How women were perceived in Ancient Greece has been a subject of much fascination amongst historians. Part of the fascination lies in the contrast between two of the most prominent city-states – Athens and Sparta. Athens didn’t look as favorably upon women as Sparta did.
In fact, while Athenian women were considered lower than slaves, Spartan women were independent and could even own property.
Aside from those two contrasting viewpoints, there are some generalities that can be made. Here is an overview of the role women played in Greek society and how they navigated those roles.
Political Life of Women
Across all the city-states, women didn’t have any political clout. Married women could hold some influence over their husbands regarding their political opinions. This largely depended on their individual relationships, though. They didn’t have any rights of their own. This meant that they couldn’t vote or hold political office. In fact, it was considered improper for a woman to discuss politics in a public setting.
How women were allowed to behave in a public setting had to do with age, status, and whether or not they were married. In Sparta, married women were allowed to roam freely amongst the streets. Athenian women, however, were given no freedoms of any kind, especially when they were married. In most city-states, women were accompanied wherever they had to go.
Women and Marriage
No matter which city-state you examine, the chief role of the women in Ancient Greece was to give birth to children, particularly to males. In Sparta, however, this elevated the status of the women, especially if they gave birth to healthy, strong males who were able to serve in the military. The most legitimate way to bear children was through marriage. At the time, most marriages were arranged and families would try to match their children in the most advantageous way possible.
Role in the Household
While it was looked at as the man’s duty to work outside the home or serve in the military, it was the woman’s responsibility to take care of the household. This included raising children, preparing meals, cleaning, and any other domestic duties. In most of Ancient Greece, women weren’t allowed to own property. However, in Sparta, women were allowed. At one time, up to 60% of all property was owned by women.
Obtaining an Education
Each of the city-states viewed education differently. In most city-states, women were educated at home whereas men were allowed to attend formal schools. However, Spartan women were well educated. Because the men were away from home so often, it was necessary for women to receive an education so they could take care of the household finances, family businesses, etc. In other parts of Greece, however, women were educated as little as possible.
As you can see, women throughout Ancient Greece didn’t have as many rights as the men had. Sparta, however, was the exception. They gave their women more rights because they were essentially responsible for making sure their households and businesses were able to function while the men were away. The Spartans realized that in order for their society to survive, women needed to be intelligent and capable of defending their homes and families when the men were absent.
In the beginning, rights for women in ancient Rome were similar to rights for women in ancient Greece. Over time, things changed.
During the 500 years that Rome was a Republic, Roman women could go to the Forum to shop, chat with friends, and visit a temple, all without asking their husband for permission. During the 500 years that Rome was an Empire, women gained even more freedom. Under the Empire, it was legal for women to own land, run businesses, free slaves, make wills, inherit wealth, and get a paid job. In ancient Rome, only free adult men were citizens. Although women were not citizens of ancient Rome, they enjoyed a great deal more freedom than did women in ancient Greece.