People ran around her, shouting and screaming. Sol could not move under the weight of the guard and raised her head to seek her brother. As she did, a second arrow passed so close to her eye that its feathers scratched her eyebrow. Blood flowed from the wound, half-blinding her. In the distance, a man nocked a third arrow to his bow. Her second guard lunged at him, followed by other men with drawn weapons. Her eyes widened at the sight of her brother’s young body lying on the ground, life oozing out of him, while her mind desperately tried to make sense of it. A growing pool of blood formed under his body, soiling the ground.”
The world of Pearseus, my epic fantasy series that takes place on a remote planet, is largely ruled by women, including Sol. Sol is a supreme political manipulator who manages to reach the top through her intellect, cunning and persuasion. She uses her power to grow the city of Anthea – my fictitious proxy for Athens – into one of the main powers on the planet. A typical politician, then.
Although this larger-than-life characters is fictitious, Sol does have a real-life counterpart. She is an amalgamation of Solon, Athens’ first law-giver, and Peisistratos, a cunning politician who usurped power and used it to end decades of civil strife. His reformations and Solon’s wise laws lay behind Athens’ classical glory.
Sadly, this prevalence of women in my series bears no resemblance to everyday life in Classical Greece. For there can be no doubt that women were unequal to men, even in democratic Athens. In the words of Pseudodemosthenes, “we have prostitutes for our pleasure, female servants to take care of us and wives to provide us with lawful children and guard our homes.”
“our wives guard our homes”
Women had no voting rights, nor were they allowed a life outside the home. As soon as a girl reached puberty, she was locked up until she got married. No emotional bond was necessary between husband and wife, as marriage’s main purpose was to ensure legal offspring, and husbands were chosen by the woman’s guardian.
After that, a woman’s place was at home, raising her children and taking care of her husband; it was considered a deadly insult to him if she was caught even conversing with another man. And yes, it can be a bit of a shock to realize that Islamic extremism has drawn cultural norms from Athenian democracy.
Strangely for our way of thinking, it was the prostitutes, or etaires (lit. others), who enjoyed freedom. Much like the famous courtisanes, their 19th century French counterparts, or the Japanese geishas, these were women of exceptional beauty, skilled in oratory and philosophy. In the deeply chauvinistic Athenian society, men freely fraternized with them at the famous symposia, or dinner parties, before returning to their home and wives.
Unlike wives, etaires were highly educated, had the right to possess property of their own and often escorted kings and philosophers. Famous etaires included Aspasia, with clients like Pericles, Socrates and famous sculptor Phedias. According to Plutarch, “she reigned supreme among the greatest of politicians and inspired philosophers.” Lamia, another famous etaira, was so popular that cities built her temples and worshipped her as Venus. And the son of another famous etaira, Demos, would have become King of Macedonia, had he not lost his life in battle.
4th century BC scandal: Frini, one of the most famous etaires. Accused by a scorned lover, her defense lawyer submitted her perfect body to the judges as his final exhibit. “How can someone as perfect as Venus be guilty?” he argued. Frini was unanimously acquitted.
If this was the situation in democratic Athens, what was it like in militaristic Sparta? Represented by Scorpio in Pearseus, Sparta was a nation of warriors that practiced a policy of unprecedented equality. Girls were encouraged to participate in sports, often naked, and were fed better than in any other city. What’s more, they were taught to read and write; a practice that led a baffled Athenian to observe: “teaching women to read and write is as ridiculous as feeding a snake more venom.”
While their husbands were busy fighting, pillaging and generally being the bane of everyone’s existence, women in Sparta had to run the city. As a result, they were allowed to own property, argue in public and even take a second husband if their first one was away at war for too long. They had to look after the property and raise the children to be brave warriors. If a son proved a coward, his own mother had the right to kill him; the fate of a certain Damatrios, on whose grave the sad epigraph read, “Damatrios, law-breaker, killed by his mother; a Spartan killed by Spartan hand.”
An enlightened place, then, but not an easy one to live in. Any deformed child was left on the mountain of Mount Taigetos to die of exposure or be eaten by the beasts. At the tender age of seven, boys would leave their home and move into military schools. They would train as soldiers for the next ten years, then move into barracks. Only once they reached the age of thirty did they become full citizens and gain the right to a household of their own. As an Athenian observed, “life in Sparta is so unbearable, that it’s no wonder they’re so eager to end it in battle.”
As Pearseus is a proxy for ancient Greek legends, I had the freedom to choose to imitate Sparta’s policy towards women on the planet. In a world where humanity starts afresh with fewer than 5,000 people, I cannot imagine there being an opportunity for Athens’ misogynous practices. Therefore, I had no qualms describing a world where men and women fight side by side and rule the world as equals.
When it comes to woman’s tumultuous place in society, however, truth is once again stranger than fiction.