Roles of Men and Women in Ancient Greece

The roles of men and women in Ancient Greek society differed depending on city-state, social class, and situation. Male dominance over women was the norm, though.

The Ancient Greek attitude of male dominance and negativity toward women goes all the way back to the writings of Homer and to the Greek myths.
In the Iliad, who caused the Trojan War? Helen, an unfaithful wife who ran off with Prince Paris of Troy. The heroes – Achilles and Odysseus among them – were all men. Time after time, and in example after example, men in the epics and in the myths were the heroes. Men often played cowards in the stories too, shown as examples of how not to behave as a Greek man.

Painting depicting Helen and Prince Paris of Troy (Guido Reni) (public domain)
The idea that women were not to be trusted trouble makers was common throughout Greek society. It was viewed that women were to be kept in the household. They were to manage the slaves, raise the children, and essentially stay out of sight in public places.

Is this realistic in day to day life? No. Women had to run errands and do things around town, but if at all possible, women should stay at home and do their job. Their job was to manage the household.

If a woman was to run the household, men were to run the city-state. You had to be a man to qualify as a citizen. Men ran the assemblies and councils, and they were making the dramatic speeches to win an argument for one side or the other of a political debate. Men were also expected to defend their city-state from Greek or foreign enemies when necessary.

This brings us to Sparta…The city-state of Sparta was a bit different. Yes, men dominated, but they were also gone a lot, putting down helot rebellions, fighting the Persians, conquering neighbors, training and hanging out at the barracks, etc. Women had to have the power to run things when the men were away – and in case the men never came home.

It’s often quoted that Spartan women told their sons and husbands going off to battle to “come back carrying your shield or lying on it.” Spartans considered it honorable to die for their polis. If Spartan women really told their men this bit about their shields, the women were reminding the men to do their duty honorably.

We often praise the Ancient Greeks for the things they gave us – democracy, philosophy, new ideas of math, science, art, architecture, medicine, and many other things. We must also realize that, like all other civilizations, including our own, they had their faults and weaknesses. Just ask an Ancient Greek woman.

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