The paradigm of gender equality, especially as far as the role of patriarchy is concerned, has always been a subject for discussion from both literary and historical perspectives. The notion is particularly relevant for the investigation of socio-cultural patterns of Ancient Rome and Greece, the literary heritage of which present a high level of controversy with the historical evidence. According to Powell (2020, 60), the ability to form an appropriate and accurate representation of the females’ social position is extremely limited due to a lack of evidence. Still, based on the information known to modern research, it would be reasonable to assume that the perception of love manifested by men in both Greek and Roman mythology was implicitly misogynistic. The literary evidence, for its part, while depicting powerful and even tyrannic heroines, demonstrated evidence of gender inequality and undermining of women in society.
The socio-cultural context of Ancient Greece was by no means supportive of gender equality, as women, along with slaves and non-residents of the polis, were not considered full-scale participants in the social and political life of the community. Professor Donald Kagan from Yale University, despite having spent decades on the thorough investigation of the Ancient Greek society and literary heritage, could not definitively answer the question of female position in society at the time (Koch, “Women in Ancient Greece,” 0:27). Indeed, at the time, Greek women were supposed to be married approximately by the age of sixteen, and they were regarded as an attribute to a man rather than an autonomous member of society.
Women in Ancient Greece and Rome, despite a controversial representation in mythology, were not respected by men. According to Pawell (2020, 60), Greek women were barely visible to other people except for their husbands or guardian, as they were not allowed to live by themselves and needed constant supervision by men within the family. As a result, the women’s inability to confront their spouses led to men’s outrageous behavior toward their wives, whose duty was to love their husbands despite mischievous acts and constant adultery. Hence, it may be concluded that the primary issue with the relationship between men and women in Ancient Greece and Rome was the fact that the marriages were mostly pre-arranged due to political or economic reasons. The presence of feelings and love was not an obligatory option in terms of creating a family. Men’s polygamous attitude to relationships as such undermined the perception of love and feelings, making marriage and relationships a mandatory endeavor to become less controlled by the family and relatives.
The paradigm of ancient myths creates a severe controversy in terms of women’s perception at the time. Indeed, while precedents show pragmatic and discriminatory attitudes towards women, the vast majority of mythological heritage contains images of powerful women whose mischievous actions have extreme socio-political power. The first example of such a heroine is Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, who murders him to proclaim the tyranny of Aegisthus, her lover who is also under her meticulous control (Powell 2020, 65). Another example one may recollect from the mythology is Lysistrata, a heroine of Aristophanes’ comedy who conspires with fellow wives of Greek warriors to deprive them of marital privileges until the end is put to the Peloponnesian War is put (Powell 2020). On the one hand, such a depiction of women resonates with empowerment and the ability to take the initiative and control men. On the other hand, however, such a comic representation of Greek society emphasizes the fact that women as wives are only able to manipulate men by refusing to commit their marital duties as if they presented no other value and significance to men.
Another and arguably the most prominent example of female empowerment is the depiction of Medea, wife of Jason, whose character is shown from a peculiarly weak perspective (Powell 2020, 518). Not only is Medea capable of both helping her husband and killing her children to punish Jason for adultery, but she is also depicted as a character in charge of all her decisions. However, while taking responsibility for her actions, Medea fully understands the ungrateful and miserable state of women in society. The ponderings on the matter are outlined in a famous monologue:
Of all the creatures who have heart and soul we women are the most unfortunate. All that we have we give to buy a husband and, even worse, a tyrant of all we are. … She cannot be free.
Blindly she enters a new estate, new ways. Untaught at home, she now needs second sight to learn to deal with him she sleeps beside.
If she succeeds, if her husband is content to dwell without rebelling at his yoke, then she is blessed. If not, far better dead (Euripides, Medea 225–266)
The fascinating aspect of the quote above is the fact that its author is a man who apparently either understands the unjust position of women in the community or creates these lines for the play to be loud and resonant.
However, despite the numerous manifestations of female empowerment, there is also an example of men’s full disregard of female feelings for the sake of content. Thus, the mythological story of Helen’s abductions by Theseus and Paris portrays Helen as a victim of patriarchy and men’s desire to own the most beautiful woman in the world despite her will and desires. There are various viewpoints on this situation, with some people regarding Helen’s relationship with Paris as infidelity that caused the Trojan war and others perceiving Helen to be nothing but a victim of cultural male domination (Powell 2020; Alwang 2021). An interesting point presented by Alwang (2021, 28) claims that “from the male viewpoint, Helen’s unwillingness would have been more acceptable than the alternative of her voluntarily running off and denying her womanly responsibilities.” Indeed, such an assumption has a right to exist considering the women’s inability to voluntarily divorce their husbands without the approval of a legal guardian.
Undeniably, scholars also refer to the cases of marriage based on love and mutual respect. Powell (2020, 65), in particular, draws attention to Odysseus and his refusal to stay with a nymph instead of returning to his wife. However, such an interpretation may also be controversial due to the fact the refusal to commit adultery should be perceived not as heroism but as a manifestation of human decency in marriage. Thus, it means that the bar for respect for women was so low at the time that choice in favor of monogamy could be regarded as love at its finest.
Having considered the evidence presented in ancient mythology, it may be concluded that the paradigm of relations between men and women at the time was distorted by gender inequality. As a result, what may have been perceived as love at first sight, could have been nothing but a man’s desire to have a particular woman as his wife because of her family background or appearance. In such a way, men’s outrageous behavior could be explained by the distorted perception of love in a society where women were a commodity rather than a partner.
Alwang, Camryn. 2021. “Marriage and Abduction Myths of the Ancient Greeks: A Means of Reinforcing the Patriarchy.” Honor’s Project. The State University of New York.
Koch, Dieter. “Women in Ancient Greece.” 2018. Educational video, 5:36. Web.
Powell, Barry P. 2020. Classical Myth (9th Edition). London, United Kingdom: Pearson.
Steadman, Peter, Dennis Diamond (Editors), and Euripides. 1985. Euripides’ Medea. New York, N.Y.: Greek Drama Co., Ltd.