The Athenian Women

Written by Alessandro Barbero Antony Shugaar (trans.)
Review by Linnea Tanner

Alessandro Barbero’s The Athenian Women is a complex tale highlighting the class struggles of women subjugated under a patriarchal system and of common citizens defending their democratic principles. It is set toward the end of the Peloponnesian War during the Athenian coup of 411 BC, when a short-lived oligarchy replaced the democratic government. The story centers around two humble farmers, veterans of the infamous battle of Mantinea, and their two daughters. When the men travel to Athens to see Aristophanes’ latest comedy, their daughters secretly accept an invitation by the son of a wealthy nobleman to visit his house. The story alternates between scenes depicting the enactment of the play by actors dressed as women to protest against misogyny and war, and the abuse carried out by three young noblemen on the two girls. These seemingly unrelated scenes and chance encounters ultimately tie together in a satisfying climax with unexpected twists.

Barbero masterfully uses the omniscient point of view to capture the universal message that common men can rise to defend their freedoms and effect change. It is also a compelling story of women’s valiant struggles to maintain their dignity in a misogynistic society. The author skillfully weaves the ancient Athenian culture and political backdrop into the dramatic storytelling. The scenes of the noblemen’s mistreatment of the two girls are at times disturbing and incite raw emotions, but leave a powerful impact for embracing the theme that oppressed men and women can find the courage to fight against the status quo. The story has modern-day relevance in which we must continue to defend our democratic principles against the corruption of power and wealth.

The Athenian Women is highly recommended for readers who enjoy compelling ancient historical fiction.