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Ancient Women

06 Jul 2017Other Essays

This essay will deal with Western Civilization and the lives of the women who lived it in Greece and Rome. The section dedicated to Greece will present the Athenian woman and her household duties, and her diurnal tasks. The section dedicated to Roman women will present how they exhibited themselves in society and how they compared to slaves, how they were educated and what was expected of them through marriage.

Athenian women in ancient Greece were considered to be little more than slaves during the 5th century. A young child, a girl, was not expected to have an extended education: She was not expected to know how to read or write. In fact the common thought of the time was that to educate a woman was to waste time. However, women who were of high social birth were often times schooled and in fact it is reported that during religious celebrations women were chosen to participate although their numbers were minimal.

There were three classifications for women in Athens: The first class was that of the lowest standing, a woman who was a slave to other women in that she helped take care and raise the children of a domestic household. This woman would also do chores. The second class of woman in Athens was the citizen. The third class of woman in Athens was the Hetaerae. This was the woman who was likened to the Geisha of China: “Hetaerae women were given an education in reading, writing, and music, and were allowed into the Agora and other structures which were off limits to citizen and slave women. Most sources about the Hetaerae indicate however, that their standing was at best at the level of prostitutes, and the level of power they attained was only slightly significant” (Schnurnberger 1991).

The female citizen in Athens would often times have to marry in order to have any type of power or control. A girl was taught how to do household chores, how to mend clothes and how to cook in order to make a better wife. There was one playing field in which both men and women were considered somewhat equals and that was the religious sphere. In Athens there were at least 120 festivals having religious significance every year. There were countless rites and rituals for children taken as rites of passage. Marriage was one religious festival in which women played a major role (Schnurnberger 1991).

A marriage was arranged by the father, and during the process of getting ready to be married a woman would give away her toys to the temple of Artemis and her hair was subsequently cut. The night prior to the wedding, the woman would take a ritual bath, and sang hymns to Hymen. Upon entry into the groom’s house for the first time as his wife the woman would hold a sieve of barley and then upon entering further she went to the hearth to give offerings. The final ritual of marriage was consummation in the wedding chamber which was observed by a close friend (Schnurnberger 1991).

Although women in Athens were limited in their power they did exercise intelligence despite common restrictions to their gender. For the most part however withholding of sex to her husband was a way in which a wife could enforce her own desires onto her husband and change his mind. Finally, women were also worshipped in the form of goddesses, and often times during rituals, a woman’s presence was essential; thus a woman’s power in ancient Greece was subtle, but existent.

In ancient Rome women usually kept their presence restricted to the home while their male counterparts would hold jobs for six hours a day and even have to wait in line for the tokens which gave families their daily grain rations.

Women however joined the men in bathing rituals at the end of the day in which social interaction was done. In one famous line which highlights the Roman woman’s life, Cicero states, “'Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians.'” (Livius 1912). Thus a woman’s guardian was a man, which changed from early life with the father to later life with the husband. This fact remained true until the end of the Roman republic then after the reign of Augustus, a woman whose father and whose husband had died and who had already borne three children was considered her own guardian (Livius 1912).

As opposed to girls in Greece, Roman females were given education during their childhood. However, once this preliminary education was finished not much attention was given to women and training. Women whose families were of nobility were afforded a greater chance at becoming well versed in Latin and Greek as well as literature, musical instruments such as the lyre and how to dance and sing (Livius 1912).

Marriage for an ancient Roman woman was arranged. Since women were arranged into marriage from a very early age, her life up to her marriage was retired and spent in preparing for the union. Since a woman was closely watched prior to her wedding to ensure she did not come in breach of the marriage arrangements. It was with marriage however that a Roman woman came into more freedom than if she were not in an arranged marriage. A Roman wife was considered to be her husband’s companion and helper, “She was next to him at banquets and parties (which would have been a scandal in ancient Greece) and shared his authority over the children, slaves and the household. In many households it would be the wife who would oversee the slaves. Nobody required Roman wives to live secluded lives. They could freely receive visitors, leave the house, visit other households, or leave to go shopping” (Livius 1912).

In the issue of politics, under the Oppian Law, the reduction of luxury items and money spent on such goods was in contention in 216 BC. The people of Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius proposed that the law be repealed, and by the tribune Gaius Oppius which stated that women could not own more than half an ounce of gold, wear dresses which were dyed in multi-colors, or ride in a horse-drawn carriage in town or within a mile of the city except during holy days. During the voting of this law, of its repeal of instating of it, “Neither modesty nor the persuasion of their husbands could keep the women indoors. They blocked the streets and entrances to the forum, arguing that at a time of prosperity, when men's personal fortunes were increasing daily, women too should be restored to their former splendors. The number of protesting women increased day by day, as they came in from the town and outlying districts. They even grew so bold as to waylay and interrogate consuls, praetors and other officials” (Livius 1912).

In ancient Rome there were female gladiators. This is proven with poetry from Martial and in a relief found in the British Museum in which women are depicted fighting in an arena. In this relief it shows the female gladiator not wearing helmets.

This essay has shown the role of women in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Their roles were varying but the common theme was that they were given small freedoms with each passing age. In ancient Egypt during Akentaten’s reign his wife was considered his absolute equal. In ancient Greece a woman was arranged into marriage and the three different levels of class for a woman each had their restrictions according to men. In ancient Rome a woman was given more licenses than in Greece and she was given the opportunity to be equal to her husband at a dinner table which was not a popular thing in Greece. Women seemed to be protected and robbed of their freedom in marriage in a dual capacity and it seems that the progressive thinker of Akhenaten was the pharaoh who gave women a more liberating role, although he was considered a heretic for such an act, along with other acts made during his reign. This essay illustrated how women spent their days in western civilization and how they were made to be less educated in some cultures, and given a better chance in others.

Work Cited

  • Gore, R. Pharaohs of the Sun. National Geographic. Vol. 199 Issue 4, p34. April 2001.
  • Illustrated History of the Ancient Roman Empire. Roman society roman life.
  • Livius, T. The History of Rome. translated by Rev. Canon Roberts. Everyman's Library. London. 1912.
  • Schnurnberger, L. Let There Be Clothes. Workman Publishing; New York, 1991.

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