together. When Pericles was accused of impiety (Ασέβεια), she defended him, passionately. But a plague that according to Thucydides was probably smallpox, broke out in 430 BC and Pericles, creator of the Parthenon and many other Greek treasures, died. Their son, however, was granted the honor of legitimacy and Athenian citizenship.

Aspasia then married Lysicles, a wealthy politician. She died in 406 BC, before the tragedy of her son’s unjust condemnation for supposedly abandoning drowning sailors after the Battle of Arginusae.

Olympias of Epirus (364 -31 BC), the mother of Alexander the Great, claimed descent from Homeric Achilles and was the daughter of King Neoptolemus. In an arranged marriage, they had a son, Alexander, a year later. But, the marriage was not good. Phillip ignored her, had many mistresses, and then chose another wife, Eurydice. (This man was very busy.) But, Olympias was not docile – she was quarrelsome, tempestuous, and vindictive. She slept with a sacred snake and sacrificed animals (that, alone, says a lot for her character) then, she became very religious. Wisely, for a change, she chose Aristotle for her son’s tutor.

She also convinced Alexander that Phillip was not his real father, claiming he came from the gods. She described a dream she had of a lion claiming to be her son’s soul (Alexander was a July Leo – and he too, had a fiery temper).

He followed his mother when she left Macedonia, enraged when Phillip married Eurydice. But, they returned to Macedonia after Phillip’s and Eurydice’s murder that had a suspicious note of conspiracy (All in the family).

During the long Asian wars, Alexander fell in love with Roxanne, (the name meant ‘little star’) and an elaborate marriage was celebrated. When they lived in Bactra where he wanted to establish a Persian- Macedonian ruling class. Erecting 12 giant altars to the Olympian God, Alexander, the invincible, had trouble with his own men who wanted to return to Greece, however. After her son’s death, Olympias returned to Epirus to assist in killing the half-witted King Phillip lll in 317 BC. Macedonian solders, sent to punish her refused to kill her out of respect for her royal rank. But, relatives of her victims killed her.

Cleopatra is a very fascinating figure in history. Born the month of January in 69 BC she was the last pharaoh of Egypt. Highly intelligent, she enriched Egypt’s economy with her political expertise. As was custom, she was married at 18 to her brother, Ptolemy Xll. She married Julius Caesar, had a son with him. After his death, Mark Antony became her lover, and she ultimately she killed herself by a poisonous snake in August, 30 BC. Other notable female figures were Hygeia, goddess of health, daughter of the healer, Asclepius. Athena Parthenos, to whom the Parthenon was deicated, was a deeply revered female deity. There were many more – and the list lengthened over time,


This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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