How Aristotle's Daughter Coped

Article excerpt


We know Aristotle both from museums that display him in those monumental curly-haired busts, and from textbooks that present him as the Greek polymath, whose ideas shaped our world. Now, in Annabel Lyon's masterful historical novel, The Sweet Girl, we see him also as parent to a strong-willed girl. It is she who drives the story.

Pythias knows Aristotle as Daddy - a fond daddy, who encourages her to read and learn, to dissect animals and gather plants, to sit in on philosophical debates in the Lyceum he founded in Athens. She is an apt pupil, more so than her half-brother Nicomachus (for whom Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics. ) She is also a beloved daughter - not just a favorite with her father, but also with Herpyllis, the slave he had taken to his bed. Her life is as idyllic as a girl's could reasonably be expected to be in Athens during the 4th century B.C. She really doesn't have to spend much time at weaving and embroidering, and while she helps Herpyllis in the kitchen, nothing onerous was demanded so she could share in Aristotle's investigations of nature.

Until she hits menarche. Then things begin to change. She is no longer welcome at her father's knee. Typically, girls of her age were married off, but Aristotle favored the Spartan practice of waiting until a girl is fully grown at 17 or 18. At this point, he'd arranged for her to marry a distant cousin, Nicanor, a soldier in Alexander the Great's army.

But Alexander dies, and things change for Aristotle and Pythias. Like Alexander, they are Macedonian, and while he was alive, they were tolerated in Athens, which was smoldering as a Macedonian vassal. With Alexander gone, Aristotle and his household must flee to Chalcis. Aristotle dies shortly thereafter, and Herpyllis returns to her native village. Pythias, now impoverished, has to figure a way forward. She tries all the avenues open to a woman: she apprentices as a priestess; she inherits her father's medical implements and becomes a midwife; finally, she lives as a demimondaine, entertaining the powerful men of Chalcis. And she waits to see if Nicanor will show up. It's not clear he is still alive.

With exquisite skill, the author evokes Pythias and her family as credible members of a community that existed more than two millennia ago. At the same time, she shows their kinship with us, allowing us to see their constraints as different from our own, but nonetheless analogous. …