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From Courtesans to Cleopatra:

The Portrayal of Women in Hellenistic Art and Literature

(Unknown author)

According to Polybius, Aphrodite was somewhat indignant when he saw a statue of herself in public. "Where did Praxiteles see me naked?" she fumed. One can come to tow conclusions about this statement. Either Aphrodite was mad because Praxiteles had, without permission, surreptitiously viewed her nakedness, or Praxiteles' rendition was incredibly true-to-form, publicly displaying all of Aphrodite's beauty and flaws.

Since Aphrodite was a Greek goddess, and Praxiteles was a Hellenistic sculptor, we can be sure that both conclusions are correct. It is the realism inherent in the second conclusion though, that gives rise to the main emphasis of this paper. How were women of the Hellenistic age depicted in art and literature? Moveover, what do these depictions reveal about the lives of Hellenistic women?

Women of the Hellenistic age were living in times of profound change. The evolution of Hellenistic art and literature, and thus the portrayal of women, should first be examined against the background of changing social, political and economic conditions. When Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., and in his dying gasp bequeath the empire to the "strongest" he set in motion a turbulent chain of events which culminated in the establishment of new dynasties. The Antigonids, the Seleucids, and the Ptolemies and, finally, the Romans established cities which eclipsed the Hellenic city of Athens. The new cities, especially Alexandria, Pergamon, and Antioch, were cosmopolitan. International trade flourished, and the cities swarmed with people of diverse backgrounds. Diversity, however, led to insecurity.

The security and identity Greeks formerly received from the traditional polis were supplanted by insecurity with new monarchies. Remote kings were forever hiring new mercenary armies to overrun a city. Life was unpredictable.1 When life is changing and unpredictable, people have a tendency to turn inward and take care of themselves first and foremost. This follows closely with the Epicurean philosophy of achieving personal happiness by cultivating pleasure. The communal ideals of the Classical age, then, and the emphasis on participation (expcept for women and slaves) in the democratic workings of the polis were lost in the mobile populations of the Hellenistic age.2

Political strife was only part of the variations in the Hellenistic age. Economic flucuations played a large role in the unrest of the populace. Although international trade increased, the balace of trade had an adverse effect in certain areas. Athens lost citizens, who in response to economic hardship, emigrated to other areas.3

Other evidence of economic hardship in the Hellenistic age is seen through the articles produced for the "haves" and the "have-nots." Especially with the pottery one can see that high grade goods were produced for the affluent, and low-grade goods for the poor.4 Similiar to the reasons for the phenomenal growth of our ubiquitous, bargain-pricedWal-Mart stores, Hellenistic entrepeneurs knew that economic stress necessitated a new way of doing business.

The slave revolts and uprisings in Sicily in 135 B.C. were probably in response to economic hardships. Tiberius Gracchus' land reforem bill was an attempt in 133 B.C. to bring relief to Roman military veterans. In Asia and Egypt, public works projects for flood control and irrigation swallowed up a sizable amount of state expenditures.5 All things considered, the economy of the Hellenistic age was not consistently poor, but neither was it excellent. There were periods of prosperity, recession, and recovery.6 It makesa sense, then that the economic uncertainties of the time, and the attitudes that followed such unease, would eventually manifest themselves in the art and literature of the period.

Hellenistic art and literature moved away from the idealism of the Classical age. When one considers the turbulent nature of the times following the death of Alexander, it is easy to see why. When idealism fades, people become interested in "the variety of experiences."7 Therefore, what the individual experiences becomes much more interesting than what society as a whole experiences.8 In the Hellenistic age people started to notice others, women included. J.J. Pollitt cearly sums up this shift in attitudes:

Eventually this concentration of personal experience rather than cultural ideals as the principle subject of art led to a fundamental change in the nature of Greek artistic tradition. The exalted themes and traditional subjects of the culture of the polis were increasingly abandoned in favor of work which permitted a 'hard look' at contemporary social conditions or indulged a private, domestically oriented sense of amusement.9


The statuary of the Classical age reflected the 'cultural ideals' of the times. The nude male body was exalted in Greece as the highest king of beauty.10 In other ancient cultures nudity represented shame, defeat, or humiliation; the Greeks were the first to glorify it.11 This is understandable when one considers the male-dominated culture of the Classical age. Men spend most of their time with other men--in the gymnasium, in political assemblies, on the battlefield, or at the symposia. It follows that the culture of homosexuality in the Classical age also played a part in the idealized male body.12

Nude women were also depicted in Classical Greek art, but not in the same idealized fashion of the male nude. Starting from around 530 B.C. naked women appeared with greater frequency on Attic vases; however, these women were also hetairai(courtesans). Respectable women were never shown nude on vases. If they were on a vase, they were clothed.14

Attic vase painters were probably just producing the type of goods the market demanded. Since the market was predominantly a male population who attended the symposia and had drinking parties, pictures of courtesans in all types lewd poses were the choice. If men were not in the mood to look at other men, they wanted to see the "fast" women. Playboy Magazine was not available then, but Attic vase paintings served the purpose just as well.

Sometimes who were not hetairai were shown as partially naked on some vases. These were always in the context of mythological scenes. The scenes were often a potrayal of imminent rape, or some other harm. These women were always depicted as weak and vulnerable, or defenseless. And, in a sense, the naked hetairai were also vulnerable.15

It is evident in studying vases from the Classical age that women were not accorded with much respect. Naked courtesans graced the wine cups of men at the symposia. Old hetairai, often depicted as fat and ugly, were shown performing all sorts of degrading acts.16 Respectable women were shown in two contexts: in vulnerable and defenseless positions of imminent harm, or ideal and the 'exalted theme' of the male nude is clear dichotomy from the vulnerably naked or respectably clothed woman.

It was towards the middle of the fourth century B.C. that the portrayal of the female body changed radically.17 Praxiteles is the sculptor who brought the nude females to centerstage with his portrayal of the nude Aphrodite. His life-like rendition was placed in teh shine of Cnidus.18 Thereafter, Aphrodite became the choice of other artists who wanted to portray realistic and sensuous females. No other goddesses were depicted nude. It was safe to portray Aphodite in such manner though, since she was the goddess of love and sexual desire.19 Also there was the religious element of Aphrodite who, in a similar role as the Eastern goddess Ishtar, represented fertility. Nude Aphrodites were usually posed bathing or preparing for a bath probably because Aphrodite was reported to have come from the sea. Pomeroy explains that "With these statues the female nude finally took its place beside the male nude in Greek sculpture. These nude images operate operate on two levels: as the nude male embraced a medley of both homosexual and heroic, so the Aphrodite figure was sexually attractive while she simultaneously embodied religious ideas."20

Around the third century B.C., not long after the nude Aphrodite became common in Greek art, the hermaphrodite figure emerged.21 Hermaphrodite was depicted as a young male nude figure with female breasts. That hermaphrodite became a popular figure in art, especially for the upper classes, is significant. The Hellenistic age brought new ways of thinking and new ways of looking at women. Adding female characteristics to a "superior" male form showed that females were more and more looked upon as beautiful and sexually desirable.22

This shift--this greater emphasis on femal sexuality--coincided with a decline in homosexuality in the Hellenistic age. According to Grant, attitudes about homosexuality shifted for various reasons. Society had changed and men were less likely to be spending as much time together as had been the case in the Classical age. Professional soldiers replaced volunteers, so there was less opportunity for "romantic comraderie in the battlefront."23 Additionally, the frequency of interaction between men in athletics became the norm. Most men simply became spectators.

In the Hellenistic age there was less interest in the all-male experience, and more interest in the individual experience. The experiences and emotions of everyday people captivated Hellenistic artists. Varieties of people--old women, barbarian, fishermen, dwarves, and children--found expression in Hellenistic art. Famous Hellenistc statuary such as the well-to-do Drunken Woman, the Dying Gaul, or the Old Fisherman reveal a preoccupation with realism. Pollitt says that, in the Hellenistic age, "change and individuality became more attractive than perfection, and the result is realism."24 Often the realistic portrayals of diverse people evoked a strong pathos-an emotional and sometimes sympathetic response.25

This realism, this interest in everyday experience carried over in to the literature of the Hellenistic age. Hellenistic literature is full of common people, people who are easy to understand and easily recognizable. Theophrastus, well-known as a botanist who classified plants, also classified human in his work, The Characters. His typologizing of people relates to the realism evident in the visual arts.26 His student, Menander, drew from Theophrastus' example and presented a variety of characters from all walks of life as well.

Menander's contribution comes in the form of the New Comedy. He was thought by some of his contemporaries to "mirror life." While the Classical female characters of Greek Old Comedy react to the realities of politics and war, Menander's women of the New Comedy react to the realities of everyday life. Menander prefers to emphasize the domestic problems of life rather than the political ones. Grant makes the point that this disinterest in political activity is more realistic; most people in everyday life are relatively detached from it.27

Peter Green dismisses Menander's work as a caving in to Athenian bourgeoisie who wanted not to be stimulated by political intrigue, but prefered instead soap opera-like plots and stereotypical characters.28 It is true, as Green says, Menander's plots seem "formulaic and artificial."29 His plots revolve around such stock themes as: misundersanding love, discovery of long-lost children, or caes of mistaken identity.30 But Menander's drama is unique because it reaches into the lives of everyday citizens and slaves. He draws from the lower social classes and thereby presents a wider range of experience.

Menander's plays did not win many awards, but then, when to critics every really agree with what the common people like? His plays appealed to people, because they were easy to understand(unlike Attic Old Comedy), they were not too crude, and they always had a happy ending. Plutarch relates a conversation in one of his Table talks in which Menander's New Comedy is analyzed. Although the comedies were written a couple hundred years before Plutarch, it is evident that Menander's popularity had not ceased. Diogenianus, Plutarch's dinner guest, provides the analysis of Menander's New Comedy:

"What objection, however, could anyone make to the New Comedy? It has become so completely a part of the symposium that we could chart our course more easily without wine than without Menander. The style, pleasant and unadorned, is spread upon the action in such a way as to be neither too low for the sober, nor too difficult for the tipsy. The blend of serious and humorous would seem to have no other poetic end in view than to combine pleasure with profit for men relaxing over their wine. Even the erotic element in Menander is appropriate for men who after their wine will soon be leaving to repose with their wives; for in all those places there is no one enamored of a boy. Moreover, when virgins are seduced, the play usually ends with marriage; while affairs with casual women. if these are aggressive and shameless, are cut short by some chastening experience or repentance on the young man's part, and good girls who give love for love either find again a father with legitimate status, or get a further dispensation of time for their romance. I cannot regard it as surprising that Menander's polished charm exercises a reshaping and reforming influence that helps to raise morals to a higher standard of fairness and kindness." (Plutarch, "Table Talk" VII. 8. 712)


Another popular literary style of the Hellenistic period is the mime. Mimes are short, dramatic representation of realistic and often urban scenes. Theocritus, born ca. 300 B.C., is well-known for his mimes and the interesting femal characters he portrays. Theocritus is also known as the inventor of the buccolic, or pastoral Idyll. His pastorcal Idylls glorified uncomplicated living in serene country settings. It is Idyll II, Idyll XIV, and Idyll XV, his "urban" Idylls, which are most pertinent to this paper.

How do Theocritus' Idylls and how do Menander's plays portray women of the Hellenistic age? If we look at the negative statements made to women or about women, it is clear that women were, despite their determination to make their own decisions, very much at the mercy of men. In Theocritus' Idyll XIV we see a young courtesan named Cynisca publicly humiliated by the brutish Aeschinas. He accuses her of being unfaithful (though they are not married), and slaps her a coulple of times in front of the other guests. Cynisca does indeed make the decision to leave Aeschinas, but it was not without pain.

In Menander's "The Samian Woman," we see very negative attitudes associated with courtesans. Men were willing to us them and abuse them. "Your type my girl, can only earn ten drachmas a time; they trot around all the dinner parties and drink themselves to death with neat wine; or if they can't manage that, they live and starve."31 In "The Dyskolos," Chaereas requests Sostrates' help in finding the girld he fell love with. Sostrates replies that he can find the girl in a flash, "... if she is one of them, I simply allow no argument. I get drink and burn the door down, swoop and carry her off."32 It looks as if the woman would have no say in the matter.

In contrast, one can find many examples in the works of Theocritus and Menander of women who were capable enough to make their own decisions despite pressure to do otherwise. Menander's play, "The Unkindest Cut," deals with a conflict between Glycera and her lover, Polemon. Polemon, suspecting Glycera of infidelity, unjustly cuts her hair very short. Glycera decides to leave him and stay with a neighbor, who as a friend to Polemon tries to persuade her to return. Pataicos says, "You ought to yield a little." Glycera's firm response, "I know what is best for me."

Theocritus, in Idyll II, shows us a very determined young woman in the character of Simaetha. Simaetha, upset over her abandonment by her playboy lover Delphis, vows she will "go tomorrow to Timaegestus' palestra to let him know his face how ill he uses me."33 Another determined young woman who happens to agree with the cosmopolitan views of the Cynics is resentful that her mother is so preoccupied with her marrying into a "good family." She protests such a narrow view men by saying, "Mother, if a man has a noble character which prompts him to lead a good life, then he is of noble birth, even if he is an African."34 Hellenistic authors are known for mimesis, or imitation of real life. Since that is the case then we can surmise that some women, who in resistance to other pressures, resolved to make their own decisions and follow through with them.

Women in the Hellenistic age still led limited social lives, and they prized the few opportunities they had to go out in public. Idyll XIV, Theocritus' mime, is about two married women who go to a religious festival--the Adonis show. What is significant and interesting here are the qualities of the two women, Praxinoa and Gorgo. They both speak condescendingly about their thick-headed husbands who buy the wrong items when shopping. Praxinoa complains, "Why, only the other day we told him, 'Buy some soday, Daddy, and some red dye from the store.' The godalmighty fathead brough back salt!"35 She goes so far as to frighten her child to dissuad him from tagging along. "I'm not taking you child. Bogey36 get yet. Horsey bite."37 These are women dying to get out of the house and enter the hustle and bustle of the city. Although they are anxious about the crowds ("Ye gods, what a frightful crowd! However are we to get through? They're just like ants, countless millions!"38), they are also assertive enough to stand up to the men in the city. Praxinoa lashes out at a careless man in the crowd, "Oh no! Torn my summer wrap in two! For God's sake, man, as you hope to prosper, have a care for my cloak!"39

Gorgo, with the same intensity with which Praxima chastised the careless man, gushes about a femal -- the one who sings the praises of Adonis at a festival. "Praxinoa, isn't she a wonder-woman! Marvellous, how much she knows -- perfectly marvellous how sweet she sings."40 We can see that these women in Theocritus' Idyll XIV were passionate about things. They were not content to be always at home, weaving the cloth and taking care of the children. They wanted to get dressed up and go out; they wanted to experience life. Furthermore, these women identified with other women.

Literature of the Classical age was filled with passionate women as well. The passionate women in Classical tragedies and comedies though, were almost always giving in to their dominant Dionysian natures, a nature that was emotional, insensible, silly, or wild. One is reminded of Cassandra's plotting of revenge in Euripedes' "The Women of Troy," or the wild women in "The Bacchae," or Medea finally going beserk with jealousy and murdering her own children to hurt Jason. In Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," women's sexual passion seems to go hand-in-hand with underlying political objectives.

A woman's passionate love for men is a strong theme in Hellenistic literature. Medea's passion for Jason as portrayed in Apollonius Rhodius' epic story, Argonautica, reveals a new interest in the "psychology of passionate women."41 When Medea sees Jason speeding away we see a perfect example of first love:

"The shaft burnt beneath the maiden's heart like a flame, and ever she kept darting glances... and her heart was wildly beating in her breat in distress, and she remembered nought but him, and her sould was melting sweet sorrow."42


In Theocritus' Idyll II, we see a young single woman, Simaetha, who evidently lives with no male guardian, fall in love with a handsome young athlete named Delphis. Theocritus vividly describes Simaetha's physical anguish brought on by her longing for Delphis. "...[M]adness lit on me, and fire was laid to my heart, ... my looks were a faded flower... a burning fever was shaking me, and I lay in my bed for all ten days and nights."43 The erotic descriptions on Simaetha's and Delphi's first night together is quite similar to the best-selling romance novels of our day. It follows then, since women were obviously so capable of receiving sexual pleasure, that a manual should be written on the best way to give it. The Roman poet Ovid was quite knowledgable about Hellenistic literature, having read Menader, Callimachus, and others. He wrote his Art of Love at the turn of the eras and described in exquisite detail the best way to give pleasure to a woman.

The mimes, plays, and poems in Hellenistic literature reveal, as does Hellenistic art, that women were considered individuals, and even interesting. We see the sexual attractiveness and passionate side of Hellenistic women portrayed quite differently from the courtesans of the fifth century vases. We see women still often at the mercy of men, but nevertheless daring to make some of their own decisions about personal happiness. We see women going out into the cities, discussing art, and standing up to men if the need arose. Do these women of that period? Or, are they ancient history's rendition of female personalities of the stage and screen?

According to Eva Cantarella, the real women of the Hellenistic age experienced a "growing respect, broader chances to participate in social life, and a perceptible extension of their legal capacities.44 We are able to piece together more easily the roles of the upper class women, and certainly the roles of Hellenistic queens. Primary source documents written on papyrus give us some information on marriage contracts, divorces, and private letters. However, non-Greek sources which provide information on lower class and native women have not been fully exploited by historians.45 Therefore, this summation on the lives of Hellenistic women will primarily be concerned with those of Greek descent.

It is interesting to consider that respect for women in the Hellenistic age increased when, at the same time, exposure of female infants was a very common practice. Girls were expensive to raise because one had to provide them with a dowry at marriage. Infant girls were much more likely to be put in a crock pot and left by the side of the road than infant boys.46 Nevertheless, respect for a least some women did increase.

One of the main reasons, perhaps, for this increase is the influence of the Hellenistic queens. Following the death of Alexander the Great ambitious women scrabled along side the men for positions of power. We are reminded of Eurydice (queen of Phillip Arrhidaeus, Alexander's brother), and how she dressed in full battle armor before going out to meet Olympias (queen of Macedonia and Alexander's mother), in a showdown for control over Macedonia. Although Olympias won by virtue of her intimidating majesty (Eurydice's Macedonian soldiers could not bring themselves to strike down the mother of Alexander),47 Eurydice's strength of resolve and pride spoke volumes to all who knew her.

Certainly Olympias was a female that no one took lightly. Antipater, regent of Macedonia, hated and feared Olympias. In fact, his dying words were a warning for his countrymen, "never to let a woman rule them."48 Cassander captured Olympias, but not before his long siege of Pydna, Olympias' holdout, turned people into cannibals.49 Olympias was not a woman to give up, and although she incurred the hatred of many of her countrymen, she also received their respect.

Arsinoë II, an Egyptian queen of Macedonian descent, is known as a great administrator and a politically astute woman. She broke Greek and Macedonian tradition by marry her brother, Ptolemy II. By doing so, she unleashed a flood of royal brother/sister marriages in Egypt. Arsinoë has the disntinct honor of being the first woman whose policy was published in one document as influencing the affairs of the state.50 Her policy of freedom for Greeks made her quite popular; and although, like Olympias, she did not hesistate to sacrifice those who threatened her politically, she had many honors showered upon her by Greeks and Egyptians.51 Cities were named after her, statues were made of her. One statue was placed among the statues of Egyptian kings at Olympia. She was deified, and poets such as Theocritus and Callimachus (who had lived under her patronage), glorified her in their writings.

The most well-known Hellenistic queen is, of course, Cleopatra VII. She was the last of the royal Ptolemaic queens--the last Egyptian queen descended from the Macedonians. She was passionate but not promiscuous,52 charismatic, intelligent, and fluent in nine languages, including the native Egyptian. It was Cleopatra, not her younger brother, who was the real ruler of Egypt. She was even bold enough to drop her brother's name from official documents.53

Cleopatra used her wit, charm, and power in Egypt to secure alliances to the benefit of Egypt. She allied herself with Caesar, then Anthony, and even tried to win over the young Octavia. She proclaimed herself the New Isis and wore sacred clothing associated with Isis when she appeared in public. Cleopatra is clearly a woman who knew what she wanted, knew the best way to get it, and usually managed to achieve her goals.

Women in very powerful positions are rather rare today, and were even more so in the Hellenistic age. But the lives of great Hellenistic queens were public and must have had some impact on society's view of women in general. Nevertheless, other women of the Hellenistic age gained distinction, though not as great as that obtained by the queens. There was an increase in educational opportunities for women. ONe example is reflected in the re-emergence of poetesses.54 Ereena of Talo was gifted poetess who wrote about women and for women.55 Her touching poem, "The Distaff," mourns the loss of her childhood friend, Bankis, who died shortly after getting married.

We find another well-educated Hellenistic woman in Hipparchia, wife of the Cynic philosopher Crates. She went out in public with her husband, she attended dinner parties, and she must have been the talk of the town. But she was proud to be a philosopher -- proud of her education, and determined to use it.56

Like Hellenistic queens, more women of the period attempted to be assertive and make some decisions in their own self-interest. More women signed their own names to public documents, although most still had to rely on a mate to sign in their behalf.57 Ordinary women who were widowed, or who seemed to be living without men, sometimes wrote petitions to the government in their own behalf. They could do this without male guardians if it did not involve contracts or anything needing to be made public.58 One woman petitioned King Ptolemy for justice(a bath attendant had scalded her, and she wanted him to pay for it). Another woman wrote a letter to her husband, upbraiding him for using religious duties as an excuse for not coming home.59 These are women using the means available to them to do something better for their lives.

Some wealthy women even used their fortunes to help benefit the lives of others. Since the economy of the Hellenistic age was at times very poor, wealthy people were expected to help their communities. Phile of Priene was elected as a magistrate because she had, at her own expense, constructed a reservoir for her city.60 Papyri show women on the records of land sales, women "agreeing" to loans made by their husbands, or agreeing to contracts made by their husbands.61

These are women who are given more respect; they are taken into account by the man around them. They are recognized and reckoned with. This all sounds very positive; but in reality, it is a partial picture at best. Most Hellenistic women got little recognition at all. Most were not married to kings (obviously) or even in an elite position to finance public projects. Most women were not without male guardians -- men who had the final say in decisions, such as whom they married. Most were not educated, in fact, most could not even sign their names.

So the questions remain; What was life really like for Hellenistic women, and does the art and literature of the time, with all its realism, paint an accurate picture? We must conclude that the answer is not definitive; the questions, in effect, still remain. One thing can be said, though; women of all shapes and sizes, with varied abilities and tempermants, were at least noticed as individuals. And there is something good in that.

End Notes


Primary Sources

Appolonius, Rhodius.Argonautica: Jason and the Golden Fleece. Translated by Edward P. Coleridge. New York, NY: Heritage Press. 1960.

Menander. Plays and Fragments. Translated by Phillip Vellacott. Second Ed. London: Penguin Books, 1973.

Ovid. The Art of Love, and Other Poems.(LCL) Translated by J.H. Mozley. London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1961.

Theocritus. The Poems of Theocritus. Translated by Anna Rist. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

Theophrastus. The Characters. Translated by Phillip Vellacott. Second Ed. London: Penguin Books, 1973.


Secondary Sources

Bonfante, Larissa. "Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art." American Journal of Archeology. p.93. (1989): 543-70.

Cantarella, Eva. Pandora's Daughters: The Role and Status of Women in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Translated by Maureen B. Fant. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Fantham, Elain, et. al. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Ferguson, John. The Heritage of Hellenism: The Greek World from 323 BC to 31 BC. New York: Science HIstory Publications, 1973.

Grant, Michael. From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982.

Green, Peter. Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Macurdy, Grace Harriet. Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman-Power in Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt. (The John Hopkins University Studies in Archeology, No. 14.) Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1932.

Pollitt, J.J. Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books, 1975, 1995.


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