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Greek Women by Mitchell Carroll - HTML preview

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Professor of Classical Philology in the George Washington University

_Copyrighted 1907-1908_


The history of woman is the history of the world. Strait orthodoxy may

remind us that man preceded woman in the scheme of creation and that

therefore history does not begin with woman; but this is a specious

plea. The first historical information that we gain regarding Adam is

concerned with the creation of woman, and there is nothing to show us

that prior to that time Adam was more active in mind or even in body

than a mollusc. It was not until the coming of woman that history began

to exist; and if the first recorded act of the woman was disastrous in

its consequences, at least it possesses the distinction of making

history. So that it may well be said that all that we are we owe to

woman. Whether or not the story of the Garden of Eden is to be

implicitly accepted, there can be no doubt that from the moment of the

first appearance of mankind on the scene woman has been the ruling cause

of all effect.

The record of woman is one of extremes. There is an average woman, but

she has not been found except in theory. The typical woman, as she is

seen in the pages of history, is either very good or very bad. We find

women saints and we find women demons; but we rarely find a mean. Herein

is a cardinal distinction between the sexes. The man of history is

rarely altogether good or evil; he has a distinct middle ground, in

which we are most apt to find him in his truest aspect.

There are

exceptions, and many; but this may be taken as a rule.

Even in the

instances of the best and noblest men of whom we have record this rule

will hold. Saint Peter was bold and cautious, brave and cowardly, loving

and a traitor; Saint Paul was boastful and meek, tender and severe;

Saint John cognized beyond all others the power of love, and wished to

call down fire from heaven upon a village which refused to hear the

Gospel; and it is most probable that the true Peter and Paul and John

lived between these extremes. Not so with the women of the same story.

They were throughout consistent with themselves; they were utterly pure

and holy, as Mary Magdalene,--to whose character great wrong has been

done in the past by careless commentary,--or utterly vile, as Herodias.

Extremism is a chief feminine characteristic. Extremist though she be,

woman is always consistent in her extremes; hence her power for good and

for evil.

It is a mistaken idea which places the "emancipation" of woman at a late

date in the world's history. From time immemorial, woman has been

actively engaged in guiding the destinies of mankind. It is true that

the advent of Christianity undoubtedly broadened the sphere of woman and

that she was then given her true place as the companion and helper

rather than the toy of man; but long before this period woman had

asserted her right to be heard in the councils of the wise, and the

right seems to have been conceded in the cases where the demand was

made. Those who look upon the present as the emancipation period in the

history of woman have surely forgotten Deborah, whose chant of triumph

was sung in the congregation of the people and was considered worthy of

preservation for all future ages to read; Semiramis, who led her armies

to battle when the Great King, Ninus, had let fall the sceptre from his

weary hand, and who ruled her people with wisdom and justice; and others

whose fame, even if legendary in its details, has come down to us.

Through all the ages there was opportunity for woman, when she chose to

seize it; and in many cases it was thus seized. Rarely indeed do we find

the history of any age unconcerned with its women.

Though their part may

at times seem but minor, yet do they stand out to the observant eye as

the prime causes of many of the great events which make or mark epochs.

When we think of the Trojan War, it is Agamemnon and Priam, Achilles and

Hector, who rise up before our mental vision as the protagonists in that

great struggle; but if there had been no Helen, there would have been no

war, and therefore no Iliad or Odyssey. We read Macaulay's stirring

ballad of_ Horatius at the Bridge, _and we thrill at the recital of

strength and daring; but if it had not been for the virtue of Lucretia,

there would have been no combat for the bridge, and the Tarquins might

have ended their days in peace in the Eternal City. And, in later times,

though Mirabeau and Robespierre and Danton and Marat fill the eye of the

student of the cataclysmic events of the French Revolution, it was the

folly of Marie Antoinette that gave these men their opportunity and even

paved the way for the rise and meteoric career of a greater than them


These are instances of mediate influence upon great events; but there

have been many women who ham exerted immediate influence upon the story

of mankind. That which is usually mistermed weakness is generally held

to be a feminine attribute; and if we replace the term by the truer

word,--gentleness,--the statement may be conceded. But there have been

many women who have been strong in the general sense; and these have

usually been terribly strong. Look at Catherine of Russia, vicious to

the core, but powerful in intellect and will above the standard of

masculine rulers. Look at Elizabeth of England, crafty and false, full

of a ridiculous vanity, yet strong with a strength before which even

such men as Burleigh and Essex and Leicester were compelled to bow.

Look at Margaret of Lancaster, fighting in her husband's stead for the

crown of England and by her undaunted spirit plucking victory again and

again from the jaws of defeat, and yielding at last only when deserted

by every adherent. Look at Clytemmstra and Lady Macbeth, creatures of

the poet's fancy if you will, yet true types of a class of femininity.

They have had prototypes and antitypes, and many.

Women have achieved their most decisive and remarkable effects upon the

history of mankind by reaching and clinging to extremes.

Extremism is

always a mark of enthusiasm, and enthusiasm accomplishes effects which

must have been left forever unattained by mere regulated and

conscientious effort. The stories of the Christian martyrs show in

golden letters the devotion of women to a cause; and I have no doubt

whatever that it was in the deaths of young maidens, in their hideous

sufferings borne with resignation and even joy, that there came the

conviction of truth which is known as the seed which was sown in the

blood of the martyrs. The high enthusiasm which supported a Catherine

and a Cecilia in their hours of trial was strong to persuade where the

death of a man for his convictions would have been looked upon as a

matter of course. It is from this enthusiasm and extremism that there

sounds one of the key-notes of woman's nature--her loyalty. Loyalty is

one of the blending traits of the sexes; yet, if I were compelled to

attribute it distinctively to one sex, I should class it as feminine in

its nature.

Loyalty to one idea, to one ideal, has been a predominant characteristic

of woman from time immemorial. Sometimes this loyalty takes the form of

patriotism, sometimes of altruism, sometimes of piety in true sense; but

always it has its origin and life in love. The love may be diffused or

concentrated, general or particular, but it is always the soul of the

true woman, and without it she cannot live. Love for her God, love for

her race, love for her country, love for the man whom she delights to

honor--these may exist separately or as one, but exist for her they

must, or her life is barren and her soul but a dead thing. Love, in the

true sense of the word, is the essence of the woman-soul; it is the soul

itself. She must love, or she is dead, however she may seem to live.

That she does not always ask whether the object of her love, be it

abstract or concrete, be worthy of her devotion is not to be attributed

to her as a fault, but rather as a virtue, since the love itself expands

and vivifies her soul if itself be worthy. It is at once the expression

and the expenditure of the unsounded depths of her soul; it is through

its power over her that she recognises her own nature, that she knows

herself for what she is. The woman who has not loved, even in the

ordinary human and limited meaning of the word, has no conception of her

own soul.

Thus far I have spoken of love in its broad sense, as the highest

impulse of the human soul. But there is another and a lower aspect of

love, and this is the one most usually meant when we use the word,--the

attraction of sex. Even thus, though in this aspect love becomes a far

lesser thing, it possesses no less power. The passion of man for woman

has been the underlying cause of all history in its phenomenal aspects.

The favorite example of this power has always been that of Cleopatra and

Mark Antony; but history is full of equally convincing instances.

To love and to be loved; such is the ultimate lot of woman. It matters

not what accessories of existence fate may have to offer; this is the

supreme meaning of life to woman, and it is here that she finds her true

value in the world. She may read that meaning in divers manners; she may

make of her place in life a curse or a blessing to mankind. It matters

not; all returns to the same cause, the same source of power_. _The

strongest woman is weak if she be not loved, for she lacks her chief

weapon with which to conquer; the weakest is strong if she truly have

won love, for through this she can work miracles. Her strength is more

than doubled; heart and brain and hand are in equal measure, for that

with which the heart inspires the brain will be transmitted by the heart

to the hand, and the message will be too imperative to fear failure.

It is a strange thing--though not inexplicable--that your ambitious

woman is far more ruthless, far more unscrupulous, far more determined

to win at any cost, than is the most ambitious of men.

Again comes the

law of extreme to show cause that this should be; but the fact is so

sure that cause is of less interest. Not Machiavelli was so false, not

Caligula was so cruel, not Caesar was so careless of right, as the woman

whose political ambition has taken form and strength.

That which bars

her path must be swept aside, be it man or notion or principle. She sees

but the one object, her goal, looming large before her; and she moves on

with her eyes fixed, crushing beneath her feet all that would turn her


I have spoken of the cruelty of an ambitious woman; and it is worth

while to pause a moment to consider this trait as displayed in

women--not as a means, but as an end. There have been men who loved

cruelty for its own sake; but they are few, and their methods crude,

compared with the woman who have felt this strange passion. In the days

of human sacrifices, it was the women who most thronged to the

spectacles, who most eagerly fastened their eyes upon the expiring

victims. In the gladiatorial combats, it was the women who greeted each

mortal thrust with applause, and whose reversed thumbs won the majority

for the signal of death to the vanquished. In the days of terror in

France, it was the woman who led the mob that threatened the king and

queen, and hanged Foulard to a lamp post after almost tearing him to

pieces; it was the women who sat in rows around the guillotine, day

after day, and placidly knit their terrible records of death; it was the

women who cried for more victims, even after the legal murderers of the

tribunals grew weary of their hideous task of condemnation.

Not only thus--not only under the influence of excitement and

passion--but in cold blood, there are instances among women of such

ghastly cruelty that men recoil from the contemplation of such deeds.

There is record of a Slavonic countess whose favorite amusement was to

sit in the garden of her country palace, in the rigors of a Russian

winter, while young girls were stripped by her attendants and water

poured slowly over their bodies, thus giving them a death of enduring

agony and providing the countess with new, though unsubstantial, statues

for her grounds. This not more than two centuries ago, and in the

atmosphere of so-termed Christianity. The annals of the Spanish

Inquisition would be ransacked in vain for such ingenuity of torture;

and though the Inquisitors may have grown to love cruelty for its own

sake, they at least alleged reason for their deeds; the Russian countess

frankly sought amusement alone.

Yet in these things there is to be found no general accusation of women.

That cruelty should be carried by them to its extreme, that they should

love it for its own sake, is but the development of extremism, and is

isolated in examples, at least by periods. The Russian countess was not

cruel because she was a woman, but, being cruel of nature, she was the

more so because of her sex. The ladies of imperial Rome did not love the

sight of flowing blood because they were women, but, being women, they

carried their acquired taste to bounds unknown to the less impulsive and

less ardent nature of men.

Yet there comes a question. Is this lust for blood, this love of

cruelty; latent in every woman and but restrained, by the gentler

teachings and promptings of her more developed nature in its highest

presentation? So some psychists would have us believe; but they have

only slight ground for their sweeping assertion. That civilisation is

but restrained savagery may perhaps be conceded; but if the restraint

has grown to be the ever-dominant impulse, then has the savage been

slain. It is not, as some teach, that such isolated idiosyncrasies as we

have considered are glimpses of the tiger that sleeps in every human

heart and sometimes breaks its chain and runs riot. As a rule, these

things are matters of atmosphere. Setting aside such pure isolations as

that of the Russian countess, it will almost invariably be found that

the display of feminine cruelty, or of any vice, is of a time and place.

There has never been a universal rule of feminine depravity in any age.

Babylon, Carthage, Greece, Rome, and all the olden civilisations have

had their periods when female virtue was a matter of laughter, when

women outvied men in their moral degradation, when evil seemed

triumphant everywhere; but there always remained a few to "redeem the

time," and salvation always came from those few.

Moreover, the sphere of

immorality and crime was always limited. The Roman world, when it was

the world indeed, might be given up to vice and sin, displayed in their

most atrocious forms by the women of the Empire; but there still stood

the North, calm, virtuous, patient, awaiting its opportunity to "root

out the evil thing" and to give the world once more a standard of purity

and righteousness. The leaven of Christianity was effective in its work

upon the moral degradation of the Roman Empire; but it was not until the

scourge of the Northmen was sent to the aid of the principle that

success was fully won. So the North was not of the same day with Rome in

civilised vice, and the reign of evil in the Latin Empire was but the

effect of conditions, not the instincts of humanity.

Rome was taught

evil by long and steadfast evolution; it did not spring up in a day

with its deadly blight, but was the result of progressive causation.

It may be doubted if the feminine intellect has increased since the dawn

of civilisation. To-day woman stands on a different plane of

recognition, but by reason of assertiveness, not because of increased

mental ability. As with that of man, the possibilities of woman's

intellect were long latent; but they existed, and the result is

development, not creation of fibre. I repeat that I do not believe that

the feminine intellect has grown in power. I doubt if the present age

can show a mind superior in natural strength to that of Sappho; I do not

believe that the present Empress of China, strong woman as she is, is

greater than Semiramis, or that even Elizabeth of England was the equal

of the warrior-queen of Babylon. But there can be no doubt that there

exists a broader culture to-day than ever before and that thus the

intellectual sum of women is always growing, though there comes no

increase in the mental powers of the individual. It has been so with

man. We boast of the mighty achievements of our age; but we have not yet

built such a structure as that of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbec, or

the Pyramid of Cheops at Ghizeh. We pride ourselves upon our letters;

but the grandest poem ever written by man was also the first of which we

have record--the Book of Job, and we do not even know the name of the

poet who thus set a standard which has never since been reached. We may

claim Shakespeare as the equal of Homer in expression; but it requires

true hero worship among his admirers to place the Elizabethan singer

upon an equality with the old Greek in any other respect. There has been

no growth of individual intellect in either sex since the days of which

we first find record; but there has been an increase of average and a

definition of tendency which are productive of higher general result.

And the natural consequence of this state of things is found in the fact

that even a Sappho in the world of letters would not stand out so

prominently, would not be considered such a prodigy, were she to come in

these days. We should admire her genius and her powers without feeling

the sensation of wonder that these should be possessed by a woman. It is

in the recognition of this fact that we are better enabled to understand

the changing aspect in the relations of women to men during these latter

years. There has been no alteration in the possibilities within the

grasp of the individual, but great change within those which can be

claimed by the sex at large. Women can do no more now than in the olden

days when they were considered as almost inferior to animals; but woman

has profited by the opportunities of her time, and is every day

developing powers until now unsuspected.

[Illustration 12 _ASPASIA After the painting by Henry Holiday. Aspasia

was born in Miletus. At an early age, accompanied by another young girl,

Thargelia, she went to Athens. Their beauty and talents soon won them

distinction--Thargelia married a king of Thessaly, and Aspasia married

Pericles, "more than a king," says Plutarch. The home of Aspasia in

Athens was frequent by the_ elite _of the city and state, attracted by

her beauty, her art of speaking, and her influence.

Socrates valued her

great mind, and even called himself one of her disciples. Plato speaks

of her great reputation. She was born in the fifth century before

Christ. The date of her death is not known._]

The whole value of history is in teaching us to understand our own time

and to prognosticate the future with some degree of correctness. More

especially is this true of all class history, and the story of sex

development may be so rated. It is to find the reason of what is and the

nature of what is to come that we turn to the records of the past and

ask them concerning their message to us of these things.

In our

retrospective view of woman, we shall, if we are alive to suggestion,

find steadfast tendencies of development. It is true that these

tendencies do not always remain in the light; like rivers, they

sometimes plunge underground and for a time find their paths in

subterranean channels where they are lost to sight; but they always

reemerge, and at last they find their way to the central sea of the

present. Future ages will doubtless mark the course of those tendencies

not only up to but through our own age; for though I have spoken of a

central sea, the simile is hardly correct, inasmuch as the true ocean

which is the goal of these rivers is not yet in the sight of humanity.

But we at least find promise of that ocean in the steadfast and

determined course of the streams which flow toward it; progress has

always a goal, though it may be one long undiscerned by the abettors of

that progress. So it is with the story of woman. We know what she has

been; we see what she is; and it is possible dimly to forecast what she

will be. Yet I dare to assert that there will be no radical change;

there may be new direction for effort, new lines of development, but the

essential nature will remain unaltered. It is not, however, with this

informing spirit that we have to do in such a work as this. There have

been many misconceptions regarding woman; I would not venture to claim

that none now exist. Yet there is a general consensus of agreement

concerning her dominating and effective characteristics, and the

probability is that in these general laws so laid down the common

opinion is of truth.

Of course, I would not dare to make such an absurd claim that there

exists, or has ever existed, a man who could truthfully say that he knew

woman in the abstract; but that does not necessarily mean that knowledge

of the tendencies and characteristics of the sex is impossible. The

reason of the dense ignorance which prevails among men concerning women

is that the men attempt to apply general laws to particular cases; and

that is fatal. It is absolutely necessary, if we are to gather wisdom

and not merely knowledge from our researches in history, that we should

take into account the result of combination of traits.

Otherwise we

should not only find nothing but inconsistency as a consequence of our

study, but we should utterly fail to understand the tendencies of that

which we learn. We must be broad in our judgments if we are to judge

truly. When we read of the Spartan women sending forth their sons to die

for their country, we must not believe that they were lacking in the

depth of maternal affection which is one of the most beautiful

characteristics of the feminine nature. Doubtless they suffered as

keenly as does the modern mother at the death of her son; but they were

trained to subordinate their feelings in this wise, and their training

stood them in stead of stoicism. Nay, even when we read of the

profligacy of the women of imperial Rome, we must not look upon these

women as by nature imbruted and degraded, but we must understand that

they but yielded to the spirit of their environment and their schooling.

They were not different at heart, those reckless Maenads and votaries of

Venus, from the chaste Lucretias or holy Catherines of another day; they

simply lacked direction of impulse in right method, and so missed the

culmination of their highest possibilities.

There is an old saying which tells us that women are what men make them.

Thus generally stated, the saying may be summed up as a slander; but it

has an application in history. There can be no doubt that for

millenniums of the world's adolescence women were controlled and their

bearing and place in society modified by the thought of their times,

which thought was of masculine origin and formation.

This state of

affairs has long since passed away, and it may be said that for at least

a thousand years, in adaptation of the saying which I have quoted, the

times have been what women have made them. It was the influence of women

which brought about the outgrowths of civilisation in the dawn of

Christianity that have survived until now. It was the influence, if not

the actual activity, of women that was responsible for the birth of

chivalry and the rise of the spirit of purity. It was the influence of

women that made possible such characters as those of Bayard and Sir

Philip Sydney. It was the influence of women that softened the roughness

and licentiousness of a past day into the refinement and virtue which

are the possessions of the present age.

There has always, in the worst days, been an undercurrent of good, and

its source and strength are to be found in the eternal feminine spirit,

which in its true aspects always makes for righteousness.

The world's statues have, with few exceptions, been raised to men, the

world's elegies have been sung of men, the world's acclamations have

been given to men. This is world justice, blind as well as with bandaged

eyes. Were true justice done--were the best results, the results which

live, commemorated in stone, the world itself, to adapt the hyperbole of

the Evangelist, could hardly contain the statues which would be reared

to women. But it is precisely in the cause for this neglect that there

lies the value of the work which has been done by woman for the welfare

of mankind. It is one of the truths of history that the greatest and

most enduring effects have always been accomplished in the least

conspicuous manner.

The man who searches effect for cause must find his goal most often in

the influence of a woman. Not always for good; that could not be. But it

would seem that all that has endured has been for good, and that the

evil which has been wrought by woman--and it has not been slight--has

been ephemeral in all respects. I know of no enduring evil that can be

traced to a woman as its source; but I know of no constant good which

did not find either its beginning or its fostering in a woman's thought

or work. Poppaea leaves but a name; Agrippina leaves an example. It may

be true of men that the evil that they do lives after them, while the

good is oft interred with their bones; but it is not true of women. Of

course, there is a sense in which it is true--in the descent from mother

to son of the spirit of the unrighteous mother; but even this would not

seem to hold as a rule, and the effects are often modified by the

influence of a love for a higher nature. The sum of woman's influence

upon the destinies of the world is good, the balance inclines steadily

toward the best. Woman is the hope of the world.

It is to find the persistence of this influence that we search her

history. Sometimes we shall find strange factors in the equation that

gives the sum, strange methods of attaining the result; but the result

itself is always plain. Nor is there ever entire lack of contemporary

influence of good, even when the evil seems predominant.

If we read of

an Argive Helen bringing war and desolation upon a nation, we shall find

in those same pages record of a Penelope teaching the world the beauty

of faith and constancy. If we trace the story of a Cleopatra ruining men

with a smile, we shall find in the same day an Octavia and a Portia. If

we hear of the Capitol betrayed by a Tarpeia, we have not far to seek

for a Cornelia, known to all time as the Mother of the Gracchi. And it

is those who made for good whose names have come down to us as

incentives and examples. The more closely we read our history, the more

surely are we convinced that the tendency has always been upward; the

progress has been steadfast from the beginning, and it has carried the

world with it.

As I began with the statement that the history of woman is the history

of the world, so I end. This truth at least is sure. The earth is very

old; it has seen the coming and the going of many races, it has

witnessed the rise and fall of uncounted dynasties, it has survived

physical and social cataclysms innumerable; and it still holds on its

way, serenely awaiting its end in the purpose of its Creator. What that

end shall be no man may know; but it is the end to which woman shall

lead it.


Johns Hopkins University.