Early 19th-Century Female Courage Compared to Ancient Female Courage


– 13 September 2016 –

Barzillai “19th Century” Bozarth:

19th-century-barzillaiA respected reverend attempts to resolve a civilized dispute between a group of young ladies, a discussion taking place roughly two hundred years before the present.

The ladies cannot decide whether their courage should manifest itself in their dominion over their future husbands or in their willful submission to them. The reverend gives the proper answer, and then afterwards he presents a comparison between the ladies’ ideas of courage and the ideas of female courage that were exalted in the ancient Occidental world:


The Rev. Mr. Sherlock being one day in company with a number of young ladies, the conversation happened to turn on the courage of their own sex. One observed, that Miss Lovelace had a resolution above being curbed by her guardians, and was determined to dress as she liked; while another gave it as her opinion, that it would be better for her to check her temper, and submit to the will of her guardians. “If ever I should be married” said one of the young ladies, “I think I shall have courage enough to make my husband do as I please.”—“You may be right, miss,” said another, “but I think, should I ever be married, I shall always consult my husband’s opinion, and readily submit to it, whenever reason seems to require it.”

The young ladies kept up this kind of conversation for some time; when, at last, finding their opinions were so different, they requested the reverend divine to give them his sentiments, wherein true female courage consisted.

“I have,” said Dr. Sherlock, “been listening to your conversation, and, as you have been pleased to appeal to me, I shall speak truth, without the least reserve. I hope you will attend to what I am going to say, and treasure it up in your minds.

“I consider true courage as one of the noblest ornaments of the fair sex, since it must be allowed, that, without a becoming resolution, many female accomplishments would be lost and sunk in obscurity, and that even virtue itself, unassisted by true courage, would soon dwindle to a shadow. I doubt not but that each of you amiable young ladies flatter yourselves with being possessed of this noble accomplishment; but permit me to tell you, that it is not every possessor of a pretty face who knows what it is. It is not Xantippe, but Lucretia, whom I call the woman of true courage.


The young women demure so politely to the authority of the reverend. It is a romantic depiction that seems unimaginable to anyone today.

“Xantippe is the daughter of two noble personages, and the wife of a sensible and prudent man; the mother of a blooming offspring, and the sole mistress of a plentiful fortune, the produce of which her husband cannot receive without her order. Elated with the thoughts of her high birth, and sensible of the dependance her Husband has on her will, she subjects him to the most rigorous discipline, is cruelly severe to her children, and arbitrary and tyrannical over her servants. Insolent and disdainful in her behaviour to her equals, and haughty and arrogant inner demeanour to her superiors, her jealousy is equalled only by her ill nature : the most innocent freedom of her husband to a visitor is sufficient to give rise to the former : and the most trifling repartee is sure to occasion the latter. These are her qualities, which she is so far from endeavouring to amend, that she considers them as marks of true courage ; or, to speak in a more polite phrase, they make her pass for a woman of spirit!

“How opposite is the conduct of Lucretia!—Possessed of no other fortune than what good sense and a proper education give her, she passes through life with peace and serenity of mind. The will of her husband, the care of her children, and the due preservation of order and economy in her house, are her principal studies. Easy, good-natured, and affable to her equals, and humble, submissive, and obliging to her superiors; as no height of prosperity makes her forgetful of adversity, so no storms of angry fortune are able to disturb the calm within her breast, or deprive her of that hope with which true courage will always support those who possess it.

“True courage, rightly understood, and properly cultivated, will inspire the fair sex with the noblest sentiments of honour and generosity. It will elevate their minds above those mean and paltry methods, which too many of them put in practice, to captivate the hearts of the giddy and unthinking. It will raise in them a noble and emulative zeal for literary studies, which will rescue them from the odium that is too frequently, and too justly, cast on many of them, of being pretty, but silly, prattling creatures. It is true courage only that can raise in them such sentiments as shall preserve them the esteem and affection of all, when the bloom of youth shall be lost in the evening of life: when the lily and rose shall fade on their cheek, and the beautiful form of their persons can be no longer admired.

“I have now, young ladies, given you my opinion of what really ought to be considered as true courage in your sex; and I hope it will have some influence on your minds, as well as on your conduct in the commerce of this busy world. It is not at all surprising, that you young ladies should differ in your opinions on so delicate a question; since true courage is, in these times of refinement, considered in a very different light from what it was in the remote ages of antiquity. In order to amuse you, and perhaps instruct you, I shall beg your attention to a piece of ancient history: from which you will judge what were the barbarous ideas the ladies of antiquity had of true courage.

Mithridates, king of Pontus, proving unsuccessful in the war in which he was engaged against Lucullus, a Roman general, had shut up two of his wives (for the custom of that country allowed of a plurality,) and two of his sisters, whom he most loved, in that part of his kingdom which was the most remote from danger. At last, not being able to brook the apprehensions of their falling into the hands of the Romans, he sent orders to Bacchalides, an eunuch, to put them to death. The manner in which they received this order strongly marks the ideas the ladies of those times and regions had of true courage.

“Berenice and Monima were these unfortunate princesses. The first was born in the island of Chios, and the other in Miletus, a city of Ionia, towards the borders of Cairo, on the coast of the Aegean Sea. Monima was celebrated for the invincible resistance which she made to all the offers of Mithridates, who was most violently in love with her, and to which she never consented, till he had declared her queen, by calling her his wife, and sending her the royal diadem—a ceremony indispensable in the marriage of kings in that part of the world.


Death Before Dishonor: Rather than suffer humiliation by the capture of his wives and sisters by the Romans, Mithridates VI of the defeated Kingdom of Pontus ordered each of them to die, and the courageous ancient women promptly obeyed.

“However, even then she consented with reluctance, and only to gratify the inclinations of her family, who were dazzled with the lustre of the crown and power of Mithridates, who was at that time victorious and loaded with glory. Monima abandoned herself to a perpetual melancholy, which the abject slavery in which Mithridates kept his wives, the distance she then was from Greece, whither she had no hopes of returning, and, perhaps too, a secret passion which she always disguised, rendered insurmountable.

“When Bacchalides had declared to them the fatal message, and that they were at liberty to choose what death appeared to them the most easy, Monima tore of the royal bandage which she always wore on her head, and, fixing it round her neck, endeavoured to strangle herself; but the bandage broke, and left her in a condition truly to be pitied. ‘Unfortunate diadem,’ said she, trampling it under her feet, ‘thou hast brought me to all my miseries! thou hast been witness of my slavery and wretchedness! Why wouldst thou not at last help me to put an end to them all?’— After having shewn these marks of her resentment, she snatched a dagger from the hand of Bacchalides, and sheathed it in her bosom.

“Berenice swallowed the dreadful potion with astonishing resolution, and obeyed, without murmuring, the frenzy of a barbarous lover.

“The king’s two sisters, Statira and Roxana, followed the example of Berenice. Roxana, after having a long time kept a profound silence, swallowed the fatal draught, and died without uttering a single word. As for Statira, after having shewn her grief for the king’s defeat, she highly praised his conduct, and ordered Bacchalides to thank him for thinking of her amidst the wreck of his affairs, and thereby securing her, by a timely death, from the shameful slavery of the Romans.”

Dr. Sherlock having now finished, the young ladies all rose and thanked him for the instruction he had been pleased to give them. They assured him, that they should in future endeavour to distinguish between the true courage of these modern times, and of those in which lived the wives and sisters of Mithridates.

Johnson, R., “Female Courage Properly Considered.” The Blossoms of Morality; Intended for the Amusement and Instruction of Young Ladies and Gentlemen, 136-144. London: J. Harris, 1828.

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