Friday, August 27, 2021

Women in Ancient Athens and the Persian Empire

In Ancient Greece, women were banned from participating in politics. They had no legal personhood and were assumed to be part of the oikos (household) headed by the male kyrios (master). The Greeks believed that if women were allowed to inherit property, men would become effeminate and the nation would fall. They did not allow their women to go out in public without a veil and unless they were escorted by a male relative. 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. According to Herodotus, Empress Atossa, the wife of Persian Emperor Darius I, was the real force behind the invasion of Greece in 492 BC. Herodotus has also written Atossa was responsible for ensuring that Xerxes became the Emperor after the death of Darius I. He has talked about other powerful women in the Persian Empire—the wife of Xerxes, Amestris, was the most powerful person in the Persian court; Parysatis, the wife of Darius II, became a center of power in her time.

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 were often 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 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 became wealthy. 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 business, located in the city of Shiraz, she employed 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.

Artemisia was devoted to Xerxes and fought for his side in the Battle of Salamis. Herodotus has praised her fighting and leadership skills. He has claimed that the Athenian warriors could not bear the thought of fighting a woman, so they placed a huge bounty on Artemisia’s head. They announced 10,000 drachmas reward for the Athenian who captured or killed her. Despite the threat to her life, she did not leave the battlefield.

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