Ancient Greek family life answers questions

Ancient Greek Family

Baby and family
Two women playing with little boys

May 2016 - Most Greeks, like most other people throughout history, lived in families with a mother and a father and their children. Usually men got married when they were about twenty-five or thirty years old (as they do today), but women got married much younger, between twelve and sixteen years old.

Probably girls from rich families got married younger, and girls from poor families got married a little older. Because the girls were so young, they did not have much choice about who they were going to marry. Their fathers or uncles or brothers chose for them. Occasionally girls had not even met the man they married before the wedding, but many people, if not most people, married their first or second cousins, who they had known their whole lives.

procession of wedding guests meet the groom at the door
Peleus, future father of Achilles,
greets the guests at his wedding;
the bride Thetis waits inside the house
(Sophilos; British Museum, ca. 580 BC)

There was no marriage ceremony as we know it today. Your parents arranged it, and then there was a party, and the girl's parents paid a dowry to the man, and then the girl moved into the man's house. If they were both citizens, and she lived in his house, then they were legally married. If she moved out of his house, then they were divorced.

man and woman sit on a bed
Marriage bed (Louvre, Hellenistic period)
father and son tombstone
A dead father says goodbye to his young
son (Louvre, ca. 420 BC)

Usually there were other people living in the house as well. Sometimes his parents would be there, if they were still alive and if they weren't living with another brother. Many people had slaves living in the house with them too. Some people had their unmarried sisters or widowed sisters living with them.

Wealthy Greek women hardly ever went out of the house alone. Mostly when they went out it was to go to weddings and funerals and religious ceremonies, or to visit other women. Poorer women, who didn't have slaves, did go out to get water from the fountain, and sometimes to work in the fields or to sell vegetables or flowers in the marketplace.

Divorce was pretty common in ancient Greece. If you got divorced, the man had to return the woman's dowry, so she would have some money to live on. The children stayed with their father, learning to run the farm or business they would inherit.

Learn by doing: carry a bucket of water across your yard.
More about ancient Greek life: friendship

Bibliography and further reading about the Greek family:

Eyewitness: Ancient Greece , by Anne Pearson.

Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Representations and Realities, by Sarah B. Pomeroy (reprinted 1999). One of the first scholars to write about Greek women, and still one of the best.

Children and Childhood in Classical Athens, by Mark Golden (1993).

Women in Ancient Greece, by Susan Blundell (1995)

Friendship in ancient Greece
Ancient Greece home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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