Greece and Rome
The position of women in antiquity varies from era to era, so this is by way of an attempt to map some of the issues.
There is no single situation for women in Greece or Rome. Everything depends on time, location and status. There was no ‘Greece’ throughout the historical period, so what might be normal in Athens might be utterly different fifty miles away in Thebes. Certainly Spartan women and Athenian women would have looked askance at each other.
In Bronze-Age inscriptions from Mycenae, it can be noted that women’s food allocation was 40% that of men, which suggests at the very least different types of work. Related inscriptions show jobs such as cooking, clearing and making clothes were allocated to women, so little has really changed over time.
Homer uses the epithet ‘white armed’ to described women of superior status, and women on pots are often depicted in white alongside tanned men, suggesting that status for women was tied to indoor activity and men were usually outside in the hot sun. Fashionable suntans were only invented in the 1920s, and before that any woman with a tanned would be assumed to undertake low-level agricultural work. Certainly Victorian women did all they could to seem ‘pale and interesting’.
Research has shown that the average age at death for a Greek women of the early period was 36, men at 44.
In early Greek literature, women are depicted as having a different status and role to men, but not one that is wholly subservient. It should always be remembered that no women in antiquity had ever come upon a better life than that lived in her own society, so it is wrong to import modern ideas of female equality, many of which do not predate 1970.
The first limitation in trying to read women’s status from surviving literature is that we do not have all the literature nor all the authors. The second is that literature is not life. The third is that that many female figures in myth are queens, princesses or their close female servants. Elite status confers many privileges, as do family connections and close contact.
It has been suggested that royal inheritance may have passed down the female line (as it did in many other societies). This is not the same thing as matriarchy. In many myths, the hero marries the king’s daughter and becomes the next king (e.g. Perseus, Oedipus, Jason). This is not about favouring daughters over sons, but rather a way of guaranteeing the next king is adult, kin, battle-hardened and worthy, as well as establishing close ties to other Greek states.
Most of our Greek literature is from Athens, and while Athenian authors wrote about kings, they lived in a republic, having expelled their last king in 753, around the time that Homer was writing. So they could write all they liked in myth about queens and it is hard to demonstrate that you can read anything from myth about women.
The position of women in fifth century BC Athens is notorious. Under the Citizenship Law of Pericles (451BC), women do not have citizenship in their own right, but only as a residual of having had a father who was an Athenian citizen. A (male) Athenian had to have an Athenian citizen father and a mother who was the legitimate daughter of one. Under laws introduced by Solon in the 6th century BC, an Athenian citizen woman would generally stay at home, and leave outdoor work to a non-citizen (metic) servant or slave. She would live in women’s quarters in the house, and it was considered impolite to speak her name in public. This seems very odd to us, but would have been normal to Athenian women. In Sparta, by contrast, citizen women raised matters in public debates, raised the children and ran the state when the men were at war.
There are many interpretations as to why such laws were introduced, and presumably they mainly codified what was already normal practice. The current consensus is that they were nor fuelled by antagonism towards women, but more to do with protecting and respecting them. But a consensus can change.
It has been noted too that while there are nine known women poets in early Greek antiquity (as well as many women teachers), not one of them was from Athens.
My guess is that Athens became part of the culture of Ionia, the confederation of cities bordering onto the Aegean Sea, the rest of which are in Asia Minor or eastern islands. The culture of the east may have become a strong influence on Athens.
Another possibility is maintaining property within the kin-group. Men who had daughters but no sons might have the daughter inherit, but the nearest male family member then had to marry her. Oedipus marrying Jocasta might be indicative of that.
Many of the women in the myths are not only queens and princesses, they are also foreigners. Medea, Phaedra and several other figures are of course not Greek at all, so how they behave is understood in that context.
Is it possible to read from the myth to a historical reality at any time? Possibly not.
It must be remembered that Roman women (or at least those we can sensibly say much about) date from a much later time. Rather than the sixth or fifth centuries BC, we are talking mainly about the second century BC onwards.
The very distinctive feature of Roman women is that they don’t have their own names, which may seem bizarre to us. Their name, such as it was, was the female form of their father’s family name, so Gaius Julius Caesar might have a daughter Julia. Two sisters at home might be termed Julia Senior and Julia Junior, three or more might be Julia Prima, Secunda, Tertia, and so on.
It seems odd to us, but the stress is on the daughter as a member of a clan which might be powerful and influential; women usually remained a member of their clan (gens) for life, never joining that of their husband.
Sons didn’t do much better; while they had personal names, there were only fourteen pre-names (praenomina) and many of those (Tertius, Quintus, Sextus, etc.) are only numbers anyway.
Women never had a vote in Roman elections, but by the time of Augustus those had largely ceased anyway. This did not mean that women lacked power and influence.
Roman women were not kept secluded, but they did have a certain requirement, known as tutela. This was a lifelong legal standing which put them under the tutelage of their father, then another kin member and then maybe a brother or son. There was no requirement of the tutor to do any specific thing. A citizen woman who had borne two children which had lived up to the age of one year was freed forever from tutela (if a patrician; plebeians must have had four), suggesting an incentive to beat Roman low birth rates. Ex-Vestals were excused tutela, but they were hardly commonplace.
Roman women had complete freedom of movement, lived their own lives, ran businesses, operated as capitalists, invested in imperial schemes, such as one of Claudius to fund trading ships. They were often involved in traditionally female activities as nurses, weavers, cooks, etc., but were also able to work as full doctors, teachers and a number of other professions.
We know of four Roman women writers, all in the AD period, although one, Proba, wrote centos, poems made up of lines from other poems. Women painters may have been more commonplace as Pliny the Elder provides a list of them (§147-8, p.336), including the famous and successful Ialia in the later republic, whose paintings fetched large sums.
The lot of most women was to marry, which they did at a relatively early age; since their husband had to be independent, so he might be twenty years older than her. Military and provincial affairs might take him far away, so we can imagine the difficulty of a teenage wife trying to supervise a farming estate.
Divorce was always possible in normal marriage and women could instigate it. A divorced woman received her dowry back with interest. Remarriage was straightforward – Rome generally considered marriage a private matter.
The exception to that was the aristocracy, in a form of marriage called manus (literally ‘the hand’), which was restricted to patricians, the oldest clans. A special ritual confarreatio involved sharing a cake made of spelt wheat. This usually prohibited divorce, since this was the same cake used in religious rituals. The vast majority married sine manu, without the hand, and this was a legal but private matter. Many just lived together.
Gardner, JF (1987) Women in Roman Law and Society, London: Routledge.
Pomeroy, S.B. (1994) Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, London: Pimlico.