This paper will focus on women as philosophers in the Graeco-roman world: its
time span will be extended , roughly, from the 6th c BC to the end of the 4th c AD. This
rather elongated time span is due to the scarcity of the sources: Although there is a significant
progress on the subject of the role of ancient Greek and Roman women in religion, economy
and –even-politics, this is due to the bulk of information which can be gathered from- both -
inscriptions and papyri. We cannot be so lucky on the subject of women ‘s share in
intellectual life. The surviving material written by women is flimsy and fragmented: we know
the names of some female poets and some fragments of their poems, but what about female
Of course, there is a list which –according to Richard Hauley –records the names of sixtythree women philosophers of antiquity. The problem with that list is: were these women
genuine philosophers or they were simply ciphers or heroines of anecdotes? In other words,
did those women produce philosophical work?
This seems to be a moot point in the historical research: For most of them, we cannot be sure
about anything else except their name and some short story, usually in connection with a
male philosopher and of anecdotal character. There were some female students in various
schools of philosophical thought, starting from the Pythagorean ones, through Plato’s
academia to the various epicurean “gardens”. Some women, even taught, though this is a
rather rare phenomenon. But the only philosophical works which survives under a woman’s
ELECTRYONE (2022) Vol.8, Iss. 2, 48-60 http://www.electryone.gr-ISSN: 2241-4061 49
name consists of a few epistles by Pythagorean women sent to other women who sought their
advice. These epistles present problems to the researcher: Some deny that they could have
been written by women, thus considering them as having been written by men using female
pseudonyms. This is an argument colored by sexist prejudice: if we accept that, we should
deny all female authorship in antiquity.
Of course, women philosophers can be connected to female mathematicians : in antiquity, a
philosopher had had to be well-versed in mathematics and there are references to female
mathematicians from the mythological era(Aethra, the mother of Theseus) up to late
antiquity(Hypatia). Also, some women in postclassical Alexandria were alchemists and
theurgoi. This is another aspect of female spirituality : it seems that it was easier for
women to participate in philosophical work of a metaphysical nature(close to witchcraft). The
story of Sosipatra(4th c AD), as it has been recorded by Eunapius in his Lives of the sophists
is simila to fairy tales and apocryphal texts.
Another important aspect of the history of women philosophers is that they were closely
linked to a male philosopher: usually , as his wife or daughter(Theano, Hipparchia, ,
Sosipatra, Hypatia).Like most of women doctors, female philosophers seem to have profited
due to this kind of nepotism which was prevalent in antiquity.
So, the fact that women, even, when they taught philosophy seem to have done so in their
home, needs not to surprise us. In the Hellenistic and Roman era, women could act in various
civic roles , as benefactors and titular office –holders but only as members of local
aristocratic dynasties and in a “privatized’ civic system of rule.
Last but not least: who should we call a philosopher in antiquity? The epigraphical material
shows, that most of the inscriptions engraved on tombs, honouring women as philosophers,
imply that the deceased were honored as educated women- not as creators of genuine
philosophical works. The same seems to apply to the empress Julia Doman, wife of the
emperor Septimius Severus-she was given the honorific title of philosophos, but she did not
write anything. Her contribution to philosophy is limited to the foundation of a philosophical
salon and to her commission of the writing of the biography of the legendary sophist and
magician Apollonius of Tyana.