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Women in Greek and Hellenistic Society
The status of women in ancient Greece varied form city state to city state. Records exist of women in ancient Delphi, Gortyn, Thessaly, Megara and Sparta owning land, the most prestigious form of private property at the time.
Women in Athens
In ancient Athens, women had no legal personhood and were assumed to be part of the oikos (household) headed by the male kyrios. Until marriage, women were under the guardianship of their father or other male relative, once married the husband became a woman’s kyrios. As women were barred from conducting legal proceedings, the kyrios would do so on their behalf. Athenian women had limited right to property and therefore were not considered full citizens, as citizenship and the entitlement to civil and political rights was defined in relation to property and the means to life. However, women could acquire rights over property through gifts, dowry and inheritance, though her kyrios had the right to dispose of a woman’s property. Athenian women could enter into a contract worth less than the value of a “medimnos of barley” (a measure of grain), allowing women to engage in petty trading. Slaves, like women, were not eligible for full citizenship in ancient Athens, though in rare circumstances they could become citizens if freed. The only permanent barrier to citizenship, and hence full political and civil rights, in ancient Athens was gender. No women ever acquired citizenship in ancient Athens, and therefore women were excluded in principle and practice from ancient Athenian democracy.
Women in Sparta
Women in ancient Sparta were famous for their independence relative to that of other Greek women. In contrast to Athens, in Spartan society girls were reared much like boys, including physical fitness training.
Sparta’s reputation for “exposing” their children at birth, due to a number of physical defects (eugenics), and their emphasis on rearing children, particularly boys, with a focus on war has led many to believe that their society was harshly patriarchal. However, much of the ancient world observed Sparta with great confusion due to their perceived leniency when governing their female population.
This leniency is only in relation to the foreign male authors of the time and historians would be quick to ignore it if not for the absence of Spartan texts on the subject. Sparta seems to have purposely not recorded its history, and given that men of the time were disinclined to observe women, particularly those they thought of as acting above their position, readers must rely on what little information they have pertaining to the women of Sparta.
“Aristotle writes: ‘during the period of their (The Spartans’) empire, many things were administered by the women. Yet what is the difference between having rulers who are ruled by women and an actual government of women?’”
Sparta is seen as an oligarchy, despite also being viewed at times as a diarchy. However, Sparta’s two kings, one taken from each of the royal lines, did not exercise the most control over the community’s decisions. There was also a council of elders known as the gerousia who were well respected during the public assembly, attended by all male Spartans. The assembly elected ephors who helped to expedite decision making in times of duress. The assembly was ultimately in control of the city-state’s policies and legislature.
Women were forbidden from speaking at the public assembly, but it is mentioned that they still held much influence in the community and often voiced their opinions about political matters, trusting their husbands to deliver their thoughts to the assembly for them. Citizenship
Although women were not allowed to attend the public assembly, they were considered Spartiates and therefore citizens of Sparta, unlike the perioikoi, free individuals surrounding Sparta but not in the community, and the helots, lifetime servants of the Spartiates.
Citizenship was awarded to those in Sparta who could trace their lineage to the original inhabitants of Sparta and who could maintain the annual fee required to pay for their share of food in the mess hall. This fee was paid through a citizen’s land profits. If this fee could not be paid, a Spartiate would be revoked of their citizenship. This also applied to women because in Sparta a woman could own land.
The dispute over how women in Sparta obtained land and from whom is largely discussed amongst historians, including those of the ancient world like Aristotle and Plutarch. Each adult male Spartiate was given a kleros when he finished agoge, Spartan public school for boys. His kleros was run and tended to by the helots who inhabited the land. Land was most commonly passed down within a family to the sons, however considering the flexibility of Spartan law; fathers were allowed to leave portions of their land to their daughters. In the cases when men had no sons, the daughters would then be heiresses and inherit the entire estate.
Upon marrying, a woman would tend both her husband’s and her own land, but her land did not become her husband’s. When a woman was widowed and she had children, the father’s land would pass to his children according to his wishes, but the wife remained in control of her own land.
Dowries also led to confusion over land ownership. Many Spartans believed that brides should be chosen for character and physical sturdiness rather than economic standing and therefore when dowries were given at marriage the wife simply gained control over the dowry. In this way women could become increasingly wealthy inheriting both from their fathers and husbands. Land transactions were also permitted as gifts.
In the household
“Someone contacted a Spartan woman to ask if she would agree to let him seduce her. She said: ‘When I was a child I learned to obey my father, and I did so; then when I became a woman I obeyed my husband; so if this man is making me a proper proposal, let him put it to my husband first.they could do anything.’”
As with inheritance, the practice of marriage is not well enough documented or universal enough to declare a specific practice amongst all Spartans. However, it was a general practice that men did not marry until the age of thirty when they were done with their mandatory military service. Still, some men married in their twenties and simply crept away from the barracks at night to meet their wives. Women married later than most other Greek societies, usually in their late teens and early twenties. Often marriages were bride-captures prearranged with the father’s consent. In bride-captures, the bride was clothed in men’s sandals and cloak and her hair was cut. The groom would then carry the woman away to bed and return to his barracks before the morning.
Another practice that was mentioned by many visitors to Sparta was the practice of “wife-sharing”. In accordance with the Spartan belief that breeding should be between the most physically fit parents, many older men allowed younger more fit men to impregnate their wives. Other unmarried or childless men might even request another man’s wife to bear his children if she had previously been a strong child bearer.
For this reason many considered Spartan women polygamous or polyandrous. This practice was encouraged in order that women bear as many strong-bodied children as they could. The Spartan population was hard to maintain due to the constant absence and loss of the men in battle and the intense physical inspection of newborns.
Mothers were essentially the head of the households in Spartan society. Sons were taken from the house at age seven and put through agoge. Daughters also underwent public education, although girls stayed in their mother’s houses until they were married, around the age of eighteen, and would have developed an overwhelming bond with their mothers. Women were not expected to learn domestic duties like weaving and cleaning, as the estate’s helots would perform these tasks. Therefore, women were more preoccupied with maintaining their physical stature, bearing children, and supervising the helots who worked the land.
At any given moment the Spartan polis would have consisted of predominately women, given that half of the men were at war. When the men weren’t stationed they were preoccupied with training and remained separated from their homes leaving the women to completely dominate the household. This is why socially and politically women had a freedom within the community. Divorce
Spartan women were allowed to divorce their husbands without fear of losing their personal wealth. As equal citizens of the community, women could divorce and were not required to or discouraged from remarrying. The unique family unit of Sparta also did not force the woman to relinquish her children, as biological paternity was not important in raising the children. Boys were already taken into agoge and girls would have felt a strong connection to the mother.
Philosophers' views on women's rights
Plato acknowledged that extending civil and political rights to women would substantively alter the nature of the household and the state. Aristotle, who had been taught by Plato, denied that women were slaves or subject to property, arguing that "nature has distinguished between the female and the slave", but he considered wives to be "bought". He argued that women's main economic activity is that of safeguarding the household property created by men. According to Aristotle the labour of women added no value because "the art of household management is not identical with the art of getting wealth, for the one uses the material which the other provides".
Contrary to these views, the Stoic philosophers argued for equality of the sexes, sexual inequality being in their view contrary to the laws of nature. In doing so, they followed the Cynics, who argued that men and women should wear the same clothing and receive the same kind of education. They also saw marriage as a moral companionship between equals rather than a biological or social necessity, and practiced these views in their lives as well as their teachings. The Stoics adopted the views of the Cynics and added them to their own theories of human nature, thus putting their sexual egalitarianism on a strong philosophical basis.
Men in Greek and Hellenistic Society
During the Classical era of Ancient Greece,only the free (non-slave), native (non-foreigner) adult males citizens of the city took a major and direct part in the management of the affairs of state, such as declaring war, voting supplies, dispatching diplomatic missions and ratifying treaties. These activities were often handled by a form of direct democracy, based on a popular assembly. Others, of judicial nature, were often handled by large juries, drawn from the citizen body.
In the household
A man was the head (kyrios or "master") of the household. In this sense, he was responsible for representing the interests of his oikos to the wider polis and providing legal protection to the women and minors with whom he shared his household. Initially the kyrios of an oikos would have been the husband and father of offspring. However, when any legitimate sons reached adulthood the role of kyrios could, in many instances, be transferred from the father to the next male generation. When a son was given his portion of the inheritance, either before or after his father had died, he was said to have formed a new oikos. Therefore new oikoi were formed every generation and would continue to be perpetuated through marriage and childbirth. The complex relationship between father and son was also bound intrinsically to the transfer of family property: a legitimate son could expect to inherit the property of his father and, in return, was legally obligated to provide for his father in his old age. If a son failed to care for his parents he could be prosecuted and a conviction would result in the loss of his citizen rights. However, fathers could also be prosecuted by their sons for maltreatment if they prostituted them or failed to provide them with a techne. Furthermore, the heir to an inheritance would also be required to perform burial rites at the deceased's funeral and continue to provide annual commemorative rites. This would have been an extremely important consideration for the Athenians, who were notoriously pious.
Male children were favored for many reasons. They perpetuated the family and family cult, cared for parents in old age and arranged a proper funeral for deceased parents. In addition sons could inherit their mothers' dowry. Boys were raised in the female quarters until about the age of six, when they were educated in schools, but girls remained under the close supervision of their mothers until they married. They rarely went out of the women's section of the house and were taught domestic skills at home, though they did attend some religious festivals. In Sparta boys were removed from their families at the age of seven to be reared by the state.
In order to continue the family it was possible for a man to adopt a son, although the adopted son did not have as many rights of inheritance as a son by birth. It was usually a method of providing a man with an heir. By the 4th century BCE in Athens, adoption could be inter vivos (adoptive father and adopted son both alive), or a son could be adopted after a man's death through a will, or assigned to the family after his death if none was mentioned in a will and there was no heir.
There were a number of reasons for which men often carefully guarded the faithfulness of their wives. Illegitimate children were deprived of many rights in most Greek city-states; should a man's heirs' legitimacy be questioned on grounds of his mother's chastity, his family could end. Illegitimate children could also be a considerable economic drain on their family, while giving little back. Marriage was arranged by the bride's father, and many men did not have a close relationship with their betrothed before the marriage.