Feminine Virtue in the Classical World

Where might a young woman find examples—either good or bad—of feminine virtue in the classical world?

Our year of classical history at Mount Hope is drawing to a close. Students have learned about a plethora of kings, generals, and statesmen of ancient Greece and Rome, each of which (whether by good or bad example) afforded valuable lessons in virtue. The boys may aspire to have courage in battle like Leonidas at Thermopylae, or boldness in leadership like Cincinnatus in Rome. While a young woman also benefits from hearing such lessons, she will not seek to imitate the same masculine qualities. So where might she find examples—either good or bad—of feminine virtue in the classical world?

Classical literature is a helpful place to turn. The Iliad presents Andromache, wife of the great Trojan warrior Hector, as a devoted wife and mother. She begs Hector not to return to battle, since she is certain he would go to his death. While her pleading eventually unravels into grief and despair, Andromache’s persistent dedication to her family is praiseworthy. Similarly, in the Aeneid, after Troy is sacked and the survivors escape to Sicily, the Trojan women attempt to burn their own men’s ships to prevent the possibility of leaving again. They wish to settle down, start new homes, and raise their children. Especially as those created to nurture in the home, the women’s priority of household over national conquest is rightly ordered. And on the topic of nurture, an exemplary mother in ancient history is Cornelia, mother of the famous Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Even as a young widow, Cornelia raised her sons with such constancy, affection, and excellence in education that Plutarch credits her as a cause of the boys’ future greatness in Rome.

Perhaps the most well-known example of a classical heroine is Penelope, wife of the legendary hero Odysseus. When Odysseus must leave his homeland to fight in the Trojan War, Penelope faithfully waits for his return. Even after twenty years, Penelope refuses to remarry, and she does not forsake her household even while her greedy suitors throw it into disarray. When Odysseus returns at last, she tests him to make sure he really is her long-lost husband, since she would never belong to another. Penelope’s steadfastness and patience are not only virtues for young women to imitate, but are also virtues of the Church herself, particularly faithfulness and endurance.

The classical world can also teach feminine virtue by negative example. Roman history tells of Tullia, the ambitious and conspiring wife of Lucius Tarquin, who urged her husband to murder her own father the king and seize power for him (and her) self. Classical literature sets forth characters like Camilla the warrior-maiden, who despised marriage and led her own army with the Latin forces against Aeneas. The Greeks and Romans sometimes come close to praising a man’s virtues where they do not belong. At the same time, the authors hint that something is amiss when a woman tries to be a man—the deep pain, for instance, that Achilles feels after slaying the warrior-maiden Penthesilea.

It is valuable for young men and women alike to aspire to the virtues that fit their distinct places in life. With Scripture as our guide, the classical world provides fruitful examples of both masculine and feminine virtues. May Christ continue to instruct us, move us to godly virtue, and cover us with His righteousness—a righteousness far beyond that of the noblest Greek statesman or kindest Roman mother—which He has made ours forever.

In Christ,
Miss Hahn

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