A basic level of food, clothing and shelter was all anyone even dreamed of achieving in a stone-age hunting and gathering society.  The best hunter might have earned the right to the choicest cut of meat, but otherwise everyone was more or less equal.  The switch to an agricultural economy changed that by creating the opportunity for surplus food that could be used to pay specialists to produce something beyond mere necessities.

An agricultural society was a wealthier one, but a new set of problems emerged.  Communities without wealth were tempted to declare war on those that were rich.  People who had accumulated a little extra feared those with less would steal it.  Food reserves were needed for the inevitable periods of famine.  The trade that increased wealth for everyone was possible only in an orderly society. 

The state was the invention that was created to solve these problems.  There can be no doubt that the state, with its system of government and law, did increase the total wealth of a community, but a new set of problems emerged that humanity is still struggling to resolve thousands of years later: uneven distribution of wealth, rigid class barriers, and unequal gender status. 

We tend to think of “women’s liberation” and feminism as a late Twentieth Century phenomenon, but even in the ancient world there were a few women who carved out significant roles for themselves, and the status of women varied considerably from one civilization to another.  This web site will look at the lives of these women and at the lives of their more ordinary sisters.




Every society has its own way of looking at the world and any attempt to examine one age through the eyes of another is bound to result in misunderstanding.  The ancient and modern worlds are different in many ways, but four have an impact on our study of the place and role of women in the past. 

1. Jobs

Parents in a modern industrialized country expect their children to grow up, get a job, and move out to live on their own.  Most people in the ancient world made their living through agriculture.  Since farming requires ownership of, or at least, access to land, agriculture was of necessity a family business.

There was a small middle class.  Depending on the society, it consisted of priests, scribes, bureaucrats and craftsmen.  These pursuits did provide jobs in our sense of the word, but more often than not the jobs went to the sons of previous workers.  The family then was still necessary to find work. 

Rome and New Kingdom Egypt had standing armies, but most of the soldiers were single men and therefore outside the scope of this web site.

Jobs for women were largely limited to work as household servants.  Gender bias is a part, but only a part, of the reason unattached women had such a difficult time in the ancient world.  Marriage was an important component of the economic as well as the social system of the ancient world, and men also had a difficult time outside of the army if they were beyond the support of a family.

2. Marriage

Marriage was the normal state in the ancient world.  Athenian men put it off until the age of 30 or so, but most everyone else, male or female, married soon after puberty.

A single women might find employment in a temple or as a household servant, but otherwise she would have trouble supporting herself.  A single man could provide food, but might not have the time to prepare it or make his clothes, etc.

Life was harsh and death lurked around every corner.  A high birth rate was essential if society was to survive, and a man or woman lucky enough to reach old age would need a son to provide support.

3. Family

Access to land for farming (the dominant occupation) was only available through the family.

In the absence of government sponsored social services it was the family that cared for the sick and the old.

4. Individual and society

The modern world tends to stress the individual.  A particular cultural or ethnic group may want to enforce its traditions on all members of the group, but developed economies tend to emphasize individual freedoms in some sort of charter or bill of rights.  The ancient world, however, stressed the needs of the group over the rights of the individual.