Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece: Philosophy, Poetry, Drama

Rose Cherubin

What if the leaders in politics, business, science, and the military had spent their youth as Playboy bunnies or car- show models? What if the second most powerful person in the country, the top advisor and speechwriter to the President, could not vote and had no right to own property or bring a legal case? This was the situation in ancient Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and we can trace aspects of this back to Homer three centuries earlier. Today we might find some features of this picture paradoxical: the fact that a person was expected to be cute and dumb at first and then was supposed to become an intelligent and responsible leader; the fact that a community would think it acceptable for a person to be a top political advisor yet prohibit this person from voting and bringing a legal case. Indeed, even at the time some people found these inconsistencies troubling, and suggested alternatives – some of which influenced modern political and social thought. By reflecting on the peculiarities of the ancient Greeks’ ideas about sex and gender, we can gain some perspective on our own.

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