Ancient and modern

Don’t damn the ancients for failing to give women the vote

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

This year will be the 100th anniversary of some women over the age of 30 getting the vote, and for the first time all men over the age of 21. One can confidently expect an avalanche of articles about increasing women’s power, with the usual sanctimonious finger-wagging at ancient Athenians, who empowered citizen males in the direct democracy they invented 2,500 years ago, but not females.

It is very difficult for people, even academics, to understand the power of culture — a society’s sense of the way things have ‘always’ been done, which is met with a blank incomprehension by other societies who do things differently. The Greek historian Herodotus illustrated the problem.


The Persian king Darius once asked some Greeks how much money it would take for them to eat the corpses of their fathers. No amount would persuade them, they replied. In the presence of the Greeks he then asked the Callatiae, an Indian tribe who ate their parents, how much it would take to cremate them. They told him not to say such dreadful things. So, Herodotus concluded, the Greek poet Pindar was right: custom was indeed king of all.

The fact is that the prime duty of women in the ancient world was to produce enough legitimate healthy children to ensure a stable society, and of men to die in battle protecting, or growing the power, of that society. When the wife of the Trojan hero Hector begged him to fight more defensively, he gently replied that it was his duty to fight and die in the front line, for war was men’s business.

That was the culture across the ancient world, as was much else — from holding no life sacred, let alone that of an enemy, to infanticide, paedophilia, slavery (very popular: the first thing a freed slave did was to get slaves of his own) and men in assemblies making decisions about public policy, especially war and peace.

That was then. This is now. We do things differently in a different world, but our culture is just as all-enforcing and resistant to change.

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