Tap to Read ➤

The Role of Women in Ancient Greek Culture

Rohini Mohan Feb 26, 2020
Even though the ancient Greeks worshiped female deities, they didn't treat their women with the same reverence. Women were considered subservient to men, and thus were confined indoors, where their main purpose was to behave like honorable women.

Did You Know?

Women in ancient Greece were divided into classes: gynaekes (wives), slaves, and hetaerae (concubines).
While men presided over important meetings and discussed matters of governance, politics, and warfare, women in ancient Greece were barred from participating and were not allowed to give their opinion on such issues.
It is truly ironic that the men of classical Greece took this biased approach towards their women, despite being ardent devotees of Athena, the goddess of warfare, law, justice, and wisdom.
Women were neither allowed to watch nor participate in public entertainment such as theater. It is believed that men dressed up as women in order to enact roles during plays.
The life of a woman was tightly knit with the string of her domestic life, wherein her main role was to be an obedient daughter, a good wife, and mother. This Story sheds light on the role of women in ancient Greek culture.

Her Life as a Young Girl

Young girls were raised and looked after by nurses or other female servants.
These women were rarely allowed to venture out of their gynaikon, the living quarters made on the upper floor that housed women and their infants. These young girls were not encouraged to go outdoors, so that their skin would remain pale; a sign that the girl was from a good family.
The only exceptions to this custom was when girls went to fetch water from the fountain house. These water houses were looked after by ladies, and no man was allowed indoors. These everyday visits for retrieving water was the only opportunity for these girls to socialize with one another.
Formal education was not imparted to girls, and was meant only for the male members of the society. Grecian girls were taught how to be respectful towards their father and future husbands, manage a household, cook, clean, raise children, and make textile.
Whatever little they could read or write was meant to be used for managing the household or reading religious mythological scriptures.
Rituals were conducted for young girls in order to help them make a smooth transition from girlhood into womanhood. One such religious ritual required that young girls act as untamed animals belonging to goddess Artemis's sanctuary, who eventually become submissive and tamed after finding bliss in marriage.
The aim of this ritual was to sensitize girls about the importance of being married, and make them learn to treat the institution of matrimony as sacred.

The Life of Grecian Women

Until her betrothal, a Grecian woman was supposed to follow the orders of her father and be a good daughter.
Marriage did not usually take place soon after attaining puberty, unless the girl belonged to a noble family, and her marriage had been arranged when she was still a child. The ideal age for a girl to get married was 15 years.
A girl, before marriage, was given the status of kore or young maiden. Soon after marriage, she was known as a nymphe, which meant bride. She would be called a gynaikos or wife, only after her first son was born.
Her consent was not sought before marriage, and she was married off to the man her father deemed suitable for her. She was given away in marriage, along with a fixed amount of dowry, after a contract had been accepted between the male members of either families.
After marriage, she was to be an efficient homemaker, please her husband, and know how to handle slaves, so that work was done on time.
Her biggest duty was to give birth, and she was not formally accepted as a member of the family until her first child was born. Only the children born from the wives were considered legitimate by the state. The wife was looked down upon and ill-treated if she could not give birth to a son.
Usually, the fathers would not count their daughters among their children, thus continuing the cycle of neglect that women of ancient Greece were forced to endure.
Women of ancient Greece were not allowed to own property but were entitled to own their dowry, which could not be seized by the husband. However, a husband could refuse to return his wife's dowry if she had committed adultery.
Divorce took place when the husband declared his intention to abandon his wife in front of a witness. The second way to annul a marriage was to return the wife to her parents' house, in which case, the husband would have to return the dowry to his father-in-law.
Women left the house only to visit and pay tribute to the tombs of deceased family members. Women were also bestowed with the duty of offering sacrifices and performing rituals for the gods and goddesses during the harvest festivals of Haloa, among many others.
Grecian women also played a significant role during funerals. They prepared the body of the deceased, and filled the grave with valuables that may be required by the deceased in his afterlife. Women also headed the funeral procession, and carried out libations for the smooth transition of souls.

Slave Women

Only the relatively well-off families kept servants, who were either prisoners of war, foreign immigrants, or Grecians belonging to the lowest-income strata.
The class of slaves looked after the daily needs of their masters.
They did all the work in the house and were supposed to abide by the orders given by the ladies of the house. Their work was to ensure that the gynaikos of the family had ample time to feed her children, and busy herself in weaving and making clothes for the entire family.
Slaves were treated as property and thus, they could be bought, sold, rented, or bequeathed as per the desire of the owner.

In Athens, the rape or murder of a slave was against the law, and was payable with the death of the master.

A slave woman could get married and have her own children; however, her family was unrecognized in Athens.

The Hetaerae

The courtesans were not treated like pόrne―common prostitutes or pallakae―mistresses. In fact, the hetaerae were comparatively much more educated and talented women, who acted as companions. These women were adept at singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and fine arts.
Only nobles could afford the company of a hetaera, as these women were very expensive and needed to be pleased with expensive gifts, such as jewelry and money.
Apart from sexually gratifying their patrons, these women were also known to discuss matters of governance. They were the women who were allowed to participate in symposiums alongside men, and give their opinions on matters of importance.
These women were independent and could not be owned by anyone. Thus, they were required to pay taxes and dress in a specific manner, so that they could be differentiated from commoners and noble wives.
Many of these women were known to develop monogamous relationships. However, the children born from such relationships were considered as free children, because the state did not recognize them as legitimate.

In Contrast: The Spartan Woman

On the other hand, Spartan women were given formal education and were taught how to attack and defend through proper military education.
These women were responsible for managing their city state (polis), while their husbands were away at war. It was also common practice to hand over the rights of the family property to the Spartan woman, before setting out for war.
These women did not busy themselves in learning domestic chores, as they had helpers or helots to carry out those tasks for the family.
Spartan women were known to be polygamous or polyandrous, so as to ensure that healthy and strong children were born. The Spartans also practiced eugenics, wherein they inspected newborn babies for sickness and disabilities, and discarded such children on Mount Taygetos.
Spartan women were also sometimes taught how to sing and dance by traveling poets and artists.
These women would also take part in the women's foot race competitions during the Heraean Games. These games were conducted in honor of goddess Hera and were always held at the stadium of Olympia.
The objective behind imparting such strict and specific knowledge to the Spartan women was to ensure that these women raised their sons to become strong soldiers.