Long before the advent of feminism and women’s rights, the women of classical antiquity did not have such an easy lot in life. The term “Classical Greece” and the concept of popular culture may invoke famous names such as Hippocrates and Aristotle, which can project a sense of strong masculine influence. Similarly, the advent of patriarchal societies resulted in few rights for women in the ancient world. While all the women of Classical Greece experienced this patriarchy, their experiences were not uniform. In this blog, I will analyze the different societies of Athens and Sparta, the two most important Greek poleis, to demonstrate the differences in women’s experience of patriarchy in Classical Greece.
Women of Ancient Athens
Commonly regarded as the birthplace of philosophy, the capital city of Athens was certainly no stranger to great scholars, artists, and politicians, but it would seem that men dominated these roles.
In Athens, citizenship was very important, especially after the democratic reforms of the sixth century BC, which enabled citizens to own land and hold political positions after reaching the age of 30. There was no political voice for women in ancient Athens. All men were citizens of the city and women were excluded (Just 13). This exclusion meant that women had no political rights, could not own land, which represented power in ancient Athens, and could not hold public office. Roger Just makes a very interesting point in Women in Athenian Law and Life: in democratic Athens, women had less opportunity than in other periods of the city’s history because:
In narrowly oligarchic, aristocratic, or monarchic states, women who belonged to the elite have often wielded considerable power, even if illegitimately; on the other hand, since the bulk of the population, whether male or female, possessed no political rights, politics was not something which in general distinguished men from women. But in Athenian democracy there were no thrones from behind which women could rule, while the access that every adult Athenian male had to the offices and honours of the state sharply distinguished the citizen’s life from that of his wife or daughter (“Women in Athenian Law and Life”).
Despite such limitations, females were an important part of the Athenian culture, since a complete Athenian citizen was not just born to an Athenian father but was also the product of an Athenian mother properly matched with a man by her family. Similarly, “the freedom of everyday movement by women varied from social class to social class, and by polis to polis” (“Greek Attitudes Towards Sex,” “Gender Roles” section, para. 7). Every effort was made to restrict Athenian women to the household and segregate them from public life, as “the most important duty of a wife was to create legitimate heirs for her husband’s household” (“Women in Greece,” “Women’s Role in the Household” section, para. 1) while the men were regarded as the heads of the family. One possible explanation for this patriarchy could reside in early Greece’s agrarian, land-based economy, and such treatment could have certainly increased with the advent of trade and naval networks. The sanctity of paternity was of paramount importance to a family’s social status, and further emphasizing of such segregation resides in the idealized documentation of traits belonging to a virtuous Athenian bride: silent, docile, isolated, and morally dependent upon their husbands.
The ancient women of Athens had very little choice when it came to choosing their lifestyles. Those who were lucky enough were able to read a little, play an instrument, and had slaves to do the daily tasks around the house. It was illegal for women to vote or own property, and they could neither choose whom to marry nor own anything of great value. It was a woman’s duty in ancient Athens to stay at home, look her best, and have children. Her life centered on domestic duties and tending to her family. During this era of patriarchy, women were transferred from fathers and brothers to husbands so they could not be taken back by their fathers after having given birth (“Ancient Athenian Women: Roles and Typical Lifestyles”).
A young Athenian woman’s ultimate goal was marriage. Women usually gave a dowry, which varied greatly by class and family wealth. Originally, doweries were a way for women to find husbands, as well as a place where they could keep them safe. Their purpose was misunderstood, and as a result, the husband often squandered the dowry. When a marriage was not successful, the dowry was usually returned to the bride’s father or kyrios (male guardian). At birth, it would have been her father, and in the event of his death, any of his male relatives could take his place (Schaps 164). Upon her marriage, her husband became the kyrios. Any money or property she acquired by inheritance or death became the property of her household, which was ruled by the kyrios. There is no evidence that women were ever allowed to become kyrios in ancient Athens, and as a result, women in Athens never had any real say in financial decisions. By definition, regardless of what her kyrios gave her, her dowry was not legally hers as she could not dispose of it. As the dowry was returned to the kyrios in cases of divorce, divorce was not possible in Athens unless a woman’s family and kyrios supported her.
Women of Ancient Sparta
In stark contrast to the denigration of Athenian women, “the women of the Greek city-state Sparta were the most well-known exceptions to many of these social perceptions in the ancient world” (“Ancient Greek Class System,” “Women” section, para. 3). For instance, “Spartan female dress was loose, in more senses than one… Their morals were believed to be even looser” (Grafton, par. 9). In addition, the women in Sparta were observed to be rather outspoken compared to their silent Athenian counterparts, and they were even allowed to inherit wealth and property in their own rights. Such autonomy came about for several reasons, all of them related to Sparta’s martial culture and lifestyle. The greater freedoms of Spartan women began at birth, and gender equality was a staple in Spartan culture. Characteristic of a militaristic culture, all newborns were closely examined for any signs of illness, deformity, or general frailty. Just as the boys were subjected to studies of discipline, women were formally educated and encouraged to exercise and learn how to guard their husbands’ property in times of war against foreign invaders and revolts.
Generally, women in Athens were relegated to the background, except for celebrations and rituals. More than likely, female Athenians learned a lot from their mothers, such as how to weave and take care of the home and children. Scholar Paul Cartledge notes the following about Athens and Sparta’s treatment of women:
“Heiresses in Sparta – that is, daughters without legitimate brothers of the same father – were called patrouchoi, which means literally ‘holders of the patrimony’, whereas in Athens they were called epikleroi, which means ‘on (i.e. going with) the kleros (allotment, lot, portion)’. Athenian epikleroi, that is, served merely as a vehicle for transmitting the paternal inheritance to the next male heir and owner, that is to their oldest son, their father’s grandson, whereas Spartan patrouchoi inherited in their own right” (Cartledge 169).
This serves as an antithesis to the Athenian view of gender roles, in which most brides were mere preteens with only a limited education. While domestic happenings and child-rearing were just as important for Spartan women, they were not the only characteristics displayed. Aside from marriage and conjugal visits, the lives of Spartan men and women were enacted mostly apart, and family life was virtually nonexistent. Interestingly, Spartan women were able to own more than one property and neighboring lands through associations with other men besides their husbands, and many of them became wealthy landowners. As a result, Spartan widows who had lost husbands or sons on the battlefield were never in danger of starving, since they owned the land and knew how to profit from it. Most Athenian women had no legal recourse in court, very limited economic power, and absolutely no political voice; however, Spartan women had all of these rights and were raised to contribute as much as men.
The same paradigm also applied to the rearing of Spartan children. Until the age of seven, boys were raised by their fathers before being taken to live communally with other men. This was followed by the agoge, a Spartan school program replete with military training (Pomeroy, 2002, p. 47). In addition to the tutelage of their mothers, Spartan girls were expected to participate in the same physical fitness routines as men, and in festivals and religious rituals in which both men and women participated (Pomeroy, 1975, p. 36).
Such qualities and independence were completely justified as their ability to bear healthy children was regarded as an invaluable crux to the well-being of the state’s marital values and general status. These beliefs are supported in funerary inscriptions, as “a woman is praised for her appearance and personal qualities, a man for what he has done” (King, para. 5). While certainly unsentimental, the statement appears to vindicate the Spartan culture – men achieved acclaim by dying in battle, women by succumbing to complications in childbirth. A Spartan woman’s rights and responsibilities were intertwined. Due to the frequent absence of their male counterparts at war, female Spartans had to run their own home, farm, or estate. During that era, women were held in high esteem as mothers of sons who would bring honor to the family and the state through fighting bravely, and as such, they were expected to maintain their health and physical fitness for this very purpose (Pomeroy 36). Survival of the fittest was undoubtedly a common theme amongst the Spartans, but ultimately it was a thought that would serve them well over the course of each battle and conquest.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
However, despite the differences between Athenian and Spartan views on women, there were several key concepts within their societies that remained mostly unchanged. The notions of marriage and family were integral in both cultures, lending the impression that even though Spartan women were almost considered equal to men, a great deal of importance was placed upon their ability to give birth to strong and healthy babies who would take their place in the Spartan military. Likewise, an Athenian woman was expected to act properly in a manner that would elevate her husband’s position in society. Yet another similarity lies within the politics of the city-states as, despite their general outspokenness, Spartan women were prohibited from taking an active role in the oligarchy, while Athenian democracy afforded all male citizens the right to voice their opinions. This is a rather significant comparison between the two contrasting societies, as both states were under the impression that women fulfilled a completely subordinate role or that women played a lesser part in comparison to men.
In conclusion, it would not be illogical to compare the societies of Athens and Sparta to a silk glove and a steel gauntlet; both serve the same purpose, but also differ in terms of practicality and effectiveness. While the women of Athens were treated as little more than slaves, the women of Sparta shared a status more akin to their male counterparts in terms of their training and social status. Nevertheless, in both societies, an emphasis was placed on women’s childbearing and housekeeping abilities. In the grand scheme of things, Athens and Sparta shared a mutual impact upon the world and the same could be said of their women’s contributions to Greek society.
“Ancient Athenian Women: Roles and Typical Lifestyles.” Ancient Athens, 2010, www.ancientathens.org/culture/women-athens.
“Ancient Greek Class System and Social Structure.” Historic World Events, Gale, 2017. Gale In Context: World History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/BT2359070806/WHIC?u=mlin_c_woracd&sid=bookmark-WHIC&xid=521165f2.
“Greek Attitudes Toward Sex.” Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome, edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger, Scribner’s, 1988. World History in Context.
“Sparta.” The Classical Tradition, edited by Anthony Grafton, et al., Harvard University Press, 1st edition, 2010. Credo Reference.
“Women in Greece.” Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome, edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger, Scribner’s, 1988. World History in Context.
Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece, from Utopia to Crisis and Collapse. Overlook Press, Woodstock, NY, 2003.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. Schocken Books, New York, 1975.
—-. Spartan Women. Oxford University Press, New York; Oxford; 2002.
Schaps, David M. “What was Free about a Free Athenian Woman?” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974), vol. 128, 1998, pp. 161-188.
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