The role of women

Gender roles

A woman's place

In the ancient world a woman's place was in the home (if she was ‘patrician' or upper class). First as daughter, then as wife, she spent most of her life indoors – ‘protected' from danger, but also shut away, a virtual prisoner, from the world. A well-born woman was supposed not even to want to go out – though the Athenian dramatist Euripides knew better. In his tragedy The Trojan Women (415 BC), Princess Andromache admits: ‘I longed to go out, but no! I stayed at home.'

‘Natural' roles

The Greeks and Romans saw female domesticity as only fitting. They unquestioningly assumed it was the rightful role for the respectable woman: the way the gods intended things to be. As the Athenian, Xenophon, wrote in the fourth century BC:

‘It appears plainly, by many natural instances, that the woman was born to look after such things as are to be done in the house: for a man naturally is strong of body, and capable of enduring the fatigue of heat and cold, of travelling and undergoing the harsher exercise … the [role of the] woman being also to nurse and bring up children, she is naturally of a more soft and tender nature than the man; and it seems likewise that nature has given the woman a greater share of jealousy and fear than to the man, that she may be more careful and watchful over those things that are entrusted to her care; and it seems likely that the man is naturally made more hardy and bold than the woman, because his business is abroad in all seasons, and that he may defend himself against all assaults and accidents.'

Birth … and death

Xenophon's view that men were tough and strong, whilst women were ‘more soft and tender', didn't take account of the rigours of pre-modern childbirth. In a world without effective anaesthetics, blood transfusions or any understanding of germ-theory, the experience of giving birth was not only traumatic but extremely dangerous – often fatal. Princess Medea sums it up starkly in Euripides' play:

‘I would sooner stand in the front line of the battle phalanx three times', she says, ‘than go through the sufferings of childbirth even once.'

Love and marriage

A parental arrangement

Women were unlikely to have a say in their choice of marriage partner. Marriages in ancient times were generally ‘arranged', particularly higher up the social scale. The leading families of Greece and Rome had inherited not just property, land and wealth but the prestige accumulated by generations of distinguished ancestors: these things were not to be thrown away for the sake of someone's mere affections.

Married happiness

Arranged marriages could still be happy. Many couples seem to have grown together, and weddings were generally joyful celebrations. The groom gave his bride an iron ring at an earlier engagement ceremony, at which sacrifices were also offered to bring good fortune. On the wedding day itself, the bride would process through the streets to her husband's home, carrying a burning torch from her own house, and accompanied by family, friends and well-wishers chanting happily and throwing flowers. On her arrival, she would place the brand she had brought in the fire in new in-laws' hearth, symbolically throwing in her lot with her new family. 


As Xenophon suggested, the married couple was seen as a perfectly matched team, with complementary strengths and weaknesses:

‘as they are not equally perfect in all things, they have the more need of each other's assistance: for when the man and woman are thus united, what the one has need for is supplied by the other.'

Wives were often regarded with affection and respect and there's no reason to suppose that they didn't love their husbands back. An inscription found in Rome and dating from the first century BC, commemorates one such woman in simple and yet touching terms:

‘This is the ugly tomb of a beautiful woman.
Her parents gave her the name Claudia.
She loved her husband dearly.
She bore two sons – one whom she leaves alive
The other of whom she buried.
She was elegant in her conversation but proper in her character.
She kept her home, she spun her wool: that's all you need to know.'

Working women 

Outside the home

In contrast to the domestic expectations for patrician females, poorer women had to go out to work to help their families survive, often toiling extremely hard.

Textile workers

Most did what sound like domestic tasks but on a larger scale, spinning woollen yarn and weaving or dyeing cloth, or working professionally as washerwomen or seamstresses.  

Carers and midwives

Child-minding and caring for the old and sick seemed ‘naturally' to be a woman's occupation, while strict standards of sexual modesty among the social elite made it unthinkable that anyone other than a woman would be a midwife. A small number of women could even carve out careers as gynaecologists owing to the impropriety of any male doctor consulting intimately with a respectable female patient.

Dancers and musicians 

Entertainment was important in ancient Greece and Rome. Although the female parts in the great dramas of Athens and Rome were played by men, women routinely worked as dancers and musicians. In ancient Rome a few women even worked as gladiators.


Women might tend market stalls, peddle small items in the streets or work in shops. Many served in cafés or kept bars. A woman with entrepreneurial energy might be able to set up an establishment of her own. She would have to work hard, but had the satisfaction of building her business free from interference.

The oldest profession

Prostitution was rife in ancient Greece and Rome. The fact that men didn't generally marry till they were thirty or over guaranteed a heavy demand, whilst the presence in the major cities of many marginalised women ensured a constant supply. Female immigrants, freed slaves or the abandoned daughters of free citizens could all find themselves having to sell sex in order to survive. Ancient prostitutes ranged from streetwalkers who waited down alleys, to waitresses and barmaids who might occasionally make themselves sexually available, to the elegant and educated heterae who provided female companionship to the Athenian male elite. 

Politically powerless

No vote

Although Athens was a democracy, there was never any question of women having a vote. Why would they need to, when they were represented by their husbands? It was assumed that women were inferior by nature and needed to be directed in all things by their fathers and their husbands. In real life, however, strong-willed and intelligent women did find ways of making their feelings known and influencing events.

Social involvement and class

Exerting influence was often easier for working women, who had much more autonomy and freedom, than the privileged but powerless patrician lady stuck at home. Going out into the world each day a working woman had the chance to see friends, contribute economically and feel part of the community as a whole. 

Evidence from Pompeii

Excavating amid the ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists have uncovered a street-side café, owned (so the painted sign says) by a woman named Asellina and offering a simple menu (‘Shoppers: in the kitchen we have chicken, fish, pork, peacock'). There was space inside, but also a counter opening directly on to the street. 

Such places were typically staffed by foreign women who had fewer rights even than citizens' wives and daughters. Yet whilst they wouldn't have had a vote, graffiti on the wall makes clear that they took a keen interest in the municipal elections:

‘The girls at Asellina's – and especially Zmyrina – ask you to vote for C. Lollius Fuscus as director of roads and of sacred and public buildings.'

Wifely influence 

Although married to a prince, in Euripides' The Trojan Women (415 BC), Andromache wouldn't have had so great a say in any public debate. Even in private discussions at home, the good wife was expected to defer to her husband's view. She insists, ‘indoors I didn't practise saucy speech, like some women.' However, Andromache makes clear that she had her own way of winning herself at least some measure of control:

‘My mind, sound by nature,
was my teacher. I needed no more.
I offered my husband a silent tongue
and gentle looks. I knew when to have my way
and when to let him have his.'
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