The Gendered Economics of Greek Bronze Mirrors: Reflections on Reciprocity and Feminine Agency
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The Gendered Economics of Greek Bronze Mirrors:
Reflections on Reciprocity and Feminine Agency

The hand-held mirror is unique in Greek material culture in terms of both gender and economics.1 Bronze mirrors were produced by male metal-smiths in specialized workshops outside the household; the valuable bronze was otherwise associated with the masculine activities of war (in the form of weapons and armor), and government, as minted coins. Yet mirrors are gendered feminine in Greek society: in Greek iconography and literature, they are exclusively associated with women. Actual examples have been recovered archaeologically from women’s graves and from sanctuaries, especially those dedicated to female divinities. The iconography of the mirrors themselves is likewise overwhelmingly feminine, depicting both idealized female figures and mythological imagery.

Because bronze mirrors moved between the spheres of masculine and feminine, public and private, they functioned as especially charged objects in the negotiation of gender and status in Greek society. Since mirrors were produced outside the household, women must have [End Page 143] acquired them via exchange—as opposed to textiles, which they might produce themselves. The value of the metal was significant and therefore represented a transfer of wealth from men to women. Yet unlike bronze weapons or coinage, the value of the metal did not translate into military or economic power. Rather, the bronze mirror conferred elite status on its owner, a status couched in terms of feminine beauty. For citizen women these precious objects could be transferred outside the household only in strictly prescribed ways as votive dedications and funerary gifts. In addition, mirrors were ascribed social value because of their supposed magical properties, especially as a means of prophecy. This study considers the ways in which women capitalized on the status conferred by mirrors in terms of personal display and conspicuous consumption, as well as in the realm of love magic. I argue that while mirrors functioned as an important means of feminine agency, the exchange of mirrors served to create and maintain social bonds between the sexes.

TYPES OF GREEK MIRRORS

Bronze mirrors have been recovered archaeologically throughout the Greek world.2 The vast majority with known provenience are from funerary and sanctuary contexts.3 Single mirrors found in graves are generally assumed to have been the personal property of the deceased. Unfortunately, the biological sex of that individual is unknown in many cases; indeed, many graves were conventionally identified as female on the basis of the presence of a mirror. When the sex of the deceased has been verified by means of skeletal biology, it seems that the exclusivity of mirrors with adult female burials persists only until the end of the fifth century b.c.e.; nevertheless, mirrors remained ideologically associated with women through the Hellenistic period (Houby-Nielsen 1997, with earlier bibliography). Mirrors were also dedicated in sanctuaries in all eras. Large caches of votive mirrors dating to the Archaic and Classical periods were discovered at the Argive Heraion and the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron; both sites were [End Page 144] of particular import for women in marriage and childbirth.4 In the late Classical and Hellenistic periods, mirrors are dedicated to other deities—especially Aphrodite, who replaces Hera as the primary divinity responsible for marital love (Houby-Nielsen 1997.243–45). Few mirrors have been recovered from domestic contexts, not only because Greek houses have been less extensively excavated than both sanctuaries and cemeteries, but also because mirrors’ portability and inherent value make them unlikely finds. Several bronze mirrors were recovered from the town of Olynthus in the Chalcidice in Northern Greece, which was destroyed in 318 b.c.e. by the army of Philip I of Macedonia and abandoned. One room in House A iv 9 has been interpreted as a women’s workroom on the basis of the presence of two case-mirrors, as well as a bracelet, groups of loom weights, and vessels for food preparation.5

Unlike Etruscan mirrors, no comprehensive corpus speculorum exists for Greek mirrors; rather, they have been studied by individual type. The earliest mirrors, dating to the seventh century b.c.e., are simply round polished bronze disks, often convex in shape, attached to...


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