Throughout human history the roles of women and men have been defined in part by physiology and in part by the attitudes conveyed by those who hold power and influence. In ancient history, societies were centered around women and the worshipping of goddesses. These roles changed quickly as hunting and warfare became increasingly more important and women’s less powerful physique placed them in a weaker position. Just prior to the Hellenistic Age, three men wrote of their times, and of their perceptions, attitudes and ideas regarding men, women, and civilization.
In Oedipus Rex by Sophocles we get a glimpse inside the life and tragic misfortunes of a royal family. Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian war, and in his recounting of Pericles’ Funeral Oration the duties and benefits of Athenians were revealed. Plato’s The Republic, was a philosophical dialogue covering the times as they were and how he felt they possibly could be better. In each of these works t! he roles of women are revealed not only through their position within the community but also through the elation of the benefits and rights men enjoyed which women were denied.
During the time of Sophocles, the Greek population led a simplistic life enjoying a dynamic life of festivals, light work loads and the attendance of compulsory dramas paid for by the state for human enhancement. The Greek population consisted of free men, free women and slaves. Men were at the top of the hierarchy enjoying all the benefits provided by their civilization; involvement in politics, ownership of property, influence, and the freedom to chose their actions.
Women on the other hand were primarily elegated to keeping up and nurturing the appearances of society; care of the home and children, upkeep of possessions, and more importantly upkeep of their husbands reputations and honor. Throughout Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex the values that make a good citizen (that being a free male) are introduced. These include being humble before the gods, being responsible for your actions while having respect for humans and for the instructions of the gods.
The expectations and roles of women are also shown through the actions of Jocasta the queen in comparison with the actions of her husband Oedipus. Jocasta is not entitled to as much public power as her husband, her role is in the background, helping direct him privately and always caring to keep up his reputation. She says during one of Oedipus’s public outbursts, “Into the palace now. And Creon, you go home. Why make such a furor over nothing? “1, while at another time she submissively says, “…
But do let’s go inside. I’d never displease you, least of all in this. “2 This weak and dependent perception of women is evidenced even more when hearing Oedipus talk of his children to Creon, “… y daughters, my poor helpless girls, clustering at our table, never without me hovering over them … take care of them, I beg you. “3 He continues saying to his children; “How I weep for you … just thinking of all your days to come, the bitterness, the life that rough mankind will thrust upon you.
Where are the public gatherings you can join, the banquets of the clans? … And when you reach perfection, ripe for marriage, who will he be, my dear ones? … Who will marry you then? Not a man on earth. Your doom is clear: you’ll wither away to nothing, single, without a child. “4 When Jocasta and Oedipus finally hear that their fate has indeed come to pass, the actions of each are very different, but also very indicative of their perspective roles. Oedipus takes a powerful stance by inflicting a life-long punishment on himself.
Jocasta takes the meeker route, by hanging herself she saves herself from the dishonor of having to live with the knowledge of her fateful actions, and from the terribly rough life she would have being stigmatized and being forced to live without a proper husband and provider. By the time of the Peloponnesian War, the status of….. omen had not changed much. Although women were allowed to own some amount of property, the daily management of that property was the responsibility of her husband. A women’s role was still in the home, her main duty being to have and raise children.
The men of Athens were expected to be active in political life, to serve the state, and to maintain the greatness of Athens by themselves being great citizens. During Pericles’ Funeral Oration for the dead soldiers, the women were acknowledged in a brief statement that clearly showed the attitudes of the day; “… ou who are still of an age to beget children must bear up in the hope of having others in their stead; not only will they help you to forget those whom you have lost, but will be to the state at once reinforcement and a security. 5
In addition to the pressure to have more children, women in Athens were expected to grieve and live unnoticed by the community. “Gr! eat will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men whether for good or for bad”6 Plato did talk about women in his work The Republic, in which he and his associates discussed the eaning of justice and what a perfectly just state would entail.
Through the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon we get a glimpse of the future roles of women during their discussion of the guardians of the state. In a flash of perceptiveness, Socrates attempts to build an argument to prove that women can be beneficial to the state in a role that is quite different than their current lot. “… there is no pursuit of the administrators of a state that belongs to a woman because she is a woman or to a man because he is a man.
But the natural apacities are distributed alike among both creatures, and women naturally share in all pursuits and men in all… “7 Socrates also seems to believe that even if their ideas for the state do not come to pass, women are, by natural law, equal to men and the way that they are treated in his time is unnatural. The role of women is still terr! ibly unequal to men, and the mere idea of them becoming equals is so radical that Socrates is almost afraid to speak his ideas.
“The contrast with present custom would make much in our proposals look ridiculous… (but) … must not fear the gibes with which the wits would greet so great a revolution”8 Although Plato seems in this argument to believe that women deserve equality, the attitudes of his time also have their influence within his dialogue. “And on young men, surely, who excel in war and other pursuits we must bestow honors and prizes, and in particular, the opportunity of more frequent intercourse with the women”. 9 By saying this, Socrates abandons all form of equality and reverts a woman’s role back to that of a possession of man for his pleasure and as a breeder for the state.
By reading the works of Plato, Thucydides, and Sophocles, an insight into the lives and roles of women in pre-Hellenistic Greece can be obtained. Women were the unseen and unacknowledged thread that helped to hold the state together. They bore and raised its children, protected the honor of its politically active men, and influenced its powerful men in private. Although these women were physically weaker than the men, they served their state as allowed and expected in spite of the fact that they were never granted the benefits and rights which it granted to their husbands.