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Images of Women in Classical Greece and Rome

In her essay “From Medusa to Cleopatra: Women in the Ancient World,” Marilyn Arthur makes a case that both ancient Greece and ancient Rome had periods of intense patriarchy--which resulted in Greece in some intensely misogynistic practices--before both societies relaxed their strictures on women as the result of historical/political forces rather than an intellectual “Enlightenment.”  

Ancient Greece
Arthur first discusses the Greek polis, the Greek state itself, which she defines as the sum of all the individual households and “the conflict underlying it,” (81) as she explains that the moral and legal underpinnings of Greek society between the seventh to fourth centuries B.C.E. are represented as the result of an evolution from a mother-right to father-right.

Detail of Plato and Aristotle from Raphael's 
School of Athens
, 1511.
Image from http://www.unesco.org/phiweb/uk/raphael/fresque/f2.html

Ancient Greece was a highly patriarchal society that became increasingly misogynistic as it underwent change.       

Arthur traces the development of the polis, a kind of democracy within ancient Greece, which gave men more equal rights--transitioning from an aristocracy where much power was held by relatively few privileged men--and placed greater restrictions on women than they had previously known. Arthur explains that as a middle class arose, the household unit, or oikos, became more important. The nuclear family, which had previously been only a biological and social unit, became a political and economic unit.  The functions that women traditionally fulfilled, that of wives and mothers, became defined as a “necessity and a duty, and the failure to perform them had legal and moral consequences” (85).Women were prohibited, according to Arthur, from ever “achieving the status of fully autonomous beings” (86).  A woman throughout her life was the legal ward of either her father or husband; she could not inherit property or engage in any but the most small scale business transactions.  The children belonged to the husband, and adultery was seen as a crime against the state since it corrupted the oikos; a woman found in an adulterous liaison would lose her citizenship or be executed.  Men also suffered penalties if they committed adultery, but they had many legal sexual outlets: highly trained courtesans, male and female prostitutes, and young male citizens. Most Grecian women could not even leave their homes without permission from their fathers or husbands.

Polly Radosh, a Sociology professor at Western Illinois University, explains that many scholars believe that this extreme enforcement of patriarchal values and the subsequent misogyny was caused by fear and/or distrust.  Women, Radosh explains, appear to have been feared by adult Greek men, and she points to their marriage relationships and their mythology as evidence of this fear and distrust. Radosh points out that Greek men did not usually marry until they were about thirty years old, an age that is rather late considering life expectancies were about 50 years.  Until they married, young Greek men were typically having sex with boys or prostitutes until they wanted children.  When they did marry, they chose brides who were 12-15 years old.  The ancient Greek men structured their society, in other words, in such a way as to ensure that they almost never came into appreciable contact with adult women. 

Arthur confirms that citizen women were mostly confined to a domestic life, although they could participate socially in religious ceremonies.  Non-citizens, she explains, had other options.  These women could be part of the hetaira, the highly trained highly educated courtesans who entertained the male citizens at their parties, satisfying the men’s intellectual and sexual needs; prostitutes who were dedicated to relieving the men’s physical/sexual needs; and other occupations such as weaving, spinning, nursing, midwifery, and retail sales. Of this era, Arthur explains, “unlike man, the woman of the polis was regarded as a hybrid creature, a domesticated animal who could be adapted to the needs of society but whose fundamental instincts were antagonistic to it. . . . her very existence was a testimony to the gods’ hatred of mankind” (91). 

Arthur concludes her discussion of ancient Greece by referring to the Hellenistic period (323 B.C.E. to 19 B.C.E.).  After the Romans conquered them and then after the breakup of the kingdom following Alexander the Great’s death, the population became more aware of their conglomerated nature. There were people of so many different ethnic affiliations that they soon began to think of themselves as “Hellenes,” or Greeks, rather than by identifying with the name of  their polis.  This led to a centralized pluralism where individualism was allowed to be expressed.  

While still important, the family unit was not the key to citizenship, and so restrictions upon women eased. Marriage became more of a partnership, treating each person as an individual autonomous being, and women were able to own property, hold public professions or positions, and to be citizens.  Additionally, they were allowed greater freedom to worship in religious settings.  Mystery religions and ecstatic cults that had primarily a female following in the classical world come to dominate religious life.  Isis, the Egyptian goddess, was imported and assimilated, gradually assuming the functions of every major divinity.  Arthur summarizes her discussion of the Hellenistic period by saying, “Women were free to own property, but property ownership no longer led to citizenship; women were citizens and officials of the polis, but the polis was no longer the dominant political form; women were no longer a testimony to the god’s hatred of mankind, but it was the gods who ceased to hate men, not men who ceased to hate women” (96).

Arthur, like Radosh, believes mythology to be another source of proof of the fear or distrust that Grecian men had for women.  Arthur points out that prior to the Hellenistic period, Athena was the most important goddess. She points out that Athena, although a female immortal, is not a representative of nor very sympathetic to women.  In fact, she alone was born solely of her father, Zeus--as he swallows his wife Metis and literally and symbolically gains her powers of reproduction--and identifies strongly with men, championing male heroes, engaging in military pursuits, and siding against women in disputes.  Arthur cites this rationale by quoting Athena from Aeschylus’s Eumenides; Athena says, “There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth, and, but for marriage, I am always for the male with all my heart, and strongly on my father’s side” (82). Philosophy instructor C. Stephen Rhoades has pointed out that this association with males being the creative force of society is not accidental, that the male mind was seen as the civilizing and productive force of their society, and Arthur points out that part of the cultural ideology held that the men were “conquering” nature, which they clearly identified with the female.  Radosh concurs, mentioning that the myths, which were very important to their religious rituals, usually identify the world’s evils and society’s destruction with women.  As the culture shifts, however, Arthur explains that Aphrodite became one of the most important goddesses of the time and was depicted in many art works as the ideal woman, nude for the first time in history. Love and partnership are seen as more important during the Hellenistic period than containing or controlling women.

We can see that much like in the Egyptian and Hebrew creation stories, the pattern of female impulses being replaced by males holds true and is perhaps more severe in those of Ancient Greece.

In Theogony, Hesiod explains the creation of the universe:

1.  The female goddess Earth (Gaia) generates Heaven (Ouranos), and together they produce the Titans.  Ouranos tries to prevent the birth of his children by holding them in Gaia’s womb.  Gaia arms Kronos, her youngest son, who castrates Ouranos and declares himself ruler of the gods.

2.  Kronos and Rhea generate the Olympian gods.  Kronos, fearing his father’s fate, swallows his children as Rhea brings them forth.  She deceives him, saving her youngest son, Zeus, who eventually tricks Kronos into vomiting up his swallowed children, Zeus’s siblings.  War ensues, the Olympians win, and Zeus establishes himself as ruler of the universe.

3.  Zeus and Metis (Intelligence) marry, and Zeus swallows her when she becomes pregnant.  He gains control over her powers of reproduction.  His first child, Athena, springs from his head, symbolizing the male dominance of the universe.


Interestingly, Arthur notes of these stories that all of Zeus’s other children (all female: Justice, Order, Peace, etc.) signify the beneficence of the female principle when subjugated to regulation by male authority. Arthur concurs that Hesiod’s model shows a progression from a world dominated by the generative powers of the female to one overseen by the moral authority of the male.


Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome was similar to ancient Greece in that it too began as an aristocracy; however, Marilyn Arthur points out that it was not initially hostile to women and many works of literature from the early republic show that women can and could perform heroic deeds and be active politically and socially in addition to their domestic duties.  Still, it was an intensely patriarchal society, as women were strictly regulated, perhaps again because of the emphasis on the home.  Roman men had complete authority over their households.  Radosh explains that in the fifth century B.C.E.  Rome was a republic devoted to war.  As a warrior society, it was very successful, and Rome amassed vast land and wealth and conquered many cultures.  Their Punic wars lasted 300 years, and by the end they had conquered even classical Greece. 

Arthur points out that in Rome, as the middle class begins to rise and the republic becomes an empire, women begin to be held to standards similar to those of ancient Greece. Radosh further explains that in Rome, the society came to be structured around a concept called paterfamilias, which meant that there was absolute male control in the family.  A father decided whether his children lived or died; and in an environment where sons were more prestigious, daughters were routinely put to death or exposed; in fact, Radosh explains, a family had to be wealthy to raise daughters. Upper class daughters were named; lower class daughters, if allowed to live, were numbered.  Additionally, men could kill their wives or daughters if either were found to be unchaste.  Like in Greece, girls married at about 12-15 years old and were not well educated, instead being prepared for a largely domestic role.  Women had little rights for divorce early in the republic. A man could return a wife to her family-, but a woman could not initiate one, and a returned woman became a social outcast.  And like in Assyria, Israel, and Greece, women who were victims of crime were often held responsible for those crimes. In Rome, if a woman was raped, she could be put to death by father or husband.

As Arthur concludes her discussion on ancient Rome, she sees that the influence of this risen middle class and the Greek influence do more than just restrict women. She sees that misogynistic literature makes its way into Roman society for the first time. Not only are Greek myths co-opted by the Romans, but their own historians and philosophers begin to depict ideal women as silent, obedient, and submissive, and women who do not adhere to those roles are seen as devious, immoral, and destructive to society.  In fact, Tacitus, the historian, and Juvenal, the poet, both attribute the decline in the degeneration of and the corruption within the empire to women.  

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek-Hall, the instructor of Women in Literature, at Kimberly_RadekHall@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 11 January 2017 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek-Hall, 2001.