National Humanities Medal
"I wouldn't have liked living in ancient times-I couldn't have done the things I have done," says classical scholar Mary Lefkowitz. "But I think ancient women did more things than we imagine they did. They were appreciated when they did things well."
Lefkowitz has written three books on the role of women in ancient societies: Heroines and Hysterics, Women in Greek Myth, and Women's Life in Greece and Rome, which she coedited with Maureen B. Fant and which is considered the standard sourcebook in the field.
"Readers get a negative impression of women at first in ancient literature but when you look a bit harder you see they had an important role, behind the scenes and also sometimes upfront," says Lefkowitz. "Greek and Roman societies gave womenz—at least the elites did—a lot of influence. Words spoken by women were written by men but women did some writing as well—poetry and prose narratives, the most notable poet being Sappho. And women played an important role in the early church. "Also, the Egyptians wrote quite a lot about women in the Hellenic period."
Lefkowitz says she found her passion for the classics at age sixteen while visiting ancient Roman ruins in Britain, France, and Italy. "I got hooked," she recalls. As a high school student at the Brearley School in Manhattan, Lefkowitz studied Latin and Greek. "It was partly that the language was so interesting but also the idea of understanding your past, and coming into contact with the past of so long ago that was really exciting."
Lefkowitz is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus at Wellesley College, where she received her degree in 1957 and taught for forty-five years. She received her PhD in classical philology at Radcliffe in 1961. Her most recent book,
Greek Gods, Human Lives, looks at the role of the gods in Greek myths.
"When we read epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, we tend to think more about the human beings in the story. We discount the gods' importance because we don't believe in them."
There is something to be learned from the gods, says Lefkowitz. The myths were fundamentally religious stories, she explains. With no definitive religious text, such as the Bible, it was these stories about the gods that explained the forces of nature to the ancients.
"To the ancient person the role of the gods was much more upfront," she says. "One has to look at the action not from the point of view of what the humans are doing but what the gods are doing."
Lefkowitz has been a leading defender of interpreting the history of ancient civilizations through traditional standards of historical evidence. Her controversial books,
Not Out of Africa and Black Athena Revisited, with coeditor Guy MacLean Rogers, examine the factual evidence for an Afrocentric approach to the origin of the ancient world and disputes its plausibility. She argues against the idea that Europeans stole from African culture.
"You can't steal a culture in the way you can steal a piano or a car," she said in a 2001 interview. "If I steal your car, you don't have it, but if I steal your culture, you still have your culture. The perfect example of that is Greece and Rome. The Romans adopted Greek culture. They thought it was better than their culture, and they simply adopted it and did their own thing with it. But, meanwhile, the Greeks still had their culture."