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International Women's Day: Inspiring Ancient Greek Women Misremembered by History

Someone, I say, will remember us in the future. [1]

Women in the ancient world, regardless of the extent to which they align with social ideals, are often deliberately misremembered and even occasionally written out of history. The reasons for this are multitude, but Glenn affords us a broad-brush explanation of the cause, in that:


“For the past 2500 years in Western culture, the ideal woman has been disciplined by cultural codes that require a closed mouth (silence), a closed body (chastity), and an enclosed life (domestic confinement).” [2]
Figure 1. Greek Terracotta Dancing Woman - Ex. Christie's. Ca. 200 BC. £6000.

But the ideal of the invisible, silent woman is, after all, just the "ideal", and women fought for the capacity to exist in ways that broke these boundaries. This International Women’s Day, we will be focussing on three such women from the Archaic to Hellenistic periods of Greek history who break the mould; Sappho, Aspasia, and Olympias. Peeking behind the shroud of convoluted source tradition and repressive patriarchal opinion, we will discover how these women wielded intellectual and political authority far beyond what we originally thought possible.


Sappho: A Public Poet Expressing Her Homoerotic Desires


Sappho, the famous 6th-7th century lyric poet hailing from the island of Lesbos, was arguably the earliest surviving female writer in the West. [3] Referred to as the tenth Muse and counted among the nine great Greek lyric poets, Sappho’s poetry has fascinated ancient and modern scholars alike. [4] But along with this fascination, there came a great deal of uneasiness associated with some aspects of her craft. This is compounded by the fragmented nature of the evidence we have for her, which primarily comes down to us in the form of fragments.

portrait of sappho
Figure 2. Statue portrait of Sappho? Ca. AD 1-300. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 42.201.12. Credit Line: Gift of Francis Neilson, 1942.

While Sappho’s skills cannot be and indeed were not ignored by the writers of the ancient world, her poems expressing physical desire for other women were viewed with heightened suspicion. Take this verse as an example:


           That man to me seems equal to the gods,

           the man who sits opposite you

            and close by listens

            to your sweet voice


5          and your enticing laughter—

            that indeed has stirred up the heart in my breast.

            For whenever I look at you even briefly

            I can no longer say a single thing,


            but my tongue is frozen in silence;

10        instantly a delicate flame runs beneath my skin;

            with my eyes I see nothing;

            my ears make a whirring noise.


            A cold sweat covers me,

            trembling seizes my body,

15        and I am greener than grass.

            Lacking but little of death do I seem. [5]



From as early as the 4th century BC, the homoerotic preferences expressed in this fragment were suppressed or denied by the source tradition. A biography from the Hellenistic period writes that Sappho was, “Accused by a few of being undisciplined and sexually involved with women," but gives this charge no credence. [6] Around this time, ancient writers also began to perpetuate the idea that Sappho was madly in love and eventually committed suicide over the boy Phaon, a narrative that endured for many centuries. [7] 

This denial was largely because of the widespread condemnation and shame associated with female homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world. It is only relatively recently that scholars have become comfortable with admitting that, while we have no evidence of Sappho engaging in female homosexual acts, she does express an obvious passion for women in her poetry.

Another narrative surrounding Sappho’s poetry that scholars have often perpetuated is the private, personal character of her writings. It must be said that in some fragments we do see Sappho rejecting the masculine, public sphere, for example she writes:

“Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves”. [8]

Despite this, Hallett brilliantly argues for the public-facing character and important social function of much of Sappho’s poetry for Archaic Lesbian society, drawing on the poems of 7th-century Spartan lyric poet Alcman for comparison. [9] An example of his work is as follows:


"The streaming hair of my kinswoman Hagesichora blooms like pure gold; her face, like silver-but what can I say openly?" [10]


Hallett argues that Alcman’s choral maiden songs, which publicly extoll the virtues of female beauty and marriage, are similar in character and substance to the poetry of Sappho, but are taken more seriously because of his status as a male artist. [11] Reframing Sappho from this perspective, we can thus illuminate the public social function she may have occupied on Lesbos. [12] The discovery of the “Brothers Poem” in 2014 cements this, as she clearly demonstrates interest in Lesbian political culture through the lens of discussing her brothers.[13] In light of this, Sappho emerges as a poet concerned at once with the public and the private, and a rare persona in the literary canon who was able to voice the depth of her homosexual feelings.



Aspasia: An Influential Mentor, Philosopher, and Rhetorician

Aspasia of Miletus, lover of the great general Pericles, is a hugely important yet often overlooked figure, being the only woman in Classical Greece to have made a name for herself in the public sphere. [14] Occupying an unusual position as a brilliantly educated, non-athenian yet citizen-class woman from Asia Minor, Aspasia was able to navigate through the tight restrictions placed on citizen Athenian women and engage in philosophy and rhetorical discourse. [15] 

oil painting of socrates visiting aspasia
Figure 5. Socrates visiting Aspasia, painting by Nicolas André Monsiaux, 1801. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Despite these freedoms, many Ancient Greeks found the idea of a clever, powerful woman intolerable and as a result, Aspasia’s character was continually lampooned by the comic poets and her work suppressed. [16] Cratinus for example writes this of her:

“To find him a Juno the goddess of lust Bore that harlot past shame, Aspasia by name.” [17] 

This fear and sexualisation of her character, along with her survival in exclusively male secondary sources, has resulted in many of Aspasia’s intellectual achievements being lost to time.

Through analysis of these secondary sources, however, we can piece together a clearer picture of Aspasia’s contributions to rhetoric and the intellectual life of Athens. Her reputation as a rhetorician and philosopher, along with her relationship with Pericles, was memorialised by Plato, Xenophon, Cicero, Athenaeus, and most extensively Plutarch. [18] Plato is the earliest writer to mention her, and in his Menexenus he has Socrates assert that:


"…for she [Aspasia] who is my instructor is by no means weak in the art of rhetoric; on the contrary, she has turned out many fine orators, and amongst them one who surpassed all other Greeks, Pericles." [19]

The idea that Aspasia the mentor of Socrates, already a celebrated thinker himself, is corroborated by a few other sources and serves as testament to her intellectual prowess. [20] 

attic lekythos with nike and woman holding mirror
Figure 7. Attic Red-Figure Lekythos. Ca. 5th Century BC. £8000.

The passage also alludes to her being the rhetorical mentor of Pericles, leader of the Athenian democracy, a fact also repeated in later source material. [21] Glenn has argued that Aspasia must have influenced some aspect of the speeches that allowed Pericles to power, including the famous funeral speech recounted in Thucydides, thus demonstrating how embedded she was in Athenian politics. [22] There is even evidence to suggest that Aspasia opened an academy in Athens that was frequented by the intellectuals of the day, perhaps serving as her classroom for the great thinkers of Classical Athens. [23] 

Overall the sources concur that, even in a society where respectable women, in Pericles’ own words, should be neither seen nor heard, Aspasia’s brilliant mind triumphed and her thinking influenced some of the most famous thinkers in the western canon.

Olympias: A Brutal Yet Competent Ruler


Finally, we come to Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great and wife of Phillip II of Macedon. A significant player both during the rule of Alexander and the power struggle following his death, Olympias has been treated with a high degree of hostility by the source tradition. This negative narrative likely follows a smear campaign from Cassander, the son of Alexander’s general Antipater who toppled Olympias’ rule in Macedonia in 316/5 BC. It is also compounded by the ancient masculine distaste for female power in the public sphere. [24]

gold medallion with olympias
Figure 8. Medallion with Olympias. Ca. AD 215-243. The Walters Art Museum, Accession Number: 59.2. Credit Line: Acquired by Henry Walters.

As a result of these unfavourable conditions, Olympias has been charged with all sorts of crimes. These include plotting to kill her husband and his other wives, the imprisonment and torture of Phillip III and his wife Eurydice, and scores of violence towards rivals such as Cassander. [25] While this violence may not mark her out as a paragon of virtue, acts such as this are part and parcel of the chaos of the Successor period. Nowhere in the source tradition are her male counterparts, who engage in the exact same activities, saddled with such accusations of cruelty. [26] Also unlike her male counterparts, Olympias was made into a figure of melodrama, with ancient sources claiming that she came to meet Adea Eurydice’s army dressed as a bacchant, and appeared in full royal regalia to meet Cassander’s assassins to “stage her own death”. [27]

If one looks past what is emphasised by our sources, a different picture of Olympias emerges, one of a competent and successful ruler administering her territories just as a man would. She is credited with forming a faction in 325/4 BC against Antipater, Alexander’s premier general in the west, and was also dubbed the ruler of her native Molossia following Alexander’s death.[28] Archaeologically speaking, a contemporary public inscription located in Cyrene names Olympias personally, with no patronymic, among a list of Greek nation-states, a formulation commonly reserved for male heads of state. This rare example provides concrete evidence that Olympias ruled within the established methods of the Early Hellenistic period. Brutal though she may have been, the evidence cannot deny that in the patriarchal and chaotic world of the successors, Olympias ruled just as well as any man.



Digging deep into the historical tradition, we are thus faced with a picture of three very different, yet very extraordinary women. It must be said that, perhaps apart from Sappho, these women were only able to wield such power due to the unusual socio-political moments that they existed in, with freedom afforded to them due to their unusual status or identities. Despite this caveat, the artistic, intellectual, and political achievements of Sappho, Aspasia, and Olympias are not to be taken lightly. When analysed without prejudice, their stories beautifully demonstrate how female achievement, though not lauded by ancient writers, persisted throughout time.


Written by Ella Wakefield


Show some love to the women in your life this International Women's Day with the perfect gift from our wonderful collection of antiquities




Carney, E., 1987, “Olympias” in H. Verdin, P. Van Dessel, J. Van Peer (eds.) Ancient Society. Katholieke Universiteit Te Leuven, 35-63.


-------2018, “Royal women as Succession Advocates” in Howe, T. & Pownall, F., Ancient Macedonians in the Greek and Roman sources, From History to Historiography. Swansea.


Childers, C, 2016, “Brothers’ and Others: New Sappho Poems” New Criterion. 34 (6): 26–31.


Glenn, C., 1994, “Sex, Lies, and Manuscript: Refiguring Aspasia in the History of Rhetoric.” College Composition and Communication45(2), 180–199.


Greene, E (ed)., 1996, Reading Sappho: Contemporary    Approaches. Berkeley:  University of California Press.


Hallett, J. P., 1979, “Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality.” Signs4(3), 447–464.



[1] Sappho, Fr. 147.

[2] Glenn 1994, 180.

[3] Greene 1996, 1.

[4] AP. 7.14, 9.66, 571; Plut. Amat. 18; Athenaeus 14.639e; Hallett 1979, 448.

[5] Sappho Fr. 31. Trans: Julia Dubnoff.

[6] Oxyrhynchus Papyri, XV, 1800. fr. 1 col.1.16.

[7] Menander Fr. 258, Ovid. Heroides. 15; Athenaeus 13. 596b; Hallett 1979, 448.

[8] Sappho Fr. 16.

[9] Hallett 1979, 450-62

[10] Alcman Fr. 1. 51-5

[11] Hallett 1979, 462-4.

[12] The discovery of the “Brothers Poem” in 2014

[13] Frag. 9a; Childers 2016, 26-31 for discussion.

[14] Glenn 1994, 183.

[15] Glenn 1994, 183-4.

[17] Plutarch. Per. 200-201.

[19] Plat. Men. 235-3

[20] Xen. Mem. 11.36, Oec. V.29; Athenaeus. V.29; Plut. Per. 200-201 for their acquaintance.

[21] Philo. Ep.73: "Aspasia of Miletus is said to have sharpened the tongue of Pericles in imitation of Gorgias.”

[22] Thuc. 2.34-46; Glenn 1994, 189.

[23] Glenn 1994, 194. Some sources mention this as a school for hetaerae only.

[24] Carney 1987, 35-63

[25] Plutarch Alex. 10.4; Diod. 19.11.8

[26] The Successor Period (Ca. 323-301 BC) sits between the death of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the early 3rd Century BC.

[27] Duris. ap. Ath. 13.560f ; Just. 4.6.9–12 

[28] Plut. Alex. 68; Hyp. Eux. 19.


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