The Life of Women in Ancient Greece

One of the most commonly known facts about women in Ancient Greece is that they weren’t allowed to vote. While this is true for the Athena polias, the exclusion of women in politics didn’t occur in all the ancient Greek societies.

Classical scholars uncover more and more complexities about the lives of ancient Greek women. Because of this, we now know that the female role was richer and more diverse than what was previously thought.

Women in Ancient Greece: Growing Up in Ancient Greek Society

women-in-ancient-greece
Women in Ancient Greece – An illustration by Percy Anderson

Women in Ancient Greece were born in a Greek society that was mostly male-dominated and male-centered. This meant that female babies had a much higher chance of being abandoned at birth when compared to male offspring.

The reason for the abandonment of female babies mostly revolves around the potential future of the girls, or what they could do for the family as a whole. Men were much more likely to build a career in politics or gain some sort of wealth.

Young girls often grew up in the care of a nurse. There were separate women’s quarters in the house, often on the upper floor, called the gynaikon. The gynaikon was a place for mothers and personal nurses to raise children and engage in spinning and weaving.

Education in Ancient Greek Society

On average, a girl wasn’t excluded from schooling. Girls were to some extent educated the same as boys, but there were some differences.

In particular, music classes were more prevalent in young women. Also, the education focussed on the things Greek women would do in the domestic sphere, the sphere their life was largely confined to.

Athletics was also an essential part of the curriculum, and perhaps the most differences between boys’ and girls’ education can be seen in the athletic classes. There was a greater emphasis on dancing and gymnastic among Greek women. In turn, these were showcased in musical competitions, religious festivals, and other religious ceremonies.

In the polis Sparta, there was a heavier emphasis on the physical development of women.

This mostly has to do with the fact that Spartans were quite fond of war, and training combat skills for military campaigns and defense began rather early.

Pederasty and Same-Sex Relationships

One of the things that is vastly different from our modern-day age is perceptions of something called pederasty. Or, very loosely translated, pedophilia. Pederasty is basically a relationship between an adult and an adolescent. This, too, included sexual relations.

The older partner functioned as a mentor, preparing the younger one in the relationship for marriage. Pederasty was almost exclusively with a partner of the same sex. Maidens found lovers in noble women, without having a rivalry with the man the woman was married with. Both before and after marriage, this pederasty would continue.

Pederasty between men and boys is way more documented than the ones between older women and girls. However, it is relatively certain that a part of the girl’s upbringing involved pederasty. Still, it is unclear whether pederasty played as big a part as it did in the upbringing of a male offspring.

Pederasty-in-greece
The pederastic scene at the palaestra – a man and youth about to make love.

Marriage, Nymphe, Protection, and Dowry

Women in ancient Greek were called differently depending on the stage of their life. The period of upbringing is referred to as kore, which stands for a young maiden. The period which came after kore was nymphe, which refers to the period between the moment of marriage and the moment women got their first child. After the first child, they were referred to as gyne.

In most polei, marriage occurred quite early. Athenian women would marry at a young age, around 13 to 15 years old. On the other hand, Spartan women rarely married before the age of 20, often only at the age of 21 or 22. The male was normally twice the age, around 30 years. In almost all city-states, the father would choose the husband for his daughter.

Meaning of Marriage

Marriage was perceived as the culmination of a young woman’s socialization. Since the father would reach an agreement with the future husband, there was practically no consent needed from the young bride. The inferior position of ancient Greek women is very evident here. However, the Greeks reasoned that it was better for the protection of women.

Kyrios and Protection

The father chose the man for his daughter based on the security he could give her. If the father wasn’t in play, the young men would be chosen by other male relatives of the women.

The one that was in charge of the security of a particular woman was called her kyrios. So that would first be her father or male relative, followed up by her husband.

The security that was required to be provided by the kyrios was both in terms of economic and overall welfare. The kyrios was the intermediary between the private domain and the public sphere, from which women were mostly excluded.

The switch in kyrios from father or male relative to the husband was rather strategic. The father would have more time to focus on himself and his sons. In that sense, marriage itself was also a strategic move, which was the case in many societies of the ancient world.

Preparations for a wedding - ancient Greek ceramic painting
Preparations for a wedding – ancient Greek ceramic painting

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: 16 Oldest Known Cultures From Around The World

Love in Marriage

Love wasn’t really a thing in these marriages. At least, not initially. Over time it could grow, but it’s rather clear that this wasn’t the intention of the marriage at all. It was the protection that the married men provided for the brides.

Remember, they often married before the age of 15. So a bit of security about the protection of your daughter wouldn’t hurt. Why it was needed to marry at such a young age is a question that mostly remains unanswered.

Philia and Sex

The best thing one could wish for in these marriages was something called philia. Philia defines a friendly relationship, potentially with love, but seldom with much erotics involved. It included sexual relations, but mainly for the purpose of bearing children.

Married men would oftentimes seek sex in other places. While it was normal for men to have relationships outside the marriage, any woman who did not preserve the honor of the family (in other words, had sex outside of her marriage) was guilty of moicheia.

If guilty, she would be banned from participating in public religious ceremonies. This would basically mean that she was excluded from all public life whatsoever.

The punishment for the man she went to bed with was a bit harsher, however. If a husband walked in on a woman having sex with one of the male guests, he could kill him without fearing any form of prosecution.

Sex Workers

But if not with other married women, where would men search for sex? A part of it was through pederasty, as indicated earlier. Another way to have sex was to meet with sex workers. There were two types, and the first type was called porne. Sounds familiar?

READ MORE: The Dawn of Desire: Who Invented Porn?

The second type of sex workers were called hetaira, which were higher class. They were often trained in music and culture and had long relationships with married men. Hetaira could also enter the symposium, which was a private drinking party for men only. If it helps, the hetaira was rather similar to the geisha of Japanese culture.

love-in-ancient-greece
Ancient Greek oval gem with an erotic scene

Dowry

An important part of the marriage was the dowry, which is basically a part of the husband’s wealth that would be offered to the married woman. It wasn’t legally obligatory, but morally there were no doubts about it.

Both the woman and man were frowned upon when there was no dowry involved, which would also have consequences for everyday life. This, too, might have to do with the fact that it was the main property that females could have or own themselves in ancient Greek society.

An average dowry consisted of a sum of money, sometimes accompanied by furniture or other moveable objects. In rare cases, the bride would be able to own land because of the dowry. Mostly, however, the land was reserved for the sons that would be produced during the marriage.

The height of the dowry ranged quite a bit, partly depending on the wealth of the husband. In some cases, it would be more than 20 percent of the man’s total estate, while others would give less than ten percent.

The Dowry as Security Measure

Still, in either case, it wouldn’t be enough to support the woman for life. It was more so a formal way to buy her into the new oikos, which is the family house she was married into. Besides, it functioned as a security for … security.

If the family thought that a husband was mistreating the daughter, the marriage could be withdrawn and the dowry had to be paid with an interest rate of 18-20 percent. Most men weren’t really planning on paying that extra money, so they would maintain a healthy and protective relationship with the daughter.

dowry-in-ancient-grrece
An elaborate ancient Greek diadem – a part of a dowry of high-ranking or wealthy Greek women

The Daily Life of Ancient Greek Women

The role of women in ancient Greek was primarily to bear children, weave fabric, and undertake domestic duties. The majority of women’s lives would be spent exclusively in the domestic sphere. However, especially young women had a bit more mobility outside these tasks.

Retrieving water at the local fountain was one of the tasks for women. Not really inspiring at first sight, but it was actually one of the few social encounters women would have outside the house. For any trip outside the house, a Greek woman was expected to be covered around the head to obscure most of her face and neck.

Besides socializing at the local fountain, they were also appointed to visit and maintain the tombs of family members. They would bring offerings and tidy up the tombs. The care for the dead actually started immediately after somebody died. That’s because the women were mostly in charge of preparing the body for being buried.

Women’s Rights in Ancient Greece

It’s already quite evident that the woman’s place and position in Greek ancient history was rather marginalized. In different Greek city-states, this was reaffirmed through the law of that particular city-state. Athenian women, for example, had no independent existence. She was obliged to be incorporated into the family of her husband.

When the husband died, the woman had the choice of staying in the family of her former husband or returning to her own family. In a sense, ancient Greek women always had to be part of a family. No lone riders.

Once married, the men had complete authority over the women in Greek society. On the other hand, within the private sphere of marriage, there were no strict rules. The way men related to women was diverse, and could both be on equal or on authoritative terms.

The now legendary figure, Aristotle had quite a firm opinion on this topic. Aristotle had no doubt that women were incapable of making important decisions themselves, clearly discriminating between genders and gender roles. He was born in Stagira, in the north, which could mean this perspective was rather representative of that particular area.

Aristotle
Aristotle

How Were Women Oppressed in Ancient Greece?

In a modern interpretation, we would say women were oppressed and marginalized in marriage and public life. This is indeed true, but the Greeks obviously saw it differently. After all, the sentiment was that of protection rather than sheer exploitation. Also, there was a vast difference between the Greek city-states.

In Athens, the so-called birthplace of democracy, women didn’t have voting rights. They weren’t politai, like the men. The ancient Greek women were astai, effectively meaning that women could only participate in religious, economic, and legal encounters.

However, women’s economic and legal rights had quite a caveat. In effect, Athenian women had little opportunity in economic and legal life, including politics.

If, for any reason, a Greek woman had a court case, she could not go herself. Her kyrios was the one that handled everything for her, from economic affairs to legal affairs. But if we look at Sparta, for example, we see a radically different position of women in society.

They participated freely in almost every aspect of political and social life, meaning that they had voting rights and could obtain prestigious positions within politics and other institutions. They had different roles than men, but if anything these roles were considered superior to the ones of men.

Spartan-running-girl
A bronze figure of a running Spartan girl, 520-500 BC.

What Could a Woman Own in Ancient Greece?

Apart from Sparta, in most Greek city-states the dowry was the most important property that a female could have herself. In Athens, it was forbidden by law that women would engage in a contract that contained more value than a medinnos of barley (a type of grain). A medinnos was a measure for the grain, just like a pound or kilogram.

READ MORE: Household Interests: Property, Marriage Strategies, and Family Dynamics in Ancient Athens

One medinnos of barley is enough to feed the family for 5 to 6 days. So really, this law was basically a legal way of saying that women couldn’t engage in transfers that had to do with anything outside the everyday life of the household. Mayor transactions were simply impossible for women in the Athena polias.

Dowry, Gifts, Inheritance

At the end of the day, these women had their dowry of money, jewelry, and furniture. That was truly theirs, but not theirs to spend because of the laws in many city-states. Again, managing and spending it was the job of her kyrios.

But, he would only spend it after he was told to do so by the woman that owned it. Although the kyrios had his opinions about it, most women in the empire were allowed to make their own decisions about the dowry.

Things like slaves and goods in the household could be freely used. Still, they were always in possession of the man. So other than the dowry, women only had absolute rights over the gifts and inheritance they received.

Religion and Ancient Greek Women

Perhaps the only realm where women were equal to male citizens was the realm of religion. For the ones knowledgeable about Greek mythology, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. After all, some of the most important Greek gods are female deities. Think, for example, about Athena, Demeter, and Persephone.

athena
Athena

Religious Festivals for Women

Women participated in religious festivals. Sometimes, no male guests were allowed at these festivals. Honoring the goddesses Thesmophoria or Skira were, for example, events that only women would attend. These exclusive festivals mostly celebrated the correlation between the female role in society and the renewal of vegetation.

In essence, these festivals celebrated the survival of society thanks to married women.

Ancient Greece Women and Acting

The festivals were quite impactful on many women, both young and old. They were formative at a young age, which is evident in the festival for Artemis.

In order to honor Artemis, young girls between five and 14 years old were selected to perform a certain play. They would act out as ‘little bears’, which basically meant they were required to act like untamed animals. In the ceremony, the animals would eventually be domesticated through marriage.

While the festivals provided an opportunity for the women of ancient Greece to engage in acting and public life, they also served as a manipulation of their self-perception. In essence, the rituals educated women on the values and morals of their community.

Still, reiterating social values is synonymous with almost any religious ceremony. The same would happen in ceremonies where only men would participate. Obviously, the type of social values that were taught differed quite a bit.

ancient-greek-women-in-cicular-dance
Ancient Greek women in a circular dance

Who Were the Religious Leaders in Ancient Greece?

The fact that ancient Greek women could participate in public religious ceremonies also meant they could hold important religious positions. The most senior religious office of state was a female role and came with a certain amount of public influence. Seems like a viable career path for anyone normally limited to the domestic realm.

The most senior religious office was located in Athens, and the position was referred to as Pythia, which basically means the high priestess. Athenian women who were high priestesses resided at the temple called Delphi, which also explains the name: Oracle of Delphi.

In Which Polis Did Women Have the Most Freedom? 

It’s already quite evident throughout the previous parts of this article, but ancient Greek women from Sparta probably had the most freedom in the empire. They received almost exactly the same education as men and they could also own land.

Spartans liked a war, and men were the ones that were sent out to fight. Sure, women trained in combat skills, but this predominantly served for defense purposes, as opposed to attacking other cities and empires. Furthermore, it was believed that maintaining a certain level of combat skill would translate to the skillful sons that women would birth.

Ancient-Sparta
Ancient Sparta

The Tasks of Spartans

Because men were mostly away at war, the Spartan women ran everything back home all by themselves. Whether it was the children, the farm, the estate, or the slaves, it was all managed by women. Women being in charge of the farm is nothing new in agrarian cultures, but it is definitely an important addition when compared to other women in Ancient Greece. 

In order to let everything run smoothly, Spartan women necessarily needed greater rights than women in Athens, for example. The rights that were attributed to the kyrios in other cities were attributed to the females themselves in Sparta.

The Spartan women that were at the head of the household had the last word in every decision, Also, they had to participate in several religious rituals to secure a good harvest and victory in warfare. The daily tasks revolved around managing finance, agriculture, and everything that was going on within the house.

Helot Women

Note, however, that the emphasis here is should be on managing. Most women let the actual chores (like weaving, house cleaning, and childrearing) do by helot women. Some even think that Spartan women didn’t breastfeed their children themselves, since it was also a task devoted to their helpers.

Helot women weren’t necessarily slaves, but they weren’t equal to the head of the household either. It is likely that they stayed with their families because it was the only way they could live a relatively comfortable life. In a sense, it was voluntary, but they wouldn’t be paid outside of the basic living standards they’d obtain.

weaving-in-greece
An ancient Greek urn depicting the production of cloth which includes weighing the wool, spinning the yarn, weaving on a warp-weighted loom, and folding the finished woven cloth.

Motherhood in Sparta

The rights of Spartan women were essential for creating strong warriors. At least, that’s what they believed. Their independent status enabled them to raise strong children that would grow up to be just as independent as them.

Other city-states would frown upon the Spartan women ‘dominating’ their men in the private and societal sphere.

While it was far from domination, the usual response of Spartans was that their women were the only ones that could produce real men. That’s because they would learn to appreciate a strong woman, which was considered essential for becoming a real man.

Remarkable Women of Ancient Greece

In line with the independence of Spartan women, there are some interesting female figures in Greek society that were able to manifest themselves in history. Not only women from Sparta but from all over the empire. These, too, included foreigners.

Warrior Women

A couple of fascinating warrior figures pop up in Greek legends. Some of them were native to Greece and identified with the empire, while others lived close to the Greek territory, but not at all in line with their ideology. The Amazons were part of the latter.

The Amazons

Battle-of-Amazons
Battle of Amazons by by Léon Davent

The Greeks thought that the Amazons were descendants of Ares, the war god. They were fearless, lived on an island in the middle of the Black Sea, and most likely fought on horseback with bows and arrows.

Because they didn’t come from the Athens or Spartan polis, the story of the Amazons is little known. However, they did live very close to the territory of the Greeks and opposed them quite a bit. Fascination, erotic attraction, fear, and eventual defeat of the Amazons characterize the Greek accounts of the Amazons in ancient history.

In fact, there is a legend that some Greek youth was able to have sex with members of the group, after which the men invited them to return with them and live traditional Greek lives.

Their answer was as followed:

“We would not be able to live with your women, for we and they do not have the same customs. We shoot with the bow and throw the javelin and ride horses, but have not learned the crafts of women. And your women do none of these things we have told you about, but remain in their wagons and work at women’s tasks, nor do they go out on a hunt or for any other activity. Therefore, we would never be able to agree with them. But if you wish to have us as wives and to be thought of as men who have the reputation of being most fair, go to your parents and get your share of their possessions and then let us go and dwell by ourselves.”

Telesilla

One of the most famous musician-poets was a woman by the name of Telesilla. Her music was connected with an important military event around 500 BCE. The city where she resided, Argives was attacked by Spartans and many had fallen in the battle.

In response, Telesilla herself is believed to have collected as many weapons as possible for a counterattack against the Spartans.

Telesilla knew a thing or two about war, skills she had obtained because of her special position as an excellent musician and poet. All the arms that she was able to gather she would distribute among the women that were still alive. After, she would send them to particular spots where the Spartans would attack.

As discussed, the Spartans had great respect for their women. When they found out they were fighting women, the Spartans stopped fighting and gave the city back to Telesilla and her army.

spartan-army
Spartan army

Female Philosophers

Ancient Greece is famous for its philosophers. While the male philosophers get all the praise, the empire also knew many female philosophers. What is remarkable is that these were almost exclusively foreigners living in the Greek empire.

This also implies that foreigners generally had more freedom and equality in the normally unequal society of the Greeks. They were, however, required to pay taxes, something that ancient Greek women were exempt from.

Aspasia

Aspasia
Bust of Aspasia – Roman copy after a Hellenistic original

As the consort of a famous Athenian politician, Aspasia was known for her feminist beliefs and heart for women’s rights. She emigrated from a foreign country, was trained at a university, and resisted the patriarchal society. A well-educated woman who taught public speaking in Athens. She truly was the first Greek woman to advocate feminism.

Sadly, no written works about her knowledge or teachings exist. Or rather, no one took the time to write them down. After all, Socrates didn’t write anything down either. Plato did the work for him. Yet, he is one of the greatest Western philosophers known to mankind.

Diatoma

Another example of a female philosopher was a woman called Diatoma. She had a central role in the concept of ‘platonic love’ as formulated by… you guessed it, Plato. There is some debate about whether she was an actual historical figure or just a fictional character created by Plato and Socrates. Still, she is definitely central to many ideas in Greek philosophy.

Women in the Hellenistic Age

The period that is normally referred to as ‘ancient Greece’ ends with the defeat of Athens, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. From here, three new kingdoms would emerge, and they still had a great deal of ancient Greek women within them.

There is a lot more information about the lives of women during these ages, and it seems like females would see a significant increase in agency and confidence.

Magic as Agency

A new source of agency for women was, believe it or not, magic. It served to seek justice in the everyday life. Curses were written on thin pieces of lead and buried together with little statues and paintings in sanctuaries that related to underworld gods.

The shift in perception of the Furies is quite exemplary of this shift, and women would often bury their curse tablets in sanctuaries related to these goddesses.

After the fall of the empire, a greater presence of ancient Greek women would be seen in academics, particularly philosophy. Women were enabled to be part of classes and had elaborate networks of individuals that engaged in philosophical analysis.

All in all, cultures are defined by distinguishing themselves from their predecessors or neighbors. The three smaller empires that emerged after the fall of Athens seemed to have done exactly that. Through reconsidering what it means to be an individual in a society, women were enabled to overcome the gender disparity and gain a greater sense of agency.

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