LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
By Tim Lambert
Women in Ancient Egypt
Egypt was unusual among the ancient civilisations in that women had a great deal of freedom. They could come and go as they pleased. They could own property and they could sign contracts. However most women worked in the home. There was a great deal of work to do as most homes were largely self-sufficient. The woman made the families clothes and prepared food such as grinding grain to flour to make bread. Even in a rich family the woman was kept busy organising the slaves.
A famous woman Pharaoh called Hatshepsut once ruled Egypt.
Women in the Old Testament
The father was had authority over his family. He could divorce his wife if he wished. He could also arrange marriages for his children. People in Israel got married very young. A girl could marry when she was 12.
When a father died his sons inherited his property. The oldest son was given a double share. Daughters could only inherit property if there were no sons.
In Israel children did not go to school but their parents had a duty to teach them God's laws. Girls learned skills like spinning, weaving and baking from their mothers.
In Ancient Israel some women were businesswomen. Proverbs describes an ideal wife. The writer says ‘She considers a field and buys it’. As well as making clothes for her family the ideal woman sells clothes to merchants.
Women in Ancient Greece
Although the Greeks worshipped goddesses as well as gods Greek women played no part in public life. They were not citizens and they could not vote. In ancient Greece a woman's place was definitely in the home.
In a wealthy family women were women were kept apart from men. They were usually confined to the back or upper part of the house.
In a rich family the wife was expected to run the home and, sometimes, to manage the finances. However rich women would normally stay indoors and send slaves to do the shopping. Poor women, of course, had no choice. They might also have to help their husbands with farm work. Women, even rich ones, were expected to spin and weave cloth and make clothes.
Girls married when they were about 15. Marriages were arranged for them and often their husband was much older than them.
A famous Greek woman was the poet Sappho, who lived about 600 BC. Another famous Greek woman was Cleopatra. (Admittedly she was born in Egypt but she was descended from Greeks. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and afterwards Greeks ruled it).
Despite the warm climate Greek women wore clothes that covered most of their bodies. Greek women wore rectangles of woollen cloth folded and pinned together with holes for the arms and head. It was tied at the waist. This garment was called a peplos.
Towards the end of the 5th century some Greek women began to wear a long linen tunic called a chiton. Women also wore cloaks called himations. Women wore jewellery like necklaces, bracelets and anklets. Rich women carried parasols to protect them from the sun.
Women did not cut their hair unless they were mourning. It was worn in many different styles.
In Rome the father had authority over his wife and children. He could whip or beat his children and he could divorce his wife for quite trivial reasons - even if she was no longer attractive.
However women were allowed to own and inherit property and some ran businesses. (In the Bible there is a woman named Lydia who sold purple cloth). In certain trades some women helped their husbands, especially in silver working and perfumery. Furthermore some women were priestesses or worked as midwives or hairdressers. There were also some female doctors. Some women were gladiators. However in the Roman Empire most jobs were done by men.
Most women were fully occupied with looking after children and doing tasks like spinning wool for the family. Rich women had more freedom, especially if they were widows. However many women were slaves.
Roman Women wore long dresses called a stola, dyed different colours. Often they wore a long shawl called a palla. Both Roman men and women wore a loincloth or shorts called subligaculum. Women also wore a band of cloth or leather around their chest called a stophium.
We often think of the Romans as more advanced than the Celts. However Celtic women had more freedom than Roman women. Celtic women could rule in their own right.
One famous woman of the ancient world was Boudica. She was queen of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe who lived in Norfolk. She led a rebellion against Roman rule.
Another famous woman of the ancient world was Hypatia (355?-415 AD). She was a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who lived in Alexandria in Egypt. She was murdered in 415 AD.
Life for women in the Middle Ages
Life for women in the 16th Century