Women in Antiquity


The Classical Age, or the Age of Antiquity, traces the beginning of recorded human history which is around 3000 BC until the Early Middle Ages, therefore the mid-400’s. During this age, the Romans extended their borders across Europe whilst, in Greece, democracy flourished. Antiquity is a period of a prosperous boost in art, music, and religion, with the written word making its appearance and spreading. The major part of society was formed by the lower classes who made a living through agriculture as a family business. Although sparse, the middle class was made up of priests, scribes, and craftsmen, who provided employment to others. Armies were another source of income for most men in Antiquity, mainly the Egyptians and the Romans.


At the time, women had few rights and endured a difficult life although the situations varied from one city to another. Generally, classical women received little education – if at all, and retained a domestic and childbearing role, limiting her time to concern herself with politics. Unmarried women were controlled by their fathers who would arrange an alliance with a man whom she had never met. Although women were not considered as citizens, one had the right to divorce her husband once the request was approved by a male member of her family. Women, however, were prohibited from owning land or property and were restricted from participating in politics or employment. It is widely speculated that the idea of “feminism” is a modern phenomenon however this outlook on equal rights has been gradually growing for centuries.

In contemporary times, marriage is a legal unison between a couple who is in a relationship. Although in Third World countries this is not the case, love and affection generally play a huge role in a union between two partners. In the Ancient World, however, marriage was perceived as an economic alliance between two families. As already stated, women were not advised prior to the agreement: the bride’s father and the groom administered the engagement. The ancient brides required a dowry which granted her with economic insurance throughout the marriage – in case of the women’s death, the money would be passed on to her children (not the husband’s children from another woman).


Running a household in Ancient Egypt was thought of as a full-time job: it was deemed impossible for a single individual to work and run a domestic establishment simultaneously. Although both genders were legally equal, it was agreeable for both sexes that it was the woman’s duty to run the household and look after the children while the man would earn a living. In fact, in hieroglyphs, males are depicted with a darker skin tone compared to the women. The woman who ran the household, whether she was the wife of the owner or the owner herself, was given the title of the “Mistress of the House” and it is assumed that men were the “head of the house”.

In the classical world, bearing children was significant for the married couple as they would be able to look after them once the parents aged. A large population meant more workers and wealth into the empire or civilisation. Babies were delivered whilst kneeling or squatting with the assistance of a close relative at home. Documentation suggests that, in the New Kingdom, women were taken to a special location in isolation of the estates to deliver their children. According to one reference, at the time of her menstruation and birthing, women were considered unclean and were declared in segregation for a fortnight – this would have given them a chance to convalesce.


In every empire and civilisation some traditions may be defied. Although it was essential for an individual to follow a law, the family’s lifestyle depended on the family’s values. The dowry law could not be amended by a family member however the occupations of the sexes might be modified. Without a woman, a society could not grow in number and the households would not be managed. There were cases, for example, where women ruled an empire on their own such as Ancient Egypt’s Cleopatra. For Spartan women, the lifestyle was different to that of Athens, for instance. In fact, Athenian writers show their disapproval and shock towards their culture. From birth, females were treated equally as males and were given the necessary education at school. Girls were encouraged to engage in sports as physically healthy women would breed healthy children. Another interesting concept is the fact that Spartan girls were given the opportunity to mature both physically and mentally until they were married off.

Despite these privileges, women were still given a maternal role and, although they could own property and equally inherit their father’s estates as men, they were forbidden to participate in politics and public speaking. Therefore, in every period, the women’s role would be regarded differently according to the city-states they abided in. Unfortunately, there are no authentic records left by women leaving archaeologists and historians to form a past based on documentation left by men.

Written by

Katrina Xuereb

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