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The Importance of Women in Ancient Greece

With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.

Women were the backbone of Ancient Greece

Women were the backbone of Ancient Greece

Who Was the Greek Woman?

When one imagined Classical Greece, often the images that came to mind were war heroes, philosophers, and kings. Sometimes, one may have envisioned a god or two. However, the Greek woman was an afterthought or “bit player” in the Greek patriarchy. Who was she? One may have assumed that women in Classical Greece did not do anything worth noting. And on the surface, this would have appeared to be a fact. Although Spartan women held more freedoms than their Athenian counterparts, across the city-state’s women did not carry any political weight. While some wives held certain sway over their husband’s opinions, it had been suggested that women had no voice of their own. Additionally, proper women did not discuss politics in public. Likewise, with few exceptions, women were expected to be accompanied wherever they went.

Women played many roles in Ancient Greece

Women played many roles in Ancient Greece

The Role of Women

Views of women in ancient Greece were publicly far from complimentary. The birth of a male in Greek society was cause for celebration. The chief role of a woman was to marry and bear children, particularly male children. Many marriages were arranged during this time and families paid close attention to creating the most favorable matches. Women were expected to be the family caretaker, working within the home, and raising children to become good citizens. While in Sparta, women could retain their own property, this was not customary practice in the rest of Greece. In certain instances, females, who could not attend public schools, were educated at home. This is not to say that women were ignorant, simply that their scope of education was far narrower in scope. For example, women’s education was for the benefit of the family as modern understanding implies. Women were educated to handle finances and family businesses. Generally speaking, women appear to have been background players in Greek society. Although women in ancient Greece were considered far less worthwhile than a man and were denied most rights in society, through their roles as family caretakers, priestess and goddess, they were far more prominent in Greek society than previously insinuated.

Motherhood was the greatest role for a woman in Ancient Greece

Motherhood was the greatest role for a woman in Ancient Greece

The Glory of Motherhood

For women, motherhood was the pinnacle of their existence. A commonly held belief that celibacy dried out the womb could explain why girls were married off in their early teens and encouraged to produce a male heir as soon as possible. Greek society believed a son would bring security for a mother in old age as he would be the one to care for her in her later years. Infertility, though a cause of tremendous stress, presented an odd opportunity for a woman to relax. She would be sent to recline in the sun while surrounded by an incense of myrrh, wormwood, and garlic. It was understood that this remedy would soften and open the womb, which allowed for impregnation. After the birth of a child women were expected to visit the shrine of Artemis or Eileithyia, both goddesses over childbirth, to offer thanks for her new baby.

 Women’s work consisted of spinning and weaving of cloth

Women’s work consisted of spinning and weaving of cloth

A Woman's Duty

Aside from motherhood, women also had duties within and without the household that could only be done by women. This made their work in the background vital to homelife. Traditionally, women’s work consisted of spinning and weaving of cloth, managing the household, and gathering water from the local fountain. Water gathering was a chance for Greek women to get out of the house and meet with other local women and visit. While outside the home, Greek women were expected to be inconspicuous and keep their head covered so as to not draw any attention. Women were an easy target to a man’s enemies. As such, much effort went into protecting the women of a household with rules that to modern scholars may seem harsh, offered protection to those considered to be weaker. This behavior pointed to the protection of women rather than subjugation.

Man would have wished to protect that which was of value to him, his mother, wife, or daughter

Man would have wished to protect that which was of value to him, his mother, wife, or daughter

Violence Against Women

It is important to note that while rape was a crime under Athenian law, it was often portrayed as understandable or acceptable. Such attitudes were common in Greek literature and demonstrated how common violence was against women in ancient Greece. Simonides postulated that some women deserved violence. Further, Hesiod stated that a man should marry a virgin so as to teach her good habits. With such views in mind, it is important not to let modern views of women’s rights and ideas, of what constituted subjugation, to cloud interpretation of the rules of the past. Given such evidence it would have seemed reasonable for women to be kept apart from men and kept close to home. This could also have offered an explanation into women that had an escort and kept covered and inconspicuous when in public. Protections such as this was reserved not for something unimportant, but on the contrary, a man would have wished to protect that which was of value to him, his mother, wife, or daughter.

Equality is Queen

Contrary to previously held ideas that women did not receive an education except for that which would benefit running a household, ancient Greek philosophers accepted girls and women to their schools, and some had women acting as the heads of these schools. Pythagoras’ wife, Theano, was a well-known female philosopher. Furthermore, the daughters of Pythagoras and Theano, Myia, Damo, and Arignote, were also prominent philosophers. Most of what is known about female philosophers is preserved in the writings of others although it is sadly little. Aspasia, best remembered as the lover of Pericles, was also a philosopher. Her philosophic contributions were recorded by Socrates, whom it was speculated that he was Aspasia’s lover for a time before she joined with Pericles. Further, according to Plato, it was Aspasia who instructed Socrates in eloquence. “I have an excellent mistress in the art of rhetoric, —she who has made so many good speakers.”

Within philosophical circles, it was widely believed that women should be educated.

Within philosophical circles, it was widely believed that women should be educated.

Female Philosophy

Although current evidence shows that the roles of women in ancient Greece were restricted both legally and politically, the evidence of well-respected female philosophers demonstrates that personal views may have been less restrictive in other areas. Within philosophical circles, it was widely believed that women should be educated. It is erroneous to believe that the only women in ancient Greece to be educated in philosophy were hetaerae, or prostitutes. There existed little historical proof of this claim, additionally, many of the female philosophers were married such as the case of Theano. This being said, it was not uncommon during this time for women philosophers to offer marriage advice which was in line with the ideals of the time. Regardless of the perceived patriarchal rhetoric of appropriate female behavior, the existence of female philosophers shows that women were a part of intellectual life in the ancient world and contributed to culture and civilization.

Religion offered Greek women an outlet. Religion allowed women to break free from domestic restraint.

Religion offered Greek women an outlet. Religion allowed women to break free from domestic restraint.

Opportunities for Women

Notwithstanding the social restrictions imposed upon women in ancient Greece, there were many opportunities for socialization. With religious rituals at the forefront of daily life in Greek society, women had opportunities to become involved in arenas outside the domestic sphere. Visiting shrines, temples, and sanctuaries of goddesses such as Artemis, Brauron, and the Nymph. In this sacred environment women could appear freely in public. Their participation in religious rituals and ceremonies was vital to the religious life of the polis. Religion offered Greek women an outlet. Religion allowed women to break free from domestic restraint. Priesthood was a political office in ancient Greece. It offered women an opportunity to become more engaged in political and economic spheres of the polis. Further, being a priestess offered a woman more mobility than she would have in a strictly domestic role.

Participation in these religious festivals were a way for woman to perform their civic duty.

Participation in these religious festivals were a way for woman to perform their civic duty.

Women's Festivals

Such festivals in which women participated were held in honor of goddesses. The most famous of these festivals was the Eleusinian Mysteries dedicated to the goddess Demeter and included men. Other festivals held were only for women. These festivals focused on themes that correlated to the reproductive capabilities of women in comparison with agricultural renewal. Such renewal was paramount to the survival of society. These religious festivals harkened back to the vital role of motherhood for Greek women. Participation in these religious festivals were a way for woman to perform their civic duty. Despite their inferior relationship to men in ancient Greece, women were at the center of the polis because of their ability to reproduce.

It is a long-recognized fact that women in ancient Greece were provided an important public role through religious ritual.

It is a long-recognized fact that women in ancient Greece were provided an important public role through religious ritual.

Religious Ritual

It is a long-recognized fact that women in ancient Greece were provided an important public role through religious ritual. This went against the prevailing theory that women were not to be seen or heard. However, this continued idea is due to centuries of omissions and assumption that regarded women in history as restricted when in fact, women played a far greater role in society than scholars have believed. Author Joan Connelly used archaeological and historical sources to chronicle women’s journeys to the priesthood. Through evidence on vase painting and sculpture, Connelly described the visual significance of the temple key which served to provide identification the holder is a priestess. This key demonstrated her authority to access the divine and linked the woman with her roles within Greek civic life, religion, and home. It may have been assumed by some that priestesses, or Hiereiai, in ancient Greece were unmarried, due to the sequestration typical of many households, however, this assumption would be incorrect. As a priestess could be appointed via inheritance, it was a great honor for a family to have a girl or woman chosen as a priestess. As such, girls from prominent aristocratic families were educated in the event that one would be chosen as a priestess. Women could also be chosen through allotment or by appointment. Typically, priestesses served temples dedicated to goddesses while temples dedicated to the virgin goddess Artemis served by young virgins. The temple of Hera, however, was served by adult married women.

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The role of priestess allowed a women a voice in the public arena of the polis.

The role of priestess allowed a women a voice in the public arena of the polis.

Priestess and Power

One of the benefits of holding the title of priestess is the political power she held. Herodotus related the story of the priestess of Athena Polias who through a divine sign determined that Athena had left Athens and advised the citizens to do the same ahead of the incoming Persian invasion in 480 BC. The Athenians heeded her warnings and fled the city. The men in political power sought the council of a woman rather than dismissed her words in favor of those of a man. Additionally, a priestess held power through her role in legal affairs. As priestly business was bound by law this meant that a priestess worked with the governing bodies of the polis and had the right to plead her case before the assembly. In this way, the Council and the Assembly could, and did, pass decrees based upon the recommendations of the priestess. The role of priestess allowed a women a voice in the public arena of the polis. The importance of the role of the priestess is mirrored in the goddesses worshipped in Ancient Greece.

Women fought with what they had

Women fought with what they had

Exceptions to the Rule

On the subject of war, modern scholars have paid little attention to the thoughts and deeds of women. Herodotus recorded the account of the stoning of Lycides who had supported a peace settlement, and a group of Athenian women lynched his family. Such violence did not point to Greek women being peacekeepers. In the the play Lysistrata, women who wished for the war to be over, did not imply that they were pacifists, but their reasons were more ideological in nature. They wished to have their husbands return home. Conversely, Spartan women were taught to fight for self-defense, however, not in battle. This was the exception to the rule in Greece. As the general norm, women were not taught to fight in any capacity. Typically, women relied on their religious rituals to safeguard their sons, brothers, and husbands on the battlefield. Further, they held traditional “female roles in war time such as caring for the wounded or distributing food. But it must be understood that women were not defenseless. It was not uncommon to find women throwing stones or tiles to repel an invading army or women who hid weapons underneath their garments.” While the common woman did not appear on the battlefield, royal women were permitted. It must be noted that it was money and power that permitted one to raise an army. This is the only reason that the common Greek woman did not fight in battle and royal women did.

Thais declared that she wished to put a torch to Xerxes palace herself so that it would be known that women had taken a terrible revenge for the wrongs of Greece.

Thais declared that she wished to put a torch to Xerxes palace herself so that it would be known that women had taken a terrible revenge for the wrongs of Greece.

Women on the Battlefield

Thais, the companion of Alexander the Great also accompanied him on campaigns. Though not usually thought of as highly ranking citizens, some companions or hetaerai, had the opportunity to assert themselves not only physically, but also intellectually. Women known as hetaerai were stunningly beautiful, but also highly educated and artistic. These women were stimulating company to Athenian men at drinking parties. According to Plutarch in the Life of Alexander, Thais declared that she wished to put a torch to Xerxes palace herself so that it would be known that women had taken a terrible revenge for the wrongs of Greece. As such she was given credit for inciting Alexander to burn Persepolis.

Hetaira were hired to attend symposiums held by men as entertainers, intellectual conversations, and companionship

Hetaira were hired to attend symposiums held by men as entertainers, intellectual conversations, and companionship

Greek Courtesans

Hetaira were female companions in Greece. Hetaira were courtesans, who, while employed within the sex trade had a larger scope of influence and mobility than the pornai. These refined women were paid much higher than their counterparts and many were foreigners or non-Athenian Greeks. They held a unique position within the Greek world. These women were often hired to attend the symposiums held by men as entertainers, intellectual conversations, and companionship. The Greek courtesans were refined, educated, and therefore quite wealthy. Of the most famous hetaira was Aspasia, the lover of Pericles. Lucian said of Aspasia, “let us take all that she had of experience in affairs, shrewdness in statecraft, quick-wittedness, and penetration, and transfer the whole of it to our own picture by accurate measurement." Courtesans were very influential. Further, as many begun as young slaves, becoming a hetaerae offered them an opportunity to earn their freedom. Additionally, a courtesan may have been under the protection of a wealthy benefactor who not only offered security but also a home in which the woman could live on her own. To modern mindsets, this may have seemed to be less than ideal, however, in ancient Greece, this arrangement was something that offered women with few options freedoms and securities that others did not possess.

Greek women were far more than back-ground characters in history. They were the backbone of Greek society.

Greek women were far more than back-ground characters in history. They were the backbone of Greek society.

The Backbone of Society

Although women in ancient Greece have been considered far less worthwhile than a man and were denied most rights in society, through their roles as family caretakers, priestess and goddess, seducer, and ever warrior, they were far more prominent in Greek society than previously insinuated. By looking at the lives of Greek women through a modern point of view, scholars have often presumed that their lives were ones of sequestration, oppression, and inferiority. However, upon looking at the historical evidence, it becomes apparent that the lives of women in ancient Greece, while not a free as modern women, were rich and they possessed many freedoms and liberties that have been overlooked. It was women who ran the households, provided clothing and food, and tended to the family duties in caring for ancestors. Boys cared for their mothers in old age and the men of the house provided rules which were meant to keep the females safe from harm. Priestesses were revered, women were philosophers, royal girls, were taught battle strategies by their mothers and were often seen upon the battlefield, and non-Athenian Greek women as heterai found ways in which to buy their own freedom and become independently wealthy. Greek women were far more than back-ground characters in history. They were the backbone of Greek society.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Brandy R Williams

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