Leontion: The Lost Woman Philosopher

Who was this brash, intelligent, ancient philosopher Leontion? We do know she was a woman that garnered both respect and vitriol from her peers. Epicurus praised her. Cicero disapproved. If we only knew why.

Lost but not completely forgotten.

women-thinking-smIt is beyond doubt that the paragons of philosophy’s history, so recalled for their wondrous scholarship, were in custody of a marvellous intellect, and were in no way meek in their expression of it. Among the philosophical schools of Ancient Greece the virtues of wit and erudition were borne with a particular pride, viewed so they were as direct means of wealth and success. This was, of course, a vanity from which women were expected to abstain, and not least since intelligence was, if anything, a serious hindrance to the common ambitions of an Ancient Greek woman.

That said, women bold and brash existed amid the philosophers’ ranks, though most are remembered somewhat disdainfully. Back in 300BC there lived a woman philosopher about whom we have admittedly little information, yet whose scholastic presence is painted clearly in the way she offended her contemporaries. Leontion was a follower of Epicurus, a renowned philosopher whose school welcomed the unlikeliest of sorts: foreigners, slaves, and—almost more surprisingly—women.

Historical accounts of Leontion tend to concentrate upon her status as a hetaera, a highly-cultured courtesan typical of Ancient Greek society.[1] The sources that remain to describe her, however, can be questioned in this keen focus, since it was a trend among Greek historians to tell of women through the lives of men. If Leontion was as truly gifted as her reception suggests, a concentration on her being a ‘nonrespectable woman’ would have served as convenient means of detracting from this.[2]

Whether a hetaera or not, Epicurus seemed rather fond of her—and not in the usual way in which a man might be fond of a woman. ‘By Apollo, my dear little Leontion,’ wrote Epicurus, ‘with what uproarious applause you filled us as we read your letter.’[3] As this correspondence indicates, Leontion held both wit and cheek in spates; and it was this intelligence, combined with her philosophical acumen, that granted her such disfavour among her milieu. Her daring to contend with Theophrastus, a student of Plato and further successor to Aristotle, was at the heart of her reputation. At a time when women kept quietly to their confines, the learned Leontion took the liberty to script a censorious treatise in retort to Theophrastus’s works, an act which soured the hand of reporting historians.

Cicero makes clear his disapproval of Leontion’s audacity in one of his philosophical dialogues: ‘Was it on such dreams that Epicurus and Metrodorus and Hermarchus relied in speaking out against Pythagoras, Plato, and Empedocles? Or the little prostitute Leontion in daring to write a treatise against Theophrastus? Of course, she writes in fine Attic style, but really! Such license the Garden of Epicurus allowed!’[4] It is to great regret that nothing remains of Leontion’s treatise, but the impact it had upon those who read it suggests it was a respectable piece of work. If even Cicero, so determined to smirch her name, felt somehow obliged to commend her skills, it would hardly strain inference to suggest her writings were of good quality. How else could it have spurred the Greek patriarchy to recoil so?

Unfortunately this all but exhausts what is known of the ambitious Leontion, since women of the classical era so rarely took themselves to scripture, and were in no way encouraged to do so by their male counterparts. The only vestige we have of her brazen intellect is the dropped jaws of her male onlookers, and the admiring words of Epicurus. Yet in some ways this might seem appropriate. Not only does our lack of understanding create, about Leontion, an air of mystery and intrigue that would certainly have been present during her lifetime, but also a distinct frustration with the Ancient Greeks for suppressing her. Is it not perfectly exemplar of the classical world that the Greeks aspired so much to wisdom and knowing, yet recklessly neglected what could have been vital resources (i.e. their women philosophers)?

In any case—whether a hetaera, a prostitute, or a well-versed scholar—nothing remains of Leontion’s ideas, only the impressions they made upon those who stole a glance at them. If the remarks of Cicero and Epicurus are anything to go by, however, we can safely assume they were well worth reading.

[1] Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, xiii. pp. 588-93.

[2] McIntosh-Snyder, J. (1991). The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Southern Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press. 103.

[3] Ibid. 104.

[4] Ibid. 103.

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