In Sarah Pomeroy’s book titled “Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves”, copyright; 1975, she aims in writing a social history of women through the centuries in Greek and Roman worlds over the period of fifteen hundred years. Compared to the classical and medieval periods, relatively little has been written about women in late antiquity (the 3rd through 6th centuries). The sources for the period pose several problems for understanding the lives of women: they are dominated by law codes, medical texts and patriotic writings by the dominant males of that society which tend to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. I write these words, as a brief short analysis, reflecting on the roles women played at that time and their participation in the cultural, political, and economic life in comparison to the women of Greece and Rome.
The author starts her book with the history of the goddesses and their origins in Classical Mythology. She then continues by mentioning one of the greatest human influencers of that time; Homer. Through Homer’s epics, came the first perceptions of what role women were to play in society. Pomeroy refers to the story of Pandora and how it plays a huge role in the attitude towards women’s role in society reflecting back to the Bronze ages. She then carries a discussion over the roles of powerful goddesses such as Athena, Aphrodite, Hera, and states the influences these goddesses had over the modern women of that time being confused on form their roles as a woman.
“That fact that modern women are frustrated by being forced to choose between being an Athena- an intellectual. Asexual career woman- or an Aphrodite- a frivolous sex object- or a respectable wife- mother like Hera shows that Greek goddesses continue to be archetypes of female existence. If the characteristics of the major goddesses were combines, a whole being with unlimited potential for development- a female equivalent of Zeus or Apollo- would emerge.”
Pomeroy provides a good discussion of marriage patterns alluded in the epic cycles, based on the marriages of such royal women as Helen, Clytemnestra and Penelope. In a patrilocal pattern, the suitor would bring back the bride to his own house and she would be the material emblem of alliance between the households of her father and her new husband. In a matrilocal pattern, the wandering warrior would settle in the country of his bride. A great warrior like Achilles might find many chieftains offering their daughters in marriage in hope of obtaining a powerful alliances.
The next few chapters focus on describing the women of Athens and, later, of Rome. She points out that there is more material, literary, epigraphic and archeological information in this time to discuss the Athenian women. This is particularly valuable not only for the information conveyed, but perhaps even more for the method used. At all times, in her discussion, she carefully maintains the distinctions of class and economic status. At the same time she speaks on the strong female characters of tragedy. Pomeroy states that the mythology about women is created by men and, in a culture dominated by men; it may have little to do with women themselves. The women of Athens and Rome are the focus; the wives and the prostitutes. The Wife Archetype portrayed social respectability, a role that centered on the affairs of domesticity and childrearing. More importantly it was the prostitutes, whores or courtesans who received special status of being the most notorious and sophisticated. The famous courtesan, Aspasia, was vilified by later writers for influencing the Greek General Pericles of Peloponnesian War fame in the 5th century B.C.E.
In comparison to Greek Women, Roman women could be considered more liberated and emancipated. On of the main differences are named by Cornelius Nepos. He says Greek women mainly stay in the house, while Roman women accompany their husbands to dinner parties. Aside from social differences, there were also the economic advantages held by Roman women. They could own property beyond their dowry and inherit from their kin. This was a factor in the kind of marriage contracted, at least in the upper classes. Marriage severed the bride from her father’s control and placed her under her new husband’s, making her a member of her husband’s family and thus eligible to inherit from him. Reviews allowed the women of Rome more freedom, since she was nominally under her father’s control but removed from his direct surveillance. Also, both were allowed to keep their property (the upper class women of wealth) and it remained in her family. The various legal intricacies of marriage, divorce and inheritance were further complicated by the penchant of the upper classes at Rome to use marriages as an adhesive for making alliances in the political arena. The most interesting section in her book is the discussion on the freedwomen and working women of Rome. Most occupations available to women were of domestic service; they were prostitutes, maids, launderers, and cooks. There were also many accounts mentioned of market women from the East importing and exporting luxury goods and selling them. These women would be considered entrepreneurs in these modern times.
In the book’s last chapters, Pomeroy points out the connections between the different cults and myths of that time and how it impacts women of the Classical and Hellenistic period. The cults of Ceres and Isis are among the major cults mentioned. It is particularly interesting to note, that Isis, who became one of the most popular deities in the Greek and Roman world, was praised for making “the power of women equal to that of men.”
Despite the extreme social restraints on women in classical antiquity, it is interesting that they had a number of powerful female goddesses of the type that were never available to women of different dominant religions of that time, such is the case with Christianity. Demeter was able to retrieve her daughter Persephone, Artemis could send a fatal arrow, and Athena had the ability to resist marriage and motherhood, and to provide advice to respected Greek heroes. Aphrodite, Hera, Hestia, and Hekate were also powerful goddesses, intensely honored and greatly admired by women and men alike. Such women exist today and perhaps even more so in history, however were never accounted for, as much of history has been paved by the patriarchy system serving the “protectors” of our human species, the warriors, the lords, priests, nobles, all adhering to the housing of fathers and sons.