The role of women in ancient Greek society changed several times over the centuries. During all periods, however, women’s rights and freedoms were far more limited than those of men. Women were never recognized as the equals of men. Women took no part in political or military life, and only a few entered the world of learning and the arts. Although some women held central roles in many religious ceremonies and traditions, most Greek women had no direct influence in society. As daughters, wives, and mothers, they were expected to be quiet, well behaved, and undemanding—almost invisible.
The voices of a few ancient Greek women survive in fragments of letters, poems, and other literature. Most Greek women, however, could neither read nor write. As a result, nearly all of what we know about women’s lives comes from the writings of men. Male authors often created female characters who were jealous, foolish, or destructive. These women were portrayed as weaker than men but also as dangerous because they did not possess the higher reasoning power of men. A few writers, however, created portraits of strong and admirable women who were as heroic as any man. The playwright Euripides attacks the misogynistic (hatred of women) tradition of ancient Greece in the following fragment:
Men’s blame and denigration of women twangs an idle bowstring. As I will show, [women] are better than men.... They care for the house and preserve within merchandise brought over the sea. Without a wife, no home is clean and prosperous. As to religious matters, here I rest my claim that we play the most important role.... Given women’s righteous role in divine matters, how is it appropriate for the female race to be abused?
Women in the Homeric World. The Iliad and the Odyssey, the epics* by the Greek poet Homer, show how Greeks of the 700s B.C. imagined that their aristocratic* ancestors had lived. In the world of Homer’s poems, men and women have very different roles. Men live in the public world of fighting, poetry, and statesmanship. Women live in the private household world of weaving, caring for children, and supervising servants.
Yet the public and private worlds are not completely separated in Homer’s poems. A queen may sit at her husband’s side to entertain visitors from foreign lands. Homer’s women give gifts, tell stories, and win reputations for beauty, virtue, or intelligence. In portraying the relationship between the hero* Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, Homer shows marriage as a partnership in which the husband and the wife respect each other. According to the poet, in an ideal marriage, a husband and a wife have the same mind—that is, they communicate well and share the same values. In their ability to reason and in their understanding of right and wrong, Homer’s women are no different from men. By the time Homer composed his epics, Greek society was changing, along with the role of women.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class
Women in Later Greek Society. Beginning around 700 B.C., the old order of society, in which aristocratic families controlled the community, gave way to new forms of government in city-states*. The power of the noble families faded. Service to the state became one of the highest virtues of Greek life. As these changes occurred, the two worlds of public and private life moved farther apart. Even more than before, laws and customs limited women to the private world of the household. Women had no legal identity. They could not own property or manage money on their own. In the eyes of the law, women belonged to their fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, or other male relatives.
A woman’s most important role was to produce sons and heirs for her husband. An heir had to be legitimate. In other words, he had to be known to be his father’s son. To make certain that their heirs were legitimate, men guarded their wives and daughters against any possibility of adultery* or premarital sexual relations. Women had little contact with men other than their fathers, husbands, or brothers. Unless they were engaged in some religious activity, women spent almost all of their lives inside their houses. Girls lived at home until they married, usually at about the age of 15. Most received little or no education and rarely went outside. After marriage, a girl moved into her husband’s house. Upper-class women in Athens during the 400s B.C. were even more restricted. They lived in women’s quarters inside the household. Not only did they seldom see men other than their husbands, but they were isolated from the company of other women as well.
Greek epitaphs* praised women for performing their roles as wives and mothers. The Greek historian Thucydides recorded a famous speech by Pericles, a leader in Athens during the 400s B.C., in which Pericles states that good women are not spoken of at all, “whether in praise or blame.” They are unknown in their communities. Other speech makers also praised women for their silence and invisibility. Men did not even mention women by name—at least not respectable women. But there were other kinds of women. According to the Athenian orator* Demosthenes, wives provided heirs and guarded the household, while courtesans* and prostitutes provided physical pleasure.
The negative view of women was deeply rooted in Greek culture. Hesiod, a poet who lived around Homer’s time, saw women as an evil but one that was necessary for producing children. Otherwise, they only wasted a man’s time and money. Greek plays occasionally show women becoming involved in politics, expressing their desires, or acting independently—usually with tragic results. By moving outside the limits of the household world, these women cause trouble or disrupt the harmony of the community.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability often descended from a god
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* adultery sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than his or her spouse
* epitaph brief statement about a person's life; usually inscribed on a tombstone or monument
* orator public speaker of great skill
* courtesan woman paid to entertain courtly or upper-class men, either sexually or with conversation and music
Ancient records tell of the existence of women philosophers, although few writings by these learned women survive. Some of the women were related to and educated by well-known male philosophers. For example, two daughters of the mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras became known as thinkers in their own right. Even Plato had a female student—Axiothea, who dressed like a man. The most famous woman philosopher was Hypatia of Alexandria, who died in A.D. 415. The head of a famous school, she wrote works on astronomy and philosophy. A Christian mob, filled with hatred of all things pagan, murdered Hypatia during a riot.
The philosopher* Aristotle offered an explanation as to why, in his opinion, women were inferior to men. He claimed that women were incomplete or deformed men, lacking in the power of judgment. The Greeks believed that women were more selfish, emotional, and unstable than men. Like a child, or even an animal, a woman needed a man’s guidance. Men made the decisions and women obeyed. Women who did not live with men, for whatever reason, were strange, unpredictable creatures. According to doctors, a healthy grown woman’s natural state was pregnancy. If a woman became ill, a doctor sometimes prescribed marriage or sexual intercourse as a cure.
Greek literature contains a few hints of a different, more generous attitude toward women. Although the philosopher Plato had a low opinion of the Athenian woman of his day, he claimed that in an ideal state educated women could rule as philosopher-kings. Aristophanes wrote the plays Lysistrata and Assemblywomen, in which women attempt to correct problems in the state.
Some women in ancient Greece were freer than others. The strictest rules separating women from the world applied to the upper classes and to wealthy households. In poorer households, women worked alongside their husbands. Although they bore a heavier burden of labor than privileged women, they also saw more of the world outside their homes. Women of the lower classes sold or traded goods in the marketplaces and worked in the fields. A small number of them were crafts workers. Noncitizen women had fewer limits on their freedom than citizens. Some noncitizens gained wealth, popularity, and fame as courtesans. The best known of these was Aspasia, the companion of the statesman Pericles.
The women of Sparta had always lived differently than other Greek women. Girls trained in sports just as boys did, and women were allowed to move outside their homes and to display their wealth in the form of jewelry or other goods. During the Hellenistic* period, Greek women in the cities of Asia Minor and Egypt gradually began to enjoy more freedom, although men still did not regard women as their equals.
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
In spite of the many barriers that society placed in their way, a handful of Greek women—such as the poet Sappho—earned public recognition in fields normally open to men only. Most women, however, were doomed to live and die without making their mark in the world. Although many biographies of men have come down from the ancient Greeks, there is not one detailed account of a woman’s life—at least none that has survived. Although Greek sculptors and vase painters produced hundreds of haunting images of female beauty, no one knows what women in real life thought of these images.
Women in Religion. At all times and places in the Greek world, women played an important role in religion. They were mourners at funerals and witnesses at weddings. Priestesses held sacred offices in many cults*. Some of these cults worshiped goddesses, while others worshiped male gods. Priestesses performed religious rituals*, although they did not kill animals for sacrifices*. In some shrines or temples, women served as oracles* who answered the questions of worshipers. People thought that these women possessed the ability to predict the future or to explain the will of the gods.
Women participated in and held several religious festivals throughout the year. Some of these festivals were for women only. One of the most famous was the Thesmophoria, a three-day event during which Athenian women left their homes and camped on the hill where the male assembly met during the rest of the year. When the women took over this hillside for their festival, they imitated a prehistoric way of life, sleeping in huts made of branches and drying meat in the sun. They also shouted and danced and behaved in ways that were completely unlike their normally quiet and modest behavior. The Greeks believed that women’s actions at the Thesmophoria and at the many other festivals and ceremonies helped the whole community stay in harmony with the gods. Some historians think that the Greeks gave women an important role in religion to make up for the fact that they excluded women from the rest of public life. (See also Family, Greek; Homosexuality; Marriage and Divorce; Women, Roman.)
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made