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Marble stele featuring a seated female and two smaller figures on either side. IN the upper section is a wreath with two floral motifs on either side. - click to view larger image

PATRICIA KARVELAS: This stone memorial is evidence of the change in the status of Greek women that occurred in the Hellenistic period, the period that runs from the end of 4th century BCE onwards. In the preceding periods, especially in a democracy like Athens, there were very limited opportunities, outside of a few religious roles, for citizen women to have a public profile. Indeed, the only women who enjoyed any fame were the talented and highly educated courtesans, known as hetairai or companions. Their displays of wit and skill at Greek drinking parties made them the talk of the town. However, to the respectable wives and daughters of the Athenian citizens, such women were scandalous. To the Athenian male mind, the respectable woman was the invisible woman.

Paradoxically, it was not democracy, but the return of monarchies with Alexander the Great and his successors, that created new opportunities for women. Royal families gave prominence to women. Even today, Hellenistic queens such as Cleopatra are household names. This prominence trickled down the social scale. In addition, the tremendous wealth of the period allowed women access to economic resources that were previously unimaginable. We see during this period the rise of a number of wealthy female civic benefactors.

We know the name of this woman from an inscription in the architrave. She is Phila, daughter of Apollas. You can see some of the elements that speak to her extreme wealth on the memorial. She is finely and elaborately dressed. Her servant approaches her with possibly an open jewel casket. The cabinet behind her may have once been painted to show luxurious possessions. Another servant approaches carrying a spindle, but Phila shows no interest in such domestic chores. Proudly she stares out, her eyes defiantly meeting the gaze of the viewer.

Phila had every reason to feel proud. We know that this woman was the recipient of important honours from her local community. This is signified by the wreath carved prominently in the centre of the entablature. Such carved wreaths on tombstones regularly denote victories in competitions or the award of honours. In this case, we know that the honours were civic awards because at the centre of the wreath is carved the words ho demos, signifying that the wreath was awarded by the people.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 17 December 2021

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