Women in Ancient History In Ancient societies such as those of Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Rome, and India, women have been consistently been classified as less than men. Regardless of location, early civilizations other than Africa had patriarchal social and family structures. Equal treatment of women was not yet conceived in ancient civilizations. Citizen and non-citizen, free born, freed and slave, father and children, male and female—each had a different standing in law. Unfortunately, the majority of women were on the losing side of the law.
In Mesopotamia, a woman’s rights were never equal to those of men. It was nearly impossible to be respected if you were not married. However, in the early Neolithic period, women were free to go out to the marketplaces, buy and sell, attend to legal matters for their absent men, own their own property, borrow and lend, and engage in business for themselves. High status women, such as priestesses and members of royal families, might learn to read and write and be given considerable administrative authority. Numerous powerful goddesses were worshiped; in some city states they were the primary deities.
However, these do not cancel out the negative things. Especially in the later period of Mesopotamian history, women were confined to their houses to birth and raise children. They were not allowe4d to divorce their husbands, and Hammurabi’s code indirectly degraded women. In ancient India, women occupied a very important position. Literary evidence suggests that kings and towns were destroyed because a single woman was wronged by the state. To instill such high ideals in human kind, Indian ancestors created a plethora of goddesses who enjoyed equal status with their husbands.
The concept of Ardhanareeshwarar, where God is depicted as half-man and half-woman, is a concrete example to support this argument. In many philosophical texts God is referred to a Tat, meaning It and that God is beyond gender. And, one would find a comparable Goddess for each God. Further, we know for a fact that ancient India was permissive; women could have multiple husbands, widows could re-marry, divorce was permitted for incompatibility or when estranged. Compared to the status of women in other ancient societies, Indian women enjoy equal status socially, economically, and politically.
As a child, A Hindu girl is supposed to remain in the custody and care of her parents. Once married, she becomes a property and responsibility of her husband, who is supposed to take care of her needs and expectations and keep her in his custody. As his wife, she performs four roles: the husband’s servant, his minister in decision making, as a mother to his children, and as a lover in his bed. When she becomes old, she lives in the house of her son or sons and has to lead a very solitary and forlorn life.
Although the early Chinese dynasties had no real commitment to subordination of women, Confucian teachings were adopted and led to the diminution of the status of women over time. Confucian interpretations enforced male authority and patriarchal customs. According to the Confucian structure of society, it was the obligation and duty for women to obey their husbands. The effect of which had women at every level of the social hierarchy occupying a position lower than men. Most Confucians accepted the subservice of women to men as natural and proper.
At the same time they accorded women’s honor and power as mother and mother-in-law within their family. Chinese literature on educating women about self-discipline, etiquette, relationships with in-laws, household management, humility, and chastity was not uncommon. Biographies written about admirable women emphasized their unselfish loyal and self-sacrificing willingness to do anything to help their husband and his family. Although ideology is one thing and the reality of the lives of women often another, the long shadow of basic beliefs about the nature and role of women had far-reaching effects.
Traditional sayings based on interpretations of Confucian beliefs shaped women’s historic participation and status in their societies. Distrust in women can be seen in ancient literature, such as this ode which expresses a deep distrust of women’s involvement in politics: Clever men build cities Clever women topple them Beautiful, these clever women may be But they are owls and kites Women have long tongues That lead to ruin Disorder does not come down from heaven; It is produced by women. This distrust of women can be easily traced to the practice of concubinage.
This demotes women from the status of wife, to the status of baby maker. The caste system of India had the same effect on women as Confucisim in China. Neither the Chinese or Indians directly opposed the rights of women. However Confucisim and it’s strict patriarchal laws and India with it’s well known caste system both put women at the bottom of their respective classes. Wedding ceremonies and rituals vary in Hinduism. Most Hindu parents look for a prospective match for their children from their own community or caste. Within families, there are also many distinctions of hierarchy.
Men outrank women of the same age, and senior outrank junior. In Sparta, women generally enjoyed no freedom of choice in their behavior; they were strictly bound by the rules of the man and had no political right what so ever. They could own land and perform small business transactions, but only to a certain extent. Women were not allowed to take part in the Olympics, but they were allowed to hold their own private competitions, away from the appearance of males. Women in Greece tend to have their own private part of the house as a chamber, were she could stay through out the days of her menstrual period.
On the contrary, in Athens, Athenians were superior to non-Athenians, and male Athenians were superior to females. During the golden age of Athens and the Hellenistic period (400-100 B. C. E), women’s rights varied drastically. There were a whole lot of differences and some similarities between women in these two periods. Athenian women were limited to very poor standards of education than the Hellenistic women. Though women were not treated equally, both these periods gave great importance to female gods. Another difference is that women were not given political rights in Athens but the Hellenistic women were given some political rights.
In Roman society ties within the family were very strong. The head of the family was the parerfamilias, the father or oldest dominant male of the family. He held absolute power over his family as long as he lived. He could legally kill his wife for adultery or divorce her for any reason. Family decisions were also made by the adult males of the family. Male dominance in family life can be seen in more ways tan just preserved writings. In Roman houses, it was very common for the father’s office, the tablinum, to be located in the center of the house. This is so whenever the house is entered, the fathers study is the first thing that is seen.
Although it may seem like Roman women had no say in family affairs, it was common for the wife to have a position of authority and respect. Virtues expected of a Roman wife were fidelity, chastity, modesty, and dedication to the family. The wife ran the household. She supervised the domestic slaves, planned the meals, and devoted a good deal of attention to her children. For example Julia the Elder, Augustus’s first wife, was used on coinage and imagery as part of Augustus’s image building campaign. Later in the Roman timeline, Christianity affected the treatment of women.
Roman Christians were eager to accept gentile women into their faith. Intermarrige between Greeks and Jews were common. More importantly, Christianity gave women more rights than they could expect from either Paganism or Judaism. For women Christianity was a source of liberation. Roman women were little better off than women Athens. Under Roman law women went from the authority of their fathers to the authority of their husbands, and even a wealthy, old widow needed a male to supervise her finances. Women began to achieve greater freedom in practice in the beginning of 1000 BCE.
Athenian men regarded their wives as at best essential inconveniences, but Roman men placed a very high value on marriage, home and the family and this made quite a difference to society’s treatment of women. At no time in Rome’s history were women allowed to hold office. In the early days of the Republic women were not even allowed to make suggestions. By the beginning of the Empire many men were seeking and following the advice of their wives. It was all right to do so, provided the advice was given in private and the husband did not make a big deal of it.
Respectable women were not supposed to be wandering around alone outside, but somehow they managed to have a life beyond the home. Outside of the lower classes women could not work but they did not want to do so either. In fact “work” was seen as something to be done by slaves and low class people who did not know any better. Nevertheless women were demanding and getting greater freedom. Some men objected, of course, but their cries of protest were in vain. In Ancient Greece and Rome, much off what we know about the lives of women is recorded by men.
Because of this, the public lives of women are more understood than the aspects of their private life. Did women loathe their roles in society in secret, or did they revel in their ability to be free of the expectations that burdened their male counterparts? In Ancient Greece, women were considered inferior to men. They were believed to have strong emotions but weak minds, incapable of governing themselves. Because of this, women were appointed guardians to protect them from themselves and to protect others. This role, held by either the closest male relative or husband, is known as the kyrios.
The kyrios controlled the life of the women, as they were unable to buy goods, own property of enter in to contracts on her own. Although a woman could not purchase items, they were allowed to own their own clothes, personal items and slaves. Property was obtained by inheritance, marriage of gifts. Grecian women married at young ages for the purpose of producing children to continue the lineage or as a means of preserving their status in society. Only citizens were allowed to marry, and marriages were arranged according to wealth and status.
From that point, the woman was expected to manage the household and produce children, only leaving the home for funerals or events specific to women. Women and men did not socialize together and during gatherings, women were expected to remain separate from the men. Women in Ancient Rome enjoyed a slightly better life than those in Ancient Greece. Roman men placed a very high value on marriage, home and the family and this made quite a difference to society’s treatment of women. Women still were passed from their father’s supervision to their husbands, but enjoyed a more important role.
While women could not hold office, men often sought the advice of their wives, giving them a powerful role in the politics of the society. There were also laws enacted that allowed women to remain under the power of their fathers rather than their husbands, providing them more freedom to govern their own business. Raising the family and managing the home were still the main role of women in Ancient Rome. Lower class women would have to perform duties themselves, but upper class women would have slaves and servants to help carry out these duties. Roman women also were expected to host the guests of the husband in the home.
Although the Roman women enjoyed a few more freedoms than the Grecian women, they still were looked upon as a lesser citizen. This theme is repeated throughout history. Even in modern times, the woman is still often looked upon as in inferior class. They often do not enjoy the same benefits, political influence or power as their male counterparts. In the Western nations, women enjoy increasing respect, equality and affluence. Women have acquired a role more on par with males through a long struggle for independence and equality. Society no longer expects women to be ruled by men because they themselves are incapable.
They may choose their own paths, become educated, support themselves financially, and choose their partners freely. As one can easily see, being a women in an ancient civilization was no easy task. Unless you were of a very high class, you were constantly expected to work hard and to not have an opinion. In todays history books, it is very common to hear a lot about higher class women who held political power, and to hear very little of the 99. 9% of women who were neglected. To understand the true nature of the treatment of women throughout history, it is important to always remember the lower and middle classes, regardless of civilization.
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