Women’s Lives in

Ancient Greece

Veronica Diaz-Reinhagen

From Myth to History

Professor Celeste Lovette Guichard

By and large, Greek women have been regarded as inferior and given fewer opportunities than men throughout history.  However, it would be a mistake to generalize about their lives in Ancient Greece.  While women were, in fact, considered less worthy than men in their treatment and status; prospects were far from the same in all Greek territories.  Furthermore, their legal, economic and social status also varied from one historical age to another.  

To construct a realistic judgment about what women’s lives might have been like is extremely complex. The surviving evidence is not only incomplete; but also generally from Athenian sources only.  Since Athens was one of the biggest and most influential cities, early modern scholars assumed that it was safe to use its traditions as an all-purpose model of social behavior.  Based on this approach, the lives of Greek women in most city-states would have been very similar to those of the Athenians.  In opposition, the customs of Spartans were considered odd and bizarre.

Later research, however, looks at the above position quite skeptically and feels that while Spartans were; in fact, more liberal and treated their women relatively better, the Athenians were uncommonly conservative and restrictive in their ways.  Hence, it is believed that other territories would have fallen somewhere in between, with respect to their own treatment of women.

Besides the lack of non-Athenian primary sources, is the problem of the nature of them.  The bulk of the available sources do not constitute direct testimonies because men wrote them.  Hence, misogyny compounds the research concerns by tainting much of the available ancient literature.  Such documentation include male poets from Homer and Hesiod, in Archaic Times; to the plays by Euripides; Plato’s and Aristotle’s essays; writings from physician Hippocrates in the fifth century; historians like Plutarch left a legacy of anecdotes about women; and the written testimony of orators (for the most part fourth century BCE).  As a result, critical and careful examination must be considered when researching women’s studies during these specific eras and through these particular resources.

In addition to the types of sources mentioned, interpreting the illustrations of archeological artifacts, adds a wealth of value in the research of this subject matter.  Women throughout Greek history have been depicted on sculptures, vases, coinage, tombstone epitaphs, jewelry, and personal items.

Despite the inadequate and limited amount of evidence available for research to researchers and scholars, these different elements offer an enticing peek into the unbelievable lives of a gender’s miserable subjugation.

The Rights of Classical Women

Although women in Athens were considered “citizens” per se, they were not categorized as politai (which means citizens with “political rights”), but rather as astai (“members of the community”).  As politai, only men had the right to attend assemblies, hold public office, take part in the military and litigate or sit in a jury, in a court of law. Even though women were not able to represent themselves, they could benefit from Athenian justice through indirect representation.  A father, brother or husband (kyrios) would commonly stand for a woman’s interests in court. On the other hand, as an aste, women’s civic duties were limited to their involvement in community or religious events and festivals.

During the sixth century BCE, Solon institutionalized the distinction between “respectable” women and prostitutes.  He eliminated all forms of self-sale and sale of children into slavery, with the exception of the male guardian’s right to vend an unmarried female who had lost her virginity.  As a result of these changes in legislation, Solon’s rules controlled the feasts, the mournings, the trousseaux, as well as the food and drink of citizen women.  He also established state-owned whorehouses, staffed by slaves, which made this an enticing milieu for foreigners, craftsmen, merchants and prostitutes, alike.  During Classical times, his laws continued to exercise a great deal of influence in the life of Athenian society.

Despite scholarly speculation, this legislation does not have to be, automatically, attributed to misogyny or Solon’s homosexuality.  It can also be hypothesized that its purpose—which appears to be antifeminist, a priori—could have been designed with the intention of eliminating conflict between men and to reinforce the new democracy.  Females were considered a source of friction amongst the male population and by keeping them out of sight and restricting their influence, Solon resolved this issue.  Moreover, much of this legislation was aimed at reducing the clout of the Athenian aristocracy of the late Archaic period.


        The kyrios—male head of household—had a prominent role in the life of a woman and it was that of arranging her marriage.  Generally, amongst the Athenians, it was the girl’s father who prepared this arrangement.  

        Girls did not have many opportunities to meet men, since “respectable” young women were not permitted out frequently.  In the event that a girl did go out (most likely to a  community or religious festival), she did so accompanied by a chaperone.  Therefore, not only was the marriage itself not her own decision, but more often than not, the girl wouldn’t even meet her future husband until the night before the wedding.  

        Marriage, during Classical times, was a legal agreement made amongst men (kyrios and husband-to-be) in front of a witness.  Only after this formal betrothal—engue—was finalized, did the preparations for the wedding festivity (gamos) follow. The betrothal made the marriage legally binding. Before the wedding, it was traditional for the bride to offer her childhood toys, as well as her girdle, to Artemis who was believed to be the goddess protector of young virgin girls and pregnant women.

        The average age for an Athenian girl to marry was approximately fourteen years old, while the average age for a man was about double.  There is much scholarly conjecture about the reasons for this age difference.  Some believe that this facilitated the man’s control over his wife.  However, more conceivably, the ancient belief of young girl’s “lustfulness”, coupled with the fact that men married at thirty and could be dead by forty, made this arrangement more advantageous to men since a widow could serve as a wife in several serial marriages.  Also, a dying husband could also arrange the future marriage of his own wife.

        There are no complete surviving documents describing an Ancient Greek wedding ceremony.  Still, researchers have pieced together what this type of ceremony may have been like, based on depictions on pottery and literary fragments.  It is thought that the wedding festivities began in the house of the bride’s father.  When night fell, the bride, groom and his best friend would be taken to their new home in a chariot pulled by mules.  The chariot would be followed by a torch-lit parade of friends and family.  Once they arrived to the new home, the groom’s mother, who would guide the bride to the hearth of the house, would also greet the newlyweds.  The couple was showered with nuts and dried fruits (symbols of prosperity and fertility), as hymns were sung.  The procession ended when the groom led the bride to the bridal chamber.  The following day, the bride and groom would present the family with gifts.

        Spartan marriages were unlike any others in Greece.  On the wedding day, the bride would chop off her hair and dress in men’s clothing.  After dark, she would meet her husband in a secret place.  Following the ceremony, the groom would go back to his barrack and only spend occasional moments with his wife, until he retired from military life at age thirty.  Spartan couples were also closer in age (nineteen and twenty-five, on average), which may have facilitated the sense of equality that existed.  Women could also be married to more than one man at a time, generally their brother in law (husband’s brother) and raise children from these unions, while the “main” husband was away.  It is thought that this degree of freedom may have begun as a government plan to breed lots of new citizens in order to make Sparta a powerful city-state.

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        Towards the end of the Archaic Age, the custom of gift giving from the groom to the bride’s father was replaced by the exchange of a dowry (proix) from the bride’s father to the groom.  The proix was an indirect way for the father to provide for his young daughter, without having to allot the family’s land, which was set aside for the son/s of the family.  The money in the dowry was to remain intact throughout her life.  The husband could only borrow from the fund; however, he was to repay it at a high interest rate—eighteen percent.  Although the ...

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