Women in ancient Greece: what were their lives like?

Some city-states were worlds apart when it came to female emancipation, but Greek society still very much revolved around men…

A depiction of a Spartan mother saying goodbye to her son, she is seated as he leaves

In popular depictions of ancient Greece, the mythical Amazons loom large. A tribe of independent, fierce and powerful warriors, their legend is inspired by real nomadic women who lived in the Eurasian Steppe – and it’s very revealing about the roles women played in Greek society. For the ancients, these strong women represented a threat to the patriarchal order, and most versions of the myth see them tricked and overcome by the hero Herakles, the ultimate symbol of masculine strength.

For the ancient Greek ideal, you might instead look to Penelope, the wife of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Beset by more than a hundred suitors, she remains calm, dedicated to her domestic duties, and, most importantly by the standard of the day, loyal to her husband.

When considering the lives of ancient Greek women, though, it’s important, says classicist Paul Cartledge, to distinguish between different Greek city-states. While many sources of the period come from Athens, we cannot assume that women’s role in Athenian society was representative of the lives of women across the rest of Greece. The lives of Spartan women would have been very different from their Athenian sisters.

Another key difference is status. While no woman would have found themselves on equal footing with men in ancient Greek society, the lives of women would have greatly depended upon how wealthy their father or husband was. Greater wealth did not necessarily mean they enjoyed greater freedom, though. “If you were a woman in Athens, the richer you were, broadly speaking, the more confined you were,” explains Cartledge.

Here, we take a closer look at the different elements of women’s lives in ancient Greece…

A painting of Penelope beset by suitors and seated at a loom, as told in Homer's Odyssey
In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope demonstrates her loyalty to her husband when beset by suitors. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

Motherhood and the home

The lives of ancient Greek women were largely confined to the home. Men would serve the polis – state – while the domain of women was the oikos – the household. The women’s quarters of a house, the gynaikon, were located on the upper floors, and wives were expected to bear and raise children and undertake domestic duties. Marriage itself would usually take place when a kore (maiden) was between 13 and 15 years old; only after the birth of her first child would she technically become a gyne (woman).

In ancient Greek society, the reputation of women was in all cases to be preserved. Athenian historian Thucydides, writing in the fifth century BC, famously asserted of women: “The greatest glory is to be least talked about among men, whether in praise or blame.” This meant that many wealthy Athenian women were supervised and chaperoned by male relatives when outside, and in some cases not allowed to leave the house at all.

For Spartan women, however, life was different from their Athenian counterparts. They rarely married before the age of 20, while motherhood gave them enhanced status; raising future warriors was considered one of the most important roles in Spartan society. Women in Sparta (and in Delphi, Gortyn, Thessaly and Megara) could also own land, and because of military campaigns that took men away for long periods of time, they often had control of their own homes.

 

Work

Though life for Athenian women held many restrictions, religion provided a viable career path for those hailing from aristocratic backgrounds. In fact, the most senior religious office of the state – high priestess of the Athena Polias – was a female role. This, and other similar positions within Athens’ religious cults, would have afforded the officeholders a certain degree of public influence, and in some cases, payment and property.

There is also the story of a pioneering Athenian midwife named Agnodice. According to legend, Agnodice – concerned at the high number of local women dying in childbirth – decided to disguise herself as a man and study medicine. According to some versions of the tale, the midwife would ‘reveal’ her true gender to patients in order to gain their trust, leading envious male doctors to accuse her of seducing pregnant women. While the existence of Agnodice is still debated by scholars, her legend has been used by women to support their role in medicine since the 17th century.

However, a more common – and certainly real – profession for many women of the time was that of sex worker. Of these, it’s known that there were two particular groups of workers, called hetairai and pornai. A hetaira would have been able to read and write, and been employed to work for the higher classes in society. They would have also served as a companion – perhaps more comparable to the role of a geisha in Japanese culture.

Meanwhile, pornai (from which we get the modern word ‘pornography’) would have spent their time working in a brothel and were expected to serve all levels of the city’s men, from the elite to members of the lower classes.

 

Education and politics

Much like their greater freedoms as mothers and within the domestic sphere, Spartan women also had better access to education than their counterparts in other Greek city-states. While their early education would have taken place at home rather than in a school, women were seen as a key part of Spartan society and allowed to make business transactions.

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One famous example of the greater opportunities available to Spartan women (albeit noble women) concerns the fifth-century BC Spartan queen, Gorgo. The only known child of Cleomenes I, king of Sparta, Gorgo (who later married King Leonidas I) was schooled in literature, culture and physical education – the latter of which included wrestling and combat skills. Indeed, Gorgo was noted by fifth-century BC Greek historian Herodotus as a woman of great wisdom; she advised her father on military matters, and is sometimes credited as being one of history’s first cryptanalysts.

For Athenian women, however, there was no such freedom to participate in their city-state’s political and social life. Even if they were educated in some manner of business dealings, they could not by law enter into any contract beyond the value of one medimnos of barley – a small amount that ensured any transaction was restricted to domestic purchases.

And while Athens is lauded as the birthplace of democracy, Athenian women were never true ‘adults’ in the eyes of the law. This inequality had long echoes into the 20th century; women in modern Greece didn’t have the unconditional opportunity to vote until 1952.

Arts and culture

While women were generally excluded from the arts, one of ancient Greece’s most celebrated poets was a woman named Sappho. Born in either Eressos or Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, likely to a wealthy family (given that she could read and write), Sappho’s lyrics and poetry were remarkable for their candid depictions of passion and sexuality – particularly between women. The seventh-century BC poet was even dubbed by Plato as the “Tenth Muse”, and honoured on ancient coins.

It’s also possible to find evidence of women artists, such as Kora, who was from Sicyon and active around 650 BC. Along with her artist father, Dibutades, she is credited with the invention of relief modelling. According to a popular tale, Kora fell in love with one of her father’s apprentices, and traced the outline of his face in charcoal on a wall. Dibutades later filled the outline in clay, creating the first relief.

A depiction of ancient Greece artist Kora tracing the outline of her lover's face on a wall
Kora apparently traced the outline of her lover’s face on a wall as he slept. (Photo by The Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Another example of a woman who broke the mould was the fifth-century BC artist Timarete, who, according to the Roman author Pliny the Elder, “scorned the duties of women and practised her father’s art”.

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This article first appeared in BBC History Revealed’s essential guide to ancient Greece