LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE ANCIENT WORLD

By Tim Lambert

Women in Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt women had a great deal of freedom. They could come and go as they pleased. They could own property and they could sign contracts. women could also divorce their husbands.

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 organizing the slaves.

There were some women doctors in Ancient Egypt. Merit Ptah was a famous woman doctor who lived around 2,700 BC.

A famous woman Pharaoh called Hatshepsut once ruled Egypt.

Women in the Old Testament

In Ancient Israel women could own property. The Book of Proverbs describes an ideal woman. It says 'she considers a field and buys it'. (Proverbs 31:16). As well as making clothes for her family the ideal woman sells clothes to merchants. 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. However sons who inherited property were expected to support the women in the family.

In Israel girls learned skills like spinning, weaving and baking from their mothers.

Women in Ancient Greece

The Greeks worshiped goddesses as well as gods. Greek women took part in religious festivals but they did not participate in politics or warfare.

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. However in Sparta women could own and inherit property. (Spartan women owned much of the land).

Girls married when they were about 15. (Except in Sparta where they were typically older). Marriages were often arranged for them. However Ancient Greek women could divorce their husbands.

Women were not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. However women had their own games dedicated to the goddess Hera (wife of Zeus). The Heraen games were held once every 4 years.

A famous Greek woman was the poet Sappho, who lived about 600 BC. Theano of Crotona (born 546 BC) was a famous mathematician. About 400 BC Arete of Cyrene was a famous philosopher. About 150 BC Aglaonike was a woman astronomer. 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 woolen 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 jewelry 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.

Roman Women

In Rome women could not vote or hold public office. 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. 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. Roman women could also divorce their husbands.

Roman Women wore long dresses called a stola, dyed different colors. 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 Boudicca. 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.

Famous Women of the Ancient World

Life for women in the Middle Ages

Life for women in the 16th Century

Life for women in the 19th Century

My Youtube video about Women in the Ancient World

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