The lives of women in history are so often invisible to us that we become accustomed to not seeing them. Sometimes even when we do see them, we don’t always realize what we’re seeing. The ancient Greek antiquarian Plutarch certainly didn’t know what he was seeing when he quoted this poem (probably composed to be inscribed on the base of a statue) by the Macedonian queen Eurydice.
Eurydice, daughter of Sirra, dedicated this to the local
Muses when she had seized her soul’s desire.
For as a mother of young men, by her efforts
she learned writing, the record of knowledge.
– Eurydice, quoted in Plutarch Moralia 1.20 (=14a-b)
(My own translation)
Plutarch praises Eurydice for learning to read in order to help educate her sons (all of whom went on to become kings of Macedon, one of them the father of Alexander the Great). But although Eurydice does mention her sons, there is much more to this poem.
Eurydice identifies herself in relation to her mother, Sirra, not her father or husband, as would have been typical in ancient Macedon. She directs her praise to the Muses, nine female divine figures, not to Hermes, Apollo, or another male deity equally connected with learning and writing. She does mention her sons, but as an attribute of herself: she does not say (as Plutarch assumed) that she learned in order to teach them, but rather positions her achievement of learning as noteworthy for someone who has undergone the rigors of childbirth and is old enough to have sons on the cusp of adulthood. Eurydice describes her learning in a context that is defined by women and women’s experiences, not men.
While Eurydice makes her accomplishment a feminine one, she uses typically masculine language to describe it. Her language in the original Greek is active, even aggressive. When she says that she accomplished her goal, she uses the same word that other writers used to describe an army capturing a city; when she speaks of her efforts to learn, her words echo those used to describe men training for battle. She positions her learning as the work of a woman surrounded by women, both human and divine, but equal to the work of the male warrior kings in her family.
Eurydice was proud of her learning, as she had every right to be. Literacy was a rare skill in antiquity, and to have learned by her own efforts as an adult shows intelligence and determination. She was doing far more than setting a good example for her sons.
Like Plutarch, traditional history is accustomed to seeing women only in the background of men’s lives, but the records of women’s lives are still there, some of them speaking directly to us if we are just prepared to listen. Many more women like Eurydice have left a “record of knowledge” for us to learn from.
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