Women in Ancient Greece were Chattels. Or were they?

Greek temple at Paestum, Italy

Greek temple but not in Greece. This temple is in Paestum, Italy

Everything I’d read suggested that women in Ancient Greece were chattels. That their position was even worse than that of women in Ancient Rome. Neither could be citizens. First their fathers governed (owned?) them; then husbands and sometimes even grown-up sons. They should remain within the home, concentrating on children and weaving. (The distaff side that Sarah mentioned last week was much to the fore.)

gold ornaments from Machlos, Crete, 2600-1900 BC

gold ornaments, Machlos, Crete, 2600-1900 BC

You may recall that the law placed restrictions on what freeborn women in Ancient Greece could do (see my earlier blog on sumptuary laws). Our freeborn woman could not leave the city at night, nor could she wear gold jewellery or a  garment with a purple border, nor could she be attended by more than one slave. (There were exceptions, relating to being drunk or a courtesan or committing adultery. Yes, quite.)

Women in Crete were different?

drinking vessel (rhyton) in shape of bull's head, Heraklion MuseumMy eyes were opened on a recent visit to Santorini and Crete. There were interesting revelations about women in Ancient Greece from Knossos, in spite of all the manipulation of the site done by Arthur Evans.

This dramatic bull sculpture is a stone drinking vessel (rhyton) from Knossos, dating back to 1600-1450 BC. The snout is inlaid with white seashell. The left side of the head and the horns have been restored. On the right side you can see [click to enlarge] the rock crystal in the right eye, rimmed with red jasper. He’s magnificent, don’t you think?

On the female front, these are the snake goddesses, so called because of the snakes held up by the smaller one and the possibility that those are snakes twined round the arms of the larger one. These days, some archaeologists suggest they are not snakes but ropes. Take your choice.
Me, I’m happy with snakes.These statuettes date from 1650-1550 BC and came from the Knossos-Temple Repositories. These ladies wear fabulous garb: richly decorated flounced skirts, with embroidered aprons and close-fitting bodices. Both have their large breasts exposed, presumably as a symbol of fertility.

So some women in Ancient Greece had status?

It would seem so from the goddess figurines. Also from the prevalence of women, again with sumptuous exposed breasts, in some of the  restored frescoes.

Like this one from the town of Akrotiri, on Santorini:Akrotiri, fresco of womenThe enlarged details below show the bare-breasted woman holding a necklace, from the left of the fresco. On the right, below, is the seated woman who has an injured foot and is treating it. (Hard to see, I agree, but the guide assured us that that was what was going on.) What matters here is that the huge fresco is all about women. It dates from around 1600-1500 BC.

Akrotiri fresco detail, bare-breasted woman with necklace               Akrotiri fresco detail, woman with injured foot

Women in Gortyn had a lot more freedom

Gortyn, in the central south of Crete, was the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrene from 27 BC. But it was an important town long before that.

The best evidence lies in the Law Code of Gortyn, inscribed on stone blocks dating from the 5th century BC. Here is one:Gortyn law code stone, inscribed in Greek

If you attempt to decipher it, you need to know that the writing is “as the ox ploughs”: one line runs from left to right, the next line runs right to left, and so on throughout.

The slabs with the Law Code of Gortyn formed part of the circular wall of the Bouleuterion (council house), on the eastern side of the Agora. During the Roman period (1st century AD), the building became an Odeum (a roofed theatre), though the slabs, with the laws, remained in place. (The brick building covering them is a modern addition.)Gortyn, Roman Odeum with modern brick building behind, sheltering Law Code

Here you can see the modern brick building. Visitors may not go inside, but can view the Law Code through the arches.Gortyn protective building over Law Code

This is the view visitors get. It’s certainly impressive, especially given that those ashlar blocks are about 2500 years old.

And this, transcribed, is the Law Code of Gortyn, laid out as it is on the slabs. Column 1 is on the right. Click to enlarge. Happy deciphering 😉

Gortyn Law Code transcribed

Women in Ancient Greece vs Women in Gortyn?

What was the difference?  Compare Gortyn with Athens, for example.

Women in Athens could not own property and always had to have a guardian. Women in Gortyn could own property and could appear alone in the law court to speak for themselves in their cases. They could not adopt a child, but could administer their own possessions, decide on their own marriage and share paternal inheritance with their brothers.
That, for the time, was a lot of freedom.

To quote an example  (in an English translation, I’m happy to say):

[Column VII] The heiress (a daughter with no brothers or sisters) is to be married to the oldest of the living brothers of her father…
[Column VIII] If the heiress, though of an age to marry, does not wish to be married to the groom-elect … the heiress is to have the house, if there is one, besides whatever is in the house, and obtaining half of the remaining estate, she is to be married to whoever else she wishes of those who ask from the tribe. She is however to give a share of the property (to the rejected groom-elect).

Sounds like a pretty fair deal, for the time. And the heiress got to choose. That didn’t happen to other women in Ancient Greece, did it? Or in Rome.

Fresco, Heraklion MuseumIt’s taken a long time to get back to a similar degree of freedom for women. Clearly, if we do not defend such freedoms, we risk losing them.

Joanna Maitland author


4 thoughts on “Women in Ancient Greece were Chattels. Or were they?

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    This is so interesting. Pockets of women in some kind of power seem to crop up from time to time. We know about the Amazons. I understand women in the Middle Ages did have some power. Eleanor of Aquitaine owned land and when I was researching for the real Macbeth, I discovered chatelaines of castles (ie, the wife) certainly had authority. As you say, it’s been a long time coming to get the freedoms and choices we have now.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, I was really surprised about how much freedom Cretan women had but then, later, they lost it all and became chattels, like the rest of women in Ancient Greece. Which goes to prove that we can’t ever stop being vigilant about freedoms we’ve won. It’s so easy to lose them again. Women in Anglo-Saxon England had a fair degree of autonomy but the Normans did away with most of it.

  2. Sophie

    This is truly astonishing. And the subsequent loss of such self-determination —indeed its near disappearance from history — sends a chill up the spine. I kept hearing “Roe Versus Wade Overturned” in my head. Thank you, Joanna.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I share your concerns, Sophie. And now that SCOTUS has declared a president above the law for official acts, anything could happen. Of course, Biden is president at the moment. Just imagine what he might do in the next 6 months, after the SCOTUS decision, to ensure he stays president? Trump would, I bet. I’m sure Biden won’t do anything previously illegal. But just think if he did. And what that might be…
      “Hoist with one’s own petard” comes to mind.


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