Women and the Internet in the Ancient World
Our Communication Needs Then and Now
(Originally Delivered for St. Swithun’s School Academic Lunch 07/05/21)
This may seem a rather odd choice of topic and like a rather fanciful flight into ‘What If’ history. I am, just in case you were wondering, perfectly aware there was no internet in the ancient world. So why put them together? One opinion I have always held is that Classics is not only intrinsically exciting, but also highly relevant. For me, that relevance lies partly in the fact that like us, they were human beings. They might not have had the internet (in the case of Roman orator, Cicero, thank goodness they didn’t), but if we ask the question, what purpose does the internet serve, that particular need was the same for them as for us now.
Maslow, in his essential paper A Theory of Human Motivation, saw that communication was essential to human beings’ capacity to meet their needs, wants, achieve protection, belonging, and I could go on. We see these being negotiated, striven for, and maybe even realised every day. We might for shop for food (our most basic need), clothes (another basic need), books (a basic need for me at least), Shopping, information-gathering, organising and socialising, advertising or championing a cause, all of these have been greatly facilitated by the internet. Rich Romans would have food and items sent from all over the empire to dazzle guests at banquets. I am quite sure the convenience of ordering online and spending lavishly would have suited the ambitious politicians of the Republic, the emperors, or feisty and influential party hostesses like Clodia, more on her below. We have obviously moved beyond needs to wants (and we often, maybe even willingly confuse the two). But the motivation has clearly not changed.
Today, I am going to focus on women in the ancient world, both collectively and with some individual examples, because I think this will draw out interesting insights into the differences between women in different parts of Greece, and how these compared to Rome. I also think when we look at individual examples, we will see more strongly than ever how little we have changed as human beings.
In this day and age, we have all witnessed the internet and especially social media as vehicles for organising collective action, from petitions (Change.org, for example) or strikes on a large scale, as Greta Thunberg has done with her school strikes for climate change. So, I am going to begin with a lovely example from the ancient world of ladies taking matters into their own hands. Had they had Twitter or Instagram, it could have been even more spectacular. In 215 BC, at the height of the Hannibalic War, the lex Oppia was passed restricting the amount of gold a woman could possess, along with the amount she could wear in public. This held good in the aftermath of the disastrous battle of Cannae, 216, and in the continuing economic strain imposed by the war. However, when Cato the Elder, the famously stern and austere statesman, argued for maintaining the law in 195 BC to prevent the spread of luxury and remove the shame of poverty, he met with an angry protest from the ladies themselves. Roman married women were not going to be kept at home today. They crowded into the city, blocking entrances to the forum, besieging the houses of the tribunes who like Cato favoured maintaining the law, and it was repealed. Their men-folk were able to do very little about this swarm of angry women defending their right to wear jewellery, as you see from the quotation below.
When these speeches for and against the law had been made, an even larger crowd of women swarmed out in public the next day, and in a single column all besieged the doors of the Bruti, who were threatening to veto their colleague’s proposal, and the ladies did not drop it until the threatened veto had been withdrawn.
What would this have looked like today? #DownWithOppia no doubt, furious texting or emailing to rally the troops, and certainly tweeting on site.
Social media could play a wonderful part in updated adaptations of three plays by Aristophanes, where women similarly organise their own collective movement in order to make their discontent and views known: Thesmophoriazousai, Ekklesiazousai, and of course Lysistrata. In all plays, secret communications have been sent to muster the ladies to a meeting to unite in their common causes. Twitter and Instagram would be rather harder to use in these cases. Moreover, Athenian women were more restricted in their movements than their Roman counterparts. Would they have even had access to the internet at home, whilst they sat removed from male society in the gunaikōn, the women’s quarters of the house? Well, that would have depended on their own particular kyrios. A more permissive one might have granted his wife her own ‘computer time’, another would have forbidden her entirely, but likely even a permissive one would have monitored his wife’s online activity. In Ekklesiazousai , Athenian woman and leader of the movement, Praxagora, has agreed a series of signals and plans with her group. She swings a lamp to highlight the meeting point, and they are all to come disguised as men. How did she achieve this? Secret meetings while out in town? Secret notes via bribed slaves? Which social media site would have suited her best? I would say a tightly controlled account with ‘Friends Only’ security settings could have been very useful to her and, in fact, could have enabled her to reach a larger audience. Lysistrata, especially would have loved the potential of social media. She, after all, reached out to women all across Greece to join her sex strike and end the Peloponnesian war of which they are all weary. I enjoy imagining a scene in an updated retelling with Lysistrata joyfully looking at the rapidly rising likes of her ‘Sex Strike’ group on Facebook, clapping her hands, announcing the acceptance of her invitations. Once the strike was out in the open, so many possibilities: #SexStrikeAcropolisNow, #MakeLoveNotWar, maybe with a few selfies making the victory sign. So, I suspect Athenian women could have found a way.
What about Sparta, Athens’ great rival? Well, would the internet even have been allowed in Sparta, not just to women? Have a look at the Thucydides quotation below:
For if Sparta were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, I think that as time went on there would be a great deal of disbelief as to her true power and glory amongst future generations. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, and also have many allies outside. Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public buildings, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, the site would appear rather inferior. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is.
We see that Sparta was not fond of lavish display or an expensive, splendid infrastructure. Neither did they engage in the literary and intellectual pursuits of the Athenians. The strong vision of Sparta was to be the greatest fighting force in Greece, with its society shaped, allegedly by Lycurgus, to that very end; it did not permit of excess, indulgence, anything that distracted the focus of the people. I think the scenario may well have played out as follows. They would have resisted the internet and social media as far as they could, but in the end would felt they had to allow it, but in a strictly controlled way. It would after all have been disastrous had the Helots, their conquered serf-subjects of Messena, had got hold of it first. Had it been accepted in the rest of Greece, they may have felt it was better to keep the enemy close, so to speak. How does all this relate to Sparta’s women? They were essentially the opposite of Athenian women: well-trained athletes (tough men and tough lasses breed tough children, rather than weedy little ladies who sit inside with the knitting), Aristophanes beautifully captures their powerful physiques:
LYSISTRATA: Hello Lampito! Oh! Oh, my great Spartan lady! How positively luscious is your beauty. What a colour what a vigorous, powerful body! Darling, I think you could strangle a bull.
LAMPITO: Sure I could. I exercise regularly.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 79-84
One can imagine that had the internet been allowed into Sparta, it could have been used very effectively internally to inspire women competitive sporting engagement, promote a tough ideal woman, maybe even mocking their Athenian counterparts:
You may well be familiar with this poster, the American call to the work force during the war. This would make a great meme if it could be re-imagined Spartan style. Maybe even exercise regimes to download, or a Spartan workout App?
On a darker note, I can imagine Spartan women potentially being trolled or maligned elsewhere in Greece. They were a bit of an oddball. Aristotle famously criticised their ability to own property, their power, their education. They could well have gained a rather ‘shrewish’ reputation in the rest of Greece. Spartan girls are seen depicted in statues as below:
One can only imagine comments about their short garments compared to their much more covered Athenian counterparts, although Spartan married women wore longer dresses. I think the example of Sparta helps illuminate the blessing and curse aspect of the internet.
Finally, I would like to end this rather self-indulgent exploration with some individuals.
The first is Xanthippe, the rather moody, feisty and hilarious wife of Socrates. She is portrayed as a loyal wife and devoted mother by Xenophon, but she certainly did not just put up with anything. It appears in fact liked her argumentative spirit. She is once reported to have been so enraged with him that she emptied a chamberpot over his head (know the feeling, I felt exactly the same whilst teaching the Phaedo last year). Video on YouTube, or would she have ‘added’ to her story on either Facebook or Instagram?
Second is Aspasia, the wife of great Athenian statesman Pericles. She was highly educated, eloquent, and highly influential, and non-Athenian, and, therefore, with greater freedom than typical born-and-bred citizen women. She was scholarly, and in a time when we have few works from women, the internet would have given her a ‘vent’. Maybe she would have been a blogger, or leader of a forum for educated women online. Interesting, isn’t it, that Pericles’ wife/partner was such a prominent lady and so different to the silence he urges upon citizen women in his funeral oration in the second book of Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. Equally poor Aspasia may well have found herself trolled simply for being ‘different’, that is to say not quiet, learned. It was very easy to attach the label hetaira to her, courtesans who were usually skilled and educated, a label that was indeed given to her by Plato and others.
(Additional Section – 13/05/21: Clodia)
Now, we saw above, unlike the fictitious plays of Aristophanes, Roman women were quite capable of making their opinion known collectively. And not just collectively. Roman women did have a greater degree of freedom than their Athenian fifth-century counterparts. Although they technically passed from the control of their father to that of their husband, this slackened as time went on. Women were not so physically segregated and had more freedom of movement. Moreover, as marriage sine manu increased. This meant that a woman technically remained under her father’s control even when married, and, in the event of her father’s death, the control of the nearest male relatives. In practice, it was up to them how much they enforced this rule, and it was actually a potential avenue of liberty for Roman women. Cicero rather sarcastically comments on the behaviour of Clodia in pro Caelio as follows:
At last we have found something that woman is said to have done with the good opinion and on the authority of her relatives, the bravest of men.
Cicero, Pro Caelio, 68
And so we come to Clodia. According to Cicero she acted like a bit of a harlot, flaunting herself around town, being rejected by Caelius, and becoming that angry woman scorned. But was she? Further on this matter, I refer you to Marilyn B. Skinner’s wonderful book, which takes a (I think rightly) cynical approach to Cicero’s portrayal. He was after all a Roman male citizen and one seeking his client’s acquittal. The jury, would have been Roman male citizens familiar with Roman ideal of the matrona, married mother of a family. This shared cultural image made it easy to cast doubt on Clodia’s repute. Was Clodia, simply an intelligent woman who exploited the potential of her freedom and was thus maligned? The answer is, quite likely. We see this pattern often in ancient history. There are plenty of assertive women in our Latin texts, but many who received the praise of their contemporaries, such as Arria (see: https://www.bloggusclassicus.com/post/arria-for-international-women-s-day) and Turia of the Laudatio Turiae, were primarily famous for their courage and steadfastt loyalty asl wives with brave displays of their dedication. So, although they were much-admired, the praise they earned fell in a relatively traditional framework. Clodia was much more about, or so it seems, the control of her own life. She was left the wealth, the location (house on the Palatine), and she already had the name (the Claudii). What a great vehicle the internet and social media would have been. She could have advertised her parties, most likely on a Facebook group, an exclusive one at that, Tweeted the photos that showed her wealth and lavish estate, and shared on Instagram a glimpse of the goings on of each famous ‘Clodia Party’. These parties certainly had their own character and repute; Cicero asks Atticus for details when the latter attended one. Clodia was no fool. And I am not convinced she was the ‘loosh woman’ of pro Caelio. Was she possibly a clever lady who knew how to employ her acquaintances? Quite likely. For that, she emerges, not a prostitute or meretrix as Cicero portrays, but a clever woman, who asserts herself and her independent potential. Beware the Ciceronian lens. In all probability, following Cicero’s character assassination, she may well have faced trolling or hate messages.
One thing that resounds in all these examples is that the internet, on its positive side offers a great voice for those who may struggle to have one. Equally, it offers a dark means of expressing disapproval shaped by presuppositions, however ill-founded. However, what I hope I have shown is that the internet is really every aspect of human nature from its best to its worst in full vent and this hasn’t changed for 2,500 years. Oh heck!
But I want to finish on a lighter note with the lady who I think would have been the master exploiter of the internet and media for her own goal, my favourite lady of the ancient world, Cleopatra! Why Cleopatra? She was just brilliant. Amidst the very muddied lens that the ancients (especially Augustus, grr) have left us of the great lady, we can fortunately find the original remarkable women behind the smear! For one, the wine-washed, sex-crazed, excess-loving, whore-ish, misguided hussy who largely emerges in Augustan propaganda, is not consistent with the proud Cleopatra who cries ‘I will not be triumphed over’ (Plutarch) and denies Octavian his prize triumphal trophy with her suicide. No, it doesn’t ring true. In his bid to paint Actium as a war with a foreign enemy, Augustus played the Egyptian queen down a little too much. Even Cassius Dio, who for the most part follows the Augustan line, records that she spoke at least seven languages and this is also noted by Plutarch, including her native Greek of course, vernacular or demotic Egyptian, and quite possibly Latin. We know she cleverly carved herself as a pharaoh in the old Egyptian tradition. Had Cleopatra had the internet, assisted by her many languages and clever diplomacy she could have built herself a strong and loyal network, bolstering her power base. A poly-lingual tweet or even email campaign about the threat and evils of Roman rule, #RomansGo Home (ha ha), is entirely conceivable. She also played a shrewd counter-campaign to Octavian, offering land to Antony’s offers to settle in Egypt, which was a good offer. Egypt was a rich province. I imagine she would have been a master of organising the promoted ad so that it popped up on the ambitious Roman’s screen, enticing them to her own side. In the end, her fleet simply was not enough to defeat Agrippa. But even then, she did not give up. The lovelorn queen fleeing after her beloved Antony, putting love before victory, was perhaps more likely the queen who saw all was lost at sea and thus fled to defend her capital at Alexandria, where she and Antony held out for another year. Her true pride and power is betrayed by Horace at the end of a favourite poem of mine, his great Cleopatra ode, 1.37.
And resolving to die
refusing to be taken by the savage Liburnians,
stripped of her title, and scorning to be led
on the proud triumph – she was no humble woman,
Suggested Further Reading
Aldrete, S., and A., (2019) The Long Shadow of Antiquity (Bloomsbury)
Bowen, S., (2016) ‘Cleopatra: Queen of Public Relations’:
Maslow, A., (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation.
Morley, N., (2018) Classics: Why It Matters (Polity)
Pomeroy, S. B., (1994) Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (Pimlico)
_____(2002) Spartan Women (Oxford)