Friday, August 27, 2021

Women in Ancient Athens and the Persian Empire

Which ancient land had such a view of women:

“Women must be banned from politics. Women cannot be allowed to represent themselves in courts. If women are allowed to inherit property, men will become effeminate and the nation will fall. Women should not go out in public without a veil and unless they are escorted by a male relative. Women are irrational, conniving, dangerous, and naive. Women should not interact with men who are not related to them. Female children should not be given education. Women are fit for only two roles: to bear children, and to run the household.”

The answer will surprise you. It is Ancient Athens. The Athenian philosopher Aristotle has claimed that Sparta fell because the Spartan men had become effeminate after they allowed women to inherit property. Greek literature casts women as troublemakers—Hera and Aphrodite are portrayed as jealous goddesses who employ feminine wiles to mislead men.

Contrast the poor status of women in Ancient Athens with the economic, legal, and political power that women enjoyed in the Persian Empire. Herodotus says that Empress Atossa, the wife  of Emperor Darius I, was the real force behind the invasion of Greece in 492 BC. If this is true, then it shows the power that women enjoyed in the Persian Empire. Herodotus claims that Atossa was responsible for ensuring that Xerxes became the Emperor after the death of Darius I. He says that the wife of Xerxes, Amestris, was the most powerful person in the Persian court. He makes a similar claim about Parysatis, wife of Darius II.

Herodotus’s comments about the power of the Persian queens is not a praise for Persian society—he is being contemptuous. His thinking is that the Persian kings were so effeminate that they allowed their women to dictate the state’s policy. The Athenians (and sometimes the Spartans) used to brag that the Persians must be effeminate because they could not control their women.

In the Persian Empire, women were free to step out of their house without wearing a veil and move around without being escorted by a male relative. They enjoyed the freedom to bathe in public, in lakes and rivers. In Persian cities there were outdoor swimming pools which were shared by men and women. When the Greeks used to come to the Persian Empire, they used to be horrified by the sight of women moving around without veils and bathing in public. They used to take this freedom for women as a sign of Persian effeminacy and decadence.

In palace ceremonies, the Persian women played a prominent role. They attended the meetings and banquets in which foreign dignitaries had been invited. The Greeks had a hard time accepting the presence of women in their state-level meetings with the Persians, since in Greek culture only the prostitutes and courtesans attended the gatherings of political figures. The Greek dignitaries would often return to Greece with a low opinion of Persian culture, and they would spread canards about the moral character of women in the Persian royal family.

There are several records of Persian women excelling in hunting and warfare. The Greek and the Persian sources talk about Roxane, a relative of Emperor Artaxerxes II, who was a champion in archery and throwing javelin. The Persian women routinely went on hunting. They were capable archers and horse riders. Greek chroniclers talk about the warlike nature of the Persian women. Ctesias mentions that in the time of Cyrus the Great, the Persian women stood in the streets and taunted the men who were trying to flee from the Battle of Medes.

There are records of Persian women buying, selling, and owning property. The Persian men were allowed to bequeath their property to their daughters and daughters-in-law. There are records of Persian women who ran their own businesses and made great wealth. They were allowed to pass on their fortune to the next generation or to anyone outside their family. In the time of Darius I, there was a Persian businesswomen called Irdabama. In her enterprise, based in the city of Shiraz, she used to employ 480 laborers. Several seals, which record her business transactions, have been found.

Persian Women could rise to the position of satraps, the second highest position after the Persian Emperor. Artemisia I of Caria was the Queen of the ancient Greek city-state of Halicarnassus and of the nearby islands of Kos, Nisyros and Kalymnos (these were within the satrapy of the Persian Empire). In the movie 300: Rise of an Empire, actress Eva Green has played the role of Artemisia, depicted as a ruthless satrap who enjoyed great influence on Emperor Xerxes and commanded the Persian fleet during the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. It is true that Artemisia commanded a section of the Persian fleet.

Though Artemisia was devoted to Xerxes and fought for his side in the Battle of Salamis, Herodotus had a favorable opinion of her. He praises her fighting and leadership skills. He says that the Athenians could not bear the thought of fighting a female warrior. They had placed a bounty on Artemisia's head, offering 10,000 drachmas to the man who captured or killed her but despite the threat to her life, she did not leave the battlefield. There are other fascinating women in Persian history. The story of the two Persian ladies Mania of Dardanus and Epyaxa of Cilicia is worth reading.

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