Childbirth in Athens took place in the home, with all the women of the house, including mothers, sisters and servants. In some cases there was a servant called omphalotomos (the cutter of the naval chord) who was also present. Various ancient sources refer to lullabies being sung to babies although the words and melodies are not known. Aristotle tells us that the child’s first toy was a rattle, and we understand that most ancient Greek children toys are similar to use that we have today (such as spinning tops, balls, yo-yo’s and pull along toys). The Greeks were very fond of animals for their children, as often children’s rattles would be either wooden or made out of bronze or terracotta in the shape of animals, and stories told to them such as Aesop’s fables which also featured animals. Athenian children had household pets such as birds dogs hares and mice.
Girls would’ve had a limited education, which reflected their role in society. They were taught ‘feminine arts’ such as spinning weaving and sewing, unlike boys who would’ve attended a formal school to equip them for public life. Girls also needed knowledge of mythology and religion and were educated for their role in the home. All school children copied a passage by Menander that stated that “A man who teaches a woman to write should recognise that he is providing poison to an asp”.
As a young maiden, girls would’ve spent most of their time in the household with the other women. The only reason she would leave the house would be to perform religious duties. There were few opportunities for women, but some of the most honourable would be: To be one of the arktoi (“bears”) in the service of Artemis A kanephoros (basket-carrier) in the Panathenaia
One of the arrephoroi (the small girls) who honoured Athena
Women were expected to take part in death rites. They had to do the prosthesis (the preparation of a body) before the ekphora (the funeral) and had to carry the corpse in silence all the way to the tomb. At the funeral, women would cry and wail and bang their chests and pull their hair in mourning, and the women who came to the funeral were not to leave the tomb before the men. On the next day after the funeral the house would have to be cleansed and the ‘polluted’ women. The polluted women include the mother, the wife, sisters and daughters and the daughter’s cousins and children. They are seen as ‘polluted’ because women are the ones who prepare the corpse and had close contact with the dead and are therefore seen as needed to be cleansed as well as the house. On the 30th Day, all mourning must have stopped.
Women would have their husband chosen for them by the kyrios (the guardian) when they were 12-14 years old, and marriage was just a matter of living together and having children. Athenian women did not have the same legal, social and religious implications that it has in our society, they would be forced to marry the chosen man (who would be around the age of 30). An engue (agreement/promise) would be made by the kyrios of both the groom and the bride. In this engue, the dowry would be decided. The dowry was the girl’s portion of her father’s estate and on her marriage it passed from her families control to her husband. The dowry was returned if the couple divorced. A gamos, or celebration, was held to mark the passing of the bride from her father’s household to that of her husband. Before leaving her own oikos (family) her father would offer a sacrifice at the family altar, formally announcing that he was giving his daughter to another household.
A man in Athens could divorce his wife by rejecting her in front of witnesses or simply by sending her back to her old home, although the children of the marriage remained with the father. However, it was a lot harder for a woman to separate with her husband. She had to seek out an archon (an Athenian official) and provide good reasons for the divorce to be granted. Until a woman produced a child, her father had the right to end the marriage. There were many different types of Athenian women, such as:
Wealthy women who were less restricted and led more secluded lives than poorer citizen women A poor citizen woman had little choice about shopping in the agord (Athenian market place) They had restrictions on their political and public roles
They did have a status as wives, as holders of certain legal rights and as mothers. Metic women
Resident foreigners (non-citizens)
Came to Athens seeking employment
Many of these engaged in a variety of work, particularly as hetarai (the hostess or sexual companions of citizen men at symposia, dinner parties)
Totally controlled by their masters or the families to which they belonged Generally performed the more menial tasks in society
Pornoi – Street prostitute
Gyanike – a married citizen woman
Arktoi – the girls who danced at festivals dressed as bears Interview with an Athenian woman
Interviewer: What’s your name?
Woman: I’m known as the wife of Cyrano.
Interviewer: And how old are you and your husband?
Woman: I am 23 years old and my husband is 46.
Interviewer: When were you married?
Woman: I married when I was 13, and my husband was 36.
Interviewer: So what do you spend your days doing?
Woman: I spend most of my time in the household with the other women, doing housework such as cleaning and cooking, and I look after my three children, 3 boys. Interviewer: Are these your only children?
Woman: Yes, they are 4, 7 and 10. I did have a girl a few years back but my husband refused to recognise her as his child because she was a girl, and she was placed in a clay jar and abandoned outside the front door. The next day the jar and my baby were gone. Interviewer: And how did you react?
Woman: It was horrible, my own flesh and blood being abandoned on my husband’s behalf. There was nothing I could do though, no way of retaliation or arguing against him, that was strictly forbidden. Interviewer: I assume it would be hard. Do you like married life? Woman: I have to like it, so I’ve made myself believe that I do. It’s not like I have much choice in the matter, no reason is a good enough reason for me to want a divorce in the archon’s opinion. Interviewer: Is Cyrano your only husband or have you been married before? Woman: I have been married before, but my father decided to end the marriage before I had a child because he found me someone better, Cyrano. Interviewer: I see, and are you okay with that choice?
Woman: I suppose so.
Interviewer: Understandable. Thank you for your insight to the life of an Athenian woman. Woman: You’re welcome and thank you.