In the voluminous scholarship on Athenian women, the aristocratic Elpinikê is rarely mentioned. And yet we have more anecdotal information on her than perhaps any other citizen woman from classical Athens. After a careful overview of the literary and material evidence for Elpinikê's life, I argue in this paper that Elpinikê falls between two categories of women, the wife and the hetaira. Further, I argue that Elpinikê's liminality has implications for how we discuss the lives of Athenian citizen women and how we categorize women as hetairai.
Elpinikê (early to mid 5C BCE) was the daughter of Miltiades, sister of Kimon and wife of Kallias. She had a Thracian mother. She was said to have an incestuous relationship with her brother (Kerameikos O 6874; Eupolis Poleis Fr 221; [Andok.] 4.33; Plu. Cim. 4.8-9; Ath. 13.589e8-f2 paraphrasing Antisthenes), to have offered herself to Pericles to effect her brother’s return from exile (Ath. 13.589e8-f2; Plu. Per. 10.5-6 and Cim. 14.5), to have questioned publicly Pericles' leadership at a funeral oration (Plu. Per. 29.4-5) and to have modeled for and had an affair with the painter Polygnotos (Plu. Cim. 10.5-6), even possibly appearing in Naples 3232, ARV(2) 132.61. And she supposedly did all this while married to Kallias or after his death. According to our sources, Elpinikê was not “well-behaved” (εá½”τακτÏŒν; Plu. Cim. 10.5) and, as these anecdotes show, acted more like a hetaira than a citizen wife.
Elpinikê does not conform to the standard understanding of Athenian woman. Though certainly a citizen-wife, her behavior does not fit the ideal as reconstructed by scholars. Further, since the modern categories of hetaira and citizen-wife exclude each other, she is also not a hetaira. And yet her life story has many of the tropes scholars associate with hetaira: foreign-born, wealthy, consorts with illustrious men, has a distinguished or famous name of her own that is used in public fora, is educated or intellectual, is associated with performance or modeling, and has a “semblance of respectability” making her difficult to distinguish from a pallakê or even a wife (McClure). The existence of women such as Elpinikê in the historical record should compel scholars to reconsider how we classify women in antiquity and whether such modern categories are useful for understanding the position of women in classical Athens. Some may suggest that Elpinikê be could be an exception to this ideal because of her elite status or because she was born before the passage of the Citizenship Law (and thus the tighter restrictions on citizen woman that are thought to have accompanied it). Rather, I suggest this makes her even more vital to understanding women’s lives in Athens.
When scholars see the name of a woman in a literary text, especially in comedy or oratory, they immediately make a succession of assumptions (e.g. Schaps, Ogden). If she is named, she is immediately labeled as “not respectable.” Such a woman is then frequently deemed a prostitute, which excludes her from the category of citizen-wife according to modern classifications. Some scholars seek to broaden the discussion of women beyond the “wives and the rest” dichotomy that such assumptions seem to rest upon (e.g. Davidson),. They define “the rest”, however, as various types of sexual labor and continue to rely on the idea of a “respectable” woman who was separated or secluded from public life (except in religious contexts).
This is a problematic way of understanding women and classical Athens. Elpinikê is a citizen and a wife and yet is named in all the fora that would disqualify her from being considered such by scholars. If historians did not know her family and citizen status, Elpinikê would be considered a hetaira. What Elpinikê shows us is that the categories scholars use to classify women in ancient Athens are defective and that adherence to these categories disables scholars from engaging in broader possibilities for how women lived in classical Athens.