Women’s Role in Hellenistic Times


            The common woman’s role within Hellenistic society was extremely inferior to the role that men played. Compared to other periods of history, the role of common middle class women during the Hellenistic time period is hard to define.  It is most clearly defined in the papyri recording their marriages. The marriage document is one of the only sources that can tell historians what life was like for the common women. Of course, depending on location and time period, each lifestyle varies a little bit, but one thing remains constant; common women lived in the shadow of their husbands.

                Women were seen as subservient to men. There were boundaries set upon them that dealt with their interactions with men publicly, privately, domestically and politically, (Burton, 41). In the book Women and Society, it was noted that women had little legal independence and were expected to be under the control of their fathers and then their husbands throughout their life, (Rowlandson, 162). This was accomplished by the need to give women legal guardians before they married. The guardian was usually the woman’s father. If the father had passed on already then the brother or oldest living male relative took the place of guardian. The guardian played an essential role when it came time to writing out the marriage contract. Greek law states that women were not able to sign contracts, not even personal documents such as the marriage document, (Pomeroy, 89). The woman’s guardian would sign in her place and the groom would sign in his own respective area, (Pomeroy, 89). Marriage contracts were written on sheets of papyrus and usually they were used in the ritual of marriage by the citizens of the Greek cities of Ptolemais, Naucratis and other medium sized Greek settlements scattered throughout Egypt, (Pomeroy, 83).  The marriage contract was a legally binding contract that mapped out all of the couple’s expectations of the marriage.

An example of what type of expectations that were agreed upon within the papyri can be found when reading P. Elephantine 1=Chrest. Milt. I 283= Select Papyri. This is a marriage contract between a man and a woman, although the woman is never mentioned in it as making any decisions. In her place, her guardian who is her father is named. The bride and groom did not decide on where they would live and spend their life together. In the bride’s place her father decided alongside of the groom, (Pomeroy, 86). Later on, the papyri states that if the woman shall bring any shame or dishonor to her husband during the marriage and the husband can prove this dishonor to a panel of 3 men. Then the woman would loose all of her possessions that she brought into the marriage, (Pomeroy, 86).

The papyri are the only ancient sources that show the extreme difference in treatment of the men and women within marriage. Sex roles were defined in the papyri and women were expected to function in different spheres than the men, (Pomeroy, 83). Sirach wrote about the need to keep the wife at home in order to keep patrilineage from interfering,  (King, 271). Women were responsible for keeping their lusty daughters under control and to keep the men from looking at other women, (King, 271). Although it was not expected for men to be sexually monogamous, they were expected to keep their other women away from their house and their children, (Pomeroy, 95-96). Men would most likely have their affairs when they traveled, and it was known that men were allowed to travel freely during the duration of their marriage without going against the marriage contract, (Pomeroy, 97). It was forbidden for women to travel without the permission of their husbands. This was because their job of taking care of the household could not be complete with them away from the house, (Pomeroy, 97). Not allowing a woman to travel without her husband’s approval was also a way to make sure that the woman wouldn’t have a chance to be unfaithful to her husband, (Pomeroy, 97). The husband was seen as providers for his wife. He would provide only what was suitable for a woman of her status, (Pomeroy, 93). This meant that unless she was a woman from an elitist background, her clothing would be the bare minimal and usually made out of decade-old cloth that could stand the test of time, (Pomeroy, 94). On the opposite side of status, women who came from a higher status would be dressed in the latest fashion and it would be expected that their husbands would provide them with such clothing, (Pomeroy, 94). Sirach says, “Better a man’s spite than a woman’s kindness; women give rise to shame and reproach”, (King, 272). She thought that a woman’s role within the family was to keep the husband happy, even if that meant to reinforce a bad quality such as spite than to work on her own endearing qualities such as kindness. Home was an important aspect for women of this time period just as it was for most women during most time periods. Their home and family life directly reflected the woman and how well she was doing her job. This idea isn’t too different from the 19th century of our own history.

            In Joan Burton’s book, Theocritus’s Urban Mimes, she notes that public life expanded for women with the arrival of strong queens such as Olympias and Arsinoe II, since they were becoming more visible to the common women of the cities during this time (Burton, 41). This in turn results in the strong possibility for social roles for less elite women because of their new visibility of the social roles that the elite women hold.  These roles would not have been much, though, since women were not allowed to take part in public politics, and were not allowed to hold military office, (Burton, 63). Gaining power for a non-elitist man was even more difficult.  How were common women supposed to accomplish the same feat?  Traditionally in the Ancient Greek world, men attained power through physical force and public political activity, (Burton, 62), both of which women were banned from taking part in.  It is clear that the strong visibility of Queens only gave common women a source of someone to idealize mainly because the common women would never be able to attain the level of respect that queens have come to know (Burton, 63). The Queens such as Olympias and Arsinoe II, were the models of feminine power. This was especially true within Egypt, where women were known to have gender equality, at least more than other places during this time period (Burton, 63). Arsinoe II and Olympus were on their way to changing the mode of gender behavior for women in the elite positions, but this did not do much for the common women stuck watching the queens aching to be a part of that life.

            Claudia Camp claims that the idealization of female imagery does not always support women’s equality, (King, 271). She feels that the increased visibility of these queens was not doing any good for the common woman. In fact the inverse was happening, and the increase in the idealization of the queens resulted in  the role of common women being less powerful. This is the result of elevation of one social class and it can be used to suppress another, (King, 272).  In this case the queens have been put on such a high pedestal that they are just pushing the common women down further with every step they take up.

            Common women of this time period were not able to make a significant social role for themselves. They were just left with the role of devoted and suppressed wife. This was all in result of their lower class and gender status. Their first priorities were to their husbands and they were expected to not only remain faithful to their duties, but obey their marriage contract. In retrospect they were obeying a document that was full of double standards to the man’s favor. Women were key to the survival of the everyday life of families and communities within the Hellenistic time period. Although they did not receive any praise at the time and their work is barely documented, what little is known shows that women did a lot of work for very little in return. Those are the people that make the commoners' villages work and are the backbones of their societies. Even if they had restrictions put upon them and had men to answer to all of their lives, their work made a difference. The difference may not be seen in the royalty of the time or the military forces, but they are noticed by the families they raised, with or without the help of their husbands.


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To read more on women in the Hellenistic Era, check out Blythe Dawson's argument:

      Arisone II: Influence & Images