You are here

When is a queen truly a queen: the term basileia in Greek literature

Duane Roller

The Ohio State University

          Although it is conventional to consider the prominent women of the Bronze Age as queens, the Homeric poems indicate otherwise, for the title "queen" (basileia) was a specific and limiting term.  The word does not appear in the Iliad, and was not used for most of the famous royal women who are mentioned in the Odyssey.  Homer did not consider Clytaemnesta or Helen to be queens.  It is only by the fifth century BC, in drama, that these and other royal women would be called a basileia, clearly an anachronism.

     To Homer, basileia was a restricting term: of the 17 times he used it, 12 refer to Penelope, suggesting that it was less a generic term for a royal woman than a unique designation for Penelope, almost an addendum to her personal name (Cunliffe 69).  Her role in the Odyssey was different from that of anyone else: she managed her husband's realm (not only Ithaka but several nearby islands) effectively for 20 years.  This was unlike other royal women left behind, who found companions for their labors.  Penelope sought no male relative or associate of her husband as partner, although surely such were available.

     Homer treated Penelope eulogistically, giving further force to the concept of basileia.  Her first appearance in the Odyssey is an impressive entrance that sets the tone for her character (Odyssey 1.328-35).  Although she had a certain amount of ambivalence about her future, she was able to devise stratagems that not only allowed her to retain her position but to bring the unresolved situation on Ithaka eventually to an end.  First, there was the matter of the unravelling of the tapestry (a difficult thing for a weaver to do) and then the contest of the bow.  Significantly, it was Penelope--not her husband or son--who had the authority to implement this contest.

     The last reference to Penelope in the Odyssey is in Hades, where she is described by the dead Agamemnon (Odyssey 24.192-202).  His own wife had contrived evil deeds, but Penelope was someone whose distinction would never perish.  Here too Homer used rare terminology, echephron ("discreet").  This was another word almost entirely limited to Penelope, refering to her in seven out of nine citations (Cunliffe 173).  Thus Homer had the ability to craft special terminology to describe her.  She established a pattern for the ideal queen of the heroic era, and her influence lasted for centuries, becoming the prototype for the royal women of Hellenistic and Roman times.

     The word basileia was so attached to the heroic period and Penelope that it fell out of contemporary usage by the fifth century BC.  Not even Gorgo of Sparta received the title.  To be sure, it was regularly used by the dramatists to describe royal women, yet this was anachronistic.  Herodotus only gave the title to three women, all foreigners and personalites from earlier eras who could be seen as representing the same kind of independent role as Penelope (Herodotus 1.11, 185-7, 205).  The wife of Candaules and the two other queens mentioned by Herodotus (Nitokris of Babylon and Tomyris of the Massagetai) were all women of power who had husbands, but who acted separately from them, either because the husbands were no longer around or because of the nature of their relationship.

     By the early Hellenistic period, the word basileia was so irrelevant that there was now a new term for the royal woman of the emergent Hellenistic era, basilissa, derived from household terminology (Xenophon, Oeconomicus 7.32-4).  The queens of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, such as Cleopatra VII, were never a basileia but always a basilissa.  The former term had become outdated, yet retained its firm attachment to the ideal queen of the heroic era, Penelope.  

Session/Panel Title

Language and Linguistics

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy