Women in Ancient Greece

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In ancient Greece, some have argued, women were generally regarded as irrational, sex-obsessed and prone to hysteria. Women had very few rights; they often were not allowed to leave the house and, inside their houses, they were relegated to rooms in the back of the house near the slave quarters. One classics professor told National Geographic: "The Greek polis was something of a men's club. Women tended to stay at home and do the household chores. They went out chiefly for ceremonies, festivals, and such duties as drawing waters. In myth, trysts often took place at wells. Going there was one way a woman got out of the house."

The word "hysteria" comes from Greek word for "uterus." The condition was regarded as a sort of "womb furie" that produced the symptoms such as confusion, laziness, depression, headaches, forgetfulness, stomach upsets, ticklishness, cramps, insomnia, weepiness, palpitations of the heart, and muscle spasms. Hysteria and women had been linked together since 2000 B.C., when healers observed that woman did nor release fluids like men during sexual intercourse and reasoned that fluids accumulate in the uterus where they caused a variety of problems and irrational behavior. Plato believed than in serious cases their uterus could fill with so much fluid it would become death and strangle its owner. These views persisted into the Victorian era.

Art critic Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “The main misconception is the notion that women had a universally mute and passive role in Athenian society. It is true that they lived with restrictions modern Westerners would find intolerable. Technically they were not citizens. In terms of civil rights, their status differed little from that of slaves. Marriages were arranged; girls were expected to have children in their midteens. Yet... the assumption that women lived in a state of purdah, completely removed from public life, is contradicted by the depictions of them in art.” Yet, “it would be a mistake to argue that the lot of women there was, after all, a fair deal. The record stands: no citizenship, no vote, little or no control over the use made of your time or your body. But the show is not making that argument. Instead it is using art to survey where, within a system of institutionalized restriction, areas of freedom for women lay.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea showgate.com/medea ; Greek History Course from Reed web.archive.org; Classics FAQ MIT rtfm.mit.edu; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu Books: “Women's Life in Greece and Rome” by Maureen B. Fant (Johns Hopkins University Press); “ Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity” by Sarah Pomeroy, a classics professor at Hunter College in New York; “Portrait of a Priestess, Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece” by Joan Breton Connelly (Princeton University Press, 2007);

Different Views on Women in Ancient Greece

20120221-Gravestone_of_Mynnia.jpg Pindar wrote in “The Hierodulai of Corinth” (c. 500 B.C.):
“O hospitable damsels, fairest train
Of soft Persuasion —
Ornament of the wealthy Corinth,
Bearing in willing hands the golden drops
That from the frankincense distil, and flying
To the fair mother of the Loves,
Who dwells in the sky,
The lovely Aphrodite — you do bring to us
Comfort and hope in danger, that we may
Hereafter, in the delicate beds of Love,
Reap the long-wished-for fruits of joy
Lovely and necessary to all mortal men.”

Some argue that the view of women in ancient Greece as being demure and housebound is not correct. There were some places where women were held in higher respect. "There was a strong tradition of matriarchy in Lokroi," one scholar told National Geographic. "The aristocrats, for instance, descended from the mother's side. Also, the cults of two Goddesses, Persephone and Aphrodite, were powerful here."

In Aristophanes’s “ Lysieria” the heroine laments: "What sensible thing are we women capable of doing? We do nothing but sit around with our paint and lipstick and transparent gowns and all the rest of it." To get even with the dominate male class she leads the women of Athens in a sex strike in which wives refuse to sleep with their husbands. The strike paralyzes the city and the women seize the Acropolis and the treasure of the Parthenon. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Low Status of Women in Ancient Greece

woman flute player at a symposium

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “In comparison with other civilizations in the ancient world, Greek women in general did not enjoy high status, rank and privilege. Even so enlightened a man as Pericles suggested in a major public speech that the more inconspicuous women were, the better it was for everyone. Sparta, which history clearly ranks as the cultural inferior of Athens on almost every scale, seems to have had a superior record in its treatment of women. And it wasn't outstanding. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

“At social gatherings, intellectuals argued that perhaps men and women were two separate species. Men had more in common with the gods, while women had far more in common with the animal kingdom. (Perhaps this was an earlier, and fundamentally flawed, version of Men are from Mars: Women are from Venus). In any event, despite the efforts of many to ensure that women stayed in their proper place in the home and out of sight, a few did succeed in escaping that orbit. None flew as high as women in Egyptian society where several attained the highest office in the land- that of Pharaoh- but some Greek women managed to leave a public legacy. Following are three of them. |

Aristotle said: “The male is by nature superior and the female inferior…the one rules and the other is ruled.” An anonymous Greek said around 400 B.C.: “Good Women must abide within the house; Those whom we meet abroad are nothing worth. Hipponax wrote in c. 580 B.C.: “Two happy days a woman brings a man: the first, when he marries her; the second, when he bears her to the grave.” [Source: Mitchell Carroll, Greek Women, (Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Press, 1908), pp. 96-103, 166-175, 210-212, 224, 250, 256-260, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

Discrimination Against Women in in Ancient Greece

Women were denied basic rights and expected to stay in their homes. Women were not normally allowed to testify in Athenian courts. They were usually "educated" in their husband's households.

Men sequestered their wives and daughters. The pale complexion a woman received from staying indoors all the time was seen as a sign of virtue and beauty. On the few occasions they were allowed to go out during daylight they were only allowed to bring a swallow of water and light snack and were required to be accompanied by a chaperon.

The veiling of women was common practice among women in ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium. The Muslim custom of veiling and segregating women is believed to have its origins in customs that were common place in ancient Greece.

Women who engaged in premarital and extramarital sex were regarded as immoral although the same behavior was acceptable among men. Infant daughters were often abandoned and girls of 14 were routinely married to men twice their age or forced into prostitution.

Art, Religion and Women in Ancient Greece

Goddess Artemis (Diana)
A 2006 exhibition entitled “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens” was put at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore by Nikolaos Kaltsas, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, and Alan Shapiro, professor of archaeology at Johns Hopkins University . On the show Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “Much of that art is religious, which is no surprise considering the commanding female deities in the Greek pantheon. Actual worship took various forms. Some were simple gestures. In several vase paintings we see women pouring wine, milk or honey from flat bowls onto the ground as an offering. In others they lead sacrificial animals to altars, a reminder that the white marble temples we now so admire for their purity were once splashed with blood.” [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, December 18, 2008]

One vase fragment, showing a group of women looking jumpy and frazzled, was long assumed to depict an orgiastic festival in honor of Aphrodite’s boy-toy lover, Adonis, the James Dean of Greek myth, who died young and left a beautiful corpse and mobs of inconsolable female fans. Recently, though, scholars have concluded that this is a marriage scene, with an anxious bride being prepared by hovering attendants for her wedding night.

The management of weddings was female turf, as was childbirth and the raising of children. So were the rituals surrounding death. Men were in charge of war and killing; women were in charge of washing and dressing bodies for the all-important last rites, without which souls were left to wander the Earth. Birth and death — the only real democratic experiences, existentially speaking — were in women’s hands.

There is no more moving image in the show than that of two women, one seated and one standing, facing each other in carved relief on a marble grave stele dated to the fourth century B.C. Both may be priests, or worshipers, in an earth-goddess cult; neither looks young. An inscription identifies the woman commemorated by the stele as Nikomache. The exhibition catalog suggests that she is the seated figure, the one who has settled in and will keep her place when the other walks away. The parting is evidently in progress as the women clasp hands and meet each other’s gaze.

Sappho wrote in poem called “Long Departure”: Then I said to the elegant ladies: / “How you will remember when you are old / The glorious things we did in our youth! / We did many pure and beautiful things. / And now that you are leaving the city, / Love’s sharp pain encircles my heart.”

Women in Ancient Greek Drama

Aristophanes wrote in “Chorus of The Women” (c. 420 B.C.): “Come now, if we are an evil, why do you marry us, if indeed we are really an evil, and forbid any of us either to go out, or to be caught peeping out, but wish to guard the evil thing with so great diligence? And if the wife should go out anywhere, and you then discover her to be out of doors, you rage with madness, who ought to offer libations and rejoice, if indeed you really find the evil thing to be gone away from the house and do not find it at home. And if we sleep in other peoples' houses, when we play and when we are tired, everyone searches for this evil thing, going round about the beds. And if we peep out of a window, everyone seeks to get a sight of the evil thing. And if we retire again, being ashamed, so much the more does everyone desire to see the evil thing peep out again. So manifestly are we much better than you. [Source: Mitchell Carroll, Greek Women, (Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Press, 1908), pp. 96-103, 166-175, 210-212, 224, 250, 256-260]

Antiphanes wrote in “Women” (c. 300 B.C.): “What! when you court concealment, will you tell the matter to a woman? Just as well tell all the criers in the public squares! 'Tis hard to say which of them louder blares. Great Zeus, may I perish, if I ever spoke against woman, the most precious of all acquisitions. For if Medea was an objectionable person, surely Penelope was an excellent creature. Does anyone abuse Clytemnestra? I oppose the admirable Alkestis. But perhaps someone may abuse Phaidra; then I say, by Zeus! what a capital person was . . . Oh, dear! the catalogue of good women is already exhausted.”

Antigone and Oedipus

“Menander wrote:
“Manner, not money, makes a woman's charm.
When you fair woman see, marvel not; great beauty's oft to countless faults allied.
Where women are, there every ill is found.
Marriage, if truth be told (of this be sure), An evil is — but one we must endure.
A good woman is the rudder of her household.
A sympathetic wife is man's chiefest treasure.
How burdensome a wife extravagant;
Not as he would may he who's ta'en her live.
Yet this of good she has: she bears him children;
She watches o'er his couch, if he be sick,
With tender care; she's ever by his side
When fortune frowns; and should he chance to die,
The last sad rites with honor due she pays.

Euripides wrote in “The Condition”:
“Of all things that are living and can form a judgment
We women are the most unfortunate creatures.
Firstly, with an excess of wealth it is required
For us to buy a husband and take one for our bodies
A master; for not to take one is even worse.
And now the question is serious whether we take
A good one or bad one; for there is no easy escape
For a woman, nor can she say not to her marriage.
She arrives among new modes of behaviour and manners,
And needs prophetic power, unless she has learned at home,
How best to manage him who shares the bed with her.
And if we work this out well and carefully,
And the husband lives with us and lightly bears his yoke,
Then life is enviable. If not, I'd rather die.
A man, when he's tired of the company in his home,
Goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom
And turns to a friend or companion of his own age.
But we are forced to keep our eyes on one alone.
What they say of us is that we have a peaceful time
Living at home, while they do the fighting in war.
How wrong they are. I would very much rather stand
Three times in the front of battle than bear one child.

Ancient Greek Goddesses

On the four main Greek goddesses, art critic Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “Like most gods in most cultures they are moody, contradictory personalities, above-it-all in knowledge but quick to play personal politics and intervene in human fate...Athena comes on as a striding warrior goddess, armed and dangerous, avid as a wasp, in a tiny bronze statuette from the fifth century B.C. This is the goddess who, in “The Iliad,” egged the Greeks on and manipulated their victory against Troy, and the one who later became the spiritual chief executive of the Athenian military economy.Yet seen painted in silhouette on a black vase, she conveys a different disposition. She’s still in armor but stands at ease, a stylus poised in one hand, a writing tablet open like a laptop in the other. The goddess of wisdom is checking her mail, and patiently answering each plea and complaint.” [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, December 18, 2008]

Artemis is equally complex. A committed virgin, she took on the special assignment of protecting pregnant women and keeping an eye on children, whose carved portraits filled her shrines. She was a wild-game hunter, but one with a deep Franciscan streak. In one image she lets her hounds loose on deer; in another she cradles a fawn. But no sooner have we pegged her as the outdoorsy type than she changes. On a gold-hued vase from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg she appears as Princess Diana, to use her Roman name, crowned and bejeweled in a pleated floor-length gown.

Demeter was worshiped as an earth goddess long before she became an Olympian. Her mystery cult had female priests, women-only rites and a direct line to the underworld. And although you might not expect Aphrodite, paragon of physical beauty, to have a dark side, she does. She was much adored; there were shrines to her everywhere. And she had the added advantage of being exotic: she seems to have drifted in from somewhere far east of Greece, bringing a swarm of nude winged urchins with her. But as goddess of love she was unreliable, sometimes perverse. Yes, she brings people amorously together, but when things go wrong, watch out: “Like a windstorm/Punishing the oak trees,/Love shakes my heart,” wrote the poet and worshiper of women, Sappho.

See Separate Articles on Ancient Greek Goddesses and the Amazons

Hesiod Theogony on Women

Hesiod was a near contemporary of Homer and source of some of earliest descriptions of Zeus and the ancient Greek gods and creation story. In Theogony, (c. 700 B.C.), he wrote: “Pernicious is the race; the woman tribe
“Dwells upon earth, a mighty bane to men;
No mates for wasting want but luxury;
And as within the close-roofed hive, the drones,
Helpers of sloth, are pampered by the bees;
These all the day, till sinks the ruddy sun,
Haste on the wing, 'their murmuring labors ply,'
And still cement the white and waxen comb;
Those lurk within the covered hive, and reap
With glutted maw the fruits of others' toil;
Such evil did the Thunderer send to man

Hesiod and a muse

In woman's form, and so he gave the sex,
Ill helpmates of intolerable toils.
Yet more of ill instead of good he gave:
The man who shunning wedlock thinks to shun
The vexing cares that haunt the woman-state,
And lonely waxes old, shall feel the want
Of one to foster his declining years;
Though not his life be needy, yet his death
Shall scatter his possessions to strange heirs,
And aliens from his blood. Or if his lot

Be marriage and his spouse of modest fame
Congenial to his heart, e'en then shall ill
Forever struggle with the partial good,
And cling to his condition. But the man
Who gains the woman of injurious kind
Lives bearing in his secret soul and heart
Inevitable sorrow: ills so deep
As all the balms of medicine cannot cure.
[Source: Mitchell Carroll, Greek Women, (Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Press, 1908), pp. 96-103, 166-175, 210-212, 224, 250, 256-260, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“Take to your house a woman for your bride
When in the ripeness of your manhood's pride;
Thrice ten your sum of years, the nuptial prime;
Nor fall far short nor far exceed the time.
Four years the ripening virgin shall consume,
And wed the fifth of her expanding bloom.
A virgin choose: and mould her manners chaste;
Chief be some neighboring maid by you embraced;
Look circumspect and long; lest you be found
The merry mock of all the dwellers round.
No better lot has Providence assigned
Than a fair woman with a virtuous mind;
Nor can a worse befall than when your fate
Allots a worthless, feast-contriving mate.
She with no torch of mere material flame
Shall burn to tinder your care-wasted frame;
Shall send a fire your vigorous bones within
And age unripe in bloom of years begin.’

Creation of Women: from Hesoid’s Theogeny

Hesiod wrote in “Theogeny” ll. 570-584: “Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire; for the very famous Limping God formed of earth the likeness of a shy maiden as the son of Cronos willed. And the goddess bright-eyed Athene girded and clothed her with silvery raiment, and down from her head she spread with her hands a broidered veil, a wonder to see; and she, Pallas Athene, put about her head lovely garlands, flowers of new-grown herbs. Also she put upon her head a crown of gold which the very famous Limping God made himself and worked with his own hands as a favour to Zeus his father. On it was much curious work, wonderful to see; for of the many creatures which the land and sea rear up, he put most upon it, wonderful things, like living beings with voices: and great beauty shone out from it. [Source: Hesiod, “Theogony”, “The Homeric Hymns and Homerica”, English translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White.. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914]

“(ll. 585-589) But when he had made the beautiful evil to be the price for the blessing, he brought her out, delighting in the finery which the bright-eyed daughter of a mighty father had given her, to the place where the other gods and men were. And wonder took hold of the deathless gods and mortal men when they saw that which was sheer guile, not to be withstood by men. “(ll. 590-612) For from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth. And as in thatched hives bees feed the drones whose nature is to do mischief — by day and throughout the day until the sun goes down the bees are busy and lay the white combs, while the drones stay at home in the covered skeps and reap the toil of others into their own bellies — even so Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil. And he gave them a second evil to be the price for the good they had: whoever avoids marriage and the sorrows that women cause, and will not wed, reaches deadly old age without anyone to tend his years, and though he at least has no lack of livelihood while he lives, yet, when he is dead, his kinsfolk divide his possessions amongst them. And as for the man who chooses the lot of marriage and takes a good wife suited to his mind, evil continually contends with good; for whoever happens to have mischievous children, lives always with unceasing grief in his spirit and heart within him; and this evil cannot be healed.”

Xenophon: On Men and Women

courtship scene

On Men and Women, Xenophon (c.428-c.354 B.C.) wrote: "She was not yet fifteen years old when she came to me, and up to that time she had lived in leading-strings, seeing, hearing and saying as little as possible. If when she came she knew no more than how, when given wool, to turn out a cloak, and had seen only how the spinning is given out to the maids, is not that as much as could be expected? For in control of her appetite, Socrates, she had been excellently trained. [Source: Xenophon (c.428-c.354 B.C.), On Men and Women, from Oikonomikos, c. 370 B.C., William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols., (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), I: 265-271, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Hellenistic World, Fordham University]

“"Well, Socrates, as soon as I found her docile and sufficiently domesticated to carry on conversation, I questioned her to this effect: Tell me, dear, have you realized for what reason I took you and your parents gave you to me? For it is obvious to you, I am sure, that we should have had no difficulty in finding someone else to share our beds. But I for myself and your parents for you considered who was the best partner of home and children that we could get. My choice fell on you, and your parents, it appears, chose me as the best they could find. Now if God grants us children, we will then think out how we shall best train them. For one of the blessings in which we shall share is the acquisition of the very best of allies and the very best of support in old age; but at present we share in this our home. For I am paying into the common stock all that I have, and you have put in all that you brought with you. And we are not to reckon up which of us has actually contributed the greater amount, but we should know of a surety that the one who proves the better partner makes the more valuable contribution.'

“"God from the first adapted the woman's nature, I think, to the indoor and man's to the outdoor tasks and cares. For he made the man"s body and mind more capable of enduring cold and heat, and journeys and campaigns; and therefore imposed on him the outdoor tasks. To the woman, since he has made her body less capable of such endurance, I take it that God has assigned the indoor tasks. And knowing that he had created in the woman and had imposed on her the nourishment of the infants, he meted out to her a larger portion of affection for new-born babes than to the man. And since he imposed on the woman the protection of the stores also, knowing that for protection a fearful disposition is no disadvantage, God meted out a larger share of fear to the woman than to the man; and knowing that he who deals with the outdoor tasks will have to be their defender against any wrong-doer, he meted out to him again a larger share of courage. But because both must give and take, he granted to both impartially memory and attention; and so you could not distinguish whether the male or the female sex has the larger share of these. Thus, to be woman it is more honorable to stay indoors than to abide in the fields, but to the man it is unseemly rather to stay indoors than to attend to the work outside.

“"Thus your duty will be to remain indoors and send out those servants whose work is outside, and superintend those who are to work indoors, and watch over so much as is to be kept in store, and take care that the sum laid by for a year be not spent in a month. And when wool is brought to you, you must see that cloaks are made for those that want them. You must see too that the dry corn is in good condition for making food.

Xenophon, an Athenian born 431 B.C., was a pupil of Socrates who marched with the Spartans, and was exiled from Athens. Sparta gave him land and property in Scillus, where he lived for many years before having to move on and settling in Corinth. He died in 354 B.C.

Types of Women in Ancient Greece

Upper class woman and her female servant

Phokylides of Miletus wrote in Satire on Women (c. 440 B.C.): “The tribe of women is of these four kinds — that of a dog, that of a bee, that of a burly sow, and that of a long-maned mare. This last is manageable, quick, fond of gadding about, fine of figure; the sow kind is neither good nor bad; that of the dog is difficult and snarling; but the bee-like woman is a good housekeeper, and knows how to work. This desirable marriage, pray to obtain, dear friend.” [Source: Mitchell Carroll, Greek Women, (Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Press, 1908), pp. 96-103, 166-175, 210-212, 224, 250, 256-260, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

On Types of Women, Semonides of Amorgos wrote (c. 550 B.C.): “God made the mind of woman in the beginning of different qualities; for one he fashioned like a bristly hog, in whose house everything tumbles about in disorder, bespattered with mud, and rolls upon the ground; she, dirty, with unwashed clothes, sits and grows fat on a dungheap.The woman like mud is ignorant of everything, both good and bad; her only accomplishment is eating: cold though the winters be, she is too stupid to draw near the fire. The woman made like the sea has two minds; when she laughs and is glad, the stranger seeing her at home will give her praise — there is nothing better than this on the earth, no, nor fairer; but another day she is unbearable, not to be looked at or approached, for she is raging mad. To friend and foe she is alike implacable and odious. Thus, as the sea is often calm and innocent, a great delight to sailors in summertime, and oftentimes again is frantic, tearing along with roaring billows, so is this woman in her temper.

“The woman who resembles a mare is delicate and long-haired, unfit for drudgery or toil; she would not touch the mill, or lift the sieve, or clean the house out! She bathes twice or thrice a day, and anoints herself with myrrh; then she wears her hair combed out long and wavy, dressed with flowers. It follows that this woman is a rare sight to one's guests; but to her husband she is a curse, unless he be a tyrant who prides himself on such expensive luxuries. The ape-like wife has Zeus given as the greatest evil to men. Her face is most hateful. Such a woman goes through the city a laughing-stock to all the men. Short of neck, with narrow hips, withered of limb, she moves about with difficulty. O! wretched man, who weds such a woman! She knows every cunning art, just like an ape, nor is ridicule a concern to her. To no one would she do a kindness, but every day she schemes to this end — how she may work someone the greatest injury.

“The man who gets the woman like a bee is lucky; to her alone belongs no censure; one's household goods thrive and increase under her management; loving, with a loving spouse, she grows old, the mother of a fair and famous race. She is preeminent among all women, and a heavenly grace attends her. She cares not to sit among the women when they indulge in lascivious chatter. Such wives are the best and wisest mates Zeus grants to men. Zeus made this supreme evil — woman: even though she seem to be a blessing, when a man has wedded one she becomes a plague.”

Working Women and Weaving in Ancient Greece

Woman spinning
Lower class women often worked while middle class and upper class women devoted their attention primarily to domestic chores. Trades available to women included things like woolworking, clothes cleaning, breadmaking and nursing.

According to Xenophon, Socrates once asked a man named Ischomchus. "I should very much like you to tell me...whether you yourself trained your wife to become the sort of woman that ought to be or whether she already knew how to carry out her duties when you took her as your wife from her father and mother." Ischommachus replied, "What should she have known when I took her as my wife, Socrates? She was not yet 15 when she came to me, and had spent her previous years under careful supervision so that she might see and hear and speak a little as possible."

It is believed that women spent most of their time weaving. Wool was the most common fiber available and flax was also widely used. Cotton was stuffed into the saddles of Alexander the Great's cavalry in India to relieve soreness but that was largely the extent of its introduction to Greece.| [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

The methods used to make wool and cloth in ancient Greece lived on for centuries. After a sheep was sheared, the wool was placed on a spike called a distaff. A strand of wool was then pulled off; a weight known as whorl was attached to it; and the strand was twisted into a thread by spinning with it the thumb and forefinger. Since each thread was made this way, you can how time consuming it must have been to make a piece of cloth or a sail for a ship.||

To make cloth, threads were placed on a warp-weighted loom (similar to ones used by Lapp weavers until the 1950's). Warps are the downward hanging threads on a loom, and they were set up so that every other thread faced forward and the others were in the back. A weft (horizontal thread) was then taken in between the forward and backward row of warps. Before the weft was threaded through in the other direction, the position of the warps was changed with something called a heddle rod. This simple tool reversed the warps so that the row in the front was now in the rear, and visa versa. In this way the threads were woven in a cross stitch manner that held them together and created cloth. The cloth in turn was used to make cushions, upholstery for wooden furniture and wall hangings as well as garments and sails.||

Women in Sparta

Spartan women had more freedoms and rights than other Greek women. Plutarch wrote that Spartan marriage was matrilocal and that "women ruled over men."

Spartan women were almost as tough as the men. They worked out by by running, wrestling and exercising so they could "undergo the pains of childbearing.” Girls were trained in athletics, dancing and music. They lived at home, while boys lived apart in their barracks. As adults, women participated in their own athletic events and performed naked like the men.

In Sparta women competed in front of the men nude in "gymnastics," which at that times meant "exercises performed naked." The Spartan women also wrestled but there is no evidence that they ever boxed. Most events required the women to be virgins and when they got married, usually the age of 18, their athletic career was over. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Aristotle on Spartan Women

Spartan woman

On Spartan Women, Aristotle (384-323 B.C.) wrote: “Again, the license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state. For, a husband and wife being each a part of every family, the state may be considered as about equally divided into men and women; and, therefore, in those states in which the condition of the women is bad, half the city may be regarded as having no laws. And this is what has actually happened at Sparta; the legislator wanted to make the whole state hardy and temperate, and he has carried out his intention in the case of the men, but he has neglected the women, who live in every sort of intemperance and luxury. The consequence is that in such a state wealth is too highly valued, especially if the citizen fall under the dominion of their wives, after the manner of most warlike races, except the Celts and a few others who openly approve of male loves. The old mythologer would seem to have been right in uniting Ares and Aphrodite, for all warlike races are prone to the love either of men or of women. This was exemplified among the Spartans in the days of their greatness; many things were managed by their women. But what difference does it make whether women rule, or the rulers are ruled by women? [Source: Aristotle, “The Politics of Aristotle,: Book 2", translated by Benjamin Jowett (London: Colonial Press, 1900)]

“The result is the same. Even in regard to courage, which is of no use in daily life, and is needed only in war, the influence of the Lacedaemonian women has been most mischievous. The evil showed itself in the Theban invasion, when, unlike the women other cities, they were utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy. This license of the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) women existed from the earliest times, and was only what might be expected. For, during the wars of the Lacedaemonians, first against the Argives, and afterwards against the Arcadians and Messenians, the men were long away from home, and, on the return of peace, they gave themselves into the legislator's hand, already prepared by the discipline of a soldier's life (in which there are many elements of virtue), to receive his enactments. But, when Lycurgus, as tradition says, wanted to bring the women under his laws, they resisted, and he gave up the attempt. These then are the causes of what then happened, and this defect in the constitution is clearly to be attributed to them. We are not, however, considering what is or is not to be excused, but what is right or wrong, and the disorder of the women, as I have already said, not only gives an air of indecorum to the constitution considered in itself, but tends in a measure to foster avarice.

“The mention of avarice naturally suggests a criticism on the inequality of property. While some of the Spartan citizen have quite small properties, others have very large ones; hence the land has passed into the hands of a few. And this is due also to faulty laws; for, although the legislator rightly holds up to shame the sale or purchase of an inheritance, he allows anybody who likes to give or bequeath it. Yet both practices lead to the same result. And nearly two-fifths of the whole country are held by women; this is owing to the number of heiresses and to the large dowries which are customary. It would surely have been better to have given no dowries at all, or, if any, but small or moderate ones. As the law now stands, a man may bestow his heiress on any one whom he pleases, and, if he die intestate, the privilege of giving her away descends to his heir. Hence, although the country is able to maintain 1500 cavalry and 30,000 hoplites, the whole number of Spartan citizens fell below 1000. The result proves the faulty nature of their laws respecting property; for the city sank under a single defeat; the want of men was their ruin.”

Ancient Greek Women as Wives

“On Wives and Hetairai (Prostitues),” “Demosthenes wrote (c. 350 B.C.): “We take a hetaira for our pleasure, a concubine for daily attention to our physical wants, a wife to give us legitimate children and a respected house.”“Thukydides wrote in “Pericles' Dictum on Women” (c. 395 B.C.): “The best wife is the one of whom the least is said, either of good or evil.” Philemon wrote: “A good wife's duty 'tis... not to command, but to obey her spouse; most mischievous a wife who rules her husband.” [Source: Mitchell Carroll, Greek Women, (Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Press, 1908), pp. 96-103, 166-175, 210-212, 224, 250, 256-260]

On “Hipparete, Wife of Alkibiades,” who lived in the 5th century B.C.: Plutarch wrote: “Hipparete was a virtuous and dutiful wife, but at last growing impatient because of the outrages done to her by her husband's continual entertaining of hetaerae [courtesans], strangers as well as Athenians, she departed from him and retired to her brother's house. Alkibiades seemed not at all concerned at this, and lived on still in the same luxury; but the law required that she should deliver to the archon, in person, and not by proxy, the instrument by which she claimed a divorce; and when, in obedience thereto, she presented herself before the archon to perform this, Alkibiades came in, caught her up, and carried her home through the market place, no one daring to oppose him or to take her from him. She continued with him till her death, which happened not long after, when Alkibiades had gone to Ephesos.”

Euripides wrote in “The True-Hearted Wife” (c. 420 B.C.):
“Beauty wins not love for woman
From the yokemate of her life:
Many a one by goodness wins it;
For to each true-hearted wife,
Knit in love unto her husband,
Is Discretion's secret told.
These her gifts are:
Though her lord be all uncomely to behold,
To her heart and eyes shall he be comely,
So her wit be sound; ('Tis not eyes that judge the man;
Within is true discernment found):
Whenso'er he speaks, or holds his peace,
Shall she his sense commend,
Prompt with sweet suggestion when with speech
He fain would please a friend:
Glad she is, if aught untoward hap,
To show she feels his care:
Joy and sorrow of the husband aye
The loyal wife will share:
Yes, if you are sick,
In spirit will your wife be sick with you,
Bear the half of all your burdens---
Naught unsweet accounts she:
For with those we love
Our duty bids us taste the cup of bliss
Not alone, the cup of sorrow also---
What is love but this?”

Aristotle: On a Good Wife

On a Good Wife, Aristotle (384-323 B.C.) wrote: “A good wife should be the mistress of her home, having under her care all that is within it, according to the rules we have laid down. She should allow none to enter without her husband's knowledge, dreading above all things the gossip of gadding women, which tends to poison the soul. She alone should have knowledge of what happens within. She must exercise control of the money spent on such festivities as her husband has approved---keeping, moreover, within the limit set by law upon expenditure, dress, and ornament---and remembering that beauty depends not on costliness of raiment. Nor does abundance of gold so conduce to the praise of a woman as self-control in all that she does. This, then, is the province over which a woman should be minded to bear an orderly rule; for it seems not fitting that a man should know all that passes within the house. But in all other matters, let it be her aim to obey her husband; giving no heed to public affairs, nor having any part in arranging the marriages of her children. Rather, when the time shall come to give or receive in marriage sons or daughters, let her then hearken to her husband in all respects, and agreeing with him obey his wishes. [Source: Aristotle (384-323 B.C.), “On a Good Wife, from Oikonomikos, c. 330 B.C., “The Politics & Economics of Aristotle,” translated by Edward English Walford and John Gillies, (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1908), Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Hellenistic World, Fordham University]

Spartan woman giving a shield to her son

“It is fitting that a woman of a well-ordered life should consider that her husband's wishes are as laws appointed for her by divine will, along with the marriage state and the fortune she shares. If she endures them with patience and gentleness, she will rule her home with ease; otherwise, not so easily. Therefore not only when her husband is in prosperity and good report must she be in agreement with him, and to render him the service he wills, but also in times of adversity. If, through sickness or fault of judgement, his good fortune fails, then must she show her quality, encouraging him ever with words of cheer and yielding him obedience in all fitting ways---only let her do nothing base or unworthy. Let her refrain from all complaint, nor charge him with the wrong, but rather attribute everything of this kind to sickness or ignorance or accidental errors. Therefore, she will serve him more assiduously than if she had been a slave bought and taken home. For he has indeed bought her with a great price--with partnership in his life and in the procreation of children....Let her bethink herself how Alcestis would never have attained such renown nor Penelope have deserved all the high praises bestowed on her had not their husbands known adversity.

“To find partners in prosperity is easy enough; but only the best women are ready to share in adversity.Such then is the pattern of the rules and ways of living which a good wife will observe. And the rules which a good husband will follow in treatment of his wife will be similar; seeing that she has entered his home like a suppliant from without, and is pledged to be the partner of his life and parenthood; and that the offspring she leaves behind her will bear the names of their parents, her name as well as his. And what could be more divine than this, or more desired by a man of sound mind, than to beget by a noble and honored wife children who shall be the most loyal supporters and discreet guardians of their parents in old age, and the preservers of the whole house? Rightly reared by father and mother, children will grow up virtuous, as those who have treated them piously and righteously deserve that they should; but parents who observe not these precepts will be losers thereby. For unless parents have given their children an example how to live, the children in their turn will be able to offer a fair and specious excuse for undutifulness. Such parents will risk being rejected by their offspring for their evil lives, and thus bring destruction upon their own heads. Therefore his wife's training should be the object of a man's unstinting care; that so far as is possible their children may spring from the noblest of stock.

“For it is only by this means that each mortal, successively produced, participates in immortality; and that petitions and prayers continue to be offered to ancestral gods. So that he who thinks lightly of this would seem also to be slighting the gods. For their sake then, in whose presence he offered sacrifice and led his wife home, promising to honor her far above all others saving his parents, a man must have care for wife and children. Now a virtuous wife is best honored when she sees that her husband is faithful to her, and has no preference for another woman; but before all others loves and trusts her and holds her as his own. And so much the more will the woman seek to be what he accounts her. If she perceives that her husband's affection for her is faithful and righteous, she too will be faithful and righteous towards him. Therefore it befits not a man of sound mind to bestow his person promiscuously, or have random intercourse with women; for otherwise the base-born will share in the rights of his lawful children, and his wife will be robbed of her honor due, and shame be attached to his sons.

“And it is fitting that he should approach his wife in honor, full of self-restraint and awe; and in his conversation with her, should use only the words of a right-minded man, suggesting only such acts as are themselves lawful and honorable. And if through ignorance she has done wrong, he should advise her of it in a courteous and modest manner. For of fear there are two kinds. The fear which virtuous and honorable sons feel towards their fathers, and loyal citizens towards right-minded rulers, has for its companions reverence and modesty; but the other kind, felt by slaves for masters and by subjects for despots who treat them with injustice and wrong, is associated with hostility and hatred. By choosing the better of all these alternatives a husband should secure the agreement, loyalty, and devotion of his wife, so that whether he himself is present or not, there may be no difference in her attitude towards him, since she realizes that they are alike guardians of the common interests; and so when he is away she may feel that to her no man is kinder or more virtuous or more truly hers than her own husband. And if the husband learns first to master himself, he will thereby become his wife's best guide in all the affairs of life, and will teach her to follow his example.”

Poems on Ancient Greek Prostitutes

courtesan mask

Philemon wrote in “Hetairai” [Prostitutes] (c. 350 B.C.):
“But you did well for every man, O Solon:
For they do say you were the first to see
The justice of a public-spirited measure,
The savior of the State (and it is fit
For me to utter this avowal, Solon);
You, seeing that the State was full of men,
Young, and possessed of all the natural appetites,
And wandering in their lusts where they'd no business,
Bought women and in certain spots did place them,
Common to be and ready for all comers.
They naked stood: look well at them, my youth---
Do not deceive yourself; aren't you well off ?
You're ready, so are they: the door is open---
The price an obol: enter straight---there's
No nonsense here, no cheat or trickery;
But do just what you like, how you like.
You're off: wish her good-bye;
She's no more claim on you.”
[Source: Mitchell Carroll, Greek Women, (Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Press, 1908), pp. 96-103, 166-175, 210-212, 224, 250, 256-260]

Anaxilas wrote in Hetairai (c. 525 B.C.):
“The man whoe'er has loved a hetaira,
Will say that no more lawless, worthless race
Can anywhere be found: for what ferocious
Unsociable she-dragon, what Chimaira
Though it breathe fire from its mouth, what Charybdis,
What three-headed Skylla, dog o' the sea,
Or hydra, sphynx, or raging lioness,
Or viper, or winged harpy (greedy race),
Could go beyond those most accursed harlots?
There is no monster greater. They alone
Surpass all other evils put together.”

Eubulus wrote in “The Reproach of the Hetairai (c. 350 B.C.):
“By Zeus, we are not painted with vermilion,
Nor with dark mulberry juice, as you are often:
And then, if in the summer you go out,
Two rivulets of dark, discolored hue
Flow from your eyes, and sweat drops from your jaws
And makes a scarlet furrow down your neck,
And the light hair which wantons o'er your face
Seems gray, so thickly is it plastered o'er.”

Strong Female Figures in Ancient Greece

Hercules fighting an Amazon

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Penelope, wife of Odysseus, may not have existed at all but she still succeeded in leaving a legacy taught to new generations of Greeks for centuries by itinerant poet-storytellers. The virtues, values and roles ascribed to Penelope became, in effect, the standard to which women in that situation were expected to aspire. The story is well known. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

“Odysseus, King of Ithaca and the man responsible for the idea of the Trojan horse tried to return home after the long war with Troy. But he had offended Poseidon and the ruler of the seas threw many obstacles in his path. Odysseus, a reluctant warrior, had left his household in charge of his wife. Now she was being besieged by suitors who thought her husband was dead and wanted his wife and valuable property. Penelope outsmarted them. The woman that Homer portrays is one who can stand on her own two feet, is a partner with her husband in the life of the family and a real role model. |

“Aspasia, daughter of Axiochus, was born in the city of Miletus in Asia Minor (present day Turkey) around 470 B.C. . She was highly educated and attractive. Athens, at that time, was in its golden age and as a city must have had the kind of appeal that New York, London and Paris have today. Aspasia moved there around 445 B.C. and was soon part of the local social circuit. Some of the most influential minds of the era spoke highly of her intelligence and debating skills. Socrates credited her with making Pericles a great orator and with improving the philosopher's own skills in rhetoric. She contributed to the public life of Athens and to the enlightened attitude of its most influential citizens. |

“Hypatia, daughter of Theon of Alexandria, was born in that city around 350 AD. She studied and later taught at the great school in Alexandria. Some modern mathematicians acclaim her as having been “the world's greatest mathematician and the world's leading astronomer”, a viewpoint shared by ancient scholars and writers. She became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria lecturing on mathematics, astronomy and philosophy attracting students from all over the ancient world. Political and religious leaders in Alexandria sought her advice.

Powerful Women and Priestesses in Ancient Greece

20120221-Oracle of Delphi Collier-priestess_of_Delphi.jpg
Priestess of Delphi
by Collier
In a review of Joan Breton Connelly’s “Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece”, Steve Coates wrote in the New York Times, “In the summer of 423 B.C., Chrysis, the priestess of Hera at Argos, fell asleep inside the goddess’s great temple, and a torch she had left ablaze set fire to the sacred garlands there, burning the building to the ground. This spectacular case of custodial negligence drew the attention of the historian Thucydides, a man with scant interest in religion or women. But he had mentioned Chrysis once before: the official lists of Hera’s priestesses at Argos provided a way of dating historical events in the Greek world, and Thucydides formally marked the beginning of the Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. [Source: Steve Coates, New York Times, July 1, 2007]

During the same upheaval, in 411, Thucydides’ fellow Athenian Aristophanes staged his comedy “Lysistrata,” with a heroine who tries to bring the war to an end by leading a sex strike. There is reason to believe that Lysistrata herself is drawn in part from a contemporary historical figure, Lysimache, the priestess of Athena Polias on the Acropolis. If so, she joins such pre-eminent Athenians as Pericles, Euripides and Socrates as an object of Aristophanes’ lampoons. On a much bigger stage in 480 B.C., before the battle of Salamis, one of Lysimache’s predecessors helped persuade the Athenians to take to their ships and evacuate the city ahead of the Persian invaders — a policy that very likely saved Greece — announcing that Athena’s sacred snake had failed to eat its honey cake, a sign that the goddess had already departed.

These are just some of the influential women visible through the cracks of conventional history in Joan Breton Connelly’s eye-opening “Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece.” Her portrait is not in fact that of an individual priestess, but of a formidable class of women scattered over the Greek world and across a thousand years of history, down to the day in A.D. 393 when the Christian emperor Theodosius banned the polytheistic cults. It is remarkable, in this age of gender studies, that this is the first comprehensive treatment of the subject, especially since, as Connelly persuasively argues, religious office was, exceptionally, an “arena in which Greek women assumed roles equal ... to those of men.” Roman society could make no such boast, nor can ours.

Despite powerful but ambiguous depictions in Greek tragedy, no single ancient source extensively documents priestesses, and Connelly, a professor at New York University, builds her canvas from material gleaned from scattered literary references, ancient artifacts and inscriptions, and representations in sculpture and vase painting. Her book shows generations of women enjoying all the influence, prestige, honor and respect that ancient priesthoods entailed. Few were as exalted as the Pythia, who sat entranced on a tripod at Delphi and revealed the oracular will of Apollo, in hexameter verse, to individuals and to states. But Connelly finds priestesses who were paid for cult services, awarded public portrait statues, given elaborate state funerals, consulted on political matters and acknowledged as sources of cultural wisdom and authority by open-minded men like the historian Herodotus. With separation of church and state an inconceivable notion in the world’s first democracy, all priesthoods, including those held by women, were essentially political offices, Connelly maintains. Nor did sacred service mean self-abnegation. “Virgin” priestesses like Rome’s Vestals were alien to the Greek conception. Few cults called for permanent sexual abstinence, and those that did tended to appoint women already beyond childbearing age; some of the most powerful priesthoods were held by married women with children, leading “normal” lives.

Athens’ roughly 170 festival days would have brought women out in public in great numbers and in conspicuous roles. “Ritual fueled the visibility of Greek women within this system,” Connelly writes, sending them across their cities to sanctuaries, shrines and cemeteries, so that the picture that emerges “is one of far-ranging mobility for women across the polis landscape.”

Book: “Portrait of a Priestess, Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece” by Joan Breton Connelly (Princeton University Press, 2007]

Herodotus on Artemisia at Salamis

20120221-Diana abd Actaeon.jpg
Diana and Actaeon
Artemesia was a woman ruler of Halicarnassus, who took part in the Persian attack on Athens. On here, Herodotus wrote (480 B.C.): “Of the other lower officers I shall make no mention, since no necessity is laid on me; but I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attack upon Hellas, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder. She had obtained the sovereign power after the death of her husband; and, though she had now a son grown up, yet her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure. Her name, as I said, was Artemisia, and she was the daughter of Lygdamis; by race she was on his side a Halicarnassian, though by her mother a Cretan. She ruled over the Halicarnassians, the men of Cos, of Nisyrus, and of Calydna; and the five triremes which she furnished to the Persians were, next to the Sidonian, the most famous ships in the fleet. She likewise gave to Xerxes sounder counsel than any of his other allies. Now the cities over which I have mentioned that she bore sway were one and all Dorian; for the Halicarnassians were colonists from Troizen, while the remainder were from Epidauros. Thus much concerning the sea-force. [Source: Herodotus, “Histories”, translated by George Rawlinson, New York: Dutton & Co., 1862]

“Mardonius accordingly went round the entire assemblage, beginning with the Sidonian monarch, and asked this question; to which all gave the same answer, advising to engage the Hellenes, except only Artemisia, who spoke as follows: "Say to the king, Mardonius, that these are my words to him: I was not the least brave of those who fought at Euboia, nor were my achievements there among the meanest; it is my right, therefore, O my lord, to tell you plainly what I think to be most for your advantage now. This then is my advice: "Spare your ships, and do not risk a battle; for these people are as much superior to your people in seamanship, as men to women. What so great need is there for you to incur hazard at sea? Are you not master of Athens, for which you did undertake your expedition? Is not Hellas subject to you? Not a soul now resists your advance. They who once resisted, were handled even as they deserved. Now learn how I expect that affairs will go with your adversaries. If you are not over-hasty to engage with them by sea, but will keep your fleet near the land, then whether you stay as you are, or march forward towards the Peloponnesos, you will easily accomplish all for which you are come here. The Hellenes cannot hold out against you very long; you will soon part them asunder, and scatter them to their several homes. In the island where they lie, I hear they have no food in store; nor is it likely, if your land force begins its march towards the Peloponnesos, that they will remain quietly where they are — at least such as come from that region. Of a surety they will not greatly trouble themselves to give battle on behalf of the Athenians. On the other hand, if you are hasty to fight, I tremble lest the defeat of your sea force bring harm likewise to your land army. This, too, you should remember, O king; good masters are apt to have bad servants, and bad masters good ones. Now, as you are the best of men, your servants must needs be a sorry set. These Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, and Pamphylians, who are counted in the number of your subject-allies, of how little service are they to you!"

20120221-Lawrence_Alma-Tadema pandora.jpg
Alma-Tadema's pandora
“As Artemisia spoke, they who wished her well were greatly troubled concerning her words, thinking that she would suffer some hurt at the king's hands, because she exhorted him not to risk a battle; they, on the other hand, who disliked and envied her, favored as she was by the king above all the rest of the allies, rejoiced at her declaration, expecting that her life would be the forfeit. But Xerxes, when the words of the several speakers were reported to him, was pleased beyond all others with the reply of Artemisia; and whereas, even before this, he had always esteemed her much, he now praised her more than ever. Nevertheless, he gave orders that the advice of the greater number should be followed; for he thought that at Euboia the fleet had not done its best, because he himself was not there to see — whereas this time he resolved that he would be an eye-witness of the combat.

“What part the several nations, whether Hellene or barbarian, took in the combat, I am not able to say for certain; Artemisia, however, I know, distinguished herself in such a way as raised her even higher than she stood before in the esteem of the king. For after confusion had spread throughout the whole of the king's fleet, and her ship was closely pursued by an Athenian trireme, she, having no way to fly, since in front of her were a number of friendly vessels, and she was nearest of all the Persians to the enemy, resolved on a measure which in fact proved her safety. Pressed by the Athenian pursuer, she bore straight against one of the ships of her own party, a Calyndian, which had Damasiyourmus, the Calyndian king, himself on board. I cannot say whether she had had any quarrel with the man while the fleet was at the Hellespont, or no — neither can I decide whether she of set purpose attacked his vessel, or whether it merely chanced that the Calyndian ship came in her way — but certain it is that she bore down upon his vessel and sank it, and that thereby she had the good fortune to procure herself a double advantage. For the commander of the Athenian trireme, when he saw her bear down on one of the enemy's fleet, thought immediately that her vessel was a Hellene, or else had deserted from the Persians, and was now fighting on the Hellene side; he therefore gave up the chase, and turned away to attack others.

“ Thus in the first place she saved her life by the action, and was enabled to get clear off from the battle; while further, it fell out that in the very act of doing the king an injury she raised herself to a greater height than ever in his esteem. For as Xerxes beheld the fight, he remarked (it is said) the destruction of the vessel, whereupon the bystanders observed to him — "See, master, how well Artemisia fights, and how she has just sunk a ship of the enemy?" Then Xerxes asked if it were really Artemisia's doing; and they answered, "Certainly; for they knew her ensign" — while all made sure that the sunken vessel belonged to the opposite side. Everything, it is said, conspired to prosper the queen — it was especially fortunate for her that not one of those on board the Calyndian ship survived to become her accuser. Xerxes, they say, in reply to the remarks made to him, observed: "My men have behaved like women, my women like men!"

How Perceptions of Women in Ancient Greece Have Been Shaped

Lawrence Alma-Tadema's
vision of a Greek woman
Coats wrote that Connelly’s well-documented, meticulously assembled portrait of women largely contradicts what has long been the most broadly accepted vision of the women of ancient Greece, particularly Athens, as dependent, cloistered, invisible and mute, relegated almost exclusively to housekeeping and child rearing — a view that at its most extreme maintains that the names of respectable Athenian women were not spoken aloud in public or that women were essentially housebound. Connelly traces the tenacity of this idea to several sources, including the paradoxically convergent ideologies of Victorian gentlemen scholars and 20th-century feminists and a modern tendency to discount the real-world force of religion, a notion now under powerful empirical adjustment. [Source: Steve Coates, New York Times, July 1, 2007]

But another cause is a professional divide between classicists and archaeologists. In their consideration of a woman’s place, classicists emphasize certain well-known texts, the most notorious being Thucydides’ rendition of Pericles’ great oration over the first Athenian dead of the Peloponnesian War, which had this terse advice for their widows: “If I must say anything on the subject of female excellence, ... greatest will be her glory who is least talked of among men, whether in praise or in criticism.” Connelly, though, is an archaeologist, and she insists that her evidence be allowed to speak for itself, something it does with forceful eloquence. Far from the names of respectable women being suppressed, it seems clear that great effort was made to ensure that the names of many of these women would never be forgotten: Connelly can cite more than 150 historical Greek priestesses by name. Archaeology also speaks through beauty: “Portrait of a Priestess” is an excellent thematic case study in vase painting and sculpture, with striking images of spirited women, at altars or leading men in procession, many marked as priestesses by the great metal temple key they carry, signifying not admission to heaven but the pragmatic responsibility that Chrysis so notoriously betrayed in Argos.

Among her more provocative points is debunking the idea that polytheism’s presumed spiritual failures may eventually have led to the Christian ascendancy. Connelly shows that the system long sustained and nourished Greek women and their communities. In turn, women habituated to religious privilege and influence in the pre-Christian era eagerly lent their expertise and energy to the early church. But with one male god in sole reign in heaven, women’s direct connection with deity became suspect, and they were methodically edged out of formal religious power. “There may be no finer tribute to the potency of the Greek priestess than the discomfort that her position caused the church fathers,” Connelly writes in her understated way. Her priestesses may be ancient history, but the consequences of the discomfort they caused endure to this day.

Law Code of Gortyn (450 B.C.) On Rape and Adultery

The Law Code of Gortyn (450 B.C.) is the most complete surviving Greek Law code. According to the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: “In Greek tradition, Crete was an early home of law. In the 19th Century, a law code from Gortyn on Crete was discovered, dealing fully with family relations and inheritance; less fully with tools, slightly with property outside of the household relations; slightly too, with contracts; but it contains no criminal law or procedure. This (still visible) inscription is the largest document of Greek law in existence (see above for its chance survival), but from other fragments we may infer that this inscription formed but a small fraction of a great code.” [Source:Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“II. If one commit rape on a free man or woman, he shall pay 100 staters, and if on the son or daughter of an apetairos ten, and if a slave on a free man or woman, he shall pay double, and if a free man on a male or female serf five drachmas, and if a serf on a male or female serf, five staters. If one debauch a female house-slave by force he shall pay two staters, but if one already debauched, in the daytime, an obol, but if at night, two obols. If one tries to seduce a free woman, he shall pay ten staters, if a witness testify. . .

“III. If one be taken in adultery with a free woman in her father=s, brother=s, or husband=s house, he shall pay 100 staters, but if in another=s house, fifty; and with the wife of an apetairos, ten. But if a slave with a free woman, he shall pay double, but if a slave with a slave=s wife, five.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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