Sue BLUNDELL, Women in Classical Athens. Bristol Classical Press, 1998. ISBN 1-85399-543-6
Review by Aideen Hartney
Sue Blundell?s study of women in classical Athens is a scaled down and deliberately accessible version of her 1995 British Museum Press Women in Ancient Greece study, this time concentrating specifically on the city state of Athens. She takes as her starting point those women depicted on the frieze sculptures, mortals and immortals, and declares her intention to examine the realities of female existence at this time in Athenian history - often regarded as the high point in Greek culture.
As part of this survey, Blundell draws together an impressive and varied array of ancient evidence, ranging from vase paintings to Attic comedy. The Introduction, as already mentioned, concentrates on the building project that gave rise to the Parthenon and its sculptures, and the contemporary views expressed by Pericles regarding the appropriate role and function of women within the community. From there Blundell moves on to a carefully divided discussion of women?s lives in Athens, beginning with unmarried women. Her study collects evidence which informs us about the education, religious roles and dress of such women, including the anecdote from Herodotus about those women who used the pins holding their chitons to kill the survivor of Athenian troops killed at Aegina. This is balanced by an examination of those immortal female characters featured in the mythology of the time and their depiction on vase paintings and in statues by contemporary artists.
The next chapter deals with married women and the transition between the home of father and husband which all women in Athenian society would have undergone. For a woman to die before her marriage and before childbirth was seen as a waste of her sole potential. Blundell approaches the subject meticulously, beginning with the actual arrangement of the marriage, through the wedding ceremony itself, and on to the domestic duties of a new wife. Again a variety of evidence is presented, including some words from the Athenian playwrights such as Sophocles and Euripides, who imagine female reactions to this aspect of their lives - the sense of being sold into marriage to the highest bidder, their reactions to sex, and even the role of nagging wives or stepmothers. She also offers an interesting discussion of the various roles of material and weaving in the lives of women; as tokens of recognition in some of the Greek tragedies, as symbols of the harmonious order which should prevail in the household, and by the same token as an indication that some trouble or strife has intervened - as in the case of Medea?s use of a hand-woven dress to murder her princess rival.
Chapter Four gives us a survey of those mythological characters who were of particular relevance to women in Athens at this time. Obviously it is the female deities who feature most in this section; Athena, Demeter, Aphrodite and Hestia among others. But Blundell also discusses the Amazons as examples of women who were contrary to everything Athenian society believed in. This brings her back neatly to her starting point of the Parthenon sculptures, and she compares the metope friezes which depict the Amazons fighting the Greeks, with those showing the conflict of Lapiths and Centaurs, as alternative means of illustrating the ?barbarian other?. Chapter Five is a brief discussion of the lives of those other women who lived in Classical Athens - slaves, aliens and prostitutes. Blundell concludes her survey by recalling the way in which the women described in the evidence she has collected are very often shown as being different from the received notions of femininity portrayed in the speeches of Pericles, or in the laws of the time. But at all times she retains a keen awareness of the nature of these sources, and cautions against accepting the portraits of male playwrights, comedians and artists too readily or unwarily.
All in all this is a comprehensive and interesting discussion of all aspects of women?s lives in classical Athens. Blundell has collected a wide range of evidence which is well presented, and will not sacrificing the accessibility of the study, she has introduced the readers to a number of interesting, and less obvious discussions arising out of this evidence. It is a book that is well suited to students of every level, including postgraduate, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in women?s history, or indeed in the social history of the ancient world.