Ancient Athenian Women of the Classical Period

by Moya K. Mason

Greek Woman

Any historical investigation into the lives of ancient women involves individual interpretation and much speculation. One can read the ancient sources concerned with women and their place in society, but in some sense, they are all secondary sources that were written by men about women. No ancient manuscripts, journals, or diaries written by Greek women were found. An exception would be rare examples like the poems of Sappho. There is nothing to assist modern scholars or students to determine what a typical woman in ancient Greece may have felt about her life. It is not known what her hopes and dreams were, or what women thought about politics, the numerous wars, or the philosophical movements that were taking root. Nor can we read about her thoughts on slavery, children, marriage, or domestic activities. The scope is truly limited but many questions can still be asked and considered, such as: how was the subject of women treated in early Greek sources, and did these chronicles adversely affect the treatment of women who lived later? Were Athenian women of the Classical Period really locked away, not educated, and given no control of their own lives? Were they citizens, who had personal freedom? Or did they live very restricted lives during a time when democracy began to flourish? The answers may be hard to uncover, but a look at myths is a good place to begin.

Myths are traditional tales that attempt to make some sense of the world. They often include some very basic beliefs about life, society, and what roles men and women play in a culture. The fact that these tales became traditional and were handed down from one generation to another shows the important role they played in transmitting a culture's attitudes. And as Sarah Pomeroy writes, "the myths of the past molded the attitudes of successive more sophisticated generations and preserved the continuity of the social order."(1) For the Greeks, Hesiod's Theogony was a very important work because it gave them a catalogue of their gods and explained the details of each god's creation and lineage. Central to the Theogony is the Prometheus myth, which explains how once upon a time gods and men lived happily together and the fields gave food without the necessity of tilling. It was the Golden Age(2) and life was blissful. No work, just leisure. Eventually, Prometheus angered the gods. As punishment, Zeus sent "the renowned Ambidexter,"(3) a woman named Pandora. Pandora brought the Golden Age to an abrupt end by opening the jar and letting out "grim cares upon mankind. Only Hope remained there ... under the lip of the jar, and did not fly out ..."(4) The myth transmits the message that before women, everything was fine. Because of them, men had to work for even less than they used to have and farm the land for their food. Hesiod was very likely a misogynist, and "his views of gods and humankind not only shaped, but probably corresponded to the ideas held by the population as a whole."(5)

Ancient Greeks placed a lot of emphasis on the mythological poetry of men like Hesiod and Homer. They were held in reverence and their works carried the same importance as the Holy Bible did centuries later. In the Poetics, Aristotle said "that poetry is both more philosophical and more serious than history because poetry speaks of the universals and history only of the particulars."(6) This poetry gave the people who read or heard it insight into how their ancestors lived and what they considered important in life. It also answered questions about morality. As a result, how Hesiod and Homer portrayed women was very significant and had repercussions on subsequent generations.

In Homer's Odyssey, he includes many women, but most of them only have a place in the story through their relationships to the male characters. The most important woman in the Odyssey is the goddess Athena, however, even her importance is predicated on how she can help Odysseus. The poem is a moral exemplum, which is illustrated in part by the Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and Aegisthus triangle that ends with the murder of Agamemnon at the hands of his wife. Women were to be feared and held under suspicion, even seemingly faithful wives like Penelope. Odysseus is reminded to be careful of her since she could be another Clytemnestra. Greek girls and women were expected to learn from the myth and to strive not to be like Agamemnon's treacherous wife. Instead, they were expected to be loyal and patient and to learn the crafts of spinning and weaving just as Penelope did. Or to be sweet and innocent as Princess Nausicaa was and love to wash the household's clothing. These were the women who were held in high esteem within Greek culture.

As Aristotle clearly pointed out, poetry and myths are not histories. So how did the early Greek historians handle the subject of women? When Herodotus and Thucydides wrote their histories, they fundamentally focused on politics, the military, and wars. Certainly Herodotus mentions legendary women like Medea, Io, and Helen, but only in connection to the role they may have played in the series of hostilities that occurred between the Greeks and the Asiatics. To be fair, he also mentions historical women, such as the queens of Egypt and Babylon, for example. He also wrote social commentaries on a number of things including, Babylonian marriage customs and the role of the sexes in Egypt.

Thucydides was writing the history of the Peloponnesian Wars, not a social history. His interest was war and the military, so it is not surprising that women do not play a central role in his analysis. He does mention women in The Funeral Oration of Pericles (431 BC), in which he has Pericles say on the subject of women: "Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men whether for good, or for bad."(7) But Pericles loved a woman named Aspasia, who was undoubtedly talked about all the time since she was said to be a foreign woman of ill-repute. If Thucydides thought that women should strive to be "least talked about among men,"(8) did he mean that women should somehow be kept separate from men? Or just make themselves invisible in some way? In either case, these ancient histories do not shed very much light on women or their importance, which is to be expected considering that much of the history of ancient Greece and especially of Athens, involved so much warfare and the building of an imperialistic empire. Of course, this was the domain of men. Women were expected to give birth to future soldiers and citizens. Were women's lives really that one-dimensional? What was life like for an Athenian woman during the Classical Period?

Girls of the Classical Period (500-323 BC) in Athens were not given the same opportunities for education as boys. In fact, in H.I. Marrou's wonderful book, A History of Education in Antiquity, there is no mention of education for Athenian girls at all during the Classical Period. It is not until the Macedonians conquered the Hellenistic world that the status of women was elevated and some were given formal education.(9) Women had always played a more important role in Macedonian culture and this was reflected in the educational system. In Xenophon's On Household Management from the fourth century BC Athens, one can read about a woman's education. In excerpts 7.4-7.6, Socrates is asking Ischomachus if he has taught his wife everything she needs to know, or had she already been taught by her parents. He tells Socrates that his wife came to him at fifteen years of age, with knowledge of wool, spinning, the making of clothes, and food preparation.(10) These were seen to be the most important skills for women to have, along with the ability to raise children. This is the sort of education that women were given and the better student she was in these areas, the better chance she had of getting herself a husband. Girls seem to have married as soon as they reached puberty, while their husbands would be at least thirty years of age. (11) While boys of their same age would still be receiving educational and military training, the young women were giving birth to future citizens.(12)

It was very important to be a citizen of Athens, especially after the democratic reforms of the sixth century BC. Being a citizen entitled a person to own land, and at the age of thirty, to hold political office. Citizens could also speak in the ekklesia and they voted on all affairs of the state. Men were the citizens of democratic Athens and all women were excluded.(13) This exclusion meant that women had no political rights; it meant that they could not own land, which constituted power in the ancient world; and that they could never hold political office. Roger Just makes a very interesting point in Women in Athenian Law and Life: life was worse for women in democratic Athens than in other periods of the city's history because:

In narrowly oligarchic, aristocratic, or monarchic states, women who belonged to the elite have often wielded considerable power, even if illegitimately; on the other hand, since the bulk of the population, whether male or female, possessed no political rights, politics was not something which in general distinguished men from women. But in Athenian democracy there were no thrones from behind which women could rule, while the access that every adult Athenian male had to the offices and honours of the state sharply distinguished the citizen's life from that of his wife or daughter.(14)

Nevertheless, women did play a role in the Athenian polis, since "the very definition of an Athenian involved not only his being born of an Athenian father, but also of an Athenian mother properly given in marriage by her kin."(15) Women also played a major part in the religious ceremonies of their oikoi, the gene, and of the polis,(16) but only wives of Athenian citizens could participate in the Festival of the Thesmophoria.(17) It must be stressed that the Athenian polis was both a citizen's club and a men's club, and by definition women fell outside both. Many women may have felt relieved that they could not play a role in deciding whether their sons, brothers, and husbands would go to war, but there must have been some who wished that they too could be citizens and have a say in the running of their city. In a lot of ways, even in her personal life, an Athenian woman was powerless. Did that include her marriage?

The goal for a young Athenian woman was to get married. Most every woman would have a dowry. The amount was determined by her family's wealth, which varied drastically through the classes. The dowry helped to attract a suitable husband and was supposed to be used for the woman's maintenance. This didn't always happen and was sometimes squandered by the husband. The dowry was given by the father or her kyrios to the husband and could be taken back if the marriage did not work out. Every woman had a kyrios or male guardian. When she was born it would be her father. If he died, a male relative could take his place. After her marriage, her husband would become the kyrios. Any property or money she acquired through the death of a family member or through inheritance, became the property of her household, which was controlled by the kyrios. There is no evidence from Athens that women were ever allowed to become a kyrios. This meant that an Athenian woman could never have any real financial say in her life. Her dowry was in no legal sense her own, as it was given by her kyrios and she could not dispose of it herself. An Athenian woman could obtain a divorce, but only if her family and kyrios supported the decision. In that case, the dowry would be returned to her kyrios.

Many men feared the possibility of divorce since the return of a dowry could bankrupt a family. Men may have treated their wives somewhat better than if there was no money involved. If the woman was young enough, her kyrios would use the dowry to marry her off again after a divorce. If not, the money was used for her future care. Either way, a woman from a wealthy family was at the mercy of her household. Women from the lower classes had to hope relatives would help their kyrios collect a dowry for them. If not, marriage was not very likely for them. A woman could divorce, but only if her family agreed she should. In all divorce cases, women lost their children, who were expected to stay with the father.(18) As a result, it is easy to see why many women may have stayed in marriages, even if they really wanted to leave. Athenian women of the Classical Period did not have much power or input into their personal or financial lives. Were they even free to work and walk about the city?

Women were expected to take care of the household, their husbands, and the children. This was what a woman's life revolved around, and it was very separate from the preoccupations of her Athenian husband. In fact, there was even a separate area of the house for wives, daughters, and female slaves; these quarters were called the gynaeconitis.(19) This area was usually located in the upper level of the house and was seldom seen by men. Respectable women stayed indoors as much as possible,(20) and it was considered proper for them to keep out of the sun so their skin stayed white, like the "white-armed Hera."(21) Of course, it would depend on her status in society. If she were a slave, she would have to fetch water and do the shopping at the agora. It was not considered proper for a respectable woman to handle business transactions. If there were no household slaves, her husband would purchase the household provisions.(22) Does this mean that Athenian women had no personal autonomy and were basically locked away in the gynaeconitis?

Greece has always been known as an outdoor society, with many activities such as theatrical plays and meetings of the ekklesia routinely held in the open air. Is it possible that women were actually hidden away indoors most of their lives in such a society? Thucydides mentions that women were in the audience on the day that Pericles made his famous speech in 431 BC, and it is also known that they played a major role in religious activities and were thought to attend plays.(23) Women also seemed to be prominent in functions such as weddings, which is not surprising, and in funerals, since they were the ones who took care of the bodies.(24) Women were not allowed to visit the ekklesia, the Pan-Hellenic games, or even the cherished oracular shrines of the Greek world.(25) The only woman who could enter the shrine at Delphi, for example, was the Pythia, since she was considered a chosen one. However, women must have visited each other even if it was only for the purposes of communal domestic activities like washing clothes or letting their children play together.

Free women of the poorer classes worked in the marketplace and obviously went outdoors much more than wealthier women. All in all, it does not seem possible that most women were shut away and never seen. Surely they were physically protected by their male relatives and were expected to protect their own reputations by avoiding familiarity with members of the opposite sex and by not putting themselves in compromising situations. Nonetheless, they did seem to enjoy some outdoor activities and it is realistic to assume that many had to work outside the home because they had no husbands or because their husbands were poor. Wealthier women were also escorted by members of their household staff when they visited friends and family members. Women could not hold professional jobs because they had no access to the required education. Instead, they worked in the agora, in the production of wool and clothing,(26) and some were surely prostitutes. Athenian women were restricted in the Classical Period and were not allowed to go wherever they wanted, but were not kept indoors like prisoners.

We will never really know what the women of ancient Athens thought about the inferior social position they held or even whether they thought their position was inferior. We don't know how they might have felt about the many layers of separation that existed between themselves and Athenian men. The ancient Greek world was a very patriarchal culture, with men holding all the positions of power. Women and children really did not have many rights, but one must remember the context. It could be a very dangerous existence, with invasions occurring and women taken prisoner. Women were not able to travel alone, but maybe the men felt that they were protecting them. Also, the images invoked by men like Hesiod surely adversely affected women in ancient Greece for many centuries and had many repercussions. When looking at Athens, it seems realistic to say that life was not very easy for anyone. They were building an empire and developing many important aspects of society, such as art, architecture, philosophy, science, history, literature, sports, education, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and the building blocks of democracy. None of which should be forgotten or devalued. Although the Athenians were not pioneers in social equality, the civilization that came out of Athens was very important and influential for both men and women in subsequent generations.

Related Papers

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1 Sarah B. Pomeroy. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), p. 1.

2 Hesiod. Works and Days, line 109.

3 Hesiod. Theogony, line 571.

4 Hesiod. Works and Days, line 95-97.

5 Pomeroy, p.1.

6 Aristotle. Poetics, Ch. 9, 1451b5-8.

7 Thucydides. Book II

8 Ibid.

9 H.I. Marrou. A History of Education in Antiquity. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1956) p. 35.

10 Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant. Women's Life in Greece and Rome. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 197.

11 Pomeroy, p. 64.

12 Ibid., p. 84.

13 Roger Just. Women in Athenian Law and Life. (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 13.

14 Ibid., p. 22.

15 Ibid., p. 24.

16 Ibid., p. 23.

17 Ibid.

18 David M. Schaps. Economic Rights of Women in Ancient Greece. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1979), p.p. 48-88.

19 Verena Zinserling. Women in Greece and Rome. (New York: Abner Schram, 1972), p. 23.

20 Ibid., p. 22.

21 Homer, The Illiad.

22 Zinserling, p. 23.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., p. 24.


Aristotle. Poetics.

Hesiod. Theogony.

Hesiod. Works and Days.

Homer. The Illiad.

Just, Roger. Women in Athenian Law and Life. London: Routledge, 1989.

Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Maureen B. Fant. Women's Life in Greece and Rome. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Marrou, H.I. A History of Education in Antiquity. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1956.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

Schaps, David M. Economic Rights of Women in Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1979.

Thucydides, Book II.

Zinserling, Verena. Women in Greece and Rome. New York: Abner Schram, 1972.

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