Women of Classical Athens

— oikos and economics
Solon‘s funerary law
Pericles‘ citizenship law
— religious roles for women (Greek)

1. Red-figure epinetron, c. 420 BCE in National Archaeological Museum, Athens. A bride (inscription names her ‘Alcestis‘) receiving guests and gifts. Epinetron is a curved piece placed over the leg of a woman who uses it to card raw wool. Image: beazley.ox.ac.uk.



2. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (5th c. BCE), 2.45.2. Pericles‘ Funeral Oration.

If I am to speak also of womanly virtues, referring to those of you who will henceforth be in widowhood, I will sum up all in a brief admonition: Great is your glory if you fall not below the standard which nature has set for your sex, and great also is hers of whom there is least talk among men whether in praise or in blame.

3. Fragment* of Sophocles’ tragedy, Tereus. 420s BCE? Procne speaking.
*transmitted by 5th c. CE StobaeusAnthology 4.22.45.

Now outside [my father’s house] I am nothing. Yet I have often
observed woman’s nature in this regard,
how we are nothing. When we are young in our father’s house,
I think we live the sweetest life of all humankind;
for ignorance always brings children up delightfully.
But when we have reached maturity and can understand,
we are thrust out and sold
away from the gods of our fathers and our parents,
some to foreigners, some to barbarians,
some to joyless houses, some full of reproach.
And finally, once a single night has united us,
we have to praise our lot and pretend that all is well.

4. Euripides’ Hippolytus (428 BCE), 616-633. Hippolytus speaking:

O Zeus, why have you settled women, this bane to cheat mankind [cf. Hesiod on Pandora], in the light of the sun? If you wished to propagate the human race, it was not from women that you should have provided this. Rather, men should put down in the temples either bronze or iron or a mass of gold and buy offspring, each for a price appropriate to his means, and then dwell in houses free from the female sex. But as matters stand, when we are about to take unto ourselves a bane, we pay out the wealth of our homes. The clear proof that woman is a great bane is this: her father, who begot and raised her, sends her off by settling a dowry on her in order to rid himself of trouble. But her husband, who has taken this creature of ruin into his house, takes pleasure in adding finery to the statue, lovely finery to worthless statue, and tricks her out with clothing, wretch that he is, destroying by degrees the wealth of his house.

5. Women in the Classical World pp74-75:

“The Athenian democracy was a ‘men’s club’ whose active members were restricted to men descended from parents who were both Athenian citizens. After Pericles’ citizenship law of 451/450 BCE, citizen women were carefully distinguished from those who were not, such as slaves and residents of foreign descent, for the purpose of determining the citizenship of their children; but female citizens did not participate in governing the democracy…Yet, unlike the laws attributed to Lycurgus at Sparta, which prescribed a public system of education for women, the laws attributed to Solon in 6th c. Athens were largely restrictive and may have aimed to reduce outward manifestations of inequality among men, as well as to [p75] strengthen the individual oikos (family, household, or estate), and to control family life. Under oligarchic, aristocratic, or monarchic governments, some women belonging to the ruling elite and wielded informal power such as we saw in the Homeric poems… The attempt by democratic Athens to buttress the equality of all its male citizens and to give them substantial responsibilities in the public sphere apparently, except in the case of religion, increasingly relegated to the private sphere all other free Athenians, whether women or resident aliens.”

6. Tombstone of Pausimache (c. 390-380 BCE). Image.


Inscription: It is fated that all who live must die; and you, Pausimache, left behind pitiful grief as a possession for your ancestors, your mother Phainippe and your father Pausanias. Here stands a memorial of your goodness (aretē, ἀρετή) and good sense (sophrosyne, σωφροσύνη) for passersby to see. (Clairmont 1970: no. 13, p77).

7. Plutarch (1st/2nd c. CE) Life of Solon (21): 

Solon also subjected the public appearances of the women, their mourning and their festivals, to a law which did away with disorder and licence. When they went out, they were not to wear more than three garments, they were not to carry more than an obol’s worth of food or drink, nor a pannier more than a cubit high, and they were not to travel about by night unless they rode in a waggon with a lamp to light their way. Laceration of the flesh by mourners, and the use of set lamentations, and the bewailing of any one at the funeral ceremonies of another, he forbade.  The sacrifice of an ox at the grave was not permitted, nor the burial with the dead of more than three changes of raiment, nor the visiting of other tombs than those of their own family, except at the time of interment. Most of these practices are also forbidden by our laws, but ours contain the additional proviso that such  offenders shall be punished by the board of censors for women, because they indulge in unmanly and effeminate extravagances of sorrow when they mourn.

8. White-ground oil flask (lekythos), c. 440 BCE in Boston MFA. Two women make preparations to visit the tomb, which is not pictured. Left: a woman holds a basket from which ribbons hang. Right: a woman picks up/places down an alabastron tied with ribbon. Image: Boston MFA.


9a. Lysias 1 On the Murder of Eratosthenes (early 4th c. BCE), 7-14:

[7] Well, in the beginning, Athenians, she was the best of all wives, for she was clever and frugal in her running of the house, and carefully supervised every aspect of its management. But when my mother died, her passing proved to be the cause of all my problems. [8] It was at her funeral, which my wife attended, that she was seen by this man and was eventually seduced. You see, by keeping watch for the times when our slave girl went to market and by propositioning her, he corrupted her.

[9] First of all then, gentlemen, for I must also explain such details to you, I have a modest, two storey house, which has equal space for the women’s and men’s quarters on the upper and lower floors. When our child was born its mother nursed it, and, so that she would not risk a fall on her way downstairs whenever the baby needed bathing, I took to living on the upper level while the women lived downstairs. [10] From that time, then, it became such a regular arrangement that my wife would often go downstairs to sleep with the child to nurse it and to stop it crying. This was the way we lived for quite a while, and I never had any cause for concern, but carried on in the foolish belief that my wife was the most proper woman in the city.

[11] Time passed, gentlemen, and I came home unexpectedly from the farm. After dinner the child started to cry and become restless. It was being deliberately provoked by our slave girl into behaving like this because that individual was in the house; I found out all about this later. [12] So, I told my wife to go away and nurse the child to stop it crying. To begin with, she did not want to go, claiming that she was glad to see me home after so long. When I got annoyed and ordered her to leave she said, “Yes, so you can have a go at the young slave here. You made a grab at her before when you were drunk.”

[13] I laughed, and she got up, closed the door as she left, pretending it was a joke, and drew the bolt across. Thinking there was nothing serious in this, and not suspecting a thing, I happily settled down to sleep as I had come back from my farm work. [14] About dawn my wife returned and opened the door. When I asked why the doors had made a noise in the night, she claimed that the lamp near the baby had gone out, and so she had gone to get a light from the neighbours. I said nothing, as I believed this was the truth. I noticed though, gentlemen, that her face was made up, although her brother had died not thirty days earlier. Still, I said nothing at all about it, and I left without a word.

9b. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus (4th c. BCE), 7.21-28. Socrates interviews Ischomachus about his wife; Ischomachus speaking.

[7.21] ‘”It is important then, when the provisions are brought into the home, for someone to keep them safe and to do the work of the household. A home is required for the rearing of infant children, and a home is required for making food out of the harvest. Similarly a home is required for the making of clothing from wool. [7.22] Since both indoor and outdoor matters require work and supervision”, I said, “I believe that the god arranged that the work and supervision indoors are a woman’s task, and the outdoors are the man’s. [7.23] For the god made a man’s body and soul better able to endure the cold and heat of travel and military service, so that he assigned to him the outdoor work. But the god endowed the woman with a body less able to endure these hardships and so”‘, Ischomachus told me he said, ‘”I believe that he assigned the indoor work to her. [7.24] With this in mind the god made the nursing of young children instinctive for women and gave her this task, and he allotted more affection for infants to her than to a man.

[7.25] ‘”The god designated that the woman should guard what is brought into the household, because he knew that a fearful soul is better at guarding. He also gave a greater share of fearfulness to the woman than to the man. Because he knew that it would be necessary for the one who did the outdoor work to defend the household, if someone tried to hurt it, he allotted to him a greater share of courage. [7.26] But because it was necessary for both to give and take, he divided the shares of memory and concern equally between them, so that it is impossible to decide whether the female or the male excels in this respect. [7.27] And self-control where needed he divided equally, and the god allowed whichever of the two was better, whether it was the man or the woman, to get more advantage from this benefit. [7.28] Because the natures of the two sexes are not equally well equipped in all the same respects, for that reason they have greater need of one another and the yoke is mutually beneficial, because what one lacks the other has.

10a. Aristophanes‘ Lysistrata (412/411 BCE), 641-647. Chorus of Athenian women speaking;

Once I was seven I became an arrhephoros.
Then at ten I became a grain grinder [aletris] for the goddess.
After that, wearing a saffron robe, I was a bear at Brauron.
And as a lovely young girl I once served as a basket bearer, wearing a string of figs.

10b. Eva Cantarella, Pandora’s Daughters (1987:22):

“The verses describe certain religious ceremonies which, at the end of the fifth century BC when Aristophanes was writing, were entrusted to the girls. The arrhephoroi were four virgins, chosen from the noblest families of the city, charged with weaving the peplos for Athena. The aletrides ground the grain for the sacred bread for the goddess. The ‘bears’ were the priestesses who celebrated a rite intended to expiate an offense against Artemis. Once upon a time a she-bear who had sought refuse in the temple of the goddess was killed. The angry goddess sent a famine, and an oracle ordered the sacrifice of a girl as propitiation. The sacrifice was recalled by the bear-priestesses. The kanephorai were the girls who carried the baskets containing offerings at the Panathenaic festival.”

10c. Detail of the Parthenon frieze, East (c. 440-432 BCE) showing the Panathenaic procession for Athena. Left to right: two girls carry stools; the woman facing them may be the priestess of Athena Polias; the man facing away from them and holding the cloth seems to be the Archon Basileus; he is assisted by a boy (?). Image: British Museum.


11a. Attic red-figure cup (kylix), c. 510 BCE. A: Nude youth crouches and masturbates while holding a calyx krater before an older nude woman. B: Nude youth reclines while a nude woman grasps his penis with her right hand. Image: Getty.

80.AE.31 2.png80.AE.31 1.png

11b. Women in the Classical World p116, 118:

“The lives of Athenian prostitutes, both at work in the company of male clients and at home among themselves, are best documented by hundreds of red-figure vase paintings from the sixth century to the late fifth. These make it clear that most hetairai were hired for entertainment, companionship, and sex at (or after) a symposium, or men’s drinking party. [p118] But young slender hetairai did not stay that way forever, and vasepainters seem to enjoy the ruthless caricature of the fat, aging, and toothless prostitute forced to make up for her lost beauty with other skills.” !!

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War translated by C. F. Smith 1919 (Loeb Classical Library). Fragment of Sophocles’ Tereus (524N [583R]) translated by Helene P. Foley (Women in the Classical World p70). Euripides’ Hippolytus translated by David Kovacs 1995 (Loeb Classical Library). Lysias 1 translated by Caroline L. Faulkner via Diotima. Xenophon Oeconomicus translated by Lefkowitz-Fant. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata 641-647 translated by Helene P. Foley (Women in the Classical World p84).