Axiothea of Philesia lived in the 4th century BCE. She is noted twice in Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. She is mentioned both in the life of Plato and in that of Speusippus.
She traveled to Athens to become a student of Plato after she had read Plato's Republic. However, unlike the women of the educated Guardian class depicted in that Platonic dialogue, it appears that Axiothea needed to disguise herself as a man and she wore men's clothing when she attended the Academy.
To understand the context of this action it is necessary to understand the situation of non slave women who were not born as Athenian Citizens. The political situation of such women in Athens is explained in the section about Aspasia of Miletus, who also came to Athens and lived as a member of the 'stranger' (foreigner to Athens) class. If you have not read this important background information about 'Athenian Strangers' I suggest that your read it now. Go to: Background information: Axiothea of Philesia
Having read the background material, it becomes clear that Axiothea of Philesia was choosing not to become a hetaira as had Aspasia of Miletus. She then chose the only other alternative for a non slave stranger. She took on the trappings of a male Athenian stranger. This allowed her to remain in Athens. True she would not have the protection of a man in the way that other hetaira might but she seems to have enjoyed some social respect. After all it was known that she was a woman dressed as a man. This allowed her direct access to the Academy - something that would not have been allowed her if she had become a companion to some Athenian male citizen.
Diogenes Laertius states:
" . . .among whom there were also two women, Lasthenea of Mantinea, and Axiothea of Phlius, who used even to wear man's clothes, as we are told by Dicaearchus"
How she must have loved the intellectual life! And she must have been really good at philosophy or Axiothea of Philesia would never have been tolerated by the other (male) philosophy students. It is true the Plato in his Republic lays out an educational system which would be the same for women and men of the Guardian class and it is true that his students would have been influenced by his authority and opinions. But, given the social organization of Athens and the usual place of women in that society, it seems unlikely that a dull or even an average woman would have been tolerated by her male student counterparts.
She must have been a remarkable student. Clearly she was devoted to the intellectual life. Axiothea of Philesia became a student of Speussippus. But as for Axiothea's studies with Speussippus, we do not know if these began while Plato was still alive or if they started after the death of Plato.
Speusippus was Plato's nephew, the son of Plato's sister, Potone and Eurymedon. Speusippus was a teacher at the Academy. After Plato died, Speussippus became the head master. (Some think that this may have led to the strained relationship with Aristotle. After all Aristotle was a 'star pupil' of Plato and many assumed that he was heir to the Academy.)
ASIDE: One wonders if a strain in human relations impelled some of the strength of Aristotle's criticism of Plato's philosophy.
Diogenes Laertius states:
" The female pupils of Plato, Lasthenea of Mantinea, and Axiothea of Phlius, are said to have become disciples of Speusippus also." Source: Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers: Life of Speussippus.
And it appears that Axiothea could afford to pay for her education since Diogenes continues:
"And Dionysius, writing to him in a petulant manner, says, 'And one may learn philosophy too from your female disciple from Arcadia; moreover, Plato used to take his pupils without exacting any fee from them; but you collect tribute from yours, whether willing or unwilling.'"
Source: Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Life of Speussippus.
Of course it could be Axiothea of Philesia's wealth that also offered her some protection in Athenian society and that might have been a factor in her not joining the Hetaira. In any case she was a courageous, intellectual woman.
Little else is known of Axiothea or her work. But she offers another example of a woman so full of the love of wisdom, a true philosopher, that she left her home, traveled to foreign polis, dressed as a man and pay tuition to attend the classes of an eminent philosophers.
This page was updated January 10, 2015.