Women in the Ancient World

By Tim Lambert

Women in Sumer

Sumer was the world’s first civilization. It arose in what is now Iraq about 3,500 BC. Sumerian women could own property such as land and slaves. They could also own businesses. Women could be witnesses in court the same as men. Some Sumerian women could read and write. Some women were doctors, others were scribes or priestesses.

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 family’s 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.

The Ancient Egyptians had a goddess of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her name was Seshat. Girls from well-off families were sometimes taught at home. A woman called Sobekneferu ruled Egypt around 1800 BC. Later a woman named Hatshepsut ruled Egypt c. 1479-1458 BC. Another woman, Twosret ruled Egypt c. 1191-1189 BC.

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. However in wealthy family women usually stayed apart from men. They usually stayed in the back or upper part of the house. In a rich family, the wife was expected to run the home and very often 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 owned much of the land. We also know from records that women owned land in Thessaly and in the Cretan city-state of Gortyn. In Ancient Greece, some women were tavern keepers. Others sold food or perfume. Some were wool workers.

In Ancient Greece some girls were taught to read and write. Women from wealthy families were often well educated. Girls married when they were about 15. (Except in Sparta where they were typically older). Marriages were often arranged for them. 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 Heraean games were held once every 4 years.

There were many great women in Ancient Greece. Sappho (6th century BC) was a famous Greek woman poet. Theano of Crotona (born c.546 BC) was a famous mathematician. Telesilla of Argos was a famous poet who lived around 500 BC. Gorgo queen of Sparta (born c. 508 BC) was an influential woman. About 400 BC Arete of Cyrene was a famous philosopher. Timycha of Sparta was a philosopher about 375 BC. Hipparchia of Maroneia (350-280 BC) was a philosopher. Anyte of Tegea was a great poet who lived around 250 BC. About 150 BC Aglaonike was a woman astronomer.

Despite the warm climate, Greek women wore clothes that covered most of their bodies. Originally Greek women wore a rectangle of cloth folded and pinned together. It was tied at the waist and it was called a peplos. Later Greek women began to wear a long tunic called a chiton. Women also wore cloaks called himations. Women wore jewelry like necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. Rich women carried parasols to protect themselves from the sun. Women did not cut their hair unless they were mourning. It was worn in many different styles.

Women in Persia

In Ancient Persia, women could inherit and own property. Many of them had jobs. Some women were made managers, in charge of both male and female workers. If the king died the queen could rule until the crown prince came of age.

Women in Nabatea

The Nabatean Kingdom existed in what is now Jordan and northwest Saudi Arabia in the period 168 BC-106 AD. In Nabatea women were equal to men. They could inherit and sell property and bring lawsuits. Some Nabatean queens ruled jointly with their husbands and appeared on coins. One famous Nabatean queen was Chuldu. She ruled jointly with her husband in the years 9 AD-16 AD.

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.

One female enemy of Rome was Teuta. She was queen regent of the Ardiaean kingdom in the west of the Balkan Peninsula from 231 to 227 BC. Another was Boudicca. She led a rebellion in Roman Britain in 61 AD.


My Youtube video about women in the Ancient World