*10 MINUTE READ*
Most of our sources from the Classical period (500 – 323 BCE) come from Athens, a city-state (polis) in the region of Attica in present-day Greece.
Greece as we know it today did not exist in the ancient world, and the region was made up of a number of city-states, e.g. Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, etc. Each polis controlled a significant area of land, with power in the form of political or military institutions held within the city itself. For instance, Athens controlled most of the region of Attica, but voting and assemblies took place within the city walls.
Athenian culture inspired many other city-states across present-day Greece and the Mediterranean world, especially after Greek cities colonised such areas as present-day Turkey and southern Italy.
We cannot assume that women’s role in Athenian society was representative of the lives of women across Greek city-states. However, the sheer amount of evidence we have from Athens means that it makes a good point of comparison when looking at other ancient cultures (Pomeroy, 1990: xv), and Athens certainly had an impact on other civilisations, especially ancient Rome.
Athenian girls tended to stay at home with their mothers where they prepared for married life which, as we know, largely centred around the upkeep of the household (the oikos). Vase paintings suggest that wealthy girls may have had a basic education, including reading and music lessons (Blundell, 1998: 10-28). However, it is likely that most women were taught very basic literacy which was probably just enough to manage the household and its accounts, although this is widely debated amongst researchers (Lindgren, 2013: 125-146).
Sometime between the ages of 12 and 18 years old, Athenian girls would get married. Unfortunately, they had little choice in whom they married as it was arranged by their father or closest male relative (the male head of the household was called the kyrios). For girls, living sheltered lives at home with their mothers, marriage would have been a massive upheaval: a change of home and location, their first sexual experience (with consent or otherwise), and marriage to a man who was probably significantly older than they were (Blundell, 1998: 29-30).
The girls’ fathers would have supplied them with a dowry which was supposed to be used a contribution to the household, thus ensuring their daughter’s future well-being and comfort. A dowry was therefore essential to the arrangement of a marriage, as shown in this scene written a 4th century dramatist:
Father: That’s right. Listen to what I’m going to say. This girl I give to you to harvest children.Menander, Perikeiromene (The Girl with Her Hair Cut Short), 1013-14
Future Husband: I accept.
Father: I add three talents dowry.
Future Husband: Generous.
If a man divorced his wife, the dowry would be returned to the wife’s original household (Brulé, 2001: 121-6). It should be noted that, as women were unable to participate in the Athenian legal system, only men could bring divorce suits. However, male relatives could act on the behalf of an unhappy wife to bring about a divorce.
Athens is famous for being the first society to establish democracy. The word democracy comes from demos, meaning ‘people’ and kratos, meaning ‘strength or power’. So, democracy essentially means ‘the rule of the people’.
However, in Athenian democracy, ‘the people’ were only those who met a certain criterion. To vote in Athens, you had to be a male citizen of Athens. This meant that women and children (even those who were Athenian citizens), enslaved people, and those born outside of Athens (metics) could not vote.
Despite not being permitted to participate in politics, women were essential to the Athenian social and political structure, and their role in this aspect of ancient life largely centres on the importance of their offspring’s legitimacy.
Marriage and Legitimacy
In Athens, and in many cultures around the ancient and modern world, legitimacy ensured that citizenship could be passed on from parents to their children. However, in an age before paternity tests, it would have been impossible to prove that a person was legitimate or otherwise.
This is evident in marriage in ancient Athens as its main purpose was the procreation of legitimate children. Legitimate male offspring could participate in politics and also inherit, whilst female children were able to pass citizenship to their children. This became more important after the Athenian leader Pericles passed a law in 451 BCE which prevented the offspring of an Athenian father and non-Athenian mother from having citizenship. A law case from the 4th century BCE shows the importance of establishing legitimacy of a child:
‘When we were born, our father introduced us to the phratry [a brotherhood which was tasked with establishing a child’s citizenship], and took an oath according to the established customs that he was introducing children born from an Athenian citizen and a lawfully wedded wife.’Isaeus 8.18-20
Before marriage, the woman’s legitimacy (essentially her right to Athenian citizenship) had to be established. As a result, women who lied about the legitimacy of their children, or who engaged in extramarital (moicheia) affairs were severely punished. Women who had affairs with men other than their husbands were usually divorced and they could not wear any ornaments (jewellery) or participate in public religious ceremonies. If you were a man caught with another man’s wife, you could be killed. However, good reason had to be given for a man to kill another, even on the grounds of adultery, as shown in this court case in which a husband defends his actions (c. 400 BCE):
‘I [Euphiletus] went to the houses of one man after another. Some I found at home; others, I was told, were out of town. So collecting as many as I could of those who were there, I went back [to Euphiletus’ house]. We procured torches from the shop nearby, and entered my house. The door had been left open by arrangement from the maid.
We forced the bedroom door. The first of us to enter saw him still lying beside my wife. Those who followed saw him standing naked by the bed. I knocked him down, members of the jury, with one blow. I then twisted his hands behind his back and tied them. And then I asked him why he was committing this crime against me, of breaking into my home.
He answered that he admitted his guilt; but he begged and besought me not to kill him – to accept a money payment instead. But I replied: ‘It is not I who shall be killing you, but the law of the state, which you, in transgressing, have valued less highly than your own pleasure. You have preferred to commit this great crime against my wife and children, rather than obey the law and be of decent behaviour.’Lysias, On the Murder of Eratosthenes 26-27
Unfortunately, marriage was a dangerous business for women, particularly when it came to childbirth. The Athenians possessed little knowledge of the female anatomy and the mortality rates for mothers and infants alike were high. This very legitimate concern (maternal mortality is still a problem across the world today) is embodied in Euripides’ Medea:
Medea: Men say that we live a life free from danger at home while they fight with the spear. How wrong they are! I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.Euripides, Medea 247-250
However, despite the pressures placed on women to produce children, Athenian marriages were not all devoid of affection. This is clear in tombstone inscriptions from Athens and across the Greek-speaking world in which husbands or fathers mourn the loss of their wives or daughters. It is telling of the idealised expectations of women that praise for the dead largely centres around their modesty, good sense, or relationship with their husband/father.
It was not clothes, it was not gold that this woman admired during her lifetime; it was her husband and the good sense that she showed in her behaviour. But in return for the youth you share with him, Dionysia, your tomb is adorned by your husband Antiphilus.Tombstone of Dionysia, Athens, 4th century BCE (IG II2. 11162)
Other than producing legitimate children, married women were required to look after their household (oikos) as evident in the following excerpts from Xenophon’s On Household Management:
‘It is important then, when provisions are brought into the home, for someone to keep them safe and to do the work of household. A home is required for the rearing of infant children, and a home is required for making food out of harvest. Similarly a home is required for the making of clothing from wool. “Since both indoor and outdoor matter required both work and supervision,” I said, “I believe that the god arranged the work and supervision indoors are a women’s task, and the outdoor’s are a man’s.”‘Xenophon, On Household Management 7.21-22
‘For a proper woman was created in order to care for her children and not to neglect them, and so she said that a proper woman would prefer to care for the welfare of her own possessions rather than to neglect them.’Xenophon, On Household Management 9.19
Xenophon casts marriage as being a business-like partnership, with the wife and husband responsible for areas of household management which were best suited to their supposed physical and psychological abilities. However, Xenophon’s dialogue is clearly highly idealistic and may give an overly simplistic impression of women in Athens and their day-to-day lives.
Past scholarship has suggested that women stayed indoors, avoided speaking to men in public, and occupied separate quarters to men (the gynaeceum). However, Cohen (1996: 134-145) suggests that such controls were viewed as idealised practices which did not reflect the reality of Athenian society. Rather, it is more likely that women frequently left the house to deal with matters of the household, to work in service industries (agriculture, crafts, food production), and to participate in religious rituals and ceremonies (Lindgren, 2013: 125-146).
In religious matters, women were able to exercise some control. Women of Athens and those of foreign descent could take part in a variety of religious rituals which were central to Athenian society (Fantham, Peet Foley, et al. 1994). This began at a young age with women dancing, carrying sacred objects, and make sacrifices. Women were also responsible for organising the Thesmophoria, an annual festival celebrating the goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone. You may be surprised to learn, the festival celebrated fertility…
This is a very brief introduction to the lives of women in classical Athens. The women in question were citizens, and therefore experienced a degree of privilege – in comparison to enslaved people and non-citizens. From a modern perspective, it is difficult for us to imagine what it was like for women to marry at a young age and start a family with men they barely knew. Societal expectations would likely have prepared young women for the transition from childhood to married life. Unfortunately, we do not have access to the women’s perspective on their own lives.
Women enjoyed some degree of independence in that they were central to religious ceremonies and in household matters. However, it is clear from the sources available to us – written by wealthy men – that it was thought that women’s primary function in ancient Athenian society was to marry and have legitimate children.
A few things to note:
- As said, this is a very brief overview of the lives of women in Classical Athens. There are plenty more sources and works of scholarship to explore. If you are interested, consider tracking down some of the bibliography listed below.
- All translations of the primary sources used throughout this page, with the exception of Menander (Loeb edition), can be found in Lefkowitz and Fant’s Women’s Life in Greece and Rome.
Brulé, P. 2003. Nevill, A. (tr). Women of Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Cohen, D. 1996. Seclusion, Separation, and the Status of Women. In: McAuslan, I., Walcott, P. (eds). Women in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 134-145.
Fantham, E., Peet Foley, H., Boymel Kampen, N., Pomeroy, S.B., Shapiro, H.A. 1994. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lefkowitz, M.R., Fant, M.B. 1982. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. London: Duckworth.
Pomeroy, S.B. 1990. Women in Hellenistic Egypt. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Lindgren, M. 2013. Education and Work. In: Tulloch, J.H. (ed). A Cultural History of Women in Antiquity. London: Bloomsbury Academic.