Marilyn A. Katz
Chapter 5 in The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece, ed. Paul Cartledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 100-138.
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The polis is often characterized as a 'male club', since women were excluded from political rights in the ancient city-state. Men constituted the citizen assembly which made decisions affecting the community as a whole; men were the jurymen in the courts; and all of the polis' several hundred public officials were men. Furthermore, from the perspective of social ideals, the spaces of the polis were segregated: the public realm belonged to men, whereas women were consigned to the private domain of the home. [ILL 1]
This picture, however, is not an entirely accurate one. In the first place, the men who possessed citizen rights were themselves a minority of the population of all city-states, including the most famous one, Athens. And our sources for the lives of ancient Greek women and children are predominately Athenian. Athens, to be sure, was not a typical polis, but neither was it unique in the world of the ancient Greeks: many others shared the broad outlines of Athens' political history, constitutional arrangements, and social structure.
The inhabitants of Athens included, besides its male citizens, a large number of male and female slaves, a population of male and female resident aliens or 'metics' roughly equal in number to citizens, and the wives and children of citizen men. Citizens' wives shared in citizen status, but this entitled them principally to bear sons who would become citizens or, daughters who would become the wives of citizens.
Secondly, there were other areas of civic and communal life in the ancient polis besides the political one, and women, non-citizens, and even slaves played important parts in many of them: the religious and economic spheres, for example, as well as the various aspects of community in the demes or villages. And finally, the social ideal which consigned men to the public, and women to the private realm, was no more than that: an ideal. It figures very prominently in much of Greek art and literature, but when we examine more closely some of details of ancient Greek social and cultural practices, the reality looks quite different. [PANEL A]
The Polis as a Sacrificial Community
The polis has also been described as a sacrificial community, since religion permeated every aspect of its activities and since the offering to the gods of animal or vegetable sacrifice constituted the core of religious observance in ancient Greece. Furthermore, in Athens festival celebrations of one kind or another were held on about half of the days of a given year; thirty-five or so of these were major festivals, and many of them lasted for several days. Pride of place in the city's ritual observances was assigned most frequently to citizens and their sons, but some festivals were restricted to citizen women and others gave them important roles. Metics and their families participated in some major polis celebrations; and in other festivals even slaves had a role to play.
The Panathenaia, which celebrated the birthday of Athena, the city's tutelary deity, in the first month of the festival year (corresponding roughly with July), was notably inclusive: among the celebrants were citizen men along with their sons, daughters, and wives; metics and their families; freed slaves and non-Greeks; and, during the period of the Athenian empire, representatives of the allied city-states. At the same time, however, distinctions of status among these groups were clearly marked. [ILL 2]
The Panathenaic sacrificial procession, for example, was headed by various groups of maidens bearing different sets of ritual objects. Girls from noble families, however, preceded those from the ordinary citizen class; old men marched separately from those of military age; religious officials along with priests and priestesses made up their own contingent; metic sons processed separately from metic daughters, and so on. Similar protocols obtained for other festival occasions, and especially in those in which a pompê or ritual procession was part of the celebration. [ILL 3]
Cutting across the overall inclusivity of the Panathenaia and its preliminary festivals, then, were the same distinctions of age, class, gender, and status which operated in other areas of civic life. Girls and women of citizen status enjoyed a variety of privileges in the ritual sphere, and in all likelihood they derived some measure of civic pride from these perquisites of status, and felt themselves to be, as they were, a distinct and distinguished social group.
Specific ritual roles for girls in the polis were more elaborated, in fact, than those for boys. Girls performed a number of ritual functions, like weaving the peplos ("robe") for Athena or washing the cult-statue, grinding the corn for ritual cakes offered to Athena or Demeter, serving Artemis as acolytes in her sanctuary at Brauron, or carrying special ritual olive-branches as they processed to the temple of Apollo Delphinios in the harbour, where they offered propitiatory prayers to the god. Participation in many of these cult-functions was restricted either to a few girls or to those of aristocratic birth, but it is likely that the distinctions conferred upon these few were meant to stand symbolically for the ritual importance to the city of its young girls as a group.
Young boys must have participated in cult most often by accompanying their fathers, where they learned the protocols they would later be expected to observe. It was not until they were ephebes (young men in military training) that the male children of the polis had a regularly assigned and honoured role in most of the city's major festivals. But there were also some festivals in which they participated as children. At the Anthesteria, for example, boys engaged in some kind of ritual involving swings and also shared in festivities on the day of the drinking-rite; and at the Pyanopsia and Thargelia, both festivals of Apollo, boys carried round branches of olive-trees decorated with wool and hung with fruits, while they sang and asked for treats. [ILL 4]
Both boys and girls participated in choral song and dance on ritual occasions. Pannychides ('all-night festivals'), for example, were especially associated with the participation of girls and women, and were prominent in the worship of Dionysus and Demeter. Choruses of men and boys competed separately for prizes at the Thargelia. And boys and men took part in the athletic and musical contests which were part of major festivals like the Panathenaia.
Citizen women figure especially in religious observances connected with Demeter and Kore, goddesses whose beneficence protected the city's crops of grain. The most prominent of these rituals, the Thesmophoria, was an exclusively women's festival, celebrated throughout Greece at both the city-state and local levels, but open only to citizen wives. The festival at Athens extended across three days in late October: on the first, the women set out from their homes and assembled together in an encampment (see below); on the second, they fasted; and on the third day they feasted and celebrated. In the course of the festival the composted remains of offerings which the women had sacrificed earlier were retrieved and later mixed with the seed-grain.
Interpretation of the meaning of the Thesmophoria for women usually focuses on its function as a holiday from the routines of domestic life and as an affirmation of women's association with fertility both agricultural and human. But the seasonal rhythms of the Haloa (a women's festival in honour of Demeter and Dionysus celebrated in January), Skira (a threshing festival celebrated in July), and Thesmophoria intersected with that of various agricultural tasks performed by men. Thus, in this cycle of festivals, not only did women "constitute themselves as a distinct social and political group," they also took responsibility for ensuring, through their rituals, the success and prosperity of men's more practical agricultural work (Foxhall).
Metics participated in the Panathenaiac procession, and were similarly honoured with ritual roles in the processions of the Greater Dionysia (see below). In others, like the Hephaestia, they were assigned a portion of the sacrificial offerings. Metics were probably excluded, however, from a share in a share in the sacrifice at the Panathenaia and other major polis festivals. Nevertheless, especially in the Piraeus district of Athens, metics might be authorized by the polis to establish cults in honour of their own divinities: Egyptian metics had a cult of Isis there; Thracians one of Bendis; and Cyprians their own temple of Aphrodite.
Slaves had a recognized part in some city celebrations like the Anthesteria. And initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries was open to all Greeks, including slaves. The Kronia was a holiday especially for slaves on which state business was suspended, and slaves dined together with their masters in a raucous and unrestrained atmosphere. They drank wine and ate newly harvested fruits and grains, in recollection perhaps of the golden age of Kronos (Zeus' father), when the earth produced her fruits spontaneously and there was no need for labour. [ILL 5]
The whole population of the city shared in celebrating in the Diasia, a festival of Zeus Meilichios ('the kindly one'--the god in his underworld manifestation) where, following more solemn observances, families and friends feasted in an atmosphere of gaiety. And there were doubtless many ritual occasions on which women, metics, and slaves participated informally. The prosecutor in a fourth-century law case, at any rate, explains that a woman caught in adultery was prohibited from attending any of the public sacrifices, to which, he adds, even metic and slave women were permitted entry, either to view the spectacle or to offer prayer. The implication seems clear that even when the city's politically marginalized groups did not have an official role to perform, their presence as spectators was taken for granted, except at those festivals where they were specifically prohibited. And when present, they were free to offer private devotions either on their own behalf or that of the city.
The Body of Evidence
'If the assembly and law-courts were open to women, and if they could participate in political affairs', says the misogynist to the lover of women in Lucian's Dialogue on Love, 'they would elect you general or vote you a bronze statue'. But, he goes on to acknowledge, such was not the case: 'men', he reminds his interlocutor, characteristically 'speak on behalf of women'.
And this, indeed, is what we find them doing in many of the cases which were argued in the law-courts of Athens located in the north-east and southern sections of the Agora, and at other sites around the city. For example, a woman in a fifth-century oration who is accused of having murdered her husband is prosecuted for the crime by her stepson and defended by her son, even though she herself was still living. We have only the prosecutor's side of the story, and it is notable that he does not hesitate to appeal to mythological precedent in characterizing his stepmother as a Clytemnestra, or to borrow loosely from the arguments of Aeschylus' famous trilogy the Oresteia in claiming that a son's duty consists more in avenging a father than in defending a mother. [ILL 6]
In other, less sensational cases, however, a woman's testimony, given privately before family members, is introduced into the arguments and often carries considerable weight. And women could give evidence under oath, by a special procedure which required them to swear before arbitrators in the Delphinion, a sanctuary of Apollo. But women of citizen status did not ever appear in court as litigants, and indeed a certain discretion is observed in the practice of not even mentioning a woman by name unless she is an individual of low repute.
Women, in any case, would not have had the opportunity to commit most of the crimes we hear about: assault, damage to property, treason, and other such offences required access to the public sphere or to the realm of politics. And matters involving family law would have been handled by a woman's guardian: her husband, father, son, or other male relative. But, given the prominence of women in matters involving religion, it is not surprising that we know of cases where women were prosecuted (and acquitted) for impiety.
When petty offences were at issue, a woman of citizen status might well employ the procedure which a bread-seller uses against Philocleon in Aristophanes' Wasps, when she hauled him before a polis official on the charge of 'damage to goods'. Such remedies, when the sum at stake was below a certain amount, were available to all, and there must have been many legal cases which were settled outside the courts by polis officials or privately, through arbitrators.
A woman whose status was open to question, however, might have been called upon to appear in court in person, as seems possible in the case of Neaera, who was prosecuted as a foreigner on a charge of illegitimately assuming citizen rights. And according to an account which is probably apocryphal, the orator Hyperides defended the courtesan Phryne on a charge of impiety by resorting, when the force of his arguments failed, to having Phryne brought into the courtroom and her breasts bared, in order to convince the jury to acquit her.
Children, like women, were represented in court by their fathers or guardians. The orator Antiphon, for example, composed a model speech in which a boy was accused of accidentally killing another with a throw of the javelin, and the hypothetical case was argued out by the boys' fathers. For it was not until a young man had reached his majority (the age of eighteen) that he could bring an action at law or defend himself against one; and it was not until he reached the age of thirty that he was eligible to serve as a juryman in the law-courts. But if the complaints of several orators are any guide, a few boys (and girls) will have had experience of the law-courts from an early age. For it was apparently not uncommon for a man to bring his small children into the court, group them around himself, and weep and beseech the jurymen for pity --- something which Socrates, in a famous passage of the Apology, specifically refuses to do, even though, as he says, 'I too have relatives ... and three sons, two of them not yet grown'. Socrates explains that he does not think that it is right for a man of his age and with his reputation to do such a thing. [ILL 7]
Metics had direct access to the Athenian courts, and a special legal official (the polemarch) supervised cases in which a metic was the plaintiff or defendant. An accused metic, however, had to post bail, as a citizen did not, and it appears that the sanction for the murder of a metic by a citizen was lighter than that for killing a citizen. Metics were obliged to have a citizen sponsor (prostatês), and to pay a residency-tax (metoikion); they were thus also uniquely liable to prosecution in these areas, and to enslavement if convicted.
In one such case, the metic woman Zobia was accused of failing to pay her tax. And in this case, it is notable that Zobia was represented in court by her sponsor. For male metics represented themselves, but it was apparently preferable for female metics, like women of citizen status, to be represented by men.
No such distinctions of gender obtained in the case of slaves, who, whether male or female, were treated mostly as property under Athenian law. They could be bought, sold, beaten (by their masters but not by others), and legal action for offences against slaves had to be brought by their masters. The killer of a slave, however, was prosecuted for murder, and this may have been the case even when the slave's master had committed the crime.
When testimony in lawsuits was required from them, slaves quite literally provided the body of evidence: their information was invalid unless it had been procured through torture, which was carried out publicly in the Agora using the whip or the rack. Of the slave-woman who actually (and unknowingly) administered the poison in the case of the allegedly murderous wife (see above), for example, the plaintiff reports simply: 'she was tortured and handed over to the executioner'.
The Body Politic
Public slaves (dêmosioi douloi) were the property of the polis, and they formed something of an élite: one corps of them, for example, was used in the fifth century as a police force to keep order in assembly meetings. Thus, if an unpopular speaker did not sit down of his own accord, his voice drowned out by shouts and clamours, then the officials would order the police to drag him down from the platform or even eject him from the meeting.
Slaves, of course, were not citizens. But there was no absolute barrier in theory to a (male) slave's becoming a citizen. If freed, he became a metic, and might thereupon be granted citizenship. The slave Pasion, for example, after having been emancipated, assumed management of the bank belonging to his former owners and was later granted citizenship as a result of his services to the city. Pasion's case was certainly an unusual one, but it demonstrates the point that there was no 'constitutional' barrier, as it were, to the full enfranchisement of either former slaves or metics in the Athenian polis.
In 338 bce, in fact, after Athens' disastrous defeat at Chaeronea, a proposal was brought forward and carried through in the assembly to free all slaves and enfranchize all metics so that they could participate in the defense of the city. Unfortunately, we do not know whether this programme was ever implemented, and scholars have argued that the decree must have been annulled when it became clear that Philip was prepared to conclude a peace.
Under normal circumstances, metics, like all non-citizens, were precluded from access to the assembly and from holding public office. But they might be called before the assembly to offer information or might wish to address the dêmos (the 'people' of Athens as a political body) on their own behalf. In such cases, metics and other foreigners (xenoi) who were non-residents had first to present a formal petition that they be allowed to address either the council or the assembly, and a citizen had to propose any motion which concerned them. A group of metics from Olynthus, for example, in the mid-fourth century, sought relief from the metoikion ('metic-tax'), and were granted access to the assembly in a formula which appears in several fourth-century inscriptions: '[on the matter] concerning which the Olynthians were decreed to have the right to make supplication [i.e. present a petition] in the dêmos [assembly]'.
Metics, like other xenoi, might be honoured, either individually or as a group, with grants of citizenship or, more usually, with various of its privileges: the right to own land, for example; or, as in the case of the Olynthians (above), exemption from the metoikion. But most metics, doubtless, possessed none of the political rights which citizens enjoyed as a matter of course, and this group would have included even such well-known and wealthy men as the philosopher Aristotle and the orator Lysias.
Once an Athenian boy had reached the age of majority and had passed his scrutiny (the examination of his qualifications for citizenship; see below), his first duty as a new citizen was army service, and thereafter his first privilege was participation in the citizen assembly. He was not eligible to hold public office, however, until he had reached the age of thirty. [ILL 8]
Thus, of all the resident groups in Athens who were normally excluded from political rights (slaves, metics, other foreigners, children and women), only for women was there an absolute barrier against ever achieving them. To be sure, in the mythological tradition, women had once possessed the vote: in the days of Cecrops, the first king of Attica, they used it to elect Athena over Poseidon as the city's tutelary deity, and were punished with disenfranchisement [Panel B].
And in Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae ('Women in the Assembly') women take over the polis and vote through a programme abolishing private property and the family, but not, significantly, slavery. For even in this comic fantasy, where the city will be dominated by what, from a male point of view, were women's chief interests -- food and sex -- socio-economic reality intrudes: labour will, after all, be required to produce the food and wine for the banqueters' feasts.
There was, however, one time during the year when the women of citizen status did, as it were, take over the assembly: on the occasion of the Thesmophoria (see above). During their three-day celebration of this festival, the women set up an encampment on the Pnyx, the normal site for meetings of the citizen assembly [ILL 9]. On the second day of the festival, when the women were fasting, the council and law-courts were not in session, and if meetings of the assembly were required, they were held elsewhere.
Furthermore, women, like men, elected their own officials for this festival, availing themselves for the purpose of procedures normally restricted to the political sphere. And it is notable that when, in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae ('Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria'), the women hold a mock assembly, they are perfectly familiar with the assembly's ritual and political protocols, and with speakers' rhetorical techniques. In the more fantastic world of the Ecclesiazusae, by contrast, the leading female character's knowledge of proper protocol requires explanation: she had acquired it, she says, when she and her husband lived on the slopes on the Pnyx.
Only in mythology or comic fantasy, then, did women ever have access to the citizen assembly. Even when the citizen body required a woman's information -- a priestess' oracular response, for example -- it was brought before the assembly by her male relative.
In Athens, as in many ancient Greek cities, 'it [was] regarded as inappropriate for a young person to be seen abroad before the market [agora] is full [mid-morning] or after dark, or for a woman to keep a shop or do any other market business', as Menander Rhetor, a late author, reports. This, clearly, was the social ideal. And there are some instances of conformity to it: for example, the young man Euthydemus, in Plato's dialogue of that name, did not enter the Agora because of his age, and instead sat conversing in a saddler's shop near it. And from other sources it is clear that, in well-to-do households, either men or slaves -- rather than respectable women -- did the shopping.
The Agora was the city's central public space: the core of its political, judicial, economic, and cultural life. Within its perimeter in the classical period were located the council-house, the offices of many of the public officials, several courtrooms, many religious shrines and, especially, the city's marketplace, where goods and services were traded (see Agora map). And before the Pnyx was constructed, the assembly had also met in the Agora.
Ideally, women were absent from this arena of public business and commerce, and young men did not appear in it until after noon. But here we have one of our clearest examples of a discrepancy between social ideals and social practice. For, as Aristotle remarks, it is impossible to prevent 'the wives of the poor' from going about.
Who were these women? And how many of them were there? Recent calculations have estimated that about 4 per cent. of Athenian citizens were well-to-do, and that of these, the really wealthy represented only about 1 per cent. The majority of Athenians, then, were 'poor,' although only a small percentage of these -- something like 1 per cent -- were really impoverished.
The Aristotelian category of 'wives of the poor,' then, will have comprised the majority of women of citizen status. And so it is not surprising that we hear of many women working in or around the Agora, although it is usually hard to tell if these are citizen, metic, or slave women. Some of them engaged in petty trade, selling foodstuffs (like the bread-seller mentioned above), or items like perfumes and garlands; others were tavern-keepers or woolworkers. [ILL 10]
Women workers and traders are found exclusively at the low end of economic scale, and are entirely absent from those occupations in which the real money, as it were, was to be made: crafts, manufacture, money-lending, slave-farming, business, and the like. The occupations in which women are prominent, indeed, overlap significantly with those attested for female slaves in emancipation-tablets (woolworking, retail trade, wet-nursing). And it is revealing that, in one oration by Demosthenes, the fact that a citizen's mother had been reduced by poverty to selling garlands raises questions about her citizen status.
It is clear that male and female citizens, metics, and slaves often worked alongside one another in the many craft shops located in and around the Agora. And the building accounts for the Erechtheum indicate that, at the end of the fifth century bce, about a quarter of the (male) workers were slaves, about a quarter citizens, and the rest metics: all skilled workmen were paid at the same rate, one drachma a day. (Women, by comparison, were prohibited by law from transacting business in amounts over one medimnus -- an amount equivalent to between three and five drachmae.)
From the curse-tablets, it appears that the men and women who worked together in the Agora shops formed a lively society, both competing and co-operating with their neighbours. And it is notable that, in Aristophanes, vulgar shouting and abuse were associated with female retailers. In the Frogs, for example, the god Dionysus reminds the competing poets Aeschylus and Euripides that it is 'not fitting for them to berate one another like bread-sellers'. If, as Pericles suggests in the famous funeral oration attributed to him by Thucydides, the best woman was she of whom the least was heard and said, it is evident that the women of the Agora did not aspire to membership in this élite. [PANEL C]
There was one potentially lucrative area of commerce largely under female control -- the traffic in women. To be sure, no woman of citizen status would have engaged in sex for money unless, like one in a fragment of the comic poet Antiphanes who became a courtesan, she was both poor and 'bereft of guardian and relatives'. Thus, courtesans (hetairai or 'female companions') were generally metics; and prostitutes (pornai or 'women for sale') were mostly slaves who worked from brothels run by a woman or, more commonly, man, who paid a tax on his (i.e. their) earnings to the polis.
Ordinary prostitutes commanded a price of only a drachma, but courtesans charged whatever the market could bear, and this might have been as much as a mina (100 drachmae) for the services of a legendary Athenian courtesan like Phryne (see above). And when Socrates visited the courtesan Theodote, he observed that both she and her mother were finely dressed, that her many maids were well outfitted, and that her house was lavishly furnished. [ILL 11]
In unusual circumstances, as noted above, slaves or former slaves might become quite wealthy. A larger number, besides working in manufacture, trade, and banking, might belong to the category of slaves described as 'living apart': those who lived and worked independently, and who rendered periodic payments to their masters. Most slaves who laboured in the 'public domain' -- in or around the Agora -- were skilled workers. But if we might think of these as a privileged group, they did not, apparently, so regard themselves. Of the group of 20,000 which escaped from the city and its environs in the last phase of the Peloponnesian War, a large number were skilled workers (whether mining slaves, artisans, craftsmen, or skilled agricultural workers is unclear).
Most metics and their wives, like the men and women of most citizen families, were persons of modest means. When honours were voted in 401/400 bce to metics who helped overthrow the tyranny of the Thirty, the occupations listed for them listed in the decree are lowly ones: farmer, cook, carpenter, muleteer, builder, gardener, ass-driver, oil merchant, farmer, nut-seller, baker, fuller, hired servant, statuette-maker.
Just as in the case of citizens, however, a minority of metics were wealthy and prestigious. In the opening of the Republic, for example, Socrates (an Athenian citizen) walks down to the Piraeus to visit his friend Cephalus, who owned a shield-factory employing over one hundred slaves. (The orator Lysias was Cephalus' son.) Another metic, Kephisodorus, whose property was confiscated and sold upon his conviction for sacrilege, also lived in the Piraeus and owned male and female slaves worth some 2500 drachmae (the rough equivalent of seven years' pay for a skilled workman).
Socrates converses in the Republic with Cephalus and his sons as social equals, and this pattern appears elsewhere. Cutting across the line dividing metic from citizen was another social barrier separating rich from poor. Upper-class metics, their lack of political rights aside, lived in a manner not materially different from that of their citizen counterparts, and espoused the same set of social ideals. Platos's young Euthydemus, for example, who observed Athenian proprieties about appearing in the Agora (see above), was also Cephalus' son. Similarly, the wives and daughters of such metics would doubtless have adopted for themselves, as a way of signalling their social status, the rules of decorum to which upper-class women of citizen status conformed as a matter of custom.
Athens on Display
Women appear prominently in ancient Greek drama. Tragedy featured many of the famous heroines of the Greek tradition in leading roles, and an interest in women dominates many comedies, like those of Aristophanes. But the conventions of the dramatic stage also marked it as distinctive from ordinary social life. For example, male actors portrayed female characters; all actors wore masks; and most of the plots were derived from the Greeks' mythological traditions.
The dramatic stage was thus a realm of the imagination, where dramatists could explore the tensions, ambiguities, and contradictions of the present-day polis and its ideals within the plot-context of mythological paradigms. In these plays, social, political, and religious issues were sometimes played out as family dramas, and tragic polarities often found expression in the language of sexual conflict. In Aeschylus' Oresteia, for example, the issue of homicide pitted wife against husband and son against mother (see above). In Sophocles' Antigone, the heroine's disobedience of a ruler's edict brings her into conflict with Creon, her uncle and guardian. And Pentheus' opposition to the advent of the god Dionysus, in Euripides' Bacchae, results in his tragic murder by his mother.
Family conflict figures in Aristophanic comedy, too: a father tries to bring his spendthrift son under control in the Clouds; a son attempts to restrain his father's craze for jury-service in the Wasps. And the plots of several comedies were organized around a battle between the sexes: the Thesmophoriazusae, in which women seek revenge on Euripides for his unflattering portrayals of their sex; the Lysistrata, in which women take over the Acropolis and stage a sex-strike to bring an end to war; and the Ecclesiazusae, where women appropriate the male realm of assembly.
Today, we encounter these tragedies and comedies principally as texts. These, however, are no more than 'scripts' for a set of performances which, in antiquity, were presented as only one part of a major polis festival, held in the spring in honour of the god Dionysus.
The earliest form of the festival, indeed, was not focused on drama. Rather, it was centred, like the Panathenaia in honour of Athena, around a great procession (pompê) leading, on this occasion, to the shrine of Dionysus at the foot of the south-east slope of the Acropolis. Citizens, metics, slaves, and women all took part, and, as in the Panathenaic pompê, each group marched separately and had different functions to perform. Metics wore purple robes and carried offering-trays; citizen men brought wine-skins; and an aristocratic maiden bearing a golden basket of first-fruits headed the procession. Along the way there was dancing and singing, and at the end of the day there was a great feast. In 333 bce this required the sacrificial slaughter of at least 100 bulls.
By the early fifth century, dramatic performances had been added to the festival. These were presented in an area just north of the god's shrine which had probably first been used for the performance of choral dances in honour of Dionysus. The space was gradually enlarged, and eventually embankments of seats were constructed out of stone on the slope of the Acropolis.
The City Dionysia, as it was called, still began with a day of procession, feasting, and general celebration. Afterwards, plays were presented on three or four separate days, and tickets of admission were required for entry (see below). Before the plays began, however, a set of rituals established a context of civic, political, and military pride: the ten generals poured libations; the tribute from the cities of the Athenian empire was carried onto the stage and displayed; the orphans of the war dead who had been raised at public expense were invested with hoplite armour; benefactors of the city were publicly honoured; and, finally, the names of slaves being emancipated were proclaimed.
Foreigners, metics, representatives of the allied states and other city-states were present for this exhibition of civic unity, and for the dramatic performances which followed them. Were women there too? In the Thesmophoriazusae they are familiar with Euripidean tragedy. Did they watch these dramas themselves or only read them or hear about them from their husbands? We don't know for sure; the evidence is contradictory and the question has been debated inconclusively for over two hundred years.
On the one hand it seems unlikely that women were the only group excluded from a part of the Dionysia which was open to all Greeks, and at which, in fact, attendance by foreigners was not only encouraged, but required (in the case of the allies during the period of the empire). And it seems clear that lower-class women -- those who hawked their wares (and themselves) to the general public of men -- were present; perhaps they slipped in after the performances had begun and when entry was free. Aristotle's associate Theophrastus, in a collection of character-sketches, includes the type of a miser who, with his children, gains entrance to the performances in this manner.
On the other hand, the ritual setting of the theatrical presentations highlighted the military and political aspects of Athenian civic identity, and these were the preserve of the city's men. In addition, the choral and dramatic performances of the festival were an occasion for competition among playwrights and chorêgoi (chorus leaders). This contest was organized by tribe, and a panel of ten judges, one from each tribe, determined the award of prizes. This political dimension of the Great Dionysia was also evident in the assembly connected with the celebration: it was convened just afterwards to scrutinize the conduct of the officials responsible for the festival, and was open, of course, only to citizen men.
Women of citizen status, then, may not have been present in the theatre audience, even if, on the stage, female characters were featured prominently. And women may have been excluded also from the dramatic presentations at the Lenaea, a mid-winter Dionysian festival at which tragedies and comedies were enacted. For these, in contrast with the City Dionysia, metics could serve as chorêgoi.
Only wealthy metics, to be sure, would have undertaken such liturgies. But everyone, including women, would have participated in the pompê which opened this festival, like others. And if the so-called 'Lenaea vases' are any guide, women also celebrated by dancing as maenads around an idol of the god. [ILL 12]
At the Lenaea festival of 425 bce, five years after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes presented his Acharnians, whose protagonist Dicaeopolis, a peasant farmer, 'hates the city and loves [his] deme'. Dicaeopolis exemplifies well the discontent which most Athenians felt, according to Thucydides, when the Spartan invasion of 431 forced evacuation of the countryside: 'they were deeply distressed at abandoning their homes ... and their hereditary holy shrines, at having to change their way of life and at leaving what each regarded as no less than his own native city'.
An Athenian's sense of civic identity was both local and 'national': all citizens belonged to one of the 139 demes or 'villages', of which Athens was composed, and of which the largest was Acharnae. Within the city walls of Athens itself there were five demes, and another ten or fifteen were located in the immediately surrounding suburbs. Some demes were quite small: that of Halimous, located just south of the port of Phaleron, was composed of only about seventy or eighty citizens in the mid-fourth century. A great many Athenians, however, lived in one of the villages of the Attic countryside, like Dicaeopolis, and most, like him, would have felt strong attachments to their homes, farms, and the variety of local political, religious, and other forms of association which flourished in the demes.
Both citizens and metics were registered in demes, and a citizen's deme-membership was hereditary. An Athenian citizen was identified by his patronymic and deme: for example, 'Socrates the son of Sophroniscus of the deme of Alopeke'. A metic belonged to his (or her) deme of residence: 'Sosias living in Alopeke'. A woman of citizen status, by contrast, belonged to a deme through her husband or father: 'Alcimache daughter of Callimachus of Anagyrous'.
The deme was something like a miniature polis, sharing several of its most notable institutions: an assembly and public officials, for example. The deme assembly's business differed from that of the polis assembly only in that matters of foreign policy did not come before it, and in that registration of citizens on the citizenship-lists did. Otherwise the deme assembly and its chief official, the demarch, debated and passed decrees having to do with finances, the bestowal of honours, the management of public property, the appointment of officials, and the administration of cults and festivals.
In the Acharnians, Dicaeopolis concludes a private peace with a Spartan emissary and thereupon proceeds to celebrate, with his daughter, wife, and two slaves, the rural Dionysia which had been suspended during the war. The Country Dionysia, focused on wine, feasting, song, and phallic processions, were part of the city's ritual calendar but were celebrated in the demes. And in the larger demes dramatic performances and contests were part of the festival, just as they were in the City Dionysia.
Some deme festivals were celebrated as local variants of polis festivals, on days preceding or following polis celebrations. But a significant number of other deme festivals were exclusively regional -- those honouring local heroes or agrarian deities, for example, like Ikarios, the eponymous hero of the deme Ikarion.
Women of citizen status were active participants in deme life, and especially in its most prominent aspect, religion. A number of priestesses appear in deme-decrees, and we hear of women being selected by their peers ('the wives of the demesmen') to serve as officials (archousai) in charge of supervising the celebration of the Thesmophoria along with the priestess of the cult. On this and other such occasions, as an inscription specifies, 'the women assemble in the traditional way'.
This Thesmophoria may have been a local or polis rite; the festival, like a number of others connected with Demeter and Persephone, was celebrated at both levels. And women were also taken into account in other deme festivals: in the local observance of the Dionysia in the rural deme Erchia, for example, a decree specifies that two goats, one sacrificed to Dionysus, and the other to Semele, are to be handed over to 'the women', and that the priestess is to receive the hides.
Metics were deme-residents also. Most lived in the demes of Athens or the immediately surrounding suburban area, and metics were especially concentrated in the harbour-deme of Piraeus; but some metics were also scattered about the countryside. Metics might share in the religious life of the deme, and in one of the urban demes they were allotted by decree a share in the sacrifices to the deme's tribal hero. But metics could not hold office as deme officials or priests, and a speaker in an oration of Demosthenes imagines the outrage that the citizens would have felt if a metic or foreigner had tried to do either. Dinarchus, an Athenian orator and a metic from Corinth himself, wrote a speech for the prosecution of a metic from Piraeus who had bought his way into deme-registration and hence citizenship in Halimous (see above).
Metics were wholly excluded from membership in phratries, social and cultic "fraternities" to which all citizens belonged, and which were especially concerned with matters of legitimacy, descent, and inheritance. Membership in a phratry, of which there were at least thirty, was hereditary, like that in demes, and although phratries had meeting-places, owned shrines and agricultural land, their principal activities were carried out in the context of religious celebrations. Most of these activities had to do with the principal events in a citizen's life cycle (birth, coming-of-age, betrothal and marriage), but a man's phrateres ("brothers") also functioned as the extra-familial group of first recourse, to whom he would turn if he found himself in legal or finanacial difficulty.
A citizen's son was introduced to his phratry twice, in infancy and at adolescence, at the annual celebration of the Apatouria, a three-day phratry festival in honor of Zeus, Athena, and Hephaestus, held in the same month as the Thesmophoria. On both occasions sacrifice was offered, and an official scrutiny of the boy's qualifications for citizenship also took place. In an oration by Isaeus, for example, a speaker whose entitlement to inherit his maternal grandfather's estate is in question asserts that, when his father introduced him to his phratry-members shortly after his birth, none of them raised any objections to his (the speaker's) enrollment, 'although many phratry-members were present and they always examine such matters rigorously'. [ILL 13]
Girls may have been introduced to their fathers' phratries also, but a woman's qualifications for citizen status were more usually scrutinized through inquiries about a boy's mother and his father's wife. Bridegrooms did, however, normally celebrate a wedding-feast, the gamêlia, with their phratry-members, and in one oration this is taken as evidence that the bride in question was of citizen birth.
As in the demes, women of citizen status seem to have taken part in the phratry's religious life. In one inscription, the wives and daughters of a phratry sub-group participated in the sacrifice and were allotted sacrificial portions. We know nothing of priestesses in connection with phratries, but priests are attested in only one set of decrees, and other officials like phratriarchs (the phratry equivalent of the demarch, see above) appear only rarely. So the absence of information about phratry priestesses may not indicate that they did not exist.
At the local level of polis organization, then, there were a variety of official and unofficial associations. [ILL 14] The most significant was the deme, which was an administrative unit of the polis, but the phratry was also an important centre of social life for citizens. Alongside these associations, and sometimes within them, a number of other groups flourished: burial clubs, aristocratic religious organizations, trade societies, philosophical schools, and the like. Most were all-male and open to citizens only; but women played an important role in some, and others were organized by metics for their own benefit. Discriminations among slaves, by contrast, was unrelated to other forms of status-determination: occupation distinguished one group of slaves from another, and separated artisans from bankers, for example, agricultural workers from household slaves, or prostitutes and hetaeras from labourers and public slaves. [PANEL D]
According to the social ideals elaborated in most of our ancient sources, the lives of most Athenian women were spent mostly at home and indoors. This ideal, however, will have encompassed only a minority of the women of Athens, whether of citizen or metic status. For most women, like most men, however, were not sufficiently well-to-do to live without working; those who resided in the country would probably have shared in agricultural labour, and those living in town would have engaged in petty trade or kept shops with their husbands. Housekeeping, childcare, woolworking, and food preparation would not have occupied the majority of their working day.
And even the group of Athenian men and women who were somewhat better off spent a significant part of their time engaged in religious activities: either performing private devotions within and without the home [ILL 15] or participating in the many festivals which were scattered throughout the ritual year. But many of our sources also afford us glimpses into the everyday family life of that group of prominent and well-to-do Athenians whose activities do accord roughly with a social ideal which claimed that 'man's job is in the fields, the agora, the affairs of the city; women's work is spinning wool, baking bread, keeping house'. [ILL 16]
In Xenophon's Oeconomicus, for example, a treatise on estate-management, Socrates explains the fine points of the topic to his wealthy interlocutor by recounting his conversation with Ischomachus, a man who, he says, was regarded as a 'gentleman' by everyone, 'men and women, foreigners and citizens'. For Ischomachus, unlike others of his class, does not waste his wealth on hetaeras, boyfriends, gambling, or keeping bad company. Nor, on the other hand, is he a craftsman, whose occupation would leave him 'no leisure for friends and the affairs of the city'.
Rather, Ischomachus is a wealthy landowner, whose holdings include several parcels of land worked by slaves under the direction of a foreman, whose work he supervises himself. Ischomachus' daily routine includes riding into town early in the morning, taking care of business there, and then walking back home while his slave leads the horse back to the farm. Then Ischomachus returns to the farm, rides out to the fields, inspects the slaves' work, and practices military manoeuvres for exercise. He walks back into town in time to arrive home for the mid-day meal.
Like most men, Ischomachus had married at thirty, and took as his wife a young girl of fifteen. The marriage was arranged between the groom and the girl's parents, and both parties had been concerned to find the best possible partner for the purposes of household management and the begetting of children.
The young bride had spent her early years under strict supervision 'so that she might see, hear, and speak as little as possible', and it thus falls to Ischomachus to train his new wife in her household duties. She, like he, was already schooled in modesty and self-control (sophrosynê), and both of them, he claims, possess equally capacities for memory and management in the general sense (epimeleia). Otherwise, the woman is designed by nature (physis) for indoor work (childcare, breadmaking, and woolworking), and the man for outdoor activity (ploughing, sowing, planting, and herding).
The household, in Ischomachus' view, is ideally a partnership beneficial to both husband and wife: one to which she deposited her dowry, and he contributes his property and continued earnings. In order for the household to flourish, however, careful attention on both their parts is required. Ischomachus' wife will learn how to supervise the household slaves, guard the household provisions, budget expenditures carefully, and arrange for the household belongings to be stored neatly. [ILL 17]
Ischomachus has the service of a foreman, and his wife will have a housekeeper to aid her in her tasks. She will spend her day walking about the house, supervising the servants' work, and inspecting whether everything is in its place. This, along with weaving, mixing flour, kneading dough, and folding clothes and linens, will provide her exercise, since the house is quite large and spacious. [ILL 18]
Ischomachus' wife, he tells Socrates, is an admirable housewife, 'more than capable of managing everything indoors by herself'. He, for his part, is concerned to treat her well: for well-treated wives, he assures Socrates, become 'fellow-workers' in the task of improving their husbands' estates. Ischomachus thus regards marriage as a productive, reproductive, social, and sexual partnership: his wife supervises the household and keeps the household accounts [ILL 19]; she learns from him that she is more sexually attractive if she does not wear make-up [ILL 21]; she plays the part of the jury when he conducts mock trials at home; and she will assume responsibility for the nurture of the children that he hopes they will eventually have. [ILL 20]
Ischomachus has friends with whom he associates, but he makes no mention of social life for his wife. And some tragic heroines complain that wives are forced to stay at home alone. But in the plays of Aristophanes and Menander, in orations and on vase-paintings, women are frequently in one another's company. One speaker in an oration reports that before his opponents brought suit against him, his mother and theirs used to be fast friends: 'they used to visit one another -- naturally, since they both lived in the country and since their husbands had been friends'. In another case, a speaker reports that he brought into the household his old nursemaid -- now a widowed freedwoman -- to serve as company for his wife, and in the oration they sit together in the garden lunching.
Ischomachus' marriage is certainly a patriarchal one: his wife's authority in the home is delegated to her by him; and for all of her contributions to the economic well-being of the household, he regards himself as responsible for the estate's income: 'property comes into the house', as he says, 'through the husband's exertions; but it is dispensed through the wife's housekeeping'. In other respects, however, including that of their mutual affection for one another, the marriage of Ischomachus and his wife resembles the ideal which Odysseus celebrates the Odyssey:
It is a surprising irony that the Ischomachus and his wife of Xenophon's treatise were, in all likelihood, historical figures. He was born by 460 bce and married Chrysilla in about 435. They had a daughter who married a wealthy man, and who then, after he died, married Callias, a rich Athenian nobleman and notorious profligate. After less than a year of marriage, Callias brought Chrysilla into the house, and proceeded to live with both mother and daughter. The daughter, in despair, tried to kill herself, but was subsequently driven out of the house by her mother. Soon afterwards, Callias grew tired of Chrysilla, and threw her out, even though she was pregnant by him. When a son was born, Callias denied that it was his, but some time later he fell in love again with Chrysilla, 'the outlandish old hag of a woman', welcomed her back into his house and acknowledged the son as his own.
Ischomachus, for his part, does not appear to have fared much better. Having been one of the wealthiest men in Athens known to us, his fortune upon his death was valued at less than one-seventh of its worth during his lifetime. (His property may have fared badly during the Decelean War of 413-404 bce.)
This is perhaps only the most striking example of the discrepancy between social ideals and lived reality in ancient Athens. Other, less flamboyant or scandalous ones appear, however, as soon as we take into account the part that all women played in the city's and demes's religious life, the participation of most women in the ongoing economic activities of the town and country, and the contributions of even upper-class women to the prosperity of the household, which was the foundation of Greek social, political, and economic life. For if the polis of ancient Athens was from one perspective a 'male club', as is often claimed, then it is evident that it was also one in which many women enjoyed a kind of guest membership, and to which others, of the more prosperous classes, constituted an important and necessary 'women's auxiliary'.