With so much known about Athenian thought and philosophy one would think it would be easy to talk about the life of women. Unfortunately this is not the case, for Athenian men might have written a great deal about almost every other topic, but they said very little about women and life inside the home. The traditional view in the modern world has been that Athenian men took wives because women were needed to bear and raise the children necessary to permit the continuation of society, but that otherwise wives were ignored and confined to the back of the house, with only slave-girls, harlots, concubines, and the very poor free to wander about. Women were kept in what was called “Oriental Seclusion,” a rather strange expression implying that women were confined to specific rooms in their home and allowed no contact with anyone, particularly male, who was not part of the immediate family. The phrase was probably first used to show a sharp distinction between the treatment of women in Athens and the other elements of Athenian culture that form part of the foundation of Western Civilization. In any event, the term has endured but there is a growing feeling that what once seemed so obvious may not have been true at all.

       What evidence exists for this picture of Oriental Seclusion? The economic restrictions on Athenian women discussed elsewhere in this web site certainly left them dependent on men for their entire lives, and what Athenian men said about women was hardly complementary, but this does not really tell us anything at all about their day to day life. Did these quotations reflect deeply held views from across the whole of society, were they a picture of a seldom achieved ideal, or were they little more than masculine bluster. The fact that domestic life is rarely a topic in literature might mean that whatever happened at home was unimportant, but it could also be that it was too important to be reduced to paper. Tombstones often contain epitaphs expressing considerable affection. The charge to the jury in a court case against Neaera [1] for falsely passing herself off as a citizen of Athens included the question, “If you acquit this woman what will you say to your wives and daughters?” That query would make no sense if current affairs were not a standard topic in the home. The picture is hazy and a few continue to argue that women were kept in “oriental seclusion” while others now see women as free to live life as they saw fit, but perhaps a consensus will emerge in the middle. It was certainly considered a gross violation of privacy for any man to enter the inner portion of a house, unless he resided there and was part of the nuclear family, but then neither would a casual guest today consider it appropriate to wander uninvited through the back rooms of a host’s residence.

       Some scholars in the past have argued that Athenian houses were physically divided into two separate areas, one for the men and one for the women. Two often quoted texts support this view. The first, by the fourth century BCE author, Xenophon, is an account of an Athenian householder conducting his new bride around the house. He showed her how the women’s apartment is separated from the men’s apartment by a bolted door. [2] The second text, written in the same century by Lysias, reports a speech by a man attempting to explain how it was possible his wife had been committing adultery in his own home without his knowledge. He said he had a modest, two-story home with the women’s apartment upstairs and the men’s apartment downstairs. After the birth of their baby they reversed this arrangement so that his wife could nurse the baby in the middle of the night without fear of falling down the stairs in the dark. [3] This is not much to go on, but it fitted nicely with the texts suggesting that a woman’s world was inside the home and helped to perpetuate the idea that women lived in “oriental seclusion.” On the other hand, Aristophanes presents newly-weds sleeping together upstairs with no reference to men’s quarters or women’s quarters, [4] and Antiphon tells of a male guest housed for the night in the upper-storey. [5]

       The Greek words andron and gunaikon [6] are conventionally translated as “men’s apartment” and “women’s apartment,” but there is no English equivalent and in truth we do not really know what the Greeks meant by those two words. What can archeology tell us about us about the houses? A tall, unadorned wall, broken only by one or two doors and perhaps a few windows too high to threaten privacy, divided the interior of the typical Athenian house from the outside world. An open courtyard provided a place for outdoor living, sun, light and fresh air, and direct access to most of the rooms in the house. In smaller houses the front door opened directly onto the courtyard and the one or two covered rooms opened off the yard’s rear. For larger homes the additional rooms would open off the second and third sides until finally the courtyard ended up in the centre of the house with rooms opening up off all four sides. If the house had a second story access to the upper rooms would be off a porch built around one or more walls of the courtyard. Access to the front door would be along a narrow corridor angled to provide privacy from the stares of casual visitors standing outside on the threshold. Such a floor plan meant that eventually designers would reach a point where the only way to add more rooms was to add a new courtyard and thus was born the double-courtyard house.

       There are no rooms so far discovered whose decoration clearly sets them apart as belonging only to women, and having all rooms open off a single courtyard makes it rather difficult to close off specific parts of a house other than the second floor or in the few very large houses the second courtyard and there is no archeological evidence to support this. In any event it is hard to see how a woman could carry out her responsibility for managing the home if there were significant parts of the building to which she was denied access. For the time being, at least, the gunaikon has to remain a bit of a mystery. When Socrates brought home an unexpected guest for supper one night his wife Xanthippe in a fit of temper flipped the table at which they were seated on its side. [7] By all accounts Xanthippe was not an easy woman to live with, [8] and we ought not to draw any conclusions about typical wifely behavior in Athens based on her antics, but it is worth noting that Socrates and his male guest planned on dining in that portion of the house to which his wife had access with no suggestion here of separate men’s and women’s quarters.

       Women did visit one another, perhaps to gossip and on occasion to borrow a spice for the evening meal and when it came time to deliver a baby, midwives and friends arrived to offer assistance; such women would have had to walk the streets to get there. A physician described a twenty-year old maiden who suffered a fever and headache when she returned home after being accidentally struck on the head while playing with another young woman. The victim was more than old enough to be married yet the fact she was playing outside and away from home seems to have attracted no undue attention. [9] Perhaps in a crowded city there was some genuine concern for safety and at least the well-to-do women were encouraged to send a slave to do the shopping or to fetch water, but this is quite different from a blanket restriction on leaving the confines of the home. Women did walk from one place to another for social reasons and religious activities would have required them to spend time outdoors. Staying indoors may well have been a safety issue for the elite or for those aspiring to be considered part of the elite, but it was certainly impractical for anyone who could not afford a slave. The poor had to leave the house for the jobs that allowed them to eat and Athenian citizen women are attested doing agriculture, wool-working, midwifery, selling their own goods or working at the market, and some gained employment as wet nurses. Perhaps the concern was not so much about women being seen outdoors but about their being seen conversing with men, for that was taken as a sure sign of a prostitute or hetaera.




[1] Demosthenes, Apollodorus Against Neaera

[2] Xenophon, Oikonomikos 9.5

[3] Lysias I, 9-10

[4] Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae 481f

[5] Antiphon, Prosecution for Poisoning 14

[6] Sometimes transliterated as gynaikon

[7] Xenophon, Moralia, On the Control of Anger

[8] Xenophon,   II, 2, 1-14

[9] Hippocrates, Epidemics V 50