What picture do the sources present of life for women in ancient Athens?

Authors Avatar

What picture do the sources present of life for women in ancient Athens?

Ancient Greece is known to have been a very patriarchal society, as this traditional view of women’s inferiority is constantly played throughout history.  Even the origin on the word feminine (“fe” from faith and minus) shows the reasoning for the role of women, and contributed to the cultural, biological and religious reasons for the inequalities – with Athens being to exception. For ancient Greeks, they even use the same word for ‘woman’ and ‘wife’ showing the limits to the roles of women, namely that either she marries or takes on a religious role.

As written in the poem Women by Semonides of Amorgos, the flaws and characteristics of women are described in great detail, truly emphasising how difficult it was to find or be the ‘perfect’ woman. Using analogies such as being similar to a dog – nosey and always intruding – even suggesting that domestic violence is okay within marriage. Semonides, after many other metaphors, goes on to explain that the ideal woman has a likeness to a bee; is hardworking, bears good children and stays within the house. This itself dramatically limits the role of women in society, and reinforces the notion of men being superior. However, this poem seems to portray only the ideals of which Semonides himself sees, and many other men, either Athenian or not, may disagree with this – as it is simply one man’s opinion and not necessarily the norm.

In Thucydides’ writings of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, women are given a few lines of the speech, “to sum them up in one short admiration” showing their lack of importance during this time. Thucydides (though through Pericles) is advising women three tasks on which to fulfil the ideal role of a women; to rear many children for the sake of Athens, to not show more weakness than is natural for the gender, and lastly to avoid being talked about amongst other men, for either good or bad reasons. This reinforces the notion of a wife being property of her husband, and suggests that men use traditions to reinforce patriarchal control. Though using Thucydides rendition of Pericles’ speech as source for the role of women during this time should be viewed with caution, as this is only Thucydides’ interpretation of the general’s speech, though Thucydides was in a position to understand as he was around during this time and even most likely to have listened to the speech, although may not have remembered it word for word. The fact in itself that women are only given a sentence shows the contrast between the political importance of men.

Join now!

Through drama and the theatre however, women have sometimes even been the predominant character – such as though Sophocles’ Antigone or Euripides’ Medea. These plays show women to be passionate, over emotional and independent; all that was discouraged in Athenian society. With Antigone, she challenges the civil law of Creon, for her passion and an ancient law in which she justifies the illegal burying of her brother, Polynices. Antigone defies this human law to follow her passion and grief for her brother, showing her intelligence to go against the state and dedication to do so – though this is also ...

This is a preview of the whole essay