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Property, Social Freedom, and Athenian Women

Athenian women1 exercised power and earned status both in private life and public, through their roles in the family and religion respectively. Their absence from politics, however, meant that their contributions to the city-state might well be overlooked by men. One heroine in a fragmentary tragedy by Euripides, Melanippe, vigorously expresses this judgment in a famous speech denouncing men who denigrate women: “Empty is the slanderous blame men place on women; it is no more than the twanging of a bowstring without an arrow; women are better than men, and I will prove it: women make agreements without having to have witnesses to guarantee their honesty ... Women manage the household and preserve its valuable property. Without a wife, no household is clean or happily prosperous. And in matters pertaining to the gods—this is our most important contribution—we have the greatest share. In the oracle at Delphi2 we propound the will of Apollo, and at the oracle of Zeus at Dodona3 we reveal the will of Zeus to any Greek who wishes to know it.” Euripides portrays his heroine Medea4 as insisting that women who bear children are due respect at least commensurate with that granted men who fight as hoplites: “People say that we women lead a safe life at home, while men have to go to war. What fools they are! I would much rather fight in the phalanx three times than give birth to a child only once.”

Women's Responsibilities and Property Rights

Athenian women5 contributed to the public life of the polis by acting as priestesses and participating as priestesses6 and participating as worshippers in religious rites and festivals7. Their private responsibilities included, above all, bearing and raising legitimate children, the future citizens of the city-state, and serving as managers of the family's property in the home, including household slaves8, and its supplies. These aspects of their private lives obviously had bearing on the public life of the community as well, for it could not continue without a constant supply of new citizens and management of the goods and labor that helped sustain them. Women's property rights in classical Athens reflected both the importance of the control of property by women as well as the predisposition of Athenian society to promote the formation and preservation of households headed by property-owning men. Under Athenian democracy, women could control property, even land—the most valued possession in their society—through inheritance and dowry9, although more legal restrictions were imposed on their ability to dispose of property freely than on that of men.

Inheritance and Dowry

Athenian men and women were supposed to preserve their property as best they could so that it could be handed down to their children. Parents who spent all of their cash and disposed of their other property for their own personal pleasure without due regard for the ultimate consequences for their offspring incurred social disgrace. Daughters did not inherit a portion of their father's property if there were any living sons, but demographic patterns meant that perhaps one household in five had only daughters, to whom the father's property then fell. Women could also inherit from other male relatives who had no male offspring. A woman's regular share in her father's estate came to her in her dowry at marriage. A son whose father was still alive at the time of the son's marriage similarly often received a share of his inheritance at that time to allow him to set up a household. A bride's husband had legal control over the property in his wife's dowry10, and their respective holdings freqently became commingled. In this sense husband and wife were co-owners of the household's common property, which only had to be alloted between its separate owners if the marriage was dissolved11. The husband was legally responsible for preserving the dowry and using it for the support and comfort of his wife and her children. A man often had to put up valuable land of his own as collateral to guarantee the safety of his wife's dowry. Upon her death, the dowry became the inheritance of her children. The expectation that a woman would have a dowry tended to encourage marriage within groups of similar wealth and status. As with the rules governing women's rights to inheritances, customary dowry arrangements supported the society's goal of enabling males to establish and maintain households because daughters' dowries were usually smaller in value than their brothers' inheritances and therefore kept the bulk of a father's property attached to his sons.


Like the rules concerning inheritance and dowry, Athenian law concerning heiresses12 also supported the goal of providing resources to enable as many male citizens as possible to form households. Under Athenian law, if a father died leaving only a daughter to survive him, his property devolved upon her as his heiress, but she did not own it in the modern sense of being able to dispose of it as she pleased. Instead, the law (in the simplest case) required her father's closest male relative —her official guardian after her father's death—to marry her himself, with the aim of producing a son. The inherited property then belonged to that son when he reached adulthood. This rule theoretically applied regardless of whether the heiress was already married (without any sons) or whether the male relative already had a wife. The heiress and the male relative were both supposed to divorce their present spouses and marry each other, although in practice the rule could be circumvented by legal subterfuge. This rule about heiresses preserved the father's line and kept the property in his family, prevented rich men from getting richer by engineering deals with wealthy heiresses' guardians to marry them and therefore merge their estates, and, above all, prevented property from piling up in the hands of unmarried women. At Sparta, Aristotle reported13, precisely this kind of agglomeration of wealth took place as women inherited land or received it in their dowries without—to Aristotle's way of thinking—adequate regulations promoting remarriage. He claimed that women in this way had come to own forty percent of Spartan territory. The law at Athens was more successful at regulating women's control over property in the interests of forming households headed by property-owning men.

Women's Lives at Home and at Work

The character Medea's comment in Euripides' play14 named after her that women15 were said to lead a safe life at home reflected the expectation in Athenian society that women from the propertied class would avoid frequent or close contact with men who were not members of their own family or its circle of friends. Women of this socio-economic level were therefore supposed to spend much of their time in their own home or the home of women friends16. There, women dressed and slept inrooms set aside for them17, but these rooms usually opened onto a walled courtyard where the women could walk in the open air, talk, supervise the domestic chores of the family's slaves18, and interact with other members of the household19 male and female. Here, in their territory as it were, women would spin wool20 for clothing while chatting with women friends who had come to visit, play with their children21, and give their opinions on various matters to the men of the house as they came and went. Poor women had little time for such activities because they, like their husbands, sons, and brothers, had to leave their homes, often only a crowded rental apartment, to find work. They often set up small stalls22 to sell bread, vegetables, simple clothing, or trinkets. Their husbands and sons sought jobs as laborers in workshops or foundries or on construction projects.23.

Restrictions on the Lives of Upper-Class Women

Upper-class women were supposed to observe standards of decorum24 that restricted her freedom of movement in public life and her contact with men outside her family. A woman rich enough to have servants in her home who answered the door herself would be reproached as careless of her reputation. So, too, a proper woman would go out of her home only for an appropriate reason. Fortunately, there were many such occasions: religious festivals25, funerals26, childbirths at the houses of relatives and friends27, and trips to workshops to buy shoes or other articles. Sometimes her husband would escort her, but more often she was accompanied only by a servant, which left more opportunity for independent action. Social protocol also dictated the way in which men dealt with women. For example, custom demanded that men not speak the names of women in public conversations and speeches in court unless practical necessity demanded it or the women were not socially respectable, as in the case of prostitutes. Presumably, many upper-class women valued their limited contact with men outside the household as a badge of their superior social status. In a gender-segregated society such as that of the wealthy at Athens, the primary opportunities for personal relationships in a wealthy woman's life probably came in her contact with her children and the other women with whom she spent most of her time.

Standards of Beauty

Since they stayed inside or in the shade so much28, women rich enough not to have to work maintained very pale complexions. This pallor was much admired as a sign of a enviable life of leisure and wealth, much as an even, all-over tan is valued today for the same reason. Women regularly used powdered white lead as make-up to give themselves a suitably pale look29. As depictions of women on vase paintings30, richly decorated and colorful clothing31, headbands, coiffures, and jewelry32 constituted important aspects of a woman's beauty as well.

Paternity and Women's Social Standing

The social restrictions on women's freedom of movement served men's goal of avoiding uncertainty about the paternity of children33 by limiting oppportunities for adultery among wives and protecting the virginity of daughters. Given the importance attached to citizenship as the defining political structure of the city-state and of a man's personal freedom, it was crucially important to be certain a boy truly was his father's son and not the offspring of some other man, who could conceivably even be a foreigner or a slave. Furthermore, the preference for keeping property in the father's line could be maintained only if the boys who inherited a father's property were his legitimate sons. In this patriarchal system, the value attached to citizenship for men and its accompanying rights to property therefore led to restrictions on women's freedom of movement in society. Women who did bear legitimate children, however, immediately earned a higher social standing and greater freedom in the family, as explained, for example, by an Athenian man in this excerpt from his remarks before a court34 in a case in which he had killed an adulterer whom he had caught with his wife: “After my marriage, I initially refrained from bothering my wife very much, but neither did I allow her too much independence. I kept an eye on her.... But after she had a baby, I started to trust her more and put her in charge of all my things, believing we now had the closest of relationships.”

The Value of Sons

Bearing male children brought special honor to a woman because sons meant security for parents. They could appear in court in support of their parents in lawsuits and protect them in the streets of the city, which had no regular police patrols. By law, sons were required to support their parents35 in their old age, a necessity in a society with no state-sponsored system for the support of the elderly like Social Security in the United States. So intense was the pressure to produce sons that stories were common of barren women who smuggled in a baby born to a slave in order to pass it off as their own. Such tales, whose truth is hard to gauge, were only credible because husbands customarily were not present at childbirth.

Prostitutes and “Companions”

Athenian men, unlike women, had opportunities for heterosexual sex outside marriage that carried no penalties. “Certainly you don't think men beget children out of sexual desire?”, wrote an Athenian man36. “The streets and the brothels are swarming with ways to take care of that.” Besides sex with female slaves, who could not refuse their masters, men could choose among various classes of prostitutes37, depending on how much money they had to spend. A man could not keep a prostitute in the same house as his wife without causing trouble, but otherwise he incurred no disgrace by paying for sex with a woman. The most expensive female prostitutes the Greeks called “companions”.38 Usually from another city-state than the one in which they worked, “companions” supplemented their physical attractiveness with the ability to sing and play musical instruments at mens' dinner parties (which wives never attended). Many “companions” lived precarious lives subject to exploitation or even violence at the hands of their male customers. The most accomplished “companions,” however, could attract lovers from the highest levels of society and become sufficiently rich to live in luxury on their own. This independent existence strongly distinguished them from citizen women, as did the freedom to control their own sexuality.

“Companions” and Freedom of Speech with Men

The cultivated ability of “companions” to converse with men in public was as distinctive as their erotic skills. Like the geisha of Japan, “companions” entertained men especially with their witty, bantering conversation. Indeed, “companions,” with their characteristic skill at clever taunts and verbal snubs, enjoyed a freedom of speech in conversing with men that was denied proper women. Only very rich citizen women of advanced years, such as Elpinike the sister of Cimon,39 could occasionally enjoy a similar freedom of expression. She, for example, once publicly rebuked Pericles for having boasted about the Athenian conquest of Samos after its rebellion.40 When other Athenian women were praising Pericles for his success, Elpinike sarcastically remarked, “This really is wonderful, Pericles, ... that you have caused the loss of many good citizens, not in battle against Phoenicians or Persians, like my brother Cimon, but in suppressing an allied city of fellow Greeks.”

1 References to women, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for woman (women), Women on vases, Women in sculpture

2 Delphi [Site], TRM OV 5.12

3 Dodona [Site], References to Dodona, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Dodona

4 Eur. Med. 248-251

5 References to women, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for woman (women), Women on Vases, Women in sculpture

6 Thuc. 2.2.1, Thuc. 4.133.2

7 Aristoph. Thes. 295

8 Servants on vases, Slaves depicted on vases

'living tools'- Aristot. Pol. 1.1253b 32, Hes. WD 406, Aristot. Pol. 1.1255b 20, Dem. 24.167, Other references to slaves

9 Lys. 32.6, Isaeus 2.9, Dem. 45.28

10 Lys. 32.6, Isaeus 2.9, Dem. 45.28

11 Isaeus 3.35, Dem. 59.52

12 Isaeus 3.64

13 Aristot. Pol. 2.1270a

14 Eur. Med. 249

15 References to women, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for woman (women), Women on vases, Women in sculpture

16 Dem. 55.23-24

17 Lys. 3.6


Berlin inv. 31426 [Vase], Xen. Ec. 7.35



Hom. Od. 1.356

21 London E 219 [Vase]

22 Aristoph. Lys. 457, Olynthus, House A iv 9 [Building], Olynthus, House A v 10 [Building]

23 Potters on vases, Berlin F 2294 [Vase]

24 Eur. El. 341

25 Women pouring libations

Aristoph. Thes. 295

26 Isaeus 8.21-22

27 Dem. 55.23

28 Xen. Ec. 7.22, Xen. Ec. 7.35


Aristoph. Eccl. 878, Xen. Ec. 10.2

30 Boston 01.8022 [Vase]

Malibu 86.AE.293 [Vase]

31 Clothes and jewelry on vases


33 Aesch. Eum. 658

34 Lys. 1.6

35 Xen. Mem. 2.2.13, Isaeus 8.32, Dem. 24.103

36 Xen. Mem. 2.2.4

37 Antiph. 1.14, Dem. 59.18

38 Greek dictionary entry for hetaira/os, References to hetaira

Other hetairai on Vases, Plut. Per. 24.2, Hdt. 2.134.1

39 Plut. Cim. 4.5, Plut. Cim. 14.4, Plut. Per. 10.5

40 Plut. Per. 28.4

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