The portion of an ancient Greek home designated as women's quarters was called the gynaeceum (a term that is the Latinate form of ancient Greek gunaikon (or gunaikonitis). The gynaeceum is associated particularly with the classical period (c. 500–323 bce) and with Athens. It was distinct from the andron (or andronitis, "men's room"), the most public room in the house where all-male social gatherings called symposia were held. The only women allowed at these parties were courtesans hired for the evening.
The interpretation of the significance of the gynaeceum is closely tied to scholarly understanding of gender relations in ancient Greece. For example, modern descriptions of gynaecea as universally dark, unclean spaces where women did their work underline the notion of the low status of women in Athenian society. Artistic representations of women on classical Greek vases, however, show them engaging in a range of activities, such as weaving and child care, as well as more leisurely pastimes such as reading, visiting with other women, attending to their toilette, and playing games. It appears that some Greek women could enjoy a level of luxury and interaction with other women.
Another debated aspect of the gynaeceum is how isolated it was from the rest of the household. The gynaeceum has long been thought to function like a harem or seraglio, that is, as an area set aside for the segregation of female family members, perhaps even secluding them from their male relatives. This reflects the idea that ancient Greek society was rigidly divided along gender lines and is based largely on literary evidence, the most important of which is a passage from a speech, "On the Murder of Eratosthenes," written by Lysias, a professional speechwriter in late-fifth-century Athens. Here Euphiletos, who was defending himself against the charge of murdering his wife's lover, explains that his modest home had two stories of equal size, the upper reserved for the gynaeceum, the lower for the men's quarters. After his wife gave birth, he moved upstairs and she downstairs so that she could more easily wash the child; having access to the street allowed Euphiletos's wife to meet her lover more easily. Extrapolating from this statement and others, scholars have assumed that the standard Greek home had its public rooms on the ground floor, while women were relegated to the upper floor, which was separated from the lower level by a staircase and a locked door.
Archaeological excavation of a large number of private homes in Athens, Olynthus, and elsewhere in the Greek world, however, does not support this interpretation. First, there is rarely evidence to indicate that a home had a second floor. Furthermore, the rooms in an average Greek house were versatile, meaning they could be used for any number of purposes; it is almost impossible to identify any room as reserved for traditionally feminine activities such as weaving or even cooking. In fact, the only readily identifiable room in most Greek houses is the andron, marked out by more expensive decoration and by the inclusion of permanent bases for the reclining couches required for proper symposia. Whether or not homes had second stories, economic necessity would suggest that only the very wealthiest families could afford rooms dedicated to a single purpose. In smaller homes, women may have withdrawn to more remote areas of the house only when visitors came to call. In sum, though the distinction between male and female space was important conceptually to the ancient Greeks, it does not seem to have affected the planning of the Greek house.
In light of this, scholars have proposed other interpretations of the gynaeceum that reflect a more nuanced understanding of male and female social spheres in ancient Greek society. At the broadest level, because women were strongly associated with domestic life (indeed, classical vase paintings portray women almost exclusively in interior settings) while men were linked to wider civic involvement, it is possible that the gynaeceum was in reality all interior spaces of the house other than the andron, including the interior courtyard where cooking and washing must have taken place. A more refined interpretation, put forward most forcefully by Lisa C. Nevett (1995, 1999) and since taken up by others, is that the gynaeceum refers to the family areas of a home that were off-limits to a male visitor, rather than to a portion of a man's own home that he was forbidden to enter. In other words, the separation of the sexes was probably accomplished by providing specific areas for male guests rather than by isolating the women of the household.
Lewis, Sian. 2002. The Athenian Woman: An Iconographic Handbook. London: Routledge.
Nevett, Lisa C. 1995. "Gender Relations in the Classical Greek Household: The Archaeological Evidence." Annual of the British School at Athens 90: 363-381.
Nevett, Lisa C. 1999. House and Society in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Walker, Susan. 1983. "Women and Housing in Classical Greece: The Archaeological Evidence." In Images of Women in Antiquity, ed. Averil Cameron and Amélie Kuhrt. London: Croom Helm.
Celia E. Schultz