Xanthippe Biography

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(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek noblewoman{$I[g]Greece;Xanthippe} Through her aggressive behavior, Xanthippe forced men to reflect on and reconsider conventional assumptions about women’s nature and social roles.

Early Life

Xanthippe (zan-THIHP-ee) is known not as a mere name discovered through archaeological research but as a meaningful figure in ancient literature. Since almost no contemporary Athenian women thus are recognized, the implication is that Xanthippe was unusual. She was not a “normal” woman, of whom the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.)—quoting the fifth century b.c.e. poet Sophocles—wrote, “Silence lends decorum to a woman.” Xanthippe’s concern was not male notions of decorum. She spoke, often shrilly, and her voice helped to create philosophical echoes across the centuries.

Nothing certain is known of Xanthippe’s childhood and youth. Her date of birth can be estimated as 445 b.c.e., since she was the mother of one son in his late teens and two much younger sons when her husband, the Athenian political philosopher Socrates (469-399 b.c.e.), was executed. Several pieces of circumstantial evidence suggest that Xanthippe was born into a noble, or at least wealthy, Athenian family. Her name, meaning “Golden Horse,” was of the sort traditionally favored by the aristocracy. The biographer Diogenes Laertius (late second-early third century c.e.) mentions that Xanthippe brought a dowry into her marriage. Athenian dowries were quite sizable and often included a large sum of money. At some point, Socrates virtually abandoned his early profession of stonecutting, perhaps living on the proceeds of invested money. Given that Socrates was not from a wealthy family, the money may have come from Xanthippe. Diogenes Laertius also mentions that Xanthippe felt ashamed of a dinner that Socrates gave for some rich men, suggesting her awareness of upper-class standards. The contemporary novelist John Gardner’s The Wreckage of Agathon (1972), based loosely on the life of Socrates, supposes that Agathon’s wife Tuka (“battle-ax”) is of aristocratic background.

Xanthippe was an exception to the rule that Athenian daughters, especially those of aristocratic lineage, married very young, often in their mid-teens. Socrates’ eldest son Lamprocles was born when the philosopher was in his early fifties, his youngest when Socrates was about sixty-five. If Xanthippe was twenty-four years younger than Socrates, she would have borne Lamprocles at twenty-eight and her youngest son at about forty-one. These figures suggest that Xanthippe married about ten years later than was customary.

There are two probable reasons why Xanthippe married late, perhaps below her social status, and to a notoriously ugly and unproductive man: She was difficult temperamentally, and she was physically unattractive. Her temper was infamous; her looks may be inferred from some Socratic advice reported by the historian Xenophon (c. 430-c. 354 b.c.e.). Socrates advises his companions to avoid sexual relations with beautiful people and to restrict their sexual activity to those who would be shunned unless there existed an overwhelming physical need. Whether or not he took his own advice in marrying Xanthippe, there is not the slightest hint that she was physically attractive.

Life’s Work

The marriage of Xanthippe and Socrates would seem to be a match made in hell, between an overage, unattractive, difficult woman and an even older, ugly, underemployed frequenter of the Athenian streets. Many must have seen it this way: Socrates was put to death for his disturbing activities, and Xanthippe’s name became synonymous with “shrew.” This view, however, is superficial, ignoring the deep moral bond between the two.

That bond is suggested by the fact that the activities of Xanthippe and Socrates were both orthodox and unorthodox. In a number of important ways, each was a conventional Athenian of the time. Xanthippe married, reared children, managed a...

(The entire section is 2,046 words.)