Men and women in ancient Greece

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Men and women in ancient Athens, Greece led very different lives; men had the dominant role in public life as they were engaged in politics and public events, while women were often encouraged to stay in the home. The inequality between men and women in Athens is much greater compared to other Greek city-states such as Sparta. The comparisons of men and women of day to day life and special events are needless to say unfair. Throughout this paper the research will demonstrate the comparisons and the differences of men and women in Athens leading up to one of the most impactful events that still holds true in today’s world. The Olympic Games were for males only, while in another part of Olympia, the women had a small event of their own in honor of Hera. The controversy of men and women participating in the same games and regular day to day tasks was a constant struggle for equality, the same battle women of today’s world are fighting for equal pay and opportunities. It is amazing, we as a human society, have been battling the same war for as long as time, people now and back then should realize that God made men and women equal and they should be treated that way. In ancient Greece, women endured many difficulties and hardships especially in three main areas. The problems women encountered in this era occurred within marriage, inheritance and social life. All three elements shaped and formed the mold of the submissive female.

The inequalities started out early in Athens where young boys and girls led very different lives, one set up for success and power, while the other set up to take care of the house and little freedoms. Boys began drinking wine at the age of 3, and began school at 7. There they were taught math, to read and write and to play a musical instrument. Physical education was extremely important in Athens as well as other Greek city-states, and sports included Archery, wrestling and swimming. More wealthy were taught to ride a horse. By age 18 all boys were expected to attend military school. By age 20 they graduated. In Athens, it was often the case for boys to reach the age of 30 before they participated in politics. It was also around this age that they usually married. Boys were set up for lives of adventure and freedom compared to the repetitive lives of their counterparts, the young girls. Girls in Athens stayed at home until they were married. They could not choose who they wanted to marry; all was decided by their fathers. Once they gave birth their fathers could not take them back, and it was very difficult for a woman to divorce her husband. Whilst at home, all girls learned domestic jobs such as weaving, taking care of children, embroidering, and cooking. Girls were able to attend festivals, funerals and sometimes visit neighbors1.

As time went on in the lives of both boys and girls the differences only continued in their adult lives. Men in ancient Athens were the only real citizens. Women, children and slaves were considered below men. Men were responsible to get the crops grown and harvested, but everyone in the family helped, unless the family had slaves to do their work for them. When they were at home, they were treated with great respect. Even during dinner, the men laid on couches and were fed and entertained by the slaves while the women and children ate in another room.

Men were given the most responsibility and, therefore, were considered the most important people in ancient Greece. Compared to woman in ancient Athens had very little choices open to them. If they were lucky, they could read, play an instrument, and own slaves to do some of the work for them. But there were many restrictions for women also. They could not vote, own anything of any great value or have any influence on political issues at all. If they spoke back to their husbands they could be beaten, publicly humiliated or locked up in their own home2.

Marriage, a romanticized idea of being united with a person one loves dearly was the furthest thought from the mind of a woman living in ancient Greece. Marriage was considered one of the most important decisions and events in a woman’s life, but she had no direct control over it. However, in ancient Greek society, females were given little voice, if any, in major decisions. They were denied the freedom to choose whom to marry. When a young woman was to marry, she was given in marriage by her male relatives and her choice had no legal bearing on the contract. A woman was not allowed to decide whom she wanted to wed, whether she loved her proposed spouse or not. A woman was not given the opportunity or option to select her husband; therefore she “did not marry; she was given in marriage”3. Women were not active in making the initial decision, because it was arranged and planned by a father figure or male relative. A woman often dreaded the day of her wedding rather than looking forward to it as one of the happiest and meaningful affairs in her life.

In ancient cultures, women were seen as objects for they were given in to marriage by the father to the bridegroom. This is no way any person should be treated, we all deserve basic human rights and the freedom of choice should be at the top of that list. Thus, “the word for marriage…betrays its function and character. It was called ekdosis, loan, and so marriage was a transaction” between two men4. Marriage was seen as an exchange and another opportunity for men to maintain the superior position. Marriage was seen as a practical business arrangement, not a love match5. Many fathers were more interested in expanding a business or forging an alliance between families than finding a kind and loving mate for their daughters. Picking a cousin, even a distant one, or a close friend, might make a father less unhappy about the loss of that part of his estate going to the dowry, and under these circumstances a girl might have seen him at a family party or at least have heard mention of his name. Additionally, in marriage, the issue of property aroused much conflict, supporting inequality between male and female6.

Marriages could be ended on three grounds. The first and most common was repudiation by the husband. No reason was necessary, only the return of the dowry was expected. The second termination cause was the wife leaving the family home, and in this case, the woman’s new guardian was required to act as her legal representative. This was, however, a rare occurrence, and the woman’s reputation in society was damaged as a result. The third ground for termination was when the bride’s father asked for his daughter back, probably to offer her to another man with a more attractive dowry. This last option was only possible, however, if the wife had not had children. If a woman was left a widow, she was required to marry a close male relative in order to ensure property stayed within the family. All three of these options again are completely out of the control of the woman, she can just be told to leave by her former husband or just passed around by her father like a piece of property. Woman were taken advantage of to help further along the family business and had no say on how the process took place7.

The distribution and ownership of inheritance was quite unfair and complicated. In ancient Greece, a woman’s property always remained separate from her husband’s, if she had any at all. The husband possessed total control of the property and had full control over what was passed to their children when he died. As you can see, once again the male had maximum authority over the situation. If a relative or child were to pass away, her inheritance would go directly to the husband, instead of being shared between the husband and wife. A woman could acquire property if she ceased to be his wife without leaving him any children8. A woman could gain an inheritance under this particular circumstance but she could not engage in transactions involving property valued at over one bushel9. This limit of one bushel was to prevent women from gaining any influence or authority in the political and economic world. Ultimately, the limit of trading at a fixed low currency can be seen as a glass ceiling, which kept woman from attaining a high position in society.

If a woman’s father died, she usually inherited nothing if she had any brothers. If she were a single child, then either her guardian or husband, when married, took control of the inheritance. In some cases when a single female inherited her father’s estate, she was obliged to marry her nearest male relative, typically an uncle. Females could inherit from the death of other male relatives, providing there was no male relative in line. Women did have some personal property, typically acquired as gifts from family members, which was usually in the form of clothes and jewelry. Women could not make a will and, on death, all of their property would go to their husband. As you can see, the circumstances of gaining inheritance were restricted and limited for women, and the laws were generally more favorable towards men. The inequality that existed between men and women within the society of ancient Greece exemplifies a period of great prejudice and discrimination against females. Along with the problematic issues of property, women came across many boundaries and obstacles relative to social life, maintaining the inferiority among females. This only goes to show the inequality and injustice done to women in ancient Greece as seen in their marriages and inheritance policies10.

The social life of women in ancient Greece often mirrored the submissive female image. Women were restricted from participating in outside events in which men were involved. Since working out of doors, was considered dirty work the man or slaves would work outside, women were confined indoors. In Athens, pale skin was in style for women, showing that they were wealthy enough to stay inside. The house was considered a secure place; however, inside the home, women were often raped by their own husbands. A social life for a female was only achieved in boundaries within her husband’s house and the domain of his power11. This indicated that a woman was permitted to socialize outside her home if her husband granted her permission and if her husband held a high position or authority in society. While men were outside the house, trading, hunting and working the fields, women remained in their houses. The majority of activities girls were involved in were basically domestic. Whilst at home, all girls learned domestic jobs such as weaving, taking care of children, embroidering, and cooking. If they were lucky, they could read, play an instrument, while slaves did some of the housework, but for the most part women were almost slaves in their own homes. Women felt like slaves in their own home because they had little freedoms, they were at the mercy of their husbands, and had little if any connections to the real world.

Females were occupied with nurturing their children and carrying out household duties. Restricted and secluded within the household, women were compared to mere adolescents12. Living and working in the home, women had various responsibilities that were expected to be done by their husbands. The two primary functions for women in Athens were child-bearer and housewife, most men believed that this all women were good for, producing healthy sons to carry out their legacy and to take care of the house and serve them after their long days of work.

Bearing children, one of the main roles of women, was especially demanding and stressful. It was distressing because women were not given a choice about carrying on their family’s name. If a mother did not give birth to a male child, her daughter would be compelled to carry on the responsibility of producing a make heir in her place instead. Giving birth to a girl was seen as an embarrassment and disgrace. After giving birth to a daughter, a mother would “turn her head away” from her husband “in shame”13. A father would not even consider his own daughters as his children; men often do not even count daughters when asked how many children they have. Females were neglected and looked down upon starting the day they were born. The strain and pressure of carrying on the name of the household created stress and anxiety for the women, even though giving birth to a male or female was completely out of their control. Additionally, all children the women gave birth to would belong to the husband’s family more so than to the wife’s side of the family. Here, the children can be seen as an issue of property.

As many athletes and historians know, the Olympics were initially organized in honor of the 12 Olympian gods of Greece. Yet, in the middle of the 6th century BC, the Greek government banned all women from any sort of participation in the competition. Under the guidance of Hera, queen of the Olympians, ancient Greek women formed their own competition that they called the Heraean Games. With striking similarity to social movements of the present day, the Heraean Games were a bastion of gender equality in ancient Greece. This movement is one of the first recognized as a social justice movement fighting for equality between men and women. Women stood of to the male leaders and created their own games since they were not allowed to participate in the original Olympics. Social equality was an unknown topic in ancient Greece, but a strong belief in the gods led to the onset of many historical anomalies. In terms of polytheistic worship, the gender of each respective god has had no bearing on his or her power. Recurring evidence shows imagery of Greek women competing in footraces, but historians have been tasked with connecting the dots in determining how everything stacks up14.

It is true that the games focus on female athletes and most of the information that we know of surrounding the Heraean Games points to an ancient group known as the Sixteen Women15. Several theories explain the origin of this group of women, and their involvement in the council of the Heraean Games remains true throughout. Women of ancient Greece placed immense value in physical fitness. It’s suspected the Heraean Games matched every bit of the intensity found in the Olympic counterparts. One big difference, however, is the dress worn by competitors of each respective competition. It’s well documented that males competed without any clothes, but women were required to wear tunics and cover-ups. Victors of the Heraean Games were also adorned with different rewards than their Olympian counterparts. Typical awards included lavish foods, crowns made of fruit and olives and carvings in statues. Though better than no awards, these tokens pale in comparison to the Olympic spoils16.

There is much disagreement over the exact level of influence these games had on gender equality as a whole. Most historians do believe, however, that something like the Heraean Games could only have taken place in a nation poised for social advancement. Still, women who snuck into the spectating area at the Olympics were sometimes put to death. The games were simply the first time in documented history that women competed against each other in athletic competition. City-states like Sparta took notice of women’s potential and started training their women to better deal with the common brute-force mentality of ancient times. This trend may not have continued after Sparta, but the trend of respecting women’s potential outside of their matriarchal duties certainly has. Sparta women had much more freedom and advantages compared to the women of Athens. Overall, not much is known about the Heraean Games. Historians have uncovered enough evidence to understand where and how the competition existed, but exact dates are left unknown. More importantly, the competition’s effect on societal changes may be greater than it first seemed. Although the Heraean games benefitted women from Sparta more than women from Athens it was still ground breaking advancement in equal rights between men and women in the antiquity.

Ancient Greece has a reputation of favoring men. Women were looked at as submissive. Once a woman got married, she was under the control of her husband. Prior to that, her father or a male relative served as her guardian. As a result of this, people automatically assume that women played no role in Ancient Greek society at all. Women were not permitted to become citizens in the Athenian city-state. Since they weren’t able to own their own property, they weren’t able to hold full citizenship rights. Interestingly enough, slaves were able to become citizens if they were freed. Women actually had fewer rights than slaves because they were never allowed their own freedoms. Although they weren’t allowed citizenship status and were not able to own property, they still perceived themselves as being civilized. Athenian women were also not allowed an education. Men were the only ones allowed in the schools. They also wore clothing that completely covered their bodies and were not able to walk where they wanted.

Despite the extreme social restraint on women in classical antiquity, it is interesting that they could still develop their own form of the games. In ancient Greece, women endured many difficulties and hardships especially in three main areas. The problems women encountered in this era occurred within marriage, inheritance and social life. After looking into these three categories, the gender inequality was a main issue in classical antiquity. The women of this time period started the fight our society continues to deal with in today’s world. From only being seen as property and passed along as a possession and being banned from the Olympic Games, females of this time period came a long way to creating their own version of the games and celebrated what they can do as well as men.

Cite this paper

Men and women in ancient Greece. (2020, Sep 16). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/men-and-women-in-ancient-greece/



Are men and women equal in Greece?
With 52.2 out of 100 points, Greece ranks last in the EU on the Gender Equality Index . Greece's score is 15.7 points below the EU's score.
Did women and men have different roles in ancient Greece?
Women in ancient Greece were not able to participate in public life as men were. They were expected to take care of the household and children while their husbands worked.
What roles did men have in ancient Greece?
The ancient Greeks believed that men were the head of the household and were responsible for making all of the important decisions. They also believed that men were better suited for public life and for serving in the military.
What were the rights of men in ancient Greece?
The first period of Greek history is traditionally dated from the Bronze Age, which began around 3000 BCE. The Bronze Age marked the first time that metal was used in Greece.
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