Ancient History & Civilisation


Women and Children

When a woman’s womb moves up towards her head and suffocation occurs there, her head becomes heavy… One symptom is that the woman says that the veins in her nose and beneath her eyes are hurting her and she becomes sleepy and when this condition is improved, she foams at the mouth.

You should wash her all over with hot water and if she does not improve, with cold… Rub her head with the scent of roses and use sweet-scented fumigations beneath her vagina, but foully scented ones at her nose. She should eat cabbage and drink cabbage-juice.

Hippocratic doctor, Diseases of Women 2.126

(fourth century BC)

When a husband and wife are at odds with one another, they are much more likely to be reconciled for the sake of their children than to detest the children they have had together because of the wrongs they have done to one another.

Demosthenes, speech against Boeotus, 39.23 (348 BC)

Women and children were not exempted from the wars in the fourth-century Greek world. When their city was taken by siege, their fate was to be killed or sold into slavery. There was no mercy during an invasion for non-combatants, either. In 364 BC the Thebans simply enslaved and sold all the women and children whom they captured in little Orchomenus. We can well see why city-states would try to send off their women and children (and livestock) to a place of safety during war: in 431 BC, the Plataeans evacuated their women, children and non-combatants to Athens before the siege which is so vividly described by Thucydides.

Spartans apart, a love of children and an affectionate family life were prominent, in my view, in Greek city-states. Extreme modern theories that parental calculation prevailed and that there was a reluctance to invest love in children who were so likely to die young are refuted by the images, texts and dramas of our best sources, those from fifth- and fourth-century Athens. Representations of a child and a parent are shown (admittedly, rarely) on painted Attic pottery from the late fifth century BC onwards. There is a loving poignancy to many of the Attic grave-reliefs and the inscriptions for children who have died young. It is hard to miss the force of the painting on a white-figured Athenian oil flask, to be set at the tomb, which shows pathos and parental love in its scene of a young child in the boat of the waiting ferryman of the underworld, the child holding out its hands to a fondly gazing mother on the far bank.1 There are images of a mother looking on at a young baby wriggling happily in its high chair or of a child crawling towards its mother, watched (in my view, with pleasure) by a man, surely its father, as it sets off on its course. These scenes, and others, imply a public who enjoyed children. They were not only mothers: fathers are represented too, never better than in the character-sketches of the wry philosopher Theophrastus of Athens, who describes how the ‘obsequious man’ is a man who plays excessively with other people’s children, while the ‘talkative man’ is so endlessly talkative that his children, even, will call to him to come at bedtime and talk to them so that they will fall asleep. Of course individuals varied, as nowadays. When Aristophanes represents Dicaeopolis, his cussed rustic of an Athenian, taking a sexual interest in his own daughter, he is meaning that we should laugh at the man’s ghastliness. Publicly, too, fathers were expected to be much more than unloving absentees. The orator Aeschines could attack the orator Demosthenes before an Athenian jury for his supposed callousness about his daughter’s death: ‘the man who hates children,’ he goes on, ‘the bad father, would never be a trustworthy leader of the people.’2There were assumptions, here, which an orator could exploit.

In Athenian citizen-households, the father decided if a new-born child was to live: he would run round the hearth carrying it on the fifth day of its life, in a ceremony called the Amphidromia. On the tenth day the child would usually be named. Aristotle remarks that parents waited for ten days because so many children died meanwhile. Modern estimates of the average losses tend to be high, as high as half of all babies born. Nonetheless, in some Greek states (but not all), exposure of unwanted children was freely practised. The exposed ones might sometimes be picked up by others and brought up as slaves, and so cast-offs tended to be exposed in public places, as if hoping to be ‘found’: girls were more frequently exposed than boys.

Like other social transitions, the stages of an Athenian child’s life can be attached to Athenian festivals. In their third year, children attended a day of February’s Anthesteria festival. They had their first taste of wine, and we still have some of the drinking-mugs, with children shown on them, which marked the occasion. For citizen-born boys, the focus then became the autumn festival of the phratries, or ‘brotherhoods’, which would enrol them in due course as citizens. Fathers would take them along to be introduced to members (and to show that they were legitimate, not sons by a slave-girl). There would be a sacrifice, called the ‘lesser’, when the boy was perhaps only five or six, and then one for the cutting of his hair, when the boy was eighteen and old enough to be a full citizen. Contacts with the phratry were therefore spread out across the boy’s years of change in childhood.

Bastards, obviously, were known to pose problems, of which children born to two citizens out of wedlock were the least. If the mother was married to somebody else, she would probably pass off such a child as her husband’s; if not, she would abort it. In a slave-society, however, masters or their sons were also quite likely to father a child on a slave-girl; if the child was not aborted, it would be left to follow its mother’s status and be a slave. The complications were greater if a citizen-male fathered a child on a metic or non-citizen foreigner. If the mother was a prostitute, she would be expected to abort it (it would ruin her future livelihood). Otherwise, the child would surely become a metic too. For bastards, with one citizen-parent, were not members of a phratry nor were they eligible for Athenian citizenship. They are said, however, to have had a particular ‘gym’ for their exercise, connected with the shrine of Heracles at Cynosarges outside the city-gate. Comic poets made fun of this site and have probably complicated our evidence for it. Heracles was a ‘bastard’, too, fathered by Zeus on a mortal mother.3

Whether bastards or not, girls were not presented to phratries: they would never be full citizens. A few of them, however, could look forward to a role as a servant of the gods. Here, the most prestigious were the arrhephoroi, up to four citizen-born girls between the ages of seven and eleven who lived on the Acropolis, served the civic goddess Athena and probably helped to weave her great ceremonial robe. Ritually, the girls played at ball and then went to and fro with mysterious baskets on their heads to a shrine of Aphrodite in the garden below, approached by a tunnel. This rite was only for a very few, whereas all young girls of citizen-birth (probably) engaged for a while in a splendid rite of transition known as the arkteia. Between the ages of five and ten, they would play at being ‘bears’, possibly to symbolize their wild immature nature, which was to be tamed in due course by men and marriage. Little cups, dedicated to Artemis, give us an impression of this ritual: the young girls are shown running naked, while a bear is sketched too. A main centre of the rite was Artemis’ temple at Brauron in east Attica, the site which has left us the visual evidence, although the details are so uncertain.

Four or five years after playing at ‘bears’ Athenian girls would be married. Girls were not formally educated in schools (in the classical period, at least) and any reading which they picked up would be learned in a household, from mothers (perhaps) or, in richer households, from literate slaves: girls might go to each other’s houses for the sake of it. Boys, however, would be educated, usually beginning at seven and going on at least to fourteen; their teaching included writing, reading (including the reading of poets) and music and athletics. The city-state did not provide teachers, but small fee-paying schools were probably a familiar feature throughout Attica. Richer families maintained slave-tutors too. In due course, young men would marry, but marriage for men tends to be recommended at quite a late age, between twenty-five and thirty. Until then, young men could satisfy their hormones by using slave-prostitutes, who charged all sorts of prices (a woman bending over is implied, in a comic scene, to be the cheapest position, whereas a ‘woman on top’ was the most expensive4). They could try slave-girls in their father’s households, or a more permanent slave-courtesan (or a share in one); they also had one another. On painted pottery the dominant image of male sex is still sex between an older man and a young, scarcely pubertal boy. The implication is that boys would first submit to male sex, but then grow up and do it to others. But male sex between boys of the same age was surely also frequent.

For Athenian citizen-women, who married young, life in a well-off household was sheltered and protected. The ‘polis-males’ had their ‘men’s room’ for their drinking-parties; women had their ‘women’s quarters’ where they spent much time with the children and female slaves. Certainly, nothing had relaxed for Athenian women in the fourth century. They were still under the guardianship of their nearest male relative (their important kyrios) throughout their lives; their marriages and remarriages were governed by strict rules of family inheritance, while their economic dealings were limited to contracts up to the simple value of a bushel of barley. In my view (and that of some arguable ancient sources), they could attend the theatre-festivals, but they were never actresses playing the female parts.

However, women in Attica were a broad and varied category. There were not just the many widowed and remarried women: divorce was possible, both for the male and female partner. There was also the majority of citizen-wives, the poor who had to work. Inside their houses, respectable Athenian women would engage in spinning wool or supervise the wet-nurse to whom many of them handed their babies. They would often wear a veil, a thin one, to judge from the many Greek words for such a covering, although the veil could be pulled up or to one side. In the lower classes, however, women worked outside, came out onto the streets and were not confined.

Beside the citizens, too, there was the world of the hetaira, or courtesan. It is not one to be romanticized, as hetairai were usually slaves. From around 340 BC we have our single most vivid insight into its undergrowth, a speech delivered to an Athenian jury against the activities and family of a former practitioner, Neaera. It shows us how men might buy shares in a hetaira and use her by turns (hetairai were mostly slaves); similar contracts were also struck for young rent-boys. We should enjoy, but discount, the speech’s more disreputable stories, especially the one about group sex at a dinner-party in a temple-sanctuary in south-east Attica. The more important items of the context are that the Athenian speaker names Neaera openly (a good Athenian wife was always the ‘wife of…’, in speech) and that this extremely twisted and manipulated case was being brought against a woman who was well over fifty years old and bore no resemblance to the unbridled ‘tart’ of its innuendoes. It was all a male prosecutor’s attempt to humiliate a political male rival who was associated with her.

Even in fourth-century Athens, we have no first-hand surviving evidence of conversations between husband and wife. Like children, wives were certainly loved by Athenian husbands, and the more scandalous demi-monde which is evoked against Neaera must not be taken as the norm. Other sources tell us how it was bad form to frequent ‘courtesans’ when married, let alone to keep one in the matrimonial home. What we do not know is the tone of male–female relations in Athenian households: were upper-class wives really so submissive as idealizing male texts imply?

There is also the problem of how typical these women were of other Greek city-states, except for the contrarian Spartans. At Locris, in south Italy, women were said to have held real power and to have passed inheritances down the female line (in my view, this ancient ‘mirage’ is most unlikely). In the mid-third century BC a traveller in Greece describes how women at Thebes were veiled, so much so that only their eyes were visible: we even have examples of this attire, in a few of the terracotta figurines of women, known as ‘Tanagras’, some of which were found at Thebes.5 Had a similar style been imposed on women by the male ‘Boeotian pigs’ (the Athenians’ name for them) already in the fourth century BC? The Athenians’ strict insistence on a citizen’s birth from two citizen-born parents was very important for their sense of cohesion and civic identity, but it, too, was not the norm in most other Greek city-states. Up in the north of Greece, there are mothers who look even less ‘Athenian’. In the Molossian kingdom in Epirus, two fourth-century decrees actually bestow citizenship on a woman: perhaps as a monarchy, the state had different criteria.6 In its neighbour, the Macedonian kingdom, the relations of wives, husbands and children had a much more dramatic character.

The Macedonian kings were polygamous and, as we shall see, their history would be coloured for centuries by the consequences. In the 390s the ruling king, Amyntas III, took a second wife, Eurydice. She was alleged, at least, to have attempted to kill her husband and to have cohabited with her own daughter’s husband. She was also credited with killing two of her three sons.7 These extreme stories do at least point to the potential tensions in a polygamous royal family, whether all, part or none of them is justified. But her third son, certainly, lived in the world in which they circulated. He was Philip, the future king of Macedon and father of Alexander. Family tensions were as much a part of his formation as of his son’s, and they were carried to most un-Athenian lengths, matched only on the Athenians’ tragic stage.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!