Greek Women in the Archaic Age

Understanding the Lives of Ancient Greek Women

The Oxford Bust, an ancient sculpture of Sappho

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Evidence About Greek Women in the Archaic Age

As with most areas of ancient history, we can only generalize from limited available material about the place of women in Archaic Greece. Most evidence is literary, coming from men, who naturally didn't know what it was like to live as a woman. Some of the poets, notably Hesiod and Semonides, appear to be misogynist, seeing the role of woman in the world as little more than a cursed man would be well off without. Evidence from drama and epic frequently presents a stark contrast. Painters and sculptors also portray women in a friendlier manner, while epitaphs show women as much-loved partners and mothers.

In Homeric society, the goddesses were just as powerful and important as the gods. Could the poets have envisioned strong-willed and aggressive women if there were none in real life?

Hesiod on Women in Ancient Greece

Hesiod, shortly after Homer, saw women as a curse sprung from the first female whom we call Pandora. Her name means "all gifts," and she was a "gift" to man from an angry Zeus, crafted in Hephaestus' forge and cultivated by Athena. Thus, Pandora was not only never born, but her two parents, Hephaestus and Athena, had never been conceived by sexual union. Pandora (hence, woman) was unnatural.

Famous Greek Women in the Archaic Age

From Hesiod until the Persian War (which marked the end of the Archaic Age), only a few women's exploits were recorded. Best known is the poet and teacher from Lesbos, Sappho. Corinna of Tanagra is thought to have defeated the great Pindar in verse competition five times. When the husband of Artemisia of Halicarnassus died, she assumed his place as a tyrant and joined the expedition of the Persians led by Xerxes against Greece. A bounty was offered by the Greeks for her head.

Archaic Age Women in Ancient Athens

Most of the evidence about women in this time comes from Athens, like the influential Aspasia in the time of Pericles. Women were needed to help run the oikos "home" where she would cook, spin, weave, manage servants and raise the children. Chores, like fetching water and going to market, were done by a servant if the family could afford it. Higher class women were expected to have a chaperone accompany them when they left the house. Among the middle class, at least in Athens, women were a liability.

Occupations of Archaic Age Greek Women

Priestesses and prostitutes were exceptions to the generally low status of Archaic Age Greek women. Some wielded significant power. Indeed, the most influential Greek person of either sex was probably the priestess of Apollo at Delphi. Spartan women may have owned property, and some inscriptions show that Greek tradeswomen operated stalls and laundries.

Marriage and Family Roles in Archaic Greece

If a family had a daughter, they needed to raise a substantial sum to pay the dowry to her husband. If there was no son, the daughter passed her father's inheritance to her spouse, for which reason she would be married to a close male relative like a cousin or uncle. Normally, she was married a few years after puberty to a man much older than herself.

Main Source

Frank J. Frost's Greek Society (Fifth Edition).