USU 1320: History and Civilization
In an argument almost as old as their discipline, historians today deliberate about the general value of biography. Why does one person's life merit close scrutiny, especially when compared to the greater crush of humanity? What makes any individual somehow more representative of an age and thus deserving of more historical attention than the millions off stage who share their drama with the alleged "star"? Do the "great men" of history create their times, or are they the product of the world around them?
In addressing these issues, many modern scholars have chosen to downplay the general importance of individuals and challenge what they see as the dated and discredited Great Man Theory of history, pointing instead to the larger social and political forces which many see as actually driving cultural change. There is much to be said for this side of the argument, though it is a harsh indictment of one of the oldest traditions in history, indeed the oldest historical tradition if one takes into account the autobiography of Sargon of Akkad, written purportedly around 2300 BCE. Beneath this fair and well-founded criticism—the needs of the many should outweigh the needs of the few—lies an over-reaction to the obvious pitfalls inherent in biography. If nothing else, the deep and enduring biographical tradition running through virtually the entirety of Western Civilization warns us that there's something worthwhile in this type of history, some vein of truth that engages both the heart and the mind.
And there's a very good reason for that. Biography is and always has been a popular feature of history, because it encompasses something most people wish to believe, the deep-seated hope that the individual fundamentally matters. And the earnest ambition that this is true can help to make it happen because, by stressing the "great men" of the past, by discussing and teaching and studying their lives, we forge role models for "great men" which fosters an environment for their rise. In other words, great men as history have helped to engender great men in history.
Thus, one doesn't have to look much beyond Alexander the Great, Charlemagne or Napoleon to know that individual personalities have dramatically shaped the course of history. Driven narcissists spurred on by the obstacles they confronted have over and over steered human destiny in ways no social scientist could ever predict precisely. Doubtlessly, it's one of a historian's supreme challenges to make sense of the "great men" of the past. And since, frankly, there's no feasible way at present to do it because the full truth is far too complex to be recovered—the reason a man becomes "great" lies somewhere deep down in his DNA—the forces that shaped a great man like Pericles from within or without are simply beyond our ken. Or to put it another way, we'll probably never get a good enough core sample of any ancient Athenian to understand exactly why democracy arose there in the pre-Classical Age.
Such impossibilities are, at the same time, commonplace in historical studies of every kind, which means there's no reason to give up on biography in particular as a venue for understanding what-really-happened-in-the-past. Just as in all other forms of history, there are indeed perceptible and significant trends in biographical history, for instance, that all "great men" have risen above the serious challenges which faced them. Seemingly impenetrable barriers—that they were underfunded, disregarded, low-born, had doors slammed in their faces—didn't faze any of them in their dogged pursuit of self-aggrandizement. And almost none started at the top but instead had to claw their way up, and on that climb virtually all of them had to step over bodies: living, dying and dead.
If that's so, where better then to see this fundamental principle of biography in action than among, not the "great men" of history, but its "great women," a group who have universally faced bias and scorn often for no reason other than their gender, who have without exception had to push their way into the rooms where power is brokered? Even the great queens of history, well-born ladies in possession of vast wealth, women with armies, mints and many minions at their fingertips, have rarely guided their own destinies. Moreover, those few who have surmounted their world have almost never done so without some struggle for autonomy, and those travails lie near the heart of the issue we're examining. Their struggles inform us about history and human nature in general, and that, in turn, validates biographical study by taking us just that much closer to the truth of what-really-happened-in-the-past.
So, while it's true that all "great people" of the past, men and women alike, have had to fight and scheme and scratch their way to the top, it's easier to see how difficult and steep the road to consummate power is when one looks at women's history. That is, we could just as well study the life of Julius Caesar who rose from an elite but ineffective family to become Rome's best, then greatest, then only general, but the lesson about determination in the face of overwhelming odds is all too easy to lose amidst the tales of his glory and the carnage he wrought on his times. We wouldn't be reminded at every turn how unusual and unpredictable his journey was, because we're socialized to expect that, when given the chance, men will grasp at power. Not so with women.
In , it's informative to look beyond our assumptions about the leaders who've ruled our world, to see the past in ways which are normally obscured from our view and try to understand how minorities step forward and assert themselves. For every one of us belongs to a minority—often more than one—and in watching figures from history confronting situations where they face head on the bigotry that invariably obstructs the progress of any persons with disabilities, real or perceived, where the chances for success are made slimmer through bias and distrust, there we see more clearly the true power of the individual to change the course of history. And that is the real source of biography's grip on our hearts and its principal claim to represent what-really-happened-in-the-past: it shows a person's core, how an individual deals with being categorized and dismissed by society at large and works around the unwarranted assumptions imposed on his—or her—life.
The New Kingdom (1550-1200 BCE) was the height of ancient Egyptian power, and for two decades during this age a woman named Hatshepsut ruled as pharaoh. She was born in a time when the Egyptians had only recently recovered control of their own land. For more than two centuries before her lifetime, a foreign presence known as the Hyksos had dominated Egypt (ca. 1785-1552 BCE) but, united under a great liberator Ahmose (r. ca. 1558-1533 BCE), the Egyptians managed to throw off the yoke of outside rule and banish these "foreign kings." By the 1540's they once again ruled their own country. Ahmose became pharaoh and inaugurated a dynasty that governed Egypt for more than two centuries, until the reign of the last king in this line, the mysterious Akhenaten whose reign we'll explore in the next Section.
Upon Ahmose's death, his son Amenhotep I (Amenophis) came to the throne and ruled until 1512 BCE, when he died and was succeeded by Tuthmosis I. It isn't clear why Tuthmosis was chosen to rule next, since the evidence strongly suggests he was not the son of Amenhotep I by his principal wife, perhaps not even a member of the royal family. Tuthmosis' status as outsider is made all the more obvious from his marriage to a royal woman named Ahmes—Ahmes is the feminine form of the name Ahmose to whom she was very likely related in some way, his daughter it is suggested—Tuthmosis probably married her to secure his claim to the throne. She and Tuthmosis had two children, a son who died young and a daughter who did not, Hatshepsut. As the only living child of the pharaoh by his principal wife, Hatshepsut should have been her father Tuthmosis' sole heir, but she was a woman and even in Egypt, a relatively liberal land by the standards of the ancient world, a woman could not claim the kingship without considerable assistance.
So, to ensure a place if not on, at least beside the throne, she married a secondary son of her father—her mother Ahmes had done much the same—a son who had been named for his father and, when Tuthmosis I died sometime around 1500 BCE, this boy became Tuthmosis II. From the union of these half-siblings was born only one child, Neferure, a daughter. But by a secondary wife Tuthmosis II produced a surviving son who would later rule Egypt as Tuthmosis III, one of the most aggressive and dynamic pharaohs in all of Egyptian history. Nevertheless, he would have to wait for many years to claim his right to rule because, as he was growing up, his stepmother (and aunt) Hatshepsut took the reins of government and would not give them over.
Hatshepsut's path to the throne was opened wide when her husband and half-brother, Tuthmosis II, died expectedly after reigning only a decade, perhaps less (ca. 1500-1490 BCE). This left Hatshepsut without any royal male adult to challenge her bid to be sole "king." Actually, as a woman she had no right to call herself "king"—there wasn't even a word in Egyptian for "queen" in the sense of "female ruler"—so she was faced with the difficulty of redefining the nature of kingship in a tradition-laden bureaucracy still recovering from the Hyksos interregnum, a government where women were granted access to power only when their authority was masked behind titles like "god's wife," "king's mother," "king's sister" and "king's daughter."
In other words, as long as they were connected to men in power, Egyptian women could wield great influence, but Hatshepsut had no man to couple up with, only a boy who bore little more than the royal name Tuthmosis. And given the high rate of infant mortality in antiquity, it would have been folly for her to make common cause with him. Odds were he would be a mummy before he ever became a man.
Hatshepsut's solution to her problem was ingenious. Instead of trying to redefine "king," she redefined herself, seizing all the apparatus of a king, the titles and regalia any male pharaoh was automatically handed. And rather than forcing the issue of her gender, she played up her unimpeachable lineage, since she was, after all, the direct descendant of Tuthmosis I and perhaps even related to Ahmose the liberator through her mother. So she herself says in one of her public proclamations:
Nor did she publicly denounce the young Tuthmosis, her stepson and only serious rival for the throne, but made him her ward and claimed to be acting in protection of his right to be king one day, a vow she indeed fulfilled. The only difference they had, it seems, was what "one day" meant, when he was old enough or when she was too old to rule.
In the early stages of her regency, Hatshepsut comes off as somewhat defensive about her right to occupy the throne, at least to judge from her decrees and portraiture. She depicts herself, for instance, with the royal beard, a sign of male potency, and gives herself a masculine title, the Bull of Horus. But it was not all cigar ads and sports metaphors for Hatshepsut, either. At the same time that she promotes her "kingship," she also portrays herself realistically, as a rather heavy-set woman. The mixture of male and female attributes in her royal iconography is confusing, to us at least, but it must have served her well somehow. Otherwise, why would she have done it? No doubt, it was her shrewd way of playing the odd hand of cards she'd been dealt.
Her campaign for sole possession of the throne accelerated in the next stages of her reign. In one relief she claims Amun, the principal god of Egypt, chose her from birth to be the ruler of Egypt and, instead of aligning herself with her short-lived, brief-reigning husband Tuthmosis II, she highlights her connection with her father Tuthmosis I. She further claims her father designated her, not her husband, to be his true successor and with that numbers the years of her reign from her father's death, not from the date of her own accession to the throne when her husband died. All in all, she clung to power not by changing the rules but by extending the traditional ways in which women in ancient Egypt asserted their authority by tying themselves to men in power. In Hatshepsut's case, however, her anchor was a dead man, her deceased father. As any woman CEO can tell you, dead fathers are much easier to manipulate than husbands, living or otherwise.
Still, she needed men faithful to her in the administration of her regime, and she found one in Senenmut, a man of non-royal ancestry but apparently her loyal companion, steward and possibly lover, too. While there's no historical confirmation of any affair between them, only hints and gossip, they do, in fact, seem to have had a good working relationship, on the surface at least. This accords well with her public persona elsewhere, the façade that she's just another pharaoh, one of the "guys" in charge.
By all appearances, Senenmut had charge of overseeing the execution of Hatshepsut's decrees. He also supervised the education of Neferure as well as the construction of Hatshepsut's funerary monument at Deir-el-Bahri, one of the finest structures surviving from ancient Egypt. The model he provided of collaboration between a "female king" and a male retainer working together for their mutual benefit is, in fact, evidenced elsewhere in her administration and hints at how this woman managed to rule for over two decades. In particular, the remarkably elaborate tombs of lesser Egyptian nobles who lived and labored under Hatshepsut testify to her strategy for staying in power. To judge from these, she generously compensated those men who were willing to support and assist her, providing them tangible and impressive rewards. As a lifetime member of the court, it's clear Hatshepsut knew how to play the old-boy network as well as anyone in her day.
So, the key to Hatshepsut's winning and retaining the throne of Egypt, a government dominated by men, rested on her performing the role of king as well as any competent man. Nor did it hurt that in the period of the New Kingdom the pharaoh was seen as a god incarnate, which allowed her to stress her divine heritage and push her gender into the background. So, for twenty years or more, she ruled as a strong and effective leader who built monuments and traded with foreigners and did all the things a pharaoh should, even campaigned abroad—though not very much—and if you didn't look too closely, you might not even have noticed it was a woman sitting on the throne. But if you did, it was probably wise not to talk about it too loudly or else, according to the threat she herself left behind in an inscription on the walls of Deir-el-Bahri, "he who shall do her homage shall live, he who shall speak evil in blasphemy of her Majesty shall die!"
Fast-forward two millennia and you'll find another powerful woman but one who followed a very different path to the top. The Empress Theodora reigned over the Byzantine Empire (Byzantium) at the peak of its power in the sixth century CE, after the western half of the Roman Empire had "fallen" but the East still stood. Born into the lower classes, she is one of most interesting women in the history of Western Civilization because, unlike most of the others who have made it to the top, the challenges facing her ascension into the sphere where supreme power is wielded looked to have been insurmountable. And yet she did reach the ranks of royal dominion, or so we're told by Procopius (see above, Section 1), the indignant press secretary whose catalogue of Justinian's devilry in The Anecdota includes the emperor's marriage to Theodora, a woman whom the prim courtier considered an abomination, little more than a greedy, conniving harlot.
Theodora's father was an animal-keeper in the hire of one of the ruling parties vying for control of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. These political factions—gangs is arguably a more accurate term—shaped state policy and played out their power-games at the famous horse-track there, the Hippodrome. When Theodora's father died unexpectedly leaving her and her sisters orphaned, her mother did the only thing a widow could in those days. She put her children on the stage, the equivalent of prostitution, a situation which Procopius records in venomous detail (Anec. 9.8-9):
Procopius, then, elucidates the details of Theodora's sexual maturation, which anyone can read in The Anecdota should they wish.
What's clear in all this—most of it is unconfirmed gossip and thus, no doubt, some portion is invented history—is that Theodora had a knack for attracting public attention. As Procopius continues, he lists the empress' early debaucheries (Anec. 9.13, 20):
Procopius proceeds to describe the type of ribald act Theodora purportedly performed on stage—one should bear in mind we have only his word for this—and finally concludes the dark saga of her early life (Anec. 9.25-26):
Amidst the barrage of slander Procopius slings her way, several truths echo loudly. Theodora was clearly possessed of a bold heart and savvy disposition, with the sort of drive it takes to flaunt oneself in public where everyone knows scorn will far outweigh praise and the real prize is just getting a moment in the spotlight. Whether or not she was ever actually a stripper of the sort Procopius describes cannot be verified in external sources, but even if this history is completely invented, she must have been the type of person whose character and actions made such license seem likely. The greater truth behind Procopius' slander is "Mock her if you like, but don't stand between Theodora and what she wants!" No one would understand that better than her husband's secretary.
When she reached adulthood, Theodora first served as the concubine of a provincial governor and then worked her way up the Byzantine social ladder, eventually returning to Constantinople, where she met the young, unmarried, emperor designate, Justinian. Dazzled by her good looks and charm, Justinian was by all reports instantly smitten and, if Procopius' next assertion is right, for what must have been the first time in her life she refused a man, an Emperor-to-be no less, and insisted on marriage as the prerequisite to knowing her charms. Much to the dismay of his some in his family, Justinian agreed, and soon both wife and Empress, this beautiful, cagey actress-turned-queen was, without doubt, the dominant personality of her day.
Evidence of that fills Justinian's annals, none more clearly than during one of his many crises in office. In a series of conflicts now called the Gothic Wars (535-555 CE), he spent much of his reign and a commensurate share of Byzantine resources attempting to re-conquer Western Europe in the name of Rome. This pipe dream of reconnecting the Eastern and Western empires spelled much hardship and soaring taxes, leading to many a riot and even once to the burning of the capital itself. When one of these public conflagrations was pressing the very place where Justinian resided and he was on the verge of abandoning Constantinople altogether, he found Theodora seated fixedly in the palace. She told him to leave but she was not about to give up a position she had worked so hard for, the implication being that he had not worked nearly as hard as she had for the throne and she would not be scared off by a few sparks of rebellion. The result was, she stayed, and he with her, and he weathered the crisis and remained in control of his realm.
Further evidence that her strong hand guided Justinian through many of his travails is found in the art surviving from the day where she is depicted standing close by but not next to him, implying that she is his companion in both marriage and power. The famous Ravenna mosaic—one of the few contemporary portraits still extant—illustrates well her beauty and royal presence. So even if all that Procopius says is true, there can be no doubt to anyone who looks into the tile eyes of this Theodora that she feels she deserves to be where she is. Her bearing in this portrait is extraordinary.
A third and final witness to Theodora's power in Byzantium is her absence. Following her death in 548, Justinian's reign suffered considerably. Though it's surely due in part to his failures in Italy where his reach eventually exceeded his grasp, there is also a sense of indirection and complaisancy attendant to his final years on the throne. He never remarried, never had children even after Theodora proved barren, and so her death seems to have devastated him, a blow from which his reign never fully recovered.
Thus in Theodora we see another path of advancement women have pursued, using sexuality to launch a political career by deploying the power that it wields over men. From beggar to exhibitionist to courtesan to queen, Theodora's rocket to the top was driven by one of the oldest combustible fuels there is, desire. But that's not the only propulsion system at hand. A woman can also ride innocence into celebrity. To see an excellent example of that, let's jump ahead another millennium.
After the decimations of disease and famine which unraveled the synthesis of the High Middle Ages—in particular, the Famine of 1315-1317 and the notorious Black Death that followed in its wake (see Section 6, above)—as if cannibalism and buboes weren't enough, Europe spilled even more blood in a dismal morass of self-annihilation which later came to be called the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453 CE). The complexity of this lengthy and deadly showdown between a long succession of French and English kings defies easy explanation, but its resolution is at least fairly clear. The French ultimately swept the English off the continent and claimed France as their own.
Never mind that the kings of England, who had as good a French pedigree as any man ever enthroned in Paris, were the rightful and long-standing lords overseeing many parts of France. Linguistic and political and cultural differences led to animosity and eventually war between these European neighbors—all that separates them geographically is the narrow but deep English Channel—and more than anything, their sense of having discrete histories drew them into open combat.
But the notion that they came from different pasts was actually an invention in large part. In fact, what the French and English shared was much more than what divided them—nevertheless, their petty differences blinded them to this greater truth—and in their century-long obsession to cut each other down, they made their lifetimes one of the bleakest periods in Western Civilization. It is an age in which no one should wish to have lived.
Only a few years after the Hundred Years' War had begun in 1337, the Black Death hit and diverted attention away from all political and military causes, forcing even its most ardent proponents to put the conflict on hold for several years. Nor did it help that, for the rest of the century, the government of neither country could field a competent leader—Richard II of England (r. 1377-1399) was vengeful and sadistic, and his French counterpart Charles VI (r. 1380-1422) was certifiably insane—and so the war proceeded by fits and starts, as the two sides managed to pencil in a battle here and there amidst bouts of bubonic plague, labor strikes and internal disruptions of every sort. Too busy dying and killing their own, for quite a while neither nation could find the time to organize anyone else's slaughter. That's one reason the Hundred Years' War took 117.
All this slow-burning anger finally came to a head in the early part of the fifteenth century, when the English crowned a young, competent king, Henry V (r. 1413-1422), and were ready at last to take up the war again. The French, however, were not, since Charles VI—later dubbed "the Mad"—was still ruling France. Despite wearing his country's crown, Charles VI supported the British cause more than his own people's and, excusing this folly as pursuing peace, he fostered a rebellion within his own nation, a civil war promoted by factionalists called the Burgundians. Standing in opposition to Charles' insidious treachery was his own son, later crowned Charles VII, but at the time only the dauphin, the crown prince and next in line to the throne of France. Thus, the French were fighting themselves as much as the English.
However, after some delay and negotiation the French were finally forced to commit to battle against the English and subsequently suffered one of their worst defeats in history at the Battle of Aginçourt (northern France) in 1415. A strong rainstorm the night before had left the ground so soaked and muddy that the heavily armored French knights became mired in the fields around the battle site and were sitting ducks for the well-trained English archers. French casualties were—it is no exaggeration—colossal.
When he heard about this disaster, Charles VI formally disinherited his own son and made Henry V of England his heir apparent. It was, at least on paper, the end of France as an independent nation. The only thing, frankly, that could save the French at this dire moment in history was Charles' death, a favor with which he did not oblige them for seven more years, until 1422. Only then was his son, Charles VII, free at last to rescue his country from the edge of political extinction.
Unfortunately for England, in the very same year, the hero of Aginçourt, the young king Henry V, also died quite unexpectedly in the prime of life. He left behind no competent adult who could assume the throne, only a baby boy also named Henry, later Henry VI. Fate had suddenly turned the tables on the English, and the French had a chance for the first time in decades to take charge of the war.
In assuming the reins of power in France, Charles VII confronted enormous obstacles not only to his success as a king but to his very rule. He wielded, in fact, real power in southern France only, where as dauphin he had withdrawn to escape his crazy father's incompetence—his dead father's henchmen, the Burgundian dukes, and their British allies controlled the north—so poor Charles could not even manage to have himself properly installed as the king of France because the cathedral of Reims, the site where French kings were traditionally crowned, lay in the north of France, in enemy hands. More than anything, Charles needed good luck, and that he got, from a highly unlikely source.
One of the more perplexing but attractive features of studying history is its unpredictability. Like weather, small changes in the human climate precipitate monumental shifts in direction and momentum, all of which are ultimately impossible to forecast and equally impossible to discount, comprehensible only in retrospect. This blast of good luck, the rescuer Charles and France required, came truly out of thin air in the form of a myth and a miss, the renowned and redoubtable Joan of Arc.
Living no more than nineteen years (ca. 1412-1431), this peasant girl turned the tide of war and history. What's more, she began with little more than the fervor of faith and patriotic passion, but these were to prove the principal weapons of her brief career. From a poor family—and a girl at that!—she couldn't afford much else. Fortunately for France, she didn't need more.
As a young teenager, Joan claimed God had sent her a vision that she was to lead the French in battle and reclaim the land for them. When she came forward in public and said so much, many mocked her. Others, however, proclaimed her the "Maid of Lorraine," a sort of messiah promised to the French in Christian lore, a savior whom legend said God would send one day to deliver them from the English. And against all odds, that's exactly what she did.
With phenomenal courage and at great risk to her own person, she led a small regiment that broke the British siege of Orléans, a city in central France on the border between British and French territory in that day. From that crucial triumph, French morale began to build and victory upon victory ensued. By 1429 Charles finally owned enough of his own nation that he was able at last to be crowned King of France in the city of Reims, and Joan was there to witness it.
But no such heroes, man or woman, perform deeds this extraordinary without making powerful enemies, even among their own people. The very thing which had prompted Joan's successes initially, her inspired crusade to save France, made her look like a religious zealot to many, including a number of her French compatriots. To outsiders, she seemed unearthly, arguably demonic. Worse yet, she insisted on dressing as a man in public, and so talk of fanaticism and witchcraft began to circulate, even among those who had supported and thrived on her passion. Europe was still haunted by the Black Death and charges of sorcery were easy to make.
When the inevitable happened and she was captured by the king's enemies in France—and in light of all the risks she had taken, it's remarkable it hadn't occurred sooner—her odd behavior allowed rumor-mongers to stir up enough dissension against her, both at home and abroad, that the British were able to exert their formidable influence in northern France and she ended up in their hands as a prisoner of war. In 1431, after a mockery of a trial, they burned her at the stake on the charge that she was the Devil's disciple following his words, not God's. Even the Pope agreed there was something unnatural about this girl and, to his enduring discredit, sanctioned the execution.
Thus, Joan's road to renown illuminates another path women have followed to power, the golden streets of heaven. Using religion, myth and mystery, Joan rose to glory, where Theodora before her had reclined. But if one thinks about it, their different-looking routes to the top are really not so dissimilar. Both gave the men around them something they really wanted—war and sex—and both knew well the strategy of when not to surrender in both arenas. Understanding that is essential in climbing out of the ranks of the dispossessed into the circles where real power abides. Yet Theodora is now branded a harlot and Joan a saint. Nevertheless, in spite of their superficial distinctions, what these women shared far outweighs their differences.
One of the best ways to encompass the benefits of studying women in the past is not to look at what-really-happened but at figures found in myth and legend. That is, invented histories and literature, as they do so often, reveal the general tendencies in human nature that drive and underlie historical reality, often with greater clarity than the desiccated, factual records of the past. Myths are, after all, exactly that, the collaboration of social biases, accepted truths, subconscious fears and prodigal wishes. Almost better than anything else, they outline the typical obstacles women or any minorities have confronted since time immemorial.
And of all the strong women characters in Greek literature, the fictional queen Clytemnestra stands pre-eminent. The result of a union between the god Zeus and a mortal woman, Clytemnestra proved to be the true offspring of divine lust run rampant. Though she was the sister of the reigning beauty-queen Helen—and in many ways her "evil twin"—Clytemnestra had no wars fought over her, and myth does not recall her face launching even a single trireme. Instead, she was quietly, and doubtlessly without her consent, married off to Agamemnon, the brother of her sister Helen's husband Menelaus. Thus, two brothers married two sisters, and both couples produced children before their woes set in, primarily the Trojan War.
Because he'd committed some sin—mythology isn't clear on this point—the gods demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice one of his children, his eldest daughter Iphigenia, before they would allow him to leave Greece and lead his forces to Troy. Knowing his wife Clytemnestra would never agree to their child's destruction, Agamemnon tricked her into sending Iphigenia to him by making up a story that he'd arranged a marriage between the girl and Achilles, the Greeks' greatest warrior. Eager to forge such an illustrious union, Clytemnestra brought her daughter, all decked out in her finest dress, to the Greek camp and handed her over to her father, whereupon he sacrificed her over what her mother believed was to be the altar of her wedding.
Seething with rage at what happened to her beloved child, Clytemnestra was nevertheless helpless because her husband immediately left for Troy and was gone for ten years as it turned out. There was nothing she could do but wait at home in Argos (Mycenae), hoping he'd be killed in the war. As the years passed and he continued to live, she went into league with a cousin of his, Aegisthus who hated Agamemnon, too, because their fathers had been bitter rivals.
In time, the political alliance between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus evolved into a love affair and, in order to protect both herself and her son Orestes, Agamemnon's only male offspring, Clytemnestra sent the boy off to grow up in a distant land, a place far beyond her lover's wrath or the fury of any enemy. She'd already lost one child to the war and wasn't going to lose another. Such strong maternal feelings, however, would ultimately be her downfall.
When at last the Trojan War ended in triumph for the Greeks and Agamemnon returned home to Argos in glory, his wife was ready to greet the victor and serve him his long-overdue vengeance. Almost as soon as the proud general strode inside his palace, she butchered him, in his bath so the myth goes. She, then, took up the reins of government herself—or, better, kept them since she had been the day-to-day ruler of Argos for almost a decade by then and was well familiar with wielding political power—and for several more years she continued to rule, until one grave day.
After her son Orestes had finally grown up, he learned of his mother's murderous ways and returned in disguise to his fatherland. Despite the fact that she had saved him from Aegisthus and his father's enemies, he slew her. Greek legend goes on to add that her Furies—in Greek mythology, Furies are ghost-demons that prey on those who have murdered a parent—Clytemnestra's Furies rose and drove Orestes mad. It was only the intervention of Athena, the virginal goddess of wisdom, that rescued him from complete and perennial insanity. And the excuse the sage and pure deity offered up to get Orestes off the charge of matricide was, according the premier Greek tragedian Aeschylus, that a mother is not a true parent, but only the "field" in which the real creator, the father, plants his "seed." So much for Greek science and wisdom, and maternal affection! Thus, Clytemnestra, the powerful queen, the vengeful protectress and mother, lay dead at last in the bloody hands of her own child.
Imbedded in this mythical portrait of what must be the most dysfunctional family in history are many truths about women's lives now and then. Palmed off as chattel ("property") to be used as "fields" where men "sow" progeny, ancient women's destinies were clearly not their own. Even when men callously dupe them into rendering up their children for brutality and sacrifice, the myth of Clytemnestra suggests they should consent, as they ought to capitulate to any man for any reason at any time. But as a negative role model, a thing the myth implicitly tells us to avoid and reject, Clytemnestra does the opposite of what her society bids.
She waits and watches, like Hatshepsut making deals behind the scene. She controls and consorts with men sexually, like the vixen Theodora. And with Joan of Arc's uncluttered vision and tenacity, she knows when and where to attack and how to call on heaven's assistance for vengeance. A mosaic of all these women, Clytemnestra strode the corridors of power because she earned entry through murder, deceit and adultery and, most of all, because the men around her wanted to get there less than she did. Her feminine nature proved an obstacle, all too true, but in the end nothing insurmountable. It brought with it, in fact, certain advantages, such as the ability to provide a man with children or walk into his chambers when he's taking a bath and cut him down. Granted the children turned out less well than one might have hoped, all the same Clytemnestra ruled Argos for quite a while—a longer period, in fact, than her husband did, the king and general, the conqueror of Troy, the murderer of children, the corpse in the tub.
All in all, among the many delicacies the study of women brings to the feast of history is dimension. By looking at their lives one by one, we can foreground what's scenery in traditional history. That gives our understanding of the past a solidity that the flat, superficial, standard, male-oriented versions of what-really-happened do not. If and when the full force of the fact that "women's history" is everyone's history finally hits home with our society in general, the understanding of the past and all that we share with our ancestors—and with one another!—will gain significant ground.
So, if Western Civilization seems like the product and possession of DWEM's—"Dead White European Males"—that's because, for the most part, it has been, so far at least. Too bad, then, many important voices have been silenced over time, including women's, children's, old people's, foreigners', Germans' and those of any minority whose words run counter to the people—the men!—in authority. We must remember that the muzzles we put on people will in the end invariably mute our own voices and the benefits of the words you hear in life far outstrip those you speak.
No one can correct the deficiencies of our ancestors—history is
past and done—but we can make up for them in some small way by doing
better, which in this case means listening better, tuning our ears and
hearts into the bracing banter of everyone, all the people around us.
So, every LWEM out there should do just that, attend to the glorious dissonance
of a fully engaged, representative, democratic record of time passing
and past. Some of us may not like much of what we hear—in fact,
it's all but certain we won't—but there's no doubt we, our world,
the world will be better if we'll just sit and listen.