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

This article is a continuation of The Place of Women in the Graeco-Roman World: Part One

     Since a Grecian woman’s sphere of life was her family, her active life did not really begin until her marriage. In the Classical period, women had been able to look forward to only two journeys: the first, from their father’s house to their husbands, the next from their husband’s house to the grave. Fortunately, with the entering of the Hellenistic period, things began to change for women.[1] Families migrated to the new cosmopolitan cities, and although, some restrictive conventions of the old city-states were retained, others were altered or completely discarded in response to the new dynamics of societal and individual needs.[2]

The Place of Women in the Graeco-Roman World - MyFriendDebbie.com     Nonetheless, the mindset of many was still firmly anchored in paternalism. This paternalism, so inherent to the Athenian male society, was based on the presumption that men were more intelligent than women. David Schaps comes to the conclusion, “Each sex was considered to have a proper role for which it was fitted, and intelligence, beyond such understanding as was necessary to mange the day-to-day affairs of a household, was not thought necessary or desirable for the Greek woman.”[3] Yet, the Athenian men recognized that women were people, and they were interested in women’s well-being. But men would not entrust to a woman the power to guarantee that welfare. In the majority of cases, the head of the family chose the husband for the bride. Thus the most important decisions of a Grecian woman’s life were made for her, not by her.

     The status of Roman women was also very low. Roman law placed a wife under the absolute control of her husband, who had ownership of her and all her possessions. He could divorce her if she went out in public without a veil. A husband had the power of life and death over his wife, just as he did his children. As with the Greeks, women were not allowed to speak in public.[4]

     But things in Rome began to change around 200 B.C.. Nobody blamed the Romans anymore for the seclusion of women, since their women were already looked upon as “emancipated.” Among the Romans, there were those who blamed the “barbarians” for the female house confinement. Roman women had brought their sisters in from the countryside in great masses to demonstrate against the Oppian Law -- a law restricting the ladies of the upper classes the display of luxury in dress and carriages.[5] There were lengthy debates in the tribunes. The law was repealed.

     In that freer political arena, Roman women increasingly moved about in public, and increasingly participated in their husbands’ carriers. In addition, they conducted large -scale trading enterprises, and had considerable freedom to marry, divorce, remarry, and conduct their own affairs as they chose. Understandably, men were getting progressively uncomfortable with the freedom and power women were acquiring. Still, the household was the real power base for Roman women. Women’s most important purpose in life was procreation.[6] Marital fertility was of great importance in the Roman world, and legitimate marriage was closely related with procreation.[7] The Roman matron not only managed her home, her estate, her business affairs, but she also bore and educated children, training them in the international politics of the time.

     Roman morals were much stricter for women, than for men. Riotous banqueting was punished by stringently enforced adultery laws. Some upper-class women, desiring to live such lifestyles, were registering as prostitutes to protect themselves from consequences, since extramarital sex was legal for prostitutes. This is an example of women’s readiness to do anything, even use laws of prostitution to gain extra freedom in action. On the whole, Roman women were well educated. The poor ones went to school; the richer got tutored at home. The double maternal and tutorial responsibilities of mothers, especially those in the middle and upper classes, set a standard of education for women that led to the tradition of scholarship among Christian women in the succeeding centuries.[8]

      Looking at the place of women in late antiquity, we cannot forego a large sector of them involved in agriculture. In general, in the Graeco-Roman world, agriculture was a man’s domain, while women were confined to domestic chores. The common held belief was that the gods had made one gender -- the women -- fit only for a seated way of life, but too weak for activities out of doors, while the other gender -- the men -- were less suited for domestic work, but were strong enough for labor that required motion. That presumption applied primarily to women from the upper class society.[9] Only Greek and Roman men of some social and economic standing would have been able to keep their wives and daughters totally withdrawn from physical labor and the world of men. Peter Garnsey asserts that in reality, two basic preconditions governed the lives of most people in antiquity: the level of poverty and the place of labor occupation. The mass of the population lived at or near subsistence level. The majority of people lived in rural areas. Peasant society greatly outnumbered the rich, and a large part of the labor force had to be employed in agriculture. [10]

     Yet, men laborers were not sufficient to deal with the needs of the family and the land, which meant that the majority of women in the Graeco- Roman world had to work in the fields out of necessity. Since the economic role of women profoundly affected their status and what might be called their personal freedom -- women bore a large part of the outdoor work in more egalitarian communities based on hoe cultivation, but tended to be more secluded in the home, and largely occupied in the domestic sphere in male-dominated plough farming.[11] The extent to which Greek and Roman women were involved in field work, and other outdoor tasks, contributed to the degree of visibility, or invisibility that was dictated by the physical location of their daily chores .That could had likely been a factor in shaping both their position with their own family, and their relations with, and access to the outer world.[12]

     It can be assumed that an absolute majority of women in that epoch either belonged to households that lived by agriculture and had, at least at times, to rely on the labor of all its members, or were compelled as slaves or dependents to fulfill whatever tasks they were assigned.[13] The extent to which women participated in farming labor depended on the size of an agricultural holding, and on the strength of the available labor force. Thus, small family units required greater efforts of their female members than larger estates. The generalizing observation by Aristotle that he made in his Politics, “the poor have to use their wives and children as servants since they cannot afford to keep slaves” could certainly be applied to the rural population as well.[14]

     The social status of Jewish women in Palestine during the Graeco-Roman period had an image of its own. This status was not only shaped by the prevalent culture of the ruling empire, but also was strongly influenced by religious norms and expectations. Judaism, and later Christianity, had put their formative stamps on the identities of the Jewish women. As in the pagan cultures, the family was of utmost importance for the Hebrew woman. According to rabbinic sources, the age of twelve is regarded the suitable age for Jewish girls to be given in marriage. In the rabbinic ideal, women are not to be found in the marketplace, where the risk to their chastity was considered enormous. Polygamy was present in the Jewish society, but it was more likely to be an upper-class phenomenon. Wealthy men without heirs could afford to take other wives, while keeping the first. Poorer men were more likely to divorce under similar circumstances. Jewish women, when widowed, would frequently remarry.[15]

     Concerning women’s education and study of Torah, girls learned to read and write only if someone at home taught them. Women were especially likely to know the rules for keeping a kosher household, particularly in Pharisaic and tannaitic families. The oral law prohibited women from reading the Torah out loud. Synagogue worship was segregated, with women never allowed to be heard. Jewish women were barred from public speaking.

     Tal Ilan, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Jewish Women in Graeco-Roman Palestine, believes that if women studied Scripture it was probably confined to Genesis. She asserts that women were involved in the performance of commandments connected to the Temple service. [16] Although rarely, there were incidents in Judaism that women served as leaders in the ancient synagogue, and some were even well educated.[17] Judaism and Christianity were both thriving religious movements in the Graeco-Roman period, and the evidence for female conversions suggests that women found both religions attractive.

     Nevertheless, Jewish women were looked upon as inferior. Judaism found some substantiation of that presumption by looking at the bodily marker of circumcision. Men were set apart as Jewish by circumcision, but there was not a comparable bodily identification for Jewish women. For the rabbis, who considered the “natural” inferiority of women self-evident, the lack of bodily sign was not problematic. Even later in Christianity, some considered that since femaleness was inescapable, the female salvation will always be somehow lesser than that of males.[18]


[1] Diana R. Garland, Family Ministry. A Comprehensive Guide (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press,1999),191.

[2] Fantham, 140.

[3] Schaps, 92.


[5] Ruggini,189.

[6]  Sarah B. Pomeroy, Women’s History and Ancient History (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 176.

[7] Bruce W. Frier, “Natural Fertility and Family Limitation in Roman Marriage,” Journal of Classical Philology 89, no. 4 (October 1994): 318.

[8] Boulding, 349-350.

[9] Jack Goody, Production and Reproduction. A Comparative Study of the Domestic Domain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) 35.

[10] Peter Garnsey , The Roman Empire, Economy, Society and Culture (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987) 43.

[11] Lester C. Thurow,Women's Role in Economic Development,” Journal of Economic Literature10, no. 2 (June 1972):27,31.

[12] Scheidel, 203.

[13] Carol R. Ember, “The Relative Decline in Women's Contribution to Agriculture with Intensification,” Journal of American Anthropologist 85, no. 2 (June 1983):285.

[14] Ibid.,207.

[15] Ross Kraemer, “Jewish Women in Graeco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 118, no.4 (October 1998): 570.

[16] Tal Ilan, “Jewish Women in Graeco-Roman Palestine. An Inquiry into Image and Status” (Ph. D. diss., Hebrew University of Tübingen , 1995) 204.

[17] Bernadette J. Brooten , “Christians among Jews and Gentiles: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendhal on His Sixty –Fifth Birthday,” Journal of The Harvard Theological Review 79, no. 1/3 (January – July 1986): 26.

[18] Helen Parkins, “Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World,” Journal of The Classical Review 50, no.1( 2000): 355.


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