Women in Antiquity

Back in May, 2013 I wrote an article on ancient medicine and its progression towards the modern day. Today I’m going to share some information about women in antiquity. (Forgive me if it’s a bit more dry and formal than normal. I’m relying heavily on one of my final essays for my Classics degree) What’s that? A fully cited article? Who’d have ever thunk it?


Women in the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome do not have a well-heard voice. They are often lost in history because they were not the ones who wrote histories, poems, and plays. Or if they did, their writings did not survive the ravages of time –with a few exceptions, like the fragments of Sappho. Little is said directly about women or their lives, and what is said is often brief and ambiguous. Despite this dearth of information on the women of antiquity, they still led lives, raised families, and generally existed. They had to impact the ancient world around them by the simple fact that they were there. Laws were made about them, they figured prominently in heroic plays, but the actual power –or lack of –that they possessed is a nebulous thing to pinpoint.

The collection of evidence will be analyzed to determine what power –no matter how little –that women held in the world of ancient Greece. From the examination of Grecian women, the women of Rome will be examined in the same way. With these understandings of female power more firmly established, the two cultures of Greece and Rome will be compared and contrasted. This differentiation will not be done to state whether one society was “better” than the other, but to help determine the power available to women, how they used it, and how it changed over the years.

Many plays involve famous speeches from the female characters. Medea gives a passionate speech about the tribulations that women face, Electra bemoans her lost chance of marriage and motherhood, and Alcestis begs Admetus not to subject their children to the evils of a step mother. Male characters in these plays have lines just as memorable. From Agamemnon’s warning to Odysseus to never trust a woman, to Hippolytus’ speech about how much better the human race would be without women in it. Such passionate speeches delivered by both male and female characters offers a glimpse into the world of ancient Greece. Yet it is worthwhile to note that the plays were written by men for a, presumably, primarily male audience and were acted out by men. The evidence found within the plays is thus quite clearly biased in favour of the male world view, and even the female characters only say things that men of that time thought women were thinking.

In the passionate speech of Medea she declares that life is only good if the husband that a woman chooses remains at home with her instead of seeking his comfort elsewhere. She bemoans the lack of ability that women have to receive compensation and justice for such treatment –a lack that she plans to rectify through the course of the tragedy.[1] Elsewhere in the same play Jason comments on the fact that women are only happy when things go their way in the bedroom. Sentiments such as these imply that a woman –whose domain is already restricted to the home –is only concerned with one thing when it comes to her marital relationship. The preoccupation with sex that is implied, and in some instances stated outright, in the Medea seems to reinforce the idea that women are earthy and naturally prone to temptation. Whether women themselves felt this way themselves is hard to determine based on Euripides’ presentation.

Other playwrights also inserted a preoccupation with sex into their female characters. In Sophocles’ Electra the title character states early on that her life is wasted because she never married and had children.[2] Many later scholars would even use Sophocles’ play as evidence for such behaviours –Freud even based the female counterpart of the Oedipus complex on Electra’s behaviour in that play.[3] The proliferation of women focused on sex in Greek tragedies shows that men, at the very least, felt that the women of their day were preoccupied with it. Many of the tragedies also focus on how women use their sexuality over men. Both of these things show a deep concern about the nature of women’s desires and the power those desires give to them.

Such fears would not be groundless and must have had some root in actual behaviour of women at some point. It is unlikely that it was any recent behaviour during the lifetime of the playwrights as many laws existed to control women. Even Medea’s passionate speech does not ring entirely true in light of some of the legal evidence. Women were given by their fathers, or other male relative acting as her guardian, in marriage to whomever the guardian wished. The wishes of women were not taken into consideration –at least not legally. A law from 4th century BCE Athens states that if a woman who is legally married should inherit her father’s estate (due to a lack of brothers or sons) then her next closest kin becomes her guardian and she is legally required to divorce her original husband and marry her relative. The law even states that many men have “been deprived” of their wives due to this.[4] The power that Medea claims women have –to choose their husbands, as it is their responsibility to choose a good one –clearly was not the actual case in ancient Greece.

While some women may have been given latitude from their guardians in picking their husbands, it would still be the father’s choice who his daughter married. Despite Electra’s laments that her life is over because she missed getting married, there were other aspects of a Greek woman’s life.[5] A court case from approximately 400 BCE records a husband defending himself for killing his wife’s lover. In the defence made by the husband he claims that he did not suspect his wife because she was “a clever housewife, economical and exact in her management of everything.”[6] While the defendant is attempting to gain sympathy from the jury it is telling that a trustworthy wife is one who is not only capable of running the household, including finances, but does it well. This then becomes a great clue as to what power women in ancient Greece held.

Another way that women could exert power was through their ties to influential men. This power seems to be more what the tragedians and lawmakers were afraid of when it came to women’s powers. In regards to the courtesan Aspasia she was linked not only to the statesman Pericles, but to Socrates as well. Even though both Pericles and Socrates thought very highly of her opinion later critics besmirched her contributions by saying that “Pericles’ affection for Aspasia appears rather to have been erotic.”[7] The sexualisation of Aspasia diminished the worth of her power, making it appear more like the threatening forms seen in the plays by women like Medea and Phaedra. It is interesting to note that Aspasia seems to have been pushed into the mold offered by the mythic women to make her influence on Pericles more dangerous. The advice of Aspasia, as recorded by Socrates, seems to be very simple and straight-forward and does not offer an image of a woman whose influence would have been dangerous outside of the fears held by men.[8]

By taking these seemingly divergent views of women and weaving them together a common thread appears. Women were feared because of the potential power they held. This potential could only be exercised through their guardians (usually their husbands), but for a clever woman it could be exerted over a lover. The fear caused men to make laws that restricted the movements and actions of women, binding them to the home. Even there a woman was not powerless. She was in charge of maintaining the home, which would have involved managing any production the house did,[9] keeping an eye on the slaves, and being in charge of the household finances. Even if men felt that this was a “safe” place to keep women, there would have still been a wide range of areas where a woman would have power. As well, a clever woman could, as so many men feared, be able to use the powers they did have to influence the world on a larger scale.

How then, does the power of women differ in Rome? While there are not many common sources of Roman literature, there are still a few. The Aeneid is possibly the most well-known Roman story, and like the Greek epics written before that we have, it told the story of a mythic hero involved in the battle of Troy. The only women, other than the goddesses, who truly play large and influential roles in Aeneas’ journey are both Queens –Dido of Carthage and Amata of Latium. Interestingly, both women commit suicide, though Aeneas has vastly different relationships with them. Dido is shown as a fiercely independent woman who brought her people away from a tyrant to live a better life in Carthage. She falls madly in love with Aeneas and almost brokers war with her neighbours because of her infatuation with the foreigner while she rejected all of their advances. When Aeneas leaves,[10] Dido throws herself onto his sword atop of a pyre of his things.

The other woman is not an independent Queen, but she is quite influential. While Aeneas is attempting to court Lavina, the Queen decides she prefers a native Italian and through her mechanisms she starts the war that the Trojans must fight in Italy. When Amata’s plans fall through and it becomes apparent that Aeneas is going to win she hangs herself. Both of these Queens were quite powerful and both ended up killing themselves after being “defeated” by Aeneas. Dido was shown in a positive light while Amata was clearly a negative character in the epic. Yet both women attempted to control Aeneas and deny him his destiny and both ultimately ended up dead. It could be a subtle moral to the story that lies alongside the main themes –that women, no matter their intentions, should not, and cannot, control men. What is even more interesting is the connection these women have to a later myth in the Roman historical tradition.

Lucretia is a Roman heroine to whom other women are compared as she embodies the ideals of a proper wife. Yet she too kills herself.[11] Unlike the other women she did not attempt to exert her control over a man, in fact she was raped and it was for that reason that she killed herself. The similarity between Lucretia, Dido, and Amata lies then in the fact that each woman was “defeated” by a powerful man and it was for that reason that they took their own lives. The subtle moral in the Aeneid of women not being able to control men then shifts. When Lucretia is examined alongside the two Queens the moral of Roman myths seems to become that upstanding Roman women should rather die than become dishonoured.

Such an image hints at more power and privilege than what was seen in Greek women. There are many instances in Roman history where this greater power and privilege of woman can be seen. From a legal stand-point, there was a law in place that would allow a Roman woman to become her own guardian. This law was called the right of three children and it would allow women to act without a guardian.[12] Women even took part in political demonstrations to repeal laws restricting them. Livy wrote about a time when women blockaded the streets and protested the Oppian law because they felt it was no longer relevant.[13] Even though many traditionalists objected to women protesting in such a manner, their actions are not those of women who are bound to their homes. Of course this was not always the case; as the Twelve Tables, traditionally dated around 450 BCE, state that “because of their levity of mind” women were not allowed to act without a guardian.[14]

Somewhere along the way, women became much more independent. They were able to make contracts and to protect themselves and their rights.[15] Not only that, but the ideal woman became one who was practical, generous, devoted, and of course motherly.[16] Women had much greater powers and freedoms in Rome than they did in Greece. While both civilizations initially required women to have a kyrios or guardian, Rome eventually allowed for women to become their own guardians. Rome also did not seem to possess the same fear that Greece did of the power of women. Many women in Rome became independent and successful, and no longer under a guardian, such women were able to do much more than their Greek counterparts. The transition from such restricted powers in Greece to the significantly more free Roman women would not have simply been a cultural difference.

As was mentioned before, Rome had laws in place around 450 BCE that mirrored very closely those of Greece. Women were required to have guardians, and presumably would have been expected to perform similar duties as the Greek women. Over the years those laws changed, giving Roman women more independence. The reasons that these changes might have arisen are complex. It likely has to do with the greater number of civilizations that Roman culture drew upon. As the empire expanded, more people were added along with their customs. Rome became a melting pot, and unlike Greece, they welcomed the various peoples into their empire. Perhaps not as full citizens, but the newly acquired provinces were still given Roman rights. Greece was much more restrictive of who was allowed to become citizens. This difference in accepting new people is most likely at the root of the change in women’s power. Simply put, Rome was adaptive where Greece was not.


[1] Rex Warner, trans. “the Medea,” in Euripides I, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), lines 231-261.

[2] David Grene, trans. “Electra,” in Sophocles II, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), lines 183-191.

[3] Freud and other scholars have found that Electra’s behaviour is not only overly focused on sex, but focused on incestuous sex. Specifically, with her father Agamemnon, though some scholars see her desires turning towards her brother, Orestes, as well. See Dorothy Willner, “The Oedipus Complex, Antigone, and Electra: The Woman as Hero and Victim” (Anthropologist, New Series 84, 1982), and Graham Wheeler, “Gender and Transgression in Sophocles’ Electra” (The Classical Quarterly, New Series 53, 2003).

[4] Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 3rd Edition, (Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 62, Isaeus 3.64.

[5] Admittedly, many of them would require marriage first –such as running a household, or having children.

[6] K. Freeman, trans. in Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 3rd Edition, edited by Lefkowitz and Fant, 66, Lysias “On the Murder of Eratosthenes” 6-33.

[7] Lefkowitz, Source Book, 179, Plutarch “Life of Pericles” 24.1-6, 32.1-2

[8] ibid, 170, Xenophon “Memorabilia” 2.36, “Oeconomicus” 3.15

[9] Such as weaving.

[10] He even tries to sneak away without Dido knowing.

[11] Lefkowitz, Source Book, 132, Livy “History of Rome” 1.57.6-58

[12] Lefkowitz, Source Book, 124, Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1467

[13] ibid, 142-143, Livy “History of Rome” 34.1

[14] ibid, 95, FIRA 1.23

[15] T. Honoré, trans. in Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 3rd Edition, edited by Lefkowitz and Fant, 116, Digest A woman effectively made her husband agree to a prenup. stating that if he returned to his concubine he would owe her a significant amount of money.

[16] Lefkowitz, Source Book, 22, Plutarch “Life of Tiberius Gracchus” 1.2-5; the “ideal” being how Tiberius’ wife Cornelia conducted herself after his death.



Fletcher, Judith. “Women and Oaths in Euripides.” Theatre Journal 55 (2003): 29-44.

Garner, Richard. “Death and Victory in Euripides’ “Alcestis”.” Classical Antiquity 7 (1988): 56-71.

Grene, David, trans. “Hippolytus.” In Euripides I, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 157-221. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Grene, David, trans. “Electra.” In Sophocles II, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 125-187. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Grene, David, trans. “Antigone.” In Sophocles I, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 159-212. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Heath, John. “Disentangling the Beast: Humans and Other Animals in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 119 (1999): 17-47.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. “Agamemnon.” In Aeschylus I: Oresteia, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 33-90. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. “The Libation Bearers.” In Aeschylus I: Oresteia, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 91-131. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. “The Eumenides.” In Aeschylus I: Oresteia, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 133-171. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. “Alcestis.” In Euripides I, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 1-53. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 3rd Edition. Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Porter, David H. “Some Inversions Not Righted: A Note on Aeschylus’ Eumenides.” The Classical Journal 101 (2005): 1-10.

Seaford, Richard. “The Imprisonment of Women in Greek Tragedy.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 110 (1990): 76-90.

Tessitore, Aristide. “Euripides’ “Medea” and the Problem of Spiritedness.” The Review of Politics 53 (1991): 587-601.

Warner, Rex, trans. “The Medea.” In Euripides I, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 55-108. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Wiersma, S. “Women in Sophocles.” Mnemosyne 37 (1984): 25-55.

Willner, Dorothy. “The Oedipus Complex, Antigone, and Electra: The Woman as Hero and Victim.” Anthropologist, New Series 84 (1982): 58-78.

Wheeler, Graham. “Gender and Transgression in Sophocles’ “Electra”.” The Classical Quarterly, New Series 53 (2003): 377-388.


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