Life for Women in Ancient Greece

What do you think of when you picture life in Ancient Greece? Philosophy? Wine? Drinking parties? The Olympic Games? Well, you’re not wrong. These were all important parts of life for the people of Ancient Greece.

But there’s something missing from the picture: women. The women of ancient Greece had far fewer rights than men. They couldn’t vote, they couldn’t participate in drinking parties and their main role in life was to raise their kids.  As children, young Greek girls were under the authority of their father. And after marriage, their husbands became their official guardians.

But how did the life of Ancient Greek women change from childhood to maturity? Were there exceptions? And what did their daily life look like?

The Education of Women in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, all children of citizens went to school. For boys, the curriculum included mathematics, poetry, literature, writing, music and athletics. Ancient Greek girls had a similar education, but there was a greater emphasis on music, dancing, and gymnastics. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? But the goal of women’s education was to prepare them to be good mothers and wives. Stimulating their intellectual capacities was not a priority.

Marriage for Ancient Greek Women

There was no space for single mature women in Ancient Greece. Greek fathers would begin looking for a good husband for their daughters (one who could provide a dowry) when they were around 13 or 14. Women had to marry as virgins, and love had nothing to do with it. If they were lucky, they might eventually develop a friendship with their husbands. But men sought passionate love elsewhere.

Adult Life for Ancient Greek women

After marriage, women could fulfil their most important role: the rearing of children. Wives spent most of their days at home, managing the house, weaving or cooking. While they could participate in religious festivities and ceremonies, they couldn’t attend public assemblies or vote. According to the Ancient Greeks (and so many other societies before and since!), women were incapable of making important decisions, so their husbands had complete control over them.

Women also had to be faithful to their husbands, even though the reverse was not the case. If a man found out that his wife was engaging in sexual intercourse with another man, he could murder him and not be prosecuted for it.

The Life of Poor Women

Believe it or not, poor women were often freer than wealthy ones. Being poor meant you had less slaves and more work. This meant that poorer women left the house more often, either to fetch water or to go to the market. Sometimes they even worked in shops and bakeries, or took jobs as servants for wealthier families.

Slave Prostitutes

Of the non-citizen classes, slave prostitutes are the group of Ancient Greek women that we know a lot about. We know of the existence of the hetairai, higher class prostitutes that could participate in the symposium, the private drinking party for male guests only. Hetairai went to school to learn how to play music (especially the aulos), philosophy and literature. This way, they could form long-lasting relationships with married men who enjoyed their company.

More Interesting Facts About Ancient Greek Women…

  • The Ancient Greeks would only celebrate the birth of baby boys. Families would not even acknowledge it publicly when they had a baby girl!
  • There was a school of philosophy called Stoicism, that argued that women in Ancient Greece could practice philosophy just as much as men.
  • There was one public position that women in ancient Greece could aspire to: they could become priestesses in the temple of one of their female goddesses.
  • Ancient Greek women could neither participate in, nor attend the Olympic games. If caught there, they could be punished by death.
  • In Sparta, women had more freedom than in Athens. While Spartan women were not equal to men, everyone respected them for being the mothers of great warriors. They could also own land and drink wine.

All in all, life for women in Ancient Greece wasn’t particularly pleasant. Thank goodness we’ve come such a long way in the last 2,500 years that there’s no longer any society where women are not paid equally, not allowed to enjoy the privileges of society, and expected to stay home and raise the children…

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