How Secluded Were the Women of Athens?


Western Civilization


Athens has a long and rich history which has led to the city being credited as having laid the foundation for western civilization due to its cultural achievements. It is considered to have been the birthplace of democracy. It is, therefore, an interesting fact that a city that prided itself on the freedom of its citizens could have such a contrasting dark side. This side is the limiting of women’s legal rights with practices such as seclusion. The document used in this essay is titled “On a Good Wife.” This document was written by Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher. He wrote it in 330 BC to describe what constitutes a good wife. It is a document viewed as a source of intellectual and social history of classical Athens. This essay answers the question: how secluded were the women of Athens? The essay answers the question through three approaches which are: how secluded were the women by law, custom, and by myth.

The Summary of “On a Good Wife”

The document titled “On a Good Wife” by Aristotle talks about the qualities and roles of a good wife and also touches on how husbands should treat their wives. It starts by stating that a wife should take care of their homes and is placed in control of the money spent. It is insisted that she should do all these in obedience to her husband.[1] This obedience should not only be there during times of prosperity but rather the author states that it should also be present during the times of adversity. The author does not exclude the husband from following noble rules, stating that the children should be raised by example for them to grow to become noble people. Husbands are urged to treat their wives with honor, faithfulness, and righteousness so that she will reciprocate the same. The document concludes by insisting that a wife’s ignorant mistake should be solved through advice from her husband instead of instilling fear. This ensures that a husband’s actions guide that of his wife in all affairs of life.[2]


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Seclusion by Law

The legal status of women in Athens whether a mother, daughter, sister or wife was considered similar to that of a minor.[3] This is according to Harrison’s law of Athens. She would be under the control of a male kyrios legally all her life.[4] The legal framework included rules of marriage, rules of vengeance, and rules of succession.[5] These laws determined who inherited a woman hence under whose care she would be. She had no right to own property and had no say in her marriage.[6] Women, especially, from poor families were however allowed to work at the marketplace as the Athenian law considered it a violation of the law to refuse them to do so.[7]  Most of the evidence shows that legally, women had no personality.

Seclusion by Custom

In classical Athens, the women’s roles were mainly domestic. They were assigned in such a way that they would be time-consuming to keep her out of mischief that may arise from having contact with other males who are not related to her.[8] Such tasks included combing and spinning of wool, weaving, and the provision of food.[9] In some instances where a family was poor and had no slave, then the woman could be sent to the market, and even then she was not to interact with other outside males.[10] Such cares were however rare since the men would themselves go for the items or send little girls.[11] When it came to social gatherings such as commensalities, evidence shows that women were in most cases secluded except on occasions where the gathering involved family members.[12]

Seclusion by Myth

A close look at Greek myth such as those of Ixion, Myrrha, Phaon, and Adonis show that the attitude of men towards women was marked with anxiety, tension, and fear.[13] Women were not considered as part of the society and did not have any part in a male-dominated community. The myths, however, contradict themselves by admitting that a woman is essential to the society by being the “producers and bestowers of wealth.”[14] They are treated as beings that must be ‘tamed.’ The myth further shows that calling a man a woman was considered one of the greatest insults as shown by Oedipus words to Ismene. Greek mythology such as the Erinyes, Moirai, Graiai, Sirens, Harpies, Skylla and Charybdis, Medusa and Sphinx are all characteristically women.[15]


This essay shows how the women were secluded in Athens. All sectors of the community treated a woman as only a subject of her husband. She was therefore not treated as an adult with her rights by law, custom, or even myth. The law saw her as a minor while customs treated her as the caretaker of her family and nothing more. Mythically, she was viewed with fear and anxiety as described by myths such as that of medusa. The document is important to show how a good wife should relate to her husband as a lot of emphasis was placed on the role of a woman towards her family.



Aristotle. “On a Good Wife.” The Economics Oeconomica, Book I, c. (330 BCE). Handout

Burton, Joan. “Women’s commensality in the ancient Greek world.” Greece & Rome 45, no. 2 (1998): 143-165.

Cohen, David. “Seclusion, separation, and the status of women in classical Athens.” Greece & Rome 36, no. 1 (1989): 3-15.

Gould, John. “Law, custom and myth: aspects of the social position of women in classical Athens.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 100 (1980): 38-59.

[1] Aristotle. “On a Good Wife.” The Economics Oeconomica, Book I, c. (330 BCE). Handout

[2] Aristotle. “On a Good Wife.” (The Economics Oeconomica, Book I, c. 330 BCE). Handout

[3] Gould, John. “Law, custom and myth: aspects of the social position of women in classical Athens.” (The Journal of Hellenic Studies 100 ,1980): 43


[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 44.

[6] Ibid

[7] Cohen, David. “Seclusion, separation, and the status of women in classical Athens.” (Greece & Rome 36, no. 1 1989): 8

[8] John. “Law, custom and myth: aspects of the social position of women in classical Athens.” 48

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 49.

[12] Burton, Joan. “Women’s commensality in the ancient Greek world.” (Greece & Rome 45, no. 2 1998): 150.

[13] John. “Law, custom and myth: aspects of the social position of women in classical Athens.” 56

[14] Ibid., 55.

[15] Ibid., 56.


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