Out of the Gynaeceum: A New Look at Ancient Greek Society

Eternal minors?

By Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet and Marie-Laure Sronek.

Pyxis à figures rouges

Fig. 1: Red-figure pyxis, Wedding Painter, circa 470-460 B.C., Athens, Musée du Louvre, Inv. L 55 (N 3348).  Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) Photo: Tony Querrec

Free women in ancient Greece are far too often thought of as eternal minors, placed under the guardianship of, first, their father and, later, their husband or even a son, uncle, or nephew. Girls, it is said, unlike boys, were never able to take on the full social responsibility that would define them as adults. On this reading, marriage signals their sexual and legal subordination. The stereotyped scene of a bride being led, head bowed, toward her husband’s house is a recurrent motif on painted ceramics. But upon marrying, a woman did not give up her name (either her personal name or her patronym) nor did she cut ties with her birth family. However, she did give her body and the resources transmitted to her by her original family over to her husband; her inherited property was entrusted to her husband as a dowry and transmitted to her children upon her death. Her husband became her “guardian” (kurios), in the sense that he assisted, accompanied, or represented her in institutions from which women were excluded (political assemblies, courts). Such “guardianship,” however, did not prevent women from testifying in court. Thus, Agariste, wife of Alcmeonides, denounced three citizens before the Council in 415, and in 399, Andocides summoned her to appear before the court (1). Sometimes, a kurios intervened only in order to ratify a legal procedure after all the steps, from negotiation to final decision, had already been completed without his participation: thus, Nikarate herself intervened in Orchomenes, in Boeotia, to seek repayment for a loan she had made. Her husband, presented to the court as her kurios, only intervened during the final procedure, when acknowledgement of the debt was recorded (2). Ultimately, the “guardianship” of women was primarily practiced in contexts involving the city’s public authorities—what we would call its administration. A kurios did not really act in a woman’s name; rather, by his mere presence, he attested to the validity of the information she gave.

(1) Andocides, De mysteriis I, 16.
(2) Léopold Migeotte, “Affairisme féminin à la haute époque hellénistique?”  (1999), in Économie et finances publiques des cités grecques, vol. 1, 2010, p. 91-100.

Women Landowners 

An inscription found at Tenos in the Cyclades from the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. publicly lists the land sales contracts concluded between landowners on the island during a period of over a year. Of the 47 deeds listed, 30 involve women (as either buyers or sellers), and women are represented in 5 of the 8 highest value transactions. As landowners, women always appear in connection with a kurios (guardian) whose presence, though obligatory, does not in any way impact the transactions women made. Thus, we read: “Aglais, daughter of Ainetos (?), from the city, having as her tutor (ἧς κύριος) Isodemos, son of Isodemos of the Donakeus, purchased (πρίατο) from Dion, son of Stratios, from the city, the house and lands located at Panormos and known as “in Melia,” neighboring (οἷς γείτονες) Petale and Bacchion, and the parcels of land that border these lands, for the sum of 700 drachmas. Guarantors (πρατὴρ) of the sale: Hegeleos, son of Telestratos of the Thryesios” (1).

(1) Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet, “Women and the Economic History of the Ancient Greek World: Still a Challenge for Gender Studies,” in The Role of Women in Work and Society in the Ancient Near East, ed. B. Lion and C. Michel, Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records, Volume 13, Boston-Berlin, De Gruyter, 2016, p. 543-563, for references, see: https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-01387030.
Dessin d'une hydrie de Vicenza

Fig. 2: Drawing of a hydria from Vicenza, by Jean Bernal in François Lissarrague, “Femmes au figuré,” in Pauline Schmitt Pantel, ed., Histoire des femmes en Occident. Vol. 1. L'Antiquité, Paris, Plon, 1991, p. 159-251.

Women at Work

 According to literary sources, the first form of work to have existed in ancient Athens was performed within the household and involved overseeing slaves, preparing meals, educating children, and the general upkeep of the oikos. But Athenian women—not just metics and slaves—did sometimes, when their family’s economic standing justified it, perform paid professional work in order to provide for their basic needs. There were two types of such work: either women produced goods within the home (bread, clothing, cakes, etc.) and then sold them at the agora (market), or they did work that was independent of their oikos. In the latter case, the scope of women’s activities was quite broad, and included craftwork (women were rope-makers as well as smiths and painters, as the image of a woman decorating a vase shows) as well as “service work” (they were nurses, laundrywomen, brothel house madams, and cabaret managers). The autonomy that such work gave them must be emphasized. Some women derived so much pride from their work that they included their profession in the inscriptions engraved on objects they dedicated to the gods. In such cases, women led lives outside the oikos and came into contact with men other than their husbands—either at the agora, where men and women vendors were not kept physically separate, or in their own shops.