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Ancient Sexuality: Women and the Ancient Greek Symposium

Any study into the role of Women in the Ancient Greek Symposium must come with considerable personal speculation. A perusal of the sources in Greek history will result in a finding that Greek Women played a very, very minor role in the affairs of Greek Society. Not only was Citizenship limited to land-owning Greek men but even the sexual province of women was under threat of usurpation by men in reference to the wide record of homosexuality in Greek society.

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In fact, with the possible exception of Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Herodotus Histories, 5:51) there is little mention of Greek women in their recorded histories. Whatever significant role women played in the Greek Symposium has been relegated to the status of Mythology. This is an interesting fact because life imitates art and art imitates life, while Greek historians may have been unwilling to write about the role of women in society, perhaps the bard who sang of myths may have been telling stories that bore some link to reality that historians may have been unwilling to discuss.

Perhaps the only part of Greek society the acknowledge the existence of women was the section that dealt with sexuality and the propriety of procreation. This paper is divided into two sections; the first and second will dwell on the role Women had in the Athenian symposiums. The second part will discuss the role of women in Greek mythology as a possible link to the unmentioned role of female sexuality in Greek Society.


Regrettably, there are no primary sources regarding the role of women in Greek Society, all existing sources were written by men about women. There are no Tales of Prince Genji or any other literary or historical work that can be attributed to women in Greece. Hence all that is known about Ancient Greek women has been retold from the male lens. There is no way to know what women thought about their virtual slavery to their men, their domestic activities or the many wars their men fought. This is especially regrettable in the context of ancient Athens where there are copious records of the dealings of men but the same records fail to mention women other than the fact they were kept closeted away with little personal freedom and held virtually as chattels.

When the famed historians Herodotus and Thucydides recorded their society for posterity, their interest was in his story, the history of men, they wrote about “the political and military aspects of” their “subject matter” (Mason 1). When women are mentioned in their works they mention them, in the same manner, they are mentioned in myths in relation to the men who performed great deeds of the day.

For example, Queen Gorgo in relation to King Leonidas of Sparta or Helen for her role in sparking the Trojan War, not because the women had any merit in their own right. In Thucydides’ works the focus is on military history so the only role women play is during the Funeral Oration of Pericles where he says of women “Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men whether for good or for bad (Thucydides, Book II)”.

Save for sparse mention in scenes such as this Thucydides makes little mention of women. Granted that much of Greek history was about the warmongering and imperialism of the Greek-City states it bears mention that Spartans at least esteemed their women enough that they would receive a grave marker if they died giving birth to a son.

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In ancient Greece, Athenian women did not receive the same level of education as boys. In fact, it was not until Alexander and his father Philip before he conquered the Greek world that women received some form of formal education at par with the boys and even this was a result of the fact that Macedonians held their women to a higher level of esteem than the Greeks. In Classical Greece, a woman knew everything she needed to know if she could spin wool, make clothes and prepare their husband’s food (Lefkowitz and Fant. 197).

Excellence for a woman was to be good at these fields because if she was excelled at them she would increase her chances of being married to a good man. Of course, a woman should also be able to give birth and raise children as this was their primary office which the slaves could not perform. It was this childbearing attribute that meant that a woman could be married off as soon as she hit puberty. It was not even a sexual duty because even married men could contract the services of a brothel girl.

In Democratic Athens sovereignty emanated from the people, unfortunately, the people were male, landholding citizens, women could never be citizens (Just. 13). In other words, women had no civil or political rights, the only basis of the temporal power of the time, landholding, was denied them. In fact, it could even be argued that Athenian women had the worst lot in life among Greek women of the time because as Just (1989) points out;

In the narrowly oligarchic, or monarchic states,

women who belonged to the elite have often wielded

considerable power, even if illegitimately; on the other

hand, since the bulk of the population, whether malt or

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female, possessed no political rights, politics was not

something which in general distinguished men from

women. But in Athenian democracy, there were no

thrones from behind which women could rule, while the

access that every adult Athenian male had to the offices

and honors of the state sharply distinguished the

citizen’s life from that of his wife or daughter (22)”

Perhaps their only vital role in Greek society was their childbearing function since to be Athenian one had to be born both of an Athenian father and an Athenian mother who was properly given thorough marriage (Just 24). Hence, any would-be Athenian must have parents both born of the city and their marriage must also be legitimate. Kidnapping an Athenian woman does not lend legitimate Athenian citizenship one off-spring.

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Women also played a role in religious ceremonies. Athenian society was dominated by citizens who were by definition men hence there was no way for women to participate in politics. Not even in the affairs of their children could women have any impact. In fact, it appears that the only unique function an Athenian woman had above that of ordinary slaves was that she could give birth to an Athenian citizen provided that she gave birth to a boy.

About the only aspiration women could have was that they could be married to a good man. Since dowries were given by the woman’s family to her potential husband, the wealth of her family had something impact on how well she could marry. A wealthy family could finance a large dowry and attract a suitable well-esteemed husband. However, the dowry had the apparent function of being the upkeep or alimony of the woman.

Upon receiving the dowry her husband was now her male guardian or kyrios a function previously performed by her father or in the absence of a father the next male relative. She had no say in how the dowry was to be used and in fact, the dowry was supposed to be compensation to the husband who now had to support the wife. About the only time when she had any control over her dowry was if she wanted to divorce her husband, in which case her kyrios had to support the decision (Mason 1).

Divorce was not a welcome possibility to the men because in the event of divorce he would have to return the dowry. This was the only occasion in which the woman had any serious say in how finances or pretty much anything else in society, was handled. If the kyrios and the rest of the family supported the woman’s decision she would find herself back with her family sans any children because these would be expected to remain in their father’s household. Even if they succeeded in breaking away from an unhappy marriage the woman was again practically a chattel in her father or kyrios’ house the dowry would be used to try to marry her off if she was young enough or support her for the rest of her days. Such treatment is certainly a far cry from what modern Western women would expect.

Such a life of course was what befits a good woman and one with a family that had the means to provide her a decent dowry. A different fate befits women who have somewhat less money or a family of a lesser reputation. If her family had the resources to properly educate her or at least allow her to develop her talents a woman might become a High-Class courtesan. This was an intellectual and / talented individual who, exceptional to the general rule, could actually own property even if she was a woman. After all, she had no husband to rule her and unless she became a concubine to an influential man she was essentially on her own.

The Courtesan is the pinnacle of the Prostitution industry of Athens and could be compared to Japanese Geishas in that they provided both cultured entertainment as well as sexual pleasures. Somewhat lower in this hierarchy are the Flute Girls and Slave Entertainers. These were a common sight during symposiums, this can be considered to be the entry-level position for those who aspired to be high-class courtesans. They were educated in the arts in order to entertain the clients at the symposium. Slave Entertainers were the ancient Greek equivalent of escort girls then can be found in modern times.

While they were generally hired out for symposiums to provide sexual and other entertainment they could also be hired to be companions of men during social occasions much in the same way that an escort girl can be hired to pretend to be a man’s girlfriend when he meets his business clients. Aside from their rather high-class stature as party decoration were still sometimes forced to walk the streets as streetwalkers.

At the bottom rung of the prostitution industry was the Brothel-girl and the Streetwalker or Pornai as their name suggests, they worked inside brothels or in the streets. The brothel girl was somewhat superior since she had room to ply her trade, while the pornai had to do it wherever it was convenient. They were somewhat better off than modern-day streetwalkers because they did not have a pimp who would take a portion of their profits at the end of the day.

The lives of the brothel girls were especially sordid, as mentioned by the male authors they were despised by other prostitutes because they smelled bad and worked in somewhat poor conditions. This hierarchy is changed only by male patronage, a man might take interest in a prostitute and give money for her training allowing her to advance up the ranks. An especially charming prostitute might even catch the fancy of a man so well that he might even make that woman his concubine. But it was rare and far in between that a prostitute ever became the husband of a citizen.

The life of a prostitute was even more restrictive than that of a normal Athenian woman. For instance, there was no protection from abuse because if she was raped this was only considered property damage and easily restituted, otherwise the punishment for rape would be death. However, a high-class courtesan was allowed to control her own money which somehow upgraded her when compared to an average woman.

Still, a prostitute was basically a slave she had limited legal rights and was still probably worse off than a woman who could be properly married off. It was possible for a prostitute to buy her freedom or get someone to buy it for her as was happened in the case of Neara when Timanoridas and Eucrates purchased her freedom after she charmed them with her appeal. More likely a prostitute would wind up in a quasi marriage as a concubine this was because a proper and upstanding upper-class man could not in any way marry a lower class woman this was a temporary and casual solution that satisfied the lust, worldly desires and need for security of both parties. For example, Pericles was obviously charmed by the concubine Aspasia whom he could not marry because of her lowly status.

A concubine was not a wife, her duty was to slake the lust of her master not to produce heirs, normally a man who took concubines already have heirs. Nevertheless, they were lavishly provided for by the wealthy men who took them in. Of course, this setup could end at any time. Another possible way out of prostitution was to become a Madam. This occurred when the woman was wealthy enough to support herself and other girls in a brothel of her own. Aspasia, hetaira of Perikles was one such example of buying other girls to provide her income.

“There was a separate” quarter “for” the “wives, daughters and female slaves” in Athenian homes “called the gynaeconitis” (Zinserling 23; Moya 1). This was a secluded spot in the house that was seldom seen by the men. In other words, women of good repute, those who were not prostitutes were expected to remain secluded most of their lives. Greek Society was always an outdoor society. Yet it was considered improper for women to be constantly exposed to the sun (Zinserling, 22). Short of festivals and temple worship women in society were expected to be confined to their homes. Only pornai and slave entertainers could be expected to walk the streets at night or unescorted by family and even then they were only allowed to do this because they were expected to ply their trade in the streets of Athens.

Prostitution was not evil it is seen by some moralists see it today in ancient Greece. It was an opportunity for sexual exploration and release outside the context of marriage. It is important to note that men rarely married before they reached 30 and upright Athenian women can only have sex in the context of marriage so the prostitute was the only way for younger men to have any sexual experience at all before they married. It was socially sanctioned within certain limits, for example, too many visits to the brothel could result in censure for a married man because he was wasting too much of his seed on the brothel women and not begetting an heir. It was an accepted practice with the exception that moralists often tried to convince people to at least limit it to a moderate level.


Having perused the sparse historical records on women available, it is now time to move on to mythology as a region for learning more about the role of women in Greek Political life. Myths, after all, represent the all-too-human (and futile) undertaking to bring some order to the world. They usually mirror fundamental tenets about organized society and the appropriate role for both genders. They are handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and are the primary means of transmitting the culture of a society prior to written histories. Pomerov tells us that “the myths of the past molded the attitudes of successive more sophisticated generations and preserved the continuity of the social order (Pomeroy, 1).

Hesiod’s Theogony was critical to the Greeks because it gave them a virtual directory of their gods and explained the office and genesis of these gods. It also explains to them that even their gods were flawed. Central to the Theogony was the myth of Prometheus which tells of a time when the gods and the mortals lived in harmony and there was a golden age where leisure, not toil was the order of the day (Hesiod, Works and Days, line 109). However, Prometheus had to disturb the natural order of things by duping Zeus into accepting fat and bones as the appropriate sacrifice to him allowing a man to retain the good meat (Hesiod, Theogony, 545-557) he also stole fire for the benefit of man.

In revenge, Zeus unleashed a dire plague upon man, and a very unflattering slander upon women, he sends a woman named Pandora to Prometheus who ends the Golden Age by opening the famed Pandora’s box unleashing a host of maladies upon mankind (Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 95-97). This very early myth shows how poorly the earliest Greeks esteemed their women. This misogynistic myth would suggest that everything was fine in the world until women entered it. But as mentioned earlier myths mirror the values and beliefs of the people who wrote them so this negative view of women was probably the prevailing attitude during Hesiod’s time.

The manner in which Hesiod and Homer would portray women had a great impact on the attitude of Greeks regarding their women. After all, their works were revered by Greeks as much as the Hebrews and later Christians revere their Bible. In fact, Aristotle said that “poetry is both more philosophical and more serious than history because poetry speaks of the universals and history only of the particulars. (Aristotle, Poetics, Ch. 9, 1451b5-8)”. The poetry written by these men tells later generations how their ancestors lived and gave them clear examples of how they themselves should live.

Homer’s two epics do little to uplift the status of women in Greek Mythology. There are many women but they only find a role because of their relationship with men. Athena is very important in the Odyssey and Iliad but only because men chose to disrespect and anger her. Otherwise, she would have been perfectly happy fighting in the mortal Trojan war alongside Apollo, Ares and the other gods who were meddling in that mortal affair. Circe and Calypso were powerful witches and minor goddesses in their own right but their role in the Odyssey was limited to being wardens who did their uttermost to waylay Odysseus on his way home. In fact, Calypso in holding Odysseus practically a thrall in her island quite probably held a daily symposium for his benefit to keep him amused and distracted from his goal of returning to Ithaca.

Helen, touted as the most beautiful woman in the Mediterranean plays the unfortunate catalyst to the most devastating war of their time. Even worse, Briseis and the power struggle between Agamemnon and Achilles for her possession threatened to single-handedly scuttle the Greek war effort because Achilles refused to fight until she was returned to him. Penelope is the only woman in Homer’s works that can be seen in a positive light because she provided the constant inspiration to Odysseus to want to return home to Ithaca. Such stories are not flattering to women and the message of Homer appears clear: women can inspire but for the most part they are hindrances to the affairs of men. More often than not women are sources of distraction and pleasure for men who should focus on more important work at hand.

This section on the mythology of the Greeks is relevant to the Athenian symposium because it shows what the traditional role of women was in their society. Since the myths themselves explain that women are only to perform such actions, to limit themselves to the role of wives or concubines lest they overreach themselves and become like the wretched women of myth. In fact, the Greek symposium was primarily a social institution for men to party with other men. Essentially the ancient Greek version of a debut for men these occasions included women prostitutes primarily to add a feminine flavor to these primarily male proceedings. Hence the fact, that mythology has clearly defined that women’s roles would be limited to sexual and home-based upkeep of their men tends to justify such behavior in the symposium. Plato’s Symposium is one of the most striking and famous studies of love in Western thought (Gil X). There he talks about the love affairs of men with other men and with women. In that book, he talks about the sexuality of Greeks.

Classical Greek Sources

Histories by Herodotus.

Poetics by Aristotle.

Book II of Thucydides.

Theogony, by Hesiod.

Works and Days, by Hesiod.

Contemporary Sources

Gill, Christopher “Plato’s Symposium” Penguin Books, 1999.

Just, Roger. “Women in Athenian Law and Life London” Routledge, 1989.

Lefkowitz, Mary. and Fant, Maureen. “Women’s Life in Greece and Rome” Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Mason, Moya K. “Ancient Athenian Women: A Look at Their Lives.” Moya K. Mason. 2010. Web.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. “Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves” New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

Zinserling, Verena. “Women in Greece and Rome” New York: Abner Schram, 1972

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