Women in Ancient Greece and Rome

Despite their vital role in Ancient Greek and Roman society, women were not considered full citizens and in most instances required a guardian – their fathers, and later husbands – to represent them. The quality of life for women in the ancient world largely depended on class and status, for example, upper class women generally did not work, although poor women had to toil in the fields to survive.

The ancient Greeks lived between the 8th century BCE until the 6th century CE, with the biggest populations being in the cities of Athens and Sparta. The Athenian home was split into male and female quarters — women resided with the children and domestic slaves, while the husband entertained friends in his quarters. Ancient Greek law required that the bride's family pay a dowry to the groom when getting married, and Athenian women had no independent rights in the eyes of the law. Spartan women had greater freedoms than the women in Athens. They were put through physical training in to ensure they became good mothers. They were known by other Greeks as ‘thigh-showers' because of their revealing sportswear. Spartan women could own their own land, and by the 4th Century BCE as much as 40 per cent of Spartan land was owned by women.

The philosopher Plato (c. 427–347 BCE) was one of the very few radical voices who proposed that women should be given the same education, access to law courts, rights to own and inherit property and to live and work as equals to men. It remained a fantastical notion. Comic playwright Aristophanes (c.448 - 385 BCE) wrote a play called Women in the Assembly, in which the women of Athens become fed up with the mess men have made of the city and persuade the political assembly to hand over all power to the women.

Like Athenians, Roman women were not considered full citizens, had no rights and required guardians. In Ancient Rome, elite women were expected to stay at home and care for their families and homes. In 18 BCE the Emperor Augustus introduced new laws in an attempt to reform upper-class morals. He made adultery a crime, although men were only found guilty if the woman they were involved with was married. Accounts written in the 1st century CE detailed wives being beaten because they had drunk wine, which violated the laws of sobriety. Lower class women could and did practice professions, carrying out work such as harvesting crops or tending sheep with their husbands.

In the early 5th century BCE, Roman women could own land, write their own wills, and appear in court as their own advocates, although, often under the auspices of men. Roman women married very early in life — as young as twelve in upper-class circles. Under the Emperor Augustus, marriage laws were established. The laws forced men to divorce adulterous wives and forbade others from marrying the divorced women. Only under certain circumstances were Roman women legally allowed to manage their own finances – and not until upper class women had produced three children, common Roman women four, and provincial women five. Death in childbirth was not uncommon, and as many as half of newborn children did not survive their first twelve months.

Both Romans and Greeks dressed well to mark their status as civilized societies. Upper-class Roman women had an official outfit called a stola, a long dress often worn beneath a cloak called a palla. The clothes of Ancient Greek women included a chiton, a chemise-like shift made from two rectangles of fabric pinned together, and a peplos, a single piece of cloth wrapped and cuffed along the top with two brooch pins. Roman women colored their hair from dyes made from many ingredients, which included leeches soaked in red wine.

One of the most notable women of Ancient Greek times was Cynisca, a princess of Sparta who became the first woman in Greek history to win at the ancient Olympic Games in 396 and 392 BCE after entering her own chariot team. Prominent women in Ancient Roman times included the popular Roman matron Agrippina the Elder (c.14BCE-33CE), granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, Livia Drusilla (c. 58BCE-29CE), who made an unsuccessful attempt to control government on the accession of her son Tiberius, and Faustina II ( c.130-175CE) , wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, often featured on coins.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Women's Roles in Ancient Civilizations: A Reference Guide
Bella Vivante.
Greenwood Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Women in Ancient Greece" and Chap 9 "Women in the Ancient Roman World"
Women and Politics in Ancient Rome
Richard A. Bauman.
Routledge, 1992
Spartan Women
Sarah B. Pomeroy.
Oxford University Press, 2002
The Rise of Women in Ancient Greece: Michael Scott Looks at How a Time of Crisis in the Fourth Century BC Proved a Dynamic Moment of Change for Women in the Greek World
Scott, Michael.
History Today, Vol. 59, No. 11, November 2009
Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome
Beryl Rawson.
Humanities Research Centre, 1991
Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome
Thomas A. J. McGinn.
Oxford University Press, 2003
Women and Law in Classical Greece
Raphael Sealey.
University of North Carolina Press, 1990
Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion
Matthew Dillon.
Routledge, 2002
Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion
Sarolta A. TakÁcs.
University of Texas Press, 2008
Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce and Widowhood
Judith Evans Grubbs.
Routledge, 2002
Women's Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook
Ross Shepard Kraemer.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture
John Pairman Brown.
Fortress Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Shifting Roles of Women"
Women in Antiquity: New Assessments
Richard Hawley; Barbara Levick.
Routledge, 1995
Women's History and Ancient History
Sarah B. Pomeroy.
University of North Carolina Press, 1991
Citizen Bacchae: Women's Ritual Practice in Ancient Greece
Barbara Goff.
University of California Press, 2004
Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Elite from Cornelia to Julia Domna
Emily A. Hemelrijk.
Routledge, 1999
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