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


By Romain Guicharrouse and Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet

Stèle de Phainippos et Mnésarétè

Fig. 1: Stele of Phainippos and Mnesarete, circa 350 B.C., Athens. Marble H: 1.47m/L: .91m/D .17m. Entry number: MNB 1751 (n° usuel Ma 767) Purchased 1879. Musée du Louvre. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski.

Athenaioi: historians often translate this word, which has the Greek masculine plural ending, as “Athenian men” (by using the masculine plural form, for example, “les Athéniens” in French) or use the expression “(male) citizens of Athens.” But the Greek contexts in which the term Athenaioi appears reveal that quite often it refers to the free men and women who live in the city-state. The use of the masculine-neuter grammatical gender, which erases the presence of women, to translate this term, has thus given rise to the impression that for the Greeks, the community of the city-state (the polis), the political community, included only men. In addition, our contemporary concept of citizenship was constructed in the modern era in a revolutionary context largely inspired by the theoretical and political texts of Greek philosophers, historians, and moralists (such as Aristotle, Thucydides, Plutarch). In their writings, these men paid little attention to women, and when they did, it was usually to magnify the roles they were expected to play in helping their husbands and sons dedicate themselves to protecting the fatherland.

It took the work of 20th century women scholars for the question of free women’s participation in the public life of city-states to be raised (1). Two conclusions emerged:

In ancient Greece, citizenship was based on participation, and all forms of action in community life existed on the same level—including participation in religious life.

Free women, born to and recognized as daughters of a family of citizens, were referred to as (female) Athenians, (female) citizens (sing.: politis, pl. politides) and were subject to the same behavioral imperatives as male citizens: i.e., they were expected to respect the norms of the city-state. Of course, their exclusion from participation in elections and political assemblies distinguished them from male citizens. However, the Greeks did not base their definition of citizenship solely on the right to vote, so it would be anachronistic to conclude that because women could not vote, they were not citizens.

(1) For a recent overview of these debates, see Violaine Sebilotte Cuchet, “Ces citoyennes qui reconfigurent le politique. Trente ans de travaux sur l’Antiquité grecque,” Clio FGH, 43, 2016, p. 185-215.
Stèle funéraire de Choirinê

Fig.2: Funeral stele of Choirine, Athens, circa 370-360 B.C. Photo: ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Décret de la prêtrise d’Athéna Nikê - Face 1

Fig.3: Writ of priesthood of Athena Nikê, Athens, 450-420 B.C., Acropolis Museum, Athens, (EM 8116). On this side, the writ describes the process of drawing lots from all Athenian women (450-445 B.C. or the 420s). Copyright Acropolis Museum. Photo: Socratis Mavromatis.

Décret de la prêtrise d’Athéna Nikê - face 2

Fig. 3bis: Writ of priesthood of Athena Nikê, Athens, 450-420 B.C., Acropolis Museum, Athens, (EM 8116). This side shows the salary paid to the priestess (in 424/423 B.C.). Copyright Acropolis Museum. Photo: Socratis Mavromatis.

Priestesses: Key Members of the Community

Shown here holding the key to the temple in her hand, the priestess Choirine oversaw a cult dedicated to a divinity whose identity has been lost today. Hers was not an isolated case. In Athens, women were priests, just like men (1). They were chosen either from among the prominent families of the city, who had religious privileges or, beginning in the 5th century B.C., by lot from among all the Athênaiai (female Athenians). This procedure indicates that the Athênaiai constituted a distinct group, different from female foreigners and non-free women: they were citizens (politides). As priestesses, Athenian women had authority within the sanctuary, enforced its rules, and sometimes received a budget and remuneration from the city. Upon leaving the priesthood, they, like all priests—and, more generally, like all magistrates—gave a report to the council, in front of the people. Typically, they would be accompanied by a male member of their family. Because piety was part of being a good citizen, Athenian priestesses can be considered magistrates, even if this magistracy was unique in that priesthood was the only public office open to women. Funeral steles erected along the sides of roads and laws inscribed and displayed at the agora—like this decree for a priestess of Athena Nike—were daily reminders of women’s importance to the well-being (and even salvation) of the community.

(1) Marie Augier, “Nommer les prêtresses en Grèce ancienne,” Clio FGH, 45, 2017, p. 33-59.
Fragment de la plaque dite « des Ergastines » (tisseuses)

Fig. 4: Fragment of the plaque known as “The Plaque of the Ergastines” (weaver-women), eastern frieze of the Parthenon (Athens), marble from Mount Pentelikus, with traces of polychrome, circa 445-435 B.C., Musée du Louvre (Ma 738), Paris. © Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Women Citizens at Festivals: The Panathenaea

Each year in Athens, a great festival called the Panathenaea was held to honor Athena, the poliad divinity (1). There were games, followed by a procession and sacrifices. Women held important roles in the procession: the relief seen here, from the Panathenaic frieze at the Parthenon, depicts ergastines (right), young women who wove the peplos, the garment offered to Athena and placed upon her statue during the festival. Women also participated in certain parts of the sacrificial ritual: on the left, we see two canephores carrying the sacrificial knife. Thus, women played an important role in organizing the sacrifices, though their direct participation in the civic banquet that concluded them seems to have been rare (2). The procession and sacrifices were essential to the well-being of the city-state: they established and reaffirmed inner harmony and harmony with the gods. Through their participation in various public festivals, the free women of Athens, both young and old, contributed to the life and salvation of the city and were, on this count, citizens.

(1) Poliad deity: each Greek city-state had a protector deity, called the poliad. In Athens, the poliad deity was Athena, who gave her name to the city. But Greeks also prayed to other gods during the annual festivals.
(2) Decree organizing the Lesser Panathenaea, Inscriptiones graecae. Inscriptiones Atticae Euclidis anno posterioresEditio tertia. Pars I., De Gruyter-Berlin, 2012-2014.

Reference: IG II/III3 1.447, l. 40-41 (Inscriptiones graecae. Inscriptiones Atticae Euclidis anno posterioresEditio tertia. Pars I., De Gruyter-Berlin, 2012-2014)

A feminine form of the word “citizen” does exist!

When certain orators discussed the citizenship of a woman, they used the term politis, the feminine form of the word politês, which is always translated as “citizen.” In his “On the estate of Chiron” speech, which we find in a collection of speeches by Isaeus, the litigant defends himself by pronouncing the following: “For if his lies have led you to believe that our mother was not a citizen (πολῖτις), then neither are we.” In the speech pronounced against Eubulides, the litigant explains: “Moreover, Athenians, it is established that my father was not her first husband: Protomachus was, and he had children by her, including a daughter whom he gave in marriage. Although he is dead now, his acts prove that my mother was an Athenian and a citizen (politis)” (Demosthenes [57], Against Eubulides, 43). The word also appears in Plato’s treatise Laws, when the Athenian asks: “Shall we, then, lay down this law (nomos),—that up to the point stated women (gunaikes) must not neglect military training, but all citizens, men and women alike (τοὺς πολίτας καὶ τὰς πολίτιδας), must pay attention to it? (Laws, 814c). Aristotle reminds his readers that it is the “custom” of Greek city-states to define a citizen as an individual “born of two citizen (politai) parents, not only of one, the father or mother.” Women were citizens by virtue of their belonging to the same families as male citizens but, unlike them, women had no role in voting, the legal system, or government.