Marilyn A. Katz
Ischomachus' wife, like many upper-class women, knew how to sing and dance at religious festivals, and could probably also read and write. Among the tasks she is assigned in the household are those of counting and making a written inventory of all the household utensils together with her husband. And she must budget carefully, he tells her, so that 'provisions stored for a year are not used up in a month'.
The activities depicted on this vase and many like them dating from the mid-fifth century are rather less utilitarian. The alabastron (perfume flask) on the wall establishes that this is an indoor scene in the women's quarters. A woman sits reading aloud from a scroll on which rows of dots are arranged to suggest letters. Another stands before her, holding a chest in which papyrus scrolls were stored; the other two women are listening to the recitation with rapt attention.
The vase on which the scene is depicted is a hydria (water-jar), used by women for fetching water from the well in the courtyard or the communal fountain. Many hydriai show women gathered together and conversing amicably as they go about their household tasks. The scene on this vase and on others like it suggests that women of the upper classes, at any rate, got together for cultural activities as well. Around 450 bce.
The religious life of Athenians was not confined to their participation in the plenitude of city or deme festivals. Families, we know, sacrificed together, and cult observances of various kinds were important family activities. In Xenophon's Oeconomicus, for example, Ischomachus' wife sacrificed and offered prayers along with her husband when they began their married life together. In this illustration, a woman carries offerings to the altar before the door of the house, which is represented on the left.
Women in the home might also initiate ritual action on their own. A character in Menander's Dyscolus, for example, complains that his superstitious mother travels around her district making sacrifices at various shrines. In another play a woman excavates a hole in the wall so that she can communicate with her illegitimate daughter who lives next door, and disguises the breach as a household shrine. Painter of London. 470 BCE.
The women represented on this vase are all given mythological names: from the left, Helen, Clytemnestra, an unidentified figure, Cassandra, Iphigenia, and Danae. But their activities are typical of those represented on many vases depicting the women's quarters. Helen is winding yarn into a basket; Clytemnestra holds out an alabastron (perfume-jar) to her, and there is a mirror on the wall between them; to the right of the column a woman extends a basket to Cassandra, who is adjusting her veil; and, standing in the open doorway, Iphigenia is wrapping a ribbon around her head as she looks toward Danae, who is walking towards her and removing a crown from a chest. The vase is a pyxis, a round and lidded jar used for holding women's cosmetics. In this view, the body of the vase has been extended in transcript so as to show the whole view of a typical gynaeceum (women's quarters) scene. Around 460 BCE.
Bread-baking was women's work within the home, and the task was important to the daily functioning of the household, since the everyday Greek diet consisted of bread and various things eaten with it: cheese, vegetables, and especially fish. (Meat was consumed mostly on only festival occasions.)
The process of bread-baking was an onerous one. The meal (from wheat or barley) had first to be ground into flour, then mixed with liquid, kneaded, shaped and, finally, baked. In wealthier homes, household slaves would have performed much of this labor: Ischomachus' wife supervises the baker in their home, but her husband also suggests to her that mixing flour and kneading dough are good exercise. These and other kitchen tasks are represented often by terracotta figurines, like the one shown here: the woman is kneading dough or rolling out her cakes.
By the end of the fifth century city-residents might have purchased their daily bread. For by then there were bread-markets in Athens, and some of the most talented bakers were known by name. Xenophon reports, for example, that a man named Cyrebus 'feeds his whole family well and lives in abundance' from breadbaking. Late sixth-century Boeotian terracotta figurine.
Ischomachus advises his wife to teach her slaves weaving by standing before the loom herself in an authoritative manner. For she had already learned from her own mother how to weave, as well as how to allocate spinning tasks to the slavewomen. Spinning and weaving were, above all, the province of women, an activity which might be performed by slaves as grueling household labour, by wives to exercise and display their artistic skills, or by heroines and goddesses. Penelope's weaving was proof both of her virtue and her wiliness; Athena was worshipped as Erganê ('Worker') in her function as patron of the women's craft; and the Moirae ('Fates') spun out the thread of life and cut it at life's end.
Woolworking is represented on vases from the archaic through the classical periods, and women are often shown performing the many tasks involved together, as on the vase represented above. Here, five groups of women perform separate tasks associated with woolworking: the two on the left fill a basket with yarn; the next two fold the finished cloths; one spins fine thread next to a woman combing wool into a basket; two others work together at a warp-weighted vertical loom; and the two on the right weigh out the balls of yarn.
Poor women also made a living for themselves through woolworking. In a set of inscriptions listing the occupations of freed slaves, the women are identified principally as talasiourgoi, women who cleaned, carded, combed, and spun the wool into a mass that could be weighed out and sold. Transcript of lekythos. Amasis Painter. Around 560 BCE.
Eventually, Ischomachus hopes, he and his wife will have children, and then she will assume responsibility for their nurture, in accordance with the dictates of nature, since 'the god dispensed to the woman a greater share of love for newborn babies'. But they will 'deliberate together on how best to raise them', since Ischomachus expected to take a lively interest in his children, like the father on this vase.
A mother hands her baby boy to his nurse, as the father looks on, leaning on his walking stick. A loom identifies the setting as the women's quarters, and the wreath hanging on the wall is perhaps a memento from the couple's wedding in the not too distant past.
Girls usually remained at home until marriage, under the supervision of their mothers and female slaves. Boys, however, conventionally passed under the tutelage of men at the age of seven, and those from wealthier families went to school under the watchful eye of a paidagogos, who was a male slave. Adult children were expected to behave respectfully toward both of their parents, and to provide for their care maintenance in old age. Failure to do so at Athens was punishable by law. Hydria. Attributed to circle of Polygnotus. 440-430 BCE.
On this vase, women gather in the women's quarters to adorn themselves. One alabastron (perfume vessel) hangs on the wall, and a slave woman holds another. The other slave woman (both are identifiable by their cropped hair) holds up a mirror.
Ischomachus advised his wife against sitting around the house either 'like a slave' or 'in a haughty manner', and against the use of make-up and other forms of female adornment. Gatherings of the kind represented on this vase, evidently, were not regarded as appropriate for a wife who was expected to keep herself busy with household tasks. And indeed, a well-known character-type from literature of the archaic through classical periods was the aristocratic woman who occupies herself with luxuries and shuns the drudgery of housework. Her two opposites were the slovenly woman and the queen bee, to which Ischomachus compares his wife at length.
Bees were also associated with chastity, and in recommending against the use of make-up, Ischomachus assures his wife that he will find her natural beauty a greater sexual stimulant. An unadorned, simply clothed, and affectionate wife, he says, is more appealing than a slavewoman. Ischomachus thus acknowledges the double standard, even if he would prefer not to avail himself of its opportunities. Wedding Painter. 460 BCE.