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The Women of Greece:
A Transition from Ancient Power to Classical Subservience
Women’s conquest for political and social
freedom is a battle that has gone on for centuries. Perhaps the breaking point in women’s
liberation was the Women’s Movement of the 1900’s, which encouraged women all over
America to join in the fight for their right to vote. Because of this struggle for equality,
women are now able to vote, receive a standard of fairness in the workplace, hold
political positions, and play professional sports, as well as a wide array of other privileges
enjoyed by men. Unfortunately, these civil rights have not been made available to
In some cultures, especially those of the Middle East, women have
gained little if any rights at all since the societies of the past. In Greece, an almost
opposite effect can be seen in its history in which women in their country went from
being recognized as equals and above, to becoming a much weaker sex. This odd
transition of status of Greek women is evident through the art, mythology, and philosophy
of a much older Greece. Thus dominant role of women portrayed in Ancient Greek
mythology and artwork is in direct contrast to the more subservient role of women during
the classical era in Greece.
Ancient Greece, otherwise known as the Archaic period (650-450 B.C.), was a
time of great development for Greece. The first major developments in Greece were
cities or towns and their surrounding villages called city-states(Greece 366). Much
rivalry consisted between city-state residents which resulted in a great deal of patriotism
for one’s city-state. Some of the best known city-states are Athens and Sparta (Greece
During this time of growth, numerous tyrants came into control of the city-states.
These tyrants caused the people to become bitterly rebellious, which later ended in revolt
and the birth of the first known democratic government (Greece 372).
City-states were once again threatened by takeover in the 500’s B.C., when
Persian kings tried to overrun the city-states; however, the city-states revolted against the
Persian kings. These uprisings did nothing more than cause a war with Persia. The
Greeks, who were outnumbered, fought Persia and surprisingly won (Greece 372).
Another problem that Greece faced was the rivalry between the city-states of
Athens and Sparta. The cooperation between the two city-states in the Persian War was
short-lived. Athens and Sparta were constantly feuding for control of Greece (Greece
The Archaic period, though constantly growing, was one of a somewhat primitive
nature. Due to this, not much written philosophy has surfaced; however, creative thought
was very encouraged during this time (Greece 367). Because of the lack of written
documents, many of the holes in the philosophy of the time must be filled with
speculation. The philosophy of ancient Greece, that could be found, was very favorable
towards women. During the Archaic period, a woman held a position almost equal to that
of a man. Women were able to hold political positions, possess land, and overall enjoy a
majority of the same rights that a man had. This philosophy of women’s equality is best
expressed by J.P. Mahaffy when he states: “This equality upon the position of women is
obvious… The wives and daughters of the chiefs were respected and influential because
they were attached to the centre of power, because they influenced the king more than
free men did” (146). The whole idea of women being not only respected but influential
during this period in Greece is phenomenal when one considers the more abject role that
women in many other cultures of that time were faced with. This immense influence also
proves the power women were given in Greece during the Archaic period. Socrates, as
well as others, “Sees women, as, if not truly equal, at least not inferior to men, and
believes it possible for women even to achieve personal and intellectual fulfillment not
tied exclusively to motherhood,” Eve Cantarella remarks in her book Pandora’s
Daughters (61). This theory is another confirmation of women’s strong position in
Mythological women of the Archaic period in Greece strongly suggest a
dominant, mighty role for the women of ancient Greece. Athena, patron goddess of
Athens, was worshipped throughout Greece for her warlike aspects, but she was also
protectress of women’s work and crafts (Spivey 423). Athena was also known as the
goddess of justice, wisdom and warfare, and masculinity. She was a fearless warrior, an
excellent spinner and weaver, and overall an all powerful woman (Larrington 68).
During the Archaic period, Athena was a role model for the women of Greece, because
she possessed all of the skills of a man and still managed to keep a feminine side at the
Heavily used in Greek mythology are female monsters such as Gorgons, Sirens,
Harpies, and Moirai. These monsters are vivid symbols of powerful, dominant women of
the Archaic era in Greece. Probably the best example of these symbolic creatures is the
Gorgon, Medusa (see Plate 1). This figure of Greek mythology is well illustrated by
Carolyne Larrington when she explains that “Medusa, the Greek Gorgon with hair of
snakes who was able to turn men to stone merely by gazing upon them, has been a power
symbol” (431). This mythological character undoubtedly has an abundant amount of
power over men and is obviously a reflection on women living in Archaic Greece.
The Sirens, Charybdic and Scylla, are also two of the more frightening female
monsters from ancient Greek mythology (see Plate 2). The two sirens dwelled in the sea
and sang an irresistible song that attracted sailors, which then caused them to crash on the
rocks (Larrington 87). Their song is symbolic of sexual power that Greek women had
during the Archaic period and is also symbolic of Greek women’s intelligence. In ancient
Greece, women were obviously portrayed as powerful enough to be believable characters
that are frightening, due to the monsters that are female in early Greek mythology.
Another of the Archaic period’s female mythological monsters are evil
winged-spirits that carry off people or things and are called Harpies (Larrington 84). The
Harpie is found to be symbolic of female’s power of possession in ancient Greece.
Considering that the Greek wife of the Archaic period was entitled to half of the marital
assets, this idea of possession would appear to be accurate. The Harpies are yet another
example of mythology’s way of reflecting the society of its origin.
Moirai, another female monster from ancient Greek mythology, is much like a
witch. The three fates, who determine the fate of both mortals and immortals, are all
Moirais. The three fates are so terribly powerful that “although Zues was the ‘father of all
gods and men’ even he had to bow to the power of the fates” tells Larrington (86). The
fates are, without question, symbolic of women’s role and the influence they had on men
during the Archaic period in Greece.
Women’s role of equality is greatly indicated in the art of Ancient Greece. There
is a plethora of evidence showing a stronger, more respected woman than that of the
Classical period in Greece. In Paeonius of Mende’s sculpture The Victory of Olympia, a
woman has been chosen to portray victory (see Plate 3). She stands very proud and tall
with widespread wings and definitely takes on a great deal of intensity. These
characteristics are not that of a subservient house wife. For such a symbolic figure, it is
strange to have chosen a female for the subject, unless women were interpreted as
important figures at the time. This piece depicts a sense of respect and equality that
reflects the women of ancient Greece.
A constant subject of art for the Archaic period in Greece, Athena- to an extreme
sense- is how women were perceived or perceived themselves during this era in Greece.
In this Grecian amphora (large lidded jar used for wine or oil storage) from 530 B.C.,
Athena is illustrated standing tall with her head up, holding a shield, and wearing a tall
headdress and a finely woven robe (see Plate 4). From her appearance, one must interpret
Athena to be proud, a skilled warrior, fearless and feminine. For being such a persevering
figure in ancient Greece, Athena must reflect the women of the Archaic period in Greece.
Even today, most countries do not allow women to be present on the battlefield
with men, which many consider unequal standards for men and women, but in ancient
Greece there are many samples of art that depict men and women fighting on the
battlefield together. On the red-figured calyx-krater (a large open-topped vase),
attributed to the Niobid Painter, men and women are not only fighting together but are
also dying side by side on the battlefield, which is extremely symbolic of equality (see
Plate 5). This obviously portrays the women of Archaic Greece to be seen more strong
and powerful, seeing as they do not need men to take care of them.
Perhaps one of the most obvious symbolic figures of women’s role in ancient
Greece were the Sirens. Not only could these mythological creatures capture men, but
they could also cause their ships to crash amongst the rocks. One incidence of a captured
ship full of men, which was lead by Ulysses, is exquisitely painted upon a Greek vase
(refer to Plate 2). In this scene, the men look helpless to the dominance of the Sirens.
This suggests that women were given much freedom and power in Archaic Greece.
The Classical period in Greece was a time of an amazing amount of growth and
change, but along with it much hardship and war. In the beginning of this era, Greece
fought in the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.. Following this war came the Sparta vs.
Athens War, which lasted until 404 B.C. and left Athens exhausted (Greece 373). While
these wars took place, a plague hit Athens in 430 B.C. that killed a third of the people.
After all of the fighting and death, another war broke out between Sparta and Thebes.
Thebes won and control went to them (Greece 373). In 334 B.C., Alexander the Great
took office and in 10 years conquered the entire Persian empire. When Alexander died,
so did the Classical period in Greece (Greece 373).
During the Classical era, women are seen in a completely different light than they
were in the Archaic era in Greece. Not only is it reflected in law and artwork but also in
the philosophy of the time. Women no longer were accepted equally in Greece during the
Classical period. This new role of women is best described by Eve Cantarella who
informed that “within marriage the husband was the head; the wife was only boethos , or
‘help’”(172). The woman no longer had any influence, respect, power, or dominance in
On the issue of educating Grecian women, Theophrastus (a philosopher of the
classical period) felt that a woman’s education should be very limited. Theophrastus felt
that it wasn’t important for a woman to know, “‘How to administrate a city but rather run
a household.’ He also maintained…that the education of women was necessary, on
condition that it be limited to ‘what it is necessary to run a household; further instruction
would just make them lazy, more talkative, and indiscreet’” (qtd. in Cantarella 57).
Women of the Classical period in Greece were expected to run the household,
order the slaves, tend the children, cook the meals and stay out of sight. There was a very
sexist attitude toward women during this time in Greece’s history. The playwright
Meander told, “The loom is women’s work and not debate” (qtd. in Bowra 85).
Women’s roles took a drastic turn from the freedom that women had in the Archaic era of
Greece to the bondage they served in during the Classical period.
During the Classical period, women were not only thought upon as inferior
socially but also legally. There are many laws that put the male at a better advantage than
the woman. In the case of divorce a woman could keep her initial belongings that she had
brought to the marriage, along with half of the possessions gained during the marriage;
however, if her husband swore that he deserved no blame for the divorce, then she would
be stripped of almost everything (Lefkowitz 1). Obviously, this was not a fair situation
for the woman and is yet another point that shows how dramatically conditions for the
woman had changed since the Archaic period.
Even while grieving as a widow, there were many laws for women to abide by.
After her husband’s death, if there are children she may remarry, otherwise she cannot.
She may not take possessions previously owned by herself and her husband, unless there
has been a pre-signed contract, and she can only take possessions that are under her name,
not her children or husband. If the woman dies, the husband can do whatever he wants
with the remaining assets (Lefkowitz 2).
During the Classical period of Greece, in determining one’s social status there
were obvious double-standards. If a male slave married a free woman, then their children
would be free; however, if a female slave married a free man, then their children would
be slaves. Women also weren’t allowed to adopt (Lefkowitz 3). The women of the
Classical period and the way they are treated is in deep contrast with the women of the
Archaic period in Greece.
In the artwork of Classical Greece, much evidence can be found to reveal the
contrast of these two periods. Perhaps one of the most noticeable factors of Classical
artwork is the sudden modesty and vulnerability expressed by nude female subjects. An
excellent example of this new embarrassment is the Capitoline Aphrodite (see Plate 6).
Whereas in the Archaic period women in art were usually clothed, but even when skin
was bared the women always seemed proud, unashamed and strong (refer to Plate 3).
This new found reserve reveals the meeker women of the Classical period in Greece.
This new more timid, submissive role that women possessed in the Classical
period of Greece is greatly displayed in the art of the time. On a vase by the Kleophon
Painter is a perfect model of this new woman (see Plate 7). She is carrying a jug,
slumping her shoulders and walking with her head down. The way that she is carrying
herself alone implies that she is subservient, weak and lacks any pride at all. The girl in
depicted on this vase is so different from the women in the Archaic artwork. When the
girl carrying the jug is compared to Athena (refer to Plate 4), who is standing tall with
good posture, her head up and full of pride, it is evident that the women of this era are
treated completely different than in earlier Greece.
Even the mythological creatures of the two eras contrast each other. The gorgon
(refer to Plate 1) from the Archaic period is very ugly and is aggressively facing forward,
which portrays intelligence was more important than beauty and that women had power.
While the sea-nymph (see Plate 8)- found on the lid of a silver box- is pretty, petite, and
looking to the side, which indicates an attitude towards the women of Classical Greece as
wanting to be seen, but not heard. An extreme change took place from the Archaic era in
which women’s opinions were valued and they enjoyed equality to the Classical era in
which women aren’t treated any better than slaves.
Another change in art from the Classical period was the sex of the more powerful
mythological creatures. During the Archaic period of Greece, the dominating sex of
mythological monsters was female, while in the Classical period it is generally male.
This newfound male monster is well depicted on a Vulci cup, which shows a nymph
drinking from a wine flask (see Plate 9). The nymph is in extreme contrast to monsters
of the Archaic period, such as the Sirens (refer to Plate 2). By comparing art from the
different eras, a great contrast is shown between the Archaic period in which women are
powerful enough to portray creatures that are feared, and the Classical period in which the
creatures are male or very timid, young girls.
Making a transition from a being of power and independence to only being
allowed to speak when spoken to, was a dramatic change for women of Classical Greece.
This change is a very vivid one that can be easily detected through the art of the time.
Women were seen as weak, which is shown in many of the sculptings and paintings of the
Amazon women, such as the sculpture of the wounded Amazon (see Plate 10). This
sculpture is like many of its era in which the Amazon women are subjects of the piece but
are always wounded and dying. The Amazon, usually fighting on the battlefield with
men during the Archaic period, depicted on the Athenian Calyx-krater (refer to Plate 5),
are usually portrayed in the Classical period as dying and alone.
Independence is the biggest key to power, without it, one is easily controlled.
This was the case for women that lived in the Classical period of Greece. The women
from this era were not taught self-reliance. This theme of dependence on others is
illustrated in the sculpture of Aphrodite being assisted from the sea by two nymphs,
which can be found on the “Ludovisi throne” (See Plate 11). In this piece, Aphrodite has
been sculpted to look helpless and weak. This, along with other pieces of art from the
Classical period, gives an example of how women in Greece were thought of.
In ancient Greece, women possessed more of a dominance and strength than the
women of the Classical period, which is illustrated throughout the artwork. Amazon
women (refer to Plate 5), who were depicted as being able to fight with men, were greatly
symbolic of women’s power in ancient Greece. In a painting from the House of
Dioscurides (see Plate 12), Perseus slays the dragon to free Andromeda, which reveals the
woman’s dependency on a man. When comparing artwork of the Classical and Archaic
period, one can see the transition that these Grecian women went through.
The struggle that some women have had to face for common rights that are
enjoyed by women today is incredible. Many owe thanks, to those that have fought for
civil rights so that equality can be enjoyed by everyone. Unfortunately, there are still
many countries who suffer from a lack of true freedom. The transition that Greece went
through in their attitude towards women is much different than any other cultures, in
which women usually gain rights and respect not lose them. The woman portrayed in
Archaic art, mythology and philosophy is one of power and grace, while the woman portrayed in Classica Baxevanis, John J., “Greece”. World Book Online. http://www.worldbookonline.com/na/ar/fs/ar234780.htm., Dec 6, 1999.
Culturgram ‘92, Greece. Brigham Young University, 1992.
DuBois, Jill. Greece. New York City: Marshall Cavendish, 1995, pp.37-44.
Halsey, William D., “Crete”. Merit Students Encyclopedia. Vol. 5.
Halsey, William D., “Greece”. Merit Students Encyclopedia. Vol. 8.l art, law and philosophy is one of subservience and weakness.
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