Greek Women: Ancient World At the opening of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus's son Telemachus delivers this stern rebuke to his mother, Penelope, who, understandably pained by allusions to her missing husband, has just asked the bard Phemios to choose a theme other than that of the Greeks' homecoming from Troy:
Go inside the house, and do your own work, the loom and the distaff, and bid your handmaidens be about their work also. But discussion is the concern of men, of all men, but of me most of all.
Telemachus's reprimand summarizes perfectly the bipolarity of Greek society, which was both patrilineal and patriarchal. Women, although necessary for propagation, served few other useful functions. They were to be subdued and secluded, controlled and confined. Greek society was sexist and chauvinistic; there is more than enough evidence to support this view. And yet the picture is not quite so simple and straightforward as all that, for there are indications that Greek men did not have it entirely their own way.
Despite Telemachus's claim about the dominant role of men in Homeric society, his father, Odysseus, constantly finds himself in a position of weakness and inferiority vis-á-vis women. As in the real world, so in the world of the poem; female power takes many guises: beauty, intelligence, cunning, resourcefulness, wisdom, and charm. The women whom Odysseus encounters exercise their power in ways that are usually indirect, sometimes magical, and often dangerous. They possess access to privileged information. They control hidden forces that can assist or impede him on his way. They counterfeit and deceive. And they can kill.
The power that wives wield is aptly symbolized by the different fates of Odysseus and his commander in chief. Whereas Odysseus is blessed in the possession of a wife, Penelope, who remains faithful to him for 20 years and has the skill to ward off no fewer than 108 suitors, Agamemnon is murdered on his return from the Trojan War by his wife Clytemnestra, who had taken a lover in his absence. The question, however, remains: To what extent does this picture of women's power in early Greece mirror reality, and to what extent does it constitute a fantasy on the part of the poet?
In the funeral speech delivered over the Athenian dead in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles states, "Women's greatest glory is not to be talked about by men, either for good or ill." Likewise, in Euripides' Trojan Women, Andromache, the wife of Hector, declares, "There is one prime source of scandal for a woman—when she won't stay at home." Patronizing though such statements may appear from our perspective, they also reveal an overriding concern on the part of Greek husbands concerning their wives' fidelity. One Greek records that he gave his wife the following advice soon after they were married:
You must stay indoors and send out the slaves whose work is outside. Those who remain and do chores inside the house are under your charge. You are to inspect everything that enters it and distribute what is needed, taking care not to be extravagant. … When the slaves bring in wool, you must see that it is used for those who need cloaks. You must take care of the grain-store and make sure that the grain is edible. One of your less pleasant tasks is to find out whenever one of the slaves becomes sick and see that they are properly looked after.
As this passage indicates, the mistress of the house was in charge of the domestic arrangements and was held accountable if anything went amiss. In addition to running the home, a wife was expected to contribute to its economy by plying the distaff and working the loom. Spinning and weaving were regarded as essential accomplishments in a woman, not least because most garments were made in the home.
Men spent most of the day outside the home, shopping, conversing, deliberating, attending the assembly or the law courts, and visiting in other public places. On the few occasions that respectable women went out of doors, by contrast, they were invariably accompanied by their slaves or female acquaintances.
Athenian women had no political rights. Legally, too, their position was one of inferiority. A law quoted by the fourth-century BCE orator Isaios decreed, "No child or woman shall have the power to make any contract above the value of a medimnos of barley." (A medimnos was sufficient to sustain a family in food for about a week.) They were not permitted to buy or sell land, and although they were entitled to acquire property through dowry, inheritance, or gift, it was managed for them by their legal guardian (i.e., their father, male next of kin, or husband). Women thus remained perpetually under the control of one man or another, whatever their age or status.
The wives and daughters of the poor, as well as many spinsters and widows, could not lead lives of seclusion and would therefore have been frequently seen in the streets. The orator Demosthenes reports that one of the effects of the poverty that afflicted Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War was that many women had to go out to work, typically as wet nurses, weavers, and grape pickers. In Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazousai, a widow with five children describes how she earns a precarious living by weaving chaplets.
To offer any final assessment regarding the condition and status of women in the Greek world is impossible. Because we possess no testimony by the women themselves, all we have to go on are statements made by men about women. Furthermore, our ability to make an objective judgment is complicated by contemporary assumptions about the role and status of women in our own society—assumptions, moreover, that continue to be in a state of flux. Certain unpalatable facts are not in dispute, however. For instance, a girl's chances of survival were poorer than those of a boy from birth on, her life expectancy was shorter than that of a male, her opportunities for acquiring an education were virtually nonexistent, the law regarded her as a minor whatever her years, and should she choose to abandon her traditional role as mother and housekeeper, virtually the only profession available to her was prostitution.
At the same time, some evidence suggests that men did not invariably have the upper hand. Just to give a humorous example, Socrates' wife, Xanthippe, is said to have doused the philosopher in water on one occasion and to have stripped him of his cloak in public on another. Relationships between the sexes were no doubt complex, as they have been throughout history. As Andromache observed, "I offered my husband a silent tongue and gentle looks. I knew when to have my way and when to let him have his." Even so, we should probably not attach too much credence to a remark ascribed by Plutarch to the Athenian politician Themistocles, who claimed that his son was the most powerful person in Greece on the grounds that the Athenians commanded the Greeks; he, Themistocles, commanded the Athenians; his wife commanded him; and his son commanded his wife.
Robert GarlandChicagoGarland, Robert. "Greek Women: Ancient World." In Daily Life through History. ABC-CLIO, 2010-. Accessed February 13, 2013. http://dailylife.abc-clio.com/.
Garland, Robert. (2013). Greek Women: Ancient World. In Daily Life through History. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from http://dailylife.abc-clio.com/