Women, Law, and Ancient Athens

By Owain Williams

There is currently a trend of modern literary reinterpretations of Greek myths, especially reinterpretations told from a feminist perspective, as characters who were previously depicted as villains or simply passive characters lacking any real agency – usually women – are given a chance to tell their versions of stories. Spurred on by the success of Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles and Circe, these retellings have generated a new interest in the position of women in ancient Greek society. It is a fact that women are largely absent from the primary sources from the ancient world, and so studies of the ancient world tend to not focus very often on women's place in ancient societies, simply due to the focus of the source material, in much the same way that studies of ancient Greece tend to be Athenocentric.

This blog will discuss two works. The first, a recent addition to the genre of feminist retellings of Greek myths. The second, an academic work discussing the place of Athenian women within the legal sphere of Classical Athens, an area where women are commonly assumed to have had no agency.

The Heroines by Laura Shepperson (London, 2023)

The Heroines, Laura Shepperson’s debut novel (published in the US as Phaedra), is one of the latest in the genre of feminist retellings of Greek myths.


Shepperson has endeavoured to tell the story of Phaedra, a Cretan princess, daughter of the mythical king Minos, who marries the equally mythical king Theseus. In the versions of Phaedra’s story that have come down to us, Phaedra attempts to seduce Hippolytus (possibly at the instigation of Aphrodite), Theseus’ son, and failing, convinces Theseus that Hippolytus tried to rape her. Instead, Shepperson’s Phaedra is the victim and she must trust to the new courts Theseus has recently introduced to punish Hippolytus. 

Indeed, that Phaedra is raped is the crux of the book – the reader knows from the start that is where the story is going. Shepperson uses the reader’s knowledge to full effect. Using multiple perspectives, the tension ever increases until an explosive release, after which there is a pervading sense of dread – dread that Phaedra made the wrong choice to appeal to the new courts, dread that Hippolytus might be found not guilty, dread that Phaedra may be ultimately punished for her accusation. 

This tension and subsequent dread, however, is only built in acts two and three of the book. Act one, which establishes the characters, setting, and story, is very slow, despite the high stakes we are meant to feel. This is largely down to the fact that Phaedra, the main character, despite the multiple perspectives, is simply a spectator to these events. While we see the events from more involved perspectives, we are never made to feel the stakes. After act one, though, the tension quickly rises, and the pace swiftly quickens. 

The fast pace of acts two and three do not help the feeling of brevity that this book has. It is a short book. The copy I read has 338 pages – by no means a short length – but the font is quite large, making me, at least, feel as though the 338-page length is misleading. 

As for historical detail, there is very little. Yet, this is, after all, a myth, and Shepperson treats it as such, writing more a fantasy than historical fiction. Much as the epic poets of antiquity would do, Shepperson adds some small historical details to give the story some verisimilitude, but it is clear that the setting is secondary to the story. The effectiveness of these details is mixed. The descriptions of the elaborate frescoes of bulls and of fountains with running water in Crete, and the references to a palatial society do help to place the reader into the Greek Bronze Age. Yet, this concerns Crete and only Crete, the setting of act one. Athens, by contrast, feels bland, although this does reflect Phaedra’s circumstances. Moreover, the names that Shepperson has chosen for their characters undermine any immersion this achieves. Shepperson does not seem to know whether to use Hellenised or Latinised spellings. The most jarring was the use of Aias and Ajax for two different characters. 

In a similar vein, readers expecting a tale that adheres to pre-existing narratives, as historical fiction must, will be disappointed. Many details have been changed or even omitted from The Heroines’ narrative that some readers might feel should not have been. However, this is hardly a negative towards Shepperson’s work. As I have said, this should be treated as a fantasy book, not historical fiction. Moreover, it is the nature of myth to undergo constant retellings over the course of its life. The Athenians themselves retroactively projected their democratic institutions into the mythic past, such as Orestes appearing before an Athenian court in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides. Therefore, Shepperson is simply continuing the poetic tradition, reinterpreting an ancient myth for a modern audience, shaping the myth to suit their narrative. 

This was an enjoyable book, but not without its flaws, ones that will be off-putting to some readers. It is unmistakably a debut novel, yet Shepperson shows great promise. This book is definitely one for fans of feminist retellings of Greek myths. 

The Heroines by Laura Shepperson is published by Sphere, an imprint of Little Brown Book Group, for £16.99 (Hardback).

Women in the Law Courts of Classical Athens by Konstantinos Kapparis (Edinburgh, 2021)

The traditional narrative of women’s place within the legal world of Classical Athens has focused almost exclusively on the fact that a woman could not speak in a court but must rely upon a male representative. Due to this, as the traditional narrative maintains, women thus had no agency in the legal world of Classical Athens. Indeed, this narrative of women’s lack of legal agency is intimately linked to the traditional narrative of women’s agency in Classical Athens generally. It has been generally accepted that the world of Athenian women was separate from that of Athenian men, and “such narratives assume roles for the women of the Athenian democracy based on obedience, subservience, silence and fragility” (p. 1). However, a significant failing of the traditional narrative of the status of Classical Athenian women is that it treats ‘women’ as a monolithic class that had the same universal experience of the Athenian legal system, an approach Kapparis describes as “methodologically indefensible” (p. 117). However, “the women of Attica were not equal to each other in legal, social or economic terms, and there was no clear-cut linear correlation between inequalities and social stratification” (p. 106). Rather, women’s experiences with the Athenian legal system were varied, dependent upon a variety of factors, from wealth, status, and even vocation.

In focusing on the single legal action of speaking before a court and treating women as a monolithic class, previous studies have thus stripped the discussion of women’s place in Athenian society of any nuance, imagining the legal process using a binary of involved or not. Instead, as Kapparis argues, we should instead look for a plurality of experiences. Interactions with the Athenian legal system were far more varied than simply speaking before the courts. Women could bring a variety of cases before the relevant magistrate, from divorces to thefts, and would have been involved in the speech-writing process that preceded a trial, as well as give evidence in cases involving private arbitration rather than the public legal court. Moreover, “The larger the exposure of women to the world of the outdoors … the greater the danger and the need for direct encounters within the legal system” (p.7). A brief mention in Aristophanes’ Frogs attests to women owning small businesses and thus having access to the magistrate responsible for commercial disputes, although she would need a male representative if the case went to court (549 ff.). Clearly, women were not simply passive participants in the Athenian legal system.

Phryne before the Areopagus by Jean-Léon Gérôme

While this topic may seem like one for specialists in Athenian legal studies, Kapparis has taken steps to ensure that his study is as accessible as possible. The first part of the book, after the introduction, is nearly 80 pages of relevant primary sources – legal speeches concerning women, either for or against them – with the Greek, a translation, and a commentary on the passage, placing it within its historical and legal context, cautiously reconstructing the case as it may have proceeded. Kapparis has included fragmentary sources that might otherwise have been unavailable for a general audience, sometimes little more than a single line or two. Concerning the wholly extant speeches, such as those of Demosthenes, Kapparis paraphrases the cases, as they are usually widely available to general audiences. There is certainly enough to discuss from legal speeches alone, but there is plenty of other evidence applicable to women’s interactions with the Athenian legal system, such as Athenian comedies. However, Kapparis has chosen to omit this evidence “as the approaches and methodologies for the study of such indirect sources would be vastly different from those employed for the more direct evidence from the Attic orators” (p. 13). In addition to this comprehensive collection of sources, Kapparis has included an appendix of the Athenian laws that were applicable to women. Throughout the book, Kapparis also describes the processes of the Athenian legal system in an easily understandable manner.

Kapparis also reconstructs the Athenian legal system within which these laws and legal cases functioned in an accessible manner for those readers unfamiliar with the law courts of Athens, emphasising the professional nature of the participants, arguing that the “amateur Athenian litigator is a carefully cultivated illusion” (p. 112). His discussion of his argument is limited, however, as Kapparis relies on readers being able to access a previous study of his.

There are some minor editing errors in this book, although enough to take notice of while reading. For example, ‘on on’ (p. 52) and ‘Amongother’ (p. 57). Kapparis is also inconsistent with whether he uses Latinised or Hellenised spellings, sometimes changing between uses of the same name, such as Menecles or Menekles.

This is an illuminating book, one that challenges the assumptions we make about the ancient world. By widening the perspective of women’s experience with the Athenian legal system beyond the formal law courts, Kapparis has challenged the traditional narrative of Athenian women’s complete lack of legal agency. It should be noted that Kapparis is not suggesting that women – particularly elite women – were not governed by strict social values. Indeed, “it was not the law that kept women away from appearing as witnesses in the courts, but rather custom and social convention” (p. 128). Rather, he is suggesting that these customs and social conventions were not as ubiquitous as once thought and that women could and did have a tangible presence within the Athenian legal system. Ultimately, while women were certainly restricted from accessing the Athenian legal system in the same capacity as men, Kapparis argues, comprehensively and convincingly, that “somewhere between total exclusion and egalitarian inclusion there were many possibilities for women to access the legal system of the Athenian democracy” (p. 225).

Women in the Law Courts of Classical Athens by Konstantinos Kapparis is available from Edinburgh University Press for £24.99 (Paperback).

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