Women in Ancient Greece lived within a fairly limited and defined set of roles. As a general rule, women were expected to marry (there was very little provision in Greek society for unwed women), have children and maintain the home.
Some were slaves or servants within prominent households or worked in the sex trade entertaining men across a range of social strata. A small number occupied roles as religious figures within cults.
Poets such as Sappho of Lesbos, philosophers like Arete of Cyrene, leaders including Gorgo of Sparta and Aspasia of Athens and physicians such as Agnodice of Athens transcended the limitations of Greek society for most women.
However, one thing was certain: outside of rare exceptions, women were unable to vote, own land or inherit it, they received a lesser education compared to men and were largely reliant upon men for their material wellbeing.
Researching Greek women
When understanding Ancient Greek women, the irony is that much of the information we have about their lives is through the eyes and writings of men. Even women written about in Greek mythology and legend were penned by writers such as Homer and Euripides.
There are a few distinctions worth emphasising when approaching the topic. The first is that there was a marked difference between the treatment of women in different Greek city-states. Many sources of the period come from Athens, where women didn’t enjoy as many privileges as their sisters in Sparta.
Class also influenced the lives of women, with higher-class women enjoying more material privileges but being more confined and guarded than those from the lower classes.
With all of this in mind, however, there is still much that we can glean from sources at the time which give us an insight into the multi-faceted but ultimately restricted lives that Ancient Greek women led.
Early years and education
As in many other male-dominated and agrarian cultures, Ancient Greek society would rarely publicly acknowledge the birth of a baby girl. Female babies were also at a much higher risk of being abandoned at birth by their parents than male offspring.
All children in Ancient Greece attended school. For boys, the curriculum included mathematics, poetry, literature, writing, music and athletics. Girls enjoyed a similar education, though there was a greater focus on music, dancing and gymnastics, and more generally the skills required to be good mothers and wives: stimulating female intellect was not a priority.
Again, this was slightly different in Sparta, where women were respected as the mothers of warriors and were thus permitted a more sophisticated education. Furthermore, not all agreed that women should be barred from the same level of education as men: the school of philosophy called Stoicism argued that women in Ancient Greece could practice philosophy at an equal level.
An important part of a girl’s upbringing involved pederasty, which is commonly misconceived as only being practised between men and boys. This was a relationship between an adult and an adolescent which included sexual relations as well as mentorship from the older partner.
Young women normally married at 13 or 14, at which point they would become known as a ‘kore’ (maiden). Marriages were normally organised by the father or closest male guardian who chose the husband and accepted a dowry.
Marriages had little to do with love. The best that was normally hoped for was ‘philia’ – a generally loving sentiment of friendship – since ‘eros’, the love of desire, was sought elsewhere by the husband. There was no provision or role for unmarried women in Greek society. After the birth of the first child, a wife’s status would change from a ‘kore’ to a ‘gyne’ (woman).
Unlike their husbands, women had to be faithful to their partners. If a man discovered that his wife was having an affair with another man, he was permitted to kill the other man without facing prosecution.
Marriages could be ended for 3 reasons. The first and most frequent was rejection from the husband. No reason was necessary, and only the return of the dowry was required. The second was the wife leaving the family home. This was rare, since this damaged a woman’s societal status. The third was if the father asked for his daughter back on the grounds that another offer had been made with a more significant dowry. This was only possible if the woman was childless.
If a woman’s husband died, she was required to marry her closest male relative in order to protect the family assets.
Life at home
Ancient Greek women were largely confined to the home. Men would serve the ‘polis’ (state) whereas women lived in the ‘oikos’ (household). Women were expected to raise and bear children and undertake domestic duties, sometimes with the help of slaves if the husband was wealthy enough.
Upper-class Athenian women generally enjoyed few freedoms, and spent a lot of time indoors wool-working or weaving, though they were allowed to visit the homes of female friends and take part in some public religious ceremonies and festivals.
Contact with male non-relatives was discouraged. Wealthy women in Athens were chaperoned by male relatives at all times when outside, and occasionally were not allowed to leave the house at all.
In contrast, Spartan women rarely married before 20, and were understood as important figureheads when raising future Spartan warriors correctly. Women in Sparta, Delphi, Thessaly and Megara could also own land, and because of military campaigns that saw their husbands absent, they often had control of their own homes.
Similarly, poor women generally had fewer slaves and more work, with the result being that they left the home to fetch water or go to the market. Sometimes they took work in shops, bakeries or even as servants for wealthier families.
Work and public life
Though most women were barred from public assemblies, working, voting and holding public office, religion provided a viable career path for those from the upper classes. The most senior religious office of the state, the high priestess of the Athena Polias, was a female role.
Along with roles in Athenian religious cults – especially those that worshipped Demeter, Aphrodite and Dionysos – there were a number of other positions which earned public influence and occasionally payment and property. However, women in these roles were often required to be virgins or beyond the menopause.
A famous figure in Sparta was the 5th-century BC Spartan queen Gorgo. The only daughter of Cleomenes I, king of Sparta, Gorgo was schooled in literature, culture, wrestling and combat skills. She was known as a woman of great wisdom who advised both her father and husband on military matters and is sometimes credited as being one of history’s first cryptanalysts.
There is a lot of surviving information about Ancient Greek women who worked as sex workers. These women were divided into two categories: the most common was the ‘porne’, the brothel sex worker, and the second type was the ‘hetaira’, a higher-class sex worker.
Hetaira women were educated in music and culture and often formed long relationships with married men. This class of women also entertained the men at the ‘symposium’, a private drinking party for male guests only. This companionship role was somewhat comparable to a geisha in Japanese culture.
A range of experiences
There was no one universal experience when it comes to the lives of women in Ancient Greece. However, in spite of our more limited understanding of their lives than men, it is clear that without the often-overlooked contributions of women, Ancient Greece wouldn’t have thrived as one of the foremost intellectual, artistic and culturally vibrant civilisations in antiquity.