Hipparchia - The World's First Liberated Woman
Guest submission by Maria Jamil Fasolo
Summary: A near contemporary of Diogenes, and a philosopher in her own right, this extraordinary young lady dared to defy the social norms of her time and to bravely assert equality of the sexes
Text: Our contemporary age tends to consider classical Athens as the epitome of sociopolitical progress: birthplace of democracy; enlightened realm of free speech, tolerance, philosophical debate... Yet harsh historical reality presents another, highly different picture. "Equality" in modern terms did not exist at all: civil rights were in fact limited to a quite narrow circle of Athenian citizens, who in order to exercise suffrage had to demonstrate either direct descent from an aristocratic family, or substantial economic holdings (usually derived from landed property and/or commerce). Citizens lacking these qualifications were always considered as third class, at best; although in theory they may have possessed the right to participate in some aspects of civic life, in practice their political role was minimal or nil. Inhabitants of Athens who were not citizens (the METOIKI... alien residents... for example, and the thousands of slaves) counted for nothing; FEMALES... even of the noblest Athenian families... were juridically classified as little better than chattels, and could perform practically no legal transaction in their own right. Largely confined to the GYNAIKION... the women's quarters... from birth until marriage or death, these hapless daughters of Athens hardly ever left the monotony of their homes except when, heavily veiled and escorted, they went out to attend the festivals of their patronesses, Athena and Demeter: females themselves, but goddesses, and thus exempt from a life of perpetual supervision. Nor was Woman's lot much better in other parts of Hellas. The very few Greek females who managed to escape, either wholly or partially, were anomalies like Sappho (who as a lesbian was looked upon as an oddity), or courtesans of various ranks (HETAIRAI being among the most prestigious) who used their personal charms and wit to obtain a degree of liberty (and often great wealth besides).
Hipparchia of Maroneia belonged to neither of the above categories. She would have scorned the mercenary tactics of the courtesans, and had no inclination toward homosexuality. Born about 346 B. C. in Thrace, she was the daughter of Athenian aristocrats who had temporarily settled in the coastal town of Maroneia, famous for its cultivation of grapes. Diogenes Laertius, who wrote Hipparchia's biography, does not mention the names of her parents nor does he provide any details concerning her childhood; but we can infer that Hipparchia even at a tender age rejected the domestic chores normally imposed upon Greek girls: she herself admitted proudly, later in life, that she had neglected spinning and weaving in favor of study. Indeed, Hipparchia's main characteristics as a young girl seem to have been restlessness and unquenchable curiosity, the desire to learn even those subjects forbidden to females of her epoch. She longed to enter male intellectual circles, to converse with learned men on deep philosophical themes. This, of course, was firmly and systematically denied to her by her rigidly traditionalistic parents.
Now, Hipparchia had a younger brother, Metrocles, a rather odd boy, by all accounts, yet just as thirsty for knowledge as his sister. Shortly after the family returned to their native Athens, Metrocles... then a teenager... started lessons with Theophrastus, one of Aristotle's worthiest disciples; but apparently Theophrastus' philosophical current did not suit the boy's fastidious taste, for shortly afterward we find Metrocles in the circle of CRATES, a Cynic philosopher from Boetian Thebes.
Metrocles' acquaintance and association with Crates were to have profound influence, not only on his own life but also... and especially... on that of his sister Hipparchia.
Hipparchia's meeting with Crates might never have taken place, as the Theban did not have the habit of visiting his disciples at their homes; but one day an emergency arose.
Metrocles was from childhood excessively timid, solemn, conservative in values and prudish beyond his years: a "square," he would have been called in modern times, something of a "mama's boy. " So exaggerated was his sense of propriety that once, after having eaten a plateful of kidney beans (considered to be the ideal "philosopher's dish"),and having belched rather loudly during a lesson, the youth was so mortified that he ran home, locked himself in his room, and refused to emerge, swearing to starve himself to death as self-punishment for his "disgrace. " Crates, who was fond of this rather wimpy pupil, naturally strove to prevent such an unnecessary suicide. Casually he strolled up to Metrocles' house, confronted the lad with his accustomed nonchalance, and convinced Metrocles that burping, far from being a disgrace, was in fact a beneficial natural act, caused spontaneously by the body's own mechanism... At any rate, Metrocles decided not to kill himself... and Hipparchia had the opportunity to see Crates.
She had been sitting with her gloomstruck brother, trying to cheer him up, when Crates arrived. No sooner did the highborn Athenian maiden behold the plebeian sage from Thebes, than her impressionable heart was struck with the pangs of love. Not that Crates corresponded to standard ideals of manly beauty: he was thin and ungainly, sharp-featured, rather awkward in gesture, clad in a heavy homespun cloak which, in the manner of all Cynic philosophers, he had wrapped around himself in an unelegant fashion. Yet the beautiful 20 year old Hipparchia was fascinated by Crates, who was almost twice her age. She had heard of him previously, of course, from Metrocles, who had praised his teacher's exceptional wisdom and humanity to the heavens. After only a few minutes of enthralled conversation with Crates, Hipparchia perceived that everything her brother had told her regarding the Theban was true. Beyond Crates' brusque provincial air and plain exterior there was a brilliant scholar, a sincere lover of truth... like herself... who strove to disseminate the ideals of justice and equality among all mankind. Hipparchia fell head over heels in love with the Cynic philosopher and with his doctrine. On that very day she determined to marry Crates of Thebes... and none other.
The reaction of Hipparchia's parents to her sudden announcement may well be imagined! First of all, no Greek girl in her right mind had ever chosen her own bridegroom... But then, at least according to her mother and father, Hipparchia was no longer in her right mind. Since her early teens, the attractive, vivacious girl had not lacked for suitors: some of the noblest, wealthiest, most handsome young men of Athens had asked for her hand in marriage. Yet Hipparchia had adamantly rejected them all, insisting that she would rather remain a spinster forever than wed a man she didn't love. Her folks must have grumbled: "Unexpectedly, this penniless Theban scarecrow turns up on our doorstep, and our daughter loses her heart and her mind on his account! No, no, this will never do... Hipparchia must return to the Gynaikion... Even better, to Maroneia... And Crates must not see her ever again. "
Such was the reasoning of Hipparchia's parents; but cold reason cannot triumph over the "illogical logic" of love! Now it was Hipparchia's turn to vow that she would kill herself. In vain did her mother and father attempt to dissuade her from such a "disastrous" alliance with a man whose income was microscopic and who was not even an Athenian. Hipparchia remained firm:"I honor you as a daughter should" she said, "but I will take my own life if you do not give me your blessing to marry Crates. "
Article © 2002 Maria Jamil Fasolo
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Guest Submission - Hipparchia - The World's First Liberated Woman