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Athenian vs. Spartan Women in Antigone's Era
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A Researched Essay posted Nov. 27, 2005

To Have Power or to Not Have Power: Athenian vs. Spartan Women

      When comparing power levels and women’s rights, Sparta was a leader in its time.  Athens and Sparta, though both Greek city-states were different in the way they operated.  More specifically, Sparta was different in the way that they treated their women.  Athenian woman were treated quite appallingly compare to the standards of today’s women.  The stem of this difference seems to lie in how these two city-states were governed.  Sparta, known for its’ militaristic ways, was an oligarchy and Athens, known for its’ philosophers and thinkers, was a democracy.  Sparta’s oligarchy was ruled by a counsel of 5 men, on being a lawmaker or giver.  The lawgiver’s name was Lycurgus.  Lycurgus was known for his warden-like ways in the training of men for war, but also for his equivalence in the rights of Spartan women.  It has been speculated that women’s equality to men sprung from stories “of the Amazons [, warrior women of the Bronze Age, position and bravery] in the Trojan War” (Who were the Amazons?).  Athens, on the other hand, was a democracy that acted with the voice of the people through the Senate and the Roman Council.  It was not surprising then that women were so highly kept and protected.  It has been said the belief of the Athenian man was that “women were…highly sexual beings who could not control their sexual urges and therefore had to be restricted for their own benefit.” (Graham)  It should come as no surprise how they were treated, then.  One of the great literary men of Athens, Euripides, has proclaimed in his book, Meda, “If only children could be gotten some other way with the female sex!  If women didn’t exist, human life would b e free of all its miseries.” (Graham)  Unfortunately, Euripides shared the mindset of the Athenian man.  Where politics, in the way, of having a vote seemed off limits to any Greek woman and childbearing was their number one purpose, the women of these two city-states had some very blatant differences.  The paragraphs below will illuminate some of these.

     When getting down to the specific differences, one must consider all aspects of a woman’s daily life.  It must be considered how they were taught, what their responsibilities were in the Greek home and what rights if any were held.

     By far, the worst case scenario was that of the Athenian woman.  By the 5th century BC, Athenian women were barely considered to be better than slaves.  They were generally not taught to read or write and were not expected to be educated.  Women prior to the 7th century BC were thought to “have been subject to similar rites of passage as boys” (The Women of Athens).   An Athenian woman was not allowed out of the home.  After the 7th century BC and Pericle’s Law on the legitimacy of marriage, women’s rights took a large decline from their already horrible state.  They were expected to command the running of the house by the slaves and bear lots of children. The number of slaves a family had determined what work a woman was allowed to do. There were three classes of woman:  slave women (carried out domestic chores and were nannies to the woman of the houses’ children), Athenian citizen women, and Hetaerae (considered prostitutes though were allowed education and to visit the Agora or marketplace).  The only women that had any rights in Athens were the Concubines or hetaerae whom were considered the prostitutes.  They could move freely through society; however it was noted that they were highly exploited.  They could develop relationships with their male companions and have children, but their children were illegitimate and, therefore, not citizens of Athens. It was stated, though, that “citizen wives and daughters were protected, but the prostitutes or pornoi were open to all forms of sexual exploitation… [and] were maintained by men, or worked in brothels and on the streets.” (Graham) The most important purpose of Athenian women was to be used as bargaining chips in arranged marriages which the father of the bride was in charge of.  This was because of the large dowry that was given to the groom but kept by the father’s brother.  Fathers would marry off their young teenage daughter to men in their 30s. They were not allowed to meet their new groom until a contract had been agreed upon.  Even then, the bride would not become a full member of her new family until the first healthy child was born.  If the child survived mortality, the husband would decide if the baby would be kept.  “If he accepted it, it would live, but if he refused it, it would die” (Graham) by placing the child in a clay pot outside the home or by the roadside.  The wife’s child would be denied if it were “unhealthy or deformed or even of the wrong sex” (Graham).  Female children were often considered inferior to male children.  The father’s brother was responsible for finding the bride a new husband if she was widowed.  If he was dead, then “the woman became a virtual slave” (The Women of Athens) because she could own not property and would have no where to reside.  Women could not divorce their husbands without providing an archon or public official with good reason to do so.  Husbands, however, could divorce a wife and send her home at any time.  They could, also, stop a woman from finding a public official by confining her to the home.  Even Athenian fathers could easily end a marriage up until the first child was born.  If the woman was successfully divorced, she “would loose all rights to her children” (Graham).  An Athenian woman was not to be seen in public, had no rights to vote or take part in state operation.  They could not watch or participate in the Olympic Games because the games were preformed in the nude.  Women were expected to manage the house and slaves, make all the clothing and coordinate weddings, funerals (no crying was allowed of these women, their only function was to prepare the body, carry the libations during the funeral, make sure that food was delivered “to the gravesite on the 3rd and 9th day” (Graham)), and a hundred and twenty state religious festivals honoring the Gods.  It would seem “the men were a lot more taken with the goddesses” than their own women. (Graham)  However, men in Athens depended “on the females as nurturer of life” (Cole).  Male and female roles were both represented by the female goddesses Athena (male) and Demeter (female).  This did not change the fact that female children were less desirable that male children.  The birth of daughters stripped the oikos or household of dowry when they were married off unless a large dowry was available.  This meant the loss of land.  This was not a good move because Solon’s system stated that “the highest political, military, and religious authority went to the men whose families possessed the best and most land” (Cole).  Men could be potentially ruined by women if the woman was caught with another man and the husband did not kill him or divorce the woman.  If the man stayed with an unfaithful wife, then he would loose his citizenship and “be permanently excluded from the political community” (Cole).  One of the only benefits of Athenian society may have been that women could not appear in court as witnesses or even if they were charged with a crime.  Their only link to the judicial system was through a male guardian. However, Perikle’s Citizenship Law brought women to the forefront by insisting that one could only be a citizen of Athens if he or she had both an Athenian mother and father.  This brought women into the limelight and men into a domestic context.  However, Perikle was not a women’s rights activist.  His new law was meant as a slap in the face to the Athenian elite whom though it fashionable and profitable to have foreign wives.  It was truly an antiaristocratic move by allowing him to ostracize individual politicians for ten years.  When it comes down to it, though, Athenian woman truly did have joint role in protecting the city and ensuring that the prominence of the city continued through continuous reproduction.

     The Spartan people were a far more open minded class.  They realized that “regardless of gender all Spartiates had an obligation to serve the militaristic end of Sparta.” (Gaughan)  Therefore, this facilitated greater freedom and financial independence in the women of Sparta.  Spartan women were represented by the goddess Artemis whon was the “God of the hunt and protector of animals, women, girls, youth, and had a connection with adolescence and childbirth” (Who were the Amazons?).  They were strong women who were “taught to read, write and protect themselves” (The Women of Sparta).  They were trained in athletic events such as the “javelin, discus, foot races and arranged battles” (Women of Sparta) in the hopes that they would “strengthen their bodies for healthy childbirth” (Defelice).  Marriage was non-ceremonial to these women.  At age eighteen, they were assigned to a husband that would come and abduct them in the night form their family home.  Marriages in Sparta boiled down to little more that procreation.  Men did not live with their wives in Sparta.  In Fact, they could have many wives.  Women were not expected to be held to their fidelity and it was rumored that there was a high rate of homosexuality.  Spartan men were “expected to give their share of provisions…[and if they failed they would be] expelled from the syssitia (where they lived in military camps) and would lose some of their citizenship rights” (Gill).  Women in Sparta were even allowed to take another husband “if the first husband was away too long at war” (The Women of Sparta).  All children were kept by the Spartan people even though they were raised by nurses not their mothers.  In exchange for the Spartan woman’s many freedoms, they were expected to be warriors and to guard the family property while the husbands were away at war.  This was important since the helots (farmer slaves) and perioeci (craftsmen, merchants, and artisans) often revolted.  Spartan women were even known to start conflicts.  One of the most famous mythical Spartan women, “Menelaus’ wife Helen caused the Trojan War” (Pomeroy).  Spartan women could do anything a man could do including own land, slaves and lend money.  They were often compared to the Amazon women of the Bronze Age whom were a race of dominant warrior women.  Though, it was speculated that these women many have actually been Persian men with their beards shaved off.  No matter what the case, Spartan women were definitely allowed greater freedom, mobility, and were respected far more highly than Athenian women.

     After reviewing the historical data, it is sad to see that two Greek city-states could treat their women so differently.  This leads a lot to the development of women’s rights.  Unfortunately though, even with women’s rights in place, many overseas countries choose not to use them.  The facts are that, in the time period in question, Spartan women were highly regarded as warriors; whereas, the only difference between an Athenian woman and a slave was that a slave owner could kill a slave at anytime.  This is a sad but true comparison of how these women were treated.

Works Cited Page


Cole, Susan. "Women and politics in democratic Athens: 2,500 Years of Democracy." History Today 03 1994: 44. :32- . Infotrac, Expanded Academic ASAP. J. Seargant Reynolds Library. 11 Nov 2005


Defelice, John F. "Spartan Women." History: Review of New Books 12 2003: 31. :86- . Infotrac, Expanded Academic ASAP. J. Seargant Reynolds Library. 23 Nov 2005


Gaughan, Judy. "Women in Classical Athens and Sparta." Women in World History. Colorado State University. 11 Nov. 2005 http://chnm.gmu/wwh/d/94/wwh.html.  


Graham, Casey. "What was the role of women in Athens?." Ancient Greek Women in Athens. 11 Nov. 2005


Oborne, Robin. "Law, the democratic citizen and the representation of women in classical Athens." Past & Present 05 1997: 155. :9- . Infotrac, Expanded Academic ASAP. J. Seargant Reynolds Library. 20 Nov 2005


Pomeroy, Sarah. "Spartan Women." Oxford University Press. Oxford Universtiy Press. 23 Nov. 2005


"Ancient/Classical Histroy: Sparta- A Military State: Spartans and Messenians." 23 Nov. 2005


"Sparta Vs. Athens." Study World. 22 Nov. 2005


"The Women of Athens." Ancient Greek Civilizations. 11 Nov. 2005 of athens.html.


"The Women of Sparta." Ancient Greek Civilizations. 22 Nov. 2005


"Two Faces of Greece: Athens and Sparta." PBS. PBS. 23 Nov. 2005


"Who Were the Amazons?." Ancient Greek Civilizations. 22 Nov. 2005


This instructional web was made in July, 2002, by Prof. Eric Hibbison, who is solely responsible for its content.