Ancient Greek Marital and Gender Roles

Ancient Greek Marital and Gender Roles *Note: All claims are assumptions based off of textual clues and are not to be understood as fact but to be recognized as potential truths. The roles of men and women in Ancient Greek civilization can never be fully understood since no one alive today existed during their era. That being said, analysis of texts written by Ancient Greek authors provides us with insight into how their culture viewed both genders. It is through these texts that scholars can identify customary actions of single and married couples.
Questions such as: should women save themselves for marriage, Are men the providers, And were women expected to be subservient in a patriarchal society can all be answered through textual understanding. As we prepare to dive into ancient texts and learn about the Greek culture of old, one must understand the importance of utilizing multiple authors. Without calling upon a variety of texts, a credible and thorough theory on how Ancient Greek individuals acted cannot be erected.
For the purposes of this analysis the authors Euripides, Aeschylus, and Homer will be employed with the prospect of further understanding Ancient Greek gender and marital roles. Taking into account the differences among these texts in authorship and date, we will burden three main tasks: identify what makes a good husband and good wife, discern if and why one role receives more attention than the other, and conclude what ancient Greek social norms may have been from the way these texts depict marital relationships. Euripides’, Hippolytus, provides a sturdy backbone for understanding how Ancient Greek civilization viewed gender roles.

Before reading a text it is important not to have a narrow scope. This means that one should not only focus on the perceived main character, but rather consider how every character may depict an aspect of the then current culture. Despite being titled Hippolytus, it is crucial not to only concentrate on the character Hippolytus. In fact, there may be just as much if not more to be learned from Phaedra. Phaedra, being the stepmother of Hippolytus, supplies a situation where her actions toward Hippolytus can be used in understanding the expected actions of married females toward single males. After Phaedra earns that her nurse has disclosed the sensitive information about her romantic feelings for Hippolytus to him and that he has rejected her she takes her own life out of shame. However, she leaves a note for her husband – Hippolytus’ father – Theseus, claiming that his son has raped her. This action reveals that perhaps it was not uncommon for women to take their lives after being sexually violated. With that in mind, it may be inferred that sexual purity was expected of women, that once a woman has been tainted by a male who was not her partner she loses her respect, honor, and desirability.
In addition, Theseus’ reaction allows us to see even further into gender relationships and societal norms. Theseus takes the offensive against Hippolytus, cursing him and subsequently causing his death. Nevertheless, instead of coming to the hasty conclusion that Theseus is emotionally volatile and lacking the ability to understand, it is pertinent that one stops and asks: “Why may he have acted this way? ” For where most mistakes are made in textual analysis is through hasty generalizations based on current era norms.
Indeed, in todays world Theseus’ reaction would lead to his imprisonment and mandatory meetings with a psychiatrist but this was not always so. In Ancient Greece honor was critical and helped in determining social status. Euripides lived during the end of the Persian Wars and much like the notorious Spartans, the Athenians considered honor for themselves and their family to be of the utmost importance. With this in mind we will take another look at Theseus’ reaction and how it provides insight into Ancient Greek culture.
It is possible that Theseus reaction would have been of the norm during his time. It was most likely seen as dishonorable to commit suicide as well as to lie; therefore, Theseus would not dare question the claims made by his wife. Theseus was trying to protect his honor as well as that of his family by taking action against he who had supposedly raped his wife. Society may have expected him to avenge Phaedra’s death. This shows that a married couple was a strong unit, that each must have trust in each other; it was not their duty to question the word of their partner.
Bearing everything in mind it can be deduced that a good husband is one who protects his family and a good wife one who is loyal, even if it means taking their own life. Nevertheless, the male gender role stresses honor over family. Moreover, when honor and family conflict, family loses – hence the death of Hippolytus. Euripides portrayal of Hippolytus assists in depicting how men were expected to act in society. Hippolytus serves as a paradigm for a man who does not meet the standards of the societal norm. We are able to identify that Hippolytus is not a normal Athenian male because the goddess Aphrodite punishes him for his actions.
He is a boy who has not yet become a man; he shows that it was not acceptable for males in Ancient society to resist maturity. His wish to remain abstinent, or more so his lack of sexual desire is common among the youth but not a matured male. Aphrodite is used to receiving praise and worship from the male population and because Hippolytus does not worship her – but instead the virgin goddess Artemis – she chooses to punish him. His punishment allows us to infer that all men were required to seek out a woman when they reached the age of maturity.
Those who did not most likely brought shame to themselves and their family. Moreover, it can be seen through the emphasis on family, and sexual desire that procreation was not so much a choice as it is today but an obligation and duty of each and every able-bodied male. Ultimately, Euripides’ Hippolytus sheds a lot of light on social norms regarding gender roles. During the time period in Ancient Greece while Euripides was alive – estimated between 484 – 407 B. C. E. (Before Current Era) – the prevalence of honor was paramount, effecting the actions and choices made by both males and females.
It was the duty of the male to protect and maintain honor for his family by taking action against those who threaten or harm the fortitude of his family. But first it is his societal obligation to wed a woman and create a family. On the other hand women are important members of society, their word bears weight in discussion and decision, it is their duty to love and protect their family as well as to maintain honor for themselves by being loyal companions even if it means taking their own life. Although the assumptions made off of textual clues in Hippolytus appear valid, it is still important to consider other ancient texts.
The Odyssey by Homer is another text that provides clues toward how Ancient Greek civilization regarded gender and marital roles. There appears to be an undisputable amount of evidence supporting that there was a double standard between men and women on how they should act toward the opposite sex. Odysseus engages in sexual activities with a large amount of women on his journey home to Ithaca. Whereas despite not having not seen her husband for twenty years Penelope remains loyal even though she has a crowd of suitors desiring her bed.
Odysseus’ behavior leads to the belief that it was acceptable for Greek males to cheat on their wives. However, there is not enough evidence that supports that his behavior was acceptable. Additionally his circumstances were not of the norm so it is unfair to say that Odysseus’ behavior corresponded with that of the average Greek male. The important part of Odysseus and Penelope’s relationship that does speak to the social norms of society is the devotion held toward one another. Penelope’s decision to remain loyal to her husband even after twenty years of absence says a lot about Greek women.
It can be inferred that marriage was a huge deal and loyalty an even bigger one. If Penelope had chosen another suitor before knowing if Odysseus was dead or not then she could have potentially brought dishonor to herself and her family. The importance of loyalty and marriage is stressed by Penelope’s actions. Additionally, she shows that to be a good wife is to be a committed wife. In comparison, although Odysseus is not loyal like Penelope, he shows that it is the duty of a husband to make it home to his wife and to always put family first.
The fact that Odysseus wants more than anything to return home and see his wife – so badly that he even gives up his potential life with Calypso – supports that commitment to one’s family is the most important duty of a Greek male. When Odysseus does return home and finds that suitors have overrun his house he takes action and eliminates all of them. Although it may be argued that a couple of the suitors were genuine, decent people and should not have been killed, his decision to kill all of them attests to the duties of a good husband.
The suitors entering his home without verification of his death was a strike at his honor. It is from his decision to eliminate all of the suitors that we can learn about how Ancient Greek society viewed the male gender role. Men were expected to be strong and to protect the honor of their home, to enter discussion over who was the most in the wrong displayed weakness. In order for a man to reclaim his good name he must do away with any and all threats. This notion toward the expectations for Ancient Greek male gender roles is further supported by the actions of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.
Telemachus had never met his father but still decided to set out on an expedition to find him. The fact that Telemachus had never met Odysseus when he decided to risk his life to find him validates the importance of family. Clearly common ethics in Ancient Greek civilization endorsed family over everything. A son was expected to fight for his family no matter how close his relationship with the rest of his family may be. Normal male gender roles were to maintain honor and protect one’s family.
Homer’s The Odyssey and Euripides Hippolytus both share common characteristics in their insight into Ancient Greek marital and social gender roles. The overwhelming aspect of both texts that appears to be the focal point of Ancient Greek culture is family commitment. All clues point toward both marital roles to be to preserve and protect the honor of one’s family as well as the importance of having one. The assumption can be made that in order to be a good wife she must be loyal and honest, whereas to be a good husband he must also be devoted, putting his loved ones before himself and honor above all else.
There does not appear to be one gender that receives more attention, supporting that both genders played a vital role in ancient culture. In contrast with the previous two texts, Aeschylus’ Oresteia: Agamemnon offers a different approach in addressing Ancient Greek cultural norms relating to marital and gender roles. While Agamemnon is gone for ten years at the Trojan war his wife Clytemnestra conspires against him with her lover Aegisthus. To be fair, Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter in order to have the wind be on his side.
Before we continue let us analyze how this depicts Ancient Greek marital roles. The relationship between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra is incredibly strained after he sacrifices their daughter Iphigenia. However, if emotions are withheld it can be seen that perhaps Agamemnon’s marital and gender role supported his decision. As was seen with the death of Hippolytus, stemming from Theseus’ duty to uphold his principles, it can be inferred that the requirement for a male to preserve his honor comes before family.
Although taking a different approach, Oresteia: Agamemnon, has the same main principles regarding marital roles. Except this text allows us to see what happens when roles compete. As the story progresses more insight is provided into how marital roles are affected when one takes precedence over another. When Agamemnon returns home he brings with him a new woman, Cassandra. After arguing with his wife about not wanting to display excess hubris by walking on the purple carpet their time together becomes very strained. Shortly after his return Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon and Cassandra.
Her catharsis is complete after committing these murders and uses the sacrifice of Iphigenia as justification for her actions. Both the love affair of Clytemnestra with Aegisthus and Agamemnon with Cassandra hint that perhaps there were a little bit more public scandalous acts that took place in Ancient Greece than the other two texts let on. We have learned that in order to be a good wife she must protect her family and be loyal to her husband. The text written by Aeschylus explicitly proves that when a wife must choose between loyalty to her husband and protection of her family she will choose her family.
Regardless of the obvious differences between this text and the two priors they all three present Ancient Greek gender and marital roles to be comprised of the same basic principles. That being said, all three illuminate a new characteristic. After analyzing all the texts it can be assumed that Greek culture revolved around family, loyalty, and honor. A good wife is a woman who puts her family first and remains loyal to her husband no matter what the circumstances. Likewise a good husband defends the honor of himself whilst remaining devoted to his family.
Nonetheless, after further analysis it can be argued that social norms for marital roles did not always go hand in hand with what a “good” husband or wife should do. This is because certain roles are emphasized more than others. When a wife chooses her children over her husband or a man defends his honor at the consequence of his family he or she can no long fit into the paradigm for a “good” husband or wife. In another text written by Euripides, Medea, the view into the past is much different than that of Hippolytus or any of the other texts.
That being said, it is crucial to analyze the new perspective in order to formulate an educated theory on what Ancient Greek marital roles used to be. Jason and Medea are married with children when Jason chooses to suddenly leave to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth. Euripides is insinuating that in some instances male gender roles overpower their marital roles. As a Greek man it is his duty to gain honor and status as well as to create a family. However, as a Greek husband it is his duty to be devoted to his family and to never leave them.
From this text we can infer that the desire of a man to achieve honor and status can lead some men to abandon their families. The prospect of one day being king is too much for Jason, he leaves and forgoes his marital roles. His choice to relieve himself of his duties as a husband infers that not all men in Ancient Greece were morally sound, taking a very loose interpretation of the word “honor. ” Additionally, Medea involves herself in some actions that go against what would be considered socially preferable. Medea is distraught and angry after Jason abandons her and the children.
She takes action by plotting to hurt Jason the way that he hurt her. Medea gives Jason’s new wife a poisoned robe that burns her flesh off and murders her own two children in hopes to harm Jason. By murdering both Jason’s wife and her children she is exhibiting revenge with the only intention of benefiting herself. This act infers that there were many citizens of Ancient Greece who did not regard the normal social roles. Unlike Agamemnon who sacrificed his daughter to fulfill one of his societal roles, Medea acts completely outside of the norm by murdering her children in cold blood.
Euripides may potentially be trying to express that there are always going to be individuals that act radically opposite to what is at the time considered normal. A distinction that must be recognized is that between gender roles and marital roles with the understanding that they sometimes overlap. It seems as if more attention is placed on gender roles than marital roles. For instance, Odysseus chooses to cheat on his wife, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Clytemnestra murders her husband, and Jason deserts his family.
After analyzing all of the texts we can finally make an educated decision on what marital and gender roles were like in Ancient Greece. It appears that Ancient Greek society had determined roles for both men and women and they were meant to be adamantly revered. A good husband was considered to be a man who was devoted to his family and defended the honor of himself and his home. He recognized that there is no honor in hurting loved ones, no matter what the outcome. Additionally, a good wife was a woman who was completely loyal to her husband and her family, protecting them by whatever means necessary.
However, thorough analysis reveals that there were often times people who went against what would be deemed “good” because they made a choice when roles conflicted that ensued a consequence for a loved one to bear. And finally there were those who went against the grain completely. Overall, Ancient Greek social norms involved family at the center and devotion from every member to each other. The reason there is such a strong emphasis placed on understanding, documenting, and analyzing history is because it is through historical analysis that scholars can infer as to how modern-day culture came to be.
It is through investigation of historical texts and other mediums of recording history that allows us to track the progression of people and their roles in society. In the current era people are still learning more about how past societies operated and what led to their development. From Homer to Hemmingway there is always more that can be learned through textual analysis, whether it be a historical primary source or not. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Struck, Peter T. “ClSt 200 – Greek Tragedy. ” ClSt 200 – Greek Tragedy. N. p. , 2000. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. .

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