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Views of women from pre classical era

The Athenian democracy, traditionally held in high esteem in many other ways, was a democracy views of women from pre classical era the minority. Women, foreigners and slaves had no influence or true civil rights.

They lived in the shadow of the Parthenon and the Acropolis. Pomeroy's influential monograph, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity 1976 paints a dark picture. Men held a monopoly on politics and influence in the public sphere, and women lived in a society completely dominated by men. From childhood, girls were raised to their role of producing new citizens for the polis. Athenian society was extremely exclusive and only rarely allowed foreigners a share in the privileges of the citizens.

Thus it was important to ensure that the women gave birth to legitimate heirs. This led to great limitations on young women's freedom of movement and on their sexuality during their reproductive years, whether they were married or unmarried Keuls 1985. Women were kept isolated indoors, according to Pomeroy even in a special part of the house, the so-called gynaikonitis Pomeroy 1976, 80.

If a family had no male heir, the daughter, epikleros, who thus carried on the paternal line, was forced to accept being married off to the closest male relative to ensure that the family's financial resources were kept within the family. At puberty, the young girls were married to men who were around thirty years old or more. Although it was quite easy for both parties to obtain a divorce, the starting point created an unequal balance of power between the man and the woman in marriage.

Moreover, the woman was totally dependent on a guardian, kyrios, if she wanted to make contact with society outside the oikos. But women in Athens did not constitute one homogeneous group. Some women had far greater freedom of movement and influence in this male dominated society. Aspasia, the great politician and general Pericles' mistress in the fifth century BC, is especially well known. She was a hetaera, that views of women from pre classical era a citizen's permanent mistress, more or less an equivalent to the courtesan in later French society.

Many of the hetaerae were well versed in poetry, music and social conditions in general. In the men's world, they could participate in debates from which a woman citizen was completely cut off.

On the other hand, perhaps with a few exceptions, the hetaera had foregone the possibility of bringing legitimate heirs into the world and become part of a normal household. Many have pointed out that the borderline with prostitution proper was blurred and that the status as hetaera was not a true alternative for Athenian women of middle-class families.

Quite apart from the hetaerae, there also was a difference between rich and poor families and perhaps also women from families with metic status. Women from poor families could not live up to the norms of society, but, on the other hand, were able to leave the house to sell bread and agricultural products and to participate in the work in the field on an equal footing with the men. For women of the middle and upper classes the situation was very different and not enviable: The empty life of the Greek woman of the upper or middle class, deprived of interest or gratifications, was not even repaid by the knowledge that her relationship with her husband was exclusive.

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This was not necessarily because he had a relationship with another man, though that happened often enough; quite frequently he had relationships with other women that were socially and even, in part, legally recognised.

From this viewpoint, it was an advantage for a woman to belong to the lower classes in classical Athens. Older authors such as AM. Gomme 1925 and H.

Women in Classical Athens

Kitto 1951, 219 ff. Gomme referred to distinctive female characters such as Medea, Clytemnestra, Antigone and Electra in Greek tragedies: In Attic tragedy views of women from pre classical era come and go from their houses at will and play an important and public part Gomme 1925, 98f. But the tragedies represent a special genre in which the intention is not to portray ordinary life.

The female characters inhabit a place in a tragic, symbolic universe where the tragic authors' intention possibly was to turn the social order upside down. The audience is thrown into a state of shock and horror and thus the tragedies became a way to indoctrinate the citizens with the polis' true social values Bouvrie 1990. Another problem is that the remaining sources are hardly edifying reading. The passage most frequently cited is Pericles' famous funeral speech, from 431 BC, to the widows during the Peloponnesian War: Perhaps I should say a word or two on the duties of women to those among you who are now widowed.

I can say all I have to say in a short word of advice. Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you. Doesn't it seem to you that one should be content if she came knowing only how to take the wool and make clothes, and had seen how the spinning work is distributed among the female attendants Xenophon, Oec.

Aristotle, though not himself a citizen, stresses the clear disadvantage of the female compared to the male.

He believes that women are failed "males" and thus struggle with a significant handicap Hist. A woman's natural characteristics include envy, shiftiness, a greater tendency to pity and tears, cunning, despondency and lying. She needs to eat less because she is less likely to do much Hist.

One need hardly mention that the man's characteristics are the exact opposite. Semonides, from Samos, has nothing positive to say about women in his description of the creation from the 7th century BC and concludes: Yet, this is the worst plague Zeus has made, and he has bound us to them with a fetter that cannot be broken. Because of this some have gone to Hades fighting for a woman.

In his epic Works and Days, he presents a Greek myth about the fall of man. It was, of course, a woman, Pandora, who opened the box that held all the evils that might haunt mankind 77-105.

  1. Athenian society was extremely exclusive and only rarely allowed foreigners a share in the privileges of the citizens.
  2. On the other hand, it is in this field that serious conflict often arises, among other things about the inheritance. These quasi-independent communities in their inter-political rivalry elevated Western civilization to unprecedented heights.
  3. On the occasions when I was lucky enough to experience the baking of bread alone among the women, I was struck by the great frankness that characterised their conversation. In the Turkish society which I have been allowed to study and in the Kurdish society as described by Henry Harald Hansen, "equality", to use an expression from our culture, between man and woman or between the male and the female sphere is brought about through diversity and separation of the sexes.
  4. Men make friends with men, women with women.
  5. Thus the first question we pose is not to antiquity and the existing sources, but to ourselves. One of my experiences was when one of my friends refused to accompany me into a house where something I wanted a closer look at was taking place.

Even though Xenophon paints a slightly more sympathetic picture of the relationship between husband views of women from pre classical era wife as two complementary creatures who in their differences complete each other inside oikos Oec. A few have even used the word misogyny to describe the attitude towards women not only in Athens but in all of the Greek culture Cantarella 1987. This rather biased view should surely be modified.

New studies show a much more detailed and varied picture Gould 1980; Humphreys 1983; Just 1989; Sealey 1990. It has been pointed out that Pericles' speech should be judged on the basis that he is speaking to widows Andersen 1987 and also that the source material for a special, permanent female section in the Athenian house is very doubtful, both in written and archaeological sources Isager 1978; Walker 1983; Just 1989, 123; also Kent 1993.

Women's importance to the existence of polis and its basic unit oikos is often stressed in economic and social life, and not just on the reproductive level. In the state cult, women performed important functions, especially in connection with the Panathenian festivals when the Athenian patron goddess, Athena, was celebrated, and at Thesmophoria, the feast for Demeter, which was meant to increase fertility among humans and in nature.

The latter, very important festival excluded men. Ensuring the city-state's fertility and existence was thus not possible without women's participation. Others have pointed out that it was the requirements of the polis and not the power of men that determined the roles of the sexes. The restrictions of the free woman's life in Athens did not reflect a devaluation of women.

In democratic Athens, the requirements of the polis, the citizens' common interest, takes precedence. It is a state with a complete answer to the life of the members.

So women's conditions can only be understood within a general view of polis. Andersen 1985,3 1; also Bouvrie 1990, 35ff. Here responsibility is transferred to polis as an institution. Many, especially feminist orientated views of women from pre classical era, highlight the rise of state systems as the reason for the inequality in the balance of power between man and woman, and women are often given far more prominence in the earlier phases in the development of the human race, several even work with the existence of a matriarchy or at least a period in which women played as influential a role in public life as men Lerner 1986; Cantarella 1987, 11-23.

However, the fact that almost all surviving sources are written by men, and mirror men's perception of reality, precludes the possibility that future research may significantly alter the message of the ancients. A few attempts to show a dawning feminism and a rebellion against the polis' masculine set of values are not at all persuasive Keuls 1985, 381 ff. So it is surprising that Athenian women put up with what we must clearly define as oppression. Was the city-state's collective upbringing and the general socialization of the girls and the young women really so efficient that women did not appreciate their inferior position and thus were not able to formulate an alternative?

Or was the collective system of power in the city-state so powerful in its laws, norms and rules that it was able to suppress any attempt to change status quo?

I do not believe this, although I cannot prove it. But it is my conviction, that we have asked the wrong questions and that we, in particular, have used a totally wrong framework of understanding in our interpretation of the sources. Of course, the concrete evidence in the sources is important. But it only makes sense when the sources' value is placed in a larger cultural framework.

  • Homer's other epic, The Odyssey, narrates the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus as he wanders around the Mediterranean Sea trying for ten years to get home to Ithaca, an island on the western coast of Greece;
  • The state guarantees the rights of the individual and she concludes;
  • What I had first witnessed was "role-playing" in a small part of the male sphere and the family sphere, that is, when a total stranger was visiting.

The sources are signs of a cultural context - they are not identical with that context. In other words, no matter how minutely the sources are studied, we cannot expect to discover this cultural understanding which in return is to make sense of the statements in the sources. The manifesto that the past must be judged on its own merits is well and good, as it makes us more aware of the fact that societies may function according to principles quite different from our own, but logically it is impossible.

The past will always be judged on modern premises. Luckily, modern premises are ambivalent and allow us to make some important choices before we study the sources.

Thus the first question we pose is not to antiquity and the existing sources, but to ourselves. What modern basis for understanding have we previously used when dealing with women and men in classical Athens?

What does it consist of, and what are its origins? We, in the democracies of northwest Europe, look upon ourselves as the heirs to important parts of the classical culture. We speak of a classical legacy with both Greek and Roman components which includes how we view humanity, philosophy, political beliefs, judicial systems etc. With that, we have indirectly said that our society would have been very different without this cultural ballast.

Rightly or wrongly, this understanding has governed the study into the cultures of the classical world. The most important centres for classical research are not in Athens or Rome; they are in Germany, England, and France and, in recent decades, also in the United States.


Until now, foreign departments and academies in Greece and Italy have functioned on our academic, and thus also cultural, terms.

If one seeks international academic recognition, it is important to be accepted in e. Cambridge and Princeton and cited in the works produced by those academic institutions.

The Greeks do not protest, even though their attitude to foreign academic's "right" to dig into the Greek past has become more ambivalent in recent years. The idea that classical Greece represents a common European heritage suits the Greek self-understanding and their strategy of cultural, political and geographical demarcation in relation to Turkey. The paradoxical result of this northwest-European dominance is that classical Greece "inherits" our culture, rather than the other way around also Herzfeld 1987, especially 61 ff.

Few critical voices have been raised.