Women and Gender in the Ancient World

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are highlighting The Schlager Anthology of Women’s History and offering a sneak peek into the chapter focused on Women and Gender in the Ancient World. The Schlager Anthology of Women’s History features carefully curated documents along with scholarly introductions that put each document into its historical context. Take a look at an introductory essay below as well as the featured documents!

Image caption: A depiction of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas (Wikimedia Commons)

In the ancient world, the status of women varied across cultures, regions, and time periods. Any discussion of the topic of gender in antiquity must address several complicating factors. First, the term ancient encompasses a vast period stretching from the rise of Sumerian civilization (4500 to 4000 BCE) to the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 CE. In addition, this term conceals both the geographic breadth and the diversity of the civilizations that rose, flourished, and inevitably decayed or collapsed during this time. The so-called ancient world, as it is commonly understood, encompasses the early civilizations of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. While these civilizations interacted with one another, they differed considerably in their outlooks and material cultures. Finally, our understanding of the status of women in antiquity is necessarily limited: nearly all source materials from the period explore gender dynamics from the perspective of social elites. Historians have precious few glimpses of everyday women’s lives.

While there was considerable variability in women’s status in the ancient world, there were some common themes across cultures. In most societies in antiquity, women were disadvantaged by rules and conventions made for the benefit of men. Most ancient civilizations were patriarchal, meaning that men held most of the power and authority.

Regardless of the general subordinate status of women in antiquity, women did continue to exercise influence in their societies. Women often held significant roles in religious rituals and mythology, and they served as priestesses, oracles, and living embodiments of esteemed goddesses. This religious influence sometimes extended into the political realm. While women in antiquity were commonly denied political power, there were exceptional cases of women in positions of authority. For instance, Shammuramat (811–806 BCE) was a powerful co-regent and queen of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and was among the most powerful women of the ancient Near East. Hatshepsut (r. 1479–1458 BCE) was the first female ruler of ancient Egypt. She reigned as a male and held all of the sacred and spiritual authority of pharaoh. Empress Wu Zetian, who reigned from 690 to 704 CE, was the only female emperor of Imperial China. She reigned during China’s Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) and is now regarded as one of China’s most effective rulers. In the arts, many women produced books, poems, and philosophical tracts.

Between 6000 to 8000 years ago, settled agricultural societies evolved in geographically disparate regions around the world, including Ancient Egypt, around the Nile River; the Indus Valley civilization, in modern-day Pakistan; Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq; and Ancient China, along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. Complex civilization likely first arose in Mesopotamia, where an array of quarrelsome city-states and empires clustered around the banks of the volatile Tigris and Euphrates.

Women in ancient Sumer, the first society to develop in Mesopotamia, were subordinate to men. That said, Mesopotamian women retained significant rights. They could own businesses, buy and sell property, live autonomously, initiate divorce, and hold positions of significant religious authority. These freedoms were greatest earlier in Mesopotamia’s cultural development and declined over time. This tendency can be seen by comparing two documents in this collection. The “Hymns to Inanna,” written around 2300 BCE, were ancient poems believed to be written by Enheduanna, the high priestess of the moon god Nanna in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. Enheduanna was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334–2279 BCE), a famed Mesopotamian conqueror who made the female deity Inanna/Ishtar his personal protector. These poems elevated the goddess Inanna above all other gods in the Sumerian pantheon and are suggestive of the importance of women in Mesopotamian religious life.

Over time, women’s status in Mesopotamia declined. This decline can be seen by examining the text of the Code of Assura, otherwise known as the Code of the Assyrians, promulgated in 1075 BCE. The Code expanded on earlier law codes and set harsh laws regarding interactions between men and women in the Assyrian kingdom. It was violently oppressive towards women, treating enslaved women as less than human and free-born women as little more than property.

Women were held in greater esteem in ancient Egypt than in Mesopotamia. Women in ancient Egypt enjoyed the same legal rights as men, although the extent of these rights was contingent on social class. Elite women held much more power than those from the laboring classes. All landed property in Egypt descended from the female line, passing from mother to daughter. Women were allowed to administer their own property and businesses. They could buy and sell property, execute and administer wills, serve as witnesses to the preparation of legal documents, bring action in courts, and enter into binding legal contracts. Notably, Egyptian laws recognized women as legally capax (competent or capable) and did not require them to be supervised by a male guardian, as was the case in the patriarchal society of ancient Greece. The deference shown to women in Egypt is best seen in the religious sphere. Feminine deities were common in Egypt’s polytheistic religion, and women could serve as scribes and priests, although they were often restricted to association with cults associated with a female deity.

Women in ancient Greece had few rights compared to male citizens. They were restricted from political participation, could not own land or inherit property, and were confined to a domestic role. Women were often secluded, as well, and could rarely venture out of their homes. This truncated social role contrasts with women’s status in Greek religion and mythology. Athena, for instance, was the goddess of wisdom and war and was the patron deity of the powerful city-state of Athens. That said, Greek myths also abound with women cast in villainous roles. Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love and beauty, often served as a foil to male protagonists and heroes, using her charms to make wise, honorable men lose their wits and strength. In addition, rape is a common motif in Greek mythology, with many mythic stories centering on the abduction and rape of women by male deities and heroes. These stories rarely consider the ethical implications of sexual violence.

Few women in Greece, aside from those who came from wealthy families, were taught to read and write, and most were married in their teens. There was widespread skepticism of women’s abilities, and writers like Aristotle made it clear that they considered women to be unfit to make decisions for themselves. There were many authors who contested Aristotle’s claim, however. The famed historian Herodotus, writing in the aftermath of the destructive Greco-Persian Wars (499–449 BCE), described the status of women in the Persian Empire. The Persian Empire, a gigantic political entity that governed the Near East in late antiquity, was a far more egalitarian society than Greece. Herodotus’s attitudes towards women contrasted sharply with those of Aristotle and others. In his Histories, he used the perceived positive and humane virtues of women to illustrate the rash, aggressive nature of men. Women in the Histories, unlike in most Greek writings, have agency and can make reasonable, rational decisions. Similarly, in his Moralia, the Greek philosopher Plutarch describes numerous examples of virtuous and brave female figures from Greek and Roman antiquity.

While education was generally denied to women, they were active contributors to the arts and literature. Sappho, who wrote during the sixth century BCE, was a famous female Greek poet. Her poems include “Fragment 31,” “Ode to Aphrodite,” “Passion,” and “Telesippa.” These poems reveal Sappho to be a lyric poet of rare genius. Her vivid, dream-like writings were unique because they centered the poem on the poet’s subjective, emotional experience and eschewed the grand historical melodramas of previous Greek poets. Sappho was held in high regard in the ancient world, but her fame should not detract from the general theme of patriarchal oppression that prevailed in ancient Greece.

Roman civilization was deeply indebted to that of Greece. It, too, was characterized by a profoundly patriarchal structure. While women were represented in Roman myths and legends, their status in society was unambiguously subordinate to that of men. Roman women were closely associated with a single social role: they were nurturers of the family. Their role in society was restricted to the bearing of legitimate offspring, which meant that they were frequently married at a young age, before they could become sexually active. Romans regarded the policing of female sexuality as a social necessity, and women with sexual histories were treated as embarrassments to their husbands and families. Within families, Roman women were subordinate to their male relatives. Roman families were male-dominated, headed by a senior male figure, revered in society as the paterfamilias. Women in Rome could not vote or hold political office, but they were permitted to own and inherit property and often informally held some sway over their family businesses.

The strict gender binaries that governed Roman society are particularly in evidence in the male-dominated literature produced for the Roman elite. Juvenal was a Roman satirist and author. Writing at the start of the Roman Empire, in the first century CE, he often offered a scathing critique of Rome’s increasingly venal, corrupt, and materialistic society. His writings are also dripping with scorn for women and undisguised misogyny, as shown in the excerpts from his Satires. Juvenal’s writings suggest that many Romans viewed women as lustful, untrustworthy, materialistic, and shallow. In “You’re Mad to Marry,” he presents Roman male readers with three alternative future lives: marriage, suicide, or a secret male lover. The latter two options are presented to the reader as superior alternatives to the first. Juvenal’s writings give historians a window onto a misogynistic society where women existed in the shadow of the men in their lives.

The study of women’s status in the ancient world is a complicated one. The writings we have from the period are nearly always written by male authors and centered on the male perspective. That said, the admittedly male-dominated literature of the period does reveal tensions and complexities in gender attitudes. The documents presented in this chapter highlight the ambiguous and contested nature of gender roles in antiquity.

—Written by Ross Smeltzer

  • Enheduanna: Hymns to Inana (c. 2250 BCE)
  • The Code of the Assura (c. 1075 BCE)
  • Sappho : Poetry fragments (c. 600s BCE)
  • Herodotus: The History of the Persian Wars (c. 430 BCE)
  • Ban Zhao: Lessons for a Woman (c. 80 CE)
  • Plutarch: Moralia, “Bravery of Women” (c. 100 CE)
  • Soranus: Soranus’ Gynecology (early 2nd century CE)
  • Juvenal: Satire VI: Don’t Marry (c. 115 CE)
  • The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas (c. 202 CE)
  • St. Jerome: “On a Girl’s Education” Letter CVII to Laeta (c. 403 CE)