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Womens' rights in the ancient world

Michael C Scott at the real power women had in Ancient Greece

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15 June 2010

The ancient historian Thucydides once wrote that "the greatest glory [of women] is to be least talked about among men, whether in praise or blame."

At first glance, the role of women in ancient Greek society certainly seems to mirror that advice. Women had no role in the mechanics of democracy at ancient Athens for example. Many Greek tragedies have a woman as the central protagonist, but it is nearly always because that woman has broken out of her traditional role in Greek society and it is her outrageous behaviour that is causing a tragedy to unfold.

The message seems clear: ancient Greece was a man's world.

A renewed interest in the role of women in ancient society over the last 50 years, however, has begun to offer important new insights to this picture.

From female-authored sex manuals and love poetry to holding the eternal fascination of men in sculpture and vase painting to being the power behind the throne, or even wearing the crown themselves, women could have a hugely important role to play in ancient Greek society.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Greek religion. Female gods could be just as important and powerful as make ones. Apollo's oracle at the famous sanctuary of Delphi was always a woman and many of the most important sanctuaries across the Greek world had priestesses in charge.

Women living in the different cities of Greece played key roles in some of those cities' most crucial religious celebrations and processions.

And even more importantly, there were key festivals, such as the Thesmophoria that were for women only, and mainstream sanctuaries, such as at Brauron outside of Athens, where young women seem to have gone to undergo important transitional ceremonies during their adolescence.

One of the most interesting periods for the development of female power is during the fourth century BC, in the period between the fall of the Athenian empire and the rise of Alexander the Great.

In the comedies by Aristophanes, women take over the running of Athens. At the Olympic games, a Spartan princess becomes the first woman to win at chariot-racing. In Asia Minor, at Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum) Queen Artemisia rules alone after her husband's death.

And in central Greece, after the death of Alexander the Great, it is his mother, Olympias, who fights the hardest (on and off the battlefield) to protect his legacy.

Women, it turns out, were a key part of ancient Greece, above and beyond the fact that they were fundamental to the continuation of society itself.

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