Freedom of Women in Ancient Greece

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.19.2: “But from the earliest times the Argives have loved freedom and self-government, and they limited to the utmost the authority of their kings, so that to Medon, the son of Ceisus, and to his descendants was left a kingdom that was such only in name. Meltas, the son of Lacedas, the tenth descendant of Medon, was condemned by the people and deposed altogether from the kingship.” This was perhaps 8 generations after the Trojan War.

There is also this quote from Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.18.4: “The Argives are the only Greeks that I know of who have been divided into three kingdoms. For in the reign of Anaxagoras, son of Argeus, son of Megapenthes, the women were smitten with madness, and straying from their homes they roamed about the country, until Melampus the son of Amythaon cured them of the plague on condition that he himself and his brother Bias had a share of the kingdom equal to that of Anaxagoras.” This incident occurred perhaps 3 generations before the trojan war. “Apollodorus, Library 1.9.11 states: “but when Dionysus drove the women of Argos mad, he healed them on condition of receiving part of the kingdom,” This freedom of the women seems to have been too much for the Argives.

John Stuart Mill said “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” (On Liberty, 1859). Here Mill is referring to civil, or social liberty: “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” In ancient Greece the concept of power execised by a civil government was not well developed. The concept of law (dike) was well developed in ancient Greece and was incorporated into the nature of their pantheon. In the Theogony of Hesiod is stated:

“Next he married bright Themis who bore the Horae (Hours), and Eunomia (Order), Dikë (Justice), and blooming Eirene (Peace), who mind the works of mortal men, and the Moerae (Fates) to whom wise Zeus gave the greatest honor, [905] Clotho, and Lachesis, and Atropos who give mortal men evil and good to have.

Dike (Goddess of Justice) from Indo-European ‘dhēigu̯-‘ ‘to plant, stab, stick’

Themis (Goddess of Order) from Indo-European ‘2. dhē-‘, ‘to put, place, set’

ἐλεύθερος — free

“But if I am to live the life of the freeborn, those in power must be obeyed in all things” The Electra of Sophocles line 339

But if you will follow my plans, first you will win praise for piety from our dead father below, and from our brother, too; [970] next, you shall be called hereafter free, just as you were born, and shall find a worthy marriage. For noble natures draw the gaze of all.” The Electra of Sophocles line 964

Consider this exchange in The Electra of Sophocles line 1239

No, by ever-virgin Artemis, [1240] I will never think it right to
tremble before eternally house-bound women, that useless burden on
the ground! 
Yes, but remember that Ares dwells in women, too. You know this well by experience, I believe.

Aristotle, Politics page 1255b, line 19:

Republican government controls men who are by nature free, the master’s authority men who are by nature slaves; and the government of a household is monarchy (since every house is governed by a single ruler), [20] whereas statesmanship is the government of men free and equal.

“It is better to fall from power, if it is fated, by a man’s hand, [680] than that we be called weaker than women.” Antigone of Sophocles line 689.

“Indeed, I felt a profound pity when I saw her because [465] her beauty has destroyed her life, and she, unfortunate one, has against her will devastated her fatherland and enslaved it.” Trachiniae of Sophocles line 484. Herakles fell in love with Iole but her father refused his access to her. So he attacked and enslaved her whole country, and took her as a slave.

"But when this woman was wedded,
what mighty-limbed men came to claim her in marriage?
Who were they who entered the hard-hitting, dust-clouded conflict of battle? 
One was a violent river in a bull's form, 
four-leggèd, high-horned
Achelóüs from Oeniadae; the other came from
Bacchian Thebes, and his bow 
was bent and he wielded the spear and cudgel - 
Zeus's son; and they came together 
in battle, desiring to win her in wedlock, 
while Aphrodite the blesser of marriage sat in the middle and judged them."

Trachiniae of Sophocles line 503. Deianeira seems to have been the bride prize of the battle of two suitors.

“And pity me, for I am pitiful indeed as I lie sobbing and moaning like a virgin! No one living has ever seen me act like this before; for I have never groaned at my misfortunes till now, when I have proved myself a woman.” Trachiniae of Sophocles line 1070. Heracles is saying that he is now weak like a woman. Weakness is a hinderance to freedom.

“Therefore we must defend those who respect order, and in no way can we let a woman defeat us. It is better to fall from power, if it is fated, by a man’s hand, [680] than that we be called weaker than women.” Antigone of Sophocles line 678

No, by ever-virgin Artemis, [1240] I will never think it right to tremble before eternally house-bound women, that useless burden on the ground! 
Yes, but remember that Ares dwells in women, too.

Electra of Sophocles line 1239

In Alcestis Euripides, line 1020: “But I will tell you why I have returned here. [1020] Take and keep this woman for me until I have killed the king of the Bistones and come back with the Thracian mares. But if I should suffer the fate I pray heaven may avert (for I pray I may return), I give her to you to be a servant in your house. [1025] It was with great labor that she came into my hands. I found some people holding a public contest, an occasion worthy of an athlete’s toil. It is from there that I took this woman as a prize. Those victorious in the light events [1030] won horses as a prize, while those in the greater events, boxing and wrestling, won cattle, with a woman in addition. Since I happened to be there, it seemed a shame to let slip this chance for profit combined with glory.”

In Acharnians Aristophanes, line 1064: “for she is a woman (bride), and, as such, should not suffer under the war.”

In The Wasps of Aristophanes, line 582 he discusses the justice of marrying off women who are heiresses.


  • Demosthenes, Against Evergus and Mnesibulus, Dem. 47 55


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Freedom and Women in Ancient Greece

Questions and Answers

Question: What degree of control did women have over their own lives and why?

Answer: If women obeyed men and were passive, then it would seem that women would have no control over their own lives. But Oedipus seemed to be passive in the face of his fate. And most people are controlled by their resources and circumstances that suggests a fixed and unalterable fate. But this is just an excuse and an illusion. The challenge is to take advantage of the small choices that are available and make each one good. In the face of the inertia of most lives these small choices grow as time goes on. You have control is so far as you make the choices and you loose control when
others make them for you. Plainly ancient Greek women had less control over their lives than men. The isolation of women put them in a world where men exerted less control than the other, usually older women around them. Still the Greek women were relieved of many of the taboos of more primitive societies.

Question: Clarification: I am confused. It seems like different women led very different lives. Some women were allowed to. Compete in the olympics, with the men, while some weren’t even wowed to watch, and had to stay in their house all day. Also, if Greek women had so few rights and were thought badly of, why did the Greeks invent all of these all-powerful goddess? So why were some women given so much freedom, while others were given none at all???

Answer: The goddesses were believed to have come from an earlier time when women had more power. They may have come from the Minoan culture where women are believed to have had more power. As time went on women seem to have lost their power. At the time of the Trojan War many women had a lot of power. But by the time of classical Greece women seem to have lost a lot of power. In the classical culture proper women were supposed to stay at home. These were mainly the upper class women who had many servants. The women servants left the house to fetch water and possibly to shop. Proper women might have been able to go shopping with a veil. In Classical Greece there were the not so proper women called hetarae. These were the companions of the men partiularly the wealthy ones. A wealthy man would take his hetaera everywhere, even the theater, athletic contests, and drinking parties. The only real reason why this was done is because of custom. It is said wealthy men pamperered their wives and kept them at home so they would not be tempted, molested, or raped. That way the men knew which offspring were really theirs. The importance of offspring was really great for their economy and culture. The wives were allowed to lead an easy life so they could bear and raise the babies. This may also have been because giving birth was a dangerous process at that time.

One thing to keep in mind is that before the ancient Greeks no one had any rights except a tyrant or a king. For some reason the Greek armies required soldiers to vote. During classical times successful armies were formed of soldiers with loyalty to one another who could work together. This meant the army was the strongest force in a country and provided the power to rule. The voting of the soldiers worked with their loyalty and this became the basis of personal rights. At first only the soldiers had rights. Later rights were extended to citizens who could be soldiers. But because women could not be soldiers rights were not extended to them. Even in ancient times many wondered about this and wrote about this. I think that the education of women in the U.S. in the ninteenth century involved a study of these ancient writings. Then it was realized that rights should be extended to all people, slaves and women.


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Including Amazons, Goddesses, Nymphs, and Archaic Females from Mycenaen and Minoan Cultures