Moero – 3rd Century BCE – Byzantium, Greek Empire

Ancient Greece

20150125_173950 (2)

Moero (sometimes Myro) was a poet from the city of Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul). Antipater of Thessalonica included her in his list of famous women poets. Little remains of Moero’s work, but we know she wrote epic and lyric poetry as well as eulogies.

She is mentioned a number of times in the Suda (an ancient encyclopaedia), which states that she married a man named Andromachus and had a son who also wrote poetry.

Moero was also mentioned in The Deipnosophists by Anthenaeus, where her poetry is praised and quoted:

“Myro the Byzantian admirably caught the feeling of Homeric poems saying in her poem titled ‘Memory’ that the Pleiades convey ambrosia to Jupiter.”

(Pleiades – Seven Sisters consellation)


References:

The Suda entry on Moero

The Deipnosophists, or, Banquet of the learned of Athenæus
volume II Book XI – Athenaeus of Naucratis

On Wikipedia:

Hydna – fl.480 BCE – Scione, Greece

Ancient Greece

A deep sea diver responsible for bringing down the Persian Navy

20150104_225019 (2)

Hydna (sometimes Cyana) of Scione fought in the same war as Artemisia of Caria – only on the opposing side. Growing up in a seaside town, she was a strong swimmer and proficient deep sea diver.

When the Persian navy began closing in on the Greek coast in 490 BCE, Hydna and her father volunteered to help defend their Empire. Seeing that a storm was brewing, the father and daughter came up with an elegant plan of attack.

At nightfall, the pair swam for ten miles through storm-tossed waters to reach the Persian ships. Silent and unseen, they then took their knives to the moorings, cutting the ropes and dragging away the anchors.

The peninsula where Xerxes fleet were moored - near Mount Pelion

The peninsula where Xerxes fleet were moored – near Mount Pelion

Untethered, the Persian ships were defenseless against the storm and crashed against each other, causing a huge amount of damage. Hydna and her fathers’ actions prevented battle until the Persians could recoup their losses, buying time for the Greek forces.


References:

A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and GeographySir William Smith 

Description of Greece (10.19.1)Pausanias 

On Wikipedia:

Agnodice – 4th Century BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

20150725_151736

Agnodice was born into a wealthy Athenian family and had one ambition; to become a doctor. Intelligent, rich and hardworking, the only thing that stood in her way was the law. In 4th Century Athens, it was a capital crime for a woman to study or practice medicine.

Being blessed with a can-do attitude and enough money to travel abroad, Agnodice left Greece for Egypt, where women actively took part in healthcare. She studied anatomy and midwifery in Alexandria under famous doctor and scientist Herophilos. Eventually she was ready to return to Athens. Knowing the law, Agnodice cut her hair short and wore men’s clothes when she arrived home, where she began to treat the women of Athens.

Agnodice engraving - Licensed by Wikimedia Commons

Agnodice engraving – Licensed by Wikimedia Commons

The story goes that one day Agnodice was passing a house when she heard a woman in the throes of labour. She immediately came to the woman’s aid, but was turned away because women in Athens were ashamed to have a male doctor attend them. Agnodice then revealed that she was, in fact, female, and was able to treat the woman successfully.

This experience was typical for Athens at the time, where women often suffered and died needlessly rather than see a male doctor. Soon, word got out that Agnodice was practicing, and she became the most popular physician in the city.

The men of Athens became suspicious. The male doctors accused Agnodice of seducing their female patients and taking away their trade, and she was brought to trial before the husbands of the women she treated. Seeing no way out, Agnodice revealed her true sex – unfortunately this now meant that her crime warranted execution. Before judgement could be passed, a mob of women arrived at the trial. They berated their husbands and praised Agnodice, who had saved many of their lives.

Following a debate, Agnodice was acquitted and the law of Athens was changed to permit female physicians. Agnodice became a symbol for the trust and comfort shared between women, and in the 17th century her story became used by midwives defending their trade against other male-dominated areas of medicine.


References:

Fabulous Female PhysiciansFlorence Kirsh and Sharon Kirsh

Women in Medicine University of Virginia

The Art and Artifice of Agnodice Jackie Rosenheck

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic (pg. 29-28)

On Wikipedia:

Timycha – 4th Century BCE – Tarentum, Greece

Ancient Greece

20150711_220157

Timycha was a Pythagorean philosopher from the Spartan colony Tarentum. She and her husband joined a group of Pythagorean pilgrims who followed the teachings and ethics of that school.

One day they were journeying to Metapontum when they were invited to visit the court of Dionysius the Elder, who wished to discuss philosophy with them. The band of pilgrims knew that Dionysius was a tyrant and did not trust his intentions, so they refused the invitation and carried on their way.

The cruel king was hugely insulted, and sent his soldiers to capture the philosophers and bring them to him by force. Timycha’s group was attacked, and though they could have easily escaped by running through a field of beans, their religious beliefs forbade them from trampling upon the plants. They tried to get around the field, but were overtaken by Dionysius’ soldiers and slaughtered. Only Timycha, who was heavily pregnant, and her husband survived to be brought to the King.

Dionysius heard the story of the bean field and became curious about the taboo. He questioned the couple, who refused to speak. Pythagoreans did not share their beliefs or the teachings of Pythagoras with just anyone, and Timycha and her husband stood firm. Eventually Dionysius ordered that Timycha be tortured until she gave up the secret.

He had hoped that this would frighten the philosopher into giving up, but Timycha was made of sterner stuff. The story goes that she bit off her own tongue and spat it at the King’s feet as a show of defiance. Now he would never know.

History too, was deprived of this knowledge. There is no consensus on why the Pythagoreans avoided trampling the bean field. We do know that Pythagoras taught that all life is sacred, and his followers were vegetarians for this reason, though they were not permitted to eat beans. One theory for this is to do with the shape of the bean, and the belief that it served as a vessel to carry souls from the afterlife back to earth. Belief in reincarnation was fundamental to Pythagoreans, so the bean may have been a powerful symbol to them.

It’s not clear what happened to Timycha or her husband after this unusual incident, though they were likely put to death. Her story was told for many years by Pythagoreans and she was used as a model of courage and hailed as a martyr for the cause.


References:

The Philosophers of the Ancient World: An A-Z GuideTrevor Curnow

Explaining Pythagorean Abstinence from BeansJames Dye

On Wikipedia:

Cleobulina – fl.550 BCE – Rhodes, Greece

Ancient Greece

20150711_220146

Cleobulina is most well known for her poetry, which took the form of witty riddles. Her reputation for playfulness and wisdom was held in high regard by three learned men of the time; Aristotle, Plutarch and Diogenes.

As with the majority of ancient Greek women, we know hardly anything at all about Cleobulina’s life. She was born in Rhodes and her father was Cleobulus, one of the seven sages (or wise men) of Greece. He may have educated his daughter, as she became skilled in writing poetry in hexameter and writing riddles.

The philosopher Thales described Cleobulina as having ‘a stateman’s mind’ and nicknamed her Eumetis – ‘wise counsel’. This indicates that beyond her poetry and enigmas, Cleobulina must have been an intelligent political thinker, and possibly advised her father, the ruler of Rhodes.

A thousand years after her death, Bathusa Markin used Cleobulina as an example of the triumphs of learned women to advocate the education of noble women in his own time.


 

References

The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers – Diogenes Laertius

Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An AnthologyIan Michael Plant

An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen by Bathusa Makin

Sappho – c.630/12 – 570 BCE – Lesbos, Greece

Ancient Greece

“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!

Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”

20150711_135535

Plato called her ‘wise Sappho’. Solon of Athens once said that he would be happy to die having learned one of her songs; Horace described her work as sacred. Sappho was as celebrated and respected for her art as any man or woman in the ancient world.

800px-Alkaios_Sappho_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2416_n2She was included as the only woman among the nine Greek lyric poets who were studied by the Alexandrians (Greeks) and later the Romans. Sappho is still well known today, despite much of her work being lost. There are about 200 remnants of Sappho’s poetry still in existence, all of varying lengths. As well as manuscripts copied by scholars over time, her poetry survives on papyrus fragments and pieces of pottery.

She wrote about heroic deeds and praise for the Gods – but is most remembered for her passionate love poetry and razor sharp wit:

“She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.”

“Vain woman, foolish thing!
Do you base your worth on a ring?”

Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos to a noble family and had three older brothers. She may have had a daughter who she named Cleïs after her mother.

What we know of Sappho’s life is based on her own poetry, and the writings of a few contemporary and later Greek historians. She spent most of her life on Lesbos, though she lived during a politically turbulent era and at one point was exiled for a short time. Her fellow poet and friend Alcaeus described her as ‘Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho’ and most physical descriptions agree that she was small and dark haired.

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho’s immense reputation surpasses many other poets of antiquity – she was called the tenth muse, was studied by Greeks, Romans and later the Victorians, odes were written to her, paintings and statues were created in her image. She is often praised for the clarity of language in her love poetry and her sharp descriptions – she is the first writer known to describe the moon as ‘silvery’.

“You have returned!
You did well to not depart
because I pined for you.
Now you have re-lit the torch
I bear for you in my heart,
this flare of Love.
I bless you and bless you and bless you
because we’re no longer apart.”

It would be difficult to discuss Sappho without stumbling upon a number of references to her sexuality. Her poetry focused on love and passion for people of both sexes. The word lesbian comes from Lesbos, the island she lived on, and she is also the origin of the word Sapphic. These words did not come to be applied to gay women until the 19th Century, and the poet’s reputation for same-sex relationships did not come about until 300 years after her death, nevertheless the rumor has become legend.

“Once more I dive into this fathomless sea,
intoxicated by lust.”

It was not uncommon for male poets such as Alcaeus and Pindar to form romantic relationships with both men and women in their social circle, so it might be assumed that Sappho adopted a similar attitude. Later philosopher Maximus of Tyre compared her relationships with women to Socrates relationships with men, claiming that they were simply ‘captivated by all things beautiful’.


References:

New Poems by Sappho – Dirk Obbink

English Translations of Sappho’s Works

In Our Time: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

Great Lives: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong is a fiction novel based on the life of the poet.

Erinna – c. 600 BCE – Rhodes, Greece

Ancient Greece

Deep into the wave you raced,
Leaping from white horses,
Whirling the night on running feet.
But loudly I shouted, “Dearest,
You’re mine!”

20150629_191101

A friend of Sappho and just as famous during her lifetime, Erinna is one of the few female Greek poets whose work is extant (still in existence).

She came from Rhodes, or one of the surrounding islands and wrote her most famous poem, The Distaff, when she was only nineteen years old. The poem is a lament for her friend Baucis, who died shortly before her wedding. The 300 line poem, which is written in hexameter verse, gives us the only information we have about the life of Erinna as she mourns her childhood fiend:

These things I
Lament and sorrow, sad Baucis.
These are for me, O Maiden,
Warm trails back through my heart:
Joy, once filled, smoulders in ash;
Young, in rooms without a care,
We held our miming dolls—girls
In the pretense of young brides
(And the toward-dawn-mother
Lotted wool to tending women,
Calling Baucis to salt the meat);

The poem is deeply heartfelt and recalls the act of weaving (a distaff is a spindle for spinning wool) using it as a metaphor for poetry and the thread of life. Erinna’s poetry gives us a rare and important glimpse into the lives of ancient Greek women as well as their relationships with each other.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Erinna was the most famous of Greek women poets after Sappho and was well known at least three hundred years after her death. Her praises are sung by other Greek writers, and she was compared favorably with Homer. Some biographies mention that Erinna died very young, shortly after having written The Distaff, making her accomplishments even more impressive.


References:

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

The Distaff

On Wikipedia:

Praxilla – 5th Century BCE – Sicyon, Greece

Ancient Greece, Uncategorized

“My friend, look out for a scorpion under every stone…”

20150624_191217

Praxilla was a famous lyric poet who wrote hymns and drinking songs (scolia). She was enough of a celebrity that a bronze bust was sculpted in her honour, and her songs were sung at parties for over three hundred years.

Praxilla was so well known that the playwright Aristopanes parodied her poetry in two of his plays – indicating that he both knew her work and expected his audiences to be familiar enough with Praxillion verse to laugh at his spoofs.

Of course, everyone is a critic, and Praxilla was later mocked for her hymn to Adonis which read:

Finest of all the things I have left is the light of the sun.

Next to that the brilliant stars and the face of the moon,

Cucumbers, apples and pears.

"Sikyon ancient Theatre"  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Sikyon ancient Theatre”
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Comparing the beauty of the night sky to cucumbers was considered somewhat misplaced, giving rise to the proverbial expression ‘Sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis’. However, when it is considered that the Greek for cucumber ‘sicyos’ is very similar to the name of Praxilla’s hometown of Sicyon, a case can be made that this was actually a clever pun.

Strange and silly or clever and original, Praxilla achieved fame and praise for her writing across the Greek world for centuries.


References:

Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology – I.M. Plant

Girls and Women in Classical Greek WritingMatthew Dillon

Selected fragments of Praxilla’s writing on Stoa.org

On Wikipedia:

Timarete – 5th Century BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

“She scorned the duties of women and practiced her father’s art…”

20150621_162038

Timarete is the first woman painter in recorded history. We know very little about her life, other than a short note about her from Pliny, a later Greek historian.

She was likely born in Athens, the centre of the Greek empire. Her father, Micon the Younger, was a painter and sculptor who was celebrated for his work on the Stoa poikile in Athens. It was extremely rare for Athenian women to take up a trade, and Pliny mentions only six female artists in his Natural History.

Timarete was best known for her panel painting of Diana, goddess of the hunt. Greeks considered panel painting to be the highest form of art – above sculpture or pottery.

Timarete would have painted with wax and tempera, creating portraits and still-lifes. The wooden panels were mobile and often displayed publicly in the first known art exhibitions.

Sadly, there is no Greek panel painting surviving today, due to the perishable nature of wood and other materials used. It is known that Timarete’s portrait of Diana was well loved and on display in Ephesus for many years.


Notes:

  • Stoa Poikile – Painted Porch. This monument would later be the birthplace of the philosophical school of Stoicism.

References:

The Natural HistoryPliny the Elder

Wikipedia:

Telesilla – fl. 510 BCE – Argos, Greece

Ancient Greece

This woman was renowned for her poetry, but also legendary for her bravery as a warrior…

20150621_144843

The life of Telesilla was distinctive in many ways. As a young woman, she suffered from ill-health and travelled from her homeland Argos to Delphi to visit the Pythia. The Oracle told her: τὰς Μούσας θεραπεύειν – Serve the Muses. So when Telesilla returned to Argos she devoted her life to poetry.

Only two lines of any of Telesilla’s poetry remains – part of a song meant for a chrorus of women to sing, but she was well known during her lifetime for her talents.

However, she was to be remembered for another reason…

In 510 BCE, Cleomenes of Sparta invaded the Argives. The men of Argos left for battle and were slaughtered, leaving Argos undefended. Cleomenes and his army of Spartan warriors began to march towards the city.

Spartan warrior "Cratère de Vix 0011 cropped" by Michael Greenhalgh Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

Spartan warrior
“Cratère de Vix 0011 cropped” by Michael Greenhalgh Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately for Argos, the Pythia had spoken another prophecy which would be fulfilled by Telesilla:

“the time shall come that the female conquers in battle, driving away the male and winning great glory in Argos. Then many wives of the Argives shall tear both cheeks in their mourning.”

With the Spartans closing in on the weakened city, Telesilla sprang into action. She gathered all of the slaves of the city, as well as elderly or young men who were usually excempt from service, stationing them at the city walls. She also armed all of the women of Argos, placing them in position for battle and standing at the head of the army.

When the Spartans arrived and saw Telesilla’s army, they made a battle cry in an attempt to frighten them. But Telesilla’s troops stood firm, and fought bravely. Eventually Cleomenes realized that he could not face the shame of being defeated by an army of women, and nor could he defeat them in good conscience, so he ordered the Spartans to leave the city.

It is said that after her victory, a statue was built in Telesilla’s honour. The statue portrays her placing a warrior’s helmet on her head, with her poetry scattered at her feet.


References:

Pausanias Book 2: 20:8 

On Wikipedia: