Aedesia – 5th Century – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Greece, Greece

Aedesia

Aedesia was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher who lived in Egypt during the 5th century.

She was related to Syrianus, the head of the Neoplatonist school in Athens (alongside Asclepigenia), and apparently spent much of her life around scholars and great thinkers. She was even briefly engaged to one of his students, Proclus.

Aedesia married Hermias, also a student of Syranius, and had two sons with him, Ammonius and Heliodorus. When Hermias died she received a small state allowance which enabled her to devote herself to educating her children.

When her sons were old enough to study philosophy, Aedesia took them to Athens where she reconnected with Proclus. She was very popular among the philosophers of Athens who praised her virtue and dedication to educating her children.

Aedesia reportedly lived well into old age, though there is very little information on how she spent the rest of her life.


References:

On Wikipedia:

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Metrodora – c.200 – 400 – Greece

Ancient Greece

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Among a huge number of historical women who leave behind no information on their lives, Metrodora has at least left us with her work. In two volumes and 63 chapters, On the Diseases and Cures of Women survives today and is the earliest surviving medical text known to be written by a woman.

A Greek physician, like Aspasia before her, Metrodora’s work covers a variety of medicine, including gynaecology. However, while the majority of women in medicine during the classical age tend to be midwives, Metrodora’s text does not touch upon obstetrics (pregnancy and childbirth), making her even more unusual.

It seems that rather than focus on the area of medicine traditionally considered ‘feminine’ – that is midwifery – Metrodora’s interests were in pathology; diagnosing diseases based on examination of organs, tissues and bodily fluids. There is little doubt that she was an experienced physician, and took a very ‘hands on’ approach to her work, in which she discusses performing examinations with her hands and fingers as well as tools such as the speculum.

Metrodora also differs from Aspasia in that she does not write about surgery – though this may be for two reasons; first that surgery was not widely practiced in Greece or Rome at this time; secondly we are possibly missing part of the work.

On the Diseases and Cures of Women is also the first text known to be written in the form of an alphabetical medical encyclopaedia, with lettered headings for quick reference. It was clearly considered very useful and was copied, translated and republished well into the medieval period.

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The Hippocratic Oath – Metrodora studied the medical writings of Hippocrates and explored them in her own work. Source.

Like other medical writers of the time, Metrodora had studied the work of Hippocrates and drew heavily from his theories. She was thorough in her studies, referring directly to Hippocrates writings rather than drawing from secondary sources written after his death.

The book also contains many of Metrodora’s own observations and contributions to medicine; she formed a classification system for vaginal discharges and theorised that some discharges were caused by rectal parasitic infection.

Though she left behind her life’s work, Metrodora very nearly lost her name altogether in the 16th Century. She cited a bibliographic reference within her text to a woman called Cleopatra, who late medieval translators confused with Cleopatra VII. This led to On the Diseases and Cures of Women being attributed to the famous queen in some versions.


References:

Women Healers and Physicians: Climbing a Long HillLilian R. Furst

A Companion to Women in the Ancient World Sharon L. James, Sheila Dillon

On Wikipedia:

 

Aspasia the Physician – 1st Century – Greece

Ancient Greece

Aspasia

Not to be confused by the earlier scholar and hetaera of the same name, Aspasia was a physician who worked in obstetrics and gynaecology.

There is nothing recorded about Aspasia’s life outside of a fragment cited by the physician to a Byzantium Emperor. This mentions her contribution to midwifery as she apparently developed a technique for rotating a foetus in a breech presentation.

It is also mentioned that Aspasia promoted preventive medicine for pregnant women, though there is no specific detail.

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These two bare facts about Aspasia portray a very practical woman who sought common sense solutions to common problems faced by women. This differs from many celebrated male physicians of the time who often took a theoretical approach to healthcare.


References:

Women in science: antiquity through the nineteenth century: a biographical dictionary with annotated bibliography – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present – Sue Vilhauer Rosser

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Ancient Roman relief carving of a midwife Wellcome M0003964” by http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/29/0b/9da1fcb26bad168d8787912e39b5.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/M0003964.html.

Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons

 

 

Pamphile – 1st Century – Epidaurus, Greece

Ancient Greece

Pamphile

Pamphile (or Pamphila) of Epidaurus was a historian during the first century.

Her family was probably Egyptian in origin, though she was brought up in Epidaurus, Greece. She married a man called Sorteridas who was very cultured and filled their home with interesting and intelligent visitors.

Pamphile was inspired by the many interesting people she met and the fascinating stories they had to share, so she began to write everything down. According to Photius, Pamphile wrote down everything she heard from the conversations taking place in her home, as well as things she learnt for herself in private study.

First page of an early print edition of the Suda

First page of an early print edition of the Suda

Her main work was known was the Historical Commentaries, which comprised of 33 books telling the history of Greece. The most interesting aspect of Pamphile’s work is the way she presented her histories. Rather than arranging the information by order of subject or chronology, Pamphile laid down each anecdote or fact just as she had heard it, or as it had come to her attention.

This was deliberate, as she felt that the variety of information would make the work more enjoyable to read.

Pamphile’s Historical Commentaries was a much admired text, praised not only by Photius, but historians Aulus Gellius and Diogenes Laërtius. The Suda describes Pamphile as a ‘wise woman’ and notes that she authored further texts On DisputesOn Sex and many others.


 

Notes:

The Suda is a huge 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world. It contains 30,000 entries, many drawing from ancient sources that have since been lost, and often derived from medieval Christian compilers.


 

References:

Suda Online: http://www.stoa.org/sol-bin/search.pl

Bibliotheca Cod. 175 – Photius

On Wikipedia:


 

Image credits:

Suda“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Salpe – 1st Century BCE – Lemnos, Greece

Ancient Greece

Salpe

Salpe was a midwife from the Greek island of Lemnos. Her name and methods are known to us through the writing of historian Pliny.

As well as midwifery, Salpe offered a number of cures and remedies for other ailments including sunburn, stiffness and dog bites. Her main ingredients were saliva and urine which were believed to have natural healing powers.

Greek physician and their patient

Greek physician and their patient

Salpe was probably not a well-educated woman – she probably couldn’t read and had little contact with leading medical professionals of the time. Her brand of medicine was based on a mix of superstition, herbal cures, prayer and sympathetic magic.

As physicians were expensive, the common people of Lemnos relied upon women like Salpe to provide them with healthcare.  Whoever she was, Salpe’s remedies must have been widely known for her to have caught the attention of Pliny.

Some of Salpe’s remedies (do not try these at home!):

  • To cure the bite of a wild dog, wear the flux of the wool of a black ram contained in a silver bracelet.
  • For a numb (stiff) limb, spit into the bosom of the patient, or touch the upper eyelids with salvia
  • To strengthen the eyes, apply urine.
  • To cure sunburn, mix urine and egg white (preferably ostrich) and apply to the skin every two hours.
  • Feed a dog a live frog to stop it from barking.

References:

Woman’s Power, Man’s Game: Essays on Classical Antiquity in Honor of Joy K. King edited by Joy K. King, Mary DeForest

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the 20th Century – Marilyn Ogilvie, Joy Harvey

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic


Image credits:

Medicine aryballos Louvre CA1989-2183 n2” by English: Clinic Painter (name-piece) – Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011).

Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

 

 

Eirene – 1st Century BCE – Greece

Ancient Greece

Eirene

Eirene (sometimes Irene) was an artist who lived in Greece during the 1st century BCE. Like Timarete and Anaxandra before her, Eirene was the daughter of an artist, and became a pupil to her father, Cratinus.

Though none of her work survives, Eirene was famous for a painting of a girl which was on display in Eleusis. Pliny writes that she also painted an image of the mythological nymph Calypso, who kept the hero Odysseus on her island for years.

In addition to these works, Eirene apparently also painted portraits of celebrities of the day – a portrait of the gladiator (in some translations ‘juggler’) Theodorus, and another of a dancer called Alcisthenes are credited to her.


References:

Naturalis historia, XXXV.40.140, 147. – Pliny the Elder

Famous Women – Giovanni Boccaccio, Virginia Brown

On Wikipedia:

Elephantis – fl. late 1st Century BCE – Greece

Ancient Greece

Content warning: Sex, erotic art, sex work.

Writer, physician, midwife and author of an infamous sex manual…

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Elephantis was a woman with many talents. She was likely a sex worker, and is also noted by Pliny to have been a capable midwife (perhaps a useful skill in her line of work).

Elephantis shared her knowledge, authoring a manual on cosmetics, and another on abortive methods. But she is most notorious for her sex manual.

Her birth name is unknown; it was common for courtesans in classical times to take animal names as pseudonyms for their clients to know them by. It is even possible that there was more than one woman named Elephantis.

None of her works have survived, though they are referenced in other ancient texts. Roman historian Suetonius mentions that the Emperor Tiberius owned a complete set of Elephantis’ works – said to be written as poetry – as part of his extensive ‘erotic library’.

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Ancient Roman erotic art fresco from a brothel in Pompeii

A poem in the Priapeia also refers to Elephantis’ sex manual:

“Lalage dedicates a votive offering to Priapus, bringing shameless pictures from the books of Elephantis, and begs him to try and imitate with her the variety of intercourse of the figures in the illustrations.”

There is a further epigram by the Roman poet Martial which reads:

“Such verses as neither the daughters of Didymus know, nor the debauched books of Elephantis, in which are set out new forms of lovemaking.”

Notes:

  • The Priapeia is a collection of ninety-five poems in various meters on subjects pertaining to the phallic god Priapus.
  • “Novae figurae” has been read as “novem figurae” (i.e., “nine forms” of lovemaking, rather than “new forms” of lovemaking), and so some commentators have inferred that Elephantis listed nine different sexual positions.

References:

The Twelve Caesars (Tiberius 43:2)Seutonius

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Pompeii-wall painting” by ancient artist, User:Okc~commonswiki – Own work photograph.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Aglaonice – 2nd or 1st Century BCE – Thessaly, Greece

Ancient Greece

Known as the ‘Witch of Thessaly’ Aglaonice was considered a sorceress for her ability to predict the movements of the moon.

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In fact, Aglaonice (sometimes Aglaonike) was an astronomer. Her apparent ability to ‘pluck [the moon] down from heaven’ is taken to mean that she could predict lunar eclipses.

We know about Aglaonice mostly from the writings of Plutarch who said that she was ‘thoroughly acquainted with the periods of the full moon when it is subject to eclipse, and, knowing beforehand the time when the moon was due to be overtaken by the earth’s shadow, imposed upon the women, and made them all believe that she was drawing down the moon.’

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Plato later wrote about a group of women astronomers, associates of Aglaonice, who were active from the third to the first century BCE, calling them ‘the Thessalian enchantresses’.

Little is known about the life of Aglaonice, other than that her father was Hegetor of Thessaly (and we don’t have any details on him either).

It is suggested that she encouraged the perception of herself as a sorceress and perhaps boasted about her powers – giving rise to the Greek proverb: ‘Yes, as the moon obeys Aglaonice.’

‘Aglaonice… being skilful in astrology, made the vulgar believe, whenever the moon was eclipsed, that by means of some charms and enchantments she brought it down from heaven.’ – Plutarch

Whether she was a serious astronomer, a powerful witch or simply an excellent performance artist, Aglaonice is honored today in the field of astronomy; one of the craters on Venus is named after her.


References:

De defectu oraculorumPlutarch

Journal of the British Astronomical Association: The Witch Aglaonice and Dark Lunar Eclipses in the Second and First Centuries BC Peter Bicknell

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Aglaonice is a character in the Jean Cocteau film Orpheus, in which she is a friend of Eurydice and leader of the League of Women.


Image Credits:

FullMoon2010” by Gregory H. Revera – Own work.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Anaxandra – fl. 220s BCE – Greece

Ancient Greece

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Like her predecessor, Timarete, Anaxandra learned the art of painting from her father and also worked as his assistant, crushing dyes to mix his paints.

We know that Anaxandra’s father, Nealkes, painted scenes from mythology and that his daughter learned his trade – but apart from these few snatches of information, we know nothing.

Nonetheless, the thought of a female artist clearly captured the imaginations of many historians. She is mentioned by Clement of Alexandria 400 years after her death, in a section of his book entitled “Women as Well as Men Capable of Perfection“. Clement cites a lost work of the Hellenistic scholar Didymus Chalcenterus (1st century BC) as his source.

Anaxandra is used again as an example of female talent in Lucrezia Marinella’s 16th Century feminist argument: The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men.

Her name was given by the International Astronomical Union in 1994 to a large 20 km diameter crater on Venus to commemorate the artist.


References:

Women Artists in All Ages and Countries – Elizabeth Fries Ellet

The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the defects and Vices of MenLucrezia Marinella, Anne Dunhill

On Wikipedia:

Anyte – fl. 3Rd Century BCE – Tegea, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Anyte was a famous writer in her own time, well known for her epitaphs and epigrams. She was one of the first to describe nature and landscapes in her work.

She is considered unusual as rather than writing of masculine triumphs and achievements, Anyte’s work expresses sorrow for the deaths of young women. She is the first poet to write epitaphs for animals.

Fellow poet Antipater of Thessalonica named Anyte as one of the nine ‘earthly muses’ and we have more complete poems by Anyte than by any other Greek woman.

Anyte’s striking descriptions of nature are clear in the following epigram, which speaks of a statue of Aphrodite (often known as the “Cyprian”):

This is the site of the Cyprian, since it is agreeable to her

to look ever from the mainland upon the bright sea

that she may make the voyage good for sailors.

Around her the sea trembles looking upon her polished image.”

"Aphrodites Rock". Licensed via Commons

“Aphrodites Rock”. Licensed via Commons

According to some sources, Anyte led a school of poetry and literature on Peloponnesus, which also included the poet Leonidas of Tarentum.


References:

Translation and notes by Marilyn B. Skinner

On Wikipedia: