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Ancient History Sourcebook:
The Lot of the Hellenic Woman, c. 700-300 BCE


Hesiod, Theogony, c. 700 BCE

Pernicious is the race; the woman tribe
Dwells upon earth, a mighty bane to men;
No mates for wasting want but luxury;
And as within the close-roofed hive, the drones,
Helpers of sloth, are pampered by the bees;
These all the day, till sinks the ruddy sun,
Haste on the wing, 'their murmuring labors ply,'
And still cement the white and waxen comb;
Those lurk within the covered hive, and reap
With glutted maw the fruits of others' toil;
Such evil did the Thunderer send to man
In woman's form, and so he gave the sex,
Ill helpmates of intolerable toils.
Yet more of ill instead of good he gave:
The man who shunning wedlock thinks to shun
The vexing cares that haunt the woman-state,
And lonely waxes old, shall feel the want
Of one to foster his declining years;
Though not his life be needy, yet his death
Shall scatter his possessions to strange heirs,
And aliens from his blood. Or if his lot
Be marriage and his spouse of modest fame
Congenial to his heart, e'en then shall ill
Forever struggle with the partial good,
And cling to his condition. But the man
Who gains the woman of injurious kind
Lives bearing in his secret soul and heart
Inevitable sorrow: ills so deep
As all the balms of medicine cannot cure.

Take to your house a woman for your bride
When in the ripeness of your manhood's pride;
Thrice ten your sum of years, the nuptial prime;
Nor fall far short nor far exceed the time.
Four years the ripening virgin shall consume,
And wed the fifth of her expanding bloom.
A virgin choose: and mould her manners chaste;
Chief be some neighboring maid by you embraced;
Look circumspect and long; lest you be found
The merry mock of all the dwellers round.
No better lot has Providence assigned
Than a fair woman with a virtuous mind;
Nor can a worse befall than when your fate
Allots a worthless, feast-contriving mate.
She with no torch of mere material flame
Shall burn to tinder your care-wasted frame;
Shall send a fire your vigorous bones within
And age unripe in bloom of years begin.

 

Semonides of Amorgos, The Types of Women, c. 550 BCE

God made the mind of woman in the beginning of different qualities; for one he fashioned like a bristly hog, in whose house everything tumbles about in disorder, bespattered with mud, and rolls upon the ground; she, dirty, with unwashed clothes, sits and grows fat on a dungheap.The woman like mud is ignorant of everything, both good and bad; her only accomplishment is eating: cold though the winters be, she is too stupid to draw near the fire. The woman made like the sea has two minds; when she laughs and is glad, the stranger seeing her at home will give her praise---there is nothing better than this on the earth, no, nor fairer; but another day she is unbearable, not to be looked at or approached, for she is raging mad. To friend and foe she is alike implacable and odious. Thus, as the sea is often calm and innocent, a great delight to sailors in summertime, and oftentimes again is frantic, tearing along with roaring billows, so is this woman in her temper.

The woman who resembles a mare is delicate and long-haired, unfit for drudgery or toil; she would not touch the mill, or lift the sieve, or clean the house out! She bathes twice or thrice a day, and anoints herself with myrrh; then she wears her hair combed out long and wavy, dressed with flowers. It follows that this woman is a rare sight to one's guests; but to her husband she is a curse, unless he be a tyrant who prides himself on such expensive luxuries. The ape-like wife has Zeus given as the greatest evil to men. Her face is most hateful. Such a woman goes through the city a laughing-stock to all the men. Short of neck, with narrow hips, withered of limb, she moves about with difficulty. O! wretched man, who weds such a woman! She knows every cunning art, just like an ape, nor is ridicule a concern to her. To no one would she do a kindness, but every day she schemes to this end---how she may work someone the greatest injury.

The man who gets the woman like a bee is lucky; to her alone belongs no censure; one's household goods thrive and increase under her management; loving, with a loving spouse, she grows old, the mother of a fair and famous race. She is preeminent among all women, and a heavenly grace attends her. She cares not to sit among the women when they indulge in lascivious chatter. Such wives are the best and wisest mates Zeus grants to men. Zeus made this supreme evil---woman: even though she seem to be a blessing, when a man has wedded one she becomes a plague.

 

Phokylides of Miletus, Satire on Women, c. 440 BCE

The tribe of women is of these four kinds---that of a dog, that of a bee, that of a burly sow, and that of a long-maned mare. This last is manageable, quick, fond of gadding about, fine of figure; the sow kind is neither good nor bad; that of the dog is difficult and snarling; but the bee-like woman is a good housekeeper, and knows how to work. This desirable marriage, pray to obtain, dear friend.

 

Hipponax, On Women, c. 580 BCE

Two happy days a woman brings a man: the first, when he marries her; the second, when he bears her to the grave.

 

Theognis, On Marriage, c. 550 BCE

Rams and asses, Cyrnus, and horses, we choose of good breed, and wish them to have good pedigrees; but a noble man does not hesitate to wed a baseborn girl if she bring him much money; nor does a noble woman refuse to be the wife of a base but wealthy man, but she chooses the rich instead of the noble. For they honor money; and the noble weds the baseborn, and the base the highborn; wealth has mixed the race. So, do not wonder, Polypaides, that the race of the citizens deteriorates, for the bad is mixed with the good.

 

Aristophanes, Wedding Song to Hymenaios, c. 400 BCE:

Zeus, that god sublime,
When the Fates in former time,
Matched him with the Queen of Heaven
At a solemn banquet given,
Such a feast was held above,
And the charming God of Love
Being present in command,
As a bridegroom took his stand
With the golden reins in hand,
Hymen, Hymen, Ho!

 

Theocritus, The Bridal Hymn, c. 250 BCE

Slumber so soon, sweet bridegroom?
Are you overfond of sleep?
Or have you leaden-weighted limbs?
Or have you drunk too deep
When you did fling come to your lair?
Betimes you should have sped,
If sleep were all your purpose,
unto your bachelor's bed,
And left her in her mother's arms
To nestle and to play,
A girl among her girlish mates,
Till deep into the day---
For not alone for this night,
Nor for the next alone,
But through the days and through the years
You have her for your own.

Sleep on, and love and longing
Breathe in each other's breast,
But fail not when the morn returns
To rouse you from your rest;
With dawn shall we be stirring,
When, lifting high his fair
And feathered neck, the earliest bird
To clarion to the dawn is heard.
O! God of brides and bridals,
Sing, 'Happy, happy pair!'

 

Anacreon, The Morning Nuptial Chant, c. 400 BCE

Aphrodite, queen of goddesses;
Love, powerful conqueror;
Hymen, source of life:
It is of you that I sing in my verses.

'Tis of you I chant, Love, Hymen, and Aphrodite.
Behold, young man, behold your wife!
Arise, O Straticlus, favored of Aphrodite,
Husband of Myrilla, admire your bride!
Her freshness, her grace, her charms,
Make her shine among all women.
The rose is queen of flowers;
Myrilla is a rose midst her companions.
May you see grow in your house a son like to you!

 

Anonymous, The Good Woman, c. 400 BCE

Good Women must abide within the house; Those whom we meet abroad are nothing worth.

 

Thukydides, Pericles' Dictum on Women, c. 395 BCE

The best wife is the one of whom the least is said, either of good or evil.

 

Plutarch, Hipparete, Wife of Alkibiades, c. 420 BCE

Hipparete was a virtuous and dutiful wife, but at last growing impatient because of the outrages done to her by her husband's continual entertaining of hetaerae [courtesans], strangers as well as Athenians, she departed from him and retired to her brother's house. Alkibiades seemed not at all concerned at this, and lived on still in the same luxury; but the law required that she should deliver to the archon, in person, and not by proxy, the instrument by which she claimed a divorce; and when, in obedience thereto, she presented herself before the archon to perform this, Alkibiades came in, caught her up, and carried her home through the market place, no one daring to oppose him or to take her from him. She continued with him till her death, which happened not long after, when Alkibiades had gone to Ephesos.

 

Demosthenes, On Wives & Hetairai, c. 350 BCE

We take a hetaira for our pleasure, a concubine for daily attention to our physical wants, a wife to give us legitimate children and a respected house.

 

Philemon, Hetairai, c. 350 BCE

But you did well for every man, O Solon:
For they do say you were the first to see
The justice of a public-spirited measure,
The savior of the State (and it is fit
For me to utter this avowal, Solon);
You, seeing that the State was full of men,
Young, and possessed of all the natural appetites,
And wandering in their lusts where they'd no business,
Bought women and in certain spots did place them,
Common to be and ready for all comers.
They naked stood: look well at them, my youth---
Do not deceive yourself; aren't you well off ?
You're ready, so are they: the door is open---
The price an obol: enter straight---there's
No nonsense here, no cheat or trickery;
But do just what you like, how you like.
You're off: wish her good-bye;
She's no more claim on you.

 

Pindar, The Hierodulai of Corinth, c. 500 BCE

O hospitable damsels, fairest train
Of soft Persuasion---
Ornament of the wealthy Corinth,
Bearing in willing hands the golden drops
That from the frankincense distil, and flying
To the fair mother of the Loves,
Who dwells in the sky,
The lovely Aphrodite---you do bring to us
Comfort and hope in danger, that we may
Hereafter, in the delicate beds of Love,
Reap the long-wished-for fruits of joy
Lovely and necessary to all mortal men.

 

Anaxilas, Hetairai, c. 525 BCE

The man whoe'er has loved a hetaira,
Will say that no more lawless, worthless race
Can anywhere be found: for what ferocious
Unsociable she-dragon, what Chimaira
Though it breathe fire from its mouth, what Charybdis,
What three-headed Skylla, dog o' the sea,
Or hydra, sphynx, or raging lioness,
Or viper, or winged harpy (greedy race),
Could go beyond those most accursed harlots?
There is no monster greater. They alone
Surpass all other evils put together.

 

Eubulus, The Reproach of the Hetairai, c. 350 BCE

By Zeus, we are not painted with vermilion,
Nor with dark mulberry juice, as you are often:
And then, if in the summer you go out,
Two rivulets of dark, discolored hue
Flow from your eyes, and sweat drops from your jaws
And makes a scarlet furrow down your neck,
And the light hair which wantons o'er your face
Seems gray, so thickly is it plastered o'er.

 

Euripides, The True-Hearted Wife, c. 420 BCE

Beauty wins not love for woman
From the yokemate of her life:
Many a one by goodness wins it;
For to each true-hearted wife,
Knit in love unto her husband,
Is Discretion's secret told.
These her gifts are:
Though her lord be all uncomely to behold,
To her heart and eyes shall he be comely,
So her wit be sound;
('Tis not eyes that judge the man;
Within is true discernment found):
Whenso'er he speaks, or holds his peace,
Shall she his sense commend,
Prompt with sweet suggestion when with speech
He fain would please a friend:
Glad she is, if aught untoward hap,
To show she feels his care:
Joy and sorrow of the husband aye
The loyal wife will share:
Yes, if you are sick,
In spirit will your wife be sick with you,
Bear the half of all your burdens---
Naught unsweet accounts she:
For with those we love
Our duty bids us taste the cup of bliss
Not alone, the cup of sorrow also---
What is love but this?

 

Aristophanes, Chorus of The Women, c. 420 BCE

Come now, if we are an evil, why do you marry us, if indeed we are really an evil, and forbid any of us either to go out, or to be caught peeping out, but wish to guard the evil thing with so great diligence? And if the wife should go out anywhere, and you then discover her to be out of doors, you rage with madness, who ought to offer libations and rejoice, if indeed you really find the evil thing to be gone away from the house and do not find it at home. And if we sleep in other peoples' houses, when we play and when we are tired, everyone searches for this evil thing, going round about the beds. And if we peep out of a window, everyone seeks to get a sight of the evil thing. And if we retire again, being ashamed, so much the more does everyone desire to see the evil thing peep out again. So manifestly are we much better than you.

 

Susarion, On Marriage, c. 440 BCE

Hear, O ye people! Susarion says this, the son of Philinus, the Megarian, of Tripodiscus: women are an evil; and yet, my countrymen, one cannot set up house without evil; for to be married or not to be marries is alike bad.

 

Antiphanes, Women, c. 300 B.CE

What! when you court concealment, will you tell the matter to a woman? Just as well tell all the criers in the public squares! 'Tis hard to say which of them louder blares. Great Zeus, may I perish, if I ever spoke against woman, the most precious of all acquisitions. For if Medea was an objectionable person, surely Penelope was an excellent creature. Does anyone abuse Clytemnestra? I oppose the admirable Alkestis. But perhaps someone may abuse Phaidra; then I say, by Zeus! what a capital person was . . . Oh, dear! the catalogue of good women is already exhausted....

 

Philemon, The Good Wife, c. 350 BCE

A good wife's duty 'tis, Nicostratus, not to command, but to obey her spouse; most mischievous a wife who rules her husband.

 

Menander, Women, c. 325 BCE

Manner, not money, makes a woman's charm.
When you fair woman see, marvel not; great beauty's oft to countless faults allied.
Where women are, there every ill is found.
Marriage, if truth be told (of this be sure), An evil is---but one we must endure.
A good woman is the rudder of her household.
A sympathetic wife is man's chiefest treasure.
How burdensome a wife extravagant;
Not as he would may he who's ta'en her live.
Yet this of good she has: she bears him children;
She watches o'er his couch, if he be sick,
With tender care; she's ever by his side
When fortune frowns; and should he chance to die,
The last sad rites with honor due she pays.

 

Euripides, The Condition of Women, c. 420 BCE

Of all things that are living and can form a judgment
We women are the most unfortunate creatures.
Firstly, with an excess of wealth it is required
For us to buy a husband and take one for our bodies
A master; for not to take one is even worse.
And now the question is serious whether we take
A good one or bad one; for there is no easy escape
For a woman, nor can she say not to her marriage.
She arrives among new modes of behaviour and manners,
And needs prophetic power, unless she has learned at home,
How best to manage him who shares the bed with her.
And if we work this out well and carefully,
And the husband lives with us and lightly bears his yoke,
Then life is enviable. If not, I'd rather die.
A man, when he's tired of the company in his home,
Goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom
And turns to a friend or companion of his own age.
But we are forced to keep our eyes on one alone.
What they say of us is that we have a peaceful time
Living at home, while they do the fighting in war.
How wrong they are. I would very much rather stand
Three times in the front of battle than bear one child.


Source:

From: Mitchell Carroll, Greek Women, (Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Press, 1908), pp. 96-103, 166-175, 210-212, 224, 250, 256-260.

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg may have modernized the text.


This text is part of the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, March 1999
halsall@murray.fordham.edu