Attitudes to Women in the Greek/Roman World

Attitudes to Women

in the Greek/Roman World


The Greek and Roman world was the environment in which Christianity spread. It contained a background of thought and practice in which the message of Christ brought freedom and salvation, but it also imposed constraints on what could be done. As the church strayed further from New Testament teaching, pagan attitudes, including pagan attitudes towards women, influenced Christianity. Some analysis of attitudes to women amongst the Greeks and Romans is therefore relevant.

It is difficult to give an adequate analysis of societies which lasted for centuries and covered the area from Syria to Britain. Different customs existed, according to place and date. Attitudes to women in Athens, for example, were different from those in warlike Sparta, at least in the well-known historical period of the 400s BC. It would be true, however, to say that women in general were controlled by male owners (fathers, husbands or masters), the prediction to Eve that “he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16) was almost universally demonstrated, and the attitude displayed by men towards women was frequently neither kind nor considerate.

According to Hesiod (c. 800 BC) Zeus, chief of the gods in Greek mythology, created a woman, Pandora, “an evil thing”,“a plague to men” an “inescapable snare”. She was given “lies and crafty words and a deceitful nature.” Out of curiosity she opened a jar which contained hard toil and diseases, and these spread to men:

... the tribes of men had previously lived on the earth free and apart from evils, free from burdensome labour and from painful diseases....

But then woman, raising the jar’s lid in her hands and scattering its contents, devised anguishing miseries for men.

                                                            (Hesiod, Works and Days, 53-105)

All the ills of this world are therefore attributable to a woman, and by extension to all women. This was done by the will of Zeus who sent woman as a punishment to men for their arrogance.

Semonides (c. 7th century BC, or later) considered women to be lazy, greedy, slovenly, gossipy and adulterous: “... women are the biggest single bad thing Zeus has made for us”.[1]

A woman was certainly not usually treated as a “suitable helper”, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:20-23). The fall from God’s original intention is well illustrated by men’s contemptuous attitude towards women.

Positive Attitudes, but Restrictive Roles

Some very positive descriptions of marriage have been handed down from antiquity, and these usefully provide a counter to the negative comments. There are few more attractive pictures of happily married life than that painted in the fictional account in the Odyssey, composed about 800 BC. Odysseus speaking to Nausicaa says:

“... may the gods grant your heart’s desire; may they give you a husband and a home, and the harmony that is so much to be desired, since there is nothing nobler or more admirable than when two people who see eye to eye keep house as man and wife....”

                                                            (Homer, Odyssey VI, 180-185)

Seneca, Stoic philosopher, tutor of Nero and brother of Gallio (Acts 18:12), advocated chastity in marriage for both husband and wife:

You know that a man does wrong in requiring chastity of his wife, while he himself is intriguing with the wives of other men; you know that, as your wife should have no dealings with a lover, neither should you yourself with a mistress.                           (Seneca, Epistle 94:26)

Pliny wrote in the 1st century AD to his wife Calpurnia, while they were apart:

I, too, am always reading your letters, and returning to them again and again as if they were new to me — but this only fans the fire of my longing for you. If your letters are dear to me, you can imagine how I delight in your company; do write as often as you can, although you give me pleasure mingled with pain.”                           (Pliny, Letters, VI, 7)

In the societies depicted here, amongst the “top” people in ancient times, women’s roles were considerably restricted. Men had a greater range of outside activities than their wives. In the same book of the Odyssey, the queen was “sitting at the hearth with her maid, spinning yarn stained with sea-purple”, while the king “was going out to join his princely colleagues at a conference to which he was called by the ... nobles” (Odyssey VI, 51-55). The Odyssey is, of course, a work of fiction, but nevertheless is evidence of ancient attitudes.

Pliny was a prominent Roman lawyer, landowner and government official. He wrote of his wife, Calpurnia,

She is highly intelligent and a careful housewife, and her devotion to me is a sure indication of her virtue. In addition, this love has given her an interest in literature .... If I am giving a reading [of my poetry] she sits behind a curtain nearby and greedily drinks in every word of appreciation.                                                                        (Pliny, Letters, IV, 19)

The reading of his poetry was to his circle of male friends. Presumably it would be thought too much “in public” for his wife to be present, so she sat hidden behind a curtain. The date of this letter is about 100 AD.

We have already quoted Philo, writing in Alexandria a few decades earlier:

Market places and council halls, law courts and gatherings, and meetings where a large number of people are gathered, in short all public life with its discussions and deeds, in times of peace and of war, are proper for men. It is suitable for women to stay indoors and to live in retirement, limited by the middle door (to the men’s apartments) for young girls, and the outer door for married women.     

                                                            (Philo, De Spec. Leg. III, 169)

The idea that women should keep a low profile was expressed in Athens by Pericles (the political leader behind the building of the Parthenon) about 440 BC. After a lengthy speech praising the Athenian men who had died in a recent war with Sparta, he addressed a few, succinct remarks to the widows on their duties as women:

Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you.

                                                (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, II, 45)

Similarly, in Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Meno, c.384 BC, Meno expresses the standard view of his time:

If you want to describe excellence in a man, it is easy. It is this: to be good at involvement in public affairs, ensuring that his friends do well and his enemies do badly,[2] while taking good care that he doesn’t suffer any such harm. If you want to describe excellence in a woman, it is not difficult: she ought to look after her house well, ensuring the safety of everything inside and being obedient to her husband.          (Plato, Meno, III, 71E)

Public praise and activity was considered the role of men, activity in the home that of women, who were expected to be out of sight and out of mind. This would apply, primarily, to the upper classes; the lower classes could not remain at home: both men and women had to struggle to keep themselves fed and clothed, while slaves, male and female, had to do as their master or mistresses bade. In that respect, the Christian churches did offer some opportunity for slaves. When Pliny reported to the Emperor Trajan, c. 112 AD, about the activities of the Christians in the province of Bithynia, of which he was governor, he said he had decided it was necessary “to extract the truth by torture from two slave women, whom they call deaconesses” (Letters, X, 96). It is interesting that these unfortunate women evidently held a position within the church, though as with Phoebe (Romans 16:1), it is difficult to define what is meant by the word (ministrae) translated “deaconesses”.

Wives held strong influence within the home, but were subjected to double standards:

Mistresses are for pleasure, concubines for daily service to our bodies, but wives for the procreation of legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of the household.                                        (Demosthenes 59)

Husbands felt entitled to have sex in these three areas: mistresses, concubines and wives.

If you were to take your wife in the act of adultery, you could freely kill her without a trial; whereas if you were to commit adultery ... she would not dare to lift a finger against you, nor would it be right.  (Gellius 10.23)

Cicero, top Roman politician and lawyer in the century before Christ, said in 56 BC:

Anyone who thought young men ought to be forbidden to visit prostitutes would certainly be the virtuous of the virtuous, that I cannot deny. But he would be out of step not only with this easy-going age but also our ancestors, who customarily made youth that concession. Was there ever a time when this was not habitual practice, when it was censured and not permitted, in short when what is allowable was not allowed?                                                                                (Cicero, Pro Caelio, 20)[3]

Power and control were with the men, the very opposite to the sharing, caring, mutual relationship enjoined by the apostle Paul or envisaged by God “from the beginning”:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season ...                                                                     (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)

Passages like this which show mutuality and equality were overlooked when the church moved away from New Testament teaching, becoming influenced by Greek philosophers such as Aristotle. Aristotle (384-322 BC) considered it part of the natural order that masters should rule over slaves, husbands over wives, fathers over children; and his reasoning has been followed for much of the last 2,000 years:

... the male is better fitted to command than the female ...

... there are by nature various classes of rulers and ruled. For the free rules the slave, the male the female, and the man the child in a different way. And all possess the various parts of the soul, but possess them in different ways; for the slave has not got the deliberative part at all, the female has it, but it is ineffective, and the child has it but in an undeveloped form.                                                           (Aristotle, Politics, 1259b-1260a)

In other words, slaves cannot think rationally at all, women just a little, and children in an undeveloped form. Only Aristotle’s assessment about children could be considered valid today, but this type of reasoning about women has held sway until recent times because of male prejudice, mistaken assumptions about biology, and the refusal to allow women to be adequately educated until the end of the 19th century.


Mistaken Medical Understanding

Attempts to understand medical matters were influenced by social understandings and vice-versa. Women were considered inferior to men in social terms. This was illustrated by medical explanations, which in turn were subsequently taken to prove that women were inferior socially.

Men’s bodies were believed to be “hot” and therefore produced white hot semen which could carry the soul of a new human being; women’s bodies were thought to be cold, and therefore could produce only blood, which did not have this ability to any appreciable extent.

Just as it sometimes happens that deformed offspring are produced by deformed parents, and sometimes not, so the offspring produced by a female are sometimes female, sometimes not, but male. The reason is that the female is as it were a deformed male.

                                    (Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 737a25-28)

A woman is a “deformed male” in that she can contribute so little a part to reproduction, and therefore (according to Aristotle) she is weaker![4] The coldness in a woman’s body also means that she is intellectually inferior to man. And this was thought to have its parallel in character weakness.

Talking first of animals, and then of men and women, Aristotle says:

In all cases, excepting those of the bear and the leopard, the female is less spirited than the male .... ... the female is softer in disposition, is more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive, and more attentive to the nurture of the young; the male, on the other hand, is more spirited, more savage, more simple and less cunning. The traces of these characters are more or less visible everywhere, but they are especially visible where character is more developed, and most of all in man. The fact is, the nature of man is the most rounded off and complete and consequently in man the qualities above referred to are found most clearly. Hence woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is furthermore more prone to despondency, and less hopeful than the man, more void of shame, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action and requires a smaller quantity of nutriment.

(Aristotle, History of Animals 608a32-b19)

Quite a muddle, but demonstrating why (from his understanding) women are and should be subordinate to men.

Galen (second century AD) was the most authoritative medical writer in antiquity, and his influence continued through the middle ages. He had a better understanding of biology than Aristotle, but still adhered to the hot and cold theory:

The female is less perfect than the male for one, principal reason: because she is colder. For if among animals the warm one is the more active, a colder animal would be less perfect than a warmer. (Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, XIV, 6)

Menstruation was not properly understood until 1908. Until then it was thought that blood was leaking from a weak womb, and other superstitious views were entertained. Pliny the Elder, who perished in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, wrote:

Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze, and causes a horrible smell to fill the air. Dogs who taste the blood become mad, and their bite becomes poisonous as in rabies. The Dead Sea, thick with salt, cannot be drawn asunder except by a thread soaked in the poisonous fluid of the menstruous blood. A thread from an infected dress is sufficient. Linen, touched by the woman while boiling and washing it in water, turns black. So magical is the power of women during their monthly periods that they say that hailstorms and whirlwinds are driven away if menstrual fluid is exposed to the flashes of lightning.

            (Pliny, Natural History, book 28, ch. 23, 78-80; book 7, ch. 65)

This attitude came into medieval church teaching, with the same superstitious ‘reasons’ repeated, and women were forbidden to enter a church building during menstruation or after childbirth. The following dates from the 12th century:

For only a woman is an animal that menstruates. Through touching her blood fruits will fail to get ripe. Mustard degenerates, grass dries up and trees lose their fruit before time. Iron gets rusted and the air becomes dark. When dogs eat it, they acquire rabies.”

(Paucapalea, ‘Summa’ on Church law, Distinctio 5, princ.§ 2. v.)[5]


Such supposedly “scientific” arguments were influential in confirming that women were inferior to men. In reality they are a reflection of social attitudes and are devoid of any scientific or biological validity.


Modern Understanding

Modern biology observes the differences and similarities between male and female without making value judgments for or against either sex.

All embryos will develop into girl babies unless the male hormone testosterone is present – hence boys have nipples, although they do not need them. .... Male brains are physically distinct from female brains in several ways. The most obvious difference occurs where the two halves of the brain – the left and right hemispheres – communicate with each other through a large bundle of nerves that is known as the corpus callosum.

In boys, fewer cross-connections develop between the two hemispheres, so the communicating corpus callosum is significantly smaller than those of girls. At the same time, in male brains, the right hemisphere forms more internal connections and so works more independently than in female brains.

As a result, boys seem to tackle some types of problem using only one side of their brain, while girls use both. This may explain why boys tend to be more interested and proficient in right-sided brain activities, such as mathematics and spatial tasks .... Testosterone also produces more aggressive or assertive behaviour in boys, even as infants.

(Sarah Brewer, “It’s a girl – but she knows that already”[6] Daily Telegraph, Friday 24th August 2001, page 24)

These changes in the brain may explain play preferences as expressed earlier in the same article:

If a group of one-year-old infants is dressed identically, their sex is often revealed purely by the items they choose to play with: girls spend more time playing with dolls and cuddly animals, while boys show a preference for plastic tools, lorries, cars and tractors. (Ibid)

In a society such as has existed throughout most of world history these differences suggest that men are better at heavier, physically tougher jobs like building, hunting for food or fighting, and women are better at rearing children. There is no reason to suggest, however, that either sex is inferior to the other: characteristics of both overlap, and the strengths of both are needed to support the weakness of the other. As far as service to Christ is concerned, both sexes are exhorted to serve God fully, with compassion and kindness, feelings sometime biologically associated more with one sex than the other. Nature is transcended in service to God in Jesus, but both male and female are needed in society and in the ecclesia.


[1] Women in the Classical World, (OUP 1994) pages 42-43

[2] Though presumably not referring specifically to this statement, we have by contrast the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” (Matthew 5:43-44).

[3] Translation quoted from

[4] This section relies heavily on Women in the Classical World, (OUP 1994) by Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy & Shapiro.

[5] Translation: John Wijngaards,

[6] Edited extracts from A Child’s World by Dr Sarah Brewer and Dr Alex Cutting (Headline, 2001)

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