Women in Classical Greece
Right, where do we begin with a topic like this? It can encompass so much. I think we should start by looking at the evidence we have for women in ancient Greece.
What the Men say about their Women
It can’t be denied that most of our information about Greek women is written by men! Men who often had their own agenda. This because women often couldn’t read or write, in fact a quote that was copied out by school children in the 4th Century AD, often attributed to Meander (of the 4th century BC) says that: “A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is providing poison to an asp”.
Here are just a few examples of what men have to say about women:
Aristotle (Politics) said that man is by nature superior to the female and so the man should rule and the woman should be ruled.
Hyperides (fr.204) said “A woman who travels outside her house should be old enough that people ask whose mother she is, not whose wife she is” and Pericles is said to have said “A woman’s reputation is highest when men say little about her, whether it be good or evil.” (Thucydides 2.45.2).
One particularly sour Ephesian from the 6th Century called Hipponax is quoted as saying “There are two days on which a woman is most pleasing—-when someone marries her and when he carries out her dead body.”
Euripides often has the women in his plays make disparaging remarks, such as “I am only a woman, a thing which the world hates” (Euripides Hippolyta), “No cure has been found for a woman’s venom, worse than that of reptiles. We are a curse to man” (Euripides Andromache) and “Men of sense should never let gossiping women visit their wives, for they work mischief.”
Not particularly flattering. I want to give one last example. Demosthenes (Apollodorus against Neaera III.122) said “We keep hetaerae [prostitutes] for the sake of pleasure, female slaves for our daily care and wives to give us legitimate children and to be the guardians of our households.”
Women from the beginning of time (Women in Myth)
Let us take a slight detour now, to the very first “Greek” woman, or rather the first woman the Greeks believed existed. Her name was Pandora, you’ve probably heard of her. Punishment of mankind, unleashed evil upon the Earth…. had a box. Basically she was made to be beautiful on the outside but have the inner attributes that would bring ruin to men.
Many of the vicious and vile monsters of Greek mythology are female: Harpies, the sphinx, the gorgons, the Furies, Scylla, and the Sirens to name but a few.
So all positive so far! Well not really but how much of all this actually reflects real life?
Women: As a Wife
Every father was obliged to arrange an appropriate marriage for his daughter. To do this he had to provide her with a dowry and select a suitable groom.
Often men were in their late twenties or early thirties when they got married for the first time, whereas women were normally fourteen or fifteen. This was probably due to men wishing to have a military career before marriage and starting a family. The age difference would have definitely put the man in charge of the relationship from the start.
So what would the wedding have been like? Well there was no official moment where the couple became man and wife. Instead a wedding could consist of a series of events that happened over a period of time, perhaps even over a very long period of time, and seems to have included a betrothal in front of witnesses, an agreement as to the value of the dowry, the transfer of the dowry to the groom [along with the woman], and perhaps even the birth of the first child.
But there would be some sort of celebration which allowed friends, family and neighbours the chance to acknowledge the change in relationship and to welcome a man and woman into society as husband and wife. It seems to have taken place as follows: the ceremony seems to have included a sacrifice performed by the bride’s father, the cutting of the bride’s hair, and a ritual bath in sacred water, followed later in the day by the wedding feast where friends and family gathered at the bride’s home to celebrate the union of husband and wife. After sundown the guests processed with much music and singing to the couple’s new home, the bride, groom and the groom’s best friend riding in a chariot drawn by mules or horses. Where modern guests might throw confetti, the Athenians showered the bride and groom with nuts and dried fruit, symbols of fertility and prosperity. At her new home the bride was welcomed by her mother-in-law and escorted to the hearth, the focal point of life in any Greek home.
The existence of a woman’s dowry did give the woman some amount of power and security should her husband die or divorce her. It also encouraged her father to still maintain a vested interest in her and her wellbeing as it was his money that had gone into the marriage.
Were Women Really That Secluded?
All this paints a rather depressing picture of a woman’s life in ancient Greece. Women seem to have been taken into the home to be wives and bear children for the continuation of society, then to be ignored and confined to the back of the house. Only slave girls, prostitutes and the poor women allowed to wander free. How accurate is this picture?
The economic restrictions placed upon women did make them dependent on men for their entire lives. However, what of all the other negative views etc. a small selection of which are shown above? Did that attitude reflect the ancient Greek world?
Domestic life is rarely a topic touched upon in literature, why? Because it was unimportant? Perhaps. Or maybe because it was such an important and personal thing it could not be reduced to paper. Often tombstones of women show a great deal of affection between men and women. Reading deeper into texts it is clear that men and women actually talked in their home about current affairs. Some have argued for the existence of “women’s quarters” within the ancient Greek home however if you look at the plan of Greek houses, particularly more modest dwellings this doesn’t seem likely.
Also women did leave their houses! They would go and visit each other for all sorts of reasons from gossiping, to helping each other give birth to borrowing spices. Women would go out for social and religious reasons. Perhaps there were some safety concerns in bustling cities and women would have been encouraged to send a slave to go shopping or fetch water, but this is very different to a blanket ban on leaving the house. And those who didn’t own slaves would have had to! The women of poor families would have also had jobs so they could eat and Athenian citizen women are attested as being involved in agriculture, wool-working, midwifery, market workers and wet nurses. I suppose it was more a concern that women outside of the house may converse with other men- for that was considered a sign that a woman was a hetaera [prostitute].
Women in Religion
In Athens a large proportion of the year was devoted to one religious festival or another- even the other Greek states thought that the Athenians were “the most pious” of the Greek people because of this. Some of these would have been minor event involving few people; others would have involved the entire community.
Greek religion was complex, with numerous deities and rituals we can only begin to scratch the surface of. The simplest form of a woman’s involvement in religious festivals was within a chorus, both singing and dancing.
Among the elite of Athens, young girls were chosen to perform various religious roles including as a Kanephoros, who lead public processions carrying a basket, perhaps also as one of the Arrephoria, two girls who performed night time rituals on and below the Acropolis. Several girls would serve at the Arkteia for the goddess Artemis before they reached puberty. They would have travelled to the goddess’ sanctuary and performed many rituals. Here they would have come into contact with other girls of their class and probably make friends whom they would continue to have contact with back home.
There were also festivals like the Thesmophoria which were only open to married women. In honour of the goddess Demeter, women would gather outside of the city and spend three days there fasting, feasting and celebrating away from the world of men.
Finally the sanctuaries of goddesses were normally tended to by priestesses. Some of these positions were particularly highly regarded, like the Priestess of Athena Polias on the Athenian Acropolis. They often had official standing in the community and were given a proportion of the sacrifices. Some even received special seats in the theatre.
Finally there were a few exceptionally sacred positions such as that of the Pythia, the prophetic priestess of Apollo at Delphi.
In Ancient Greece, prostitution was legal and morally accepted. However it occurred at various levels depending on a woman’s age, looks, personality, talent and luck. At the bottom were streetwalkers, who would service their clients for little more the price of one or two loaves of bread, in one of the back alleys of the city.
Brothels would vary in quality. Often, in between clients, women in brothels would spin wool, we know this because in the remains of many brothels we find hundreds of loom weights. Those who worked in the brothels and streets were referred to as pornai, literally whores or harlots.
These were quite different to the hetaerae, literally courtesan or companions. These could function as mistresses, hostesses and call girls. Very few of these women were slaves; instead they tended to be freedwomen, metics, and even citizen women with no other means to support themselves. They were well educated, articulate and able to hold witty conversations. These women were free from the control of men for a short time. Once their looks ran out many women purchased slave girls or adopted abandoned girls from the streets and trained them up to entertain clients.
Ancient Greek Motherhood
The most important role of women in Ancient Greece was to bear and raise children, the future of the state.
Greek medical theory held that a woman’s flesh, being softer and more sponge-like than a man’s, absorbed extra moisture that had to be expelled through menstruation. Child-birth was said to cause the smaller vessels to break down and allow an easier flow of blood. Plato tells us in Timaeus that the womb is an animal inside a woman that, if it fails to become pregnant, can wander about the body causing ill health by blocking air passages and restricting respiration. Celibacy was said to be bad for a woman’s health as it dried out the womb and could lead to blocked menstruation, which if left untreated, could be fatal.
Sterility in a woman was presumed to be caused by some sort of blockage. To test her fertility, they wrapped her in a cloak and burned incense beneath her. If the smell could be detected in her mouth she was fertile, as a woman should be hollow inside. The cure for infertility in a woman involved her sitting in the sunshine all day outside the front of the house while fumigations of myrrh, wormwood, garlic, etc., “softened and opened the mouth of the womb.” It was probably one of the few times she got to relax and do nothing. In a pinch the sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of medicine, allowed people to sleep overnight with the expectation that their dreams would cure them or even help women to conceive.
Childbirth was almost exclusively in the realm of women. Prospective mothers sat on a friend’s lap or on a birthing stool. Drugs were sometimes given to induce labour or speed delivery, and occasionally a woman might be shaken violently as a means of encouraging birth.
Soon after a successful delivery the new mother was expected to visit the shrine of an appropriate goddess, such as Artemis or Eileithyia, to give thanks for her new child. In the absence of private or state sponsored pensions a son was the only reasonable chance a woman had for a comfortable old age, so any pressure society or family put on her to have a baby was nothing compared to the pressure she would put on herself. Athenian families were not large, but little in life was more important than that first son.
The Women of Ancient Sparta
Alas the picture is never complete; I can’t finish a piece on Greek women without mention of Sparta. In Sparta things were a little different. Most of the evidence above comes from or refers to Athens. Such is the nature of our sources.
In Sparta any sickly babies, male or female, were exposed. Men married in their mid-twenties and would sneak out of their barracks at night to visit their wives. Only once they turned thirty could they sleep at home. Even then it was the state that took importance, not the family.
Spartan women took their role of bearing children very seriously. Furthermore they believed that in order to bear robust and healthy children, they had to be robust and healthy. Girls took part in athletic training and competitions including wrestling, running, javelin and discus. Spartan women married around the age of eighteen and pretty much ruled their homes as their husbands lived in the barracks until they were at least thirty. Another unusual practice in Sparta was that of “wife sharing” sometimes brothers would share a wife in order to prevent a family’s wealth being broken up, with any child being considered a child of all the brothers. Also sometimes men who wanted a child without the trouble of keeping a wife may borrow a wife from one of his friends solely for the purpose of getting a child.
Often Spartan daughters would inherit from their fathers (normally in the form of their dowry); this could even include land. In fact some ancient authors report that women owned around 40% of the land of Sparta. They would raise their sons until the age of 7 and then they would be handed over to the state.
The rest of the Greek world considered Spartan women outspoken and bossy. Their standard article of clothing had a long slit up the side, permitting easier movement for the wearer, but earning them the nickname, “thigh-shower”. Bronze figurines feature Spartan female athletes competing in a tunic that left one breast bare. Plutarch reported that Spartan girls performed nude ritual dances in public and implied that girls and boys competed side by side in the nude. The fact that a Spartan woman could bear one man’s child and still remain married to another, or, even worse, be married to two or more men at the same time was seen by Athenian men as proof that she was shamelessly immoral.