Roulette Checkmate

Rank and the Position of Women in Classical Greek Society and its Implication for Violence to Women

The truth of women in Classical society may never be known because what we have are the reports of men. But it seems as though the women were in that part of the society that were subdued by force. Essentially Greek government was rule by the able-bodied men who were able to fight for their freedom. But the rule of law applied mainly to what happened outside the family and outside the house. Within the family group the law was truely set by custom but moderated by the eldest male as ruler and patriarch. Society was divided into extented families with a patriarch. But within the family the sexes were separated so the men worked outside the home while the women were organized to work together. It seems likely that this organization was determined by custom but that the wife of the patriarch ruled under the patriarch. This women then supervised her daughters, wives of her son, any other female relatives, and the female slaves owned by the family. In this system few women had to obey the commands of men. Any commands usually came from other women. This structure seems to have been inherited from the earlier Mycenaean period and is evidenced in the works of Homer.

While the women were within the home they did not seem subject to violence. The opportunity for violence to women occurred either because they ventured outside the home, when the house was threatened during war, or because a single man was seeking a wife. Rank could determine which women might venture outside the home.

In such a culture the single most time-consuming activity of women was fetching water for the home. Women would leave the house early in the morning to fetch water from a spring or fountain house. Fortunately the rowdy men preferred late night activity so the women were left alone. But this was the most likely time for their exposure to violence. Generally who fetched water was determined by rank with the slaves usually doing the job if they could be trusted.

When a community was attacked during war the women would be considered valuable prizes. The victors could treat the women as wives or slaves to be sold. In the process they could be raped as well.

To get a desirable wife a young man might have to steal one to get her out of the system of her family. In order to be valuable as a wife she would probably also be a valuable worker in the family. Hense the emphasis on rape in the myth. In ancient times rape fits this model better than the current model of violence toward women. During war women were outside this system and so more subject to violence. But once peace was established all captured women would come under the control of other women within a household. As a substitute for violence a young man could offer a large gift to a family instead of the violence just described to compensate for the loss of the daughter. Beautiful daughters were even more valuable because their suitors would bring gifts. Normally this would result in a relation between the suitor and the patriarch. The patriarch seemed to control the liasons of his daughters even though the wife controlled the work of the daughters.

Women outside of the family group could be expected to be more the subject of violence. The assumption in the law was that their family would take care of women. A women on her own would be an easy mark. Most of the women who existed outside of the family group seem to have been in the entertainment and sex trades. Trades such as weaver and baker seem entirely confined to the family. Other women in the trades worked by the side of their spouse. One problem for “free” women was that because they worked the sex trades they were more subject to phycial abuse because of the emotional nature of their tasks.

In Greek society the status of women was determined mainly by the status of the men in their lives. First status was determined by the father. After marriage status was determined by the spouse. Because a wife moved to within her husband’s family her status was also determined by his position in that family. If her husband was the patriarch then she became the matriarch but otherwise she was subject to the matriarch and below her in status.

Divorce was not much of an option for an ancient Greek wife. A man could restrain or intimidate his wife without her having any recourse to the law. But a man could send her home if he did not like her regardless of what she thought or did.

Another factor affecting status of women was religion. Usually only women of high status became priestesses. Some women were actually attached to a temple during this time which could be temporary or permanent. Some women came and went as they pleased. Religious festivals were the main opportunity for women to leave the homes. Some festivals were entirely for women so the men would be at home while the women were out. Normally the religious festivals were not a source of violence to women. But there were exceptions. A virgin sacrifice required a high-status maiden, but these were rare. An orgy was performed as a religious festival of women and sometimes men for the worship of Dionysus. In this case a man could be the subject of violence by women.

The case of Penelope of the Odyssey is interesting and bears on these matters. In the absence of her husband she was in charge of of the women of her household while the men seemed to answer to both her and her son. The suitors wanted to marry her because her husband would be king since her son was not old enough. The suitors even tried to kill her son to eliminate this possibility. In classical Greece the situation was not that different. The relatives of a widow would pick one of their own to marry the widow and keep her estate in the family. If he had a wife she would go back to her family. Penelope’s husband was king even though his father was still alive. Laertes seemed to be retired. Though her husband was king she was not able to participate in politics and was dependent upon her son to do this for her. While Odysseus was gone her control of her servants was good but not complete. When he returned he was able to execute the servants that he thought were not behaving. During the classical period this type of power continued. If a man’s relative was raped he was expected to seek out the perpetrator and kill him. If a man’s slave was raped he could demand compensation and expect to get it.

About rape, “The cases wherein and conditions wheron a slayer sheall rightly be held guiltless shall be the following….He that offers hurtful violence to a free woman or boy may be slain withour fear of the law by the object ofhis violent rape, or by father, brother or son of such party; iff a man take onein the act of enforcing his wedded wife and slay him, he shall be clear in the eye of the law.” Plato, Laws, 874c

The nature of society described here seems to have persisted from the Mycenaean period through the classical one.

Five Ages of Man according to Hesiod

Of interest is the description by Hesiod of Five Ages of Men in his Works and Days. The first age was the Golden One. Hesiod says: (line 109)

  • Old age did not oppress them
  • They delighted in Festivities
  • They spent their lives apart from toil and distress
  • They had all good things and shared them
  • They are spirits on the earth, guardians of mortals, watch over judgements, clad in invisibility, walking everwhere, givers of wealth.

Hesiod seems to be describing the deities close to Zeus here. Even the female deities are so described. What seems to have happened is that the idea of a lord of a physical territory was transferred to a spiritual territory. There is no distinction between the sexes here. But though the goddesses are without toil they still must make laws and enforce them. Even listening to prayers is a task of sorts. In a normal fiefdom the king does these things and not the queen but both gods and goddesses have these tasks.

The second age was the silver one. Of these people Hesiod says: (line 134)

  • they could restrain themselves from wicked outrage from one another

Hesiod seems to be describing Satyrs and Maenads here with the result an orgiastic existence.

The third age is a bronze one. Of these people Hesiod says: (line 134)

  • They cared only for works of Ares and for acts of Violence

The Amazons are women fit this description by Hesiod but there are men that would fit this descrition as well. Plainly these people are not the ones to complete many painlul tasks. This is violence without plan, order, or justice.

The fourth age is the heroic age. Of these people Hesiod says: (line 134)

  • Evil war and dread battle destroyed these
  • They fought under seven-gated Thebes in the land of Cadmus while they fought for the sake of Oedipus’ sheep.
  • They brought in boats over the great gulf of the sea to Troy for the sake of fair-haired Helen.
  • They now dwell in the Isle of the Blessed.

Not only does Hesiod describe heroes but also beautiful women. Homer descibes the mortal women of this time in hisOdyssey as:

  • Tyro, that noble dame, Poseidon lay with her.
  • Antiope, slept in the arms of Zeus.
  • Alcmene, lay in the arms of Zeus.
  • fair Epicaste, married her own son.
  • beautiful Chloris
  • buxom Pero, the admination of all beholders.
  • Leda
  • Iphimedeia, lay with Poseidon.
  • Phaidra
  • Procis
  • fair Ariadne, Whom Theseus had not joy of
  • Maira
  • Clymene
  • Accursed Eriphyle
  • Hesiod mentions Semele who mingled in love with Zeus in his Theogony
  • Hesiod mentions fair-haired Helen in his Works and Days line 163

These women are known for beauty and for being the choice of gods. Helen is a beautiful woman who is so desirable that a war is fought for her. Many of the other women are similarly desirable as is proved by their appeal to the deities.

The fifth age is the age of Hesiod himself. And the people of this times will not cease from toil and distress by day, nor from being worn out from suffering at night. Pandora is clearly a woman of the Fifth Age. Her qualities include:

  • A beautiful, lovely form of a maiden similar in her face to the immortal goddesses
  • Ability given by Athen to work crafts and weave richlyworked cloth
  • Aphrodite gave her golden grace poured around her head with desirability and hunger satisfaction
  • Hermes gave her a wily and cynical nature

This may not be a complete description of all the roles that women took in ancient Greece, but it is really diverse. In the first age the women are without toil, yet they carry out noble tasks. They were so noble they became deities. In the second age the women frolic. In the third age women fight. In the fourth age the beauty of women is so desirable that men fight for it. In the fifth age the women are not so desirable and they had to toil, particularly with craft work and weaving.

Of these ages only in the first are women protected from violence. In the second age violence is part of the fun. In the third age everyone paticipates in violence. In the fourth age desirability generates violence. Int the fith age there are choices and justice is in the hands of the people. Without reverence for the law violence againct women will be a fact of life.


Andromache by Euripides contains references to slavery because Andromacy became a slave when Troy fell. In the drama she is a slave scheming against the wife of her owner. She has a maid who must also be a slave. A conversation between Andromache and the maid follows:

...................Wilt thou then go for me?

How shall I explain my long absence from the house?

Thou art a woman; thou can invent a hundred ways.

There is a risk, for Hermione keeps no careless guard.

Dost look to that? Thou are disowning thy friends in distress.

Not so; never taunt me with that. I will go, for of a truth a woman and
a slave is not of much account, e'en if aught befall me.

Later Hermione says to Andromache:

.............................................But if a god or man should
haply wish to save thee, thou must atone for thy proud thoughts of hap-
pier days now past by humbling thyself and crouching prostrate at my
knees, by sweeping out my halls, and by learning, as thou sprinklest 
water from a golden ewer, where thou now art. Here is no Hector, no
Priam with his gold, but a city of Hellas.  Yet thou, miserable woman,
hast gone so far in wantoness that thou canst lay the down with the 
son of the very man that slew thy husband, and bear children to the mur-
derer.  Such is all the race of barbarians.