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The Roles of Women in Ancient Greece and Rome

Updated on November 30, 2017
Patrick Patrick profile image

Patrick has been working as a freelance writer on fiverr for the past 2 years.




In Politica, Aristotle (384- 322) explains that man is by nature a social animal, and has to live in a community if he is to have a good life. Moreover, a union, such as that between males and females, is necessary for the continuation of a race. From here, Aristotle goes on to note that within a community, there are different classes of rulers/lords or masters, and slaves. In addition, a distinction existed between a slave and a female, this being largely based on their role in the community. Here, Aristotle mentions that there are hierarchies in this society, which differentiates the Greeks from Barbarians, in which no such hierarchies exist. This showed that women had a role to play in this society, and were at a higher level when compared to slaves and other servants. However, men were superior to women and it was in their nature to be leaders of women, the elderly, and the young. Being inferior to men, women lacked any authority to rule, or to become masters.
For this reason, they were trapped in a circle that made men dominant over them, in addition to being denied the right to engage in other areas of life such as politics. Although these women were respected and viewed as mothers of the future of this society, limitations by the state meant that their knowledge and skills in such areas of life in politics and leadership were limited. This in turn reinforced the notion that they were inferior to men.

Aristotle on Women

Aristotle's account can therefore be used as a representation of the roles, and even restrictions, of women in ancient Greek society. He therefore suggested that whereas some people were destined to be slaves, women were also destined to be inferior. In Politica, Aristotle stated that, "It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled." In this society, women played a more subservient role, such as household roles where they were in charge of the home. This became evident in Aristotle's "On a Good Wife," where women could be in charge of the home only to the extent that men allowed. This was due to the fact that men were not only regarded to be superior, but also in charge of the wife and children. In this case, therefore, a wife was expected to act in accordance to the wishes of the husband since the law demanded this. Viewed as inferior, with Aristotle also describing them as incomplete men, women were largely controlled in almost all areas of their lives.

Women in Ancient Greece


However, Aristotle holds that like children, they needed to be taught and trained in order to play their roles effectively. Given that men would spend most of their time away from their houses, however, the home life would be dominated by women, where they raised the children, spun, weaved, and took care of the home in general. Being a slave-based society, she also supervised the slaves and servants, with women in the poorest homes undertaking such roles as cooking, cleaning, and conducting other essential roles in their homes.
In Dio Cassius' discussion of those regarded as prominent in the Roman Empire and political structures, it was easy to determine how women were viewed in this society (Roman) and the roles they played. Roman women, like the Greek, also faced various limitations. Their involvement in politics was also highly limited as evidenced by Dio’s discussion. Livia was described as having been a very beautiful and wise woman, who was in control of various political events. For instance, although she was still married to her husband and had a child with him, Livia, together with her husband, agreed that it was wise for her to get married to Julius Caesar (Augustus) for political benefits. Despite being wise, beautiful, and even being the brain behind various situations, Dio notes that she never entered the senate chambers or public assemblies, and thus only ran things from the background. After getting married to Octavius, Livia was highly honored above all the other matrons. She was described as having become more decisive in her husband’s political dealings, but only from the background given that she was after all a woman.

Being a woman, her influence could only be achieved by contributing to her husband's decisions and thus his decisions as well as that of other men. Although Roman women had some level of freedom, equality to men outside the home was highly restricted given that men wanted to be viewed as more dominant. For instance, it was normal for marriages to be arranged for women to get married to given individuals, but this was dependent on various purposes such as political or the size of dowry depending on the social standing of the family. However, on being married, women would be under the power and control of their husbands. Although the law applied differently depending on the status of the woman, the leadership of Augustus changed much for the worse for women. He wanted conservative moral order, and therefore used legal edicts to do this. For instance, a woman who was charged of having committed adultery would face punishment, and could even lose half of her property, in addition to being banished. Women were not only property of the husband, but could also be punished and even sold as a slave. Although they were allowed some little liberty at home, and even a little education depending on their status or family, they were still expected to serve men, with some of their roles including weaving yarn and spinning, among others. A good example was Julia, the daughter of Augustus. Despite having been described as vivacious, Augustus would insist that she spin and weave in order to demonstrate her wifely duties.

A Greek


Final Words

Although it was common to hear of women influencing political matters behind the scenes, they were still viewed as inferior, and therefore under the control of men. This shows that women in ancient Roman society were also limited by the laws of the empire. In comparison to each other, it becomes evident that both of these societies regarded women as inferior to men, expected to undertake household duties and raise children. However, it is also evident that Roman women experienced a little more freedom as compared to the Greek, who were highly limited in many areas of life.


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    • Patrick Patrick profile imageAUTHOR


      10 months ago from Nairobi

      I really love reading about such stuff. Thank you fro sharing Kenna. You just game me something to read about this weekend. Looking forward to learning more about her life.

    • Kenna McHugh profile image

      Kenna McHugh 

      10 months ago from Northern California

      Sappho is one of the few ancient women of Greece, historically, who had relative freedom because she lived where women were in high-esteem (Lesbo Island) and she came from a wealthy family.

    • Patrick Patrick profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from Nairobi

      :) I understand what you mean. I have to learn about her .

      Thank you

    • stephenteacher profile image

      Stephen Carr 

      2 years ago from Corona, CA

      Hypatia was a women mathematician around 400BC. She did not get a warm welcome, if you know what I mean.


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