WOMEN IN GREEK AND ROMAN EGYPT
Pictures on this page are Copyright The British Museum and are used in this website with permission
When Alexander the Great drove the Persians out of Egypt in 332 BCE he was for a while at least hailed as a liberator. His successor, Ptolemy I, granted plots of land to his retiring soldiers and invited other Greeks to come as well. Accurate numbers are not known but as many as 200,000 settled in Egypt in the first generation. While the Ptolemies did adopt traditional Egyptian political and religious institutions there was never any doubt that Egypt was once again a conquered land.
The city of Alexandria grew as a trade and cultural center to rival Athens and Rome. Irrigation projects in the Fayum meant there was more cultivatable land to help absorb the newcomers. To accommodate Greek tastes durum wheat replaced the more traditional emmer wheat and vineyards were planted to supplement barley beer. The biggest economic change was the introduction of gold, silver and bronze coins to replace the barter system the Egyptians had always used. While the tax on grain was paid in kind, most other taxes required coins, so it was almost impossible for an Egyptian to fail to be affected by the arrival of the Greeks. The coin at left shows Cleopatra VII.
When Rome took over after the deaths of Anthony and Cleopatra, Egypt was considered dangerous enough to merit special treatment. Immigration was not encouraged. Those who did move to Egypt went as soldiers or administrators. Egyptians from the large, more Hellenized cities could acquire citizenship after their military service. Under the Romans there was a status hierarchy with Roman citizens at the top and Egyptian villagers at the bottom. In between were the Egyptians who lived in the largest cities and had acquired at least a veneer of Greek culture.
All nations in today’s world expect everyone within their borders to follow the local law. Several women may claim the rights and privileges of wife to the same man in a polygamous country, but if the family moves to a monogamous country only one of them will keep her status in law. Throughout the ancient world people were generally allowed to follow the traditions and laws of their land of birth rather than their place of residence. This was especially true in matters of family and inheritance law. Under the Ptolemies there were separate codes for each of the large cities, a code for Greeks in smaller communities and native Egyptians were free to follow their own traditions. As might be expected there was a tendency for all parties to find some sort of middle ground. Upper class Egyptians sought to copy “their betters” while women of Greek heritage leaned in the direction of the increased freedom enjoyed by their native sisters.
Life expectancy was never high in the ancient world and death lurked just around the corner. Half the babies born did not make it to their fifth birthday, but girls who did could expect on average to live into their early forties. Those who made it through childbirth could do even better.
Marriage, of course, was the norm. Girls might marry at 12 or 13 but the majority waited a little longer. Women in the major centers of Lower Egypt delayed marriage until their late teens and early twenties. Husbands tended to be a little older. In Greece girls had usually married men more than double their age and as might be expected the practice continued in Egypt. A quarter of the marriages in the Delta involved men close to the age of the girl’s father.
One rather curious development occurred in the Roman era of Egypt when about a quarter of all marriages were between siblings or half-siblings. It avoided the cost of a dowry and kept family goods undivided, but it is not clear why a practice condemned in the rest of the world should have sprung up so suddenly in Egypt. Roman citizens could not engage in such marriages and the practice was fully outlawed when citizenship was extended in 212 AD to all Egyptians.
Census documents under the Pharaohs indicated who was married to whom but there was no religious or civil ceremony and no registry of marriage. We have no evidence for dowries or marriage contracts until the Seventh Century BCE. Perhaps a woman’s ability to inherit on an equal footing with her brothers made the dowry unnecessary, but anything we come up with is pure speculation.
Under the Ptolemies marriage continued to require nothing official, but numerous wedding invitations have survived so there was clearly a feast of some sort to mark the occasion. Some of these feasts must have been quite elaborate for one letter accompanying a shipment of 4,000 narcissus flowers apologized for only being able to find 1,000 roses.
While we have no marriage contracts for Egypt under the Pharaohs we do have them for the Ptolemaic period. It should be noted, however, that many were signed long after the wedding. Egyptian contracts under the Ptolemies were of two types: in one type the husband paid a small sum of money to his wife (sometimes fictitious) and promised to return her dowry if she wished to leave him; in the second she brings a sum of money (or goods) known as a “feeding allowance” while he promises to provide her with food, clothing and shelter or return that allowance anytime she wanted to leave him. The “feeding allowance” is a dowry under another name.
Some of the contracts took away the husband’s right to demand a divorce; this probably did not mean much, however, since it did not prevent him from being obnoxious enough that she would demand the divorce herself. Other contracts stated that the wife could get her dowry back without swearing she had been faithful, suggesting perhaps that a husband could otherwise require such an oath. In one interesting Second Century BCE contract she promises to be obedient and not stay out at night without his permission and he promises not to bring another woman into the house or have a concubine. Any failure on his part would allow her to reclaim her dowry plus a fifty per cent penalty.
Greek law required every woman to have a guardian (kyrios). This was normally her father, husband or other close, male relative. Ptolemaic legal documents involving Greek women usually append the guardian’s name to her name. Home in Greece the guardianship was in most cases very real, for women were thought to be weak minded and as much in need of protection as children. Undoubtedly this continued in many families but the freedom with which Egyptian women operated could not have failed to inspire newcomers to expect the same. One suspects that many documents named a woman’s guardian as a matter of etiquette rather than as an expression of reality.
A 142 BCE petition featured a widow serving as guardian for her young son in a legal dispute. Although the family was Greek and such guardianship would have been unthinkable in Greece, it seems to have raised no surprise in Egypt.
Female Romans in Egypt were expected to follow the same laws as their sisters in Rome. Under the Julian law on marriage, they provided a dowry and passed from the authority of their father to that of their husband. Guardianship continued until the woman applied for an exemption based on her having given birth to three children. Even in Rome, however, the guardianship was considerably less real in life than it was on paper. Augustus passed laws in an effort to strengthen family values but they seem to have had limited effect.
One aspect of family law that was taken more seriously involved inheritance. While property had to have a named owner, Roman tradition assumed it would be used for the benefit of the family. The father was not only in charge, he was responsible for the family’s care. If all property was in his hands it did not change his obligation to everyone else. There was a struggle between the demand for greater autonomy for women, and the traditional expectation that the male head of the house had to look after the financial needs of everyone in his family.
A woman’s dowry was in part an insurance policy in case of divorce or the death of her spouse. Until it was needed for either of those purposes, however, it would be administered by her husband and function as part of the family assets. We today tend to think of property belonging to the named owner, whereas the Romans thought of the named owner as simply the administrator of assets existing for the benefit of all in his charge. When women inherit, property intended for the support of one family may end up in the hands of another. The following rules should be seen as Rome’s answer in Egypt to this perception.
- An Alexandrian cannot leave more than 25% of his estate to his wife if she gave him no children.
- If a woman over 50 marries a man under 60 her dowry goes to the state at death as does the dowry of a woman under 50 marrying a man over 60.
- A woman cannot inherit if she is over fifty or if she has fewer than three children. (This rule probably applied to inheritances outside the immediate family)
- Any inheritance to a very wealthy but unmarried, childless woman shall be confiscated by the state.
- Roman women cannot leave more than 10% of their wealth to a husband. (i.e. she can leave her money to her own children or to other relatives on her side)
- Roman citizens cannot marry Egyptians.
Native Egyptians continued to bequeath property to their children without regard to gender or marital status. If more than one child survives in each generation estates are going to get progressively smaller, and strange fractions can result. One individual inherited 43/240 of a house and courtyard. Several siblings might inherit a percentage of a house or farm, but if they all lived and worked together anyway, it did not really matter who legally owned what.
Throughout this period, as it had been under the Pharaohs, divorce was relatively easy to get for either party, and was usually prompted by a desire on one side or the other for a remarriage. Since there was no registry of marriage there was nothing to terminate in the eyes of the state. The wife was entitled to get back her dowry and anything else, such as land and slaves, that was registered in her name. There were, of course, disputes, but these involved property not the right of either party to have a divorce.
The Ptolemies introduced better strains of wheat and they expanded and improved the land that was available for agriculture. Women were unable to participate in any of this because the land grants were based on military or other service to the state. On temple land and in Upper Egypt, however, tradition prevailed and we continue to find women as the registered owners of some land and tomb pictures continue to show women helping out in the fields. By the First Century BCE it was possible for a daughter to inherit military land grants if there were no male heirs. In 30 BCE the Romans turned all of the military land grants into private property. They could be freely bought, sold or bequeathed like any other property. Under the Romans one third of landowners were women. On average their holdings were smaller so the actual amount of land owned by women was probably less than a quarter.
Women managed farms and they also worked farms for wages. Men might own or lease, but there are very few examples of women leasing land for agricultural purposes. Women could buy and sell houses, use property as collateral for loans, and operate as moneylenders. Marital status appears to have been irrelevant.
The bulk of the population made a living from agriculture. As might be expected, most women were married to agricultural workers and contributed to their upkeep by making clothes, caring for children and preparing food. Poor women would have to do this themselves and may even have worked in the fields on busy days; wealthier women would supervise the servants who did the work: either way, this was a full time job.
A “fulfilling career” for its own sake was not something women aspired to in the ancient world. Nevertheless, some women did need to find work in order to support themselves. Some women did work for wages in the fields, but household service was the most likely choice. Unfortunately the Egyptians used the same word for servant and slave so it is not always easy to tell which woman in the household is a salaried servant and which one is a slave. In practice, however, the only real difference was that the former could in theory quit and work for someone else while the latter could not. On a day-to-day basis both would have worked and been treated the same.
After agriculture and food, the textile industry was the most important economic activity. Everyone needed clothing. Making clothes was something every woman could do, and it is very difficult to assess how much was done for home consumption and how much was done for the purpose of trade. The Greeks introduced coins but the traditional Egyptian barter system continued to operate and housewives could easily earn extra “money” by producing surplus dresses etc. There were businesses that hired workers to weave, sow, etc., and there is evidence that women participated in this.
Many women owned slaves, and, of course, many slaves were women. There are instances where women are recorded as hiring out for a few hours, days, or weeks, the services of their slaves. The documents show slaves being apprenticed in order to acquire valuable skills and produce increased wealth for both the slave and her owner. One very valuable attribute of a slave woman is her ability to give birth to additional slaves. Since the infant mortality rate was very high, there were many childless women who were nevertheless producing milk. Thus was created the occupation of “wet nurse”. Sometimes a nursing slave was rented out for two years, either going to the child’s home or bringing the child to her home.
Egyptians seldom abandoned an infant, but unwanted babies were regularly left on the “dung heap” in Greece and the practice continued when the Greeks moved to Egypt. Girls might have been considered undesirable as children but they made valuable slaves and some people raised the infants they found there as servants. Often such an infant was placed in the care of a neighbor’s wet nurse for two years.
Wet nurses were not confined to the lower classes and there are instances of well to do, respectable women nursing the infants of others.
Although most people made their living from agriculture, Egyptians tended to live in villages and towns, rather than on the farm itself. This meant a longer walk to work, but no productive land was lost to houses and people had the advantage of living close to their neighbors. A multitude of anonymous villages had only a few dozen people but there was a surprising number containing hundreds and even thousands of people. Alexandria had, perhaps, a population of 500,000 in the first century of Roman rule and it has been estimated that another million people lived in cities of over 20,000.
The most common village home consisted of three rooms surrounding a courtyard. At the very least, there was a flat roof providing additional living space in Egypt's mild climate, but there was often a second or even a third story. The family grain supply was kept in vaults in the basement. The oven for baking bread was in the courtyard.
Walls were made of sun dried, mud brick. Wood, a scarce commodity in Egypt, was used for the front door, staircase, and as a support for the roof. Stone was plentiful but transportation costs made it too expensive for general use. In homes of the common people it was limited to the door sill and perhaps the stairs in and out of the courtyard.
Land was as much an expensive commodity in the ancient world as it is in the modern. This was especially true in the walled towns, encouraging upward construction when it was no longer possible to find more space inside. Hermopolis had a 7 story apartment building. Presumably this was quite common in Alexandria, although we know regrettably little about housing in that city.
Infants had only a fifty-fifty chance of making it to their fifth birthday, but children then as now played games and had favorite toys. The doll shown at left……… Only a fortunate few had the opportunity to go to school, but young girls would learn the things they would need to be a good wife and mother by watching their own mothers. Getting married was something to which every girl aspired and most would marry in their mid teens. No doubt many marriages were arranged by parents, but, in theory at least, the women’s consent was an absolute requirement. The bride moved to her husband’s home and became part of his family.
One could not go to a supermarket for a bag of flour, much less a loaf of bread or a TV dinner. Food entered the home in its natural state and had to be fully prepared before it could be eaten. Food, clothing and shelter, the essentials of outside the home. This was not true in the ancient world, where at least one person, and often more, would have to work full time making clothes and preparing meals. This was the woman’s job. The models at left show Egyptian women working in the home to grind flour and bake bread.
Having children was, of course, very important in Greek and Roman Egypt, as it was in all of the ancient world. Life expectancy was short and if society was to survive it was important to have as many children as possible. Since there were no pension plans, men and women were all anxious to raise children who would look after them if they lived into old age. Women usually gave birth sitting or kneeling. The image at left shows a woman giving birth as she kneels on two large bricks.