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Depiction of The Life of Pythagorean Women in Sarah Pomeroy’s Work

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The work of Sarah B Pomeroy, “Pythagorean Women” aims to provide a comprehensive study on Pythagorean and Neopythagorean women – including their issues, social history, and their writings. Although it is true that there are previous writings (by other historians) which detail information about famous Pythagorean women (in their relation to Pythagoras himself), Pomeroy’s work serves as a gap-filler and the first written comprehensive study on the topic of social history of Pythagorean women. Her commentaries are unique, due to the fact that she chooses to place an emphasis on the lives of women in the Pythagorean society, which is often overlooked in historical literature in comparison to the Athenian Greeks.

The book is meant to be an accessible learning resource for a general public audience, including readers who may not be well versed in Pythagorean history. The book is organized in a practical manner for those who wish to learn about this topic for the first time. Pomeroy begins her book with a brief chapter on the most well-known Pythagorean women in history and where they came from. She then delves into the subject of the rules, expectations, and Pythagorean philosophies pertaining to women as wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters in Pythagorean society. Next, she outlines the history of Neopythagorean women, introduces the prose writings of the women, and explains the differences in the letters of treatises of Neopythagorean women in the East versus in the West. Lastly, Pomeroy includes a chapter on Neopythagorean women as philosophers, which was written by her historian colleague – Vicki Lynn Harper.

As Pomeroy outlines in her introduction, in order to understand the history of Pythagorean women, a distinction is drawn between Pythagorean women and Neopythagorean women. Those who are labeled “Pythagorean women” are the contemporaries of the philosopher Pythagoras his students, wives, and daughters- these women lived in the late Archaic and Classical periods. Those who are labeled “Neopythagorean women” are the women who followed the Pythagorean women before them, both biologically and intellectually- these women were mostly Hellenistic women.

In Pomeroy’s writings about the origins of Pythagoreans, she carefully notes that there is historical evidence that the two most prominent women in Pythagoras’ life, his mother and his wife, were both literate women. Theano of Croton, his wife, was the first recorded woman philosopher in Greek history and Pythagoras’ mother, Pythias was known for writing notes on tablets about Pythagoras’ apparent resurrection from the Underworld. The writings of his wife and his mother point to the fact that Pythagoras came from a family of educated women, which can explain why Pythagoras had more reverence for women in his philosophical teachings than his Greek contemporaries.

According to Pomeroy, Pythagoras’ philosophy placed a relatively even standard on men and women. While women were not afforded the same rights in general Greek society as a whole, Pythagoras did not treat women as aliens or lowly animals in his teachings. In fact, Pomeroy points out that when women turned to Pythagoras and asked him to instruct their husbands to get rid of their concubines, he listened to them and included this in his teachings. This was due to the fact that Pythagoras had a high regard for the nuclear family dynamic and making sure that everyone lived as harmoniously as possible in their families. He taught his students that both men and women were expected to have the characteristic of sophrosyne (discipline, self-control, and orderliness). Both men and women were to be monogamous, and the only type of sexual acts that were considered pure were conjugal relations. Pomeroy further delves into the intricacies of this philosophical teaching and explains that the reason (that only conjugal relations were considered pure) is that sexual relations were strictly encouraged for those who wanted to have legitimate children together. She further assumes that homosexual relations and post-menopausal relations would not be considered pure, as neither act can bear children. I agree with Pomeroy’s conclusions here, and she remarkably fills in the gaps of what is left unsaid in the Pythagorean philosophies passed on throughout history.

After explaining the foundations of Pythagorean philosophy, specifically in regard to women’s roles in marriage and the family, Pomeroy shifts her book to the discussion of Neopythagorean women’s writings and philosophies. It is at this point in the book that the distinction between the generation of Pythagorean women and Neopythagorean women becomes more important.

Following the demise of the original Pythagorean society, due to their areas being conquered and dispersed at the end of the fifth century BC, the philosophy did not die. Middle Comedy represented Pythagoreans at this time as poor and scruffy. However, there are Neopythagorean letters, written by women at the time, that seem to oppose that age-old narrative. The letters include personal details about women’s day-to-day lives which point to their economic ease in that time period- such as information about their slaves, their husbands spending a ton of money on women outside of their marriage, and discussions about whether or not to hire a wet nurse. Pomeroy does not see the two opposing perspectives to be an inconsistency. She assumes that the Neopythagorean’s could’ve been perceived as poor because they had strict diets (most were vegetarian), wore only simple clothing, and neglected to wear gold jewelry or cosmetic products. I believe that her historian opinion on this matter serves as an effective conclusion, and that she has sufficient evidence to draw this conclusion. She does not take a leap of faith in this opinion, rather draws on the rules of the Pythagorean lifestyle and allows both narratives to appear legitimate.

In her commentary on Neopythagorean womens’ writings, Pomeroy takes care to address a popular debate among her fellow historians- whether or not women were actually the authors of the texts, with which they are credited. Pomeroy successfully unravels the misogynistic assumption that the texts were written by men and could not have been written by women. She does this in two ways. First, she writes that there is a plethora of archeological evidence which points to the fact that women regularly wrote and read during the Hellenistic period. This is not only through the texts that the women wrote, but through the artwork being sold to the general public at the time. This artwork included a number of illustrations of women reading, writing, and participating in musical art activities- which shows the normalization of women’s literacy in the middle class. Secondly, she argues that if the first argument did not exist, and women were discouraged from reading and writing, no one in their right mind would choose to publish works with a female alias. 

Overall, as Pomeroy points out, the writings of the Pythagorean and Neopythagorean women were faithful to the philosophies of Pythagoras. They wrote on various topics such as sexual attraction in a marital relationship, parenting, living a harmonious modern life, and modesty. For a woman living in the times of Hellenistic society, it was beneficial to be part of a family which followed Pythagorean philosophy. It is true that Pythagorean people subjected themselves to lives with strict regimen and rules of purity (in relation to their diets, fashion choices, manners, sexual lives, and much more), but this was seen as a non-issue, as at least women were respected in Pythagorean rules. Concerning the Neopythagorean women, this was especially true, as they were allowed to file for divorce from their husbands (which was uncommon, but allowed), make large purchases on their own, and even draw up their own formal contracts. 

Overall, Sarah B. Pomeroy’s writing on Pythagorean women is phenomenal. She does a fantastic job at tying together loose ends of Pythagorean history, specifically as it relates to women, following through with her aim for this book. She does not write with bias, nor does she shy away from addressing opposing arguments, which she does in a clear manner for her audience. Her book is comprehensive, with no subject left unturned or insufficiently dealt with – she paints a clear picture for her readers on what life was like as a Pythagorean woman. 

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