Some Thoughts on Plutarch

Bust: Plutarch
Bust at Delphi believed to be of Plutarch

In September 2022 the Kosmos Society Book Club read Plutarch’s Virtues of Women. We discussed the main themes: the fight for justice, defeating the oppressor, and Plutarch’s writing skills. However, there were some themes that are perhaps less significant, if significance is measured by the amount of attention paid to them, but which, nevertheless, made me think of other similar stories, and made me want to do some further analysis. These themes were, first, colonialism, and women’s relationships to land, second, the bizarre story about women exposing themselves to the Persian army, and, third, women’s religious practice.

First, some context. I used the Perseus version of Mulierum Virtutes, translated by Babbit[1]. In his introduction, Babbit wrote that the work was

‘. . . composed for his [Plutarch’s] friend Clea, who held high office among the priestesses at Delphi, and to whom he dedicated also his treatise on Isis and Osiris. He speaks of it as a supplement to a conversation on the equality of the sexes, which he had with Clea on the occasion of the death of Leontis, of blessed memory, suggested no doubt by the noble character of the departed.’

Photo: Delphi

Plutarch (c46CE – after 119CE) was a priest at Delphi, which is a very evocative place, even today in its ruinous state. It is easy to imagine two colleagues sitting in the sun discussing the characteristics of an old friend, and devising a plan for a piece of writing to honour her. In his introduction, Plutarch told Clea that he intended to use ‘commonly known’ stories to illustrate his assertion that women’s and men’s virtues are ‘one and the same’:

‘So when Leontis, that most excellent woman, died, I forthwith had then a long conversation with you, which was not without some share of consolation drawn from philosophy, and now, as you desired, I have also written out for you the remainder of what I would have said on the topic that man’s virtues and woman’s virtues are one and the same. . . . .

‘Since, however, many deeds worthy of mention have been done by women both in association with other women and by themselves alone, it may not be a bad idea to set down first a brief account of those commonly known.[2]

Woodcut illustration: Chiomara
Woodcut illustration of Chiomara

There are 27 stories, roughly half of which concern individual women, and half concerning women collectively, including one where the women of Chios allied with their slaves to defeat in an invader[3]. The virtues considered are mostly assertive. In modern times the term ‘virtues of women’ might be thought to be mainly passive, like patience, humility and domestic characteristics. However, Plutarch’s virtues are mainly active, even aggressive, such as punishing a rapist by beheading (Chiomara in Chapter 22[4]. See also a woodcut illustration of the story[5]), or physical bravery such as that exhibited by the women of Phocis, who agreed to a mass suicide if their armies should be defeated in battle, although this was eventually unnecessary. Plutarch noted that this story had not been told before, but that it had resulted in a commemorative religious ritual:

‘The deed of the women of Phocis has not found any writer of high repute to describe it, yet it is not inferior in point of bravery to anything ever done by women, as is attested by imposing sacred rites which the Phocians perform even to this day in the neighbourhood of Hyampolis, and by ancient decrees.’[6]

Women took political power either by supporting and facilitating men’s military activity, or, in some cases, directly. Celtic women were noted for negotiating peace:

‘Before the Celts crossed over the Alps and settled in that part of Italy which is now their home, a dire and persistent factional discord broke out among them which went on and on to the point of civil war. The women, however, put themselves between the armed forces, and, taking up the controversies, arbitrated and decided them with such irreproachable fairness that a wondrous friendship of all towards all was brought about between both States and families. As the result of this they continued to consult with the women in regard to war and peace, and to decide through them any disputed matters in their relations with their allies. At all events, in their treaty with Hannibal they wrote the provision that, if the Celts complained against the Carthaginians, the governors and generals of the Carthaginians in Spain should be the judges; and if the Carthaginians complained against the Celts, the judges should be the Celtic women.’[7]

This example introduces my first theme: colonialism and relationships to land. The reasons for conflict in the stories are not always evident, but sometimes colonialism was involved, and women might be either on the side of the colonialists or on the side of the invaders, such as in the example given above, where the Celtic people were the invaders, but they evidently tried to treat the conquered people with a degree of fairness. Colonialism was not seen as a morally simple case of invaders versus indigenous people, but as complex, because refugees, too, needed land. Stories like this are not centrally about heroic deeds in battle, like many of the ancient writings, but concern how women viewed the acquisition of land and riches, and how they used their political power once battle was finished.

The unnamed Wife of Pythes, for example, wanted to show her husband that all his accumulated wealth would not feed them, nor their people, so she served him a banquet made entirely of gold.

‘At first Pythes was delighted with the mimic food, but when he had gazed his fill, he called for something to eat; and she served to him a golden replica of whatever he chanced to express a desire for. By this time he was in a high dudgeon and shouted out that he was hungry, whereupon she said, ‘But it is you who have created for us a plentiful supply of these things, and of nothing else; for all skill in the trades has disappeared from among us; no one tills the soil, but we have forsaken the sowing and planting of crops in the soil and the sustaining food that comes from it, and we dig and delve for useless things, wasting our own strength and that of our people.’[8]

As a consequence, Pythes ordered that most of the people should divert their work into food production. He later became depressed because his sons had been killed in battle, and he became a recluse. His wife

‘administered the government excellently, and gave the citizens relief from their miseries.[9]

Claude Lorrain: The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet
Claude Lorrain: The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet

The first story in Plutarch’s collection has a similar message. It is the story of the Trojan women refugees burning their flotilla of boats, and it is similar to the story told in Virgil’s Aeneid. There are, however, differences, one of which is that Plutarch suggests a different motivation for the women’s actions. Virgil’s description of the boat burning is picturesque and dramatic, but he describes the women as being of two minds, unduly influenced by the messenger goddess, Iris, their behaviour almost trance-like:

‘The women with ill-boding eyes
looked on the ships. Their doubting hearts were torn
‘twixt tearful passion for the beauteous isle
their feet then trod, and that prophetic call
of Fate to lands unknown. Then on wide wings
soared Iris into heaven, and through the clouds
clove a vast arch of light. With wonder dazed,
the women in a shrieking frenzy rose,
took embers from the hearth-stones, stole the fires
upon the altars—faggots, branches, brands —
and rained them on the ships. The god of fire,
through thwarts and oars and bows of painted fir,
ran in unbridled flame.’[10]

In contrast, Plutarch is much less poetic, but the women behaved rationally and had more logical motivations:

‘While the men were wandering about the country, in search of information, it suddenly occurred to the women to reflect that for a happy and successful people any sort of a settled habitation on land is better than all wandering and voyaging, and that the Trojans must create a fatherland, since they were not able to recover that which they had lost. Thereupon, becoming of one mind, they burned the ships, one woman, Roma, taking the lead.’[11]

For dramatic effect, Virgil’s version of the story is the clear winner. But Plutarch’s version allows the women agency and reasoned behaviour. The message in this story, and in the story of Pythes’ wife, is that some of the women understood that it was food production, and hence people’s relationship to land, which enabled people to live.

One of the more bizarre stories in the Plutarch collection is the story of the Persian women exposing themselves in order to persuade their men to fight an oppressor. It is one of two stories of female exhibitionism told in the collection. Here is the Persian women’s story:

‘At the time when Cyrus induced the Persians to revolt from king Astyages and the Medes he was defeated in battle. As the Persians were fleeing to the city, with the enemy not far from forcing their way in along with the Persians, the women ran out to meet them before the city, and, lifting up their garments, said, ‘Whither are you rushing so fast, you biggest cowards in the whole world ? Surely you cannot, in your flight, slink in here whence you came forth.’ The Persians, mortified at the sight and the words, chiding themselves for cowards, rallied and, engaging the enemy afresh, put them to rout.’[12]

The second story of female exhibitionism concerns the hero Bellerophon, who had saved the Lycians and their king Iobates from a number of threats. Bellerophon, though, felt that he had not received enough glory for his deeds,

‘Because of this, Bellerophon waded into the sea, and prayed to Poseidon that, as a requital against Iobates, the land might become sterile and unprofitable. Thereupon he went back after his prayer, and a wave arose and inundated the land. It was a fearful sight as the sea, following him, rose high in air and covered up the plain. The men besought Bellerophon to check it, but when they could not prevail on him, the women, pulling up their garments, came to meet him; and when he, for shame, retreated towards the sea again, the wave also, it is said, went back with him.’[13]

This story also has a similarity to the previous stories about relationships to land, except that here, the women seem to be able to control nature and the sea through their exposure. In neither story, though, is any explanation given for women’s exposure having the effects it did, and no exploration of the process. We are not told what the Persian army were thinking. Perhaps they were motivated simply by shock; perhaps by some sexual response; perhaps by being reminded of women’s role in reproduction. It is, indeed, bizarre. But it is not unique. There are other stories of female exhibitionism. Foley (1977) tells of the story of Demeter, depressed by her unsuccessful search for Persephone, being made to laugh by an old woman called perhaps Baubo or Iambe, who, in some versions of the story, exposed herself to her.[14]

Other examples occur in Celtic myth, and in myths from other cultures. The Irish hero Cu Cuchlain was said to have been inspired to battle through sexual desire following exposure to the breasts of the women of Emain.[15] It is perhaps useful here to point out, as an aside, the methodological difficulty of researching this topic on the internet because of fear of what to type in to Google. However, typing ‘Sheela Na Gig’ into Wikipedia produces sensible factual results, and illustrations, about Sheela Na Gigs, or explicit sculptures of women exhibiting their genitals, often associated with the Celts, which feature on British (English and Irish) churches and other structures, and in museums[16].

Explanations for the power of female exhibitionism generally refer to sexuality or ancient matriarchal and fertility religions. When I look at Sheela Na Gigs I get a sense of a disrespectful expression of the power of fertility, and fertility may be a theme common to the stories of female exhibitionism and to those about colonialism, food production, and relationships to land. Plutarch, however, tells the stories but gives us no explanations or accounts of the processes. I would be interested to know whether Kosmonauts have any theories about why the women’s actions so affected the Persian army.

A further difficulty occurs concerning the presentation of these topics in a blog such as this. It has become the custom that Kosmos blogs are well illustrated. I have been wondering whether we should present explicit depictions of female genitals. The irony, and the double standard, is that classical and neo-classical art are full of pictures of male genitalia, and if I were to present them in this blog, there would be no comment. My subjective instinct is to present neither male nor female, but simply to refer curious readers to the Wikipedia articles. But I am aware of the irrationality of this, and I would be interested to know if other Kosmonauts would have solved the problem differently, or if you have any other interpretations of this bizarre phenomenon.

The final theme that interested me in Plutarch’s accounts of women’s virtues concerns women’s religious practices. He said on a number of occasions that the actions of the women in his stories gave rise to religious rituals being carried out in commemoration. In the example of the women of Phocis, given above, a religious ritual continued until Plutarch’s time[17]. Plutarch also tells of the women of Argos who took up arms, under the leadership of the poet, Telessilla, in order to defeat the invading Spartans. This festival also seems to involve cross-dressing:

‘The women who fell in the battle they buried close by the Argive Road, and to the survivors they granted the privilege of erecting a statute of Ares as a memorial of their surpassing valour. Some say that the battle took place on the seventh day of the month which is now known as the Fourth Month, but anciently was called Hermaeus among the Argives; others say that it was on the first day of that month, on the anniversary of which they celebrate even to this day the ‘Festival of Impudence,’ at which they clothe the women in men’s shirts and cloaks, and the men in women’s robes and veils.[18]

It is possible that Plutarch was mindful of his audience when he wrote about women’s religious festivals. He wrote the stories after discussions with the Priestess Clea, so he might have thought that the stories would be told in a community of religious women. Often, in Greek myth, groups of females, like Sirens, harpies and maenads, are depicted as wild and threatening. Apollodorus tells of the women of Argos being driven mad by Dionysus[19], but perhaps the most famous example is the Bacchae in Euripides’ play, described in some translations by Pentheus as maniacs, deserving to be massacred[20].

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: The Women of Amphissa
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: The Women of Amphissa. 1887

Plutarch, however, presents one group of religious women in an altered state of mind as needing to be respected and protected:

When the despots in Phocis had seized Delphi, and the Thebans were waging war against them in what has been called the Sacred War, the women devotees of Dionysus, to whom they give the name of Thyads, in Bacchic frenzy wandering at night unwittingly arrived at Amphissa. As they were tired out, and sober reason had not yet returned to them, they flung themselves down in the market-place, and were lying asleep, some here, some there. The wives of the men of Amphissa, fearing, because their city had become allied with the Phocians, and numerous soldiers of the despots were present there, that the Thyads might be treated with indignity, all ran out into the market-place, and, taking their stand round about in silence, did not go up to them while they were sleeping, but when they arose from their slumber, one devoted herself to one of the strangers and another to another, bestowing attentions on them and offering them food[21].

Plutarch, then, gave respectful attention to women engaging in religious activity, and duly acknowledged their roles in establishing religious ritual. Most of the women in his stories, though, were engaged in some way with men’s military activity, deserving of being described as ‘brave‘, as in some translations of the work’s title. They encouraged and facilitated men’s fighting; they hid weapons, they warned of attacks, and killed oppressors and rapists.

However, analysis of some of the other themes in the stories has revealed further concerns that ancient people will have had, as well as methodological difficulties when exploring cultures with different values from our own. Collective female activity, for example, including religious activity, was often presented as strange or threatening. But Plutarch presented other perceptions of it, as brave, virtuous and worthy of respect. Female exhibitionism may not have been commonplace, but neither was it unique, and it clearly had meanings with which we are not familiar. It has associations with sexuality, which makes it difficult to research on the internet, and controversial to present here in a blog. It may have been associated with ideas about fertility, which, in turn, relate to land use, agriculture and food production, and the treatment of the people engaged in this work, which emerge as themes central to the lives of some of the women described. Plutarch may have not been as poetic as Virgil, but his writing is multi-dimensional and rewards deeper analysis.


1 Bravery of Women: Introduction from Plutarch. Moralia. with an English Translation by. Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1931. 3, on Perseus

2 Plutarch’s introduction, Plut. Mulier. 0

3 III. The Women of Chios: Plut. Mulier. 3

4 XXII. Chiomara: Plut. Mulier. 22

5 Woodcut illustration of Chiomara, wife of Orgiagon of Galatia, Wikimedia Commons

6 II. The Women of Phocis: Plut. Mulier. 2

7 VI. The Celtic Women: Plut. Mulier. 6

8 XXVII. The Wife of Pythes Plut. Mulier. 27

9 XXVII. The Wife of Pythes Plut. Mulier. 27

10 Vergil. Aeneid. Theodore C. Williams. trans. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1910.
Virgil Aeneid 5.623 on Perseus

11 I. The Trojan Women: Plut. Mulier. 1

12 V. The Persian Women: Plut. Mulier. 5

13 IX. The Lycian Women: Plut. Mulier. 9

14 Foley, H. P. (1977) (ed.) Commentary on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. In: Foley, H. P. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Princeton University Press. P. 46. Foley does quote her sources, but they are unavailable to me in translation on the internet.

15 Wikipedia article on Cú Chulainn

16 Tara McLoughlin’s page depicting Sheela-na-gigs in the National Museum of Ireland

17 II. The Women of Phocis: Plut. Mulier. 2

18 IV. The Women of Argos: Plut. Mulier. 4

19 Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Includes Frazer’s notes.
Apollodorus Library 2.2 at Perseus

20 Euripides (1973) The Bacchae, in The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin. P. 219.

21 XIII. The Women of Phocis: Plut. Mulier. 13

Image credits

Bust at Delphi believed to be of Plutarch: Caption at Wikimedia Commons says “Bust believed to represent the Greek historian, biographer and essayist Plutarch. It is carved in Parian marble, dated to the 2nd or 3rd century AD. It is displayed in room XIV of the Archaeological Museum of Delphi, next to a herm with an engraved inscription that reads: ΔΕΛΦΟΙ ΧΑΙΡΩΝΕΥΣΙ ΝΟΜΟΥ ΠΛΟΥΤΑΡΧΟΝ ΕΘΗΚΑΝ ΤΟΙΣ ΑΜΦΙΚΤΙΟΝΩΝ ΔΕΛΦΟΙΣ ΠΕΙΘΟΜΕΝΟΙ (This votive with the bust of Plutarch was set up by the people of Delphi and the citizens of Chearonea in honour of the great author and priest of Apollo).”
Photo: Odysses, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Photo: Harlemswife

Woodcut illustration of Chiomara. Caption at Wikimedia Commons says: “Woodcut illustration (leaf [l]10v, f. c) of Chiomara, wife of Orgiagon of Galatia, hand-colored in red, green, yellow and black, from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474”
Photo: kladcat, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Claude Lorrain: The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet, c. 1643
Public domain, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: The Women of Amphissa. 1887
Image courtesy Clark Art Institute.

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons at the time of publication on this website.

Images accessed November 2022.


Harlemswife, November 2022