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The Sexual Life of Athenian Women

Two happy days a woman brings a man: the first, when he marries her; the second, when he bears her to
the grave.1
-epigram of Hipponax, ca 580 BCE
The sexual experience of a typical Athenian woman of the Classical period almost certainly began
fairly early, but ideally not until the girl was married. As a wife, she was largely an economically
productive unit, chosen for her pedigree and other qualifications rather than from any kind of affection,
erotic or otherwise, which existed between her and her husband to be. Married women were not people
under the law of the Athenians any more than a slave, as they were shifted from one males authority to
another throughout their lives, powerless to affect anything except through the intercession of another male.
Naturally, any sources which may have once existed detailing a womans experience of her
sexuality have disappeared, but a great many still exist showing how men concieved of them sexually. As
men were the dominant force of culture and society in Classical Athens, it is probably wise to look to these
sources for information about the sexual life of women. However, they must be used with great care; it is
often very difficult to find the line between male fantasy and female reality.
Athenian males tended to divide women into two types, broadly respectable and not respected
women. The lives of these two types of women were different in nearly every way, from birth to death.
Respectable women were married citizen women, or their daughters. Women who were not respected
included poor women, foreign women, slaves, and prostitutes. The artificial separation of women meant,
among other differences, a vast difference in sexual experience in practice, but all women fit within the
patriarchal conception of womens sexuality.
A respectable Athenian woman married young, often when she was no more then sixteen years
old. Her new husband might be ten years or more older than she, and certainly more worldly. These girls
seemed trained to fear their wedding night, for it was customary for her unmarried friends to sing songs
which would comfort her through the first night or her marriage and for a friend of the groom to guard the
door to the bedroom to prevent anyone from coming to her aid if she screamed. The brides extreme youth
gave her husband a great deal of authority over her, making it unlikely that she would ever get her way. He
had education where she had little to none, legal rights where she had none, and command of wealth and
material resources where she, again, had none. It is very likely that her youth also diminished the chances
of a meaningful intimate relationship with her husband, and new brides probably commonly suffered from
sexual and emotional neglect. In a fragment from Sophocles lost tragedy Tereus, the wife of Tereus,
named Procne, has this to say about marriage:
. . . often I pondered the status of women: we are nothing. As small girls in our father's house, we live the
most delightful life, because ignorance keeps children happy. But when we come to the age of maturity and
awareness, we are thrust out and bartered away, far from the gods of our forefathers and parents, some to
alien men, some to barbarians, some to good homes and some to abusive ones. And after one single joyful
night of love, we are compelled to praise this arrangement and consider ourselves lucky. 2
1
2

Hipponax, On Women, ca 580 BCE http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/700greekwomen.html


Sophocles, Fragment 583, Taken from The Reign of the Phallus, by Eva Keuls

Certainly, an Athenian girl was supposed to believe her wedding day was the highest point in her life, but it
seems the contrast with reality was rather sharp. More than one source likens sexual relations with a wife
to agricultural work; in Sophocles Antigone Haemon hears that there are other fields of him to plow, and
comedy refers to horny husbands who want to strip off and work the land. Sexual pleasure and desire
seem almost inappropriate within a marriage in Greek thought, which must have boded ill for the sex lives
of Greek wives.
Many sources exist which document the supposed joy of marriage and the wedding night, such as
this wedding night hymn by Theocritus, which is addressed to a new husband who seems less than
enthusiastic:
Betimes you should have sped,
If sleep were all your purpose,
unto your bachelor's bed,
And left her in her mother's arms
To nestle and to play,
A girl among her girlish mates,
Till deep into the day--For not alone for this night,
Nor for the next alone,
But through the days and through the years
You have her for your own.3
Note how the bride is presented as little more than a child; it is her husbands duty to make her an adult,
and she is certainly no equal partner in her new marriage. Another bridal hymn, though, does present the
young bride as desirable:
Arise, O Straticlus, favored of Aphrodite,
Husband of Myrilla, admire your bride!
Her freshness, her grace, her charms,
Make her shine among all women.
The rose is queen of flowers;
Myrilla is a rose midst her companions.
May you see grow in your house a son like to you! 4
This song praises the beauty, youth, and charm of the young bride, but it ends on a practical notethe
primary attraction of this young woman is as a potential mother, not as a partner in her husbands life.
The bride, and women of the appropriate age to become brides, were potent erotic symbols in
Greek art and culture from a very early time. Hesiod presents the story of Pandora in his Theogony, where
this first woman was created in the form of a beautiful parthenos and dressed as a bride. The young bride,
with her potent, symbolically charged jar, ushers in all the evil, grief, and toil in the world. She is described
as a kalon kakon, a beautiful evil thing, and a curse devised for mankind by the gods. However, the
greatest and cruelest irony of the gods is that Epimetheus, even though he had been warned, took Pandora
3

Theocritus, The Bridal Hymn, ca 250 BCE


http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/700greekwomen.html
4
Anacreon, The Morning Nuptial Chant ca 400 BCE
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/700greekwomen.html

because he wanted her, and so all men desire their ruin by their desire for woman. Aristophanes exploited
this for comic effect, having a member of the female chorus state:
Come now, if we are an evil, why do you marry us, if indeed we are really an evil, and forbid any of us
either to go out, or to be caught peeping out, but wish to guard the evil thing with so great diligence? And if
the wife should go out anywhere, and you then discover her to be out of doors, you rage with madness, who
ought to offer libations and rejoice, if indeed you really find the evil thing to be gone away from the house
and do not find it at home. And if we sleep in other peoples' houses, when we play and when we are tired,
everyone searches for this evil thing, going round about the beds. And if we peep out of a window,
everyone seeks to get a sight of the evil thing. And if we retire again, being ashamed, so much the more
does everyone desire to see the evil thing peep out again. 5
Semonides, another early author, continues this blame of woman as the source of all trouble in a
mans life. He sdescribes different types of women, or rather different types of wives, as different types of
animals, each one worse than the last. It is probably telling for the romantic life of the Athenian wife that
the only woman he found worthy of praise resembled a bee, an industrious, silent, and sexless worker.6
The two pieces in this catalogue which refer to respectable women show us much different things
about their sexual lives. The poem of Archilochus is much earlier than the Classical period and did not
originate in Athens; nevertheless, it is an unparalleled source and has no counterpart in all ancient literature.
The activities described within the poem, as well as the general tone and meaning of the content, have been
variously interpreted. Whatever the seducers biological function at the end of the poem, or what exactly
takes place between the couple, this beautiful piece of poetry presents a sensitive, candid narrative of the
first sexual experience of a young girl. The girl is fresh, innocent, and nearly child-like in her wonder. She
does not know what will happen; she is trembling like a fawn as he takes her outside. He describes her
virginity and youth as irresistably attractive, in keeping with her age and status. Yet the narrator does not
brutalize the girl; rather, he seems to want her to experience gentle intimacy.
The other piece dealing with the sexuality of a respectable woman is the Lekythos with Amymone
and Poseidon. Although the rape depicted is mythological, it tells us a great deal about the sexual
expectations Athenian women were meant to have. Amymone, though she runs away and resists her
pursuer with violent motion, gives two signs that she actually wants the affections of her attacker. Her
anakalypsis gesture is unmistable; it indicates that she is, in some sense, a bride, and making herself
available to her new husband. In the same way, her gaze, turned back to face Poseidon, meets his eyes.
The direct gaze of any woman, but especially of a new bride, was supposed to be an irresistible aphrodisiac
for any man; it was for this reason that respectable women were instructed to keep their eyes modestly
downcast at all times. When a new bride was unveiled, she met her husbands eyes for the first time; this
moment was supposed to fill each of them with great erotic desire, which would then be consummated in
the bridal chamber. At the same time, there can be no doubt that young women were meant to have an awe
and even fear of sex; the most famous mythological weddings were all rapes of one kind or another,
forcibly depriving a young girl of her home, where she felt safe and comfortable, and giving her over to the
authority of a strange and probably frightening man. The rape of Amymone as presented on this lekythos
5
6

Aristophanes, The Chorus of the Women, ca 420 BCE


Semonides 7, lines 84-94, http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/sem_7.shtml

shows how women were meant to conceive of sex, or at least marital sex. Her resistance is all show.
Inside, the woman longs for her marriage and gives her attacker encouragement. The common gesture of
marriage on Greek vases shows the groom grasping his bride by the left wrist, as though to drag her with
him, making the entire ceremony a symbolic rape as well as a symbolic death for the young bride.
Such myths do not, however, indicate that the Athenians did not have a concept of criminal rape.
Women, children, and even men could be and were raped in Athens, and the penalty for committing such a
rape was based on the relative status of the attacker and the victim. No literature survives, even in the
context of myth, to tell us how these rapes affected the victims psychologically or socially. Mythological
pursuit scenes like the one above seem bound to fantasy and gender role instruction and do not show the
actual act of violation, only the pursuit and sometimes the seizure of the victim. The Athenians recognized
seduction and adultery, of the type practiced by Archilochus narrator, as a worse crime.
Rape was more excusable, not because of its effects on the victim, but because of the effect on the
victims value. A woman who was raped was dishonored, but she was not faulted. Rape did not call into
question the validity of her offspring or threaten her husbands authority, as adultery did. As such, the
penalty for seducing a respectable woman could include death. Lysias famous legal defense of the
murderer of the adulterer Eratosthenes states that the victim saw his murderers wife at a funeral and
pursued her actively, winning her over after a lengthy seduction. It is impossible to say how many married
Greek women had extramarital affairs, as they had limited exposure to the outside world, but it is likely that
some substantial minority may have found the pleasure and affection missing in their married relations in
the arms of another.

Women lived secluded in their own quarters, kept out of the lives of their husbands, working
endlessly at the loom or some other repetitive chore. They competed for their husbands affection with
legions of prostitutes, hetairai, and slaves of both genders, including those within their own household. In
effect, the single job of the middle and upper-class Athenian woman was only to give birth to sons; she was
not even given the duty of providing pleasure. Indeed, one Greek law mandated that a husband must have
sex with his wife at least three times a month, not for pleasure, but for the same reason that the polis felt it
necessary to occasionally renew its treaties with allies.
The hetariai, prostitutes, and concubines with which the Athenian wife had to contend seem to
have been without number in the Greek world, and certainly such women must have had a very different
perception of their sexuality and their relationship with men. Athens and its port at Piraeus had a sex
industry second only to Corinth on the Greek mainland; whatever service a man might desire could be
readily negotiated with a paid companion. These women fell into three broad categories. There were
hetairai, high priced courtesans skilled in conversation, music, politics, and academics, mistresses or
concubines who served one man as a kind of quasi-wife, and common pornoi, streetwalkers and brothel

workers with nothing to sell except their bodies. Demosthenes put it this way, We take a hetaira for our
pleasure, a concubine for daily attention to our physical wants, a wife to give us legitimate children and a respected
house. 7 Such a division of women seems to indicate relationships in which sexual pleasure and intimacy was or was
not appropriate.
Middle and upper class Athenian men probably encountered hetariai and their like most often at a
symposium, or drinking party. Prostitutes were a common feature of such parties, particularly those who
were entertaining dinner companions as well as sexual partners. Some sources indicate that the musicians
and other entertainers at symposia were auctioned off or won in competitions, and that in the common
drinking game of kottabos everything from kisses to sexual favors was available as a prize.
While women like hetariai were valued for their skills, and some undoubtedly did form
meaningful intimate relationships with their clients, they were still the playthings of men. Their bodies
were no more their own than were those of the wives they replaced. Philemon says of legalized
prostitution:
But you did well for every man, O Solon:
For they do say you were the first to see
The justice of a public-spirited measure,
The savior of the State (and it is fit
For me to utter this avowal, Solon);
You, seeing that the State was full of men,
Young, and possessed of all the natural appetites,
And wandering in their lusts where they'd no business,
Bought women and in certain spots did place them,
Common to be and ready for all comers.
They naked stood: look well at them, my youth--Do not deceive yourself; aren't you well off ?
You're ready, so are they: the door is open--The price an obol: enter straight---there's
No nonsense here, no cheat or trickery;
But do just what you like, how you like.
You're off: wish her good-bye;
She's no more claim on you.8
Hetariai and other types of prostitutes are here contrasted with wives, as they are present to give pleasure to
their clients and do not make any further claim on the man who buys them, but it is also clear that they are
thought of as a convienience kept within the state so that men may have what they want without having to
form a taxing interpersonal relationship or violate any state laws. For all their skill and their seemingly
egalitarian interactions with men, hetariai were still powerless and at the mercy of men. Most were foreign
or slaves, and were without legal recourse if they were raped or brutalized. They had little or no social
status or power, no matter how powerful a client they kept.
The Kylix with Erotic scenes included in this catalogue clearly shows they dangers and
degradations to which prostitutes were subjected. It also shows another disturbing aspect of the symposium
7

Demosthenes, On Wives and Hetairai ca 350 BCE


http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/700greekwomen.html
8
Philemon, Hetairai ca 350 BCE http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/700greekwomen.html

culture, the sexual instruction of young men. Other examples exist showing older men with young
prostitutes while the beardless youths sit with older, more matronly figures. 9 In this example, the young
men are being shown how to behave with inferior women. The prostitutes on this kylix are forced to
perform fellatio and are penetrated anally, both considered extremely humiliating and fit only for inferiors.
Some evidence suggests that anal intercourse or fellatio with ones wife was actually illegal, as it precluded
the production of children.10 The young men, who force the women to perform fellatio, are learning from
their elders, who have the greater privilege of actual penetration. The scene clearly illustrates ideas of
sexual power and relations within the social classes.
The oinochoe, which also depicts a prostitute, shows a different, contrasting idea about sex. The
negotiation with the prostitute was apparently as titillating, if not more so, than the act she would
eventually perform. This idea of potential over reality is mirrored in the pursuit scenes or rapes, just with a
different type of woman. When compared to the degrading and humiliating acts on the kylix, it seems that
the thought or potential for sex was a womans most erotic attribute, while the actual sexual act was
humorous or even vaguely repellent. Sexual relations with women are not seen as emotionally or mentally
fulfilling, instead resembling a biological necessity.
Greek women, despite the penis mania they were thought to possess,11 were generally powerless
under the authority of men. Their sexuality was almost wholly a male construct, at least in the surviving
sources. Like the literature and art on which they are depicted, the sexuality of women was intended for
male consumption and whether or not it brought any pleasure to the women themselves was largely
immaterial. The opinions which women must have had about their bodies and their sexuality have largely
perished with time, but the writing and art we have examined in this catalogue give some idea of what men
thought of them and wanted from them.

See Keuls
ibid
11
See in particular Aristophanes Lysistrata
10