Two major power centers which dominated Greece by5th century BC were the “military oligarchy of Sparta” on the one hand and the “Democratic Athens” on the other hand. Initially, Sparta had unilaterally enjoyed powerful land dominance in Greece controlling many territories in the neighborhood that were structurally linked to the land as slaves. On the other hand, Athens was the official head of the naval alliance and derived her power from her command of the sea. Athens thus created an empire which was only but “in the name”.2 Other than Athens and Sparta, Gortyn was one other major city of Greece famous for its strong surrounding wall and for having had the best organized legal framework in Crete.
Generally, the lifestyles of women in Athens were quite unique from lifestyles of women in Sparta and Gortyn. Specifically, Athenian women lived a relatively repressive life, dominated by men and denied their rights such as of education and property ownership among others. Both Spartan and Gortyn women had relatively liberal lifestyles. Spartan women were allowed basic education, free movement and had property rights as well. Gortyn women, had rights as stated for Spartan women but more important, their property rights were well protected both in marriage and divorce and they had the right to institute Court action to challenging any personal rights violations.3 In the next section, this paper considers briefly the grooming and nurturing of an Athenian girl child into womanhood. This will help draw the reader’s attention to the argument that the role of an Athenian woman was “to live a life dominated by a man”.
Beginning from birth, a girl child in Athens was not given opportunity to read or write. A girl child was not allowed to pursue an education of whatever kind other than stay at home and learn house hold skills including cooking, spinning, and sewing among others. While at home, they spent most time with fellow women and could at times engage in learning music, legends and religion.
Girls were married of usually in their teenage and to men even double their own age i.e. (men in 30s). The man was the girl’s father’s choice because the essence of marriage for Athenian women was to go stay together with the man. The marriage arrangements were arranged early enough without the girl’s knowledge and the girl would only be notified about the supposed husband or meet him after the girl’s father receives the bride price. The marriage was not therefore founded on love principle. But the girl was expected to be a virgin. Once married, the newly married couple was supposed to give offerings to the gods while sharing a cake.4
The transfer of a girl from father to husband was marked by a celebration (known as gamos). Religious practice would be exhibited during this ceremony through various ways including the washing and dressing of the bride in white clothing by fellow women. The bride would also be made to wear a crown and as a sign of fertility, carry a fruit containing many seeds. After a series of religious and traditional activities, the young bride would only be fully recognized as member of her new household upon bearing her first child. Before a woman would have a child, she was not regarded highly and she did not have meaningful influence. Therefore a newly married woman would have great aspiration to get a baby as a way of fulfilling her part of her duty and bargain. In Athens, child delivery was always done in the home and evil spirits would be kept at bay by smearing the house with some black substance called “pitch”. Delivery was usually left to the women of the house to assist although midwives would be involved if the family was a rich one.
The Athenian woman would have many pregnancies in her active life since contraceptive usage was restricted.5 Even though existing in ancient Greece, the contraceptives were not readily used unless a woman had had a number of children. Because of this, the Athenian woman’s life expectancy was significantly low (35-40 years). This would perhaps be attributed as some would say, to “being worn out from childbearing”.6
Both mother and child deaths rates were high in ancient Greece. After a child was delivered, neighbors were notified through a “woolen strip” hanging at the door if it was a baby girl and an “olive branch if it was a baby boy. The woman had no business to keep the child. Immediately she got a child that she had so much prayed to get, the child had to be taken to the father who would decide whether the child should live or order that he /she be killed on the basis of allegations of deformity, illegitimacy or on grounds the child either unhealthy or of un desired sex (for instance female). When this was to be done, the child was to be disposed off in a clay pot and left at the roadside to die of “natural causes” so that the parents are not haunted for direct killing.7
Once married, it was very difficult or unlikely for an Athenian woman to divorce her husband unless if the divorce was called for by the husband. An Athenian woman intending to divorce a husband was required to look for “Archon” *(Athenian official) and give a detailed explanation for her intention. But if the husband would learn of it, he would choose to confine the woman to the house and frustrate her course of action. On the other hand, Athenian fathers had authority and reserved rights to terminate the marriage until a child was produce by the woman. Once divorced by the husband, the woman would be send back to her parents and made to lose all her rights including the children. The husband would then claim the dowry back except if the woman had involved herself in adultery.
Upon getting married, the Athenian woman together with her property (from inheritance etc) became the husband’s property. Her movements were highly restricted unless if expressly authorized to do so by the husband. Athens believed that a respectable woman was not supposed to be seen in public. As such Athenian women (and Greece women at large), did not have any political rights. The lives of these women were subject to absolute control of men across all aspects and stages. They lived a life of slavery kind and were all time in charge of household chores and children care, surrounded with many female slaves to help fetch water, wash and prepare food.
On property ownership, Athenian women had no individual rights whatsoever. In marriage, the right to own property was squarely for the husband. When not, married or divorced, property ownership was transferred to either the woman’s father or a closer by male. Law deliberately affirmed, "make a contract about anything worth more than a bushel of barley."8 This was not the case for Gortyn women who were allowed to have property in their own right, could inherit and administer property in their names in the event of divorce or death of the husband where the property would be held in trust by the woman for their children.9
Primarily, Athenian women had very few rights. Women were only allowed, subject to owning a horse, to participate in Chariot racing and/or win. However, they were not allowed to take part in voting. Women were not supposed to watch Olympic Games for the simple reason that participants were usually naked. The only public roles that women were allowed to actively take part in were funerals, religious functions and weddings. At funerals, Athenian women had duty to prepare the dead body for burial by washing it. However, they were not allowed “to cry neither sacrifice an ox, nor bury more than three garments with the body”.10 Women were the ones to carry libations and walk ahead of the male relatives who would follow behind, which possibly was the only time a woman was permitted to walk in front of a man.
Interestingly, Athenian women were not regarded significant, Athena goddesses were. The goddess Athena was adored, worshiped and honored with the Parnthora (huge beautiful temple). A picture off the goddess Athena was installed on the coins. Athenian women were supposed to make sacrifices to the goddess. The reason behind denying Athenian women their rights was justified on the basis that only one female vote had contributed towards goddess Athena’s win for the city naming contest. As a result, a matriarchy was developed supporting warrior protectors who would never tolerate female ideas. Athenian women therefore were barred from future decisions and were offered marriage as their principal goal and consolation in life.11
Regarding their lifestyle, Athenian women were known for their dignity and modest way of dressing according to observation by Plutarch. Plutarch was contemptuous of the Spartan athletic women for their short tunics which would expose their thighs.12 Athenian women comprised of three distinct classes: wives whose main role was to acquire legitimate children, Courtesans who were meant to serve the spirit whereas concubines were a source of pleasure. Athenian women went through very tough times till Solon had to step in and enforce legal measures requiring Athenian men to visit their wives thrice minimum monthly in their chambers. But this was not for the benefit of women as such. The driving motive was to have men produce male children for inheritance purposes.13
Courtesans (the instruments of pleasure) comprised of the common poor hawkers on the one hand, and the well taken care of “special courtesans” who got special attention from their rich patrons. The special courtesans were set aside right from child hood because of their beauty and were given training to nurture their pleasing skills. They would also be permitted to move without restrictions other than being offered education opportunity from philosophers.
Having discussed the general life aspects of the Athenian women, this section summarizes by way of comparison, the differences in the lifestyles of the Athenian women to those of other women elsewhere in Greece, (more specifically, Gortyn and Spartan women) since these three were the dominant powers of Greece in the 5th century.
While Athenian girls and women were confined in homes and forbidden from taking part in education, sports or politics, women in Sparta were allowed to read and write and participate in sporting activities as well. Athenian girls were married off at early teenage stages and send to live with their husbands. Spartan women on the other hand were engaged to their husbands at the age of 18 and would be married officially at a later age. Women in Sparta were given an equals treatment with men, unlike Athenian women who were their husbands’ properties.14 While Athenian women were reduced to housewives and childbearing vessels, women elsewhere in Greece were nurtured to be mothers to healthy strong children. While movements for Athenian women were always restricted, women elsewhere in Greece were permitted to freely move around.
Unlike Athenian women who had no right to own property, women elsewhere in Greece were allowed ownership and control of their property. Gortyn women for instance had their property rights well provided for and protected by the law. Unlike Athenian women, Gortyn women were entitled to property in marriage separate from their husbands’ property. Upon divorce, Gortyn women were entitled to 50% of family property in addition to their individually held property.15
Athenian women could only hold ranks in religious and ritualistic events to serve the Athena goddess as the patron. Spartan women were allowed to administer their husbands’ property during times when the husbands were out on war missions until they returned.
In summary, the lifestyle of an Athenian woman by 5th century B.C was undesirable. Compared to the lifestyle of women elsewhere in Greece, Athenian women had a restricted lifestyle, one that can only be compared to slavery in relative terms. Right from childhood, an Athenian woman was trained and nurtured to be a housewife, dominated by a man (husband) who legally owned her with all her property. While the man could easily divorce his wife in Athens, the woman could not be given an easy means to divorce no matter the reasons she would have. Athenian women were more like childbearing tools, with no basic individual or legal rights.16
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