Beware of “women’s names” (as “slaves’ names”)

Louis Robert, in the conference proceedings of the 8th International Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy held in Constanta in 1977 and published on 1979, warns us against two anthroponomous categories: women’s names and slaves’ names. (Louis Robert, “L’onomastique grecque” (1979), reprinted in Choix d’écrits, ed. D. Rousset and Ph. Gauthier, Paris, Les Belles Lettres 2007, pp. 145-156, particularly p. 151 (in French in the text):

“Greek authors provided series of feminine names when they wrote courtesans’ stories or redacted letters between people from this world (Atheneus, Alciphron, Aristaenetus). Even when they mentioned women, episodically, in most cases the point was for them to discuss the mistress or the concubines of the mighty and famous. Comedy contributed a reliable medium to that end, as well as romantic or erotic epigrams. It is inscriptions (in Egypt, papyrus) that brought, successively and en masse, the material of feminine onomastics in daily life and across social backgrounds: epitaphs, lists, offering inventories, public subscriptions, and honorary inscriptions. Yet many feminine names had already been classified as courtesans’ names. Because one Chelidon had been the mistress of Verres, young women who had received from their parents the graceful name of “Swallow” were under suspicions of gallantry. It went so far as the “Sogenannte Hetaereninschrift von Paros”, a list of feminine contributions within a sanctuary to Aphrodite. In 1998, with the evidence of the Paros inscriptions, Wilhelm demonstrated that they were in fact spouses and mothers. Still the old, obsolete philological tradition holds sway. It influenced Bechtel in his “names of Athenian women” and elsewhere; in epitaphs so many women were peremptorily declared to be “Hetäre oder Sklavin”, Sklavin oder Hetäre”. Lexicographers would contribute to this misinterpretation: for many of the words present in onomastics, they observe that they are also used to denote the sexual organs of either sex; it is the “Nebensinn” often claimed by Bechtel. But the same logic could apply to the entire vocabulary, for the sprawl of colloquial vocabulary on sex leaves nothing out of its similes and identifications. Wilhelm made another intervention in a 1920 article about Pan’s grotto in Phyle; his observations therein are decisive.”


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