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Athenian Women Essay, Research Paper

Athenian society was very dynamic in many areas while it was strict in regard to the treatment of women. Although Athenian women were protected by the state and did not know a different way of living, they were very stifled and restricted. The only exception was slaves, and heteria, prostitutes, and this was due to the fact that they had no male guardians. Since these women were on there own they had to take care of themselves, and therefore were independent. In a more recent and modern way of viewing the role of a woman, independence and freedom to do as one likes is one of the most important aspects of living. In Athens the wives had none of this freedom and the prostitutes did. Who then really had a “better” life, those who had all protection and no freedom, or those who had all freedom and independence?

“Every Athenian girl expected to be married, and marriage and motherhood were considered the fulfillment of the female role.” This was what a woman’s life was headed towards and was thought to be the purpose of life. For a young girl to die before she had children was a fate thought of as being extremely sad. Women did not marry for love; the reason for marriage was usually for economic purposes or for political ties. The marriages were arranged by a kyrios, the man looking after the marriageable woman. This man was required to give her a dowry and then arrange for her marriage, usually a marriage that would in some way benefit him. The Kyrios could not keep or use the dowry, but had to give it to the husband of the female he was looking after, “the absence of a dowry could be used in court as at least circumstantial evidence that no marriage…had taken place.” The marriage was all settled without consultation of the female.

“…Often I pondered the status of women: we are nothing. As small girls in our father’s house, we live the most delightful life, because ignorance keeps children happy. But when we come to the age of maturity and awareness, we are thrust out and battered away, far from the gods of our forefathers and parents, some to good homes and some to abusive ones. And after one single joyful night live, we are compelled to praise this arrangement and consider ourselves lucky.”

Sophocles, Fragment 583 from terus.

A scorned wife spoke this in one of Sophocles’ lost plays. Sophocles has seized the essence of what it means to be a woman in Athens at this time.

The marriage of an Athenian woman and man is hard to define exactly because there has not been an exact word translated that is equivalent to the word, “marriage.” The Athenians have words that translate as physical acts for a marriage for the sake of having a child, they also have words that translate as “cohabit” or “live together.” This leads to the conclusion that our traditional connotation of marriage as a bond is not the way it was in Athens. The reasons for a man and a woman to be joined in marriage were nor for love, as we would expect, it would be for profitable and more pragmatic reasons. Usually most beneficial to the male’s in the bride’s life. Since the women were not supposed to be unattended they are assumed to have accepted what was decided for them in terms of a husband. “…A husband normally addresses his wife as “woman.” The Greek word for woman, is Gyne, literally means “childbearer.”

Wives are not allowed to leave the house and any work will be done within the house along with the slaves. The man was, “free to engage in politics, and intellectual and military training, athletics.” Women were not free to do any of the things that man would. Although they may not have even known what they were missing, nor perhaps were they even interested in it, but the choice was not theirs to make. Men utilized the domestic skills of women but still thought of them as inferior. “Women’s work was productive, but because it was the same as slaves work, it was not highly valued.” Wives were not thought of as being intellectual in any way. They were not allowed to leave the home, if an errand needed to be done, a slave woman would be sent.

Water had to be fetched from a fountain and was considered a female chore, however this was among the jobs of a servant, “fetching water involved social mingling, gossip at the fountain, and possible flirtations.” This sort of thing would be considered unacceptable for a wife to handle. Women were not trusted and thought to be highly susceptible to sexual intimacy and flirtation. Since the men placed no real value beside domestic labor on the servant women it was fine for them to gossip and or flirt. What happened to them was inconsequential. The wives were expected to produce citizens for their husbands, preferably male. This is similar to if something was needed at the market, a servant would be sent, however the servant would most likely be a male because a woman would be assumed incompetent for monetary dealings. Men in Athenian society had “the feeling that purchase or exchange was a financial transaction too complex for women, as well as the wish to protect women from the eyes of strangers and from intimate dealings with shopkeepers.” There were set views and expectations of how women were supposed to interact with others outside the home. The wives were not allowed to leave, while some female servants were permitted to do things that were determined to be trifling.

Adultery in Athens had strict ramifications in Athenian society. If a male was caught in the act of adultery with another man’s wife this constituted justifiable homicide. Along with war or accidental killing within an athletic contest, killing and adulterer was also legal. In a documented prosecution dealing with adultery, a man “who had killed another man he found in the act of adultery with his wife, the husband has the statute read to the jury as part of his defense that the killing was justified.” The woman who is involved in adultery must suffer the consequence of divorce. “The husband who takes his wife in adultery must divorce her.”

Women were expected to be hidden from society that if a wife simply answered the door, she could suffer intense ridicule from the community. A woman had to be extremely careful outside the home because, “…saying she addresses those who pass on the street, or that she answers the door by herself, or that she talks with men, are all roughly equivalent to saying ‘this house is simply a brothel.’” The scrutiny she would endure, as a result of doing something so nonchalant to modern society as opening her front door is very difficult for us to comprehend.

The prostitutes and the state-owned brothels were an attractive part of Athens, usually run by slave women. ”Athenian Greeks developed a reputation among Romans and Western culture for having raised prostitution to a unique level of refinement.” Not all prostitutes were slaves; some prostitutes were slave women who bought their freedom. Women could get a loan from a client and then pay it off with what she made as a free prostitute. Many free women in Athens would make their living this way, however they had to register and then be subjected to special taxes to keep their free prostitute title.

The hetairai were the highest on the social scale of prostitutes, the word actually means, “companions to men”, which is ironic because they were not wives. Many of the hetairai were educated in many aspects such as the arts, had intellectual training, and most were very attractive. In many cases, these women became more entertaining companions to the men then their wives were. Pericles, the thirty-year political leader of Athens, fell in love with a hetairai, named Aspasia. “It is no accident that the most famous woman in fifth-century Athens was the foreign-born Aspasia, who started as a hetairai and ended as a madam.” Aspasia became controversial in history because she made a tool to insult Pericles. She was accused by some as having heavy political influence over Pericles. Despite some negative accusations, Aspasia is described as, “a beautiful, independent, brilliantly witty young woman capable of holding her own in conversation with the best minds in Greece and of discussing and illuminating any kind of question with her husband.”

The wives in Athens were reduced to the title “women” and rarely had recorded names as proof of Athenian citizenship. When sons were born, their names were recorded with their father’s and their grandfather’s name as documentation of their Athenian citizenship. The daughters’/mothers’ names were insignificant. This was not the case for hetairai, they were widely known by their first name, although some of their names were their professional titles often created by themselves. However, male clients referred to them by their first names, a formality not typically extended to ones wife.

Prostitutes are the only women in Athens who could control large sums of money. Even a select few were so successful they were able to make donations. If one was a hetairai, she was in the most lucrative business for most people, especially any woman. “hetairai became the life-long mistresses of wealthy citizens.” Herodotus wrote the first story about a woman, Rhodopis, who was credited with funding the building of a pyramid, and also made expensive donations to Delphi.

Aspasia, although favored by Pericles, was a subject of controversy for Athenian citizens. She was not a citizen herself but managed to win the preference of the political leader of all the Athenian Empire. Percales, “divorced his wife-a rich and noble lady-and took Asperse as his mistress.” The citizens of Athens did not approve of this event on the whole, and accused her of interfering with political affairs. This is a bold accusation because politics was something that women were not supposed to have anything to do with. Plato wrote a well known dialogue called Menexenus, in which he claimed that the funeral oration Pericles gave was actually written by Aspasia: yet another suspicion of her involvement in Athenian politics. A wife would not have had such proclamations against her since she was not viewed as threatening. One could conclude this was due to her restricted position of passivity contrary to the more worldly and knowledgeable role of hetairai, especially one as well known as Aspasia was.

“Although to a modern woman, the role of neither hetairai nor secluded housewife appears attractive, it is tempting for us to idealize the former and to pity the latter.” The Athenian wife did not have much room for independence, individuality, or amusement, where as prostitutes were in many cases their own keepers. “The hetairai had access to the intellectual life of Athens, which we nowadays treasure, and a popular courtesan who was not a slave had the freedom to be with whomever pleased her.” However one can only speculate and it is unfair to attach today’s values to ancient affairs, but, but the basic question to be answered would be, “which was the preferable role-companion or wife?”


Just, p40.


Keuls, p98.

Ibid, p90.

Pomeroy, p71.


Ibid, p72.


Cohen, p101.

Ibid, p110.

Ibid, p148.

Keuls, p194.

Pomeroy, p89.

Kagan, p182.

Halperin, p111.

Pomeroy, p92.



Frost, p139.

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