Ancient Greece

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Ancient Greece

Since at least the Renaissance (1350–1600), European—and subsequently North American—society has looked to ancient Greece as a cultural model in the arts and philosophy and, increasingly in modern times, as the birthplace of democracy. In the twentieth century helenophilia was balanced by a negative judgment of the Greeks' treatment of women. One of the paradoxes that emerge from such evaluations is that the status of women was relatively better in the less democratic Greek polities. Ancient Greek misogyny may have been congenial to those who opposed women's rights in modern Europe, but the system for the regulation of sex and gender was quite different in the ancient world from that which developed in medieval and modern Europe. For example, women's status might have been reflected most visibly in the right, like that of Greek men, to exercise in the nude.


The earliest versions of the origins of the Greek gods, as preserved by Hesiod (c. 700 bce), seem to show the replacement of ruling maternal deities by male gods. Some scholars, echoing the general theory of primitive matriarchy and noting the prominence of female figurines in early archaeological remains, have suggested that a Bronze Age (3200–1200 bce) matriarchal culture was overthrown by Greek-speaking patriarchal invaders. That theory has been questioned by those who note that myths of primitive matriarchy may be simple justifications of patriarchal control; also, the worship of the female form is compatible with male power. The classical Greek pantheon is controlled by the patriarchal Zeus (feuding with his wife Hera) but also includes goddesses, though many of them, such as the spear-carrying Athena, were known for their masculine qualities. The Olympian myths even include the idea of male parthenogenesis, as in the case of Athena, born from the head of Zeus. Although the world evoked in the Homeric epics featured colorful women with strong personalities, it reflected a heroic culture with unabashed male dominance in virtually all spheres. Women were under the authority of their fathers and husbands and were held to sexual fidelity. Men, especially those in the upper classes, could have all the slaves or concubines they could afford along with their legitimate spouses.


During the archaic and classical periods, roughly from 800 to 323 bce, Greeks organized themselves around the institution of the polis, or independent city-state. The most important social distinctions were between citizens (only males), other freeborn individuals (male or female), and slaves of both sexes. Political power was reserved for citizens, though the wives and daughters of citizens had certain protections not enjoyed by other free women. Sexual relations were covered by the fourth-century claim: "We have mistresses for our enjoyment, concubines to serve our persons, and wives for the bearing of legitimate offspring" (quoted in Pomeroy 1995, p. 8). That ideal, of course, was available only to those with resources and leaves out the same-sex liaisons available to men.

The low status of women, even the wives of citizens, had results that are familiar from examinations of other patriarchal societies. The need to provide dowries for daughters and the occasional desire to limit population led to female infanticide being considerably more common than male. Women also had shorter life spans, perhaps because they regularly were fed less. One result was a sexual imbalance in the population that was exacerbated by the deaths of men in war. For men alternative satisfaction could be found in homosexual relations or with prostitutes. According to Sarah Pomeroy (1995), many prostitutes originally were abandoned female infants (abandonment was the normal mode of infanticide), thus closing the circle and restoring a sexual balance.

The wife of an Athenian citizen was expected to be modest in attire, leave the house as little as possible (chiefly for participation in female religious cults), and be sexually faithful. The husband could, in addition to his wife, keep slaves or concubines, visit male or female prostitutes, and avail himself of the company of the educated female companions called hetairai. The husband also controlled a couple's joint property as long as the marriage lasted, and the wife could not enter into contracts in her own name. Of course, those ideals could not always be maintained in practice, especially by people of more modest means, and citizens' wives apparently visited with neighbor women.

Women of undemocratic Sparta had more freedom. They were allowed and even expected to exercise regularly and in the nude, and their rations were equal to those of men. Those factors and a system of trial marriages to see if a couple was fertile were aspects of the recognition of the role of healthy mothers in the creation of a new generation of warriors. As a general rule and within the limits of their conceptions of the proper roles of men and women, the leaders of Greek cities were willing to tinker with the rules governing marriage to promote the demographic interests of the polis.


The purpose of marriage was the provision of legitimate offspring and thus the continuation of the oikos, the jointly economic and familial unit headed by the male. Children belonged to the male, who kept them after divorce, partly because it was believed that the woman contributed no genetic material to the fetus. She was only an empty vessel, on the analogy of a plowed field. It was recognized, however, that women enjoyed sexual intercourse, and it was recommended that a man have relations with his wife at least three times a month to maintain harmony in the household. Divorce was fairly easy to arrange and apparently was common. This general idea of female passivity had other effects. A man caught in the act of adultery could be killed by the aggrieved husband (though this right was regulated) or could be held for ransom or turned over to a court for prosecution. The woman, however, largely escaped punishment. Her husband was obliged to divorce her and she could not make certain ritual sacrifices, but she could and often did remarry. This is in sharp contrast to the practice of other ancient societies, such as those in the Near East, which condemned adulterous women to death. According to David Cohen (1991) the Greeks did not have a word for an adulterous woman, as if she were merely the passive recipient of the immoral act.

There is a general perception that ancient Greece was a kind of paradise of homoeroticism or at least that shame applied only to the passive partner. Although Greek theory and practice were far from Judeo-Christian homophobia, that conclusion must include certain nuances. Xenophon (c. 427–355 bce) noted that some Greek cities condemned pederasty and others explicitly permitted it. According to Plato the laws of Athens were contradictory (Cohen 1991). Further, as was noted by Cohen, the absence of statutory prohibition did not necessarily indicate that an act was blameless, only that it was not felt to disturb the public order.

In Athens sexual use of a boy with or without consent or payment was considered a crime as well as bringing dishonor to the boy. Although ancient sex manuals sometimes speak as if boys and young women were virtually interchangeable as sex objects for the male, and although there is evidence that many males used other males as sex partners when women were not available, for example, on military campaigns, there is abundant evidence that ancient Greek society noted a difference between men more drawn to boys and men more drawn to girls. The first group was seen to be smaller and less estimable. Indeed, literary sources show powerful examples of heterosexual attraction in a society that often erected barriers to its fulfillment to protect the purity of patriarchal descent. Plato's famous defense of love between men applied specifically to a less carnal relationship.

Female homoeroticism received far less social attention. The case of the poetess Sappho of Lesbos (c. 630 or c. 612–c. 570 bce) may testify as much to the greater freedom of the women of that island (similar to the greater freedom of the women of Sparta) as to an exclusive homoerotic orientation. There is also evidence of women using dildos.


Ancient Greece, especially Athens in the classical period, has been influential through its literature and philosophy. In the case of literature this extends throughout European and North American civilization; in the case of philosophy through the Islamic civilization also. The plays of Sophocles (495–406 bce) and Euripides (c. 480–406) are famous for the strength and individuality of their female characters, who often are thought to belie the image of the oppressed, marginalized Greek woman. Those portrayals can be seen as reflections on an earlier heroic age when most of the plays take place or as tensions embodied in Greek social practice. The philosopher Aristotle argued that women lack the higher mental faculties of men. Plato, his teacher, held that women are the equals of men in all matters that do not depend on physical strength. It is telling that it has taken two and a half millennia for the position of Plato to achieve an incomplete victory over that of Aristotle. Plato, in many ways the more adventurous thinker on gender matters, also imagined a utopian community in which women could accede to high office, though not full equality, and in which the economic-sexual family unit would be abolished.


The conquests of Alexander the Great and the later struggles between his generals destroyed the independence of the Greek city-states and subordinated them to territorial empires. They also scattered new Greek cities throughout the non-Greek Near East. That development seems to have improved the opportunities, both political and economic, of women. Some Hellenistic queens, among whom Cleopatra was the most famous, exercised direct political power. Other women became wealthy and were able to buy political rights previously unavailable to members of their sex. As the status of citizen grew to carry less power, it became available to more people. Concomitant with the breakdown of the polis system as a source of relative female emancipation was exposure to other cultures, some of which, such as the ancient Egyptians, were more open to public participation by women than had been the ideal in classical Greece.

Greek sculpture during its classical periods had tended to pair the idealized male nude with the chastely draped female figure. By the time of the Hellenistic age, however, nude and beautiful Aphrodites competed with erotic females for the gaze of the spectator.


Cohen, David. 1991. Law, Sexuality, and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. 1995. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken.

Stanton, Donna C., ed. 1992. Discourses of Sexuality from Aristotle to AIDS. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

                                                     Allen Douglas

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Ancient Greece

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Ancient Greece