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What is the role of women in Classical Ancient Greece

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Women in Classical Ancient Greece (5th Century BC) held an inferior social position to men. Although they were prominent in the Greek Mythology (Goddess of Wisdom Athena, Goddess of the Hunt Artemis) and writing such as Sophocles’ Antigone (441 BC), the average woman stayed at home, spinning and weaving and doing household chores.

They never acted as hostesses when their husbands had parties and were seen in public only at the theater (tragic but not comic) and certain religious festivals. Women were prominent in functions such as weddings, and in funerals, since they took care of the bodies. Women were not allowed to visit the ekklesia, the Pan-Hellenic games, or the cherished oracular shrines.

In Homer’s Odyssey (possibly 9th Century BC), many women feature, but most find their place in the story only by their relationship to the men. A woman’s prime role was to procreate and carry on a lineage, and while some considered this ethereal and respectful, others saw them as an unfortunately necessary nuisance “woman is the consumer of men, their sex, their strength, their food, and their wealth, and the instigator of all evils in the world; yet without her, society cannot continue” (Simonides 556-468 BC). They were given no opportunity for education, save in household management:

“to remain indoors and send out those servants whose work is outside, and superintend those who are to work indoors, and watch over so much as is to be kept in store, and take care that the sum laid by for a year be not spent in a month” (Aristotle Oikonomikos, c. 330 BC)

Women did not receive a formal education as the men did until the Macedonians conquered the Hellenistic world at the end of the 4th Century BC and their status was elevated. Yet still they were viewed negatively “the gossip of gadding women, which tends to poison the soul.” (Aristotle, 330 BC). They had no political representation and their life was focused on marriage, which usually took place at age fifteen to a man in his thirties.

Sophocles’ Antigone is a doomed soul, who sacrifices her life by burying her traitorous brother against the wishes of the King, what she believes is the gods’ law. She is not, however, performing the burial of Polyneices because of the “larger portion of affection” (Xenephon) the Gods meted out to her as a woman and bearer of children, but on a religious basis “dishonouring laws which the gods have stablished in honour”. So much does she believe in her cause, and so bold is she, that when questioned about her actions, answers “I avow it; I make no denial”. What is more, she re-affirms her beliefs “I answer to the gods for breaking these”, which were considered valid by the Ancient Greeks although her actions were not.

When denounced by Creon, rather than meekly accepting judgement in womanly fashion, she enters into intelligent argument “there is nothing shameful in piety to a brother” “Hades desires these rights”. Based on Antigones own morals and initiatives, her role could be classed as that of a powerful woman, and martyr to the greatest cause, the will of the gods “one world approved thy wisdom; another, mine”.

However, this modern analysis would certainly not have been the accepted view of the majority at the time the play was written, and indeed was most likely not Sophocles’ intentions. Certainly, the views expressed by Creon, by all accounts the protagonist, and by the guiding voice of the Chorus Leader, were more likely the most readily accepted.

Even before the play begins, the audience know that Antigone cannot be perceived as good or pure, being born from the unwitting incestuous relationship between Euripides and his mother Jucunda “O hapless, and child of a hapless sire”. When Creon is told of the burial of Polyneices, he demands “What living man hath dared this deed?” and when told by a witness that a woman was the culprit, he can scarcely fathom it “dost thou speak aright?” Antigone has not acted according to her sex, who as stated by Aristotle, has “a larger share of fear”, and is therefore out of her place and sinning by having pretensions to a role improper and above that of women.

Creon goes on to dismiss her as “versed in insolence” and “not mistress of her wits”. This is seemingly true, as the Leader of chorus agrees “disloyal to the king’s laws, and taken in folly”. Rather than being composed and negligible as a woman should be, she “shows herself passionate child of passionate sire, and knows not how to bend before troubles”. Creon is cursed not because Antigone was righteous, but because she was the gods’ property, and it was for them to decide her fate.

Antigone is still to blame however, as she had challenged Creon’s manhood “Now verily I am no man, she is the man, if this victory shall rest with her, and bring no penalty”, and having done so brings about the deaths of not only herself, but her sister, betrothed and his mother. One can therefore evaluate her role as a warning that challenging the pre-assigned roles of society can only bring destruction. Indeed, while Creon is “steeped in miserable anguish”, not once does him or the Chorus lament Antigones’ death.

The typical role of women at this time is therefore better represented by Ismene, Antigone’s sister “shedding such tears as fond sisters weep”. She is one who believes men are all powerful “we were born women, as who should not strive with men”, authority is to be obeyed “we are ruled of the stronger”, and most noticeably, that women are to keep low profiles “’tis witless to be overbusy”.

This is a reflection of the thought of the time. In The Funeral Oration of Pericles (431 BC), the historian Thucydides (460-400 BC), well known for his fairness and reasoning, stated that a woman’s duty was to “be spoken of as little as possible among men, whether for good or for ill”, a view shared by Euripides in Andromache (431 BC) “A modest silence is a woman’s crown”. Certainly, women lived in separate quarters in the home, young women remain under mother’s eye, in order that “they might see, hear, and inquire as little as possible” (Xenephon in Oeconomicus).

The character of Antigone challenged many restrictive values of society, yet this was not intended to be perceived as positive or laudable, even though her intrinsic motive, following the gods’ will, was. Thus, while superficially Antigone could be read as a powerful feminist embodiment, Sophocles’ was using her role to further demean and restrict women in society, rather than encourage any to emulate his title character.

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