Women in Athens and Sparta Create a list or diagram that compares and contrasts the lives of women in Athens to the lives of women in Sparta. You must list at least FIVE ways in which each is unique and THREE similarities.
Then, answer the following questions:
What qualities/traits did the Athenians value?
What qualities/traits did the Spartans value?
What was the most unusual or surprising Spartan practice?
If you were a woman in ancient Greece, which city would you prefer to live in? Which social class would you prefer? Why?
Your responses need to be in complete sentences, preferably in short paragraphs or essay form. Everyday Life in Ancient Greece, 4th Century BC
Centered within a loose collection of city-states (often at war with one another), ancient Greek culture
reached its pinnacle during the fourth century BC – an era described as its “Golden Age.” Art, theater,
music, poetry, philosophy, and political experiments such as democracy flourished. Greek influence
stretched along the northern rim of the Mediterranean from the shores of Asia Minor to the Italian peninsula.
In Athens, society was male-dominated – only men could be citizens and only upper-class males enjoyed a
formal education. Women had few political rights and were expected to remain in the home and bear
children. Fully one quarter of the population was made up of slaves, usually prisoners captured during the
many clashes that extended Greek influence overseas. These slaves provided much of the manpower that
fueled the burgeoning economy, working in shipyards, quarries, mines, and as domestic servants.
Most homes were modest, windowless and wrapped around a courtyard. Furniture was rare. People spent
the majority of the day out of doors enjoying the mild Mediterranean climate. The Greek diet was also
modest, based largely on wine and bread. A typical day would start with bread dipped in wine, the same for
lunch and a dinner of wine, fruits, vegetables and fish. Consumption of meat was reserved for special
occasions such as religious holidays.
A Glimpse of the average day in Ancient Greece
Xenophon was a pupil of Socrates. Here, he describes the manner in which the ideal Greek aristocrat would
pass the hours of a typical morning. Xenophon uses a literary device in which the story is supposed to be
told by Socrates who is speaking with a friend by the name of Ischomachus. Socrates has asked his friend to
describe how he spends his day. Ischomachus responds:
“Why, then, Socrates, my habit is to rise from bed betimes, when I may still expect to find at home this,
that, or the other friend whom I may wish to see. Then, if anything has to be done in town, I set off to
transact the business and make that my walk; or if there is no business to transact in town, my serving boy
leads on my horse to the farm; I follow, and so make the country road my walk, which suits my purpose
quite as well or better, Socrates, perhaps, than pacing up and down the colonnade [in the city]. Then when
I have reached the farm, where mayhap some of my men are planting trees, or breaking fallow, sowing, or
getting in the crops, I inspect their various labors with an eye to every detail, and whenever I can improve
upon the present system, I introduce reform.
After this, usually I mount my horse and take a canter. I put him through his paces, suiting these, so far as
possible, to those inevitable in war, – in other words, I avoid neither steep slope, nor sheer incline, neither
trench nor runnel, only giving my uttermost heed the while so as not to lame my horse while exercising him.
When that is over, the boy gives the horse a roll, and leads him homeward, taking at the same time from
the country to town whatever we may chance to need. Meanwhile I am off for home, partly walking, partly
running, and having reached home I take a bath and give myself a rub, – and then I breakfast, – a repast
that leaves me neither hungry nor overfed, and will suffice me through the day.”
Davis, William Stearns, Readings In Ancient History (1912); Freeman, Charles, The Greek Achievement
From: “Everyday Life in Ancient Greece, 4th Century BC,” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2001).
WOMEN IN SPARTA
By 600 BCE Sparta had conquered her neighbors in the southern half of the Peloponnese. The vanquished
people, called Helots, were required to do all of the agricultural work on land owned by the victors,
making Sparta self-sufficient in food and ruler of a slave population seven or eight times as large. Not
needing to import anything allowed Sparta to isolate herself from the culture of the rest of the world;
fearing revolt by such a large number of slaves forced the country to become an armed camp: thus was
determined the character of one of the oddest societies in the ancient world.
At the age of seven Spartan boys left home to be raised by the state in barracks. When they turned 30
they could set up their own households but they still ate dinner every night with the other men. One
outsider on tasting such a dinner remarked, “Now I know why Spartan’s don’t fear death.” The nation,
not the family, was the center of focus for every man. The survival of the state, it was believed,
depended on the ability of every Spartan to fight and defeat at least eight Helots. To that end, boys
learned from an early age discipline, willingness to endure hardship, and the skills of a soldier. As part of
their basic training, Spartan youths were sent into the countryside to seek out and kill those Helots who
looked as if they might become leaders in their community.
While North American children are raised on Mother Goose rhymes and the Muppets, Spartan children
were told tales of courage and fortitude. A favorite concerned the young boy who endured the repeated
bites of a fox rather than admit he had the animal hidden under his jacket.
If boys left home for good at age 7 and husbands and fathers spent the greater part of their life in military
training with other men, the impact of all this on the lives of women must have been enormous. While
there is no proof one way or another, it seems likely that Spartan marriages were arranged by the parents
with little thought for the preferences of the prospective bride or groom, but if Spartan women had no say
in the choice of husband they certainly had more power and status in every other respect. They married
at age eighteen, much later than other Greeks. Presumably this was to guarantee healthier and stronger
babies rather than a large number, but it meant that most girls were emotionally stronger when they
married. In any event other Greeks clearly believed that Spartan women had far too much power for the
good of the state. Plutarch wrote that “the men of Sparta always obeyed their wives.” Aristotle was even
more critical of the influence women had in politics arguing that it was contributing to the downfall of the
country. Women did not have a vote in the assembly but seem to have had a lot of influence behind the
Women could own property—and did in fact own more than a third of the land in Sparta—and they could
dispose of it as they wished. Daughters inherited along with sons. Unfortunately, when we get down to
the particulars there are some gaps in our knowledge. Attempts were made to get rid of the practice of
needing a dowry to get married. It is possible that endeavors by fathers to get around the law have led to
considerable confusion in our eyes as to what was a gift and what was a dowry. Daughters may have
inherited half of what a son inherited; it is also possible that if you combine dowry with inheritance they
ended up with a full share of the estate.
Spartan women had a reputation for boldness and licentiousness that other Greeks found unseemly.
Women’s tunics were worn in such a way as to give them a little more freedom of movement and the
opportunity to reveal a little leg and thigh if they so desired. Spartan girls competed in athletics at the
same time as the boys and may have done so in the nude before a mixed audience. Plutarch mentions
nude rituals witnessed by young men. The end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries BCE
saw a decline in the number of men relative to women. Several men might share a wife and regard the
children as their own. The woman would clearly be the dominant member of any such family. An
unmarried man might approach a friend and ask if he could “borrow” his wife to produce a child for him.
If the husband had all of the children he wanted and approved of the suitor he might agree. It is highly
unlikely that the mature wife and mother lacked a strong voice in the arrangements, considering the
power and status of adult women in everything else. Since marriage existed strictly for the procreation of
children and not as an answer to emotional or social needs the arrangement would not have had the same
meaning to them as it might to us.
Some have suggested the practice began as a way of limiting the breakup of family estates at death—a
serious problem in those societies where daughters inherit as well as sons. Others regard it as an
appropriate response to a disproportionate number of men and women in a society where family life was
not all that important anyway.
Spartan women remained breeding machines whose purpose was to produce the male soldiers the state
needed to defend itself against revolt by the Helots. Mother love was replaced by a mother’s pride in her
son’s bravery in battle and disgust with any sign of cowardice. “Come home with your shield or upon it”
was reputed to be the advice one woman gave her son as he went off to war. She may well have been
speaking on behalf of all Spartan women.
Adapted from: http://applequist.weebly.com/ancient-greece.html
WOMEN IN ATHENS
All ancient societies drew a distinction between the free and the slave, even if slaves were few in number.
Ancient Egypt saw very little difference in law between men and women, while Athens (and most other
societies) did. Athens also drew a sharp distinction between citizen and resident alien, between legitimate
born and the illegitimate, and between the woman who was a wife and the one who was not wife. We lack
information on the non-citizen but presumably they tried to copy what they would have perceived as the
With the notable exception of Plato, Athenian philosophers believed that women had strong emotions and
weak minds. For this reason they had to be protected from themselves and they had to be prevented
from doing damage to others. Guardianship was the system developed to deal with this perceived quality
Every woman in Athens had a kyrios (guardian) who was either her closest male birth-relative or her
husband. Although she could own her clothing, jewelry, and personal slave and purchase inexpensive items,
she was otherwise unable to buy anything, own property or enter into any contract. Her kyrios controlled
everything about her life. (Compare this with the Pater familias in Ancient Rome.) Citizenship for a woman
entitled her to marry a male citizen and it enabled her to join certain religious cults closed to men and noncitizens, but it offered no political or economic benefits.
Girls in Athens were normally married soon after puberty to men who were typically in their late twenties or
early thirties. Her father or other guardian provided the dowry and arranged the match. The betrothal
symbolized the groom’s acceptance of the qualities of the dowry as well as the qualities of the bride.
As in the rest of the ancient world the most important reasons for marriage were:
1. the management and preservation of property
2. the production of children as future care-givers and heirs
Love and affection may have been an important additional function in Ancient Egypt, but they played little or
no part in an Athenian marriage. Only children whose both parents were citizens could become citizens.
Simply being born in Athens was not enough. In arranging the marriage, then, citizenship and wealth were
important considerations. Since a fair amount of property was involved, a guardian would want to chose the
son of a relative or close friend, so marriage usually took place within a small circle. Rich married rich and
poor married poor.
The marriage ceremony itself took place soon after the betrothal. In the evening, following a ritual bath and
the wedding banquet in her own home, the bride entered a cart with the groom and joined in a torch lit
procession of friends and family to the groom’s home where the new couple were invited in by the groom’s
mother. The final act in the ceremony was the consummation of the marriage in a private corner of the
A wife’s duty was to bear legitimate children (i.e., heirs) and to manage the household. She was expected
to remain inside her home except for attendance at funerals and festivals of the specific cults that were
open to woman. A woman seen outside on her own was assumed to be a slave, prostitute, concubine or a
woman so poor that she had to work. Child care, spinning and weaving were the most important activities in
the daily routine of the good wife. One writer said that the best woman was the one about whom the least
was heard, whether it be good or bad.
It is quite possible that Athenian reality never quite lived up to Athenian ideal. There is some evidence to
suggest that at least some women could read and write and were well informed on the issues of the day.
Vase paintings etc. would suggest that women frequently gathered together. Women and men, however, did
not socialize together—at least, respectable women and men did not. If a man had guests in his home the
women would be expected to remain in the women’s quarter. (Compare this with the situation in Ancient
Egypt where husbands and wives attended parties together and where the Mistress of the House always
greeted her husband’s guests.) There are few paintings that show husband and wife together after the
WIVES AND NON-WIVES IN ATHENS
It is often noted that Greece was the culture that invented democracy. Before handing out kudos for this
achievement, however, we should remember the rather large number of slaves and other non-citizens who
were excluded from any role in government, and we should also remember that of all the major civilizations
in the ancient world it was Greece that offered the worst treatment of its women.
Athenians divided all women into two groups: wives and potential wives in the first, and all others in the
second. It was almost impossible to move from the second group to the first.
A draconian law allowed a man to kill on the spot any man caught having sex with his wife, mother, daughter,
sister or concubine. This goes well beyond the usual rule in the Ancient World defining adultery as sex with a
married women not his wife, and appears to give a man ownership of the chastity of all “his” women.
Wives were people who produced and cared for children and heirs. They seem to have had little other use in
the eyes of Athenian men. They were confined to their homes and were expected to stay out of sight if the
husband invited guests to their home. There were cults to which women might belong and it was possible to
socialize on occasion with other women, but beyond that women were expected to remain invisible at home.
The best wife, according to one writer, was the one about whom the least was said, whether it be good or
Non-wives were divided into several categories and it is probable that individual women moved from one to
another as their luck, health and age changed. At the bottom were the women who lived in brothels. Most
were slaves; all had a fairly miserable existence. Between customers it seems that many were expected to
spin and weave to provide additional revenue for the brothel’s owner.
The women on the streets were only slightly better off. Law limited the price they could charge, and required
that if by chance two men wanted the same girl at the same time they could draw lots but they could not bid
against each other. In Syracuse there was a law limiting to prostitutes the public display of gold jewelry and
brightly colored clothes—a sort of uniform that anyone could recognize.
The next category included the heteras (call girls and courtesans). These were the women who offered more
than just a warm body. Some could sing or play a musical instrument. Others were talented, knowledgeable
conversationalists. Wives were thought to be a particularly stupid group of people with whom a man would
want to spend as little time as possible. Heteras, on the other hand, knew something about the world at
large and could be quite entertaining.
The Symposium was a gathering of men for eating, drinking and especially conversation. Heteras were often
as important an ingredient in the success of such an occasion as was the food and drink. Sex was sometimes
taken for granted, but very frequently the women went no further than light hearted flirting. They were
hired for their ability to entertain intellectually and their charges reflected these talents not their physicality.
Some heteras were successful enough that they owned their own homes and entertained there as they
Concubines were women in a reasonably permanent relationship with one man. They were usually
maintained in their own home and would roughly correspond with the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century
While female slaves were not immune to their masters’ desires, it was normally considered bad form to
engage in extra-marital sex in a wife’s home and opportunities outside of the home were plentiful.
While Greece was not one of those societies in the Ancient World that believed sex with temple prostitutes
was necessary to promote the regeneration of crops and herds, the non-wife was a very important part of
the social system. A wife was a necessity in order to have legitimate children and heirs, but a man’s normal
desire for female companionship and sex was something to be satisfied outside of marriage. A woman’s
desire for male companionship was never given much thought
Typical Day of a Greek Housewife
Excerpt from: Lynn, Schnurnberger. Let There Be Clothes. Workman Publishing; New York, 1991.
7:08 Eats small piece of bread soaked in wine. Is still hungry, but must be careful about her figure
7:09 Pecks husband on cheek and sends him off to the agora. Sighs. Looks at the four bare (slightly tinted)
walls. Rarely allowed out of the house, she prepares for another day at home.
7:15 Summon hand maiden to cool her with huge peacock feather.
8:30 All dressed up with no place to go, she wanders into the kitchen, eyes a piece of honey cake. Resists.
9:27 Hears argument between two servants, rushes out to mediate.
11:15 Wanders into the courtyard near flowerbed where slave girls are spinning and giggling. Asks to join
them. Is reminded this is improper behavior – they suggest she ready herself for lunch.
12:15 Husband arrives, chiding her about the foolishness of make-up. Pretends to agree. Husband leaves at
3:00 Instructs daughter on her duties of being a wife.
8:05 Husband and wife sit down at low table to dinner; bread, oil, wine, a few figs, small portion of fish (only
320 calories) and beans. She hears about his day. He tells her she should not bother about the affairs of
men. Pretends to agree. She is too hungry to argue.
10:10 Falls asleep. Does not dream of tomorrow.
Random Quote: “Teaching a woman to read and write? What a terrible thing to do! Like feeding a vile snake
on more poison.” – Menander
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