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Do the works of Aristophanes provide insight into the personal appearance of women?

April 1, 2013

It is likely that personal appearance was particularly important to Athenian women. Evidence provided in Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae (61-4) indicates that the women (the focus of the play) in order to appear more masculine cease shaving and use oil to tan their faces. Aristophanes does not indicate from which social strata the women of Ecclesiazusae were from but it can be inferred that for some women a pale complexion, hairless legs and underarms and a neat pubic area would have been how they presented themselves (Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae 15-6). Dover (1972:43) observes that it would have been a fair complexion that was attractive to a man. It is also posited by Ehrenberg (1951:177) that slave girls made themselves up so they were attractive to their masters (Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae 1117). In addition to this white face paint and rouge are referenced as products used by women to make themselves attractive (Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae 881, 934). However, it must be remembered that everyday activities such as these intertwine with comic representations of women; ‘What do we ever do but sit at home looking pretty, wearing saffron gowns and make-up’ (Aristophanes Lysistrata 44-5). Generalisations such as this support the assertion of Norwood (1964:298) that Aristophanes ‘had the character of a normal Athenian’. It could, therefore, be proposed that Aristophanes may have exaggerated his personal perception of women further to amuse the audience. Appearance is important in respect of age; women were concerned with getting old as they were only of marriageable age for a short time (Aristophanes Lysistrata 593-4); during this particular speech though MacDowell (1995:239) believes Aristophanes is inviting ‘his male audience to view the situation from a woman’s rather than a man’s viewpoint.’ It is possible that Aristophanes understood the plight of women and wanted to present this to the audience. There is divergence between the views of scholars as to whether Aristophanes was a feminist. There are certainly aspects within the text that could be considered to have feminist tendencies but on the other hand there are, as has been identified, elements of sexism.

Aristophanes wrote for comic effect, in order to amuse his audience, and as such there are limitations in analysing his representations of women. Through careful analysis of Aristophanes plays about women some historical value about personal appearance has been demonstrated; this analysis can be expanded into other areas of women’s lives. Although Aristophanes ridicules women within his works there may also be key insights into their lives; such as the anxieties of Athenian men, the control of women, distinguishing of roles and everyday activities. These insights could in part produce an historical analysis of the everyday lives of Athenian women. However, the works are likely not exhaustive and reference to other sources would be required in order to support any analysis; this is particularly important as the work is comedy and concepts and ideas were exaggerated for comic effect. Dover (1972:160) makes an important observation that Aristophanes ‘selects from real life certain ingredients required to make a plot and simply ignores the other elements…which…would spoil it.’ It is, therefore, necessary when studying an historical event or factor that supporting evidence is sought. However, the representations within Aristophanes’ plays are a particularly good foundation on which to begin a historical understanding of the everyday lives of Athenian women.


Primary Sources

Aristophanes Lysistrata
Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae

Secondary Sources

Dover, K.J. Aristophanic Comedy London: Batsford, 1972.

Ehrenberg, V. The People of Aristophanes, a Sociology of Old Attic Comedy Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1951.

MacDowell, D. M. Aristophanes and Athens : an introduction to the plays Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Norwood, G. Greek Comedy London: Methuen, 1964.


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