What Was Life Really Like for an Ancient Greek Woman?
The lives of the ancient Greeks were ones of hardship and endurance. The experiences of ancient Greek women were even tougher. If a newly born Greek girl was deemed worthy and not abandoned, their purpose was typically a traditional role as a wife and child bearer, for the priesthoods, for the economy of textiles or for servitude in a palace. Life of course was easier for those in the upper levels of society. Women were not allowed to have a formal education, and only men were given the privilege to learn from philosophers or scribes.
When discussing the roles of women in ancient Greece, most scholars and historians alike specifically refer to the roles of Athenian women and the remnants of epics and poems that remained from the Early Bronze Age, or what many called ‘The Age of Heroes’. All other groups, such as the Spartans, or other subcultures, were often ignored due to their limited information.
While daily life may have been tough for ancient Greek women, the myths and epics reflect colorful depictions of female deities charming and challenging Greek men. In the myths, women carried more distinct roles reflecting freedom, charm, horror, and duty. Athena embodied a powerful and free woman who brought both wisdom and war gracefully and was allegedly accepted to be the patron deity to Athens after winning a challenge against the sea god Poseidon.
A statue of the goddess Athena in Athens, Greece. ( rabbit75_fot / Adobe stock)
Other female deities embodied fierce jealousy, such as in Hera; fertility and beauty, such as in Aphrodite; the ills of betrayal and vanity, such as the fate of Medusa; and the allure of risk and disaster, symbolized by the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey . The myths about the Amazons spoke of independent horse-riding women who refused to settle down and were just as fierce as any man could be.
However, in this sense, the myths might have been designed to ensure that women, at least in the fifth century BC of Athens, Greece, remained submissive, sexually chaste, and ready to produce a whole new generation of patriarchal male oppressors. Then, one is obligated to ask, were the roles of women always this way throughout the various ages of Greek history?
Greek Women of the Bronze Age – Early Mycenaeans (1600 - 1400 BC)
This period was known as the Greek dark age, a period to which the famous Greek poet Hesiod called ‘the Age of Heroes’. What can be seen by the limited archaeological records, as well as the few written and pictorial artifacts left on cracked walls, ruined pots, and re-written poems and epics of Homer, was that the Greek dark age was a chaotic time of displacement and poverty. The societies were organized around tribal and family villages to which feuds and warfare were constant raiding.
Many of the texts and epics illustrate this fact and may have been one romanticized in the extreme. In other accounts, clay tablets revealing evidence of Mycenean daily lives were discovered by Arthur Evans in 1939 by the dozens from Phaistos, Mallia, Pylos, Knossos, Thebes, Mycenae, and various other sites around Crete and the Cycladic islands. Evans marked these syllabic script tablets as ‘Linear A’, which dated to the Minoan civilization, and ‘Linear B’, which were Mycenean writing dating between the eighteenth and fifteenth centuries BC.
One such culture mentioned by the tablet ‘Linea B’ is that of the ancient Myceneans who existed roughly between 1600 BC to 1100 BC. As stated by Barber, “the Mycenean Greeks were above all warriors and organizers, organizing everyone and everything they conquered so that they could keep control.” Though their power was great, their writing meticulous, and their religions iconic; what remains most impressive is the extensive record-keeping of actual palatial duties and specific responsibilities, which many slaves, craftsmen, and people had to take. One of which was their depiction of the Mycenean women laborers and their textile economy.
‘Linear B’ clay tablet inscription. (vintagedept / CC BY 2.0 )
The Mycenean economy was strongly focused on trade, textile, and craft goods. Most of their wars were fought over resources, and most of all, skilled women. As Barber mentions, “the Mycenean textile industry called to produce sixty tons of wool per season.” The Mycenean textile economy was so important that it was crucial to maintain up to two thirds the number of skilled women laborers to men.
In times when their production slowed, Mycenean kings employed soldiers to gather more women by any means necessary. But with the vicious methods of warfare, raiding, and kidnapping, women were not only viewed as just skilled laborers, child bearers, and living commodities for the taking. In another aspect to the Mycenean culture, female goddesses were revered far more than the gods who were men.
Mycenean Religion and Women
The religious aspects of the Mycenean culture revealed some of the earliest originators to the later Greek myths that most are familiar with. The main difference was that the male gods, though just as plenty as the female goddesses, were not as prominent in the art. One of the most distinctive deities depicted in both ancient Minoan and Mycenean art was that of the pale pan-Aegean Mother Goddess , who was the ruler of nature. Her depiction revealed her to have control over all plants and animals. Though her depiction may have varied over the centuries, the collective worship represented fertility.
More of the customs and names to certain gods were also found in the Tablet linear B artifacts found from Knossos and Pylos. According to Pomeroy et al., “…Quite a few are the names of the major gods of later Greek religions: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Athena, Artemis, and possibly Apollo, Ares, and Dionysus, as well as some minor divinities.” Given the prominence seen in the art, and the various writings from tablet Linear B fragments, Mycenean beliefs were assumed to be very particular to ‘women goddesses’ and primarily rooted, if not heavily influenced, by Aegaeon fertility and mother religions.
After the fall of the Myceneans by 1100 BC, stories of these times would be orally depicted in future legends. Homer would tell the epic of the Iliad and the fall of Troy in 800 BC giving vivid accounts to the trials and tribulations of gods and people. Others, such as Euripides, Aeschylus, and Hesiod, would give other accounts depicting a plethora of roles women had. However, the accounts only depicted the women of the upper elites and servants of the palaces. Very little remains of the lives portraying average village of agrarian communities.
Depiction of Homer’s Story of Iliad and the gods descending into battle. (Internet Archive Book Images / Public domain )
Expectations of the 5 th Century BC Greek Women
Most of the knowledge regarding Greek women comes from either the myths relating to the Age of Heroes or of the standards and expectations set forth by the fifth century BC Athens. The expectations for an Athenian Greek woman was one of servitude. According to Barry Powell, the author of ‘Classical myth ,' “…A good Athenian woman[...]was expected to be submissive, sexually chaste, productive of male heirs...It was her duty at sexual maturity to accept the dominance of the male, to receive his seed, to bring to birth new males […] so that the son could replace the father as the leader of the family.”
Many accounts of how fifth century Athenian women can be reflected in some of the legal reports written by Lysias revealing a woman’s domain limited to only that of the household. Women were bound to whomever they married. Women of aristocracy appeared to be freer than those of common women. This can be seen in some of the accounts depicted by Simonides of Amorgos in the sixth century, which discussed the power of queens over their kings in aiding in the acquisition and growth of property, and the management of her women servants in creating textile goods. Women of lower classes appeared to be enrolled into positions of nursing, looming, servitude, and weaving.
The value of women, in general, was that of property. First to her father, and then to her husband. To paraphrase the researcher Sarah B. Pomeroy, at birth, women were evaluated by their fathers, whether they were worth the effort to raise. If there was the promise of the daughter being a useful, she was kept. If the father decided she would be a burden, the infant girl was discarded at a local garbage dump or given to slave dealers. Girls needed to be trained in the art of the loom. A woman who was talented in this production was always in high demand.
In Greece, the gendered division of labor held men as the providers of agricultural products produced by farming and herding, while the works of women resided in the processing of the agricultural goods, the production of textiles, and the cooking of meals. The roles of men and women were so divided that both men and women contained separate rooms of engagement and labor.
In an average Athenian Greek household, the downstairs was the main room for holding social gatherings and entertainment. It was also the domain of the man’s space. The upstairs room was designated as the women’s quarters to which when guests were socializing in the main floor, women from all groups were required to withdraw. Women were also expected to sleep in the upstairs quarters rather than on the main floor with their husbands. It was very common for a woman to be married off at fourteen to a man who was in his thirties.
A depiction of in a Greek women's quarters of a house, on a classical Greek vase. ( Public domain )
Marriage and Childbirth for Greek Women
In the Greek world, the highest honor that most women could ever achieve was that of motherhood. However, divorces were commonplace, and it wasn’t unusual for people to remarry several times. Children were rarely living with their natural parents by the time they had reached adolescence. Most times, children would have either lost their mother during childbirth or were raised by stepparents alongside half-siblings.
A woman’s worth was tied to their paternal family, and then the family of their husband. They weren’t allowed to purchase property without the permission of their husbands, nor could they enter any transaction that was more expensive than jewelry or personal items. However, this did not mean they were completely void of rights to property or wealth. Cash dowries or property by the woman's family were given as gifts to the husband for wedding her. If a husband died or was filing for divorce, the dowry could be reclaimed by the woman's family. If the woman had a male heir before the divorce or death of her husband, the male heir would be able to inherit the dowry.
Two Greek women of Archaic Athens making preparations for a wedding, displayed on ceramic painting from the 5th century BC. ( Public domain )
Women could be the carrier of property in the absence of her husband or a male heir. In other instances, women were able to become an epikleros (heiress), so long as her property was publicly proclaimed in a congressional assembly. Often, her marriage and property would be overseen by the closest male relative who was either first cousins or even paternal uncles. A son born from the new marriage of an heiress or a relative would become the heir to the paternal grandfather. If no children were created, it was accustomed that adoption among the family through cousins and siblings would happen to keep the family line alive.
If there was no heir to be found, and if a woman was still unable to be married after a certain age, the father was obliged to find a promnestria, to arrange a quick and convenient marriage. Though ancient Athens society placed significant efforts in the marriage of their women, there was another aspect, which was taken just as seriously, and it was in the judgment of their women regarding adultery.
- What Makes Spartan Women So Different From Other Ancients?
- Ancient Laws and Women’s Rights: The 6000-Year-Old World War Continues
- Homosexuality in Ancient Greece - One Big Lie?
Adultery in Athens Greece
Though differing city-states appeared to have different reactions to this subject, Licht's book gives two distinct accounts of how adultery was viewed. Licht notes that when Plutarch was in Cyme, he once stood witness to a woman accused of adultery. The woman was dragged to a marketplace and naked for all to see. The husband then allowed the people to stone her. Then, he forced her to ride on an ass through the streets of the city only to stop her once more to be stoned again to which she would be forever branded as ‘the ass rider’.
In another account, in the city of Lepreum in the district of Elis, women who were accused of adultery were obligated to stand naked in the marketplace for eleven days and endure shame and ridicule. After this, women adulterers were no longer allowed to remarry or be part of any further religious ceremonies. For men who were accused of adultery, the charges were not as extreme. Men could have many sexual partners. Men were also allowed to have sex with prostitutes, as well as house mistresses in their own homes. However, as times changed, so did the rules regarding the treatment of women.
A scene from the interior bowl of a red-figure kylix or stemmed drinking cup (490-480 BC) depicting a Greek man and a hetairai (high-class prostitute). (Sebastià Giralt / CC BY-NC-SA )
Women Rise During the Hellenistic period
In the Hellenistic period, the opportunities for women only incrementally grew. The Hellenistic years were better times for women to accumulate great wealth. In some Greek cities, women were even allowed to hold minor public offices, so long as they donated some of their money to civic, governmental projects. Education became available to wealthy women of the upper class.
This was made possible due to the significant legal changes brought forth by occupation and the emergence of the Macedonian kingdoms. Several legal documents exist, revealing that women were able to conduct business and become more economically successful than older Greek predecessors. Still, the role of women was still unequal to that of men.
Though with the later Romans, the roles for women would get somewhat better, it would be another few thousand years until women would gain equal rights. Even in modern times, there are countries where the oppression of women continues. Hopefully, by studying these roles through history, further freedoms can be won for women around the world.
Top image: Depiction of ancient Greek woman. Source: Algol / Adobe stock
By B.B. Wagner
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. 1994. "Chapter 7: Cloths and Caravans." In Women's work, the 20,000 years. Women, cloth, and society in early times. , by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. New York: w.w. Norton and Company.
—. 1995. Women's Work. The First 20,000 years. Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Boardman, John, Jasper Griffen, and Oswyn Murray. 1986. The Oxford History of the Classical world. New York: Oxford University Press.
Eisler, Raine. 1995. The Chalice and the Blade. New York: Harper One.
Licht, Hans. 1993. "Marriage and the life of women." In Sexual life in Ancient Greece , by Hans Licht, edited by Lawrence H. Dawson, translated by J.H. Freese, 18-57. New York: Dorset Press.
Licht, Hans. 1993. The Sexual Life in Ancient Greece. Edited by Lawrence H Dawson. Translated by J. H. Freese. New York: Dorset Press.
Mayor, Adrienne. 2014. The Amazons. Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across The Ancient World. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Pomeroy, Sarah B., Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Tolbert Roberts. 1999. Ancient Grece, A political, social, and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.
Powell, Barry B., 1995. Classical Myth. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.