The evidence we have relating to ancient Greek women is mostly presented through the eyes of men, which often results in distortion and idealization. However, there were instances when women reached the spotlight as a result of the extraordinary lives they led. The seven women in this article cover a spectrum of ancient Greek society, from queens to priestesses and poets. Each of these fascinating women managed to break the mold in their own inimitable way.
The Rights and Responsibilities of Ancient Greek Women
‘The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about among men, whether in praise or blame.’
(An extract from Pericles’ Funeral Speech, Thucydides 2:46)
Most ancient Greek women lived in a society that sought to control their lives. Evidence of this can be seen throughout all periods of ancient Greek history. As Pericles’ words above demonstrate, women were ideally meant to be neither seen nor heard. This is, arguably, why the authentic female voice is largely absent from the history and literature of ancient Greece.
The rights and responsibilities of ancient Greek women were closely entwined with society’s ideals of what a woman should be. First and foremost, women were expected to produce legal male heirs for their husbands. These male heirs would, in turn, bolster the male citizen population.
Women’s responsibilities were centered on the home. Their lives were domestic and internal, in direct contrast to men, who were expected to become soldiers, politicians, philosophers, and athletes. The married female head of the household was known as the kyria. The kyria was in charge of managing the oikos, a term that referred to the entire household, including all family members and even slaves. This household management included: the preparation of food, the production of cloth for making clothes, and overseeing the household finances and the health of children and slaves.
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The education of most ancient Greek women was limited to the early years. After the age of 12 they were expected to focus on preparation for married life. Literacy levels among women in ancient Greece were therefore low. However, there were some exceptions to this, mainly among the daughters of the elite, who could afford private tuition.
The legal rights of women were few and far between. They could not inherit wealth or property independently of men. They were also not allowed to vote in elections or be involved in public life. An important exception to this was religious life. Women could take up positions as priestesses and participate in festivals and sacrifices at specific times of the year. An important example was the Thesmophoria. This festival was exclusive to women and involved dedications to Demeter and Persephone in celebration of fertility and the harvest.
1. Sappho: The First Known Female Poet of Ancient Greece
‘Girls, chase the violet-bosomed Muses’ bright / Gifts and the plangent lyre, lover of hymns.’
(Sappho, a fragment)
Sappho, the first female poet in western literature, has a legacy that continues to shine to this day. Most of what we know about Sappho’s life comes from the fragments of her poetry and details provided by other ancient authors. Some of this second-hand information is doubtful but we can be fairly certain of some biographical details. Sappho was born to a wealthy merchant family on the island of Lesbos at the end of the 7th century BC. It is clear from her poetry that she was highly educated. Some scholars believe that she was a teacher of girls in the arts of poetry, music, and dancing.
Love and experiences of feeling are at the heart of Sappho’s poetry, which belonged to a genre known today as lyric poetry. She was a pioneer of this art form with her tender and intimate vignettes, which are rich in imagery and sensuality. The complexity and subtlety of her work was much admired even in antiquity. Plato called her ‘the tenth Muse’ and Catullus was endlessly inspired by her work.
Many believe that her poetry is evidence of her homosexuality since some of her love poems are addressed to women. It is from Sappho that the terms ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Sapphic’ derive. Little is known about the lives of ancient Greek women of the 7th century BC and even less about female sexuality of that period. Sappho and her beautiful words offer us a rare glimpse into the world of women at this time and their relationships with each other.
2. Aspasia: Intellectual and Political Advisor
Aspasia was one of the most powerful women to have lived in 5th-century ancient Greece. Born in Miletus, an ancient Greek city on the western coast of Asia Minor, she came to Athens at a young age. Later she entered the household of the famous general and politician, Pericles.
It is not known exactly what her role was within this household. All the ancient sources on her life are written by men and are, therefore, subject to bias. Some even describe her as a hetaira, the term used to describe elite prostitutes in ancient Greece.
We can be fairly certain that Aspasia became the mistress of Pericles around 445 BC after he divorced his wife. As an important member of his household she would have possessed a level of independence unknown to most ancient Greek women. She was known to venture out in public often and also received and entertained many members of Athenian high society.
Aspasia’s intelligence is often referred to in ancient sources. An ancient encyclopedia, the Suda, states that she was a teacher of rhetoric. Plutarch tells us that she even had philosophical discussions with Socrates. She is also said to have exerted an unusual amount of influence over Pericles and his political decisions. This attracted great criticism from Pericles’ political rivals and also playwrights of the time, who enjoyed incorporating political figures into their plays. Aristophanes even blames her for the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in The Acharnians.
Aspasia is, therefore, a fascinating and rare example of an ancient Greek woman whose wit and intelligence enabled her to rise to a position unparalleled in Greek society.
3. Gorgo: Queen of Sparta
Spartan women had much greater physical freedom than other ancient Greek women. From an early age they were treated the same as boys in terms of their care and upbringing. Their importance lay in their ability to stay healthy and thus provide the Spartan state with healthy offspring who would become successful warriors. They would marry only when they reached full sexual maturity and were encouraged to exercise outdoors regularly, often nude.
Spartan women unsurprisingly became known for their confidence, resilience, and assertiveness. Queen Gorgo of Sparta presents us with the perfect figurehead for the archetypal Spartan woman.
‘Athenian woman: “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who rule over their husbands?”
Gorgo: “Because only we are the mothers of men”.’
(Plutarch, Sayings of Spartan Women)
Gorgo was the daughter of King Cleomenes I, who reigned Sparta from 520—490 BC. As the daughter of a king and also his only child she was greatly indulged from a young age. The nature of her childhood perhaps explains her self-assuredness and assertive nature. Herodotus tells us that she advised her father against entering the Persian Wars at the age of 9.
By 490 BC, Gorgo had married Leonidas I, who later became king of Sparta. Leonidas played a very courageous role in the Persian Wars, meeting his death at the famous Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. But Gorgo also helped Sparta in their war efforts. Apparently, an important strategic message was once sent to the Spartan elders in the form of a seemingly blank wax tablet. It was Gorgo who cleverly advised them to scrape away the wax to reveal the hidden message beneath.
4. Artemisia I: Renowned Warrior and Ally of the Persians
Queen Artemisia I was ruler of the eastern Greek cities of Halicarnassus, Cos, Nisyrus, and Calymnos in the early 5th century BC. In the Persian Wars at the start of the 5th century, most of this part of ancient Greece was allied with the Persians against the rest of Greece. Artemisia herself became a close ally of King Xerxes of Persia during the war.
She apparently tried to warn Xerxes against taking part in the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC due to the risks involved in its location. As it turned out, the vastly outnumbered Greeks used clever tactics to defeat the large Persian fleet and its allies. This battle is considered to be the turning point in the war and historians today view it as a decisive moment in western history.
Artemisia launched five of her own ships against the Greeks at Salamis and was captain of one of the ships in person. She is unique among ancient Greek women in that she actively took part in warfare and fought side by side with men.
Herodotus gives an account of her role in the battle. Early on she became trapped between the enemy and Persian ships. In order to escape, she sunk the nearest ship to allow her a clear passage out. This ship turned out to be an allied vessel. But, unaware of this, King Xerxes watched from the shore in great admiration at her skill and bravery. As he watched his fleet succumb to defeat, he is said to have spoken the famous words: ‘My men have become women and my women men’.
5. Anyte: Poet and Epitaph Writer
Anyte of Tegea, an ancient settlement in the Greek Peloponnese, lived in the early 3rd century BC. Little is known of her life but she is one of only four female poets whose work is included in the Greek Anthology. This was a collection of various authors’ works put together in late antiquity. Anyte is most famous for her epitaphs written for women and, interestingly, animals.
There are echoes of Sappho in her work which provides beautiful snapshots of the lives of ancient Greek women. The following epitaph gives us a poignant insight into the types of memorials set up by women to honor the memory of other women.
‘Instead of a bridal bed and holy rites of marriage, your mother set here on your marble tomb a maiden, like you in size and in beauty, Thersis. So now we can speak to you although you are dead.’
(Anyte, AP 7:649)
Anyte was also fascinated by the natural world and the animal kingdom. The Greeks believed that there were many parallels to be drawn between humans and animals. Anyte’s epitaphs are a wonderful example of this. The war horse honored below is described in a style akin to one of Homer’s dying heroes in the Trojan War.
‘This tomb Damis built for his steadfast war horse pierced through the breast by gory Ares. The black blood bubbled through his stubborn hide, and he drenched the earth in his sore death pangs.’
(Anyte, AP 7:208)
The fact that Anyte’s work survives today is a testament to the eternal appeal of her concise renderings of human, and animal, existence.
6. Olympias: Queen of Macedon and Mother of Alexander the Great
Olympias, originally from Epirus, married King Philip II of Macedon around 357 BC. She bore him two children, one of whom grew up to be the greatest warrior of ancient Greece, Alexander the Great. Alexander’s incredible military achievements have made him a legendary figure even today, but Olympias also led a fascinating life of her own.
When Alexander was still a child, Philip divorced Olympias and remarried a woman named Cleopatra. Relations between Philip and Olympias grew hostile after the divorce and she later retired to her native Epirus.
In 336 BC Philip was murdered by an unknown assassin. Soon after, Olympias returned to Macedon and seized the opportunity to have Cleopatra and her baby daughter killed. This brutal act paved the way for Alexander to take the throne.
In 323 BC, Alexander died at the young age of 32 after a short illness. Olympias then became embroiled in the struggle for his throne. Two men, Polyperchon and Cassander, vied for power. Polyperchon enlisted Olympias’ help in the hope that her illustrious ties to the throne would benefit him. They launched a joint attack on Cassander but his forces were too powerful and Olympias was eventually forced to surrender. She was convicted by the Macedonian Assembly and later murdered by the relatives of those she had killed.
Olympias is presented by ancient sources as a woman who harboured great hatreds and passions. Emphasis is also put on her devotion to the cult of Dionysus, known for its wild, ecstatic rituals. It is difficult to know whether she was driven by desperation or ruthlessness. But she was certainly unique in her ability to stand toe to toe with the most powerful men of her time.
7. Lysimache: Priestess of Athens
Most ancient Greek women were restricted from public life. But there was one important exception to this – priestesses. The most highly regarded priestess in Athens was the priestess of Athena Polias, the goddess of the Acropolis. Unusually, married women could hold this religious post and it was a job for life. One of the most well-known priestesses of Athena Polias was Lysimache.
Lysimache lived to the age of 88 and raised four generations of children in her family. This is extraordinary in itself given the low life expectancy of the time. Pliny the Elder tells us that she held her position as priestess for an incredible 64 years. He also says that the city of Athens honored her service with a portrait statue by the sculptor Demetrios. This was an exceptional privilege to be granted to a woman.
Some scholars believe that the playwright Aristophanes based his character Lysistrata, in his play of the same name, on Lysimache. Lysistrata appears in a comedic play, yet she is a serious and pragmatic character. This was unusual for Aristophanes but wholly appropriate for a character based on a respectable Athenian priestess. Lysistrata is also presented as the idealized Greek woman. She takes charge of the weaving of cloth and organizes the women in the play as a woman would in her household.
Whether this was a true reflection of Lysimache herself, we will perhaps never know. But this fascinating Athenian lady stands as a rare example of a woman who held a prestigious position in society. This society also belonged to the most powerful city state in ancient Greece in the 5th century BC.
What Can We Learn from These Fascinating Ancient Greek Women?
The details from the lives of these seven extraordinary women offer us valuable insight into the experiences of women in ancient Greece. We can ascertain information about the roles of female leaders from different parts of Greece and how they asserted and maintained their control. We can also learn something about the role that women played in religious life. Some, such as Sappho and Anyte, can even speak to us through their own words. However, it is also important to note that the ancient Greek women presented here largely represent those from the elite sections of society. Sadly, the voice of the working woman or even the head of an average Greek oikos is mostly absent from the evidence which survives today.