Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The B (Women and Children in Greek Antiquity)

I got a B. I hate getting a B. Not as much as I loathe an A minus, but I hate it. Regardless of how much I hate it that is the grade the paper received. (Thankfully it is only worth 4% of my final grade.) Below, you will find the paper that earned the B. When I wrote it I thought it was an A paper. Now, having read it over and over again, I see why it is only a B paper. I wish this blog program would let me import the Word document as I typed it, for the footnotes are a work of beauty. They do not appear in this format.


Women and Children in Greek Antiquity

Billy Matthew Karnes

Prof. Stanley Carpenter
American Military University
HIST531 K001 Spr 10

It is impossible to say what the condition of women and children was in Greek antiquity without specifying which women and which children. The conditions of Spartan mothers were very different from the conditions of Corinthian prostitutes, or Athenian merchant women. Likewise, the living conditions of pre-pubescent boys were different from those of pre-pubescent girls. This paper will examine lives lead by women and children in various circumstances.

The first peril a child in ancient Greek society had to face was the risk of exposure. The kyrios of every household had the absolute right to decide whether or not to let a babe live or to expose it. It is not known what percentage of babies were exposed, but there is evidence to suggest more girl babies than boy babies met that pitiful end.

If a child did survive past infancy it was soon segregated according to sex. In cities other than Sparta, girls, at least free-born daughters of citizens, destined for marriage in the upper classes, would be taught household tasks in the gynaikonitis, out of which they emerged only infrequently. The work skills - let there be no mistake about it, every woman in ancient Greek society worked - taught to young girls were the same as those employed by her mother: carding wool, spinning and dying yarn, weaving, making clothes, cooking, and managing slaves. They would also be taught to read and do basic math. These skills were taught to upper class girls to make them a attractive brides, and help their fathers form or strengthen alliances with other upper class men. In most of Greek society, girlhood ended at or shortly after menarche when girls were married and assumed the role of oikodespoina , which, being translated, is mistress-of-the-house.

There was one outlet for girls of the gynaikonitis, however. Girls were allowed to serve as kanepharos, basket-bearers during religious ceremonies and processions , offer libations , and carry the sacrificial knife. In Athens, exceptionally "well-born" girls were granted the honor of grinding the grain for sacrifices and serving in the temples of Athena and Artimis. Poor girls who did not become prostitutes learned a trade or how to read that they might help their parents in their work.

Greek boys, except for in Sparta where the law protected boys from pederasts, were buggered by men and this was thought of as beneficial. Other than that, Greek boys, at least, all sons of citizens were taught to read and work. They were also taught how to fight to defend the polis. Boys from less well off families were taught to work in their parents trade.

The state of women in Greek society was not very good, and women, even citizen-born wives of the social elite were thought of as little better than slaves, who's entire worth was found in their sex. Demosthenes, the prosecutor of Neaira made this clear when he said "We have hetairai for our pleasure, pallaki for the daily care of our bodies, and wives for legitimate children." Additionally, available to men there were pornai and flute girls, lower class prostitutes than the pallaki, who can be thought of as concubines or kept women.

Some Greek women were religious prostitutes. At Corinth in 446 B.C. Xenephon dedicated 100 girls to prostitute in the temple of Aphrodite. But it would be a great mistake to think only young girls and prostitutes were engaged in religious work. Women served as priestesses in temples and had exclusive control over the messages of the Oracle of Delphi.

Other Greek women were not elite ladies living in the gynaikonitis, nor prostitutes of whatever class entertaining men, nor priestesses of the gods and goddesses. Rather, they did physical work outside the home. Evidence of this is found on grave markers, some of which from the 4th century B.C. read as follows:

midwife and
lies here.

This is the tomb
of the immigrant
daughter, Melitta,
a nurse.

Mania, the grocer
whose shop is near
the spring.

Additionally, many freed female slaves left records of their occupations. They included sesame seed seller, grocer, harpist, perfume seller, woolworker, and wet nurse. Though there is not much evidence for it or against it, in the countryside women must have been engaged in agricultural work since it is the universal pattern that farm wives help their husbands.

Sparta was an exception. There women, the highest to the lowest did all manner of work, though their most important work was birthing children for the polis. Their preparation for this work began in childhood when they were strengthened and toughened up by strenuous physical activity. Spartan women also mated (married seems to be the wrong word to describe what Spartans did) later than other Greek women. Whereas the women of Athens and Corinth and the other poleis were married shortly after menarche and immediately began trying to conceive sons, even though such early first pregnancies were detrimental to their health and decreased the likelihood of a successful pregnancy and delivery ; the women of Sparta married after they were fully mature and more likely to have a healthy pregnancy and delivery.

Finally, though most Greek women died at about the age of thirty-five after giving birth to an average of ten children and watching six of them die , some did live past the child-bearing years. This enabled them to serve as certain types of priestesses, and also, especially if they were widows, opened up more of the public sphere to them, as they became managers of the family oikos.

In conclusion, life for ancient Greek children and women was short and full of hardship.


Demand, N., Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994)

Dillon, M., Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion (New York & London: Routledge, 2002)

Guhl E. & Koner, W., Everyday Life of the Greeks and Romans (New York: Crescent Books, 1989)

Ide, A., Women in Greek Civilization Before 100 B.C. (Mesquite, Texas: Ide House, 1983)

Martin, T., Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996)

Massey, M., Women in Ancient Greece and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

Plutarch, On Sparta (New York: Penguin Classics, 2005)


Alia said...


Since I can't see the footnotes what's the source for Spartan boy being protected from perasty? Thermopylae by Paul Cartledge is sudgesting that this could be acceptable in Sparts too. And also that noble Spartan girls, unusually, were not taught much of the standard womanly arts such as spining because helot and peroikoi wosem did nost of this for them. I really enjoyed the paper, Thanks for shareing,


Matt said...

Hi, Alia. Yes, you mention the role of helots and peoikoi. Part of the reason I only got a B. Also, I should have mentioned, that in Sparta women could won property.

Regarding pederasty, it might have been inflicted on Helot boys by Spartan men but Plutarch (pp.197-8 of the edition in the bibliograhy) wrote that it was ilegal to sodomize Spartan boys. Also, homosexual relations among adult Spartan men was very common.

I'm glad you enjoyed it.