Tori L.

Tori Lee

Women in Herodotus and Thucydides: Role, Agency, and Characterization


I am broadly interested in Herodotus’s and Thucydides’s treatments of women. While the former author discusses female characters throughout the Histories, including them in his main narrative as well as excurses, the latter mentions women fewer than 50 total times in his work. Herodotean women often have names, dialogue, and active roles in the conflicts in which they appear, while Thucydidean women are unnamed, voiceless, and glossed over. I would like to explore a few questions in my investigation: What agency does each author grant to his female characters, and when are they able to exercise it? How are women of different nationalities and social statuses characterized? By examining their agency and characterization, I hope to gain an understanding of the role female characters play in the narratives of Herodotus and Thucydides and how they function in relation to their male counterparts.

Annotated Bibliography.

*Anhalt, Emily Katz. 2008. “Seeing is Believing: Four Women on Display in Herodotus’ Histories.”New England Classical Journal 35 (4): 269-280.

Anhalt discusses stories of women theatrically displayed. Herodotus associates these stories with political power being at risk, generally that of the viewer. She discusses the potential destructive effects of spectating and of taking visual displays at face value, contrasting these with Greek tragedy. Focuses on the stories of Gyges, Phye, the Paionian brothers, and Artemisia.

*Blok, Josine. 2002. “Women in Herodotus’ Histories.” In Brill’s Companion to Herodotus, ed. Egbert Bakker, Irene De Jong, Hans Van Wees. Leiden: Brill, 225-244.

This chapter in the Brill companion provides an overview of the current research on women in Herodotus. A good starting point for research on the subject. Blok summarizes and explains the main points of numerous scholars, starting in the 1960s and continuing to the time of writing. She does not advance her own theories, but explains well the interactions between different scholars’ ideas and the path Herodotean scholarship has taken with regard to women’s narratological role in the text.

*Boedeker, Deborah. 2011. “Persian gender relations as historical motives in Herodotus.” In Herodot und das Persische Weltreich = Herodotus and the Persian Empire : Akten des 3. Internationalen Kolloquiums zum Thema “Vorderasien im Spannungsfeld klassischer und altorientalischer Überlieferungen,” Innsbruck, 24.-28. November 2008. Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz Verlag: 211-235.

This chapter focuses on specific relationships between women and Persian men, and how those relationships drive the historical narrative. Organized according to Persian men, it provides brief overviews of the women who interact with them. Not very helpful for my focus on women in warfare, but useful to consider if you’re interested in male-female relationships. 

*Cartledge, Paul. 1993. “The Silent Women of Thucydides: 2.45.2 Re-viewed.” In Nomodeiktes: Greek Studies in Honor of Martin Oswald, ed. Ralph Rosen & Joseph Farrell. Ann Arbor (Mich.): University of Michigan Press: 125-32.

This chapter focuses on the reasons why Thucydides mentions so few women in his work. Cartledge analyzes two scholarly theories–that women simply weren’t part of the war, and that Thucydides was rebelling against Herodotus–and determines that neither is sufficient. He bases his own theory on a reading of the funeral oration, arguing that the speech is programmatic for Thucydides’s work itself, and that Thucydides omits mention of women as a sign of respect, keeping them out of the public eye as Pericles advises.

*Dewald, Caroline. 1981. ‘Women and Culture in Herodotus’ Histories.’ In Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. H.P. Foley. New York: 91-126.

Similar to Harvey 1985, but for Herodotus rather than Thucydides. A systematic analysis of all the mentions of women, broken down into categories of active vs. passive women; grouped women; ethnographic accounts; priestesses and religious figures. Dewald discusses the significance of women in the context of the family and the public sphere. She attempts a bit more analysis than Harvey, who mostly presents a set of data for scholars to use themselves. A very useful article and good starting place.

*–. 1980. “Biology and Politics: Women in Herodotus’s ‘Histories.’ ” Pacific Coast Philology 15: 11-18.

*Ducrey, Pierre. 2015. “War in the Feminine in Ancient Greece.” In Women & War in Antiquity, ed. Jacqueline Fabre-Serris and Alison Keith. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 181-199.

Ducrey assembles a varied collection of the occurrences of women in war, breaking them down into categories of deities, participators, warrior women/heroines, those providing moral and logistical support, those within armies, and victims. Yet he confusingly distinguishes between some stories that are “accounts that tell of female glory” and others that are “reality.” This chapter is good place to come to find examples of women in war in various literature, but it would be necessary to then delve into the scholarship on those examples individually.

*Georgoudi, Stella. 2015. “To Act, Not Submit: Women’s Attitudes in Situations of War in Ancient Greece.” In Women & War in Antiquity, ed. Jacqueline Fabre-Serris and Alison Keith. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 200-213.

*Gomme, A.W. 1925. “The Position of Women in Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries.” CP 20(1): 1-25.

Pieces together the legal and societal role of women in Athens in the 5th and 4th c. Gomme questions the prevailing evidence that women were powerless and homebound, which ignores Homer, comedy, tragedy, and philosophy. Gomme mostly focuses on this evidence, and he discusses the Funeral Oration’s characterization of women in the context of female tragic characters. An interesting comment on foreign vs. Athenian women on p.16, that foreign women may have more social liberty and be held in higher respect.

*Gould, John. 1980. “Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 100: 38-59.

Gould attempts to identify the Athenian social attitude towards women by exploring their treatment in two different realms: formal law and “half-conscious” paradigms in myth. He also looks at “custom,” which is comprised of oratory and drama. He collects examples from all these contexts, viewing them as complementary and necessary towards understanding the complexity of the zeitgeist. Not particularly useful for or focused on Herodotus and Thucydides, although a couple of examples arise thence.   

*Harvey, David. 1985. “Women in Thucydides.” Arethusa 18(1): 67-90.

Very helpful article. Collects and organizes every reference to women in Thucydides. Grouped by individual women vs. women in the plural. Concludes that references are sparing, many come in references to past history and relate immoral actions. Also collects instances in which we might expect women to be mentioned, but they are not. Brief comparison with Herodotus. Extensive and useful notes section.

*Hazewindus, Minke. 2004. When Women Interfere: Studies in the Role of Women in Herodotus’ Histories. Amsterdam.

A great, thorough book essential to the study of women in Herodotus. Certain chapters were more relevant to my topic than others, so I focused on the introduction, Chapter 4 on Tomyris, and Chapter 5 on the Amazons. Hazewindus provides a detailed close reading of the story of Tomyris and the death of Cyrus, casting it as primarily the story of Tomyris, rather than Cyrus. 

*Larson, Stephanie. 2006. “Kandaules’ Wife, Masistes’ Wife: Herodotus’ Narrative Strategy in Surpressing Names of Women: (Hdt. 1.8-12 and 9.109-13).” CJ 101(3): 225-44.

Focuses specifically on the suppression of the names of Kandaules’s wife and Masistes’s wife in their respective logoi. Larson also explores the suppression of female (and, briefly, male) names in Herodotus in general, as well as in Athens in that period. She argues the wives’ anonymity was purposeful on Herodotus’s part, marks them with respect, and exonerates them from blame for the subsequent demise of their houses. A well-argued and thorough analysis of these two logoi.

*Lateiner, Donald. 1989. “The Subject of Women.” In The Historical Method of Herodotus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 135-140.

A short section providing generalizations about Herodotus’s treatment of women. Also mentions Thucydides at the end. Lateiner’s ideas coincide with those of other scholars on Herodotus for the most part, but he fails to provide many examples, seeing as this is just a short section in a much larger book and certainly not the main focus. His arguments are much more conservative than Dewald’s or Larson’s, for example; he believes H. viewed women as most Greeks of his time did–naturally weak–and only a few exceptional women surpass their sex. He also argues that H. had a Hellenic bias in politics and that women who assert themselves in public–mostly foreign ones–are characterized as amoral and monstrous.

*Loraux, Nicole. 1985. “La Cité, l’historien, les femmes” Pallas 32:7-39.

*Munson, R.V. 1988. “Artemisia in Herodotus.” CA 7 (1): 91-106.

Pomeroy, Sarah. 1975. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books.

*Richter, D.C. 1971. “The Position of Women in Classical Athens.” CJ 67(1): 1-8.

Not as helpful as I’d hoped, but argues that women were not as powerless as the mass of evidence assumes, and supports Gomme 1925. Mentions the Funeral Oration and Pericles’s personal life. Looks at orators for further sources.

Rosellini, M. and Saïd, S. 1978. “Usages de femmes et autres nomoi chez les ‘sauvages’ d’Herodote: Essai de lecture structurale.” Annali Della Scuola Normale Superiore Di Pisa. Classe Di Lettere E Filosofia, (3): 949-1005.

*Schaps, David. 1982. “The Women of Greece in Wartime.” CP 77(3): 193-213.

Women viewed themselves as partners of men in warfare. Discusses ways women could contribute to the war effort from within their own sphere. Looks at attitudes and perspectives of the women themselves, as well as men. Discusses scenes from Thucydides.

*—. 1977. “The Woman Least Mentioned: Etiquette and Women’s Names.” CQ 27(2): 323-30.

Discusses customs/examples of repression of female names in oratory and in court. It is a hesitation to mention, not a hard and fast rule. Names of women of low reputation were not repressed. Some speakers omit names of women connected with their opponents, but not their own family. If the woman is not of ill repute, naming seems to signal disrespect by the speaker. Perhaps less often repressed after the woman in question has died. Almost all named women in oratory fall into one of three categories: women of low reputation, women connected with speaker’s opponent, dead women.

Tourraix, Alexandre. 1976. “La femme et le pouvoir chez Hérodote.” In Dialogues d’histoire ancienne, vol. 2.: 369-86.

*Weil, R. 1976. “Artèmise, ou le monde à l’envers.” In Recueil Plassart, ed. Paris: Les Belles-Lettres, 215-24.