Women in Ancient Greek History

Compared to their depictions in Greek literature, women in ancient Greek history were not powerful. The Greek culture had stressed the importance of marriage and family to the women in ancient Greece. Men only viewed the women as a way of extending their blood line as a means of inheriting more property. As a result, they were pressured to be good mothers and wives. Because of this, the most important reasons for those women to be married was to run and preserve the property and produce children as future caregivers and heirs. While this may seem overwhelming to people living in this modern time, it is important to keep in mind that the women in ancient Greece were mainly focused on making sure they fulfill their roles in order to produce stable households as well as healthy children.

According to Athenian law, “the wife [was seen] as a veritable child, having the legal status of a minor in comparison to her husband” (Pomeroy, “Goddesses”, p.74). Even though men were considered to be mature at the age of eighteen, the women, however, were still considered to be children under the law (even if they were bearing children). Aristotle reasoned that the relationship between the man and woman was not equal “and that the connubial relationship was based on utility, in contrast to the equitable relationships between men which are the basis of social and political organization” (Pomeroy, “Goddesses”, p.74). The philosopher also remarked that it was natural for the husband to rule over his wife and children.

In ancient Greece, the word for marriage was ekdosis which means “loan” (Arthur, p.86). Therefore, marriage was basically a contract in which a woman’s father gave her away to another oikos (household), hoping that she would be able to perform her tasks as a mother and a wife. The term oikos refers “not only human beings, but property, and therefore, according to its size and to the context, it may be translated as ‘family’, ‘household’, or ‘estate’” (Pomeroy, “Families”, p.20).

The women in Athens were normally married soon after puberty to men who were usually in their late twenties or early thirties.  Marriages were a means of allying two families, each with something to offer the other: “In the case of a marriage between residents of different localities, where the couple would live was determined by tradition and by a complex variety of economic, political, and military considerations which took into account the advantages to both parties to the marriage agreement” (Pomeroy, “Goddesses”, pp.18-19). The bride’s father or other guardian provided the dowry and arranged the match. The betrothal symbolized the groom's acceptance of the dowry as well as the bride: “In Athens, girls were presented to the phratry on the koureotis day (the third day) of the Apatouria, when a sacrifice was made by their (new) husband” (Lacey, p.107). The sacrifice that the groom made symbolized that he was ready to take the responsibility of his new wife.

However, “girls who had no dowry could not get married, and therefore to marry a girl without a dowry, or with only a very small one, was to do her a very great honour, and was a matter for self-congratulation by orators, especially when the girl was an epikleros” (Lacey, p.108). The word epikleros means “heiress” and refers to a woman who was the only child in an oikos (Arthur, p.86). Because of this, she was able to “inherit” the property of the oikos even though she was legally obligated to contract a marriage with the next of kin on her father’s side.

In case of a divorce, a man was required to return the dowry to his wife’s guardian, and moreover, this seems to have applied no matter how or why the divorce came about: “When the divorce was initiated by the husband, he was required merely to send the wife from his house. When the wife [wished] divorce, she needed the intercession of her father or some other male citizen to bring the case before the archon” (Pomeroy, “Goddesses”, p.64). An archon was one of the chief magistrates in ancient Athens, especially, by preeminence, the first of the nine chief magistrates. There was a definite relationship between the subordination of women and what became obvious in Euripides’s Medea. In the play, Jason decides that he wants to divorce Medea and marry the princess of Corinth, by casting Medea aside as if they had never been married. This sort of activity was acceptable by Greek standards, and shows the subordinate status of the woman, who had no say in any matter like this.

When an unmarried woman died, it was seen as a failure on her part to fulfill her role as a wife: “Epitaphs express this feeling, and some vases of the shape used to transport water for a prenuptial bath mark the graves of girls who died unwed. The dead maiden is portrayed dressed as a bride on these memorial loutrophoroi vases” (Pomeroy, “Goddesses”, p.62). If the husband died, the wife could remain in his household or return with her dowry to her family of birth. Daughters did not inherit the dowry. If a wife died and did not bear any sons, her dowry was returned to her family. However, if she died and had a son, then the dowry remained with the son’s guardian.

Although wives were considered to be subordinated to their husbands, “the married [women were] held in high regard in ancient Greece” (Arthur, p.88). Once a Greek woman was married into the oikos of the husband, it was her duty to bear legitimate children and to manage the household.  The children belonged to the oikos of the husband: “The woman’s job, aside from bearing children, was to supervise the household. She lived almost entirely in the private sphere and did not ordinarily participate in her husband’s social activities” (Arthur, p.88). The only time she was allowed to go outside was to attend funerals and festivals of specific cults that were open to women.  If a Greek woman was seen outside the household on her own, she was assumed to be a slave, prostitute, concubine or a very poor woman that was in need of work. 

Adultery for women in Athens was considered to be unlawful and moreover, it was not made only a private offense, but a public one. Wives, in general, were considered essential in order to have legitimate children. However, when a wife committed adultery, it was seen as a direct threat to the oikos, and therefore, it became a crime against society rather than a personal offense. Therefore, “it made her liable to exclusion from participation in religious ceremonies and festivals, and her husband had to divorce her” (Arthur, p.87). The crime was punished more severely than rape or seduction; this was not only because it made others doubt the legality of the heir, but it resulted a loss of citizenship for the woman. A citizen woman was only privileged in two areas, which were religion and marriage: “If an Athenian had an affair with a citizen-woman not his wife, a baby would not have any claim on his property or family or religious associations, nor impose on them a bogus claim for citizenship; but the woman would be compelled to claim that her husband was the father, and his kinship-group and its cult was therefore deeply implicated, since it would be having a non-member foisted upon it, and if she were detected, all her husband’s children would have difficulty in proving their rights to citizenship if they were challenged” (Lacey, p.115). In simplest terms, men who raped or seduced women who were not married were punished with a fine. However, if an unmarried woman citizen was caught having an affair with a man, she was sold into slavery. Even if there were children, it would be harder to prove that the children from the affair belonged to the father.

In all social classes, the women worked indoors or near the house in order to guard it. They were basically concerned with the “care of young children, the nursing of sick slaves, the fabrication of clothing, and the preparation of food” (Pomeroy, “Goddesses”, p.72). The most important activities in the daily routine of the good wife were child care, spinning and weaving. In order to be considered good wives, the women had to learn these skills just so that they would be capable of supervising slaves. According to Pomeroy, when it came to education, “the qualities admired in girls were the opposite from those desired in boys: silence, submissiveness, and abstinence from men’s pleasures” (Pomeroy, “Goddesses”, p.74). There is some evidence that the women of Athens were more “well educated than boys” (Lacey, p.163). But unfortunately, very few girls received any higher education, even when boys began to get it sometime around the middle of the fifth century. While the woman’s husband was living in his parents’ home and being taught intellectual and physical skills, the woman was already married and had children. Therefore, the difference in the educational levels of men and women resulted in feelings of arrogance on the part of the husband, and in turn, the marriage was based on a lack of friendship between the husband and the wife.

While Greece was considered the culture that invented democracy, we should keep in mind that a great number of slaves and other non-citizens were barred from any role in government. Moreover, in the larger picture of the history of women, Greece offered some of the worst treatment. During her life, a woman was seen as a possession of men. When she was born into this world, the woman’s only objectives were to fulfill the inevitable path of bearing children as well as being the faithful wife to a husband who had control of her property and, ultimately, her life.


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