There are many ways of understanding the culture and history of civilizations – literary sources, archaeological remains, art, architecture etc, and each type can offer us different aspects of their lives. In this article, I wish to look at the history and significance of women’s lamps and torches from the Late Archaic and Classical periods of ancient Greece to determine what information they may offer us.
Let us determine, first of all, when these periods took place and what we will be discussing. 650 – 480 BCE is the generally accepted period of Archaic Greece, and the Classical period c. 500 – 323 BCE. For this article, I will be examining the images of Athenian women and their activities that were illuminated by lamps and torches, and whether a different type of lighting device can offer us other aspects of Athenian women’s’ lives.
Aristophanes claims that the lamps is ‘the all-seeing witness of the domestic female world’ (, p.19) in the prologue of the Ecclesiazousai. The lamp reflects the female aspect of domestic life in the ancient Greek world, whereas torches reflect the male features of the house. We can see the social representations of this in vase paintings – in one Athenian vase the female holds a lamp, the male a torch. Torches represented the outside ‘brighter’ world of men, lamps the ‘darker’ inside wide of women. Due to the theory that women were restricted to the gynaikeion, thought to be on the upper floor, and since respectable women were mainly confined to their houses, natural light would have been very poor. Lamps would have been necessary for women’s daily activities. So it could be suggested that lamps and torches could have represented the male and female aspects of the domestic household, or as a symbol of their confined domestic world as a maiden or mother, and their attachment to the oikos of their father or husband.
In contrast to the respectable woman’s confinement to her home, lamps in scenes depicting hetairai (prostitutes or professional female entertainers) represent the luxury of her environment. Scenes show bronze lamps instead of the clay lamps, as Late Archaic vase painters introduced bronze lamps on stands in erotic scenes of different sorts. The involvement of lamps and lovers is clearly expressed by Aristophanes in Ecclesiazousai, where the lamp is a silent witness of female bodies while involved in intercourse (, p.26). This is an especially enlightening reference to the generally unspoken responsibilities of legitimate Athenian wives.
We can also see the lamp becoming a personified god. One example of this is the 3rd century BCE epigram by Asclepiades.Herakleia had sworn before the lamp of her love for her lover. However, she broke her oath and having sworn it three times, her lover asks the lamp, as a personified god, to seek revenge by refusing to light Herakleia’s chamber when she meets her new lover. In this context, it could also be a way for lovers to recall memories of their time together.
The study of lighting devices within Athenian women’s lives has shown that artificial light was detrimental both day and night. Whether a ‘respectable’ or ‘non-respectable’ woman, lamps and torches symbolised characteristics of their private and public lives and will continue to offer us great insight into the world of Athenian women.
Parisinou, Eva (2000) ‘Lighting’ the World of Women: Lamps and Torches in the Hands of Women in the Late Archaic and Classical Periods, Greece & Rome, Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association.