Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Household, family, women

Children at play


The Greeks did not have the concept of the modern nuclear family, and did not even have the word ‘family’.  The basic unit was the household, the oikos, which included a complex kinship structure, slaves, land, dwellings and storehouses. In theory, it was economically self-sufficient. At the head of this unit was the master (kurios), who in theory had sovereign power over all its constituent elements.  These included all the women, unmarried brothers, any son who had not attained the age of majority, and slaves. The role of the oikos was the production of heirs and the preservation of family property (the klēros).

The house
Archaeology has not yet discovered an aristocratic district of Athens. In contrast with the splendid public buildings, Athenian houses from the sixth to the fourth centuries were modest even for wealthy citizens. Most would be flat-roofed (some two-storey) with a wooden framework, built of sun-dried mud-brick reinforced with timbers, supported on stone foundations. Because mud is not a durable material and rapidly decomposes, little has survived of these houses.  However we know that in the larger houses, rooms were arranged round a central courtyard. 

Furnishings were sparse. The most elaborate feature was probably the banquet couch, which also served as a bed and a funeral bier. Simple stools were common. Clothes were folded and kept in wooden chests. Although looms have not survived depictions of them on vases document an activity that was probably practised in every household.

The Athenian house was divided into men’s and women’s quarters. In the andron, the men of the house entertained their guests. This was the one room likely to be decorated. As this room was often near the entrance, guests attending a symposium could do so without entering the inner parts.  The women’s quarters, the gynaikon, was at the back of the house, where the activities would have been child-rearing, cooking and weaving. According to the Roman writer, Cornelius Nepos, the gynaikon was ‘never entered by the man unless he is a very close relative’.

Birth and childhood

Notices were pasted on the door of the house to announce a birth: a tuft of wool for a girl, an olive wreath for a boy.  However, three out of five Athenian children died before reaching adulthood, and death was not always from natural causes. In Athenian households the father decided if a new-born child was to live. He would run round the hearth carrying it on the fifth day of its life in a ceremony called the Amphidromia.   On the tenth day the child usually received its name.

In wealthier household the children were cared for by family servants, and often their closest associates were nurses and slaves. Male servants often acted as tutors (paidagogoi) for the boys until the age of seven, when they would accompany their charges to more specialised teachers of reading, writing, music and athletics.  

Girls remained at home until marriage, at about the age of fifteen, where they were taught spinning, weaving and the preparation of food.

A man would not usually marry until his thirties. His wife would be fourteen or fifteen. The average age of death seems to have been 45.0 for men and 36.2 for women. Skeletal remains suggest 4.6 births per woman and a ratio of 1:6 for juvenile deaths.

Associations and the life cycle

Three out of five Athenian children died before reaching adulthood. Death was not always from natural causes. In Athenian households the father decided if a new-born child was to live. He would run round the hearth carrying it on the fifth day of its life in a ceremony called the Amphidromia.  On the tenth day the child usually received its name. 

Every Athenian male was part of a network of associations. He was born into one of the ten tribes. He also belonged to one of the thirty-nine demes, the unit created by Cleisthenes to dispel the power of the great families. A male Athenian was named for his father and his deme.  Even non-citizens (metics) had to be registered in a deme by his patron (protastes) though they did not possess the voting rights of citizens.

The Athenians attached huge importance to youth; they represented strength and the future of the polis. The stages in a citizen boy’s life were attached to festivals. In the third year he attended the February Anthesteria festival, held in honour of Dionysus, where he had his first taste of wine. In a subsequent autumn he would be enrolled in a phratria, a primarily religious body, as a preparation for citizenship.  At the age of five or six his father presented him at the altar of Zeus Phratios. At seven he would have been allowed to read, and at twelve to participate in religious rites. At the age of eighteen, there would be another sacrifice and his hair was cut. He was voted into membership and his name was inscribed on the list. His betrothal was witnessed by the phratria.

A man would not usually marry until his thirties. His wife would have been fourteen or fifteen. The average age of death seems to have been 45.0 for men and 36.2 for women. Skeletal remains suggest 4.6 births per woman and a ratio of 1: 6 for juvenile deaths. 


A scene from the gynaceum:
a nurse hands a baby to its mother
Athenian women seem to have been even more restricted than other Greek women.  Respectable women were secluded in the home. Far from enhancing their public roles, the democracy probably restricted them as they could no longer gain power through manipulating their male relatives as was common in more aristocratic societies.  The concepts of freedom and democracy simply did not apply to them. They could not vote or even give evidence in a law court in their own person. Their capacity to buy and sell was extremely limited; they had little freedom of choice in marriage and all their lives they were under the authority of a male guardian, the kyrios.  

From her marriage at the age of fourteen or fifteen a woman was
defined by her husband. In public only prostitutes used their own names. A respectable married women was known simply as ‘the wife of…’ When Pericles told Athenian war widows that the glory of a woman was to be talked about as little as possible, he was expressing a commonplace.

In some respects, poorer women had more freedom than the wives of wealthy citizens. Economic considerations meant that they  could not be kept in seclusion as they were forced to work in the fields.  They could socialise with other women while fetching water, washing clothes or borrowing utensils.  However, better off women were kept indoors in the women’s quarters where they engaged in weaving and spinning or supervising the nurses who looked after their babies.  Scholars disagree about whether they could attend the theatre but they could never play the female parts. Out of doors they would often wear a thin veil. 

Were Athenian women citizens? Pericles’ citizenship law of 451 defined an Athenian citizen as the son of two citizen parents. But a woman’s ‘citizenship’ did not make her an independent being. The law simply meant that she was seldom married to a non-Athenian. The law had to be relaxed later in the century after the male population had dwindled as a result of the Peloponnesian War, and it was necessary to increase the number of citizens.

Prostitutes were seen as necessary but were universally despised. Many had been enslaved on military campaigns. The ‘red-light’ district of Athens was the Kerameikos, where they were so cheap that even some slaves could afford them. Not an enviable life. On the other hand, the hetaira was an up-market courtesan, who provided entertainment for men at symposia.


Women had specialised religious cults in particular the Thesmophoria, celebrated by respectable married women in honour of Demeter and Persephone. In Athens the festival lasted three days during which the women camped for two nights on the Pnyx hill, close to the site of the Assembly.  During this period all public business was suspended. 

Women also acted as oracles and priestesses, and took part in funerals. Pericles is able to address the war widows, because he is speaking at a funeral. As religious processions and funeral were quite frequent, Athenian women might have had more opportunity for socialising outside the home than we realise.

Although girls could never be full citizens, a few were destined to be servants of the gods. The most prestigious were the arrhephoroi, up to four citizen girls between the ages of seven and eleven, who lived on the Acropolis in the service of Athena and probably helped to weave the peplos. The girls played at ball and then went with baskets on their heads to the shrine of Aphrodite. 

Statue of a girl dedicated to
Artemis at Brauron
At the temple of Artemis at Brauron in the east Attica young girls of citizen birth between the ages of five and ten would play at being ‘bears’. It is because of this that Lysistrata stakes a claim to be a member of the polis.
When I was seven, I carried the sacred symbols; then at ten I was grinder of Athena’s barley; then at the Brauronian festival of Artemis, I was the Bear-girl in the saffron robe; and when I had grown up handsome, I carried the sacred basket, wearing a necklace of dried figs. Surely I have a right to give good advice to the city. But don't hold it against me that I'm a woman  ... I do my bit: I pay my contribution in men. Aristophanes, Lysistrata (411 BC)

Emotional life

The evidence for family relationships within this private realm is inevitably scanty. Vase paintings show scenes of family life. One depicts a baby in its high chair, another of a child crawling towards its mother watched by a man who is probably its father.

We should not assume that all Athenian men despised their wives or lacked affection for them. The carved reliefs of private tombstones show the grief of bereavement. One reads:
‘Chaerestrate lies in this tomb. When she was alive her husband loved her. When she died he lamented.’ (Epitaph from Piraeus, 4th or 3rd century BC) 

Relief of Thrases and Euandra
with their hands clasped.


We must be careful not to bring too many modern values into the picture. Though Athenian men obviously had more freedom than their wives and daughters, no citizens of Athens had complete control over their own lives. A man could not refuse to join a phratria or to do military service. Both men and women probably saw themselves not primarily as operating as individuals but as performing certain roles: farmer, citizen, mother etc.  All Athenians - men and women alike- were brought up to think of themselves as part of a larger whole and to subordinate their individual concerns to the greater good. The idea of individual human rights had not been thought of.