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Artscolumbia / Flashcards  / What can we learn from ancient sources about the role of Greek women in family life and marriage?

What can we learn from ancient sources about the role of Greek women in family life and marriage?

I am going to look at Ancient Greek women and their roles at home and in family life. I am also going to look at aspects of Ancient Greek marriages, as shown in Greek vases, and compare them with women’s lifestyles today.

“Of all living, thinking beings, we women are the most unlucky…”

This source by Euripides, written in the fifth century BC, shows the unimportance of women in Ancient Greek culture. Women were regarded as lower than men, they spent their life under the control of men – as a young girl and up until the day she was married she would remain under the control of her father (or uncle if her father was dead), and as soon as she was married she, and all her belongings, would be under the possession of her husband. She would almost be living as a prisoner. The same source later reads:

“We have a dowry which must buy a husband to control our bodies”

It suggests women were like robots made to fulfil all of their husband’s desires on demand. Seeing as men dominated the Ancient Greek society and looked after and controlled their wives, their paternal characteristics are apparent; they acted more like fathers rather than lovers. Another source showing that to be a woman was salao (the worst form of unlucky) is one taken from a letter from Egypt written in the 1st Century AD.

“If – and good luck to you – you have a baby and it is male, let it live; but if it is female, expose.”

To expose of a female was a last resort however it was done. Women were perceived by men as lower than them. Women were to produce children – sons rather than daughters as women were not highly regarded. They also wanted sons as they would become soldiers who would fight for their country in battle and bring honour to the family. Sons were the only heirs to the family fortune making the mission to have a son their top priority. No legal procedures were carried out when a son inherited the property of his father. If there was more than one son they would simply share the inheritance equally amongst themselves. If there were no sons it was only then that a daughter may be suitable to inherit however by law she was to marry a man (chosen by her father) and the property would become his. This was because it was never acceptable for a woman to own any property. Men also expected women to pleasure them and to fulfil the household duties, just as the source below explains.

“Surely a husband should be pleased if he marries a wife who knows how to make wool and make clothes, and how to share out the spinning work among the female slaves.”

This is a passage from Oeconomicus written by Xenophon. It allows you to see that the only things women were valued for was their skills in caring for the family and working with wool. Women spent their whole lives training to be a good wife or mother – they were trained from a young age by their mother and were constantly made to practice and perfect these domestic skills.

This vase shows one of the everyday duties of women. Here the women are weaving. There are no men at work in this picture as it was a women’s job. Men brought profit to the household by acquiring a job outside of the house, such as working in a shop. From these two sources I can see that a woman’s main duty in life is to become a desirable bride for her husband-to-be by learning her mother’s skills for the entirety of her youth.

Here is another job that women accomplished. The women are shown looking after a baby. The women who nursed babies were usually slaves of the household. They cared for the baby, fed them and focussed on any other of their needs. They appear as affectionate ladies who are well liked by the children. An example showing that most or some nurses were very close to the children they looked after is that of Odysseus and his nurse. She nursed him as a baby and because of such a well-built relationship she lived with him for forty years nursing his son after him. Euripides also shows a fond relationship between a nurse and one of his characters in the play Medea.

“Women have no easy way out of marriage”

This phrase from Medea, written by Euripides in the 5th Century, shows that a woman had no say in their marriage. They were regarded as property of their father and then of her husband until death. Saying that women have no easy way out of marriage refers to when a woman remained unmarried and lingered under the control of her father. The source also reads:

“Not having a husband is worse”

Not having a husband was worse than having a husband who controlled your life. This was because unmarried women brought shame and dishonour upon the family. They were said to have failed their father by doing so.

“[Women] cannot say no to their husbands”

The source from Medea also says, the fact that women cannot say no to their husbands explains the fact that husbands had complete control over their spouses and behaved more like fathers to them. By having complete control it meant that the women did exactly as they were told and didn’t object. Women never had a say in any matters concerning herself throughout her lifetime.

Today men and women, in most scenarios, are regarded as equal, which is the opposite of how women were treated in Ancient Greece. Today women are entitled to vote, work and receive an equal pay to men, be educated, serve in the military, own their own property and many other opportunities. They are not owned by their husband, or their father and they are treated equally.

Today both men and women can work and bring income into the family. A woman may acquire any job she chooses, whether it be that of a domestic kind or not. However it is now still more common for the man of the house to work and supply for his family rather than the woman, however this is changing due to the egalitarianism between men and women in today’s society.

Another source showing the inequality between men and women is one by Euripides in Medea (fifth Century BC).

“A man who finds his wife tedious can relieve the boredom by going out with a friend of his own age; but a woman must not let her eyes stray from the only man in her life”

It was acceptable, and also very common, for men to sleep with their female slaves, high-class female companions, prostitutes and even other males. Enjoying the sexual company of other men was considered far more rewarding than their heterosexual relationships. Although men were entitled to what they thought of as the privilege to commit the act of adultery, women had the complete opposite allowance. It was important that the man of the household was sure that the children he was raising were his own and so married women were forbidden against any unfaithful acts. If it was expected that she had done such a thing her husband has the right to divorce her and she would then be unable to attend any public ceremonies, she was disallowed to wear any form of jewellery and became a “social outcast”. She would return to be under the control of her father.

The adultery shown by Ancient Greek men is considered as intolerable in today’s society. Christians would react in a similar way to that of which Ancient Greeks did to an adulteress. In the bible the punishment for adultery is to stone both the adulterer and the adulteress to death.

This vase painting shows a typical marriage ceremony, which included songs and rituals which bring the Gods blessing to the marrying couple. The bride is led from her current household, shown at the right side of the vase, by her father and into the household of her new husband. The fact that the bride is given from her father to her husband is very similar to the way traditional weddings are performed today.

This picture shows the bride carrying a dowry which is to provide the bride with basic items such as money, jewellery and kitchen utensils etc in the case of a misfortune befalling her husband. This was because the women never owned anything and always belonged to either her father or her husband. It was of such significant importance because whoever possessed the dowry was required, by law, to maintain the woman. In some religions today, such as Hinduism, a dowry is still passed on to the bride and her new family when she is married. It can be used to benefit the whole family or be used for the dowry of groom’s sisters.

On the vase you can also see a woman carrying a “lebes gamikos”. This is a form of Ancient Greek pottery used it marriage ceremonies. It is thought that it would be filled with water and used in the nuptial ritual. This is where both the bride and groom were cleansed of their pasts so that they were ready to start a new life with their partner. They would have had the water from the vase sprinkled over them before the wedding. There is, however, and alternative suggestion on what this type of vase was used for. It can be said that a “lebes gamikos” holds food for the marrying couple and was presented to the bride in the same way that wedding gifts are received in marriage ceremonies today.

This vase painting shows a veiled bride with her husband inside a chariot drawn by four horses. In this vase they couple are leaving their wedding. This is similar to weddings today; the bride and the bride-groom leave the wedding together in a special or spectacular vehicle, sometimes with the sign “Just Married” attached to the back. In the picture the bride is wearing a veil. Today at traditional weddings the woman wears a veil as a sign of modesty and the groom is the only person who is able to reveal this brides face.

Greek marriages were arranged by the bride’s father as she was possessed by him. This is still common in many countries today such as India, the arranged marriage rather than the fact that she is under her father’s control. The parents of the woman find suitable spouses for their daughters from appropriate families so that there is no chance of marriage outside of their religion or their social or economic class. Although some countries still adopt the arranged marriage policy, it is very uncommon in most modern countries as marriage is said to be a sign of love and unity and it can be hard to love someone with whom you have been forced upon.

This source from Oeconomicus by written Xenophon in the 4th Century BC shows evidence that the husband would train his wife for the life style he was used to.

“Please tell me, Ischomachus, whether you trained your wife yourself…”

This was because he had complete control over her and she belonged to him. If a women did not enjoy life with her husband and he was, perhaps, too forceful then divorce could be necessary and did sometimes happen, however it was a last resort. A source by Euripedes says

“…if she gets it right and her new husband enjoys his life with her, then people might envy her. But if she doesn’t, then death would be better for her.”

This is similar to some peoples attitudes today (divorce being a last resort). Although Roman Catholics condemn the idea of divorce and state that a marriage may only be annulled, Christian denominations such as the Church of England allow divorce as a last resort but forbid re-marriage as it is as though you are committing adultery against your first partner. This is the same policy Ancient Greek citizens adopted for women who committed adultery.

The source below is from the same text. It explains the dangers and pains of childbirth.

“What they say is that we women have a quiet time, staying at home, while they are off fighting in war. They couldn’t be more wrong. I would rather stand three times in a battle line than give birth to one child”

The source explains that due to a lack of anaesthetics and medicines to relieve pain and protect the lives of both the mother and baby it was very common that either mother or baby, or even both, died during childbirth. If it was the baby that died the mother was not expected to mourn for that baby but to have another child as soon as possible and to continue with her normal everyday life. The number of women who managed to survive the fatiguing ordeal perhaps as many as twelve times altered their life expectancy to no more than about thirty-five years of age.

After completing the pain-filled torment of giving birth, if the husband was dissatisfied with the baby due to ill health, appearance or for the pure fact that it was a girl he may choose, if he wishes, not to keep the baby and it would be left outside to die. This expresses the extent to which men had authority over women.

Although most of Ancient Greece treated women as creatures who weren’t regarded as highly as men there was one state which treated women at a much more equal standard educating them in reading, writing, dancing, playing the lyre and recitation and chanting of poetry, and also allowing them to compete in similar activities to those in which men do. This state was Sparta. The women of Sparta, when compared, are found to be very different to the traditional image of the way Ancient Greek women were treated. Spartan women had a similar duty to that of the women in the rest of Greece – to reproduce. A source written by Plutarch about Lycurgus tells us about the reason for why he allowed women so many rights.

“He made the girls exercise their bodies in running, wrestling and throwing the discus and javelin, so that their children, taking root in the first place in strong bodies, would grow the better, and they themselves would be strong for childbirth, and deal well and easily with the pains of labour”

This is the opposite of the way other Ancient Greeks attitudes, as I explained previously other Ancient Greek women found childbirth so excruciating that they say they would prefer to go to war and be injured there.

Regular exercise was performed naked and in the open air. This meant that the Spartan society was not embarrassed by naked bodies. Spartan women had tanned skin due to being out in the sun every day. They were known, and admired, by other Greeks for their muscular and infamous beautiful bodies with such a fresh complexion.

“Why, I bet you could throttle a bull”

This phrase from Aristophanes ‘Lysistrata’ is said to a Spartan. It shows than Spartan women were admired and very physically fit.

This bronze statue of a Spartan girl shows her exercising, and like the source from Lysistrata states the fact that Spartan women were physically fit. By the women themselves being strong, Spartans believed that the children they produced would be too. The regular exercise toughened the women leading to the fact that far fewer Spartan women, compared to any others from Ancient Greece, died during childbirth.

This approach to women’s lifestyles is much more relatable to that of ones which we have today. Women are able to take part in regular exercise all over the world along side men and are also able to compete in big events such as the Olympic Games. Sport is, and was then, more widely available and common for men, for example games such as rugby, football and cricket, however they are still available and are enjoyed around the world.

“because that in the absence of their husbands, who spent the best part of their lives in the wars, their wives, whom they were obliged to leave absolute mistresses at home, took great liberties and assumed the superiority; and were treated with overmuch respect and called by the title of lady or queen”

This source from Plutarch explains the rights which the women of Sparta were entitled to that other Greeks were not, such as owning land. As the Spartan army was so powerful and strong the men spent a lot of their time away from home either fighting or practising for war and so the women were expected to take over their husband’s property and guard it against intruders and rebellions until the return of their husband. Many men didn’t return from war as they believed it was better to be killed honourably in battle than to survive without honour. This meant that numerous women were left with the authority of the land and could eventually own it for themselves.

“Another woman, as she was handing her son his shield and giving him some encouragement, said: ‘Son, either with this or on this”

The source above is from Plutarch. When the woman says to her son “either with this or on this” she means that he should return with it if they are victorious whilst at battle or on it is they are unsuccessful for example loosing the battle. At no point should a Spartan man ever return from battle leaving men behind. It shows them to be cowardly, which is the opposite of the impression the Spartans wanted to give.

Nowadays women can own their own land or property and so it is similar in that way. The difference is that women today do not need a reason to have their own house like the Spartans did.

From these sources I can conclude that, although there are many similarities between Ancient Greek society and that of today, the inequality between men and women is not a case today. There are some church denominations which do not treat women as equals to men however the majority of society accept and treat both sexes equally, for example when applying for a job no discrimination against women is carried out. Marriage ceremonies have changed dramatically too.

There are still some religions which carry out similar rituals and use similar items etc to the ones performed in Ancient Greece and it is common to be given away by your father however the over all the difference is immense, for example being led between houses and having your father pay your husband to marry you. Spartan society is easier to associate with modern day civilization due to the allowance of women being involved in events and activities; on the other hand women today have a much bigger role in society than purely producing fit and healthy babies.