The Missing Thread: A New History of the Ancient World Through the Women Who Shaped It by Daisy Dunn - review by Margaret Reynolds

Margaret Reynolds

The Face That Felled a Tyrant King

The Missing Thread: A New History of the Ancient World Through the Women Who Shaped It


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 480pp £25

From Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot, women have known that men tell their own stories. As Anne (or Austen) puts it, ‘the pen has been in their hands’. But very often, men are also the ones who come to tell the stories that, strictly, belong to women. 

In The Missing Thread, Daisy Dunn tries to address this problem with respect to the women of classical antiquity. To be sure, she knows that a modern-day historian is still forced to rely on older, prejudicial narratives. Here is the Central Asian ruler Tomyris in around 530 BC speaking out against the advance on her kingdom by – and the marital advances of – Cyrus II of Persia: ‘King of the Medes, stop striving after what you’re striving after … Give up, be king of your own people … and allow me to rule mine.’ But the actual words are those of Herodotus, because, Dunn explains, ‘male historians felt at liberty to invent women’s speeches’. 

As Dunn searches out the women in antiquity, some parts of her claim that they shaped the ancient world ring true. Aspasia, consort of Pericles, may have been lampooned by Greek writers of comedy as a prostitute or a brothel-keeper, but it was her ability to influence public affairs that caused the real trouble. When, in 440 BC, Athens intervened on behalf of Miletus, Aspasia’s birthplace, in its dispute with Samos, this marked the beginning of long years of war. And that impacted women’s lives. Pericles exhorted Athenian women to bear more children. In 413 BC he passed a law allowing a man to have ‘legitimate children by two citizen women to repopulate the city’. As Dunn notes, Greek tragedy returned again and again to the subject of women – Medea, Clytemnestra, Phaedra, Electra – and power. She even suggests that women may have attended some performances of the tragedies, as men away fighting left the theatre benches empty. 

In Rome, it was, according to one of the city’s foundation myths, the act of a woman that led to the formation of the republic. When Sextus, son of the tyrant Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, raped the virtuous Lucretia, she committed suicide after calling upon her husband and father to exact vengeance. Her stand – if such it can be called – encouraged others to challenge tyrannical rule and resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy. But then women are in all the Roman city myths, not least the troubling story of the Sabine women, abducted, raped and forced into marriage with their captors. As Dunn says succinctly, this tale still ‘has the power to unsettle … because it captures a universal truth about the status of women in times of war and conquest, and their unique vulnerability when they are made to trust the wrong people’.

Inevitably, there is an overlap here between myth and history. But archaeological finds show that the early Minoan peoples, who traded widely around the Mediterranean (as far as Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia and the Iberian peninsula), worshipped bare-breasted female deities, in dedicated temples, where women priests performed the sacred rites. Dunn also points us to ordinary women doing ordinary things, like baking bread, weaving cloth, spinning wool, making leather and sustaining their families. She gives us a sampling of women’s voices, too, by offering chapter epigraphs from the writings of poets like Nossis of Locri, Corinna, Praxilla and Erinna. 

In a lengthy section on the ancient Greek poet Sappho, Dunn works through the surviving fragments, treating them as though they form a personal story. She describes how Sappho wove fabric and garlands as well as tales and how her professional life revolved around her female pupils, one of whom was her daughter. In adopting this method, Dunn goes against those modern scholars who see Sappho’s works as communal, ritualised and performative. But since Sappho’s fugitive poems name the women around her, why should the individuals named not have been real, recognisable women, thus rescued from obscurity? As Dunn observes, Sappho’s words ‘can make you feel like you are entering the space between two people caught in the middle of something’. She treats the fragments as remnants of experience.

In recent years, the women (and men) of myth and antiquity have been reimagined for new audiences by novelists such as Pat Barker, Bernardine Evaristo and Madeline Miller, performance artists like Kae Tempest and Natalie Haynes, classicists like Edith Hall and Mary Beard, and poets like A E Stallings and Josephine Balmer. The Missing Thread is another contribution to this trend. The tales Dunn tells are always pertinent. In 42 BC, for example, the second triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus levied a new duty on 1,400 of Rome’s richest women. The women – forbidden the franchise, bereft of sons, brothers and husbands forced to war, denied any role in decision-making – argued against taxation without representation. And they won. A few years later, when Mark Antony was away in the East and unable to defend his own interests, his wife, Fulvia, attempted to wage a war against Octavian. Besieged in Perusia (modern Perugia), she was bombarded by her opponents with bullets marked ‘I’m aiming for Fulvia’s clit’ – and worse. Two thousand years on, women still battle for equality and representation, and against sexualised violence and threats.

For centuries the study of classics was the preserve of privileged men. Some might argue that it still is. But now classical civilisation at A level (sadly not yet available in all state schools) competes with modern languages as a subject of choice. Two female classicists, Professor Edith Hall and Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson of Durham University, lead Advocating Classics Education, which campaigns for classical studies to be made available in every school. In The Missing Thread, Daisy Dunn shows us once again why all children should learn about ancient civilisations: because they provide great stories that are powerful and always fresh and relevant. 

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