On Being a [Foreign] Woman in Classical Athens

It's International Women's Day and so I want to celebrate it by writing not about powerful women in antiquity, but about two not-so-powerful women whose lives were marked not just by the fact of their being women, but, more importantly, by the fact of them being non-citizen or "foreign" women. I say "more importantly" because if it weren't for this foreignness, their non-citizen status, their lives would have been fundamentally different. Because of their foreignness, they were a twice oppressed class. If they were economically poor in addition to being women and foreign, it was a triple oppression. (You can read more about other of these women in a previous post).

Some of you will recognize the women in this post from my book Immigrant Women in Athens. Others, may recognize them from classes you have taken or other scholars' writings on them. They don't make it very far, however, into the popular imagination. We know of them because they were prosecuted in court, a function, I argue, of prejudices due to their foreignness

Sandys' famous painting of Medea
could just as easily be of a woman 
like Theoris.

THEORIS was from the island of Lemnos. Although Esther Eidinow has suggested she might be a citizen due to Athens' long history of controlling Lemnos, it is unlikely that she would be recounted as "of Lemnos" is she were an Athenian citizen. What we do know, however, is that she was executed along with her offspring for the manufacture and distribution of pharmakia. We learn about her in an aside in a speech by the orator Demosthenes (25.79-80):

He is the full brother of this man on his father and mother’s side and his twin in addition to the rest of his misfortunes.  This man--I will not talk about the rest--but on his account you put to death the repulsive Theoris from Lemnos, the pharmakis, and all her family.  [80] He took these medicines and chants from the handmaid who later informed on this woman from whom this slanderer begot children, the use of charms, and quackery, and (he claims) the ability to heal epileptics, although he himself is culpable of all wickedness.

Here we can vividly witness the precariousness of this foreign woman’s life. We do not know her precise situation, but she was apparently condemned for witchcraft after selling drugs to the brother of Aristogeiton, who then resold them as a cure for epilepsy. She was called a pharmakis, a word often translated as witch, but it probably had a wide range of meanings and is literally something like “druggist” or “pharmacist.” Derek Collins has argued that Theoris was not a witch at all, but something akin to a folk healer (which I agree was most likely the case) whose remedy must have gone wrong and killed an Athenian citizen. Her punishment was extreme. She and her children were executed. 

There is no mention that she had a spouse; she may have been an independent metic ("immigrant") woman with children who earned a living by making and selling remedies and potions of various sorts. The Athenian jury must have determined that her actions were intended to harm or kill, thus the resulting death sentence. We do not know what representation she had in the court. If she was a simple folk healer (akestris) or herbalist (rhizotomos) who sold remedies or even erotic potions to customers, then it is difficult to believe that she intended for anyone to die. In the fourth century BCE, making drugs and selling them was not illegal. It was possible, however, to be taken to court if you sold a drug that went wrong. 

Was Theoris dabbling in magic and seeking to harm citizens with her potions, as her conviction and some stereotypes of foreign women suggest? It is not uncommon to hear slaves or “prostitutes” accused of selling or using love potions in court cases or in comedy. In some ancient cases, we hear of them killing by poison, thinking (Deianira-style) it is a love potion. The associations of harmful magic and drugs with mythical foreigners like Medea and Circe also encourages us to consider that Theoris’ condemnation resulted from prejudice against foreign women. Theoris may also have been a priestess of sorts. Either way, it didn't end well for her or her children.


Theano, citizen wife, remembered on her tomb.
NEAIRA is another fairly well-known, but not well-to-do foreign woman in Classical Athens. She is known best from a speech once attributed to Demosthenes ([Dem.] 59) in which she was accused of pretending to be an Athenian citizen when she was supposedly really a sex worker illegally married to an Athenian citizen and passing of her foreign daughter also as a citizen. Most scholars have accepted that she was a sex worker (calling her a hetaira) and many even accept the charges of illegal marriage. I am (not unusually) an outlier on this. 

Neaira, to me, perhaps best exemplifies the way prejudices impact foreign women’s lives in Athens and the violence to which they could be subjected without recourse in law. She also exemplifies for me the way scholars continue to allow those prejudices to do violence to her. Centuries later, we believe her accuser not because he proves his case, but because we buy into his biases and his story.

Apollodoros, the accuser and a political enemy of her guardian Stephanos, attacks her on charges of 1. pretending to be a citizen, 2. living in marriage with an Athenian citizen, and further, 3. attempting to pass off her own children as citizens. The speech, however, is only minimally interested in proving these charges. Instead, Apollodoros devotes the bulk of his time to weaving a sordid tale of Neaira's life from a childhood as a brothel slave to her days as a supposed sex worker in Athens itself, though the events he recounts mostly took place decades, before this case is taken to court. Neaira’s situation and the case presented against her has been much discussed by scholars--no surprise given how salacious the details are and how much of a supposed insight the speech gives us into the lives of sex workers. It is a story intended to make the jury unsympathetic to the accused, but one that demonstrates as well the violence that a foreign woman was subjected to (not to mention the prejudices). 

I think we can believe that Neaira was likely a sex worker when she was a slave--all slaves were technically able to be prostituted without restrictions--but after buying her freedom, she seems to have been uninterested in continuing that trade. As an independent woman, however, she was dependent on the goodwill of men, and particularly citizen men, for her safety particularly since she had no male relatives to properly represent her in court. 

After buying her freedom, she came to Athens with the citizen Phrynion (he had lent her some of the money she needed to buy her freedom). According to the speech, she ran away from Phrynion to Megara soon after, where Stephanos later met her. She left because Phrynion, Apollodoros tells us, treated her like as if she were his private prostitute and, beyond that, permitted her to be raped in his company, possibly even gang rape. Even Apollodoros is unable to hide the fact that Neaira was brutally abused and was horrified at this treatment of her person (he tells us that she had expected that Phrynion loved her, but was instead treated with ‘wanton outrage’).  

After she fled Phrynion, she secured the guardianship of Stephanos. Phrynion, however, attempted to have her enslaved to him by accusing her of being an escaped slave. Stephanos stood with her in front of officials and she was granted the status of a free, independent metic. Maybe they formed a relationship. Maybe, as I have considered previously, he hired Neaira to take care of his two children after their mother had died (not an uncommon occurrence in antiquity). Maybe she actually once was "just the nanny." Whether they had a more intimate relationship later wasn't illegal (unless it was marriage), but it might have angered those who thought foreigners shouldn't mix with citizens. 

And yet, the treatment Neaira was subjected to by Phrynion and his friends seems to have been justifiable in Apollodoros’ estimation in no small part because of Neaira’s former status as a slave and her supposedly sordid life as a sex worker and her status as a foreigner in the city.  He expects his audience to assume the worst of her, to assume she is still a sex worker, to assume that she would steal citizenship. He also hopes that the jury will believe that the children of Stephanos are his by Neaira and so not citizens (we don't know their ages and no wife is mentioned). And the penalty to Neaira if the case succeeded? She would be sold into slavery. 

It isn't a coincidence that Apollodorus ends his speech with an appeal to the jury in the name of protecting their citizen wives and daughters. He wants to divide this foreign woman Neaira from those other, "proper" women in their lives. Neaira isn't a “whore” and corrupt and deserving of enslavement because she is a woman, but because she's foreign. And the prejudices against her run deep. 

Some (most)  scholars believe Apollodorus. I do not. We don't know how this case turned out. But we do know that he was a notorious liar. He was banned from prosecuting others in the courts, including his step-father. In his attacks on his step-father, he also accused his own mother of complicity in murder (of his father!) and implied that his brother was the child not of their father but of his mother in adultery with his step-father. He did this without proof, without any shame. And the Athenians got so tired of his frivolous lawsuits against his step-father, that they banned him from continuing them. 

Given this background, why should we believe him in this one case? Why does he and not Neaira deserve the benefit of the doubt? Why is it that even feminist scholars continue to believe him and not read between the lines and see his biases and question what has long been regarded as truth? Why is it that we can't see that her foreignness here is more important than her being just a woman? Because if she wasn't foreign, she could been Stephanos' wife. And any charges that she was illegally married would be moot. If she was a citizen of some city, she would never have been in a brothel as a slave, having to buy her freedom and make a new life for herself somewhere else on her own. 


Both Neaira's and Theoris' lives were defined by their being women in many ways. But their experiences as we know of them were fundamentally impacted (for the worse) because they were foreign. Had they not been foreign women in Athens, they would likely not have even made it into the historical record, because their lives would have been like most other citizen women's--safe from prosecutions, safe from the need for or charges of sex work, safe from violence, safe from sale into slavery, safe from execution. Their children would have also been safer and not marked out for the same violence their mothers experienced.  

I've spent the better part of 5 years living with these women as my research subject and daily I am struck by how relevant they are to our world. Because we aren't all "just women" or even "women first." We are variably white women, women of color, citizen women, immigrant women, wealthy women, not so wealthy women, tenured women, contingently employed women, well supported women, or women with little to no support networks to speak of (to name only a few variations). All this variety can't be hidden under the name "women" alone. The permutations of our existences matter, these other identities shape our experiences as women. Some women live closer to power, have better access to justice. Others do not. To pretend that the lack of access that being a person of color or immigrant or not wealthy doesn't mean as much as being woman alone is a mark of one's access to power--the closer you are, the less those other permutations of womanhood matter. It's a truth of privilege not just now, but in the past, too.