A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and The Pastorals (pt. I)

Hunker down and get comfortable…this is gonna be a long ride.

What I’m going to post over the next several weeks are portions of a paper I wrote while working on my MDiv (Master of Divinity, the first of two masters I have in theology and biblical studies). I’ll be upfront and honest about one thing: I didn’t perform as well on this paper as I typically did on papers; I received a B for it. The one reason I’ll offer for the lower grade was twofold: I not only exceeded the page limit by a whopping 19 pages (gah!) but I also didn’t have a thesis statement. In my opinion, I couldn’t have a concise, single statement that would coherently gather all 8 texts concerning the “house-codes” and women in the pastoral epistles while remaining true to each individual text in its own right. Was Paul merely saying the same thing over and over to different people? I’m not prone to affirm with a yes. While the language is similar, each context, having its own issues begs for nuanced responses. Paul’s approach in Crete (the book of Titus) manifests a different situation than, say, the one in Corinth.

But with that said, I don’t want to sound like I think that the text and Paul himself are barred down and locked in the past. Yes, both the cultural context and the “then” audience are important to understand for they do dictate a lot of our understanding of the text and what is going on. But, _you_ are now the audience, the hearers, and you play a vital role, too, not just in peering into the past, but receiving the words that have traveled from 50 AD to 2015, because the word moves through history, breaking through time and space barriers, longing to be heard, causing you to hear it and pulling you into to this grand story. You are now in that house church in Thessoloniki, caught up in the Gospel, the freedom it brings, the wonder and the excitement and you are now listening to a letter being read to you from St. Paul.

Now, to move on to the subject of this “series”…some things to cover before I continue:

1. I’ll be posting short segments, pieces really. I’d rather err in readability and digestibility and having more posts in a series, than trying to be efficient. Also, I suck at trying to be efficient in word economy especially with my own work–yes, I’m an editor, but I can’t edit my own work.

2. The paper was written in 2006. As I go, I’ll make some edits or expound where I can, but mostly I’ll be cutting and pasting from the document. It’s primarily exegesis and history; so, I don’t think I’ll have much to add or edit. But again, every thinker, writer, author, eventually disagrees with their historical counterpart one way or another…thinking to themselves: i can’t believe I wrote THAT?!?!

3.  Even though i exceeded the imposed page limit by 19 pages, this work is by no means a comprehensive work (though it sure felt like it at the time…). I’m also not an “expert” in the field of Greek antiquity, Paul, exegesis, or gender issues. I’m a thinker and I can do exegesis, and I can make educated deductions about things I read and apply them…but I’m not an expert.

So, with no further ado…here we go!

Let’s start with the views of women Greek and Roman antiquity:

The View of Women in Greece

Being a woman in ancient Greece was everything short of glamorous. Philo explains that women were strictly created for the indoor life, a life of seclusion (qtd. in Sly 196); she was not to be a too interested about the matters other than her own household, and “She should not shew herself off like a vagrant in the streets before the eyes of other men, except when she has to go to the temple (hieron), and even then she should…go… when most people have gone home (Spec. 3.171-174)” (qtd. in Sly 196-7).

Ancient Greek literature provides a perfect portrait of the typical male understanding of women during that time,

….women were considered more subject to those chaotic natural forces upon which humans depend, more passionate and less rational, and thus more volatile and potentially destructive unless subordinated to the controls of reason and culture. At the same time, women are lovely and alluring, shining with the pleasures of Eros and the charms of Aphrodite; they possess a power upon which men are dependent and to which they are intensely attracted. In short, the power of woman is the power of Eros, the creative and destructive force of nature both inside our souls and out in the world, a force terrible and beautiful—‘death and undecaying life,’ as Sophocles describes Aphrodite (Thornton 41).

Woman as the “force terrible and beautiful” was subject to the “controls of reason and culture” that were man’s; that which was incapable of being understood (woman) was confined (by man) to a status equal to that of a slave. Pandora, from Greek literature, embodies the above description of why women were not just relegated to an inferior position, but were, in a sense, feared,

Pandora is the first woman created….She is fashioned by Hephasitus, the craftsman god, as an ‘evil thing’ hidden in the semblance of ‘bashful minded.’ Athena teaches her the woman’s arts of needlework and weaving, while Aphrodite gave her sexual allure, the power to arouse ‘cruel longing and limb-devouring cares.’ And the trickster god Hermes provides her with a ‘bitch’s mind and a deceptive character’ and ‘lies and wily words.’ This ‘sheer trap’ is the ancestress of women, a ‘plague to men who eat bread’ (Thornton 41).

Using Pandora as an example, B.S. Thornton writes,

…her sexual power, both attractive and duplicitous, but also necessary for humanity in order to reproduce and have the children who will protect them from what Hesiod calls ‘deadly old age.’ Man’s dependence on nature and its procreative power animates this fear of women, for women seem to be more intimate with that ambiguous power, creative and destructive all at once (Thornton 41).

Helen provided another example of the “terribleness” of woman and her duplicitous nature, “The most famous woman from Greek myth, Helen, perhaps best exemplifies woman’ double character—her seductive allure and destructive capacity. Helen is not just the most beautiful woman, but the most sexually beautiful woman in the world…Terrible is the likeness of her face to immortal goddesses’” (Thornton 42-3).

Though Pandora and Helen embodied the reason for control over women because of their inherent “duplicitous” nature, there was, however, an alternative and a more preferred figure of woman from ancient Greek literature: Penelope. Penelope, from the “Odyssey”, was the archetypal wife, Thornton writes, “…the hallmark of Penelope’s character is the virtue that was most capable or reining in the power of Eros, the virtue most important for a wife to possess: rational self-control, the ability to restrain her appetites out of loyalty to her husband and her household” (Thornton 53).

Though scarce in advocates, there was another opinion of women.   Plato, in his “The Republic”, discusses the need for women who are the wives of the guards to be trained for warfare and schooled like the men,

Actually, they are to be not only wives, but guards themselves…the women of the guards are capable of making a creative contribution to building up the community, but…not… through family life. He is opposed to the prevailing view that they are meant by nature only to bear children, bring them up, and look after the household ….Now, if they are to do the same work as men, they should have the same upbringing …and education…Therefore the women of the ruling class must be schooled in ‘music’ and gymnastics just like the men, and also trained for war (Jaeger 244).

Though Plato is talking about a specific societal-class of women, his understanding that women would be a valuable asset to the guards if they were trained in a similar fashion is incredible; his contradiction to the normal role of women as strictly child bearers and homebodies is encouraging. Plato defends his argument is terms of “different equipment”,

A man who is not equipped to be a cobbler is not to do the same work as a man who is. But if one a man is bald and another has a fine head of hair, they might both (despite that particular difference in their equipment) be qualified to become cobblers. No doubt the natural difference between men and women influences their lives more profoundly than that, but still they may both be equally well equipped for the same vocation (Jaeger 245).

Though, Plato expresses that woman can be “equally well equipped for the same vocation,” he contends that man is still superior over woman in every area “…even in those which are declared to be woman’s province by those who maintain she is a domestic creature—cookery, baking, and weaving; but there is no one work which man or woman alone can do and which is impossible for the other sex” (Jaeger 245-6). According to Plato, though men and women can be equally trained, woman will fall short to man, even in her own sphere. Ultimately, Plato does not lag too far behind his contemporaries on the subject of women.

The View of Women in Rome

Roman women were cut from a different cloth than Greek women. Though they did not bear their own names—like we do in our culture, and bore the feminine version of their father’s name, (i.e., Julius/Julia, “If a man had more than one daughter, the second would be designated ‘Secunda’, the third ‘Tertia,’ and so on”) (Ball 197)— under the empire, they did have more social freedom than the Greek women. Albert Ball writes, “Because they weren’t bound to the house the way Greek women were, Roman women seem not to have been content to play mother and homemaker….By Augusts’ day, women reclined on couches at dinner beside their husbands instead of sitting by their feet or on chairs” (198). These somewhat ‘liberated’ women could run the family business when their husbands passed, (under the reign of Claudius) bought and sold property, and could remain single, but they could not vote (Ball 197). Around 44 B.C., Bruce Winter says that there was

…evidence of a ‘new’ type of woman…in certain circles in Rome. Both in ostensibly factual texts and in imaginative writing a new kind of woman appears precisely at the time of Cicero and Caesar: a woman in high position, who nevertheless claims for herself the indulgence in sexuality of a woman of pleasure. What could have given rise to such a change in the traditional behavior of married women? Wives still brought to marriage the all-important dowry but could now retain their own property. It was also possible for them to terminate the marriage, and receive back a portion of or the whole dowry” (Winter 21-2).

Therefore, it was not only financial independence that these Roman women experienced; they also experienced a small degree of social freedom (Winter 22).

Though Women were allowed these certain privileges in society, these liberties do not indicate a redeemed relationship with man. In fact, Ball writes that there were similarities between the men of Rome and Greece and their view of women, “Greek men considered women by nature intellectually inferior to men; the primary level of interaction between them was sexual….Roman men shared the Greeks’ opinion to a degree, so women never enjoyed political rights in Rome …” (197). In fact, “Greco-Roman women lived under the protection of their fathers until they were handed over to their husbands….Throughout their lives, they had the legal status of children…In Cicero’s words, ‘Our ancestors established the rule that all women, because of their weakness of intellect, should be under the power of guardians’ (Pro Murena 12.27)” (Ball 198).

On average, it is understood that because of the liberties of the Roman women, they were described as acting more aggressive then any other woman of their time and in history (Ball 198). In order to maintain societal control, “…Roman men, once the emperors rendered [women] politically impotent, could only try to salvage a few scraps of power by urging women to be subject to their husbands; ‘in no other way do woman and man become equal’ (Martial 8.12)…” (Ball 198-9). This inequality between the sexes, in spite of social liberties experienced by Roman women, is best understood in terms of the social laws of adultery, “The Greek and Romans did teach that one should not commit adultery, but not because the act violates a divine prohibition. It was views as a violation of property rights. Greek and Roman men didn’t want another man sleeping with their wives—who were their property—anymore than they wanted someone stealing their farm animals” (Ball 220).

The Roman (and Greek) family mirrored the relationship of the state to the emperor,

Within each family the father, as priest and patriarch, had patria potestas, absolute control of the lives and affairs of his wife and children…The law allowed him to inflict capital punishment on them or sell them into slavery, though such things hardly ever happened. He arranged his children’s marriages and planned his sons’ careers….The woman was expected to practice domestic crafts, manage the slaves, and behave herself with the utmost propriety (Ball 225).

Wayne Meeks advocates the same idea of the patria potestas within the Roman Family, and explains that “The traditional patria potestas of Rome had become less absolute from the time of the late republic on; the Hellenistic queens of the East and of Egypt had set a pattern of ‘masculine’ ambition and ruthlessness that women of the Julio-Claudian houses soon imitated” (Meeks 23). Craig Keener writes, ‘… ancient writers [thought] of families in…[the] general terms of rank and duty; ‘family’ was defined more by relationships of subordination than by blood relationship. The man in charge of the household was often even compared to a king, since the family was viewed as a microcosm of society” (Women and Wives 146). The influence of foreign queens, who behaved as men on the women of the Roman empire, was a primary factor in the call for wives to be in submission to their husbands, as the family unit was in submission to their head, the emperor.   Winter provides an example of the Response of the empire of Rome to the New Roman woman,

…‘the married women of the imperial family would provide her with examples of appropriate ways for a wife to behave. Works of the visual arts would show her how they dressed and how they wore their hair’. They were ‘models she should emulate, or exempla, to use the term that would come naturally to the mind of the Latin-speaking person’….A good example of traditional values is found in the statue of Regilla, the wife of the famous sophist of Athens, Herodes Atticus, around whom Philostratus wrote his Lives of the Sophists. The council of Corinth had erected a statue in her honour, and the inscription which contained the resolution of the Council read—This is a statue of Regilla…. ‘pre-eminent above others, who has attained the peak of every kind of virtue, whom she took as her husband, Herodes famous among the Hellens and furthermore a son (of Greece) greater than them all, the flower of Achaia (34-5).

Through the statues of empirical women showing how to behave and dress as a “proper” Roman woman, women of the time were exhorted (visually and verbally) to be virtuous and exemplary above all women, especially in comparison to the New Roman Woman. The ultimate desire in this propaganda was to preserve the status-quo; if one preserved the status-quo of the family, one preserved the status-quo of the state. Keener writes,

Maintaining the systems as it was had long been emphasized by ideologists of the state: ‘Preserve the present order, and do not desire any change, knowing that revolutions inevitably destroy states and lay waste homes of the people.’ Thus it was commonly believed that earlier Roman society had had much ‘higher’ morals, including much more sever discipline of unsubmissive wives (Keener Woman and Wives 144).

The State was determined to keep everything the way it was and to maintain the status-quo. With the influx of the New Roman Woman caused the women of the Greco-Roman society to seek change, therefore the Empire had to do something. The emphasis on the wives’ submission to the husband became the venue for maintaining the desired status-quo

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