Athenian society was very dynamic in many areas while it was strict in regard to the treatment of women. Although Athenian women were protected by the state and did not know a different way of living, they were very stifled and restricted. The only exception was slaves, and heteria, prostitutes, and this was due to the fact that they had no male guardians. Since these women were on there own they had to take care of themselves, and therefore were independent. In a more recent and modern way of viewing the role of a woman, independence and freedom to do as one likes is one of the most important aspects of living. In Athens the wives had none of this freedom and the prostitutes did. Who then really had a “better” life, those who had all protection and no freedom, or those who had all freedom and independence?
“Every Athenian girl expected to be married, and marriage and motherhood were considered the fulfillment of the female role.” This was what a woman’s life was headed towards and was thought to be the purpose of life. For a young girl to die before she had children was a fate thought of as being extremely sad. Women did not marry for love; the reason for marriage was usually for economic purposes or for political ties. The marriages were arranged by a kyrios, the man looking after the marriageable woman. This man was required to give her a dowry and then arrange for her marriage, usually a marriage that would in some way benefit him. The Kyrios could not keep or use the dowry, but had to give it to the husband of the female he was looking after, “the absence of a dowry could be used in court as at least circumstantial evidence that no marriage…had taken place.” The marriage was all settled without consultation of the female.
“…Often I pondered the status of women: we are nothing. As small girls in our father’s house, we live the most delightful life, because ignorance keeps children happy. But when we come to the age of maturity and awareness, we are thrust out and battered away, far from the gods of our forefathers and parents, some to good homes and some to abusive ones. And after one single joyful night live, we are compelled to praise this arrangement and consider ourselves lucky.”
Sophocles, Fragment 583 from terus.
A scorned wife spoke this in one of Sophocles’ lost plays. Sophocles has seized the essence of what it means to be a woman in Athens at this time.
The marriage of an Athenian woman and man is hard to define exactly because there has not been an exact word translated that is equivalent to the word, “marriage.” The Athenians have words that translate as physical acts for a marriage for the sake of having a child, they also have words that translate as “cohabit” or “live together.” This leads to the conclusion that our traditional connotation of marriage as a bond is not the way it was in Athens. The reasons for a man and a woman to be joined in marriage were nor for love,...