Face up to ancient'v' word

March 19, 2004

It may have been the birthplace of democracy, but it seems that ancient Greece was a veiled society for women.

Research by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, lecturer in classics and ancient history at Exeter University, suggests that these restrictions may have been enforced by moral police reminiscent of some modern Muslim societies.

In his new book Aphrodite's Tortoise , Dr Llewellyn-Jones shows that classical civilisation had more echoes of eastern than western culture. His evidence challenges classical scholars who have largely ignored the matter.

"A lot of classicists go out of their way to avoid the word 'veil'

while art historians say women covered their heads with mantles, cloaks, shawls and robes - anything rather than mention the 'v' word," Dr Llewellyn-Jones said.

His analysis of contemporary literature, from Homer to St Paul, reveals many mentions of the veiling of women. Artists portrayed veiled women on vases, statues and sculptures, though sometimes the veil is positioned to give a good view of the face.

Honour, status and modesty were among the factors behind veiling, Dr Llewellyn-Jones said. It also protected women from male attentions and men from the "pollution" women were thought to exhale. He said women, who had few rights in ancient Greek society, may well have gained a sense of power and status from covering their faces.

Nevertheless he said: "There is some evidence for a kind of women's police in the late classical and Hellenistic period that may have patrolled the streets."

But Dr Llewellyn-Jones noted resistance to the idea: "By veiling women, Greek society becomes part of an oriental world. Our cradle of civilisation isn't quite the cradle we thought we knew."


  • Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata features a confrontation between Lysistrata and an Athenian magistrate:

    " Lysistrata : Oh shut up!
    Magistrate : Me? Shut up for you? A damned woman, with a veil on your face? I'd rather die!
    Lysistrata : If the veil's the problem here, take mine. Now you shut up!"
  • Homer's Odyssey : "Now when the fair lady [Penelope] reached the wooers, she stood by the doorpost of the well-built hall, holding before her face her shining veil; and a faithful handmaid stood on either side of her. Straightway then the knees of the suitors were loosened and their hearts enchanted with love, and they all prayed, each that he might lie by her side."

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