Roles Of Women In Ancient Greece

Everything that we know about women in antiquity is almost all derived from masculine thought. Much of classical literature has models of patriotism, freedom and right government, and such literature was commonly studied in the early 19th century in Europe and early America. Almost all of modern western civilization developed its morals and ideals from the preachings of Aristotle and Plato, and their views are often considered in discussions of women in ancient Greece. Because most of the successive political and social structures of the Greek city-state were, more or less, formulated between the Archaic Period and the Classical Period (750 - ~350 BC), I will focus the majority of this paper here. This is mainly due to the fact that, after the end of the Peloponnesian War and later Roman occupation of the known world, the Hellenistic Period saw a normalization of ancient Greek culture. From this era there are various sources of ‘media’ from political, socio-economic and cultural views that we can derive a general understanding of a woman’s position in these respects, as well as determining weather exactly women in the ancient Greek world were reviled or revered, or possibly a crude combination of both.

The primary roles of women in Classical Greece mostly pirouetted around domestic settings and activities; they were often seen weaving or sewing in pottery vases and other art from antiquity. Their day-to-day lives were very much different from that of Greek men who were either at war or at work. It was very occasional that women were allowed to leave the household, and they almost always required the presence of a male guardian to ‘run an errand’. Generally, women in ancient Greece were submissively entitled to a caretaker position of the household – it was expected of them to not only bare legitimate children for a man but also take care of said children, as well as looking after slaves if they had any. The laws that repressed women into these rudimentary roles were designed by Solon (c. 640 - c. 560 BC), an Athenian statesman and lawmaker who is often credited with developing the Athenian “boy’s club” democracy. In the rare circumstance that a woman did work outside of her home, it was likely only for religious purposes. It was commonplace for a free woman to devote herself to a goddess, undertaking the role of a religious priestess. Despite Solon’s attempt to police women’s public activity and reputation, women were avid participants in Athenian religious activities such as festivals and cults. The Thesmophoria, a three to five-day festival dedicated to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and fertility, and her daughter Persephone, was actually restricted to free women whom seemed to be married. This annual event was extremely fascinating in terms of the status of women in Athens due to the mythological, and mystical, sacredness held between women and procreation.

On the topic of Greek mythology, mythological stories, accounted most notably to us in Hesiod’s Theogony, are a key component in understanding the patriarchal nature of ancient Greek societies. It is expected that Hesiod was writing around 700 BC but, in the mythological context, this is long after the original epic poems and hymns of the Archaic Period. Lyrics from poems and songs undoubtedly worked to convey information about the numerous gods, as well as important aspects of human life. Myth that involved Zeus and Hera, specifically ones concerning Zeus’ various affairs with humans and even animals, can be loosely paralleled with the thoughts and activities of Greek men when compared to those of women. Mythical stories were often performed at several events that required religious presence such as festivals and weddings, helping to form a large fragment of the cultural apparatus of ancient Greek communities. It wasn’t until around 750 BC when a system of writing was developed, where some of these poems could be written down. Subsequently, it wasn’t until the late sixth century BC when Athenian verse dramatics got its start and where epic poems provided a considerable amount of material for comic and tragedian playwrights alike.

The only dramatic texts to have survived from the Greek Old Comedy era are a handful, if that, of Aristophanes many plays. During his career and for almost every dramatic act, women were not allowed to perform in plays. This meant that female characters were played by absurdly crossdressed men wearing bodysuits in an attempt to portray feminine attributes. For example, actors not only had to wear masks, wooden ‘bras’ made to look like breasts were worn by the male actors that assumed female parts in a play. Throughout his remaining plays, Aristophanes consistently utilizes ‘womanly’ characteristics and activities to formulate many jokes. Most notable for its content, and hilarity, concerning female sexuality and its apparently immense power over ancient Greek men, Lysistrata (411 BC) is actually an important resource considering a modern understanding of how women and their sexuality functioned in ancient Greek society. The portrayal of a woman as the primary character in this play, almost single-handedly driving the action, was an entirely new and bold concept. Thus, it was likely that this particular view of women, in the context of ancient Greece, would have shocked the audience in reception.

Another Aristophanic play that remains intact is Thesmophoriazusae, which happens to have been produced in the same year as Lysistrata at a different festival. This play is particularly unique in the sense that Aristophanes plays with the reversal of sexual stereotypes, having the supporting character, Mnesilochus, disguise himself as women in order to infiltrate the Thesmophoria. Aristophanes portrays the sacred festival as a sort of council of women that discuss their disgust for the misogynistic tragedian Euripides, a theatrical rival of Aristophanes’, to further enforce the role reversal. The underlying theme of the play points out how both tragic and comic poets in Classical Athens would reinforce sexual stereotyping, specifically the irrationality of women that Classical literature depicted.

Female sexuality was generally viewed with negative connotations, being forced to repress sexual desires, unlike Greek men. The primary role a woman took in a marriage was to produce children for the man; the idea of wives having sexual thoughts was frowned upon and disregarded. It is clear that women were necessary to produce legitimate polis citizens, but were also regarded as strange and dangerous. This is in stark contrast to the men of ancient Greece, who were seemingly allowed, by law, to act on their sexual desires when they wanted, even in extramarital circumstances, if their wives could not appease them. Ancient Athenian comic drama offers its audience relief and reassurance because it is a genre rooted in the light-hearted atmosphere generated from religious rites of renewal, when restraints are removed, roles reversed and figures of authority mocked, just as Dionysus himself would have it. Through his political and social messages accompanied by the obscene crossdressing and stereotyping, it is difficult to determine whether Aristophanes’ plays were to be taken seriously. But, since the female voice was almost never regarded in Athens, Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae were contextually groundbreaking; Aristophanes, having written plays based (loosely) around women freely expressing their sexuality, created absurdly satirical comic episodes that could have appealed to the Classical audience for this reason.

10 October 2020
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