A hard place to be a woman
Ancient Greece was a very hard place to be a woman. Many Greek women were enslaved. Some worked in bread factories, like this one, grinding wheat and barley into flour and baking the flour into bread.
Slavery in ancient Greece
The Greek economy
Women in early West Asia
All our ancient Greece articles
Other enslaved women worked in big perfume factories, or in textile factories, where they spent all day spinning wool and linen and then weaving it into big bolts of fine cloth for their rich owners to sell on the Silk Road.
Many enslaved women worked on farms, planting and weeding the fields, then picking grapes and olives when they were ripe. Women – free or enslaved – cleaned houses or carried water or did wet nursing, childcare or elder care in free people’s houses. They took care of disabled or sick people. Some enslaved women worked as waitresses, or as entertainers for men’s parties or in bars.
Even free women couldn’t own land, so they still almost always had to live under the control of a man – their father or husband, or a brother or uncle.
Some women ran their own businesses, selling apples or or garlands of leaves, straw hats or medicinal herbs. The woman shown here seems to be the boss of this pottery workshop. Women worked as midwives, delivering babies. Or, like enslaved women, they worked on men’s farms.
Public spaces were for men
Women milked sheep and goats and made cheese, and they fed chickens. They cooked and cleaned, nursed sick people, and did child care. Like enslaved women, they spent time spinning and weaving, but usually at home rather than in factories.
Greek men thought public spaces were only for men, so they kept their wives and daughters inside their houses or courtyards most of the time. Women weren’t allowed to vote or be on juries. Men thought it was rude even to say a woman’s name in public.
Marriage and divorce
Greek women couldn’t go to school, fight in wars, vote, or be leaders, or act in plays. They didn’t sail on Greek ships. They couldn’t choose who they would marry – their fathers or brothers chose for them.
A Greek woman could divorce their husband, but he usually got custody of the kids. Women who were on their own, without a husband or brothers to support them, were especially badly off. Homer‘s Iliad mentions how “a woman carefully weighs the wool she has spun to earn a meagre wage and feed her children.” It was probably something like Afghanistan today.
Managing a big house
Women from rich families worked as managers, running a large household with dozens of slaves, children, relatives, and guests.
Greek women had friends and played games
But women’s lives weren’t all about work. Women talked to their friends at the water fountain while the jugs filled.
Women still held power
After all of this, you might be surprised to hear that women did still hold power. But throughout the ancient period, the Pythia at Delphi was always a woman. She charged high prices for her political advice to cities, and made Delphi rich.
And in the 400s BC, Artemisia ruled the Greek city of Halicarnassos, in Caria, in Ionia (modern Turkey). Artemisia led her ships into the battle of Salamis on the Persian side, and distinguished herself in the fighting. Women rulers became more common in the 300s BC, a second Artemisia ruled Caria too. Cratesipolis successfully ruled Sikyon in southern Greece, and Olympias ruled Epirus in the north.
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)