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The Place of Women in the Graeco-Roman World: Part One

     By 200 B.C. the Graeco-Roman world was standing on the threshold of a new kind of society. Communication, distribution of resources, and organization of large- scale societal interaction, had been vastly improved. That time period was the divide line, the foot-in-two-worlds, between the old order of things and the progressive reforms experienced by this civilization. During the era of the Roman Republic a new pattern of women’s civic affairs, with promise for the future, began to develop.[1] Meanwhile, the Hellenistic period -- 323 B.C. to 30 B.C. -- was characterized by a rain of a woman -- the famous Cleopatra.[2] A transition from the oppression of antiquity to the relatively more open societies of the new Europe began to occur. Yet, that transition was neither easy, nor complete. In one sense it gave the perception that the “modernized” world already represented the new epoch, in another, it still belonged to the dying world of the first empires.

     A far more definitive signal of those new perceptions came at the end of the millennium with the appearance of a new teacher in the obscured town of Nazareth in the Roman province of Syria. While still a young rabbi, he gathered unlikely followers, who bypassed the usual sex-role definitions. Something very remarkable was beginning to happen. For the first hundred years of the new era, women were everywhere leaving old constraints, stepping into the public sphere, and participating in the creation of a new society. The extent of the persecution of these women by Roman authorities was a measure of the extent to which the old world feared the new roles for women. The rate at which women joined the new Christian movement was a measure of the readiness of women for the new life.[3]

     The lives that women of various societal levels led in the Graeco-Roman world were so diverse and under-recorded, that it would be presumptuous of anyone to attempt a reconstruction of a complete and accurate picture of the changes taking place. As Averil Cameron assesses, neither Hellenistic queens nor Egyptian papyri will necessarily tell it all about the women of the cities of Asia Minor, especially when one city differs so widely from another.[4] Nor, one will do justice to the facts, if one takes historical data and interprets it through the lenses of a contemporary observer.[5] For example, the apparently freer pattern of upper-class marriage in late Republican Rome, cited as a sign of the rising status of women, may have an explanation more practical than that of female emancipation.[6] Thus at best, one can hope to achieve, a general overview of the place of women in the different regions of the Graeco-Roman world, all the way being cautious to acknowledge the obscurity of data, and the colored perception with which a contemporary explorer would approach women’s history.

     Man and woman, both created in the image of God[7], had reflected through the ages the intrinsic characteristics, defining the self, and differentiating the other. Lellia Ruggini is right in her observation that the phenomenon of human otherness was undoubtedly manifested even in antiquity in an immense variety of situations, such as the way women were regarded and treated.[8] Observing the otherness in women, Aristotle had theorized that they were naturally inferior. Most of his views on the moral and social disabilities of women and their place in society are contained in the twin treatises, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics. In his works, Aristotle talks about friendship as a bond keeping social communities together. According to the philosopher, the friendship of husband and wife is comparable with that to ruler and ruled, like the just king, looks to the welfare of his subject.[9]

     Aristotle also points out that there are different tasks in a household for men and women -- the former acquire, the latter administer. For that, the woman should be responsible for all work indoors, and the man would take charge of the outdoor activities. A later author, the Stoic Hierocles, gave specific identification of the division of labor --the man should take care of the fields, the market, and the urban affairs, while the woman will process the wool, bake bread, and look after the house.[10] J.K. Campbell comments that apart from a mere gender-specific division of labor, the confinement of a woman inside the house was regarded as a social and ethical ideal. “In general, it befitted a woman to stay indoors because this way of life was more “beautiful” than any other.”[11]

     Another philosopher, Philo, invented the dichotomy that both physiologically and symbolically equated the category of the masculine with reason and that of the feminine with the sensuous. Thus, he justified philosophically men’s domination of women. “This very identification,” says Ruggini, “of the feminine with physical and moral frailty caused women to be assimilated to social groups that were considered inferior politically, economically, and culturally.”[12]

     In the Greek society, the men were the heads of the families. Women were expected to marry when they became of age. That marriage was arranged by their fathers and their prospective husbands. They were simply passed from the house of one kyrios (master) to the house of another. The women were given dowry when they married. If their fathers were dead, their brothers made a provision for it. When women were divorced, or when their husbands died without children, they returned to their former families, and took their dowries with them. The ease with which a Grecian husband could terminate the marriage is quite disturbing to a contemporary student of history. The only thing the husband needed to do, was to send his wife away to her paternal family and the marriage ended.[13] Women were not allowed to conduct legal or economic transactions without a male guardian. In Athenian law they could not own property. Women did not generally inherit anything at all in the presence of equally close males.[14]

     During their marriage, women in the Graeco-Roman world were supposed to occupy themselves with weaving within the house confines. The seclusion of women was common among Athenians as well. This lifestyle was probably promoted by the cultures of the most active trading peoples, whose influence was strong in the developed world. Greeks and Hebrews were those well-known merchants in the Mediterranean and Europe from 200 B.C. on. What made fashionable that practice was the fact that wealthy Jewish traders had homes in each of the major cities of the known word, and to them secluded wives were display of social status. It was a matter of pride for Greek and Jewish merchants to have their wives as conspicuously and expensively secluded as possible.[15]

     A respectable woman was not allowed to leave the house unless she was accompanied by a trustworthy male escort. A wife was not permitted to eat or interact with male guests in her husband’s home; she had to retire to her woman’s quarters. Men kept their wives under lock and key, and women had the social status of a slave. Girls were not allowed to go to school, and when they grew up they were not allowed to speak in public. Women were considered inferior to men. The Greek poets equated women with evil, such as they did with Pandora. In men’s view, woman was responsible for unleashing evil on the world.[16]


Note: Part Two of this article: The Place of Women in the Graeco-Roman World is featured in the Summer 2012 Issue of www.MyFriendDebbie.com.


References for the above writings are provided here:

[1] Elise Boulding, The Underside of History: A View of Women through Time (Boulder: Westview Press, 1976), 340.

[2] Elaine Fantham and others, Women in the Classical World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 136.

[3] Boulding, 340.

[4] Averil Cameron, “Neither Male Nor Female,” Journal of Greece & Rome 27, no.1 (April 1980): 61.

[5] Robert Wetzel, Essays on New Testament Christianity (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1978), 52.

[6] Ibid., 61.

[7] Genesis 1:27.

[8] Lellia Cracco Ruggini, "Equal, and Less Equal in the Roman World,” Journal of Classical Philology 82, no.3 (July 1987): 188.

[9] Alan Cumming, “Pauline Christianity and Greek Philosophy: A Study of the Status of Women,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34, no.4 (October – December 1973): 523 -524.

[10] Walter Scheidel, “The Most Silent Women of Greece and Rome: Rural Labor and Women’s Life in the Ancient World (I),” Journal of Greece & Rome 42, no.2 (October 1995): 204.

[11] John K. Campbell, Honor, Family and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community (Cary: Oxford University Press, 1974), 289.


[13] Louis Cohn–Haft, “Divorce in Classical Athens,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 115, (1995):1

[14] David M. Schaps, Economic Rights of Women in Ancient Greece (Edinburgh: University Press, 1979), 89.

[15] Boulding, 345.

[16] Alvin Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 98-99.

Copyright © 2008-2015 Svetlana Papazov, D.Min.

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