In Athens, wives of citizens enjoyed no more political or legal rights than slaves. Yet, though a married Athenian woman
might be confined to her house, here at least she enjoyed absolute authority subject to the consent of her lord and
master. To slaves, she was the mistress.
Young girls rarely left the women's quarters - the gynaikeon. While married women seldom went out of doors,
adolescent girls rarely even went out of the courtyard - they had to be unseen even by male members of their own family.
This is in contrast to Sparta where young girls trained openly at sports with young men, dressed in short tunics. All a
young girl learnt was domestic skills (such as cooking, spinning and weaving), a little reading, music and
arithmetic. They would be taught either by their mother, grandmother or a family slave. Girls only
went out for certain religious festivals where they assisted at the sacrifice and took part in the procession.
Every young girl had a Kyrios: either her father, a blood-brother, grandfather or legal guardian. He chose her
husband and decided when she was ready to be married. An Athenian married to have children - both to care for him in his
old age but more importantly to bury him with full rites and keep up his family cult when he is gone. The first
reason for marriage was therefore a religious one. A man married to have male children - one son at least to perpetuate
the line and guarantee cult honours which he, the father, had performed for his ancestors and which were regarded as
indespensible for the well being of the dead in the Underworld.
There was a law against bachelors in Sparta and while no such legal sanctions existed in Athens pressure and
public opinion was strong. As well as for religious reasons, many men married for social convenience; bed, board, etc. -
but rarely for love. There was never any period of courtship in Ancient Greece; a couple would probably never meet before
the marriage. Love might result, but it did not exist beforehand. Greatly contrasting modern marriage laws is the fact that
a man would marry at about 30 years old, a girl between 13 to 16.
Marriage - Gamos
Marriage, or "Gamos" in Ancient Greek, consisted of two halfs:
Engeyesis - an engagement ceremony, but much more legally binding than today's often temporary
engagements. This binding agreement was spoken rather than written and concerned the girl in no way. The engagement was
finally pledged by the grasping of hands between the suitor and girl's kyrios. A dowry was agreed and
oaths were sworn in front of witnesses. It is possible the girl was present but unlikely; she played no part in the
ceremony nor was her consent required. A suitor may well have consulted his father over whom to marry and fathers often
arranged marriages for their sons in order to strengthen family positions - clearly status and self-interest were the
Ekdosis - the wedding ceremony proper, the 'giving away' of the bride to the groom. The marriage
existed legally speaking from the time of the Engyesis, but the wedding proper - Gamos - required the transfer of the
bride to the bridegroom's house so that cohabitation could begin. Ekdosis was meant to occur soon after Engyesis,
being superstitious however Greeks preferred to marry at the full moon and in Winter, rather than Summer. Weddings
were frequent during the month Gamelion (January), sacred to Hera goddess of marriage.
The wedding ceremony began on the evening the bride changed home and consisted of three primary preparations:
- A sacrifice to the gods and goddesses who protected the marriage-bed - Zeus, Hera, Artemis and Apollo. The bride offered up her toys and all objects associated with her childhood.
- The principal rite - a purification ceremony - was the ritual bath, for which a procession had to go to fetch water from the special fountain called Callirhoe. This procession included torch-bearing women, a flute player and a woman with a long necked vase called a Loutrophoros to collect the sacred water in which the bride would bathe.
- The ritual bath also taken by the bridegroom in his own house.
The Wedding Day
On the actual wedding day (Gamos) the houses of both the bride and groom were decorated with garlands of olive and
laurel. There was a sacrifice at the house of the bride's father at which the bride was present, veiled, in her best
clothes with a wreath on her head. She was accompanied by girlfriends and her Nympheutria or "maid of honour".
Similarly, the bridegroom was accompanied by by his Parochos or "best man". At the banquet men and women were seated
apart. The meal included sesame cakes - a symbol of fertility and afterwards the bride recieved her presents. Towards
evening the procession formed up to take the bride to her new home. Originally this been like a forcible abduction; the
practice continued in Sparta where the girl was carried to the man's house, her hair cropped, dressed up like a man and
finally bedded on a straw mattress to wait for her husband's visit. He, after consumating the marriage, would return to
his communal barracks. In Athens, bride and groom travelled in a wagon, drawn by mules and oxen, driven by a friend
of the groom. The bride carried a sieve and a grid-iron - symbols of her domestic role. Relatives and friends followed
on foot, carrying torches, accompanied by flutes and lyres. At the groom's house the couple were showered with nuts
and dried figs. She was offered wedding cake made with sesame and honey. The bride and groom went straight to the
bridal chamber - Thalamos - where for the first time the bride removed her veil. Outside the room the wedding guests
sang wedding songs as loudly as possible to scare away evil spirits.
The Day After The Wedding
The bride's parents came in a solemn procession to the newly wed's house, accompanied by flutes and
bearing gifts. At this point the dowry was handed over. A few days later the bridegroom offered a banquet to the members of
his phratry. He did not introduce his wife to them, he merely informed them of his marriage and of the 'prospective'
children to be enrolled in the phratry.
The man always had the right to divorce his wife - even for no valid reason. A wife's adultery, if established by
the courts, made divorce obligatory. Failure to divorce an adulterous wife made the husband liable to Atimia - the loss of
his rights as a citizen. Barreness was a common reason, particularly as man married to ensure the survival of his family
and therefore his city. Divorce therefore could be a necessary religious and patriotic duty. On the other hand, the fact
that a woman was pregnant did not make her exempt from divorce. However, a husband who returned his wife back home had to
return her dowry too - a necessary check on a rocketing divorce rate.
Divorce was easy for a man. For a woman to divorce a husband was very much harder. Legally, she was presumed incapable
of managing her own affairs. All she could do was approach the Archon (justice minister) and put before him a written
statement with her reason for application. The Archon was the sole judge. Blatant unfaithfulness was not a likely
reason for divorce because society accepted complete sexual liberty for men. Violence or ill-treatment could be
valid if proved. Whereas a divorced wife returned to her father or family home with little real disgrace, a woman who
divorced her husband was frowned on by other married women. Shunned by neighbours and perhaps even by family, there was
little future for such women - many were forced to become mistresses or prostitutes.
Greek marriages did not produce very many babies for three reasons:
- The husband could satisfy his sexual instinct outside of marriage.
- Either through poverty or selfishness, people dreaded extra mouths to feed.
- Anxiety that family estates would have to be divided among too many heirs.
There were two way of avoiding an over-numerous family: abortion and the exposure of newborn infants. Abortion
was not illegal; the law protected the child-to-be's master, i.e. its father. A mother could not have an abortion
without her husband's consent, nor a slave girl without that her of her owner.
The Greeks had a very hypocritical attitude to the death of children. Infanticide was a neutral act - allowable if
a child had not yet begun to participate in a social group - i.e. had not been named or registered. Infanticide was also
by abandonment; the parent did not actually kill the child - it was the weather, wild animals or starvation. Many
more illegitimate children were exposed than legitimate ones. Of course, not all exposed children died. Some were rescued
by foster parents, others enslaved. The rescued baby is a common theme in Greek mythology, the most famous
example of this the eponymous King Oedipus of Sophocles' Theban trilogy.
In Sparta newborn children had to be presented to the elders and tested for temperament by immersion in wine,
ice-cold water or urine. Weak, sickly or misshapen children were exposed on Mt. Taygetus in order to maintain the fit
Athenian wives had their children at home with all the women of the house crowding around. The umbilical cord
would be cut by anyone experienced in childbirth. In difficult cases, a midwife or a doctor could be
Before the child's birth, the house was smeared with pitch, either to keep evil spirits away or because pitch was
regarded as a protection against ritual defilement. Birth constituted a defilement not only for the mother but for the
entire household. That is why no birth could ever take place within a sanctuary.
The moment a child the child was born, the fact was notified by an emblem hung over the front door - an olive branch
for a boy, a strip of woollen material for a girl. On the 5th and 7th day after the birth, the family festival known as the
Amphidromia was held. This involved a purification ceremony for the mother and all those who had been in direct conatct
with her during labour, together with the ritual by which the child itself was admitted as a member of its social
group. The child was carried, at the run, all around the hearth. All members of the family were united for the occasion.
From now on, the child was an accepted member of the community: the decision to rear it had been irrevocably taken and
its father no longer had the right to get rid of it.
Finally, on the 10th day after the birth, the members of the family assembled once more for a sacrifice and a banquet.
It was now that the child recieved its name. In Athens the eldest son was normally given the name of his paternal grandfather.
Relatives invited to this feast brought gifts for the child, in particular amulets. It was on the 10th day too that the
mother was regarded as 'purified' and could resume normal occupations.
A new stage of a male child's life was marked by his appearance at two festivals:
The name of this festival comes from the Greek word anthos, a flower. The first part of the celebrations were in
honour of Dionysos, god of birth and growth and the new wine. Three-year-old boys wore crowns of flowers and joined in
the second day of the festival, which was called "Wine-jugs". Everyone recieved a measure of wine diluted with water, in
a special jug. Amidst silence a bugle sounded and the began to drink. There was a prize for the first person to drain
Slaves and children took part in this competition. As the jugs given to adults held over two litres of wine, it
is fortunate that children had smaller jugs, which they kept as presents. They had special scenes on them, usually of
fat children playing.
At the gathering of his father's clan or family association (phratria) in October, the three-year-old boy was
introduced. On the first day of the festival, the members of the phratria, who might live anywhere in Attica, had a meal
together and caught up on the news. The second day was spent sacrificing and on the third, new members were introduced.
The father would offer a sacrifice on behalf of his son, and the boy was registered in the phratria. The priest was
entitled to a fee of half a drachma, and a thigh, side and ear of the sacrificial victim. The rest, with cakes and
wine, was eaten by family and friends.
The father had to swear that he knew "that the child had citizen status, being born to him by a citizen mother properly
married" (Demosthenes 57.54). This was important in establishing the boy's rights to citizenship later.
Coming of Age
At the age of sixteen, boys were considered to have come of age. On the third day of the Apatouria,
they cut their hair to show that their childhood was over. Two years later, the younger men were registered with their deme
(local community). They had first to prove their rights to be citizens, but this was probably no more than a formality.
In cases of doubt, the phratria records could be referred to.
Young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty were known as epheboi. Most of their time was spent on
military service on the frontiers of Attica. They also had an important part to play in some religious events, such as
the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Panathenaia. In the fourth century, the epheboi were organised into a college and
military service became compulsory. They swore an oath which may have existed earlier. It gives and insight into
- I will not disgrace these sacred arms.
- I will not desert my companions in battle.
- I will defend our sacred and public institutions.
- I will leave my fatherland better and greater, as far as I am able.
- I will obey the magistrates and the laws and defend them against those who seek to destroy them.
Witness are the gods... and the boundaries of the fatherland.
At the age of twenty a young man was no longer an ephebos. He could attend the ecclesia (citizen assembly) and
begin his life as a citizen.
Respect for the old was particularly emphasised in Sparta but still very important throughout the rest of Greece. A
son's first duty was to take care of his parents in their declining years and provide them with every necessity.
In Athens anyone who neglected this obligation was liable to both a fine and partial deprivation of citizen rights.
However the most stringent obligations were those concerning burial: children had to bury their parents
according to prescribed ritual.
The closest relatives of the deceased were reponsible for laying out the body for the funeral. They annointed it
with perfumed oils and dressed it in clean garments, usually white. Then they wound it in cloths and placed it in the
coffin, leaving only the face exposed. It was forbidden by law to bury a man in more than three garments to avoid being
excessively extravagent. Valuables such as rings and bracelets were also buried with the deceased. An obol might be
placed in the corpse's mouth to pay Charon, the ferryman, to cross the River Styx into the Underworld (the poor
often used their mouth as a purse). Sometimes a honey cake was placed beside the dead man with which to placate
Cerberus the watchdog of Hades.
The body was now layed out on a bier and left in the lobby of the house for a day or two, feet facing the
door. The dead man's head, wreathed in flowers rested on a pillow. Around him, the women had parasols and fans to
protect him against the sun and flies. Others, standing around the bier, would scatter ashes in their hair, tear
their chests with their nails and beat their breasts. All would make noisy ritual shrieks and lamentations. Mourners
who visited the home wore either black or grey, with their hair cropped short. Outside the front door there was
placed a jar filled with water fetched from a neighbour's house since that in a house of death was regarded as being
contaminated. Anyone coming out would sprinkle themselves with this water, and the presence of the jar informed passers-by
there was a corpse in the house.
The funeral procession normally took place on the day after the laying-out. In Athens funerals took place at night in
case the corpse defiled the rays of the sun. Before setting forth from the house libations were poured to the gods and
then the procession formed up. The body was carried on its bier either on the shoulders of relatives or slaves or on a wagon.
At the head of the procession walked a woman with a jar for libations, then came: male mourners, women (restricted to
near relatives of the deceased) and lastly flute players. In the case of a murdered person a spear was carried
before the body in token of the blood vengeance to be wrought upon the murderer.
When the cortège reached the cemetry outside the town walls, the body was either buried or burned on a funeral
pyre. After the cremation the ashes and bones were gathered in a cloth and placed in an urn, libations were then
poured to the dead. A last farewell was takem then the procession returned to the house where a lengthy purification took
place: relatives had to wash before the funeral banquet and the next day the house was cleansed with sea water. Further
feasts and sacrifices took place on the 3rd, 9th and 30th days after the funeral and on every anniversary.