The Role of Women

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The Role of Women within Ancient Greek Society One of the things that interested me the most is how Greek women were depicted in the Iliad, which was an epic poem written by a poet by the name of Homer around 8th century B.C.E. in Ancient Greece. This therefore makes the Iliad a primary source of information as it was created in the era it depicts. One thing that stood out was the difference in how the women were respected differently throughout and the contrast of how women were actually treated in Greek society. In the epic poem there is an interaction between the Goddess Athena and a warrior called Achilles, Achilles says When you two speak, Goddess, a man has to listen no matter how angry. This would suggest that Achilles respects Athena enough to listen to her. Meaning that Athena is being depicted as superior to Achilles even though she is a woman. This could be simply down to the fact that because she is a Goddess no matter what her gender, she is superior to humans.

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Having a woman depicted as superior is extremely interesting as it doesn’t correlate with how they were actually treated in Ancient Greece. This is due to the fact that women in Ancient Greece were actually pretty powerless in comparisons to men. It is said that only landowning males were able to vote in the Polis’ within Ancient Greece and considering that there were laws against women even being able to own land, mainly in Athens, they were never even able to have the opportunity to vote. Many Greek women were unable to even work, they were unable to own their own shops however some were tavern-keepers, woolworkers and traded goods such as perfume. In addition to this, women in Ancient Greece have often been depicted as working as prostitutes. The only issue with these depictions is that there are no clear distinctions between the women who chose prostitution as a source of income or whether they were prostitutes due to the fact that they were enslaved to do so. Furthermore, throughout many of the Iliad there is a constant mention on the beauty of them women, for example Helen was presented as the most beautiful mortal in the whole of Greece, beautiful enough to start a war over.

However, this superiority of women in the Iliad is short lived. When the book starts to introduce us to the relationship between Zeus, the most powerful of all Gods, and his wife Hera we begin to get, probably, a more realistic depiction of how women were possibly treated in Ancient Greece. This can be seen after Zeus and Hera get into an argument and Hera’s son is begging his mother to apologise, I don’t want to see you getting beat up, and me being unable to help you. This shows that women were actually inferior in this instance, not just because Hera had to apologise but also because she has already been physically abused so as to be reminded that she is inferior to Zeus, her husband, already. When we translate this through into the reality of Ancient Greece it is clear that women were viewed to be inferior to men especially in the Husband and Wife relationship. One of the so-called greatest philosophers in history, Aristotle, quoted A proper wife should be as obedient as a slave. This seems to be the unfortunately sexist view point of many if not all of Ancient Greek males. The women’s role was to become good wives. Women, from mainly more wealthy households, were expected to marry young and be virgins.

These marriages were not from love, but were arranged by either the father or the eldest male sibling in the family. Moreover, they would more often marry a male twice their age. After this their role was simply bound to the household. They were expected to raise children and stay out of the public eye. However, this was mainly for the wealthier families where the ideal women only stayed indoors and participated in some religious ceremonies. This however was different for those who were not of wealth in Ancient Greece. Many of the women who were not from rich families were household slaves and they had more freedom in regard to being able to leave the house themselves.

This is because, to complete household tasks such as cooking, they had to leave the house to go and buy food from the markets. One of the other main things that Ancient Greek literature highlighted was the fact that they always depicted the women as some sort of trouble maker. For example, the way that Athena and Aphrodite got themselves involved with the great Trojan war always suggested that they were meddling and causing more harm than good in these situations. One of the main examples of this would be seen as Aphrodite’s whole involvement with the Trojan war. If Aphrodite hadn’t promised an already married woman to Paris, let alone the most beautiful woman in the whole of Greece, there wouldn’t have been a war to begin with. This is due to the fact that the war was begun because Helens King Menelaus of Sparta gathered an army to fight to win back his wife from Paris.

Women could’ve been depicted this way as it shows how a woman of power could potentially be the biggest downfall of a male in Ancient Greece. This is highlighted through the fact that there were in fact very few women of significance in Ancient Greece, it was very much a male dominated time. The women who were able to break through these social barriers, however, were extremely influential. One of the main influential women in Ancient Greece was Aspasia. Down to the fact that she wasn’t a true woman of Athens, she did not have to live with the same set of rules that usual Greek women had to. For example, Aspasia was able to study intellectual topics such as philosophy, art, architecture and politics. Due to the fact that she was involved within such male dominated subjects, she was depicted very differently in comparison to other, mainly males, opinions. This can be seen through various Socratic dialogues, which are notes and thoughts of philosophers, and how she was depicted in certain plays. The comedic poems/plays did not shine a good light on Aspasia for example the poet Aristophanes tells a tale about a war that started over prostitutes; when some drunken youths went for the whore, Simaetha, and stole her away, then the Megarians, garlicked with the pain, stole in return two whores of Aspasia. Then the start of the war burst out for all Hellenes because of three strumpets.

Then Pericles, the Olympian, in his wrath thundered, lightened, threw Hellas into confusion… This however is in contrast with many Socratic dialogues as they often depict her as a philosopher and someone who would be able to tutor sons. The way I would interpret these two different depictions would be through the narrowmindedness of many people, not just men, but everyone at the time. You could argue the reason why many people depicted her in a negative way was due to the fact that they were intimidated that a woman could have such knowledge, which obviously gave a woman more power and would therefore threaten every single Ancient Greek male for their position in society. However, those who depicted Aspasia in a positive light, noting more about her intelligence rather than her looks or sexuality, were part of the more respectful part of Greek Society who were open to different opinion and could appreciate a great mind no matter the gender. The main points I have focused on in my paper have been based on what life was like for women who were raised in the Greek Polis of Athens, however, those women who were raised in the Greek Polis of Sparta, still faced the same sexist challenges that Athenian women had but had life a lot freer than them. Spartan women where seen as the alphas of the Greek world of women, although there are not any main primary sources from which we can gain a lot of information from sources such as Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians. Within this it discusses the fact that Spartan women were actually educated.

If we compare this to Athenian women, the only thing they were allowed to learn about was how to weave and possibly cook. Spartan women had a lot more freedom for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons that Spartan women had more freedom is due to the laws that Lycurgus created. These laws allowed women to actually be able to own property in Sparta. Again, if we compare this with Athenian women, they where barely allowed to work for a living, let alone own property. In my opinion, the reason why Spartan women were allowed to have so much freedom is due to the fact that the Spartans appreciated the fact that there would be no empire without women, they in fact needed women. Even though, they realised that they needed women their main use of them was for reproduction and that they believed that if they had stronger more powerful females, the offspring would therefore be more powerful. This therefore means that they believed that strong women would produce strong warriors to help fight for Sparta.

If we compare the depictions of women between Ancient Greece and ancient near east, we can see many similarities. For example, in the Ramayana which talks about how Sita had followed her husband into exile but was then later kidnaped and had to therefore be rescued. This links with the Iliad as it relates to how Helen was taken from Menelaus, and Menelaus gathered a whole army to rescue her. The way that women where depicted in a way that they always needed to be rescued by a male. In both books the women were helpless and only males could save them. This could mean that in both cultures they believe that a woman needs a man to ensure their safety. However, I believe this depiction of the ‘helpless’ woman is mainly due to the fact that both of these books where written by males at the time. As I have already discussed, males seemed to have low presentment of females so why would they depict women in a positive light. Especially in Ancient Greece, if a female had knowledge and power they were threatening to males.

The writers already have a stereotype of women prior to their writing, that they have to base their lives around being a good wife and mother, so therefore why would they depict women as strong, independent and powerful. I conclude that although sometimes women where idolised in Greek literature, the only reason was due to things such as their beauty, usually their brains were the downfall of the women. The reason why I believe this to be true is because the writers of Greek literature where only males and this translates to how males in Ancient Greek viewed women. I believe that males tried to suppress women due to the fact that they were concerned that if they gave the women of Ancient Greece the power that they deserved, many males in power would quickly be dislodged and the history of this era would be a completely different story.

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