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Women in Ancient Greece

Essay by   •  August 1, 2013  •  Research Paper  •  1,962 Words (8 Pages)  •  671 Views

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The role of Women in Ancient Greece has always been a fascinating subject. There is a wide range of sources into which modern day scholars can quench their thirst for information about the weaker sex's status and this include orators, ancient historians, biographers, philosophers, poets, comedy and dramas, in addition to inscriptions and papyri, in fine arts and in archaeology. One would think that having immediate access on the ancient Greece would make it easier to discuss about their female citizens. Regrettably this is not necessarily true, for most philosophers, orators and dramatists were men who wrote for their gender. The latter might have recorded important aspects of the ancient Greeks' days, topics ranging from politics to adultery, but very little were mentioned about women and their roles. The little that we know may be highly biased against women. Each type of ancient sources paints a picture of women in the archaic and classical Greece. However, we cannot stress enough on the fact that not all female Greeks were as secluded as the Athenians or enjoying a little more freedom as the Spartans.

The financial limitations that female Athenians were forced to tolerate, made them reliant on men for the whole duration of their lives. An Athenian female citizen was required by law to always be under a male kyrios' protection. The guardian would be responsible of her safety and her affairs. According to Aristotle in Politics, women were always inferior to men due to the fact that they never reached full maturity and therefore needed a kyrio (Politcs 1260a 12, in Dillon and Garland, The Ancient Greeks, 2013, p.144).

While Aristotle is being paternalistic against women, considering the fact that newly married women were in their early teens, it is quite understandable that they had not mastered the responsibilities of taking care of a household. (Dillon and Garland, The Ancient Greeks, 2013, p.144) Athenian men's responsibilities, involved taking care of any monetary assets or properties that might be hers. Even though women financial affairs were protected by law, which means in the absence of a male heir, they could not be discriminated, in most instances however they were forced to marry their next in kin such as their paternal uncle or the latter's eldest son so that the properties would stay in the family (Dillon and Garland, The Ancient Greeks, 2013, p.145 - p.148). In certain circumstances such as one of a childless marriage, both the husband and the wife's father could apply for an annulment. If women wanted a divorce, they had to seek an archon's authorisation. However, in the advent of a divorce, the husband would have to return the dowry to his now ex in-laws. (Plut. Alk. 8.4, in Dillon and Garland, Ancient Greece, 2010, doc. 4.55, p. 149).

Girls were considered as a financial burden from the minute they were born. In order to be able to find an eligible husband, the girls' parents had to find and provide their daughters with dowries as otherwise it would be very shameful for the whole family if she remained a spinster (Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 596-597; in Dillon and Garland, Ancient Greece, 2010, doc. 4.66, p.156). It was customary for the woman to take the dowry, the money, goods, or estate to her husband or his family in marriage.

While exposure of newborns were widely practiced in ancient Greece, it was the preferred way to dispose of one additional mouth to feed, the wrong sex in most circumstances female or deformed babies. Some of these babies would be saved but would have a sinister future as they would be sold as slaves or prostitutes (Dillon and Garland, The Ancient Greeks, 2013, p. 147-148). According to

Plutarch, Aspasia, Perikles' partner, "practised a calling that was neither decent nor respectable, since she brought up young girls as hetairai" (Plut. Life of Perikles 24.2-9, in Dillon and Garland, Ancient Greece, 2010, doc. 4.29, p.137).

How isolated female Athenian citizens were? Some will imply that female citizens were restricted to the house and were not allowed to interact with anyone, especially males who were not related.

The fact that life at home was very rarely mentioned in works, suggests the affairs at home were insignificant but paradoxically it could also mean that it was too vital to be summarised. Women's role in a household was very substantial. Not only were they in charge of the daily care and education of the future citizens but also of the supervision of the slaves, the manufacturing of clothes and other affairs that contributed to the good management of the oikos. While some claim that women were isolated, others saw a picture of free women who were just as important as men. Maybe, both sides will find a common ground.

It was in fact inacceptable for men to enter the back part of a house unless they were of immediate relation. Some ancient scholars led us to believe that houses in the Athenian society were made in two halves, one for the males and one for the females. One popular quotation that supports this idea is when Lysias reported a speech by Euphiletos who argued that it was possible for his wife to commit adultery in his own home without him knowing. He said that his house was very humble, double storey, and with his wife's room situated upstairs and his room downstairs. After the birth of their baby, they exchanged rooms so that his wife could nurse the baby without the fear of falling down the stairs in the dark. (Lysias I On the Murder of Erathosthenes 6-10: Death of an Adulterer, in Dillon and Garland, Ancient Greece, 2010, doc. 4.54, p. 148-9) This anecdote supports the argument that women lived in seclusion if not confined to only a certain part of the house.

Moreover, while offended husbands

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