Women in ancient Greece

An annoying phrase in Hammond’s A History of Greece to 322 B.C. (p. 423):

“In Greek civilization men had no less high a regard for women than in any other civilization, and this is nowhere clearer than in Sophocles’ portrayal of such women as Antigone, Electra, Tecmessa, and Deianeira. But they were highly regarded for their loyalty and their fortitude rather than for any amorous passion.”

Really, Athenians had a strong preference for women who stayed locked up at home, didn’t talk back and expressed no interest for acquiring an education. Author Jack Holland, in A Short History of Misogyny reminds us that Solon’s laws against women stayed in place for centuries:

“Solon imposed further restrictions on women: he circumscribed their appearance at funerals (…) and at feasts, as well as limiting their public display of wealth. In addition, they were banned from buying or selling land. Solon also enacted a law forcing a woman without brothers, on the death of her father, to marry his nearest male relative.”

Athenian women did not train at the gymnasium. They did not participate in public debate. While male slaves could walk the streets of the city without supervision, a ‘free’ woman had to be escorted by a male relative.

Greek religious myths were harsh on women. It is Pandora who brought disease and other ills to men (Pandora would become Eve under Christianity). As a rule, Greek female goddesses are either sexless paragons of virtues or are hyper-sexualized creatures of passion (the opposition of reason). Fourth Century B.C. Greek drama would see more realistic female characters emerge, but it’s hard not to see Hippolytus as a splendid rehash of old prejudices, with female-induced passions defeats male reason and honour. No wonder the Greeks preferred their women to be locked up.

Most history texts make the assumption that most cities followed Athens’s example when it comes to attitudes toward women. Spartan women enjoyed greater freedom, but Sparta was the exception.


Useful reference site for the rights of women by one James Thompson: Women in the ancient world. This one looks pretty good too.

Further research: I’ll have to come back to this, especially to read about Egyptian women. Apparently, Egyptian women had access to a fair divorce and many women indeed separated. There’s also the question of what the daily life of Greek women was like, behind closed doors.


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