Domestic Life


The Greek House


The Greek house normally consisted of two stories with rooms built around a courtyard. Two rooms in the Greek house, the andrôn ('men's apartment' or 'banqueting hall') and the gynaikônitis ('women's quarters') reveal much about the relationship between the sexes in Greek culture. The following reconstruction, although it is of a house in Olynthus in the northern Aegean area, nevertheless is typical of houses all over the Greek world, including Athens. The gynaikônitis is the room on the second floor on the right side of this cross-section and the andrôn is right underneath it.



From Connolly & Dodge, The Ancient City


As a rule women were kept secluded in the gynaikonitis,1 which was usually located on the second floor of the house, out of way of male visitors whom the husband might be entertaining at a banquet and symposium in the andrôn. The Greeks believed that there there were two different spheres of activity for men and women.  A speaker in Xenophon's The Duties of Domestic Life (7.30.6-31.1) makes this clear:

It is more honorable for a woman to remain indoors rather than to be outside, but for the man it is more shameful to remain indoors than to take care of affairs outside the house.

The household was under the management of the wife. The inner space of the house was her domain, while the husband lived his life, for the most part, out of doors in the Agora, the Assembly, the gymnasium, on the farm, and in time of war, at sea on warships or on the battlefield.  Because she was viewed as incapable of a rationally informed moral decision, a woman was not trusted to go outside of the house unaccompanied; the husband or a slave did the shopping.2 She spent most of her time inside the house performing or supervising such domestic chores as spinning and weaving. The only times that a woman could go outside the house without damaging her reputation would be at weddings, funerals, and certain religious festivals that were limited to females, like the Thesmophoria, or that included both sexes, like the Panathenaea and the Eleusinian Mysteries.3




A woman was always under the control of a man and could not live independently. As a child she was under the control of her father, who in her early teen age years made a marriage contract and agreed on a dowry with a young man, probably in his middle to late twenties. Depending on the inclination of the father, the girl would have little or no input on the choice of a husband. There was no dating, so the bride and groom would not know each other very well because unmarried girls were also kept from any contact with adult males outside the family. The object of marriage was not the emotional satisfaction of the married pair, but the procreation of children, especially a male heir.4 Once the wedding took place, the young bride was now under the control of her husband and remained so until his death or divorce. 

Here is a wedding procession accompanied by singing and the music of a lyre, in which the bride was escorted by the groom to his home. Note the wedding torches (woman on far left is carrying two, the woman on far right, one) which were an essential part of the ritual.





A young bride, who may have been as young as 14 or 15, faced many problems in her new situation in the house of her husband. She had led a sheltered life in the house of her father with little education. It was the duty of the husband to teach her her duties, but some husbands may have neglected this responsibility and still blamed their young wives for any mistakes they made. In Xenophon's Oeconomicus, Socrates criticizes Critobulus for not giving his wife the proper training, especially given the youth and inexperience of the wife (3.11-14):

Socrates: If a wife has been well taught by her husband and still does a bad job of managing the household, then perhaps the wife deserves blame. But if he does not teach her properly  and should find her ignorant of such things, isn't it right that the husband be held responsible? At any rate, Critobulus, you must tell us the truth (we are all friends here). Is there anyone else to whom you entrust more serious matters than your wife? 
Critobolus: No one. 
Socrates: Is there anyone with whom you speak less than your wife? 
Critobolus: I have to admit, only a few. 
Socrates: And you married her as a very young girl with the smallest possible experience of life? 
Critobolus: That is very true. 
Socrates: Therefore it would be far more surprising if she should know what she has to say and do than if she should make mistakes.

A character named Procne in a fragment from a play by Sophocles talks about the problems that marriage creates for a young girl (Tereus fr. 583, 1-12):

Outside the house of our father I am nothing. But often 
I looked at the nature of women in this way, 
that we are nothing. We as little girls, I think, live the 
sweetest life of all human beings in our father's house. 
For innocence always makes children's upbringing joyful. 
But when we, having reached the age of reason and puberty, 
we are thrust outside and we are sold5 
from our ancestral gods and our parents, 
some to Greeks in other cities, others to barbarians (i.e., non-Greeks), 
some to good homes, others to abusive ones. 
And these things, whenever one night yokes us to a husband, 
we have to praise and think that everything is fine.

Euripides has Medea, who has just been rejected by her husband Jason, rail against the inequities of marriage for women: divorce being easy for men but very difficult for women, the problems of adjusting to life in a new home and dealing with a husband, and a woman's isolation in the house (Medea 230-51):

First of all it is necessary that women buy 
a husband with an excess of money [the dowry] and accept 
him as master of their bodies; for this is a still more 
painful evil than that evil, and in this there is the greater 
contest, whether to receive evil or good. For divorces6 
are not glorious for women, nor is it possible to reject 
a husband. A woman facing new ways of doing things 
has to be a prophet, if she did not learn from her own home 
how above all she will manage her husband. 
And if the husband lives with us performing these things well 
life is enviable; if not, you might as well die. 
But the husband, whenever in his life with his wife 
is annoyed by what goes on in the house, going outside 
he relieves his spirit from distress 
[turning either to some friend or some comrade]. 
but we have to look to one life [i.e., the husband]. 
They [i.e., men] say that we live a secure life in the house, while 
they fight with the spear, but they are mistaken. 
I would rather stand in a battle-line three times 
rather than give birth once.

Pericles perhaps summed up the Athenian view of women best in his Funeral Oration (Thuc. 2.46):

If I must talk about the womanly virtue of those of you who will now be widows, my advice will be brief. You will have a great reputation if you are not worse than your own given nature, and so will any woman about whom there is the least talk among men either in praise or blame.

Although Pericles is here addressing wives who have lost their husbands in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, no doubt his advice represents what Greek men thought about women in general. First, Pericles mentions women's "proper (or normal) nature" and urges them not fall short of it. What is this nature as the Greek male saw it? How high a standard is Pericles setting forth for Athenian women? Aristotle may help us here; he has some interesting thoughts on the nature of the human female. Clearly he believes that women are less able to control themselves than men and in general morally inferior (Historia Animalium 608b 8-12):

In comparison with a man a woman is more jealous and complaining of her lot, more given to verbal and physical abuse. The female is more melancholy than the male and more despondent, also more shameless, more given to lying, and more disposed to cheat….

It would seem that Pericles is recommending that Athenian women do the best they can, given their inferior moral capacity. The invisibility ("least talk among men") which Pericles recommends to widows contrasts dramatically with the public visibility so cherished by Greek males and the glory which military and civic services brought them.



1. The women no doubt had the run of the whole house when the husband did not have male guests. Return to text
2. The seclusion of women was truer of wealthier families. Women in poorer families no doubt had to help their husbands outside the home by working and performing other tasks. For example, if they did not have a slave and their own well, they would have had to go to a public fountain house in the Agora to get water. Return to text
3. In Sparta, women had fewer limitations placed on them. Because the Spartans had an almost obsessive concern about the production of healthy warriors (to preserve the state against the threat of revolt from helots and a neighboring subject population), Spartan women led a more physically active life. Instead of being secluded inside their houses, they practiced athletics out-of-doors to make themselves more physically fit for child-bearing. Women also went so far as to seek male honor by sponsoring entries in chariot races in Panhellenic events like the Olympic festival. Return to text
4. How much a pawn a woman was in the matter of marriage can be seen in the situation in which a father died without a male heir. In this case, if he had a daughter, she inherited her father's estate (she was called an epiklêros, 'heiress') but only as a stopgap until she could marry and pass the property on to her sons. The nearest male relative (e.g., a brother of the deceased) was permitted by law to find a husband for her among less closely related males or even marry her himself.  Not even the fact that the woman and the prospective husband were both already married could prevent this new marriage. The most important consideration for the Athenians was that a male heir be provided to inherit the property
and continue the family. Return to text
5. This is a reference to the dowry. Return to text
6. In order to divorce his wife, all a husband had to do was to make an announcement of the divorce before witnesses, while the wife had to present in person a written request for divorce to the archon. Of course, a husband could physically prevent her from doing so as Alcibiades did with his wife Hipparete (Plut. Alc. 8):

Hipparete was a well-disciplined women who loved her husband, but she was displeased by his [Alcibiades'] disrespect for their marriage, with his affairs with prostitutes, both foreign [Greek, but not Athenian] and Athenian, so she left Alcibiades and went to live with her brother. Since Alcibiades did not care and continued to live the life of a playboy, she had to file a writ of divorce with the archon not through a representative, but in person. When she did this in accordance with the law, Alcibiades arrived, picked her up, and carried her home through the Agora.  Return to text.


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