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Women in Ancient Greek and Roman Art Coursework

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Updated: Jun 12th, 2022

Representation of women in art is a fairly good indicator of their social status. The ancient Greek and Roman art, both textual and visual, are a rich source of information on the social history of women in these cultures. The depiction of women in Greek sculptures and paintings usually takes the divine form. On the other hand, in mythology, and Homer’s work, women are often relegated to side roles with no powers. This creates a dilemma as to the status of women in these societies. Were they revered as goddesses or were they nothing more than glorified props in the Greek social structure. The fact that even goddesses and powerful sorceresses are depicted as inferior to men helps clear this dilemma.

The example of Circe, the sorceress with dangerous powers who could turn humans into animals is a case in point. Circe was “tamed” by Odysseus and later helped him return to Ithaca. However, her depictions by vase painters are limited to her dangerous powers and her taming by Odysseus, while her role as Odysseus’ partner and helper is largely ignored. According to Schmidt, “such pictures must have had a reassuring effect in that they presented the reinstatement of valid order”. It characterized “man’s mastery in his involvement with womankind” (58). Thus even if a woman was depicted as “powerful”, it was only so that a Greek “hero” could “tame” her. Women’s other functions in society were not considered important enough to be depicted in these vase paintings.”

Women were not only given secondary status in society but they were also expected to conform to a strict code of conduct, some of them even related to how they dressed or carried themselves. This is reflected in the way goddesses are depicted in the Greek art of the Classical period. With a shift to naturalism, the Classical art form is extremely vivid. For example, Artemis is represented as a young girl with flat breasts, wearing a short-skirted chiton while Aphrodite is represented as a mature woman, full-breasted, with wider hips and a sensuous face. This reflected the social and cultural preferences of the time when men preferred “large and bulky breasts in mature women” while girls were “bound around their chests from infancy to marriage” (Tanner 268).

When we look at Greek literature, the role of women in Greek society becomes even clearer. In Iliad, women are treated as properties as they get “stolen” from their husbands and following a war are “restored. “Women are dependent upon men for their status in life and the mode of their existence” (Lefkowitz 2). They do not usually speak, remaining mute spectators, and even when they do speak, their words fall on deaf ears with the men ignoring their words of caution or advice.

If the social situation of Greek women was bad, the Roman women during the early part of Roman history were even worse off. If we go by Livy’s history of Rome’s origin, it would seem that it was commonplace for women to get raped, killed, or just disappear (Josh 163). However, according to Matheson, wives of rich men and empresses were often represented as goddesses in Roman art. One reason for this is that these women had doting husbands, who gave them great respect even when they were alive.

An interesting expect is that the women who were represented as goddesses in Roman art were not always royals, but even wives of common men and freedwomen could get such distinction. This shows that somewhere between the fourth century, which is the setting of Livy’s prose, and the second century, Roman women gained status, mostly due to their doting men who no longer objectified their womenfolk.

It is possible that with the Roman conquest of Greece in the second century, the situation of Greek women also improved. However, we do not have images to substantiate such a claim and so we will have to assume that women in Greece continued to have little social status even as late as the second century.

Works Cited

Joshel, R.L. “The Body female and the Body Politic: Livy’s Lucretia and Verginia”. pp. 163-190.

Lefkowitz. “Women’s Heroism” pp. 1-11.

Matheson, Susan B. “The Divine Claudia: Women as Godesses in Roman Art”.

Schmidt, Margot. “Sorceresses”. pp. 57-62.

Tanner, Jeremy. “Nature, Culture and the body in classical Greek religious art”. Archeology and Aesthetics. 33.2: 257-276.

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