On What Medea was Told to Tell Us about Ancient Women’s Lives

gsdg4f3There are only indirect tools for us today to draw conclusions about the lives of women in ancient Athens. Social status, norms or just habits can be reasoned about by looking at Athenian drama. Specifically, Medea’s speech from Euripides (230-51) has a lot of potentially interesting material on this subject. However, we must always consider a specific text in a wider context. Here, I believe that Medea’s special circumstances may be an obstacle to applying it to common Athenian women.


This speech by Medea has been interpreted as social critique on the status of women by Euripides. It points out many of the premises on which the relationship between the genders is built and how Greek society operates because of this inequality. Thucydides states that ‘Silence is a woman’s glory’ (Thucydides, 2.46), yet Medea expresses her misery, for a woman something that was dismissed as ‘barbaric’ (Plutarch, 20-1,12). Knox interprets it as a ‘complaint of a woman of great intellectual capacity who finds herself excluded from the spheres of power and action’ (Knox, 314). Still, contrary to the Greek stereotypical perception of a complaining woman as tearful and hysterical, Barlow points out that she is calculative and rational. Alas, not what the audience would expect after Medea was introduced by the nurse as the stereotype (Barlow, 160).

In Medea’s opinion, women are misrepresented, ‘The past has to tell of women’s lot as it does of males’ (Med, 430), and unjustly treated as passive objects that ‘cannot refuse’ (Med, 236), only accept for instance that men can cheat and divorce but women cannot (Medea, 245). Pomeroy mentions that only the Greek were a society that would make a hero of Jason whose only justification for his actions is that a new marriage would give his children royal siblings (Pomeroy, 212). Many real life women must have been in a similar position since the 451BC Citizenship Act passed 20 years earlier now refusing it to the first generation (Orden, 194-6).

However, the audience would have recognised that much of what Medea says is false. She claims that women buy their husbands (Med, 232), however, this twists the truth as women were not actively involved in the process of giving the dowry, rather the father. Also, they were not exchanged for a husband, the dowry accompanies her and comes back even if she is divorced (Williamson, 19). Medea misrepresents the process as if she entered the contract on her own. In essence, the situation she describes (Med, 231-237) does not actually apply to her. She speaks not only of paying but passively accepting a husband, yet she admits to have actively aided and pursued Jason at the expense of her home (Med, 482) and brother (Med, 167). This deception is designed to win over the chorus, however, it may have made the Athenian audience uneasy. Messing notes that ‘she uses the stereotypical feminine weapon of deception to achieve her ends which are increasingly destructive’ (Messing, 11).

Alas, she is not at all the passive victim she claims to be or fill the role of the ‘meek and subdued Hausfrau’ (McDermott, 47) that is pressed upon the average wife in her opinion. Deception aside this can still tells us how, as a woman, she is an active subject, but in the category ‘woman’ a passive object (see Simone de Beauvoir), as Plato stated: ‘Women have no authority’ (Plato, Laws 780ff).

Despite this evidence of women’s circumstances, on must keep in mind that Medea is not an example of the average Athenian woman. Not just has she a royal heritage, but a divine one, and in Greek society this can mean that different social conventions apply to you. Also, she is barbaric, (The Greek perceived all foreigners as barbaric since they could only understand ‘Bar! Bar!’ (Wiles, 92) when they speak.) and lives in Thebes, which is often made fun of by the Athenians.

Still this play was written by an Athenian with probably little experience with foreign, royal, and divine women; primarily for Athenian males. Therefore Euripides must take Athenian women as starting point and then deviate through exaggeration. Where are these in the text? As Derrida denounces, we do not have the necessary knowledge to make an assessment (Norris, 32). In conclusion, the question ensues whether Euripides really was a ‘champion of women’s equality’ (Wright, 7) and it can only be said for certain that this text gives hints about women’s lives and must be further considered in conjunction with other evidence in order to evaluate what exactly they are.


Ancient Sources:

Euripides: ‘Medea’ trans.: Donner, Reclam, Stuttgart, 1972

Plato: ‘Laws’ trans.: Saunders, Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, 1980

Plutarch: ‘Life of Solon’ trans.: Perrin, B in ‘Plutarch’s lives’, Heinemann, New York, 1914

Thucydides’ ‘Complete Writings’, trans.: Crawley, The Modern Library, New York, 1934

Post-modern Sources:

Barlow, S A: ‘Stereotype and Reversal in Euripides Medea’ Greece & Rome 36.2, 1989

Beauviour, S de: ‘The Second Sex’ trans.: Parshley, Cape, London, 1953

Edition de George: ‘The structuralist from Marx to Lévi- Strauss’,Anchor books, New York, 1972

Knox, B: ‘Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater’, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore,1979

March, J: ‘Euripides the Misogynist?’ in Powell, A: ‘Euripides, Women, and Sexuality’, Routledge, London, 1990

McDermott, E A: ‘Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder’, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989

Messing, A: ‘Protofeminist or Misogynist? Medea as a case study of gendered discourse’, University of Massachusetts Online Publications, URL: [http://www.km-awards.umb.edu/essays2009/documents/Messing.pdf] accessed 02.02.2011

Norris, C: ‘Deconstruction: Theory and Practice’, Routledge, London, 1986

Orden, D: ‘Greek Bastardy in the Classical and Hellenistic World’, Oxford, 1996

Pomeroy, S: ‘A Brief History of Ancient Greece’ Oxford, 2009

Wiles, D: ‘Greek Theatre Performance’, Cambridge University Press, New York 2000

Williamson, M: ‘A Woman’s Place in Euripides Medea’ in Powell, A: ‘Euripides, Women, and Sexuality’ Routledge, London, 1990

Wright, F A: ‘Feminism in Greek Literature: From Homer to Aristotle’, Kennikat Press, Port Washington, 1969