By Ben Potter
The idea that women in antiquity were housebound is obviously ridiculous… and, paradoxically, true.
That is to say, the ‘ideal’, in ancient Athens certainly, is that a woman should be neither seen nor heard, but pervade an aura of feminine invisibility.
For example, Pericles (reported by Thucydides) addressed the women of Athens thus:
“Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you”.
However, such an obviously impractical thing was merely the luxury of the super-rich. Even relatively wealthy, but ‘normal’ women led an active and outdoor life.
Indeed, there is extensive evidence that women were walking about the streets of Athens: visiting their relatives, working, fetching, carrying and attending weddings and festivals. Proof that such activity was normal is given strength because the accounts don’t exclaim anything untoward in this. For example, “you’ll never guess what I saw a woman doing today…”! is not a commonly found phrase from the annals of the ancients.
That said, the ‘ideal’ is plainly laid out in Sophocles’ Antigone when Creon says of Antigone and Ismene that “they must be women and not range at large”.
This impractical and ignored state of perfection seems to have been largely for show and not given much gravity. We see a direct equivalent in the Roman world where women were simultaneously praised for suckling their young, but assumed that they also engaged a wet-nurse.
While the aristocratic/royal seclusion nicely represents one extreme, prostitution does well to show the other.
This largely, though by no means uniquely, female profession would have produced (or attracted) a peculiar ‘masculine’ subculture of women.
Essentially, prostitutes were required to blend in with the world of men. Hetairai (top-of-the-range prostitutes) were able to read and write, recite verse and play musical instruments. Indeed, they may well have been familiar with the politics and philosophy of the age.
For the average, non ‘man’ woman, these topics weren’t discussed in public. But the prevailing attitude towards formal female education wasn’t one of suppression, it was simply deemed unnecessary.
That said, women in general are now thought to have had more literacy than once assumed. This is because dealing with the various chits and orders flooding in and out of a household probably passed under the care of the matriarch – though some maintain that the actual reading and writing would have been left to the household slaves.
Nonetheless, women’s ‘lib’ should not be overstated, as they were subject to their guardian when it came to financial transactions. However, it is not clear how much of this was a matter of form and how much of it was actually restrictive.
What we do know is that in imperial Rome women with three children were rewarded with financial independence. It also appears that widows could inherit and run their husbands’ businesses.
Indeed, the age of the Caesars was, relatively and politically, the best time to be a woman in the ancient world. This is mostly because of the eroded powers of the senators and the rise of the emperors as (almost) all-powerful beings.
Despite their thoughts to the contrary, the emperors were still mortal men and, as such, had mothers, sisters, daughters and lovers who had direct access to the strings of power.
This is why women like Livia and Agrippina were able to play such important roles in the fate of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
While it may be difficult to judge the details of ancient women’s lives, attitudes towards them are far easier to investigate.
Men in antiquity had a schizophrenically ambivalent view towards the fairer sex.
On the one hand, women were thought to be physically and mentally inferior to men, unable to make sensible decisions and easily tricked. On the other, they were considered spiteful, treacherous, volatile, untrustworthy, capable of great evil and in need of being tamed.
This open contradiction perhaps has its origins in Hesiod’s or Plato’s suggestions that women were not another sex, but another race.
N.B. Plato’s suggestion was tongue-in-cheek, but may not have been taken as such.
In general, it can be said of women in the ancient world they were kept in a perpetual state of adolescence; they were without political rights, had little or no economic freedom, were restricted in their movement, undereducated and untrusted.
That said, Athenian, Roman and even Spartan women (who were thought by the former two cultures to be distinct as they openly engaged in physical exercise) were renowned and revered for their loyalty and, above all, fecundity.
With the post-1970s renaissance of interest in the topic of ancient women there have been many interesting and entertaining ideas put forward, several with quasi-feminist interpretations.
One of which is from the late, great and radical Dr. John J. Winkler who posited the notion that the all-female festivals of antiquity were used as a pretext for women to gather together and make jokes about their husbands’ sexual inadequacy and unimpressive… organs.
Meanwhile, Dr Lesley Dean-Jones put forward the notion that Greek women, far from being disenfranchised, considered themselves prized objects whose bodies were too important to throw away on something as trivial as war!
Cambridge University’s Robin Osborne suggested that women valued their role as king-maker of an oikos (household) and appreciated their own importance as revered chattel, without which society could not function.
Many articles of the past decade have made an effort to link the lot of the ancient female to that of the modern Muslim female. While many of the comparisons are stark, the thesis for this argument is not sustainable.
That said, perhaps the most telling, but least pleasant, link between the past and the present comes to us via ancient funerary inscriptions. These, almost universally, would praise a man for his valour and achievements but venerate a woman primarily for her appearance.
Flicking through the sexualised banality of modern magazines and TV channels, would an ancient in the modern world consider that times had really changed so much?
Postscript: Of the information provided above, a caveat must be put in place for the fine and fascinating women of Etruria. However, such a discussion requires many more words than would be tolerable for such an article. Perhaps it will come to light at a later date!