Women in Classical Athens: Matters of Freedom

It is a truism to say that the social place of women has gone through various phases in History. Among them, the case of Athens during its Classic age stands as one of the most interesting one to examine. From the historical and archaeological sources that are available, conclusions can be drawn about what was Athenian women's life during the Golden Age of Pericles (480-404 BC). Compared to modern standards, men enjoyed much more freedoms and privileges than women. Social expectations and interactions between these two groups were already thorny subjects which were debated in the highest spheres of the Athenian intelligentsia. Eminent philosophers and tragedians reflected around these essential questions in their tragedies, plays, writings and discussions resulting in a plurality of perspective. Exploring a variety of angles, this article attempts to offer an introduction to women's social role and expectations during the period.


Athens was then known to be a heavily divided society. One could find at the very bottom slaves (mostly consisting of prisoners of war), deprived of any rights. Above them, there were the settlers, a group of individuals who resided in the city but were not entitled to the prestigious honour and privilege of being citizens. At the very top of the social pyramid stood the citizens. Unlike the previous social classes, citizens enjoyed a wide ranged of privilege. As one could expect, women were also concerned by these social divisions. They could be slaves, settlers or even citizens and therefore enjoying different rights, duties and expectations depending to their status (Keuls, 1993). For instance, a woman married or issued from an Athenian citizen family was always forced to have a guardian whether it was her father, her husband or other close relatives. Women main purpose in Athenian society was primarily to give birth which took place after their marriage (Pomeroy, 1975). Young women had no say in the person they would marry. This decision was the sole responsibility of their father or guardian, grandfather or brother, if their father was not alive. Breeding and maintaining family worship, at the same time, was a supreme duty and concern for all. For example, women could only inherit her father's belongings on the condition that there was no other male heir and had to marry her father's closest relative. He, after accepting, of course, to marry her, would continue the family development and, of course, would become the permanent and sole owner of the entire paternal inheritance. Under normal circumstances, marriage was not based on mutual feelings of love, but was a good investment for the future. Love and respect were something that was expected over time.


Figure 1: Women washing clothes

Whether a woman could move freely outside the home was something to do with her family's social status. Women who belonged to a wealthy aristocratic family stayed more at home taking care of their household along with the slaves (Rotroff & Lamberton, 2006). She was involved in raising children, arranging goods, weaving and sewing. On the other hand, the poorest sought financial support outside the home either by selling goods in the market or working as domestic helpers in other homes. However, even the women who belonged to the rich families were not really cut off from the outside world, as was the case with those in the East. When they were leaving the house - with the permission of the husband – they were under surveillance (Flacelière, 2002). The less their name was mentioned in the various discussions, the more respected they were considered. They had the opportunity to participate in religious festivals, attend theatre like men, and attend ceremonies such as weddings, births, or deaths.


Women's involvement in cults and official ceremonies was important for the successful run of the city. Women were socially active only in terms of religion (Blanck, 1996). Free Athenians had a predominantly religious role. They participated in the main religious festivals of the city, such as in Lenaea and Anthesteria in honor of the god Dionysus, but mainly in Thesmophoria in honor of the goddess Demeter (Blundell, 2004). In addition, they received the priestly office in the context of worship of female deities. At the same time, women were present in the great processions and in the sacraments of marriage and funeral.



Figure 2: Symposiast and hetaira

Regarding husband and wife dynamics, the fact that the law allowed men to satisfy their sexual desires with slaves or hetaerae - courtesans or mistresses, especially educated ones in ancient Greece - was not necessarily problematic (Blanck, 1996). At first, only a small number of men had the financial means to maintain relations with hetaerae, and they were usually non-Athenians. In addition, the abundance of representations on vases testify to the appreciation of which the woman enjoyed on a human and moral level. Since the main purpose of marriage, according to the views and ideas of democratic Athens, was to create offspring who would inherit the family property, the children had to be legal. This was the reason why the bride had to be a virgin, just as it was necessary for someone to divorce his wife if she had an extramarital affair. In fact, the man had the legal right to kill his rival if he caught him during the act. Women who had divorced on the grounds that they had cheated on their husband were socially and politically stigmatized. They were strictly forbidden to participate in any event or ceremony, as well as to wear jewellery. However, their dowry were returned to her possession. This was also the reason why the cheating spouse usually kept his infidelity secret and did not ask for a divorce. The husband could ask for a legal divorce, without any sanction or real reason at any time. It was not uncommon for divorces to be issued in order for a man to marry a richer woman. On the other hand, if the wife wanted to get a divorce, she had to get permission from her father or go to the Supreme Court, the highest jurisdiction in the city. Children whose parents had divorced were placed in the care of the father.


In the political life of Athens, the position of women was non-existent. Women were not considered citizens. They did not have the right to register in the citizens' lists. According to the law of Pericles (451 BC), the basic condition for citizenship was the Athenian origin of both parents (Lape, 2010). The Athenian citizen during the 5th BC. century had the special privilege of active participation in the public and in decision-making within the institutions, such as the Ecclesia, the Supreme Court, the Parliament of 500 and the court of Ilia. Women were registered only in the lists of their faction. In addition, they did not have the right to own land - hence no inheritance - which was a basic criterion for citizenship. They still did not have the opportunity to exercise legal acts. In other words, they were not allowed to handle their own civil affairs. For this reason, they were represented before the State by their master. As a result, they were deprived of the civil rights enjoyed by men. At the same time, however, they played an important role in the transfer of citizenship. Thus, in a way, they belonged, albeit indirectly, to the wider political community.

Figure 3: Funerary stele of Hegeso, a woman from a rich family

The condition of Athenian women included a material and ideological dimension. Sometimes these two factors reinforced each other when, for example, the idea that women were by nature savage and uncontrollable was used to justify male control over property and persons or alternatively when women's tenderness was presented as a reason for exclusion from the public event space. Athens in classical times was a city of high intellectual movement. Both drama and philosophy sought to examine the role of women and the relationship between private and public life.


From a philosophical point of view, the discussions about the differences between the sexes started from very early times. In the Symposium, written by Xenophon (430 – 355 BC), Socrates (470-399 BC) saw that the contrasts between men and women were not just biological (Xenophon, Symposium, 2, 8-9). Xenophon, claimed that the only thing missing from women was education and strength (Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 3, 12). So, since she was not inferior by nature, but her lack of education made her, Socrates believed that it was the duty of men to teach them how to act at home (Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 3, 14-150. The philosopher viewed the female gender in a positive light. He recognized their abilities and accepted that some women like Aspasia, the wife of Pericles, were more important than many men (Cantarella, 2009). Nevertheless, he did not accept full equality between the sexes as he considered their role as mothers more important than as citizens. Xenophon, on the other hand, placed more emphasis on the natural destination of the woman within the home. He developed a view of normal discrimination between the sexes. The interior belonged to women, while the exterior to men. A distinction that arose from the creation of humans by the gods.


Plato's (429–347 BC) overwhelmingly famous philosophical work: The Republic offers a further insight on women's expectations in Athenian society. Student of Socrates, Plato remains one of the most eminent philosopher of Antiquity and in this work, the Greek intellectual sought to depict the ideal state in which women could be authorized to own goods and act independently of men (Plato, The Republic, V, 5.455, d-e). Along this, women could also able to take part in war and politics; a completely different picture from that of traditional Athens. However, it is important to stress that the two sexes remained different and the man was still considered as superior in nature (Cavarero, 1995). Plato was not, of course, a feminist to our modern standards, but he believed that women should have access to more aspects of everyday life. Philosophical thinking about the position of women went one step further with Aristotle (384–322 BC) who criticized Socrates for his ideas, while considering Plato's views utopian. According to Aristotle, men's superiority worked in the interest of the Greek cities. Women were by nature destined for housework, as they lacked social skills (Blundell, 2004). He believed that in marriage one sex complemented the other and that the right relationship between them was real politics.


Figure 4: Women participating in festival dedicated to God Dionysus

If philosophers merely expressed their views and ideologies about the position of women, dramatic poets captured them in their works. As far as the classical period is concerned, the scepters of misogyny were to be attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the unquestionably great poet and tragedian Euripides (c. 480 - 406 BC) (Powell, 2012). Euripides held the particularity to always choose women as his protagonists: Medea, Ekavi, Polyxeni, Alkistis, Iphigenia, Phaedra, Eleni, Electra, Andromachi. In these tragedies, women came out of the womanhood, teared down the silence in which they were condemned and stormed this man's world. In this sense, women, as they appear in Euripides' theatre, seemed disrespectful and consequently their creator is considered half-hearted. For the sake of convenience, we could divide the women of Euripides' dramas into two broad categories: "positive" and "negative" heroines. But neither is just one or the other. Because Euripidean heroes, without being individualized in the modern sense, are not superhuman symbols, as was the case with earlier tragic poets. The heroines react with hatred, love, pain, joy, betrayal, infidelity, deceit, cunning. That is why they have been accused of instability. Medea (Medea), Hecabe (Hecabe), Creusa (Ion), Phaedra (Hippolytus) present transformations in their thoughts and feelings.


Medea was considered as Euripides' most overtly half-witted tragedy. What could be worse for a woman than killing her own children? The accusation that Euripides is biased against female existence, is caused not only by Medea, but by many anti-feminist references in his works. Thus Hippolytus arrives at an outbreak, a delusion of malice against women, which undoubtedly seems to lead to a total elimination of the female sex. Female characters in Euripides's dramas do not hesitate to express their feelings with extreme behaviors. On the one hand they mourn and stink for their fate and immediately after, with incredible composure, they accept it (Alkistis, Iphigenia) or are ready to proceed to their revenge (Ekavi, Medea, Phaedra). They do not hesitate to use deceit and cunning, the latter is considered a weapon of the weak, to fulfill their plans (Medea, Hecabe, Phaedra, Creusa) or to provide a solution to deadlocks (Iphigenia, Eleni). And yet, Euripides proceeds to rehabilitate many discredited women, such as Clytemnestra (Electra) who portrays her as a good housewife. But above all, the heroines stand out, whose passion is sweeping both for themselves and for those around them.


Figure 5: Medea in Chariot.

If tragedies took their inspiration from myths, comedies remained much closer to the daily reality of Athens, to the extent that it became possible to use it for to attempt a "social analysis" of the city (Ehrenberg, 1951). Actors were meant to represent common men and women of Athens, even when it is claimed that the story is set in an imaginary world. One could not examine Athenian comedies without mentioning Aristophanes (c. 446 - 386 BC). He was not the only comedian of the last third of the 5th century, but he remained the one who won the most crowns of victory in the Great Dionysia. Out of the eleven of his known works, three present women on stage and have them play an essential role in the case: Lysistrata, Thermoforiazousae and Assemblywomen (Mosse, 1993). Aristophanes' satire reflects his time and is a caustic description of the conditions of life and the intellect of modern society. In the path of the caustic satire that Aristophanes indulged in, he in fact overcame all the tragic ones, in terms of the criticism he exercised on the leading figures of his city and the absurdities of the politicians. In other words, he was one of the most courageous critics of the weaknesses of the Athenian establishment. Among his works dealing with women, Lysistrata has a capital position, a comedy that rose in 411 BC, when the war, after a break, resumed between Athens and Sparta. Athenian Lysistrati proposes to women all over Greece, to strike a love strike, as long as men do not end the war. Sloppy situation, a pretext for big jokes, as it was beloved for comedy, and which in no way could be presented as a confirmation of "female power". And indeed, if at the end of the project, the action of women leads to the conclusion of a treaty, it is followed by the restoration of order, not only in the city, but in every home.


Aristophanes was careful and attentive in his choices, writing, and casting around his female characters (Mosse, 1991). His goal was to present a group of women, with which to express the unity of all Greek women. Apart from Lysistrati, who represents Athens and is smart and tough towards her opponents and reluctant allies, but at the same time sensitive and coquettish, Lampito represents Sparta. The other women, also agree, following the consensus between the two that foretells the coming of peace between Athens and Sparta. One of the positions of equality between men and women, which Aristophanes announces with his satire, is the narration of the terrible burdens that war entails for women as well. The conduct of war in ancient Greece, once so necessary for the survival of a community, was a male affair, with the consequence that gender inequality is automatically caused. How can one recognize in women equality with men, when only they are fought and killed in wars, ensuring freedom? Isn't everything due to the male gender? Aristophanes opposes this reasoning, which is the basis for the degradation of the female sex. His satire addresses this sensitive issue with disarming logical straightforwardness.


Despite addressing this issue, Aristophanes does not question their place in society anywhere, nor does he suggest anything different for them. He is not in favor of a radical reorganization of the city. Assemblywomen, first played in 389 or 392 BC, is a comedy in which Aristophanes sparks his modern-day Athens with its ideas and innovations, almost burying it, recalling the good old days. The basic idea, against which it is directed, is the common ownership of all goods, and of course also of women (Cornford, 2010). The great comedian, the writer who drove satire to the extreme limits of athyrostomy and critical theater, is, in essence, a conservative nostalgic for the good days of Athens, which in his day had fallen into decline. What he wants, what he aims at is to return to the good days of glory and the supremacy of values, which created an insurmountable culture that radiated to the ends of the then world. His work primarily expresses the deep bitterness of a man who had believed in values ​​that no longer apply.


Figure 6: Scenes of weaving.

Aristophanes does not envision for women another position than the one traditionally given to them (O'Higgins, 2003). If he deals with the great upheaval in his work, it is to shake his fellow citizens, to motivate them to do something quickly, since Athens seems to be on the path of destruction and decline. It is no coincidence that women enter politics, in a purely masculine space, and their actions have disastrous effects, as they catalyze everything and exclude men from political life. His concern is not about the women's issue but about what path Athens has taken and where it is going. He did not intend to present himself as a carrier of feminist views and perceptions (Mosse, 1991). He does not really question the traditional position of women in society anywhere, but uses women and their alleged flaws, which are remarkably accepted by almost all his fellow citizens, to push satire to the extremes and provoke laughter.


Based on the current conditions and the way women live in our days, the position of the female sex in Classical Athens is considered by many researchers to be limited, to say the least. One could easily come to the conclusion that Athenian women lived oppressed and without rights. However, debates are to be found around this thorny question. For instance, Arnold Gomme argued in 1925 that women had high social status despite their limited legal rights (Pomeroy, 1975). Such perspective met criticisms but has also been accepted by many and defended since. In 1975, Sarah B. Pomeroy explained the variety of viewpoints with the types of evidence prioritised by scholars. In short, she highlighted that those arguing for the high status of Athenian women predominantly citing tragedy whereas those arguing against it were relying more on philosophical sources (Pomeroy, 1975). Overall, it is essential to read those debates to grasp a better understanding of Athenian society in this time period.


Primary sources:


Aristophanes, Henderson, J. (1996). Three plays by Aristophanes: Lysistrata/Women at the Thesmophoria/Assemblywomen. Routledge.


Aristotle., & Barnes, E. (2014). The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, One-Volume Digital Edition.


Euripides., Davie, J., & Rutherford, R. (2003). Medea and other plays. Penguin Group.


Xenophon., & Bowen, A. (1998). Symposium. Aris & Phillips.


Secondary sources:


Anderson, J. (2008). Xenophon. Bristol Classical Press.


Blanck, H. (1996). Einführung in das Privatleben der Griechen und Römer. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.


Blundell, S. (1998). Women in classical Athens. Bristol Classical Press.


Cantarella, E. (2009). Pandora's daughters. Johns Hopkins University Press.


Cavarero, A. (1995). In spite of Plato: a feminist rewriting of ancient philosophy. Polity Press.


Cornford, F. (2010). The origin of Attic comedy. Cambridge University Press.


Ehrenberg, V. (1951). The people of Aristophanes. Blackwell.


Flacelière, R. (2002). Daily life in Greece at the time of Pericles. Phoenix.


Keuls, E. (1993). The reign of the phallus. University of California Press.


Lape, S. (2010). Race and citizen identity in the classical Athenian democracy. Cambridge University Press.


Lefkowitz, M., & Fant, M. (2005). Women's life in Greece & Rome. Duckworth.


Mosse, C. (1991). La Femme dans la Grèce antique. Editions Complexe.


O'Higgins, L. (2003). Women and humor in classical Greece. Cambridge University Press.


Pomeroy, S. (1975). Godesses, whores, wives and slaves. Hale.


Powell, A. (2012). Euripides, Women and Sexuality. Routledge.


Rotroff, S., & Lamberton, R. (2006). Women in the Athenian Agora (pp. 10-14). American School of Classical Studies at Athens.


Image References:


Figure 1: Pan Painter. (470/460 B.C.). Women washing clothes. [Attic Pelike]. Retrieved from: https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010270398


Figure 2: Makron Painter. (490/480 B.C.). Symposiast and hetaira. [Attic Kylix]. Retrieved from: https://collections.mfa.org/objects/153701/drinking-cup-kylix


Figure 3: Kallimachos. (410/400 B.C.). Funerary stele of Hegeso, a woman from a rich family. [Sculpture]. Retrieved from: https://www.namuseum.gr/collection/klasiki-periodos-2/


Figure 4: Alma-Tadema L. (1889). A dedication to Bacchus. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://online-sammlung.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/en/objekt/HK-1905/eine-weihung-an-bacchus?term=A%20dedication%20to%20Bacchus&context=default&position=0


Figure 5: Policoro Painter. (400 B.C.). Medea in Chariot. [Lucanian Krater]. Retrieved from: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1991.1#


Figure 6: Amasis Painter. (550-530 B.C.). Scenes of weaving. [Teraccota lekythos]. Retrieved from: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/253348



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Leonidas Michailidis

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