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The Imagined Woman: the Performance of Identity in Classical Athens

Allison Kemmerle

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

In disputing the estate of Euctemon, the son of Philoctemon, the orator Isaeus employed a peculiar legal argument: he accused the plaintiff in the case of fabricating the existence of Callippe, Euctemon’s wife. Even more remarkable than the charge of “inventing a woman,” however, is the method by which the speaker in this case attempted to disprove her existence. Instead of relying on witnesses to this woman’s failure to participate in the key institutions through which scholars have believed women established their identities in Athenian society (e.g., the marriage ceremony and women’s religious cult; see Scafuro 1997), the speaker focused on the role of relatives and even slaves in affirming the woman’s participation in the ordinary routines of everyday life. This paper will analyze Isaeus’ legal arguments that suggest the performance of everyday life was a crucial, and sometimes precarious, means of establishing civic identity for women and men and submit that current scholarship overemphasizes Athenians’ participation in formal institutions, including demes and phratries, as the central proof of citizen identity. 

In Isaeus’ speech disputing the estate of Philoctemon, the speaker harped on his opponent Androcles’ inability to offer any evidence that Callippe’s family had performed acts crucial to proving the identity of an Athenian citizen-wife before appropriate witnesses, especially kinsmen, phratry- and demesmen. The speaker argued that Euctemon and Callippe’s relatives and their slaves needed to testify to their marriage and to the fact that they had lived as husband and wife over an extended period of time (Isaeus.6.15-16). The speaker did not demand witnesses to their wedding ceremony, for example, but to the realities of their everyday life together. It is Androcles’ failure to establish evidence of Callippe’s performance of the routines of daily life that enabled the speaker to challenge not just her identity but her very existence. In his other surviving speeches, Isaeus often employed similar arguments offering the performances of everyday life as proofs of identity equal and complementary to participation in formal institutions like demes and religious organizations (See Isaeus.1.12-14; 2.18; 8.9-11; 9.27-29; 12.5-7). While involvement in political, social, and religious institutions certainly was an important proof of citizenship in the Athenian democracy (See Humphreys 1985; Whitehead 1986; Scafuro 1994; Lape 2010; Kennedy 2014), Isaeus’ carefully constructed arguments concerning identity show that the performance of the routines and duties of daily life before witnesses from all strata of Athenian society was equally crucial in proving or disputing a person’s civic identity. 

Isaeus’ speeches also reveal the vulnerabilities of an identification process that relied not on public records but often on the untraceable routines of daily life. The witness testimony of relatives and close friends could be fabricated, and details, like the realities of Euctemon and Callippe’s marriage, could be glossed over. Isaeus clearly implied that immoral men like Androcles realized the vulnerabilities of this identification system and readily took advantage of them even to the point of inventing wives. In fact, in another speech on the estate of Ciron, Isaeus’ speaker, Ciron’s maternal grandson, accused his opponents of using the same tactics as Androcles, claiming that Ciron’s daughter, his mother, never existed (Isaeus.8.1; 8.9). That Isaeus was aware of the dangers of fabrications like this is clear. In his speech on the estate of Philoctemon, Isaeus’ speaker not only accused Androcles and his associates of inventing an Athenian woman to steal an estate; he also pointed out that, in doing so, his opponents damaged the system through which the Athenians established their civic identities. While Isaeus’ focus on the performative acts of everyday life in his speeches suggests that the Athenian process of identification was more fluid and complex than we have appreciated, his imagined women demonstrate the weaknesses of the system as well.

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Representing Gender

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