Lynn Rose



Abstract: Classical Greece was an incubator for the Greek Miracle of individual

excellence, rational medicine, symmetrical perfection, and historical thought. While we

in the west are happy to claim these products of ancient Greece as our ancestry, it is no

secret that the intricately configured socio-economic hierarchy assumed the inferiority

of women. Just as slaves, in Aristotle’s world, took the role of natural idiots, women

personified intellectual deficiency. A key to my argument here, though, is that women

were not thought to be stupid per se. Aristotle points out that, unlike slaves, females

possessed a bouleutikon, that deliberative function necessary to leadership, but “without

full authority.” Indeed, successful cultivation of the ideal female, especially the

aristocratic Greek wife, included characteristics that match up startlingly well with the

scientific symptoms of 20th– and 21st-century “intellectual disability.” Ancient Greek

women, with their intellects appropriately subordinated and atrophied, were integral to

the ancient Greek system of expectations and resources. The purpose of this essay is not

to focus on the oppression of women nor is it to compile a list of people with

intellectual disability. Both phenomena rest on very recent and dynamic concepts of

human equality and measurable intellectual categorization, concepts that are dynamic

diagnostic conditions for which there was no concept. Rather than holding up ancient

societies for assessment in light of modern notions, which adds a layer of debris to the

archaeology of social history, historians of disability aim to excavate and analyze

shifting strata in their historical context.

1. Introduction and Overview

Ancient Greece incubated the Greek Miracle of city planning, comedy, competitive

sports, history, individual excellence, philosophy, rational medicine, and tragedy, and

we in the west like to claim ancient Greece as our cultural ancestor, especially when it

comes to Classical Athens and the roots of democracy. We have been less enthusiastic

to claim, or even acknowledge, the oppressive fundamentals upon which the Greek

Miracle rested, i.e., systematic imperialism, slavery, and the subordination of women.

In one of my earliest essays, I argued that female physical disability had little to do with

somatic configuration. A woman’s most important function was to produce sons, and

the female who failed the task of serving as incubator was the one who lacked ability.

Barrenness, in other words, was the most significant female physical disability. Now, a

couple of decades later, I turn to the criteria for female intellectual disability in the

ancient Greek world, though I have come to see over the interceding years that

separating body from mind is anachronistic (Edwards/Rose 1988; Goodey and Rose


In this essay, I argue that the conditions in which the ideal ancient Greek female lived

went hand in hand with intellectual impairment, but I argue that the criteria for

intellectual impairment had specific ancient meaning and status that has little to do with

modern definitions. The similarity, though, is the timeless tendency to classify people in

such a way that we are “us” and they are “them.”

The essay begins with gender relations in ancient Greece, followed by discussion of its

title, “The Courage of Subordination.” From there follow four interrelated points. First,

ancient Greek women’s unmanaged cleverness was dangerous; second, men were

responsible for managing their wives’ intellect; third, the conditions in ancient Greece

were in fact ripe for creating disabled intellect in women; but, fourth, intellectual

disability was integral to the maintenance of ancient Greek socio-economic systems.

2. Gendered Hierarchy

The intellectual subordination of women in the ancient world was deeply ingrained in

the socio-economic system. A summary of gender relations in Greece provides a

context for this discussion of women and intellectual disability. Pandora, in Greek

cosmology the world’s first female, and the source of the world’s troubles, is an

appropriate place to begin (Panofsky and Panofsky 1956/1991). In his narration of the

origin of the gods, Hesiod, writing in the seventh century BC, recites legends that had

been handed down to his generation, and that remained part of the ancient mythological

fabric for centuries. In his narration of the origin of the gods, Hesiod describes

scatterbrained (hamartinoon) Epimetheus, a scourge to men. (Theogony 29).

Scatterbrained Epimetheus is the brother and antithesis of the more familiar fire-giving

Prometheus, whose cleverness and pragmatism enabled humankind to survive. Among

other mistakes, Epimetheus first accepted Zeus’ malicious gift of a woman, Pandora,

thus bringing misery to men. (Hesiod Theogony 511) In modern popular culture,

Pandora and her proverbial box are shorthand for the cause of all evils, but this

meaning of this tale in particular is prone to getting lost in cultural translation: as an

example, Pandora never even had a box (Panofsky and Panofsky 3). The ancient focus

of the story is Epimetheus’ mistake of allowing a woman to harm the whole human race

eternally; Pandora was the mere vehicle, crafted by clever gods, whose terrible female

potential was unleashed. The tale of Pandora illustrates several principles of ancient

gender relations: women are potentially dangerous; the man who emulates Prometheus

will use his wits to domesticate everything in his household; he who falters in the

footsteps of Epimetheus will not be in control of his own Pandora.

3. The Courage of Subordination

The title of this essay, “The Courage of Subordination,” comes from Aristotle’s Politics,

his analysis of the nature of the state. Aristotle, who wrote in the politically turbulent

fourth century BC, explains the hierarchy of human beings, putting forth his careful

observations of ordinary social phenomena. It is only human to conflate observation of

the way things are with the conclusion that this is the way things must be, or in other

words, that the way things are is the natural order. Aristotle explains that “…between

the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the

female subject.” (Aristotle Politics 1.2.12-13 [1254b14-21]).

Aristotle established what he perceived to be obvious: one type of human being rules

over other types. He provides a simple example, which anyone could have seen just by

looking around any ancient community: “For the free rules the slave, the male the

female, and the man the child.” Who is a slave? Aristotle answers: “he is by nature a

slave who is capable of belonging to another and that is why he does so belong.” A

slave is a slave because he is a slave. He then goes on to explain why each of these

three categories of people is capable of being ruled, each in a different manner. All

three categories—slaves, females, children—“possess the various parts of the soul, but

possess them in different ways; for the slave has not got the deliberative part

(bouleutikon) at all, and the female has it, but without full authority, while the child has

it, but in undeveloped form.” This deliberative part that Aristotle names, the

bouleutikon, is the ability to consider and advise. The term has a tangible,

archaeological connection: the Bouleutikon referred to the special seats in the Athenian

theater, those closest to the orchestra and belonging to the members of the Boule, an

archeological reflection of high social status and the accompanying, assumed privilege

of participating prominently and meaningfully in public life (Goodey 1999).

Men and women, Aristotle observes, have very different natures. It is obvious to him

that “the temperance of a woman and that of a man are not the same, nor their courage

and justice, as Socrates thought but the one is the courage of command, and the other

that of subordination, and the case is similar with the other virtues” (Politics 1.5.8

(1260a20-24). The female virtue that corresponded to the courage of

subordination was silence. Aristotle quotes a line from a tragedy of Sophocles to make

his point: “Silence gives grace to a woman.” Just in case there might be any doubt,

Aristotle is quick to clarify that this virtue “is not the case likewise with a man.”

Women’s bouleutika, or deliberative parts, he explains, were without full authority.

They were without validity (akuros); the same term was used legally to refer to laws

that were no longer in force, no longer valid. The ideal woman acknowledged the

invalidity of her deliberative part (bouleutikon) and submitted courageously–preferably

silently–to being ruled. Clever women are able to lie, and lying, when it is done well,

can ruin a man. We learn in the Hippolytus, in the wake of the chaos wrought by

female lies, that “a woman’s silence is her greatest asset.” A woman’s deliberative

function, activated, threatens social order.

This concept of silent and courageous subordination provides a starting point from

which to examine the contextualized meaning of female intellectual ability and

disability. Greek legends tell tales of both extremes: some women embodied the

courage of subordination; other women were very insubordinate indeed.

The idea of courageous subordination is not unique to ancient Greece. With few

exceptions, women have been praised for their willing, even defiant, insistence on

submission to the men to whom they are accountable throughout human history, and

various ideologies have justified, promulgated, and glorified the subordination. The

physical mark resulting from foot binding provides a dramatic example of

institutionalized female acquiescence to pain and loss. Female subordination is not

necessarily marked on the body; psychological oppression is just as effective. It is

important not to read any system of female subordination as a conscious patriarchal plot

in which men forcibly oppressed women who yearned to run free and make legal

decisions. The subordination of women is a system in which women participated, not

one to which they merely acquiesced. A graphic example is an image of women with

bound feet sewing their own tiny slippers.

It is also very important not to sensationalize ancient society. One culture’s beauty is

another culture’s barbarianism. Lest we think that courageous subordination is some

kind of ancient (or Oriental) exoticism, I offer Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman, as

well as the more recent Rules or the best-selling The Surrendered Wife:

“Like millions of women, I wanted my marriage to be better. But when I tried to

get my husband to be more romantic, helpful and ambitious, he withdrew–and I

was lonely and exhausted from controlling everything. Desperate to be in love

with my man again, I decided to stop telling him what to do and how to do it.

When I surrendered control, something magical happened. The union I had

always dreamed of appeared. The man who had wooed me was back.” (Doyle


More recently, A Wife After God’s Own Heart was a best-seller in the USA. God,

apparently, does not want wives to make the big decisions (George 2004).

4. Dangerous Female Intellects

Courageous subordination has many faces. In Greece, one of the manifestations of the

ideal was the danger of women’s intellect. In the earliest Greek literature, the Homeric

Iliad and Odyssey, the stick-figure female characters had two characteristics—or more

precisely, formulaic epithets—that determined their value: beauty and cleverness

(MacCary 1982). These Homeric women survived through the ancient world and into

the modern world. Penelope of the Odyssey demonstrates the cleverness of handiwork

in her endless weaving by day and unraveling by night, stalling her suitors during her

husband’s twenty-year absence by saying she will marry one of them once she has

finished her work. Weaving was the quintessential female skill, and Penelope was the

archetypal good wife, literally weaving together her own interests and those of her

absent husband’s household.

But female ingenuity, just like female beauty, is a double-edged sword. Helen, whose

face launched the thousand ships, is the best example of a Greek woman whose

physical appearance created catastrophe, an “‘Iliad of woes for Greeks and

barbarians,” as the biographer Plutarch put it, a thousand years later. (Plutarch “Advice

to Bride and Groom”, 21F Moralia 141). Helen’s twin sister, Clytemnestra, had an

clever nature that created an Odyssey of woes. Like Penelope, she was also spinning

while her husband, Agamemnon, was off in Troy—but unlike Penelope, she was

spinning a web of deceit culminating in the murder of Agamemnon in his own bathtub.

In some versions of the story, she even wove a royal welcoming carpet on which he

strutted to his doom.

The good ancient Greek woman does not misuse her cleverness to usurp her husband’s

domain. She surrenders her intellect to male authority, and this principle is as alive in

Plutarch’s time—the second century AD—as it was in the Homeric epics a thousand

years earlier. Plutarch illustrates the courage necessary for women to surrender to

appropriate male authority in his “Bravery of Women.” He opens with what is, at first

glance, a startlingly feminist statement that qualities of men and women ought to be

compared on the same grounds (Moralia 242E); the intelligence of Tanaquil, for

example, the wife of an Etruscan king of early Roman mytho-history, he proclaims,

should be judged on the same scale as that of King Servius (Moralia 243C). But any

misinterpretation of feminism dissolves quickly in Plutarch’s cultural milieu, in which,

after all, equal grounds of comparison were simply inconceivable. The impossibility of

equal comparison is exposed in his account of Aretaphilia, whose name literally means

virtue (arête)-loving. Aretaphilia personifies the courage of subordination, for she was

beautiful and as clever as Penelope, and, quoting Plutarch, “reputed to be unusually

sensible and not deficient in political wisdom.” (“Bravery of Women” 19, Moralia 255

E) Notably, though, after using both of these qualities to topple the despots of Cyrene

through her own sacrifice and cleverness, and when she could have had anything she

wanted, including political clout, “when she saw the city free, withdrew at once to her

own quarters, among the women, and rejecting any sort of meddling in affairs, spent the

rest of her life quietly at the loom in the company of her friends and family” (Moralia

257E) Aretaphilia transcends even Penelope in subordinating her clever instincts for

the greater good, and ultimately fulfilling the Thucydidean role that nature intended. [8]

Women’s cleverness was damned far more often than it was praised—good behavior

does not make a juicy story—and female wiliness is the subject of many a cautionary

tale. The man with a clever wife such as Penelope was blessed, but the flip side was

always lurking. She could be clever enough to deceive, clever enough to undermine the

household. The legend of Medea, best known to us through Euripides’ fifth-century

tragedy of the same name, takes ingenious villainy of the feral woman to its fullest

extent. Medea, with her bitter skills unmonitored, illustrates further the danger of

unharnessed clever women. The courageously subordinate Greek woman is silent. Not

only does she not talk (or appear in public, lest her beauty invite rape or launch a

thousand ships); no one even talks about her. Medea is not Greek, though: she is a

barbarian, and Euripides has her howl that she will be talked about, and for years.

Language of cleverness and foolery abounds in Medea. At the beginning of this play,

the household slave speaks of Medea as a fool, or, more literally, a moron (môros) (“if I

may speak this of my masters”). The slave calls Medea moronic because she is still

ignorant of her latest trouble. On top of having been abandoned by her husband, Jason,

in favor of the Corinthian king’s young daughter, she is now going to be exiled from

Corinth. (Medea 61) But the audience knows that Medea is no fool. As she pleads

tenderly for a little more time before she is driven from the land, King Creon wonders

out loud if she could be plotting some harm while speaking soothing words. “A

hot-tempered woman,” he says, “and a hot-tempered man likewise—is easier to guard

against than a clever woman who keeps her own counsel.” (Medea 316-320) [1] But

he succumbs, and, granted that bit of time by King Creon, Medea tricks Jason into

taking poisoned gifts for his new bride back to the palace. To lull him into submission,

she dismisses her previous anger as womanly folly (aboulian; that is, lacking the

particularly male sense that it would take to serve in the Boule, the sense that Aristotle

claims is latent in females) and says that she realizes that she was the fool (aphrôn,

unminded). (Medea 882)

The audience still knows better. Medea was very strong-minded, not un-minded at all.

She delights in learning that she was successful in murdering both Jason’s bride and

King Creon, and taking ultimate revenge on Jason, she kills his prize possessions, the

two sons she bore to him. As opposed to Agave, the son-slaying mother in Euripides’

Bacchae, who is horrified by her gruesome act when she recovers from her Dionysiac

trance, Medea was never in a trance. Agave was restored to sanity after hearing rational

words and gazing at the sun, the rational light of Apollo; Medea’s partner is the moon.

Jason, seeing the corpses of his sons, cries out “O children most dear!” to which Medea

replies, “Yes, to their mother, not to you.” “So you killed them?,” Jason asks; “Yes,”

Medea replies calmly, “to cause you grief.” (Medea 1396-1398)

Medea is infamous today, just as Euripides had her predict, because the tale of betrayal

and revenge is gruesomely enduring. The Medea is many things; it is, among them, a

cautionary tale of a woman’s untended cleverness run amok. Sometimes Medea is

misunderstood as a cautionary tale about the dangers of leaving the wife and kids even

if family life is getting a little stale, sort of a prototype of Fatal Attraction, though in

the latter, Glenn Close ends up dead in the bathtub instead of victorious in a divine,

snake-driven chariot. Medea is a cautionary tale, but the fifth-century warning is

economic, not moral in the modern sense: it illustrates the danger of mismanaging one’s

household. It is not Medea’s anger or even her jealous rage that is scary, it is her

uncontrolled deliberative intelligence. She is not so much a woman scorned as a

woman mismanaged. The marriage was unpropitious in the first place: she was already

trained in magical arts, and worse, she came from a non-Greek family. She entered into

marital partnership with Jason, using her cleverness first on his behalf and then against

him. In the end she destroyed her natal family and her husband’s. Jason’s should have

been the dominant, rational authority. Instead, his weak foresight led to his inability to

control his own household. Jason ends up the fool.

6. Taming the female

The role of the ideal wife and the perceived dangers of diverting from this role remain

fairly consistent throughout the long expanse of ancient Greek history. Throughout,

men were responsible for harnessing and shaping their wives’ latent intellects into

mirrors of their own, active intellects. From the earliest Greek literature—that is,

Homeric writing—and on, the idea that women were bothersome but necessary, and

that they had to be supervised, is readily apparent. The management of wives, the

Greek tales tell us over and over, cannot be left to chance. One might be blessed with

an unsupervised Penelope waiting at home, but a twist of fate could arrange

Clytemnestra, axe in hand. In the Homeric tales in 800 BC and in Graeco-Roman

literature a thousand years later, the ideal wife was the well-supervised wife; that is to

say, the ideal wife reflected her husband’s household.

That a woman should serve as a mirror for her husband is not hyperbole: in his

marriage manual, “Advice to the Bride and Groom,” Plutarch suggests that “the wife

ought to have no feeling of her own” so as to reflect more accurately her husband’s

feelings. (“Advice to the Bride and Groom” 14, Moralia 140A) The woman should

reflect her husband not only emotionally but also intellectually, and Plutarch warns of

the consequences of a wife who is left to her own thoughts, rather than shaped by her

husband’s doctrine. He compares the resulting thoughts to a gynecological symptom,

calling them “misshapen, fleshlike, uterine growths originating in some infection,

which develop of themselves and acquire firmness and solidity…”. (“Advice to Bride

and Groom,” Moralia 145D 48) Plutarch turns to the established adage that the best

cure for female illness is pregnancy. Literally, girls should be be well-impregnated with

the sperm of good doctrine. Otherwise, again quoting Plutarch, “they, left to

themselves, conceive many untoward ideas and low designs and emotions.” (“Advice

to Bride and Groom, Moralia 145 E, 48/139A). The courage that it took for a woman to

subordinate herself to her husband, emotionally and intellectually, was facilitated by the

proper ancient Greek marriage, ideally between a man in his thirties and a

barely pubescent girl.

The mechanics of such a marriage are outlined by the fifth and fourth century BC

historian Xenophon in his household manual Oeconomicus (Pomeroy 1994). In

Xenophon’s view, it was the husband’s duty to manage his household and everything in

it, as a shepherd manages his sheep. One should blame the husband if the wife

manages badly, just as one blames the shepherd for a sick sheep, not the sheep itself.

(Oeconomicus 3.11) Xenophon illustrates this concept of sheep management by

manufacturing a dialogue between Socrates and Isomachus, the ideal householder. This

ideal householder has an ideal wife, an anonymous child bride. Socrates asks

Isomachus if his wife came to him already trained, and Isomachus scoffs his wellknown

reply that of course she did not; she was not yet fifteen years old, and he goes on

to brag that she “had spent her previous years under careful supervision so that she

might see and hear and speak as little as possible.” (Oeconomicus 7.4-6) The day

came when the wife—this girl—was flustered because she could not find some items

that her husband wanted, but Isomachus did not become angry with her; instead, he

gallantly blamed himself for his failure to teach her how to arrange things.

(Oeconomicus 8.1-2) Isomachus goes on to narrate how he himself (shepherd) trained

the wife (sheep) gently and thoroughly. “How beautiful it looks,” he claims to have

told her, “when shoes are arranged in rows, each kind in its own proper place, how

beautiful to see all kinds of clothing properly sorted out, each kind in its own proper

place, how beautiful bed-linens, bronze pots, table-ware!” (Oeconomicus 8.18-19) He

goes on, verging on the compulsive, to point out that not only do the objects themselves

look so nice when they are arranged well, but, like dancers, even “the interval between

them looks beautiful when each item is kept clear of it…”. (Oeconomicus 8.20)

The ideal situation, outlined explicitly by Xenophon, suggests that girls were

deliberately kept from knowing anything at all, beyond weaving, so that they could go

to their husbands as blank slates. This lack of education was not cruelty, deprivation, or

neglect; indeed, plenty of evidence suggests that Greek female children were cherished

by their parents. Lack of exposure to intellectual stimulation was thought to keep

females pure. The priestess of the god Apollo at Delphi was, according to Plutarch,

who served as a priest at the Temple, “utterly unlettered as she goes down into the

shrine.” Plutarch goes on to make a noteworthy parallel. He writes: “Just as

Xenophon believes that a bride should have seen as little and heard as little as possible

before she proceeds into her husband’s house, so this girl, inexperienced and

uninformed about practically everything, a pure, virgin soul, becomes the associate of

the god.” (“The Oracles at Delphi” 22 [Moralia 405C-D]) Here, utter ignorance marks

female purity.

At first glance, the ideal of women’s ignorance is contradicted by Aristophanes’

comedy Lysistrata. In Lysistrata’s soliloquy, as she arranges the Reconciliation

between the warring Greek states, she says: “I am a woman, but I have got a mind

(nous): I am not badly off for intelligence (gnomes) on my own account, and I am not

badly educated either, having heard a great deal of the talk of my father and of other

older men.” (1125-1126) But Spartan Lysistrata, for the Athenian audience, was a

joke. Everything is comedy is topsy-turvy, playing on underlying social order. Women

couldn’t really influence international military policy any more than Aristophanic birds

could rule kingdoms.

The collective literary lesson is this: there were no bad women, only men’s bad

management of women. Isomachus’ bride was an anonymous teenage lump of

moldable substance just like Pandora, but the enterprising Isomachus, modeling

Prometheus’ careful planning and not Epimetheus’ scattered thoughtlessness, was able

to use her potential to its fullest. If only Jason had been a good shepherd, all would

have been well in Corinth. But Jason misused his authority, and allowed invalid female

authority to reign instead.

Isomachus’ anonymous wife was a real prize: not only did she arrive with an empty

mind and the basic skill of spinning wool, but she had already acquired another sign of

subordination: she had been trained to control her appetites. (Oeconomicus 7.6) The

relationship between women and food was highly charged by the time Xenophon

described the ideal wife. Here, we can return to Pandora again, the first woman, who

“astounds men by her god-given beauty and ruins them by her thievish

gluttony” (Zeitlein 1995 p. 59). The female appetite was almost as dangerous as her

potential cleverness. Sarah Pomeroy notes that the appetites (ta gastera) included not

only appetite for food but all physical appetites. Pomeroy also explains that the female

was thought to have a “vast and empty” belly and thus had the tendency to be insatiable

(Pomeroy p. 71). Semonides’ infamous poem describing the varieties of women a man

might be unfortunate enough to acquire includes this type:

Another the Olympians fashioned from earth and gave her maimed to man; for

such a woman knows neither what is bad nor what is good. The only thing she

knows how to do is to eat. And whenever the gods send harsh winter, she

shivers and draws her chair nearer the fire. (Semonides 7.21-26)

To this point, I have discussed the ideals of cultivating and maintaining female

ignorance through literature. Ken Dowden, addresses the dangers of relying on myth:

myth explores and expresses cultural data,” but cannot be the source of cultural data.

Myth, he goes on to explain, illustrates what we already know, but does not add to that

knowledge (Dowden 1992). Heeding this caution, I now turn to the implications of

ideals of feminine intellect in their relation to everyday life.

7. The environment of disabled intellects

It is worth repeating my bedrock assumption here that intellectual disability is a fluid

concept, and perhaps nothing more than a concept, that varies widely over time and

between cultures. I have argued that the ideal Athenian woman repressed her intellect,

and that the cultural ideal was that women’s intellects should be curtailed for the good

of the household. This ideal woman should be kept from knowing too much or learning

too much, and, with some exceptions, an educated woman was laughable, foreign, or


I would like to prod this ideal with the caveat that no matter how clearly the surviving

literature instructs women to be blank slates for their husbands, the reality of daily life

would have intruded on the ideal. Life for a female peasant would have conformed to

the secluded, silent ideal to a much smaller degree than that of the aristocratic wife. By

necessity, the peasant woman was outside, working, and participating in the

marketplace to some extent. Lacking or repressing one’s inherent deliberative

intellectual function did not result in mass stupidity. Still, it is worth considering the

basic principle behind the modern measurements, even if the modern measurements do

not have the same ramifications for ancient societies. Ill-educated mothers, especially

mothers who begin giving birth at an age at which their physical bodies are not

developed, are likely to provide an environment for their offspring in which intellectual

disability in the modern sense can manifest. By the same token, disabled intellect, in

the ancient sense, can be fostered.

In modern terms, the education of women, combined with the age of women at the

beginning of childbearing, has implications not only for the lives of women themselves

but also for their subsequent generations. Epidemiologically, maternal age and

education are important factors in predicting intellectual disability (in all its rapidly

varying terms, from “low-grade moron” to “delayed learning”) in children. Today, low

maternal education corresponds with delayed or permanent intellectual development of

the offspring; younger mothers with fewer than twelve years of education give birth to

babies with the greatest proportion of intellectual disability.

In ancient Greece, girls became mothers, or more to the point became pregnant, at a

very young age relative to modern western standards. As for education, with a very few

notable exceptions, women (and for that matter the vast bulk of men) had no sort of

formal education. Our modern measurements reflect our own society, in which ten or

twelve years of education is, remarkably, the standard; the same number of years would

never apply to any ancient society as a standard for the whole population. This is the

point: standards and expectations varied among the ancient population between station

and gender. Logically enough, individuals and populations tend to fulfil deeply

ingrained expectations. Even if not, what is expected tends to be perceived anyway, and

any notable exception usually proves the rule.

Material culture mirrors and perpetuates social expectations in tangible ways.

Nutritional factors, for example, play a role in intellectual development. Nutritional

deprivation, especially of proteins and of vitamins A and E, contribute to the presence

of what we today term “intellectual disability.” The ancient literary theme of greedy

and insatiable women, on one hand, and women with controlled appetites, on the other,

reflects the gendered issue of food. Peter Garnsey, in his 1999 study of food and

society in antiquity, offers a balanced narration of the relationship between women and

food. He points out that while it would not have been sensible to deprive women of

nutrition to the point of incapacitating them, even if anyone had wanted to, when push

came to shove, food was rationed to those in power, and those in power were male.

Garnsey writes: “The dilemma facing the male head of household is clear. If women

were confined to the home, as they more or less were in upper-class society, then they

were handed the power to indulge their alleged weaknesses in the matter of food and

drink.” (Garnsey 1999)

Some ancient beliefs about nutritional needs for females were born of a misogynistic

culture and reflect that culture, but nevertheless hold true, as far as we know, in any

culture. Aristotle observed that women need less food than men (History of Animals

608b14-15), which is generally true, in terms of basic caloric intake. Then again,

pregnant women were thought to need even less food than usual, which is false, unless

one subscribes to the nutritional philosophy of supermodel Giselle Buedchen. [2]

Women in agricultural households would probably have been allotted more calories

than those in urban households. The ancient Mediterranean diet was fairly healthful;

even when one eliminates the image of today’s tomato-laden choriatiki, cereals had

good nutritional qualities, though they were short of Vitamins A, C, and D. Cereals

comprised the general population’s subsistence, and Garnsey points out the basic fact

that our extant sources make so easy to erase: the vast bulk of the ancient population

was composed not of aristocrats, but of farmers. He hypothesizes that women took part

in agricultural work and that the distribution of food was commensurate with her labor,

but adds the sensible reminder that the nutritional situation was not the same for all

women throughout the ancient Mediterranean world (Garnsey).

Here again Pandora displays female appetite. Women, urban or rural, were portrayed as

literally insatiable; again, their physiology consisted largely of a vast and empty belly

that could never get full. A man had to take a wife to have children, but as Sarah

Pomeroy explains, “after a woman had borne the requisite number of children she

could be considered as little more than a parasite, a consumer, like the first human

bride, Pandora” (Pomeroy).

In these terms, the best wife of all was perhaps not Homer’s Penelope but Euripides’

Alcestis. Queen Alcestis bore sons, and then got out of the way by offering her death in

exchange for her condemned husband’s life. Once the divine deal was carried out, King

Admetus immediately embarked on decadent funereal dining as quickly as possible

after a brief and formulaic statement of woe for the wife he had lost. Euripides leaves

us to ponder if the scheme worked, though, and if Admetus is rewarded or punished

when the shell of his woman, mute and veiled, is delivered to his door.

The environment of disabled intellect seems at first look not to match that of the

women of Sparta. Spartan women, i.e., the women who belonged to the Spartan elite,

need to be considered as a possible exception to the rule, as there is some indication

that Spartan women were educated, fed decently, encouraged to take exercise, and that

they started giving birth later in life than the wives of other Greek men. But most of

our information about Spartan daily life comes from reports one millennium after the

fact. In short, I am suspicious of Plutarchian propaganda about Spartan society.

Plutarch’s ideal woman comes not even from his own second century Graeco-Roman

tumult, but from his imagination of how Spartan women acted in the bygone days of

Spartan glory. He tells the story of a Spartan woman who was being sold as a slave.

When asked what she knew how to do, she replied laconically: “to be faithful.” He says

that another Spartan woman, in similar style, answered: “to manage a house

well.” (“Sayings of Spartan Women 27 and 28, Moralia 242C.) Even in the

imagination of the Spartaphile Plutarch, women were the models of subordination,

albeit formidable ones.

8. Intellectual impairment and desire

The conditions in the ancient Greek world were favorable for women to be inferior

intellectually to men, inferior even to the agroikos men who were already considered by

the upper classes to be stupidity embodied (Ronell 2001). The ideal wife was a clear

pool in which to reflect her husband’s intellect and emotion, a vehicle for bearing her

husband’s children, and an automaton for arranging her husband’s household. Ancient

intellectual fitness was determined by how one measured up according to one’s station;

gender was lockstep with station. The concept of a universal test of social skills,

speaking ability, and economic dexterity did not exist and could not have existed.

Females, at least those living their prescribed role, were reflections of the men who

owned them. When Aristotle concluded that women did not have a fully valid

bouleutikon, he was making an observation, not a judgment.

We all know about cultural relativity. What might appear horrifying in one time and

space might be delightful in another. What looks like female mutilation in one time and

place is attractive femininity in another. What disables people in one society enables

them in another. The core of Disability Studies is recognizing that the meaning of

disability is not inherent in the individual, but shifts over time and across cultures.

To borrow the saying about a tree falling in a forest with no witness, if a woman is, by

modern standards, intellectually disabled, but the concept of intellectual disability had

not yet been invented, was that woman really intellectually disabled? To take it another

step, if a female is by her own culture’s standards basically ignorant, but this lack of

knowledge is the desired quality—fostered from a young age—can we say that she is

disabled in any way?

At one extreme we have Penelope, waiting and weaving; possibly better yet, Alcestis

bears sons and then willingly prepares for Charon’s journey. [3] At the other extreme, at

the same time (that is, long long ago, in the collective memory of the Trojan War),

Clytemnestra devises plots to usurp her own house, an act more brazen even than her

sister Helen’s treachery of being beautiful and abducted. The ideal, obviously, is that

barely pubescent female blank slates be trained into submission so as to bar women’s

unharnessed thinking, which could damage the household.

Comparing ancient and modern attitudes about taking a person with an intellectual

disability as a spouse provides a small but interesting window through which to view

change over time. We get a glowing portrayal of compatibility between people who

differ in labels of intelligence in the novel and subsequent film Tim, a romance between

an attractive intellectually disabled young man and a clever, older, wealthy woman, in

which there was no problem that could not be solved by a lot of open mindedness and

money (McCullough 1974]. The more common arrangement in real life, unsurprisingly,

is between a man without identified intellectual disabilities and a woman who has been

labeled intellectually disabled, rather than an older benefactress and a young hunk.

The surface characteristics are striking in their parallels between the Greek arrangement

of the dominant kind man and the submissive trainable woman in Robert Edgerton’s

now-dated anthropological reports of “normal” men who married what he termed, fifty

years ago, mentally retarded women. Edgerton traced the lives of over 100

deinstitutionalized people over thirty years and summarized his findings in The Cloak

of Competence. He was surprised by the large number of women labeled mentally

retarded who married men without intellectual disabilities (Edgerton 1967/1993). Four

examples follow. While the terminologies and measurement of modern diagnosis of

intellectual disability have changed quite a bit, the scenario is the same. Women who

had been trained to be dependent on relying on someone else for the process of

reasoning are intellectually dependent on men who tell them what to do.

Billie Mae says: “My husband just does everything for me. He shops; he buys

everything; … I like it that way…. I think a man’s place is to tell a woman what to

do. I don’t have to worry about anything now.” Edgerton records the point of view of

Billie Mae’s spouse: “Sure, she’s sort of stupid. When I met her she didn’t know

nothing about nothing. But I got her trained. She’s OK now. I take care of her and

she’s OK. She cooks real good” (Edgerton p. 167).

Of another woman, June, Edgerton reports her husband’s assessment. “My first wife

was a real bitch, if you’ll pardon me. Nothing was good enough for her. June is what

I’ve always wanted. She appreciates everything. Everything is new and enjoyable for

her. She stays home and takes care of the house, and that’s what I want” (Edgerton p.


Myrtle’s husband perceives that he rescued his wife from a life of being exploited.

“Now she’s well taken care of. All I ask is that when I come home from work she has

dinner ready and the house cleaned up.” (Edgerton p. 170)

Finally, a man says about his wife, Corliss: “I’ll admit she’s a problem sometimes. She

needs so much supervision, but I don’t mind—it works out all right.” (Edgerton p. 170)

9. Conclusions: Context and Community

Edgerton carried out his research in an age when “mental retardation” was a standard,

even respectful word, and the validity of the IQ test had only just come into question. In

the United States, the American Association on Mental Retardation, a government

agency, set the diagnostic formula to establish who was mildly, moderately, or

profoundly mentally retarded. Borderline Mental Retardation was a grey and contented

zone. Even then, in the middle to late twentieth century, when we were so confident in

our ability to apply scientific measures to human intelligence, one of the AAMR’s

assumptions essential to the application of their definition of mental retardation is that

“limitations in present functioning must be considered within the context of community

environments typical of the individual’s age peers and culture” (AAMR 1992).

Intellectual ability and disability takes meaning from its community’s context. Ancient

Greek women, courageously subordinating their intellect and appetite, were merely part

of the ancient Greek system of expectations and resources, just as Chinese women who

lovingly broke their little girls’ feet were part of theirs, and just as American teenagers

suffering and dying in the name of fashion are part of theirs.

The meaning behind intellectual ability and disability is dependent on expectations and

resources, and on the dizzying circular relationship between expectations and Only a

generation or two ago, babies born with Down Syndrome were not expected to live

very long, and so they were routinely placed in institutions, where, denied the basic

comforts of childhood, they didn’t live very long. Since the early 1980s, the life

expectancy for people with Down Syndrome has doubled, not because of some

breakthrough medical advance, but because of higher expectations coupled with

appropriate resources. When we look at disability, we are looking at hierarchies of

resource allocation and configurations of authority. Female idiots in ancient Greece

were women who allowed their intellects to develop.


[1] Jason enumerates all the benefits that he has garnered for Medea by taking her away

from the barbarians and bringing her into the rational light of Greece. “All of the

Greeks have learned that you are clever (sophên), and you have won renown. But if

you lived at the world’s edge, there would be no talk of you.” (539-540) This is a

poisoned compliment, for two reasons: women are not supposed to be renowned; also,

what she will ultimately be renowned for is the worst evil possible. Later, Aegus tells

Medea the obscure oracular advice he received about his childlessness. Medea asks if it

is acceptable for her to hear the oracular pronouncement, and Aegus replies that it’s

acceptable: “It calls for a wise mind.” (epei toi kai sophês deitai phrenos) (677).

[2] Some beliefs were born of a misogynistic culture and reflect that culture, but are

nevertheless true scientifically, e.g., Aristotle states that women need less food than

men (History of Animals 608b14-15) and Garnsey points out that this is true that

women require fewer calories than men.

[3] Alcestis, in dying so that her husband might live, at first glance might appear to

represent the ultimate model of subordinated courage,rr but Euripides prevents this by

referring to the mindedness of Alcestis and Admetus. Pheres, Admetus’ father, says, line

615, “For you have lost, as no one will deny, a noble and virtuous wife.” (sôphronos

to be of sound mind, discreet, prudent, self-controlling). But later, toward the end of the

squabble, Pheres says that she lacked sense in this self-sacrificing act (aphrôna) (line



Ken Dowden, The Uses of Greek Mythology (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Laura Doyle, The Surrendered Wife: A Practical Guide for Finding Intimacy, Passion

and Peace with a Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).

Robert B. Edgerton, The Cloak of Competence, 1967 (rev. ed., Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1993).

Martha Edwards [Lynn Rose], “Women and Physical Disability in Ancient Greece,”

The Ancient World 29.1 (1998): 3-9.

Peter Garnsey, Food and Society in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, England:

Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Elizabeth George, A Wife After God’s Own Heart: 12 Things That Really Matter In Your

Marriage (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2004).

C.F. Goodey, “Politics, Nature, and Necessity: Were Aristotle’s Slaves Feeble-

Minded?” Political Theory 27.2 (1999): 3-23.

C.F. Goodey and M. Lynn Rose, “The Construct of Disability in Ancient Greece and

Rome,” in Oxford Handbook of Disability History, ed. M. Rembis, C. Kudlick, and S.

Burch (Oxford University Press 2017, forthcoming).

W. Thomas MacCary, Childlike Achilles: Ontogeny and Phylogeny in the Iliad (New

York: Columbia University, 1982).

Colleen McCullough, Tim (New York: Fawcett, 1974).

Dora Panofsky and Erwin Panofsky in Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a

Mythical Symbol, Bolingen Series 52, 1956 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,


Sarah Pomeroy, Trans. and Commentary, Xenophon, Oeconomicus (Oxford, England:

Clarendon Press, 1994).

Avital Ronell, Stupidity (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

Froma I. Zeitlin, “Signifying Difference: The Myth of Pandora,” in Women in

Antiquity: New Assessments, ed. Richard Hawley and Barbara Levick (London:

Routledge, 1995), 59.

Leave a reply