Women in Classical Greece

See works of art
  • Gold ring with intaglio of seated woman and flying Eros
    1994.230.1
  • Terracotta statuette of a standing woman
    09.221.28
  • Ivory decorative plaque
    17.190.73
  • Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)
    56.11.1
  • The Ganymede Jewelry
    37.11.8-.17
  • Marble grave stele of a little girl
    27.45
  • Terracotta statuette of a standing girl
    07.286.31
  • Marble funerary statues of a maiden and a little girl
    44.11.2,.3
  • Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)
    31.11.10
  • Terracotta column-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)
    31.11.11
  • Terracotta draped woman
    07.286.2
  • Bronze thymiaterion (incense burner) with Marsyas
    1972.118.78
  • Terracotta plaque
    25.78.26
  • Terracotta neck-amphora (jar) with lid and knob (27.16)
    17.230.14a,b
  • Marble statue of a woman
    03.12.17
  • Ten marble fragments of the Great Eleusinian Relief
    14.130.9
  • Marble relief with a dancing maenad
    35.11.3
  • Terracotta hydria (water jar)
    06.1021.77
  • Terracotta bell-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)
    23.160.80
  • Terracotta oinochoe: chous (jug)
    75.2.11

Works of Art (21)

Essay

In Classical Greece, young girls usually grew up in the care of a nurse (25.78.26) and spent most of their time in the gynaikon, the women’s quarters of the house located on an upper floor. The gynaikon was where mothers nursed their children and engaged in spinning thread and weaving (31.11.10). In addition to childbearing, the weaving of fabric and managing the household were the principal responsibilities of a Greek woman. Young women, however, had some mobility in antiquity. For example, retrieving water from the local fountain house was considered not only a woman’s task, but it also offered a woman the opportunity to socialize with other women outside of the house. It was also the responsibility of women to visit the tombs of family members. Typically, they brought offerings and tied sashes around the grave stelai, a custom that is well attested on a number of white-ground Greek lekythoi. Women could attend public speeches and visit certain sanctuaries, such as those of Artemis at Brauron and the Sanctuary of the Nymph at the foot of the Akropolis. However, during any occasion outside of the house, a young woman was expected to be inconspicuous and to be covered around the head to obscure most of her face and neck.

Women of various ages also took part in specific religious festivals, some of which even included men—the Panathenaia in honor of the goddess Athena, the Eleusinian Mysteries that honored Demeter and Persephone, and the Anthesteria sacred to Dionysos (17.190.73). Other festivals were restricted to women, such as the Thesmophorian, the Haloa, and the Skira, all of which emphasized the correlation of a woman’s generative capabilities with the renewal of vegetation and, thus, the survival of society. Religious rituals reserved for young girls probably had the most significant impact on young unmarried women. For example, young girls between the ages of five and puberty were selected to serve the goddess Artemis in her sanctuary at Brauron. As “little bears,” they acted out the role of untamed animals that eventually would be domesticated through marriage. Thus, the self-perception of a young girl in Classical Greece was manipulated through behavioral instruction in the home, through the myths that reiterated social values, and through their participation in rituals that educated them in the values and mores of their community.

The culmination of a young woman’s socialization was her marriage (56.11.1), which usually took place at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Marriage did not require a young bride’s consent, as she was simply passed from the protection of her father to that of her husband. A young woman in Classical Athens lacked any rights of citizenship, and could only be described as the wife of an Athenian citizen. However, a bride brought to her marriage a dowry that was not available for the husband to spend. In fact, on the rare occasion that the marriage failed, the dowry was returned to the wife’s father. The consummation of marriage signaled the end of a young woman’s status as a kore, or young maiden, as she was then classified as a nymphe, or bride, until the birth of her first child, when she became a gyne, or woman. The life expectancy of the average woman was about forty years old.

Despite the extreme social restraint on women in classical antiquity, it is interesting that they had a number of powerful female goddesses of the type that were never available to Christian women. Demeter was able to retrieve her daughter Persephone, Artemis could send a fatal arrow, and Athena had the ability to resist marriage and motherhood, and to provide advice to respected Greek heroes. Aphrodite, Hera, Hestia, and Hekate were also powerful goddesses, intensely honored and greatly admired by women and men alike.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar

October 2004

Citation

Hemingway, Colette. “Women in Classical Greece.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wmna/hd_wmna.htm (October 2004)

Further Reading

The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture: Background Book. Joint Association of Classical Teachers' Greek Course.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. London: British Museum Press, 1995.

Cook, R. M. Greek Painted Pottery. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Grant, Michael, and John Hazel. Who's Who in Classical Mythology. London: Dent, 1993.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3d ed., rev. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Pomeroy, Sarah B., et al. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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