Women in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, part 2

Study of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers[1] gives us tantalizing snippets of information about women of whom we might never have heard. He tells us of nameless women, wives, daughters and courtesans. He wrote, for example, that Timon had a wife and son, but we are told nothing about them. Eudoxus had three daughters, but we are told only their names, Actis, Philtis and Delphis. In the first blogpost I described what we know of Pamphila the historian and Hipparchia the cynic philosopher. This, second, post tells of some more. Many mentions of women are very brief. Bion, for example, permitted a woman to put an amulet around his neck when he was ill, suggesting perhaps that she was some sort of healer (4; Bion; 55). The playwright and poet, Cleobulus. . .

had a daughter Cleobuline, who composed riddles in hexameters; she is mentioned by Cratinus, who gives one of his plays her name, in the plural form Cleobulinae.
(1, Cleobulus, 89)

Why the plural? Wikipedia[2] tells us Cleobulus was charged with habitual intemperance. Perhaps his play was about more than one woman who wrote intemperate riddles in hexameters.

Anacharsis was brother to the King of Scythia. His mother was a Greek and for that reason he spoke Greek as well as Scythian. So, she must have taught him, and she was possibly also mother to the King of Scythia, but we don’t know her name (1; Anarchis; 101).

Empedocles was said to have been a physician who cured a woman in a trance, and who also wrote poems:

he wrote other poems, in particular the invasion of Xerxes and a hymn to Apollo, which a sister of his (or, according to Hieronymus, his daughter) afterwards burnt. The hymn she destroyed unintentionally, but the poem on the Persian war deliberately, because it was unfinished.
(8; Empedocles; 57).

But we know nothing more of the sick woman or of Empedocles’ family dynamics.

For some of the women, though, Diogenes gave us more details and other sources are also available. Possibly these are the more notorious women. Phryne’s story, for example, is told in Athanaeus’ Deipnosophists[3]. She was a courtesan who was acquitted from a charge of impiety after she bared her breasts to the jury. Diogenes, however, did not record this story but merely told of her attempted seduction of Xenocrates:

And that once the notorious Phryne tried to make his acquaintance and, as if she were being chased by some people, took refuge under his roof; that he admitted her out of ordinary humanity and, there being but one small couch in the room, permitted her to share it with him, and at last, after many importunities, she retired without success, telling those who inquired that he whom she quitted was not a man but a statue. 
(4; Xenocrates; 7).

Statue of Aphrodite of Knidos
Aphrodite of Knidos

Phryne was so notorious that we have images of her. She was said to have been Praxiteles’ mistress, and the model for his statue of Aphrodite of Knidos. There are also images of Socrates’ wife (perhaps bigamous wife; perhaps his mistress), Xanthippe, who was said to have poured water over Socrates in public. Or perhaps a chamber pot. Diogenes recorded Socrates’ response:

When Xanthippe first scolded him and then drenched him with water, his rejoinder was, “Did I not say that Xanthippe’s thunder would end in rain?” When Alcibiades declared that the scolding of Xanthippe was intolerable, “Nay, I have got used to it,” said he, “as to the continued rattle of a windlass. And you do not mind the cackle of geese.” “No,” replied Alcibiades, “but they furnish me with eggs and goslings.” “And Xanthippe,” said Socrates, “is the mother of my children.” When she tore his coat off his back in the market-place and his acquaintances advised him to hit back, “Yes, by Zeus,” said he, “in order that while we are sparring each of you may join in with `Go it, Socrates!’ `Well done, Xanthippe!’ He said he lived with a shrew, as horsemen are fond of spirited horses, “but just as, when they have mastered these, they can easily cope with the rest, so I in the society of Xanthippe shall learn to adapt myself to the rest of the world.”
(2; Socrates; 36)

Engraving: Socrates and Xanthippe
Socrates and Xanthippe

Diogenes did not tell us why Xanthippe poured water over Socrates, but her reputation as a woman with an agenda probably results from this event and other comments recorded from Socrates. Diogenes has two other mentions of her. One, ambiguous, quote suggests that she had some sort of relationship with Plato, who was said to have written:

Xanthippe, give consent, for you and I are born to decay.
(3; Plato; 37).

Xanthippe may also have aided Aeschines in plagiarism:

It was said maliciously—by Menedemus of Eretria in particular—that most of the dialogues which Aeschines passed off as his own were really dialogues of Socrates obtained by him from Xanthippe. 
(2; Aeschines; 60).

This story, though, may have been told more against Aeschines than against Xanthippe. Whatever we may infer from these stories, it seems certain that Xanthippe had her own agendas.

Pythagoras, too, had significant women in his life. Diogenes told of his mother, his daughter and his wife. He did not name Pythagoras’ mother, but described how she helped her son in what sounds like a fraudulent act:

Pythagoras, on coming to Italy, made a subterranean dwelling and enjoined on his mother to mark and record all that passed, and at what hour, and to send her notes down to him until he should ascend. She did so. Pythagoras some time afterwards came up withered and looking like a skeleton, then went into the assembly and declared he had been down to Hades, and even read out his experiences to them. They were so affected that they wept and wailed and looked upon him as divine, going so far as to send their wives to him in hopes that they would learn some of his doctrines; and so they were called Pythagorean women.
(8; Pythagoras; 41).

Sarah Pomeroy has published a book about Pythagorean women which is abstracted on Project Muse.[4] I am intrigued by the assembly members arranging for their wives to be educated.

Diogenes also told anecdotes of Pythagoras’ wife (or possibly pupil), Theano, daughter Damo and son, Telauges.

Pythagoras had a wife, Theano by name, daughter of Brontinus of Croton, though some call her Brontinus’s wife and Pythagoras’s pupil. He had a daughter Damo, according to the letter of Lysis to Hippasus, which says of him, “I am told by many that you discourse publicly, a thing which Pythagoras deemed unworthy, for certain it is that, when he entrusted his daughter Damo with the custody of his memoirs, he solemnly charged her never to give them to anyone outside his house. And, although she could have sold the writings for a large sum of money, she would not, but reckoned poverty and her father’s solemn injunctions more precious than gold, for all that she was a woman.”
(8; Pythagoras; 42).

Damo clearly had a moral perspective, which the letter writer was surprised to find in her. Raphael painted Plato in his school, and there seem to be some women there, but I am not sure who is who. The Brooklyn Museum has identified Damo in the picture.[5]

Detail showing Damo
Damo: detail from Raphael ‘The School of Athens’

Telauges wrote nothing, so far as we know, but his mother Theano wrote a few things. Further, a story is told that being asked how many days it was before a woman becomes pure after intercourse, she replied, “With her own husband at once, with another man never.” And she advised a woman going in to her own husband to put off her shame with her clothes, and on leaving him to put it on again along with them. Asked “Put on what?” she replied, “What makes me to be called a woman.” (8; Pythagoras; 43)

I am intrigued to know what were the ‘few things’ that Theano wrote. There is some ambiguity in her comment about clothing. I am not sure if she meant that the shame of marital intercourse was what made her be called a woman, or her female clothing. Perhaps she (or Diogenes) meant her comment to be ambiguous. In the first blogpost I mentioned that the cynic philosopher Hipparchia wore men’s clothes. Diogenes also tells us about Lasthenia and Axiothea, who were pupils of Plato and subsequently of Speusippus:

[Plato’s] disciples were Speusippus of Athens . . . and many others, among them two women, Lastheneia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius, who is reported by Dicaearchus to have worn men’s clothes.
(3; Plato; 46).

Diogenes gave a long lists of Plato’s pupils, giving the impression of a large community of scholars, among whom were Speusippus, Lasthenia and Axiothea. Speusippus was Plato’s nephew, being the son of his sister Potone. He led Plato’s school after the latter’s death, and

It was said that among those who attended his lectures were the two women who had been pupils of Plato, Lastheneia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius
(4; Speusippus; 2).

Raphael painting: The School of Athens
Raphael: The School of Athens

The purpose of the cross-dressing is intriguing. It occurs often in the myths. At the beginning of the Odyssey Athena dressed as a man when she spoke to Telemachus. Presumably she did so in order to pass unremarked in male company. Apollodorus, in his Library, tells us that Achilles dressed as a woman in order to escape the Trojan War[6]. But these are mythical characters, and Diogenes’ characters are historical figures. It is plausible that Hipparchia was demonstrating equality with her husband, Crates, or possibly sharing clothes simply suited their lifestyle. Or perhaps there was additional meaning in that she was indicating that she could behave in public in the same way as a man, which also seems to be what Theano was suggesting. Lastheneia and Axiothea appear to have been full members of Plato’s school, attending together, and presumably, as philosophers, they reflected on what they were doing, and what they might be able to do dressed as men. In modern times women have cross-dressed in order to challenge male authority, or perhaps to convey questions about sexuality and gender roles. Perhaps ancient women did too, but Diogenes did not reveal their motives.

Diogenes Laertius’ main concern was male philosophers. However, in his incidental mentions he revealed women who were poets, teachers, philosophers, writers, healers, perhaps astronomers, scholars and pupils, and women who went against society’s behavioral norms in order to live lives of their choosing. Some of them were angry, some of them were funny, and some of them were clever. In the next post I shall look at relationships within families, wives, mothers, daughters, and courtesans.

Previous in this series: part 1
Next in this series: part 3


[1] Diogenes Laertius (2011) Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Translated by Robert Drew Hicks. Witch Books.

This translation is also available on Perseus:

The format I shall use for referencing is:
(book number; philosopher’s name; paragraph number)’

[2] Wikipedia article “Cleobulus.” Accessed September 2021.

[3] Translated by C.D. Yonge 1854, at http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus13c.html#590

[4] Pomeroy, S. 2014. Pythagorean women: their history and writings. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore.

[5] https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/heritage_floor/damo

6 Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer. 3.13.8, at Perseus

Image credits

Buzzi, Ippolito (1562–1634) restorer, Roman copy of Greek original by Praxiletes of 4th century, Cnidus Aphrodite,
Marie-Lan Nguyen (photo), Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. via Wikimedia Commons

van Veen, Otto. 1607. Engraving, Xanthippe and Socrates
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Raphael. 1509–1511. The School of Athens
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Anne Spendiff is a member of Kosmos Society