History The more you know

The woman between Athens and Sparta

Women throughout history, as we know, have not been treated properly, especially when it comes to ancient times. The sources do nothing but continue to bear witness to us as in everyday life the role of women was precise and well inscribed in a framework with a thick and immutable frame.

Iconographic sources, find literary works and not only have allowed historians to deal with a subject as wide and at times even dispersed in the most punctual and orderly way possible. The limits of discourse are enlarged and increasingly overflow not only in the social and psychological but also in the historical, cultural and economic spheres.

In the period from the 7th to the 4th century BC, in reality, it could be said that the woman had a social role did not. The family nucleus on which all archaic and classical Greek society is based includes the female-only marginally. Used only for reproduction so that man had descendants, his only function was to procreate.

When we talked about marriage, it meant a simple and apathetic contract drawn up between two families, which often took on political and social characteristics. And so it will be for many other centuries of history, without considering that in some countries the marriage bond is still seen only in this context. But not only that: a man could easily commit adultery, without any consequence. The other sex in the event of treason was punished with very severe penalties, in addition to divorce and the loss of the entire estate.

The Athenian woman was a gift: together with her dowry she was – most of the time without difficulties or impediments of various types – given to her future husband who automatically became his guardian, if not even master. Child support and home care were what a woman devoted herself to her whole life. The role of the husband, the owner of the house and all the assets of the family is completely different. The only man could do business, work and have a social life. This was forbidden to the fair sex.

The Oikos – a Greek term for the house – also outlines its content, land and cattle, all under the control and administration of the woman. Loyalty, respect and observance must have been characteristics of the wife towards her husband. Obviously, however, the pact provided for a commitment on one side only, the man was freer to do what he wanted.

Thus his wife devoted herself to weaving, to the organization of banquets – to which she could not participate at all – and spent her entire day on the gynaeceum, a special room in which she often spent her free time often with her children and others slaves who lived with her.

But here is an exception: the woman was allowed to leave the house for religious holidays. Only here he had equal human rights. Not only could he actively participate, but also be elected priestess and thus play a fundamental role in the performance of the ceremonies. At the same time, however, their social and political rights remained non-existent.

But the situation changes dramatically marrying the focus on another city: in Sparta women enjoyed greater freedom. Not only did they have easier access to education than Athenian ones, but they could also afford to overlook and not worry about the house or the development and maintenance of children. And so the Spartans attend gymnasiums, have fun, dance and participate in the social life of the city.

Xenophon writes in the legislation of Lycurgus that the Spartan society gave women more freedom, but on condition that it too was in any case well defined: it is said that they were obliged to follow a diet almost exclusively based on cereals, while the wine I was a great taboo food.

The city that based its fame on the strength and physicality of its citizens allowed the fairer sex to access the same gymnastic workouts designed for men. Even women had to base their power on the strength of their bodies. All this certainly aroused much criticism but at the same time also envied rival cities.

The only truly free women were the ἑταίραι. Sexual performance, companionship and relationships were what the ethereal offered to man. For the most part liberated slaves or foreign women they were born with this role already on them because since they were small they were instructed in this direction. They sang, danced, performed in front of everyone and had access to banquets, even the most reserved ones.

We are still very far from the recognition of the woman with her role and her deserved dignity, but the presence of these ethereal ones shows, after all, that as much as a society can be oppressive and limiting towards the fairer sex, there is always a small component that opposes everything. The exception that confirms the rule.

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