Women, Barbarians, and Gendered Xenophobia

Photo: The Amazonomachy from the Parthenon

Women, Barbarians, and Gendered Xenophobia

By Diotima Belmehdi



In Agesilaos, the Athenian historian Xenophon recounts that while attempting to rile up his troops against the Persians, King Agesilaos of Sparta did the following:

Moreover, believing that contempt for the enemy would kindle the fighting spirit, he gave instructions to his heralds that the barbarians captured in the raids should be exposed for sale naked. So when his soldiers saw them white because they never stripped, and fat and lazy through constant riding in carriages, they believed that the war would be exactly like fighting with women [Xenophon Agesilaus, 1.28]

This is, at first glance, a rather straightforward and period-typical way of berating opponents to embolden soldiers: women are weak and not suited for war, and warriors should strive to distance themselves from all features feminine. Yet a closer look reveals a deeper relationship between the Greek conceptualization of the Other and of womanhood. The ideal Greek woman rejected and controlled her inner irrational wild nature while the ideal Greek man embraced and leaned into his natural goodness, courage, and strength; most importantly, however, he did not allow a woman to corrupt this natural goodness but rather tamed her. Interestingly, the nebulous Greek concept of the barbarian was one tainted with disorder, irrationality, and excess in all forms. This paper argues that the ideal of Greekness was crafted in opposition to the Other, not just in the figure of the non-Greek but also in opposition to the figure of the woman through a gendered visual language of representation of non-Greeks. 

The term “gendered xenophobia” will be used throughout this paper to refer specifically to the projection of female characteristics onto the figure of the male barbarian. “Greek” and “Athenian” will sometimes be used interchangeably based on the fact that the Athenians were not alone in the conceptualization of non-Greeks discussed in this paper, but “Athenian” will be used when referring to artistic or social phenomena specific to Athens. 


Introducing the Barbarian

While foreigners were featured in literature and art before the Classical period, the introduction of Greek superiority to the concept of the barbarian began after the altercations between the Greeks and Persia. Within such a context, it is understandable that representations of the barbarian allegorical or literal are martial in nature but also mostly negative. This conceptualization and representation of foreigners was not unique to the Greeks: Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature and art also reveal a construction of self-image through distinction from the Other, though these civilizations seem to never have developed a term like barbaroi, which encompassed all foreigners. The question of who the barbarians were to the Greeks is a multifaceted, complex one. Stripped to its very essence, however, what made Greeks Greek, according to Herodotus, was their shared language, their common religious beliefs and practices, and their shared customs. Failure to possess any of these cultural attributes is what made the barbarian. 

In Inventing the Barbarian, Edith Hall points out that far from originating in the Classical period, the conception of an Other actually predates even the Archaic period and stories of the Trojan War, finding roots in myths of conflicts with “supernatural barbarians.” These supernatural barbarians were incredibly important in priming the Greek psyche to receive the anti-barbarian and specifically anti-Persian visual rhetoric of the Classical period. In fact, representations of historical battles like the Battle of Marathon were often strategically juxtaposed with mythical scenes of Greeks vanquishing centaurs or Amazons. 

Focusing on Athenian monuments for this study is particularly important since the Athenians dominated much of the artistic, literary, and intellectual output of the Greek world in the Classical period. Importantly, they also stood to benefit the most from sensationalizing the “barbarian versus Hellene” narrative, as most of the cultural, political, and also literal material capital Athens amassed in this period over other Greek cities came from its prominent role in the defeat of Persia. The Stoa Poikile, the Athenian Treasury at Delphi, and the Parthenon are all incredibly important structures. The latter two Panhellenic sanctuaries lean heavily on the use of mythical scenes to create a coherent narrative of Greek and specifically Athenian power, though the sculpture on the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina also shows both the relevance of this phenomenon to non-Athenian society and how the narrative could be significantly more measured outside of Athens. Of all mythical scenes, the Amazons, a matriarchal society of female warriors believed to have resided relatively close to the areas controlled by the Persian Empire, were perhaps most depicted by the Athenians on monumental buildings. The prominence of imagery depicting defeated barbarian female warriors begs for a closer examination of the interaction between gender and the Greeks’ xenophobia.


The Female-coded Barbarian

The danger of female power is a looming theme in all genres of Greek art, visual arts included. The adherence to a strict gender hierarchy was, after all, an integral part of what made Greekness superior to non-Greekness in the eyes of the Greeks, and so the subjugation of women constituted an integral part of Greekness. In fact, the Parthenon, one of the most important monuments of ancient Athens, retained on its pediments a permanent reminder of what happened when women were given any sort of power, like the sculptural version of a didactic poem. Strategically placed above the Amazonomachy, the western pediment depicts the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the divine patronage of Athens. As with Eve eating the forbidden apple, Athens had its very own foundational myth that justified its systemic misogyny: some scholars have argued that this scene depicts the version of the story preserved by Marcus Varro, quoted in Saint Augustine’s City of God. This version says that after the Athenian women, outnumbering the Athenian men, voted for Athena in the contest with Poseidon, the sea god flooded Attica in his anger, and, to appease him, Athenian women were stripped of citizenship, the right to vote, and the ability to pass on their names to their children. It is crucial to note here that the process of Athenian identity formation thus came about not just through constructing a selfhood in opposition to non-Athenians and non-Greeks but also non-womanhood. 

Athena was closely interwoven into the fabric of Athenian history from the city’s inception, not only as its patron deity but also as the “mother” (using the term very loosely) of the first Athenian: Erichthonios. The myth goes that when Hephaistos ejaculated on her thigh, she wiped the discharge off and shook it onto the earth, from which Erichthonios sprung, giving the Athenians their claim of being autochthonous, literally of Athenian soil. The figure of Athena as a goddess has all but squashed the maternal aspects which the Greeks expected of a woman. Athena was placed in this position of immense importance and power, that of patron deity of Athens, because she possessed none of the prominent characteristics of womanhood. She was, after all, the goddess of war, an activity most unfitting for women at the time, so it made little sense for her to retain any resemblance to mortal Greek women. Which female figures a society props up are just as telling – if not more – of that society’s gender power dynamics as those that are put down. In this case, on the one hand, the women of Athens sought to utilize their majority in a dishonorable way to establish a sort of gynaecocracy, but Athena “earns” her spot as the patron deity of Athens firstly because she is a goddess, and thus cannot be judged on the same grounds as mortal women, but also because she has purposefully shed what makes her a woman. The way she takes part in the birth of Erichthonios separates her from the mortal ways of birth – she does not go through the gruelling process mortal women must undergo. Rather it is Hephaistos and Gaia who are technically responsible for Erichthonios’s conception. The very myth of autochthony itself, for which Athena serves as a vector, denies the maternity of women in the ancestry of the Athenians. As Nicole Loraux astutely puts it, Athena is “the virgin, Zeus’s daughter, born without a mother, the outcome of a metallurgical genesis and who always takes her father’s side” – she is the negation of feminine sexuality and motherhood, and only as such can she occupy the privileged position of Zeus’s ferocious, perfect warrior daughter.

A strict gender hierarchy was one of the important aspects of their culture that the Greeks thought demarcated them from non-Greeks: an abnormal systemic male-female power relationship wherein female domination was projected onto other cultures, reminiscent of stories perpetrated about mythical cities controlled by slaves, another marginalized group equated with women and identified with barbarians by figures like Aristotle. This manifests, for example, in the use of scenes like the Amazonomachy, which became commonly used in the fifth century BCE as an analogy for the Persians on monuments like the Parthenon, the Athenian Treasury, and the Stoa Poikile. According to Hall, the Greeks first used the Amazonomachy as an allegory for Persia’s defeat on the metopes of the Athenian Treasury, a structure probably dedicated after the Battle of Marathon. The east and west metopes depict Amazons in various states of injury, not in a humiliating manner but in a way that makes the Greek victory evident. The fact that the heroes Theseus and Herakles were specifically depicted fighting the Amazons is all the more important since they were both considered “champions of the Athenian cause,” not just in the Persian Wars but specifically at Marathon. The line between historical and mythical barbarians here is purposefully blurred, but more importantly, the Treasury’s sculptural program establishes a strong link between Athens’s present glory and the heroic deeds of Theseus and Herakles. Ingeniously, this link was also established and reinforced in the sculptural programs of buildings at Athens, like the Hephaestion. Consciously then, the Athenians fed their patriotism by advertising their glorious past and present not only to their citizens but also to the rest of the Greeks: the Treasury’s location in one of the most popular Panhellenic sanctuaries ensured that visitors from all over the Greek world would view its sculptures. The association between the Battle of Marathon and the Persian Wars more broadly and the Amazonomachy continued in the Stoa Poikile, where Pausanias describes a painting of the battle against the Persians juxtaposed with a painting of the battle against the Amazons [Pausanias Descriptions of Greece 1.15.3]. This explicit juxtaposition is all the more important since the Greeks, until this point in time, did not often use depictions of actual historical events to decorate buildings. 

Women also play a central role in the Parthenon’s sculptural program. Beyond the Amazonomachy and the goddess Athena’s victory over Poseidon in the city’s patronage contest, womanhood is central to the Centauromachy, the Ilioupersis, and the scene of Pandora’s birth on Athena Parthenos’s base. The Lapith women’s struggle to retain their chastity in front of the wild hubristic centaurs continues this theme of femininity as weakness, necessitating the ideal Greek man for protection not just of the woman but of the social order. It must also be noted here that the centaurs exhibit an insatiable sexual appetite, a trait that the Greeks would have considered predominantly feminine. The Ilioupersis implies the destruction of a city in a gruesome battle brought about by a woman, not any woman but a Greek woman: Helen. Lastly, as the first woman, Pandora is both the source and summary of all these female characters and, most importantly, of all ills. It is neither a coincidence nor trivial that the story of how evil was unleashed upon the mortal world involves the first woman. The scene of Pandora’s birth on the base of the temple statue of Athena might have been read as a cautionary tale, much like the contest between Athena and Poseidon. The Parthenon is indeed overwhelming in terms of Greek versus non-Greek imagery, but its sculpture also constantly reminds the visitor that women are not only just as dangerous as the Other but are always at the very center of disorder, whether that be literally by unleashing disorder onto the world like Pandora, or by being the object of the uncontrollable sexual desire of the centaurs. 

On the message of the Parthenon’s western sculpture, David Castriota argues that “it would be short of the mark to read the program of the west front primarily as an indictment of the female character and as a vehicle for asserting a male-dominated notion of rational social order” but that instead, “the indictment of the Persian or barbarian character was the real focus of the Athenian emphasis on female immoderation.” These are not, however, necessarily mutually exclusive interpretations of the sculptural program: the indictment of the female character represented by the Amazonomachy or the divine patronage contest relief would have served as a reminder that the “essence” of the barbarian ran rampant within Athens’s own walls; the potential for danger was innate to Athens’s own women, but also the “essence” of womanhood was inherent to the concept of non-Greekness. If “good” Greek men were defined as everything that their women were not, barbarians were defined by features the Greeks considered inherently female. As such, the indictment of the female character and the indictment of the barbarian character are too closely interwoven to consider one to have primacy over the other. 


The Other Facets of the Gendering Process

The use of the term “gendering” with xenophobic sentiment is not accidental – gendering is a process that goes two ways: it includes both feminization and hypermasculinization. The image of the non-Greek was feminized through juxtaposition with scenes like the Amazonomachy on the Parthenon and Stoa Poikile, and in literature and historiography by association with womanhood for his weakness, irrationality, and insatiability. Simultaneously, however, the barbarian underwent a hypermasculinization process intended to bestow upon him the strength that women did not have access to so that he could enact the violence that comes with female irrationality. In the figure of the barbarian, we see the crystallization of everything the Greeks despised but also feared: men who had the temperament of women but the abilities and physicality of men. The paradox of the barbarian made it so that he was simultaneously easily vanquished, as weak and fragile as a woman but also unpredictable, violent, and dangerous.

The oscillation between these two interpretations can be seen in the fact that early depictions of the Persians show them as worthy opponents to the Greeks, adopting more balanced imagery, while later representations show them in humiliating positions, clearly defeated and sometimes in flight. Importantly, the shift towards representing Persians in a humiliating manner was accompanied by a shift towards representing hoplites nude, adorned with only a helmet and shield. The hoplites’ lack of defensive attire was a stark contrast with the Persians’ all-encompassing dress. Greek nudity signified strength and virility because nudity meant vulnerability, and in that sense came to mark a contrast between Greek and non-Greek, but also between men and women. A Greek man in the nude implied confidence in his strength, in his ability to keep himself safe; nudity for a woman was a humiliation and implied that she had been violated or was about to be – there was an inherent component of unsafety for the nude or partially nude woman. The few instances where women do appear naked in Greek art signify moments of danger, emphasizing their weakness and vulnerability. The clothed non-Greek soldier is thus feminized in front of the nude, virile Greek soldier – one is brave enough to stand up and fight naked, the other is not. For instance, though not all easterners are depicted clothed on the eastern and western pediments of the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, eastern archers are depicted fully covered, emphasizing their effeminacy since the Greeks considered the bow to be a cowardly and unmanly weapon compared to the spear. 

A large body of work deals with the Greek representation of otherness in art, both visual and literary, but its focus on the Greek definition of selfhood in opposition to the Other can sometimes make us lean towards anachronistic interpretations of othering. As mentioned earlier in this paper, the Greek tactics of othering were in no way novel, except perhaps in the fact that they created a word to designate all non-Hellenes. Yet despite an extensive body of reliefs and paintings meant to sensationalize narratives of “us versus them” and to discount non-Greeks, especially the Persians, we do see Greek art not just incorporate foreign motifs but also depict enemies in battle scenes with pathos and humanism. Interestingly, this pathos and humanism was also communicated through the gendered visual language that I have explored throughout this paper. 

Figure 1: Fallen warrior, with a shield on his left arm (The Classical Art Research Center 2022).

One of the best examples of such an approach comes from the east pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, for which potential dates range from 500 to 470 BCE (Fig. 1). On the left side of the pediment, a Trojan warrior is depicted lying down, propping himself up on his shield with his left hand; he has been struck in the chest by a spear which he holds with his right hand. He is clearly weakened and dying, losing his grip on the shield handle. The warrior’s body reacts to its own weight, carrying him downwards, and his face sports an expression typical of the severe style: depicted in the moment of highest tension, the Trojan warrior contemplates his imminent demise as he stares down at the ground. This representation of the enemy was meant to elicit pathos from the viewer, depicting the realities and dangers of war not just for the Greeks but also for the people they fought against. It must be noted that this humanistic portrayal of the enemy rested heavily on the fact that there is nothing emasculating about the depiction of the Trojan warrior, either by explicitly including feminizing motifs (like clothed barbarians versus non-clothed Greeks), depicting warriors as cowardly and fleeing, or through thematic juxtaposition to scenes like the Amazonomachy. Here, gendering thus manifests itself not just by the omission of feminizing motifs but also by the absence of transgressive feminine themes. Allowing the fallen Trojan soldier to be depicted with pathos required the artist to leave his masculinity intact.

Figure 2: Squat lekythos decorated with a Persian man seated on a klismos (The Classical Art Research Centre 2022).

An interesting example of the ways that proximity to womanhood can be utilized to denigrate non-Greek men is found in Attic vase paintings of Persian monarchs in the Classical period. Vase paintings like the one adorning a squat lekythos in Stockholm represent an enthroned Persian sitting on a klismos, which, as Miller points out, would be more at home within the gynaeconitis than the audience hall (Fig. 2). Moreover, the Persian’s entourage is composed solely of women rather than male officials, guards, or eunuch fan-bearers as was custom. The presence of women – and female-associated accessories – in spaces reserved for men is meant to belittle the Persian monarch’s authority and prestige and also reflects the importance of proper gender hierarchy and adherence to gender norms as an important aspect of Greekness while disrespect of these rules was an important aspect of non-Greekness. 



The reliefs on the Parthenon and Athenian Treasury, as well as the paintings in the Stoa Poikile, make an important distinction between Hellenes and non-Hellenes. By drawing the line between the rational democratic Athenians and the barbarians, the Athenians constructed a narrative that justified their supremacy on three different levels: over their women, over other Greeks, and of course, over non-Greeks. Understanding art on public buildings as a clever propagandistic tool is a crucial part of an analysis of the imagery and themes that appear frequently on religious and secular monuments alike. Moreover, painted vessels are also helpful in discerning how these themes can be reflected in smaller-scale private artifacts. The visual similarities in theme and imagery utilized on both buildings and vessels provided the Athenian public with consistent images of their glorious past, creating a coherent visual rhetoric of Athenian greatness. 

The concept of the transgressive female was important in the construction of the barbarian, both supernatural and human alike. The supremacy of the Athenian man over the Athenian woman was an integral part of the social fabric and was just as crucial in the process of construction of selfhood as supremacy over non-Greeks. The so-called female traits of insatiability (both sexual and materialistic), disorder, irrationality, and unpredictability were traits projected on Persians and centaurs alike. These traits were epitomized in the figure of the Amazon warrior, representative of the very antithesis of everything the Greeks (and especially the Athenians) stood for: a barbarian gynaecocracy. 


Diotima Belmehdi (’22) is a graduate from Concordia University who majored in Political Science and Classical Studies.



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