Revealing the hidden lives of ancient Greek women

Revealing the hidden lives of ancient Greek women

Published September 29, 2022

12 min read

For many centuries, beliefs about the roles of girls and women in ancient Greece centered around how limited and hidden their lives were. Women were denied citizenship and kept out of the public eye. Excluded from the polis, women were relegated to the oikos, or household, as wives, mothers, and daughters.

Much of this notion originated in written sources from classical Greece. Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon and Plato all testified to the so called inferiority of women to males. Writing in the fourth century B.C., Aristotle stated, in his Politics, that “again, as between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” Many of these texts originated in Athens, which had the most restrictive attitudes toward women. Other city-states, like Sparta, had greater freedoms for women, who were encouraged to exercise and train.

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Just as there could be differences between places, there were also differences between social classes. Enslaved and poor women were employed as weavers, midwives, vendors, wet nurses, weavers, and weavers. Decorated ceramics showed scenes of enslaved women at market and collecting water.

Looking beyond text sources, scholars find more complexity in the realm of religion. The Greek pantheon is full of powerful female deities, such as Athena, goddess of war and wisdom and patron of Athens; or Artemis, goddess of the hunt and wilderness. Archaeologists have discovered that priestesses had more freedom and respect for women than previously thought. The roles of women in ancient Greece weren’t a single, unified experience.

Maidens and brides

Life for most women of means centered generally around three stages: kore (young maiden), nymphe (a bride until the birth of her first child), and gyne (woman). Adult life usually begins in her teens, when she will marry and move from her father to her husband’s house. Most brides had a dowry which her husband could not access. However, if the marriage failed, the money would go to her father.

On the day of a wedding, female attendants would often prepare a purifying bath carrying water in a loutrophoros, an elongated vessel with two handles and a narrow neck typically decorated with marriage scenes. Archaeologists discovered loutrophoroi that were left as offerings in several temples, including the Sanctuary of the Nymphe at the Acropolis in Athens.

Female attendants dressed and crowned brides in their father’s house, where the marriage ceremony would also take place. After the wedding, the groom received custody and protection of her bride. The newlyweds were accompanied by a festive procession to their new home. The celebrations continued until the next day when the bride received gifts from family and friends.

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Dangerous reputation

The longtime mistress of Athenian statesman Pericles is depicted in a 1794 oil painting by Marie-Geneviève Bouliard.

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Aspasia of Miletus

The longtime mistress of Athenian statesman Pericles is depicted in a 1794 oil painting by Marie-Genevieve Bouliard.


Limited sources can make it difficult to determine the truth about many ancient Greek women. Aspasia of Miletus, also known as Pericles, is a famous example. She was the mistress of Pericles, an Athenian stateman and mother to his son. Aspasia was born in Athens and was therefore not bound by the Athenian conventions. She was admired for her intelligence and beauty. She moved in the same circles with some of the most prominent men in fifth-century B.C. Athens, including Socrates as well as the sculptor Phidias. Some historians believe that she ran a salon where Athens’s greatest thinkers would gather. Others describe it as a brothel. Aspasia’s writings are gone, so her voice is not preserved. It is a mystery that leaves much to speculate about her true identity.

A woman’s place

Within the home, women occupied the gynaeceum, a room exclusively for women. Ceramics and funerary stelae show representations of the gynaeum. The domestic sphere was dominated by women, with one of their main tasks being spinning and weaving. Many homes had their own weaving looms. One of the most famous weavers from Greek mythology is Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, a paragon of motherhood and fidelity. While her husband was away for 20 years, warring at Troy then wandering afterward, Penelope was faced with greedy suitors seeking her hand for control of Ithaca. Penelope created a ruse and spent her days weaving a shroud to protect her father-in law. Each night she would unravel it again in the hope that her husband would return home.

Archaeologists have uncovered a large number of epinetra, thigh guards that were used by women while working with wool. To avoid staining their wool with lanolin, women would place the semicylindrical ceramic or wood piece on one leg. Beautifully decorated epinetra were popular wedding gifts; many epinetra bore the head of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.

The women of the house also took care of the children. The education of young boys and girls was the responsibility of the women. However, the boys were handed over to a pedagogue once they reached a certain age. A girl’s education included music, usually in the form playing the lyre. Women played an important role in the preparation of funerary rituals for their family members. They would prepare the body by dressing it and form part of the funeral procession.

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There were some women who received educations and made notable contributions in the arts and sciences. Around 350 B.C., Axiothea of Phlius studied philosophy under Plato (some sources say she disguised herself as a man to do so). The sixth century B.C. saw the Delphic priestess Themistoclea (also known by Aristoclea) become a philosopher and purported teacher to the mathematician Pythagoras.

Holy life

Women who participated in religious cults and sacred rites as priestesses enjoyed life outside the domestic sphere. Archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly’s work has found that in the Greek world “religious office presented the one arena in which Greek women assumed roles equal and comparable to those of men.”

Religious participation was open to young girls. The arrephoroi, for example, were young acolytes who had various ritual tasks, among them weaving the peplos (outer garment) that was dedicated each year to the goddess Athena. Girls between the age of five and adolescence could be selected to serve as “little bears” in rituals dedicated to the goddess Artemis in her sanctuary at Brauron (located about 24 miles southeast of Athens).

Serving as a priestess gave women very high status. The most important religious role in Athens was that of high priestess of Athena Polias. She could be granted honors and rights that were not available to most women. The city of Delphi granted the Athena priestess freedom from taxes and the right to own property. Ancient historians used the names of priestesses to help place key events in context. Historian Thucydides marks the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War with the tenure of Chrysis, a priestess of the goddess Hera at Argos around 423 B.C., alongside the names of contemporary Athenian and Spartan officials.

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Another highly significant female figure in Greek religion was the Pythia, Apollo’s high priestess at his temple in Delphi. Also known as the Oracle of Delphi, she held one of the most prestigious roles in ancient Greece. Because they believed that Apollo spoke through her mouth, men would travel from all parts of the world to consult her.

The women of Gortyn

Minted between 350 and 220 B.C., a silver coin from the island of Crete bears the likeness of Hera, queen of the gods.

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Royal goddess

Minted between 350 and 220 B.C., a silver coin from the island of Crete bears the likeness of Hera, queen of the gods.

Age Fotostock

Sparta was not the only city where women enjoyed more freedoms than the women in Athens. According to its fifth century B.C. According to the Great Code, Gortyn (a city on the island Crete) allowed women to inherit and manage properties. This was in recognition of the value of women’s work as wealth generators and protectors. Women could also manage their own assets and control their children’s possessions if their male guardian was not available. The evidence of legislation that governed marriage, divorce, and the possessions of Gortyn’s enslaved people has been preserved. This gives insight into the different lives of women depending on their social status.

Priestesses played important parts in sacred festivals, some of which were predominantly, even exclusively, female. Many of these were related to the harvest. Women gathered at the Thesmophoria festival to worship Demeter, goddess for agriculture, and Persephone, her daughter. During the Dionysiac festival of the Lenaea, women joined orgiastic rituals as maenads (mad ones), to celebrate Dionysus, god of wine.

Classical scholars continue to find more and more complexities in the formerly hidden lives of ancient Greek women. The new picture shows a richer and more diverse view of the culture.

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