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

The Elusive Gynaeceum

By Louise Bruit Zaidman, Adeline Grand-Clément, Irini Kyriakou, and Nicolas Siron

Femmes à l’intérieur

Fig. 1: Women indoors. Pyxis, inv. 1873,0111.7, circa 460 B.C., British Museum. Photo: ©Trustees of the British Museum. Reprinted in Anthony F. Mangieri, “Legendary Women and Greek Womanhood: The Heroines Pyxis in the British Museum,” American Journal of Archaeology, 114 (2010), p. 429-445.

Pyxis, British Museum

Fig. 2: Pyxis, British Museum, inv. 1873,0111.6, circa 460 B.C., Photo: ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Were Greek women kept hidden in the home (oikos), in a room reserved exclusively for them? This is what the word “gynaeceum,” meaning “space reserved for women,” has long suggested. The pyxis in Fig. 1 shows women busy with reputedly feminine activities: spinning wool, carrying and putting on perfume and jewelry, and washing up. The column, the half-open door, and the mirror create an interior space. The exterior scene depicted on another pyxis (fig. 2) is a counterpart to the first one: here, two women stand at a fountain while two others gather fruit in an open space. The simplistic opposition between a feminine inside and a masculine outside therefore must be relativized—it is more imaginary than based on real practices.

 Written sources that mention a “women’s room” are very rare and refer to particular cases. Iconographic and archeological sources are subject to interpretation. An archeological survey of the houses of Olynthus (in northern Greece) has confirmed that it is impossible to define one room in the house as specifically “feminine.” The layout of space in the house was not gendered: rather, the most important thing was controlling the contact between residents and visitors.

 The gynaeceum, understood on the model of the harem, is a 19th-century construct, a result of the Orientalist trend that marked that period. Greek women moved freely within the oikos. Even the andrôn, the room used for banquets (symposion), was open to them during family festivals. Pauline Schmitt Pantel thus rightly speaks of the “elusive gynaeceum” (Aithra et Pandora. Femmes, Genre et Cité dans la Grèce antique, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2009, p. 107).

Oikos: This polysemic term refers first and foremost to the “house” and the “family,” but can also include all of an individual’s property, including slaves.
Pyxis: A small, round terracotta receptacle used as a jewelry or makeup box.
D’après Lisa C. Nevett, House and Society in the Ancient Greek World

Fig. 3: From Lisa C. Nevett, House and Society in the Ancient Greek World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, fig. 2, p. 23. ©Photo: DR.

Layout of a House in Olynthus

 The rooms of ancient Greek houses were not organized according to a binary structure that distinguished between male and female spaces—instead, they were arranged around a central court. Women could move about in most of the rooms, which archeologists today would call multi-functional (1). The only peculiarity was that visitors reached the andrôn (“reception room”) without going through any of the other rooms. Let us also remember that many Greek houses had a second floor, where activities connected to weaving wool would take place.

(1) See Monika Trümper, 2010, “Space and Social Relations in the Greek Oikos of the Classical and Hellenistic Periods,” in B. Rawson, ed., A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, Malden-Oxford, 2011, p. 32-52.
Intérieur grec, le gynécée

Fig. 4: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Greek Interior, the Gynaeceum, 1848. Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © Wikimedia Commons, Photo: BrokenSphère.

The Gynaeceum and the Harem

 This picture by the 19th-century French painter Gérôme, who also painted Oriental harems that he presented as contemporary, testifies to the connection that was made at the time between the feminine interiors of ancient Greece and those of the Ottoman Empire. Nudity and lascivious poses are also found in other of Gérôme’s paintings, such as Les baigneuses du harem or Le bain turc. The idea of the Greek gynaeceum gave painters a pretext for showing women’s naked bodies.