Ancient Greek societies were, like the vast majority of other societies, patriarchal. Even as Athens moved toward an early version of democratic government around 500 B.C., men ran the show. But according to an article published on Sunday in the British newspaper The Observer, everything we knew about Greek gender relations was wrong.
The Observer article, titled “DNA Explodes Greek Myth About Women,” reports on a Manchester University study of DNA that dates back to the Mycenaean civilization from around the 16th or 17th century B.C., more than a millennium before the classical Athens of Socrates, Pericles, and Plato. What the scientists actually found through DNA analysis was that two skeletons located in a royal grave together were brother and sister, not husband and wife as archaeologists had previously thought.
The researchers’ study and their subsequent news release were tempered in their enthusiasm, saying that the find showed that Greek women from that era may have been able to achieve high social status—if they were born into a powerful family. Previously, they said, they thought women could only ascend to any kind of influence my marrying a wealthy man. The Observer, however, wrote that find elevated the status of Mycenaean women from little better than servants to places where they “often played key roles in running affairs of state.”
That’s overstating things by quite a bit, according to MIT ancient historian William Broadhead. “The presence of a brother and sister in this grave instead of a husband and wife actually changes little,” he told DISCOVER. “I would expect all the women in an imperial court to be buried in more or less similar fashion, regardless of any formal or informal power they might have wielded while alive.”
The Observer quotes Terry Brown, a member of the research team, as saying that “this discovery shows both the man and the woman were of equal status and had equal power.” But even if that was true for these two people, it doesn’t overturn much of anything, Broadhead says. Historians didn’t previously hold that these women were “chattel” or slaves in a man’s world, and it’s a stretch of the evidence to suggest that Ancient Greek women as a whole were power brokers based on such a small finding. “The article plays the classic rhetorical trick of exaggeration at both ends,” says Broadhead.