Women in Classical Athens

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Women in Classical Athens (5th and 4th centuries BC) were generally seen as inferior to men, and even freeborn Athenian women didn't have the same rights as men. Indeed, freeborn women were not considered to be true citizens.[1] Their exact status, though, depended on whether they were a slave, metic, or freeborn woman, as well as on their occupation.

Housewives[edit]

Becoming a housewife was the expected role of Classical Athenian free women.[2] After marrying and having children, the women were in charge of all household duties. The duties of a household wife depended on whether or not the household was rich or poor. In a rich household, the wife would distribute jobs to the slaves working both inside and outside of the house. Housewives not only were responsible for the slaves; they also had the task of training the household workers. The wives were expected to care for anyone in the household who became sick, and if a family member died, the housewife would be in charge of visiting the tomb regularly to present offerings.[3]

In poor households, the wife had many more duties, as poor households had no slaves to assist with the work. Additional duties for a poor housewife would include shopping for food, making the family's clothing, and retrieving water. A poor housewife would be likely to acquire a job to assist with the finances of the household. These jobs could include acting as a wet-nurse, midwife or small-time market trader.[4]

Housewives were kept in seclusion. They were not allowed to mingle with men in any setting. A housewife was not allowed to answer the door of her home or even be in the same room as male guests who visited. The houses' rooms also separated males and females. The wives, daughters, and female slaves lived upstairs, in rooms that were away from the windows and streets.[2]

Women and religion[edit]

Religion was the one area of public life where women could participate freely. In Athens, the priestess of Athena (the city's eponymous goddess) held much honor. She was consulted for major decisions and her words were well respected. During the Panathenaea (a festival to celebrate the birthday of Athena) the virgin daughters of nobles were chosen to carry sacred baskets in the procession. Not being selected for this honor could lead to doubts about a young noblewoman's chastity.

Women contributed every fourth year in the making of a new peplos or robe for the statue of Athena. This task was begun by two girls between the ages of seven and eleven and then finished by other women chosen for the task.[5]

As adults, women could participate in cults. The most mysterious and famous festival exclusively for women was the Thesmophoria, a fertility rite for Demeter reserved only for married noblewomen. Women spent three days on Demeter's hilltop sanctuary performing rites and celebrating. Specifically what went on there is unknown. The only source of information on this festival is Rabe Lucian (275 AD), who wrote that the women brought up rotten remains from the pits in the area and then spread it around their crops for a good harvest.

In the late fifth century, the population of Athens was largely foreign and many more cults were brought in by foreigners. These cults had a variety of deities, including Adonis, Aphrodite, and Dionysus.[3]

Prostitution[edit]

Prostitution flourished in Greece as early as the Archaic period. Specifically in Athens there were two types of prostitutes:

  • Hetairai: considered the higher of two prostitute classes; they underwent extensive training and were considered professional sexual entertainers.
  • Pornai: the lower of the two prostitute classes; they were often slaves, foreigners or metics.

Both groups were often hired by the hosts of symposiums as entertainment for guests. Evidence of these activities can be seen on red-figure vase paintings. Prostitutes were also drawn on drinking cups as a form of pinups for male entertainment.[4][6]

The most famous Hetaira was Aspasia. Aspasia was highly valued by Pericles who considered her clever and knowledgeable about politics. It is said even Socrates respected her wisdom. Besides Aspasia, Hetairai were considered by some to live better than free women. Hetairai were able to manage money and also choose whom they wanted to be with. They had access to the intellectual life of Athens, but were not citizens themselves, which was their most unattractive feature. On top of this, the children of a hetaira were not granted citizenship status, regardless of whether the father was a citizen himself, which in turn meant that citizens of irregular birth often could not inherit estates or property.[7] Hetairai practiced infanticide but would on occasion keep their children and even raise the children that others left to die. They preferred daughters to sons so that they could train them in the trade of prostitution. Hetairai were even known to buy slaves to train as future prostitutes so in their old age they would have a source of income, creating brothels.[8]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Nicole Loraux, The Children of Athena: Athenian ideas about citizenship and the division between the sexes, p.8
  2. ^ a b Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books, 1975. Print.
  3. ^ a b Fantham, Elaine. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
  4. ^ a b Osborne, Robin. The World of Athens: an Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.
  5. ^ Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books, 1975. Print. pg 75-78
  6. ^ Fantham, Elaine. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print. pg 115-118
  7. ^ Isaeus. "On the Estate of Pyrrhus". Retrieved 15 May 2012. 
  8. ^ Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books, 1975. Print. pg 89