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Table of contents

The most coveted of privileges, Athenian citizenship , was only granted to aliens as an exceptional reward for great services to the Athenian people andragathia. However, in practice this reward rarely went to metics living in Athens ; in the 4th century in particular it had degenerated into some sort of diplomatic gesture for important foreign leaders and dignitaries, who often had not consistently served the best interests of Athens.

by Moya K. Mason

Read about the evidence Xenophon Xen. The large slave population of Attica was mostly under private ownership, except for a small number of public slaves demosioi. They had no rights, and only very limited protection against abuse or injury. A mistreated slave could always ask to be sold to someone else, but besides that he or she would be completely at the mercy of the master. This financial dimension probably afforded more protection against extreme abuse than the law itself.

The Early History Of The Western Civilization

Attractive female slaves bought for the purposes of practicing prostitution would be groomed and pampered, and could be very expensive. Slaves kept as concubines might be treated with generosity and enjoy certain privileges at the discretion of the master. Unions between slaves and procreation were possible if the master permitted it. The children of such unions would be slaves owned by the master of the parents oikogenes.

Slaves were treated as human beings at their death. Religious scruple demanded the punishment of the killer of a slave unless of course it was the master , and some burial rites were in order even for the most lowly slave. Aristophanes Aristoph. There she should look after her children and her family, take care of the household, delegate duties to her servants, guard the property of the family, and make sure that domestic life run smoothly Xen. If a good wife had performed her duties properly her husband would not have to worry about family matters.

Thus he would be free to take care of the affairs of the outside world and act as the representative of his oikos in the polis. The leading male of the household kyrios had the legal duty to represent in court-cases the members of his household who could not carry such responsibility themselves, such as women, children and slaves.

Other adult males of the household, such as unmarried brothers, a retired father, or an elderly uncle were legally independent, but still under the control of the kyrios , as he was the one in charge of the family property, and this sometimes created friction see Aristophanes Wasps. The Athenian kyrios did not have a right of life and death over the free members of his household, with the exception of newborn infants who had not yet been formally acknowledged and thus recognized as free persons with certain rights.

Shortly after birth a father still had the right to have a newborn killed. Perhaps with the exception of some infants with severe disabilities infanticide was extremely rare because of religious scruple. The ordinary Athenian would fear the pollution miasma which taking a life might bring upon himself and his household, and this is why he would probably choose to expose an unwanted infant, and thus shake off the responsibility.

The exposure of infants has been a striking theme of fictional literature Tragedy, New Comedy, Novel , but in reality it rarely happened. Perhaps its frequency was higher in times of financial crisis e. Read about the evidence Plato Plat. Aristotle Aristot. Lysias Lys. Fr Unwanted births could be controlled through contraception and abortion, but both procedures were neither safe nor foolproof.

Athenian law said nothing on either contraception or abortion, presumably because Athens , like most Greek city-states, preferred a rather limited and manageable population, and therefore had no good reason to resist such practices on a collective scale.

In fact Plato and Aristotle recommend abortion in their utopian states as a method of population control Plat. However, as it happens today, some individuals might feel strongly against such practices. In the early 4th century one case over an induced abortion ended up in court as a homicide procedure, but it seems that it was a long shot and led to nothing Lys.

Ancient Greek Women in Athens

Fr 10 Thalheim. Athenian women could attempt contraception and abortion without fear of the law. Contraception of course would be safer, but unfortunately, since the ancient world did not exactly understand how the process of conception works, contemporary contraceptive methods often were nothing more than wishful thinking. Abortion might thus appear to be an inescapable necessity and a drastic last resort, especially for prostitutes, unmarried women and women who had conceived outside wedlock or with men other than their husbands. Often this advice was dressed under a thin veil of medical necessity: it was supposed to be used for therapeutic purposes only.

However, it is self-evident that once this knowledge was organized in writing it could be used for abortions dictated by a wide range of circumstances. However, this Oath was not binding for many physicians who operated in Athens , and, it seems, it did not carry any legal weight with contemporary medical practice.


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Abortions for aesthetic reasons do not seem to be a Greek phenomenon. Athenian women took pride in motherhood as they drew prestige and social status through their role as wives, mothers and matrons of respectable households. Better-off women might enjoy the luxury of a rather leisurely life at home, and were able to dedicate all their energy to the care of their family and household, and socialize with female friends and relatives.

On special occasions they would dress up and go into town or to a sanctuary, participate in a festival and celebrate with the rest of the community. Athenian housewives were financially dependent upon their husbands, unless they were widowed with young children.

In that case they could choose to remain in the house of their deceased husband, and take on the responsibility for the family assets. Occasionally they might need some help from male relatives in their transactions with the outside world, as respectability would not allow them to go to the financial centers of Athens and directly deal with strange men, but some of these independent-minded widows were definitely in charge see Dem. Andocides Andoc. Women from rich families would normally bring into their new household a large dowry, which would then be managed by the husband, even though he never owned it, and had to return it in its entirety in case of a divorce cf.

The dowry was not a legal requirement, but it was a strong social convention and even poor people would still try to scrape together a small dowry for their daughters. The law of the state intervened in that case and ordered the closest male relative of her father in order of seniority to marry her and take control of the property that came with the woman. If he was already married he could divorce his wife and marry the epikleros , or pass on the epikleros to the second closest relative, and so on.

Even if the woman had very little or no property the closest male relative of her father still had the legal obligation to marry her or pass her on. If no relative wanted to marry the poor epikleros , the archon , the senior magistrate of the state in charge of social affairs, was legally bound to compel the closest male relative of her father to provide her with a dowry of his own and find her a husband cf. Like an object she was to be whisked around until a man was found to take her and her property under his wing. However, this is not how Athenian eyes would have seen it.

The Athenian state did not want to have stray, single females around because then someone would need to take over the responsibility of looking after them. Women could not represent themselves in court, most of them did not have sufficient skills to earn a comfortable living independently, and many would be unprepared from their upbringing for the trappings and difficulties of the outside world. This is why the state with firm and clear legislation made certain that no free-born female would be abandoned to fend for herself in a harsh world.

Women and Democracy in Fourth-century Athens

The fact that the woman might not love a husband imposed upon her would not be considered as important by most Athenians. Normally, marriages were not based on love but on the prospect of a good partnership for the future Xen. Love and respect between husband and wife were hopefully going to develop as time went by.

In some cases, of course, infatuation could be there in the first place and Athenian men sometimes did marry attractive women, simply because they fancied them, but this was not the rule. Now, if we judge from the extremely low divorce rate in Athens , compared with the soaring divorce figures of our times, perhaps we may become less critical of this kind of Athenian attitudes towards marriage and family life. Aeschines Aeschin. Athenaeus Athen. For less well-off women some of these parameters and moral standards were not applicable, as they often needed to work in harsh conditions in order to support their families.

It would be easy for a financially comfortable matron to seek a respectable life away from the crowds, but the poor Athenian woman who had to sell vegetables in the market, just to take one example, spent the whole of her day talking to strange men. Dealing and trading in places where respectable women would not go might be a necessity for a poor woman, and a soft, pale, lady-like skin, fine jewelry and nice clothes would be dreams beyond her reach.

If her husband was dead or away on military service and she had no rich relatives to support her, she would need to become the man and the woman of the household, feed her children, take care of their upbringing and face all the pressures that working single parents with a modest income had to face throughout history. Job opportunities for women were limited, and those that existed were to be found mainly in the health sector nursing and midwifery , small businesses, petty trading, and small-scale manufacturing Dem.


  • Esclavage, guerre, économie en Grèce ancienne.
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  • This is why some found it easier to follow the path of prostitution, if their looks allowed it, with its sudden rewards but also its many dangers. Male and female prostitution was permitted by Athenian law, and treated in a similar manner as other disreputable but necessary jobs, such as a sausage-seller or a worker in the public baths.