Women in Greek Democracy – More Oppressed than Ever



Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD.

“Men say that we live a life free from danger at home while they fight with the spear. How wrong they are! I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.” – Medea, Euripides


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

From a lecture by Dr. Frank Holt, Professor of Ancient History, University of Houston (10.08.2013)

We know that every Athenian citizen had to participate in government, to promote and debate laws, vote, etc.  But that direct participation was limited to (free) men.  Women could be citizens if both of their parents were citizens (as with males as well), but they had no right to participate in government.  They were citizens in status only.  Why was full, participatory citizenship reserved for men?  A large justification was military service.  They fought and placed their lives on the line and felt they should thus have sole authority over the state.  As in the play by Euripides, Medea said she would stand with the hoplite army three times for every time she had to risk childbirth.  Childbirth in the ancient world was by far more dangerous than serving in the military.

Preceding a discussion of women in ancient Greece, let’s set the stage by looking at warfare and how men viewed battle and politics.

The Archidamian Phase (431-421 BCE)

  • 431: The Funeral Oration of Pericles
  • 430: The Plague
  • 429: Death of Pericles, Rise of Cleon
  • 425: Pylos/Sphacteria Battle
  • 422: Amphipolis
  • 421:  Peace of Nicias


Pericles / Creative Commons

Pericles could not have foreseen the plague when suggesting that the Athenians were guaranteed victory if they would listen to him and stay the course, and he died of it himself a year after giving that guarantee.  Thucydides, who chronicled the war effort between Athens and Sparta, admired Pericles.  He said the death of Pericles was the beginning of the end for Athens.  Thucydides preferred oligarchy to democracy.  He felt that only the best (the wealthy and educated) should control Athens.  He believed democracy could work but only with a strong leader such as Pericles who could see them through war because he believed a democratic system could not operate a war.  However, no strong leaders arose after Pericles and Thucydides saw this as the death knoll of Athens.


Cleon / Creative Commons

One of the generals who rose to the fore after Pericles was Cleon, whom Thucydides did not like.  He felt that Cleon was not only not well educated but also had the disadvantage of being a politician instead of a statesman like Pericles.  The difference between the two is that a politician will stand before people and tell them what they want to hear to gain and maintain popularity, while a statesman will stand and tell them what they need to hear whether they want to hear it or not.  He said Cleon’s mastery of telling people what they wanted to hear made him popular in the eyes of the Athenian male citizens.  He blamed Cleon for most of the events that followed.


Battle of Sphacteria / Creative Commons

In 425 BCE, the Athenians got a lucky break.  Remember that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was a war between the whale (Athens having advantage on the sea) and the elephant (Sparta having the advantage in land battle).  Athens used an island off the shore of Pylos, a peninsula in southeastern Greece, as a naval base.  An Athenian fleet under the command of Eurymedon and Sophocles had set out from Athens for Sicily, but they had aboard Demosthenes, stratego-elect for the Hellenic year beginning midsummer 425 BCE, and they were instructed to let him use the fleet as he wished.  After they had set out, he revealed his plans to occupy Pylos.  The generals rejected it, but a storm forced them in that direction anyway.  After landing on the peninsula, the generals and troops still did not want to occupy it but were convinced by Demosthenes to establish fortifications.

The Spartans grew uncomfortable with Athenians on Pylos so close to their territory and sent forces to attack the Athenian fortifications and push them out, but the Athenians were able to cause them to retreat and captured many of their ships.  A Spartan hoplite army of 440 had occupied an island just off the coast of Pylos – Sphacteria.  Now controlling the harbor, the Athenians sailed freely around the island, effectively trapping the Spartan troops.  A short truce was negotiated between Spartan leaders who had heard of the Pylos crisis and the Athenian commanders, during which time those trapped on the island could receive food.  They held the Spartan ships as good faith and would return them after peace was negotiated.  In the meantime, the Athenian commanders sent word to Athens that they had captured 300 Spartans.

Upon receiving word of this victory over the Spartans at the Battle of Pylos, the Athenians celebrated and Cleon sent word to bring the prisoners back to Athens.  They responded that the Spartans were not actually captured but trapped on the island of Sphacteria while being fed and awaiting truce terms.  Remembering what 300 Spartans had done to the Persians, Cleon went before the people and said that if he had been there he would have assaulted the island and brought the prisoners back in chains.

Spartan negotiators arrived in Athens and made the case that they should accept the opportunity for peace because they won at Pylos simply due to misfortune and bad luck, implying they would not be so lucky again.  Cleon said they should cede several of their allied territories to Athens, and they asked to discuss the matter in private.  He said they could say in public whatever they had to say.  The Spartans of course could not publicly betray their allies in this manner.  They returned to Sparta and the truce ended, with the Athenians refusing to return the Spartan ships claiming they had broken the truce.


Spartan shield taken from Pylos / Creative Commons

This being a participatory democracy, they voted to send Cleon there so that he could do just as he said he would – bring the Spartans back in chains.  Being a politician telling them what they wanted to hear, he was likely surprised that now he actually had to back up his words.  He went to Pylos and named Demosthenes as his partner in command for the Battle of Sphacteria.  During the battle, the island was set afire.  Of the 440 Spartan hoplites that were on the island, 292 survived and were taken prisoner.  These prisoners were taken back to Athens in a great celebration.  A shield found by archaeologists has the phrase, “This shield taken from a Spartan in Pylos.”

Amphipolis01    Amphipolis02

In 422 BCE, Sparta sent an army north and attacked Amphipolis in northern Greece, an Athenian colony in Thrace on the Strymon River.  Cleon was adamant that the use of Amphipolis as a naval base could not be lost.  Another general was stationed nearby at Thasos with seven ships, and Cleon ordered him to go to the assistance of Amphipolis before the Spartans took it.  Sparta arrived before this general and gave the people the option to stay and keep their property or peacefully leave, as long as the city was surrendered.  They surrendered, and the Spartans took it before the Athenian general arrived.  Cleon, to cover himself, asked the Athenians to punish that general for not arriving in a timely manner and causing the loss of Amphipolis.  He didn’t simply want the general ostracized for ten years but instead to have all property confiscated and be permanently exiled.  In their anger, the Athenians tried this general, confiscated his property, and exiled him.  That general was Thucydides, who as we know went on to become a noted ancient historian.  This also explains his hatred for and likely somewhat biased accounts of Cleon.  Historians always get the last word.

Cleon told the people that Amphipolis never would have been lost had he been there instead of Thucydides.  Once again, likely to his surprise, the Athenians made him put his words into action and sent him to recapture Amphipolis.  In the battle, both the Spartan commander and Cleon were killed.  The Spartan commander was buried in the agora area of Amphipolis and regarded by them as a hero and the founder of the city.  Thucydides later wrote that the Spartan commander fought bravely and died of many wounds to his chest and head.  He wrote that Cleon died with numerous wounds in his back as he ran like a coward.


Nicias / Creative Commons

An Athenian – Nicias – came forward and took advantage of the desire of both Athenians and Spartans to cease hostilities.  The Peace of Nicias was signed in March, 421 BCE, ending the first half of the Peloponnesian War.  Athens actually won because Sparta wanted to capture and destroy the city of Athens, which it did not accomplish.  But this was the Archidamian Phase – only the first half of the Peloponnesian War that would soon erupt again.


Alcibiades / Creative Commons

“The strong do what they wish.  The weak do what they must.”

The Peloponnesian War started again because one brash, rich Athenian – Alcibiades – felt that peace was not good for politicians seeking to make a name.  Alcibiades had grown up in the house of Pericles and befriended Socrates.  He was considered the wealthiest and most promising young Athenian citizen.  But he was interested only in himself.  He wanted to make a name for himself in war and attempted to provoke the Spartans, which wasn’t an all-together difficult thing to do.  The island of Melos was a neutral island off the coast of Sparta that had not taken sides between the two.  The Athenians sent a navy to Melos, surrounded it, and imposed demands to see if the Spartans would be alarmed and respond.  Melos was ordered to surrender or die.  The people of Melos countered that they were small and neutral, claiming that the Athenian action flew in the face of all decency.  The Athenian response was chilling – the strong do what they wish; the weak do what they must.  The Athenians had made a habit of attacking and destroying other Greek cities, killing all men and boys and enslaving all women and girls.  This attack on Melos did anger the Spartans, but they did not respond.  Alcibiades then decided to attack Syracuse, a colony founded by Corinthians that was now a city-state.  Corinth was an ally of Sparta.  Alcibiades sent sixty ships to attack Syracuse.

Some Athenians, such as Nicias, said not to listen to Alcibiades.  They said it would take twice as many ships and men and twice as much money to accomplish this.  The Athenians then voted to do exactly that – send twice as many ships and men and devote twice as much money, and they put Nicias in joint command with Alcibiades.  These two men hated each other – one wanting this to succeed and the other wanting it to fail.  The expedition launched in 415 BCE and turned into a long struggle lasting for two years until 413 BCE.

Thucydides said the only thing predictable in war is that it is unpredictable.  The Athenians learned of a religious crime that had taken place – the defacing of a religious statue.  They felt Alcibiades was behind it.  They did not want to start the expedition with the gods displeased, so they recalled Alcibiades to stand trial.  Instead of going, Alcibiades fled to Sparta.  He told the Spartans of the coming expedition and would tell them everything of the plan to help them defeat Athens, and the expedition did fail with Nicias in command in 413 BCE.  Nicias then sent word to Athens at one point that twice as many resources would be needed or he would have to retreat, and they again voted to send the resources.  However, every Athenian in both fleets was wiped out, including Nicias.  The only Athenians who survived were sold into slavery, and they only survived if they could quote from memory the plays of Euripides.  If they could not, they were slaughtered.

News returned to Athens that 40,000-plus Athenians had been killed in the expedition.  They are the ones who voted for it, but Thucydides (not a fan of democracy) recounts that they were furious in the streets wanting to know who was responsible.  He said that was one of the primary problems – citizens wanted to make the decisions but did not want to take responsibility for the consequences.  Sparta was emboldened and declared war on Athens in 413 BCE, and the Peloponnesian War resumed with Athens now having no navy.  The Athenian Empire was in rebellion as territories they controlled rose up because they had no navy with which to enforce their control.

With Sparta’s approval, Alcibiades went to Persia to negotiate a treaty between Sparta and Persia.  Sparta offered to allow all Ionian lands to be returned to Persian control.  Athens built new ships and gradually created a new navy, but Sparta also now had Persia’s navy.  Athens and Sparta had once joined forces against Persia, and now Sparta and Persia were joining forces against Athens.  The Athenian navy sailed out to fight the Spartans and Persians, and while they were away there was an oligarchic revolution in Athens in 411 BCE.  The Athenian democracy had met and voted itself out of existence and established an oligarchy.  When news of this reached the Athenian navy (most of them being poor and now no longer having equal say in a democratic system), they seceded from Athens.  Athens once again lost its navy.


Hellespont Strait

Alcibiades, hearing of this, negotiated a truce between the Athenian government and its navy.  He fled from Persia back to Athens where he was now welcomed under the new oligarchy!  He was elected as one of the strategoi and given command of the war.  Athens began winning again until finally making one more mistake.  In 405 BCE, the Athenians had a chance for complete victory against the Spartans and Persians.  But now Alcibiades had fled back to the Persians!  The Persians offered him complete luxury if he would just stay out of matters until things were over.  The Spartans and Persians sailed their navy toward the Black Sea.  They became trapped outside of the Aegean by the Athenian navy and couldn’t return through the Hellespont Strait to return to the Aegean.  The Athenians, concerned about proximity, would beach their ships at Aegospatomi each night and return to the sea by day.  They were told by a certain person that the Spartans and Persians were going to surprise them while beaching their ships and destroy them, but this person was – surprise surprise – Alcibiades, and they didn’t trust this flip-flopper for good reason.  But that is exactly what happened.  They were caught by surprise, and only five of their 200 warships survived.  Those surviving joined the Persian navy and left Athens with no defense.  The next year, in 404 BCE, Athens surrendered.  They had lost “the war they could not lose”.

Alcibiades was also assassinated in 404 BCE with everyone’s consent – he was hated by all sides.  The walls of Athens were torn down and they were not allowed to rebuild a navy.  Athens was completely destroyed.

The victor in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was Persia!  They regained all of the territories they had lost in the Persian War.  They had discovered that the way to defeat the Greeks was not to invade them because they would join to fight.  They would instead use the Greeks natural animosity toward one another against them and join the side of the weaker against the stronger in other conflicts.  Athens, being the weakest polis in 404 BCE, then joined with the Persians against Sparta!

But Athens had made amazing cultural achievements.  Periclean Athens had three groups of people:  1) Citizens (both male and female if both parents were citizens); 2) Metics (“those who live with us,” a large group of foreigners who were allowed to register but had to follow certain laws, such as not owning real estate).  Metics brought talented people to Athens because it was the richest of all poleis at the time and their talents were well reimbursed, and because of their talents they are types of people Athenians wanted to attract; 3) Slaves.  Most slaves were other Greeks defeated by Athenians.  They worked alongside citizens and metics.   The worst condition for slaves was working in mines where life expectancy was less than six weeks.  Ex-slaves could never become citizens.  They could only aspire to become metics (who also could not become citizens).

This was the culture of Athens, indeed of the Hellenes.  They were a warring people, constantly in search of agon – to show themselves as the best of the best.  It was a male-dominated society in every way.


Greek Women on Vase / Creative Commons

Women were not treated well in Athens.  Twenty percent were intentionally abandoned at birth.  A father always decided if a new child would live or die.  If the father would not touch the child after birth, then the child was either killed or given away as a slave.  Many men wanted sons, not daughters.  Life expectancy for women was low due to the dangers of childbirth – 36.2 years.  Infant mortality was also very high.  Women were essentially baby factors for Athenian men.  Marriage was also mandatory and never required a woman’s consent – it was always a ceremonial transferring of “ownership” of a woman from one family to another.  Women were married at the age of 14 or 15 to a man usually of around the age of 35 – of their fathers’ generation.  Often they didn’t meet their husbands until the veil was removed at the ceremony.  A woman was never supposed to feel eros (sexual arousal, erotic from the god Eros).  The husband was only intended to be aroused once in their marriage – on the night of the wedding.  Thereafter sex was purely for procreation between a husband and wife.  Men had other ways – and were expected to use them – to enjoy sex.  Divorce was easy for men.  They simply had to say in public that they no longer wanted the wife.  It was almost impossible for women.  When Alcibiades’s wife tried to leave him, he dragged her home by the heels and locked her up.

The Greek word for woman was gyne (plural gynaikos), the root of gynecology.  They were expected to perform only two functions in life – marriage and motherhood.  A woman would live her entire life under the control of a kyrios (male lord and master).  Women weren’t believed capable of important decision-making, owning property, running businesses, engaging in legal contracts, etc.  They required a kyrios to do these things for them.  A woman’s father would be her kyrios until marriage, after which her husband assumed that role.  If widowed, her sons would assume the role.  There would always be a male kyrios for every woman.

The notion of adultery for a man was almost inconceivable – he could have sexual relations with almost anyone.  Homosexual behavior was considered perfectly normal.  Such affairs were usually always between older men and younger boys.  Ancient Greeks had no concept of “homosexual” and “heterosexual.”  Athenians only frowned upon men taking prostitutes home.  If a female citizen was accused of adultery (just accused), the husband was required by law to immediately divorce her and she would return to her family (and likely never marry again).


Bridal transfer depicted on vase / Creative Commons

“I give you this girl to plow for the harvesting of children.”

On the day of their marriage, women dedicated all childhood belongings to Artemis and Hera and made a new dedication to Athena.  The bride was given a ritual bath, unveiled for the groom, taken in a torched procession from her home to his, and was now “owned” by his family.  The young bride was purified when first reaching the new home and then taken in as the “property” of the new family.

Greeks did believe that bonds of “affection” developed during marriage, but romantic love was not part of the ancient world.  Women were largely not allowed to become educated – to read or write – and thus we have no records of their thoughts on the matter.  A ritual cake would be eaten with singing and celebration.  The bride and groom would then go to the bedroom as the others stood outside the door and sang songs of encouragement.  This would be the only time the husband was expected to experience eros with his wife, and she was not supposed to feel it at all.  Part of the wedding vows from the bride’s father included, “I give you this girl to plow for the harvesting of children.”

Husbands treated wives in a condescending manner.  A woman could never leave the house without her kyrios to guard her.  Men were obsessed with virginity, which is why they married women so young and controlled them in all affairs.  Women were never allowed to have contact with men outside of the family unless it was closely monitored and controlled.

Toilet01    Toilet02

Ancient Greek child’s toilet / Creative Commons

“The best women are the ones least seen and heard.”

Athenian women invented “sippy cups” for their children to prevent spilling as well as toilets to potty train them.  Children were often painted as adults because they were treated that way.  Childhood was not considered an age of innocence.  Most children would die young, and many ancients didn’t even name a newborn for nine days.  Thucydides wrote that Pericles said in his funeral oration, “The best women are the ones least seen and heard.”  He had spent the entire oration praising men and added this for women to understand their position.

Symposium01    Aspasia01

Symposium scene (left) and Aspasia (right) / Creative Commons

Aner or andros was the Greek word for man (where we get “androgynous”, actually).  Men created democracy to suit themselves in every way.  Certain institutions were paid for by the government to keep men happy.  One was the symposium (drinking together – a drinking party, not scholars gathering for a discussion).  Men could congregate at a symposium for alcohol and entertainment.  They would often hire hetairai (meaning “female companion” – prostitutes).  The state made prostitutes available to men to accompany them to the symposium.  In fact, the most famous woman in Periclean Athens was not a citizen – Aspasia, the favorite hetairai of Pericles.  Statues were even made in her honor, and she was a force to be reckoned with.  The hetairai were the only women who were educated – they could read and write, understand poetry and philosophy, etc.  This allowed them to provide men with good companionship that they did not have at home with their wives.  Daughters who were abandoned as babies by their fathers, as well as slaves and foreigners, could be taken in and trained to be hetairai.  But hetairai could never become citizens.


Men in a gymnasium using a strigil / Creative Commons

A gymnasium (gymnos meaning “naked man”) was also created for men (women could not go into a gym).  Trainers and olive oil were provided as well as wandering intellectuals and lecturers to educate men while training.  This was a training ground for young men, developing their bodies and minds simultaneously.  Greeks believed a man’s body was as much the state’s concern as his own because he would grow to defend the state.  They wanted physically fit and intellectually capable men.  They used a strigil to scrape oil off after exercising.

A Greek man had to have a symposium, gymnasium, theater, and other institutions and amenities such as wine and olive oil – these were considered essential for a proper Greek lifestyle.  But all of this was for the benefit of men only.  The ancient Greek ideal form was the male body, considering a female body the degradation of it.  Many images of naked men were painted on pottery and nudity used in sculpture in Periclean Athens, but never the female body.  The Greek ideal was masculine – his body a public concern and on display.  Civilization in ancient Greece was rigged for men.  Male citizens attended the Ekklesia, voted, held offices, served as jurors, served in the military, and performed liturgies (paid special taxes for luxuries such as the symposium and gymnasium).  Female citizens enjoyed none of those benefits.

Ancient Greece, particularly Athens, was no vacation for women.  In spite of the massive advancements made in the civilization in philosophy, science, mathematics, and more, it was a patriarchal society in which women were severely oppressed.  Participation and artistic depiction of women – and men – would not really begin to change until the Hellenistic Period following Alexander the Great.