Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Guest Blog: Debra Hamel


Whatever Apollodorus had to say about Neaira, however many half truths he conjured in court in his bid to convict her, Neaira herself could say nothing. As a woman, she was not allowed to speak in court. Instead, as I've already mentioned, she was represented by Stephanos, the Athenian citizen with whom she'd been living for some thirty years.

One interesting thing about Apollodorus's speech against Neaira is that he's forever referring to her by name. This is interesting because it wasn't the done thing: women, in ancient Greece, were supposed to be, to a great extent, invisible. In his famous Funeral Oration, which was preserved in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian statesman Pericles says that women achieve glory by being the least talked about among men. We have numerous examples in the Athenian court speeches of litigants referring to women but going to great lengths to avoid using their actual names. A woman might be referred to as the daughter of
Theodotos, wife of Eukrates, for example, but she probably won't be mentioned by name--unless she isn't, or the speaker wants to suggest that she isn't, a respectable woman. Neaira had sold herself on the streets, as it were, for decades. She'd been the "entertainment" at male drinking parties. Apollodorus doesn't seem to have had any qualms at all about naming Neaira: he does so more than fifty times in his speech.

That women couldn't speak in court in Athens is hardly surprising. While it's not correct to say that women weren't citizens--they were--it's certainly the case that women's rights were restricted. They did not vote or otherwise take part in Athens' political life. (But of course this was true of modern democracies until very recently, so we should not fault Athens for failing to be millennia ahead of its time.) Rather, women--traditionally employed women, that is, as opposed to prostitutes--were active in the domestic sphere. They remained in their homes, spinning wool, overseeing the slaves, and attending to the very many chores that needed doing in the pre-industrial home. It was not a small responsibility.

Readers will perhaps have heard that ancient Greek women were confined to their homes, in essence segregated from men. To an extent, this is true. There were separate women's and men's quarters in Greek homes, and women were for the most part expected to stay apart from men who were not their relatives. On the other hand, their social lives are likely to have been more full than references to "segregation" suggest. Women gossipped with their neighbors and attended religious festivals. They grieved for their dead at funerals. And poorer women whose husbands could not afford to keep their wives cooped up away from prying male eyes will of
necessity have attended to errands outside the home. Some of them even managed to have affairs...

My job in writing Trying Neaira was to tell Neaira's story as well as I could, using as my primary piece of evidence a speech that was biased against her and that was composed and delivered by an oily lawyer-type who was not above misleading his audience. Complicating the task was the fact that Neaira herself can have left no testimony, and that women in general in ancient Greece were more or less mute as far as contributing to the historical record goes. One cannot expect from a history of this period the sort of detailed account that histories of later, better documented eras can offer. Not if you're reading nonfiction, at any rate: it remains for someone more talented than I to take up Neaira's fascinating life story and flesh it out more fully than our sources allowed me.


Blogger Wynn Bexton said...

What a fascinating subject. I'd love to read it as I am very much invovled with ancient Greece in my own writing.

6:31 AM  

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