Women in ancient Greece

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a clay model of four women kneading bread and a flute player

Ancient Greek women kneading bread while a flute player keeps the production speed up. (Thebes, 500s BC, now in the Louvre)

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.

A Greek public fountain

Ancient Greece: Women carry water at a public fountain

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.

A textile production line (Amasis painter, about 540 BC)

Women’s work in ancient Greece: a textile production line (Amasis painter, about 540 BC)

 

 

 

 

 

a red figure vase showing a woman sitting and working on a large clay pot. Smaller pots hang from the ceiling over her head

A Greek woman making a large pot, in a pottery workshop (Caputi hydria, by the Leningrad painter. Athens, about 490-470 BC)

Male guardianship

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.

An enslaved nanny holds a baby

An enslaved nanny holds a baby

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.

Ancient Greek women: Girls jump on a seesaw

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.

A woman reads a scroll: red figure vase from Athens in the 400s BC

A woman reads a scroll

Managing a big house

Women from rich families worked as managers, running a large household with dozens of slaves, children, relatives, and guests.

In addition to keeping everyone clean and fed, they often managed businesses out of their house, making and selling clothing or straw mats or baskets.

Girls swimming and diving in Ancient Greece ca.450 BC

Girls swimming and diving in Ancient Greece ca.450 BC

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. They went to religious festivals and drank wine there, and danced together. Women learned to juggle and to swim, and to play music, and some women could even read.

Learn by doing: spinning
The Greek Family
More about spinning
More about Roman women

Bibliography and further reading about women in ancient Greece:

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)

Families in ancient Greece
Ancient Greece
Quatr.us home

By | 2018-06-11T21:53:02+00:00 July 11th, 2017|Greeks, People|14 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Women in ancient Greece. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 11, 2017. Web. June 23, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

14 Comments

  1. Anna May 10, 2018 at 11:54 am - Reply

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    • Karen Carr May 10, 2018 at 1:36 pm

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    • Karen Carr April 11, 2018 at 9:00 am

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