Women’s names in Demosthenes: respect, bashfulness, exceptions (from M. Sartre)

In an article dedicated to “women in the city”, Maurice Sartre describes the manner in which, according to him, Athenians discuss women (my highlighting): “(…) ideally, ‘honest’ women make as few public appearances as possible and, when they must go out, they should do so with a covered head and in the company of a handmaid. This ideal of discretion goes so far as to ignore the name of women beyond the family circle: for Demosthenes, honest women are those whose names we do not know. It is fairly remarkable that within the whole corpus written by or attributed to Demosthenes, the name of over 500 men appear versus a mere 27 women, out of which 14 are prostitutes!

But all cannot achieve this ideal of discretion, far from it. In modest family backgrounds, a woman often works besides her husband, helps him in the fields, or barters at the agora. We know the case of the orator Aeschines, who because his mother was a costermonger suffered the taunts of Demosthenes, who was willing to pull out all the stops against his adversary. But in a pleading speech preserved under the name of Demosthenes (Against Euboulides) and given during a citizen trial, the orator ardently defends his client’s mother, a widow, explaining that it was necessity that drove her to offer her services as a nurse before selling ribbons. Out of respect for her, however, the orator avoids citing her name as much as possible and only in the final phases of the plea does her name appear (Nikarete), although she has been mentioned since the start. This shows that the ideal of reservation becomes dominant, and that an orator will evince from a woman’s public exposure the proof of either her baseness or of her fortitude. I struggle to believe that this might pass as proof that the Athenian woman enjoys a favourable status that guarantees a relative freedom of action! Even Aspasia ought not to fool us: a foreigner (from Miletus), mistress of a citizen, possibly a former prostitute and brothel manager, she is in no way an ordinary Athenian, and constantly lives on the margins.” (“Prière d’Hippolyte à Zeus ou Les femmes dans la cité”, Histoires grecques, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2006, pp. 125-135, quotation pp. 128-129, in French in the text).


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