The Concept of Gender in the Study of Ancient History
In antiquity gender was a defining feature of life, we can note that
it affected the way society was structured, specifically in the
Athenian 'polis', as well as public events, such as those associated
with religious cults. Gender was also influential in politics,
especially that of the Romans. Moreover, it is through gender that we
can observe the general ancient view towards women, found throughout
numerous literary sources and archaeological remains.
Firstly, there is a strong link between gender and the Athenian
'polis', which was commonly considered to be 'male dominated'.
From an early age male and female youths were polarised, so that males
were educated professionally, with a strong emphasis on completing
sports at the 'palaestrai' and 'gymnasia', then they were sent away to
complete their military service. In contrast, women were denied no
more than basic schooling. However they were introduced into society
through religious cults. It is through education that the classical
Athenians erected a prominent division between the sexes, in order to
prepare the youths for their roles in later life-men for leadership in
state and military affairs, women for more subordinate roles.
For example, archaeological evidence suggests that young men were
groomed for prominent positions in the state, that is, pitchers have
been found that illustrate boys celebrating the festival,
'Anthesterion', 'the flower month', by sampling wine and participating
in crawling races. The former would have been a simplistic pre-taster
for male youths of a 'symposium', philosophical sessions intertwined
with heavy drinking periods, exclusively for male citizens. The
playwrights Plato and Aristophanes recognised their importance in the
'polis', as it was for affluent male citizens. In Aristophanic
comedies he frequently alludes to scenes of inebriation and obscenity
mixed with intervals of learned opinions. The latter would have
prepared the youths for athletic competitions. Keuls' suggests that it
is through these activities young boys were instilled, 'with the norms
of competitiveness and male privilege'.
In comparison, Greek women were initiated into society through
religious roles, specifically those associated with chastity, labour
The cult of Athena was particularly important, in which a robe known
as a 'peplos' was dedicated to the goddess that had been especially
woven for the occasion. It was then presented to her either by two or
four noble girls, known as 'arrhephoroi', 'bearers of sacred objects'.
Scenes from this cult can be found on sections of the Parthenon frieze
(440BC-432BC), detailing events such as the folding of the 'peplos' by
the 'Archon Basileus', chief magistrate, helped by a young child.