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date: 29 November 2020


  • Helen King

Updated in this version

Bibliography updated to reflect current research; keywords added.

Almost all information about women in antiquity comes to us from male sources. Some women could read and write (see literacy), at least to the level needed for their role as guardians of the household stores (e.g. Xen. Oec. 7.5 and 9.10; see housework), but, although there are many references to literary works by women, very few texts survive. The known exceptions to male authorship include women poets (e.g. Sappho, Corinna, Erinna, Nossis, Sulpicia (1 and 2)), early philosophers (e.g. Hypatia; some Hellenistic pamphlets are attributed to Pythagorean women; see women in philosophy), personal letters from women, and the 5th-century ce travel diary of Egeria (Itinerarium Egeriae). Many attributions to women are problematic. Were women's letters written by scribes? Is a text ascribed to a woman simply in order to attack a man (e.g. Aspasia's alleged authorship of Pericles(1)'s speeches)?

The central source problems, and the strategies developed to overcome them, underpin the large amount of work on ancient women produced since the 1980s. First, every type of evidence has had to be reexamined in order to discover what it can contribute. This has led many scholars to concentrate on very small areas of specialism, leaving the work of synthesis to the reader of the collections of essays in which much recent work has been published. Second, the indirect nature of much of the evidence has made necessary a theoretically sophisticated approach, open to methods developed in cognate disciplines.

The source problems used to be solved by dividing material up according to its “level”––for example, seeing drama as fantasy, and legal materials as nearer to the reality of daily life. In considering ancient women under the heading “women, position of,” the second edition (1970) of the OCD reflected the dominant questions of the age: first, whether 5th-century Athenian women were kept in “oriental seclusion” or allowed “freedom,” and second, whether this meant that they were “despised” or “honoured.” Whereas literature and the visual arts were thought to assign women a prominent role, legal and historical material suggested that, in practice, women were seen as perpetual minors. A comparable approach divides the statements of the ideal situation from the incidental, apparently naïve, remarks about women's lives that are thought to reveal the reality.

The problem in both cases is how to weight different types of source material. For example, Creon(1) orders Antigone(1) and Ismene to “be women” and stay “inside” (Soph.Ant. 578 ff.). Is this evidence that women's domain was normally the home? The “norm” is stated only because of the perception that it is being breached, so how would we know about a norm that remained unbreached and was therefore unstated? Other sources (drama, philosophy, law-court speeches) suggest that Athenian women left the oikos to visit relatives, work in the fields, fetch water, visit cemeteries, and attend weddings and religious festivals. So is this not a norm, but an ideal practised by a very few wealthy households? Or should we argue that what was said did not match what was done?

There is currently an increased awareness that all types of source material were produced by the same society, and that none gives direct access to reality. For example, funerary inscriptions may seem less value-laden than plays, but they operate by their own rules; a woman is praised for her appearance and her personal qualities, a man for what he has done. Fourth-century Greek law-court speeches are not transparent, but are public discourses designed to win a case by appealing to a shared social ideal of female nature and behaviour. From the late Republic onwards, Roman sources praise maternal breast-feeding, yet discuss the use of a wet-nurse.

Much recent work on women in antiquity has looked not at “the position of women” but at the creation of the concept “woman.” Woman is deeply ambiguous, a “beautiful evil” who is both wild and tamed, essential to the continuation of the human race while herself being a member of the separate “race of women” (Hes.Theog.585–590). Her dual role is reflected in medical and philosophical texts that focus on the reproductive function while seeing women as physically and mentally falling short of the ideal, which is the adult male citizen. It is also increasingly recognized that “women” are not a unified group. For example, rituals may divide women by social status or sexual availability; at the Matuta Mater festival, restricted to women married only once, Roman matrons brought a slave woman into the enclosure and then drove her out with blows and slaps (Plut. Mor. 267d, Cam. 5).

In certain areas of life the similarities between the position and the experience of Greek and Roman women in all historical periods outweigh the differences, so that a number of generalizations may be made. For all women, their main role was as bearers of legitimate children; even when Spartan women, seen as radically different by the Athenian and Roman men who wrote about them, engaged in physical training, it was to strengthen their bodies for childbirth (e.g. Xen. Spartan Constitution 1. 49). Concern with ensuring legitimacy of heirs led both to tight control of women's sexuality—including early marriage, at or before puberty—and fear of the power of that sexuality. Women must be tamed, instructed, and watched.

Ancient women lacked political rights; they could not attend, speak at, or vote in political assemblies, nor could they hold office. However, they could exert influence through men. In the Roman Empire, it has been argued that their political exclusion meant less after the decline in the roles of senate and assemblies, while the importance of the imperial family gave increased influence to its women. By the 2nd century ce, the status of imperial women declined in a reaction against the roles of Livia Drusilla and Iulia Agrippina. When women are represented in Roman sources as taking a public role, this tends to be accompanied by allusions to female spite, treachery, or lack of self-control. References to women's political action are intended to discredit the men associated with them (e.g. Clodia, in Cic. Cael.).

Because they were thought to be easily deceived and thus unable to make sensible judgements (Gai. Inst. 144, 190–1), women were supposed to have a guardian; in the absence of a father or husband, a kyrios or tutor acted for them in economic transactions. In the Roman world the exceptions were the Vestals (see vesta) and, after Augustus, free-born women who had given birth to three children (see ius liberorum), and freedwomen with four, who were not under the tutelage of a father or husband. However, the system could be used purely as a matter of form, to give the appearance of male control over property; on the death of their husbands, widows would take over their businesses, while in the eastern provinces women made contracts and used their wealth as benefactors of their communities from the Hellenistic period onwards (see euergetism). By imperial times, male guardianship of Roman women had become a formality.

Although lower-class women in the ancient world often worked outside the home, in agriculture, as market traders, and as craftswomen (see artisans and craftsmen), as well as in more obviously “female” roles such as midwives and wet-nurses, women were traditionally praised for silence and invisibility. Their appearances in lawcourts were restricted to displays of grief in support of male relatives; in Athens, their evidence was used only when a free woman swore an oath on the heads of her children. In Classical Greece a woman's name was not given in public unless she was dead, or of ill repute, and glory for a woman was defined in Thucydides(2)'s Funeral Speech of Pericles as “not to be spoken of, whether in praise or blame” (2.45; see epitaphios). In Roman society, naming reflected this invisibility; women took the name of their father, but in time they acquired a cognomen, so that sisters were differentiated (e.g., as Iulia Agrippina and Iulia Drusilla). see names, personal, roman, § 7; and entries under the names.

In both the Greek and Roman worlds, discrepancies seem to have existed between norms and practice, with “real” women—if it is possible to separate these out from the multiple images of the sources—apparently acting in ways that were contrary to the stated ideals.

While there used to be much less work on Roman than on Greek women, this imbalance is now being corrected as recent studies examine women in areas of the ancient world other than Classical Greece and Rome, extending for example to Macedonia as well as late antiquity. In addition, work covers non-élite women, working women, prostitutes and courtesans, slave women, and the wider relationship between status and gender. Increasingly, attempts are also being made to discover how ancient women saw their world, rather than stopping at how men saw women. The ancient sources suggest that women simply reproduced the values of their culture. Plutarch's Sayings of Spartan Women consist of statements on the traditional role of women as mothers and affirmations of Spartan values (“Come home with your shield or on it”). Roman women were represented as the guardians of Roman culture and traditional morality––for example, Lucretia, the model of chastity, and Marcius Coriolanus's mother, Veturia.

Now, however, there is interest in seeing women as agents with their own culture. Ritual, where women had not only a public presence but also a voice, has long been a focus for those trying to recover women's agency. An early example of this is Winkler's (1992) analysis of the Greek festivals of Aphrodite and Demeter (the Adonia, Stenia, Haloa, and Thesmophoria), which included rituals restricted to women and which involved sexual humour (cf. the Roman Consualia). Where Marcel Detienne (1989) saw these as emphasizing women's approved social role in reproducing the city, Winkler proposes that women's own understanding of them could have been far more subversive. Doubting whether women would celebrate their alleged inferiority, he instead argued that women were laughing at the limitations of male sexuality. The joking traditions of Athenian women, a feature of several religious festivals, have recently been restudied by O'Higgins (2003).

Several scholars look to archaeology or to art to suggest possible reconstructions of women's beliefs and behaviours. Reflecting a greater interest in taking seriously the domestic sphere, there is an increased focus on household items such as loom weights, mirrors, or epinetra, the knee-guards used in wool-working. Osborne asked how women would have responded to sculpted images of mortal women and goddesses, and argued that late Archaic images of korai (see sculpture, greek) made female viewers see themselves as tokens of exchange in male systems. This role could give women power, as agents, because the system could not continue without them as tokens linking male households in marriage. Other work has looked at specific spatial areas in which women could be subjects, for example in cemeteries where they could honour the dead but also be active viewers of the grave reliefs of other women. There are now several studies which, building on a wider interest in friendship in antiquity, try to re-create the social relationships between women; for example, should we understand a ball of wool, seen on grave reliefs, as a love gift equivalent to a man's gift of a hunting dog or a flask of oil to a boy? While in many contexts gender has become more significant than “‘women,” the field of “women in antiquity” remains an active one. see gynaecology; heterosexuality; homosexuality; marriage ceremonies; marriage law; motherhood; prostitution; sexuality.


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