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.

Women in Ancient Greece and Rome: Selected full-text books and articles

Women's Roles in Ancient Civilizations: A Reference Guide By 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 By Richard A. Bauman Routledge, 1992
Spartan Women By Sarah B. Pomeroy Oxford University Press, 2002
Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome By Beryl Rawson Humanities Research Centre, 1991
Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome By Thomas A. J. McGinn Oxford University Press, 2003
Women and Law in Classical Greece By Raphael Sealey University of North Carolina Press, 1990
Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion By Sarolta A. Takács University of Texas Press, 2008
Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce and Widowhood By Judith Evans Grubbs Routledge, 2002
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Women's Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook By Ross Shepard Kraemer Oxford University Press, 2004
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture By John Pairman Brown Fortress Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "The Shifting Roles of Women"
Women's History and Ancient History By Sarah B. Pomeroy University of North Carolina Press, 1991
Citizen Bacchae: Women's Ritual Practice in Ancient Greece By Barbara Goff University of California Press, 2004
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