The Status and Role of Women in Ancient Greece
The life of Greek women in the 4th century B.C. was one directed by political circumstances and strict social norms. It was a difficult life of varied and specific roles. A Greek woman was expected to be a wife-mother-daughter and serve her family and by extension the state. Prostitutes and concubines also served the state but in an entirely different way. The demands of ancient Greek society and traditions forced all Greeks, men and women, into restrictive roles, whether wife or hoplite.
In the role of wife women were expected to produce legitimate heirs to their husband’s property. They were expected to produce healthy children. Women were chosen as wives for their physical health, strength, moral quality, religious piety or wealth and property. Men sought wives who would improve their lives either by improving their bloodlines or their wealth or best of all, both.
In ancient Sparta, Lycurgus, the lawgiver, described moral and physical fitness as vital qualities of a good Spartan wife. Physical strength and health were important to baring strong Spartan children. Moral strength and religious piety were important to raising strong Spartan citizens and vital to overall health of the state or polis.
In ancient Sparta women ran the house holds and plantations freeing Spartan men to train for war. For the Spartan woman serving her husband and serving her polis were inseparable. The economic health of Sparta was in her hands. The wealth of Sparta controlled by her, though owned by her husband. Sparta’s military might may have rested in the hands of its soldier/citizen men but was maintained by its women.
Women in ancient Athens were not as vital to the health of the polis. Women were wives and mothers with little role in business. Women in Athens were often chosen for their commitment and faithfulness to Athenian social order. The Athenian wife’s duties were to tend to household and bear healthy, legitimate heirs to the master of the house. A woman was not a citizen and had no legal or political role at all being subject to her husband as a guardian. She was transferred from her father to her husband and had no rights over her person.
Athenian women could only inherit wealth if there were no males left in her family. As soon as a male was born she became the custodian. The male child would inherit two years after reaching puberty. Wives were considered creatures of the home and restricted in their outside activities to funerals and religious ceremonies.
Women tended to the physical and sensual needs of Greek men as prostitutes and concubines. Prostitution and concubinage were accepted institutions in ancient Greece. Prostitutes tended to classes of Greek men without the wealth to keep additional women. A concubine’s often served by providing an heir when a wife was unable to bear a child. Prostitution was a recognized social practice with prostitutes owned along with the brothel itself.
Prostitutes were typically the children of slaves and prostitutes, abandoned children or pirate’s captives sold to a brothel owner. Prostitutes served in the temple of Aphrodite at Corinth as honored professionals. Prostitution was so socially accepted that the proceeds earned were subject to taxation. Concubines and prostitutes did not enjoy any rights that a wife did not have. They were slaves owned out right by a master. An Athenian wife, though not a slave, was not her self free in that Athenian society expected that she would be under the guardianship of her husband.
One role that provided some freedom for women was that of courtesan. Courtesans tended to the intellectual and companionship needs of wealthier Greek men. The highest class of courtesans was gifted, talented and seductive women. They were influential in the affairs of the polis and were interesting and dangerous. Courtesans ranged in position from dancing girls to the charming, cultivated and enlightened companions of powerful citizens.
Wives were barred from social gatherings and so the empty arms of powerful men were usually filled by a charming and witty companion, a courtesan. Pericles, the great, was accompanied by a courtesan companion named Aspasia. Aspasia opened a school which instructed young women, including wives, in the arts of discourse and philosophy. Her lectures soon turned into discussion groups frequented by great Athenians including Socrates and Euripides. Courtesans often held the ears of power and may well have influenced policy.
The status and role of women in Greece was static for most of Greek history. They were subject to the rigid demands of a society less interested in women’s happiness than in social order. Perhaps because of a steady evolution in the roles of women or perhaps because of the efforts of powerful, influential women the role of wife began to evolve eventually displacing, to some degree, courtesans, concubines and prostitutes.