Women in the Ancient Civilizations

            The changing role and status of women in history has been a subject of interest to many scholars.  Various traditional societies had clear cut out roles of women which were considered to be distinct from those of men.  A close comparison of such societies reveals some similarities but there exists major differences depending on the cultural orientations.  The purpose of this paper is to offer an in-depth analysis and comparison of women in the Ancient Babylon, Egypt, Rome and Greece, pointing out the underlying differences and similarities between them.

            A look at the institution of marriage in ancient Babylon reveals an interesting fact; marriage was seen as a contract and any outstanding contractual obligation even in the event of death had to be met.  This contract however was to the disfavor of women in the marriage.  Under the Hammurabi Law Code the contractual agreement mostly revolved around the settlements that would occur should the marriage come to an end.  This contract was to the disfavor of women due to the paid dowry price.  Bride price in ancient Babylon was highly regarded and took centre stage in the pre marriage negotiations.  There was no standard bride price and its value depended solely on the status of the parties involved.  Those high up in social status were expected to part with immense wealth which could be something valuable depending on the agreements.  Sexuality in marriage was also highly valued and men had exclusive rights to their wives.  Adultery on the other hand was highly abhorred and could lead to severe consequences.  Again, women were at disadvantage as men could not be accused of adultery unless they did it with a married woman.  Adultery under the code was solely seen as an act of woman having sexual relations outside marriage.  Punishment to adultery was by death through drowning of both parties.  Allegations of adultery required that a woman swear of her innocence to the gods.  Then the woman would be compelled to swim across a river in the belief that a guilt conscience would lead to her drowning but if the allegations were untrue she would survive. (Thompson 6)

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Marriage under the Hammurabi law code could only be ended through desertion or divorce.  Divorce only applied to men who could do so without giving a reason.  In case of desertion by their husbands, women were allowed to remarry without the men claiming a stake after their return.  Women could also leave a marriage if they were able to prove that they were neglected by their husbands.  Childlessness in the marriage was seen as a fault of a woman and the man was allowed to take a second wife or the maid servant, the status of the first wife however remained.  This also happened in case of terminal illness.

            In Athens just like in Ancient Babylon, marriage was prearranged with the father of the bride having the responsibility of arranging a match with no regard to attraction between the two parties. This however did not mean that such relations did not blossom into love affairs.  Athens too closely compares to Babylon in the way the role of women in marriage as well as in the society was disregarded.  This is explained by the raging belief “that women had strong emotions and weak minds.”[1] This is best seen in the way that they were treated.  Their movements to the outside public were largely restricted and their sole purpose in marriage was to manage household properties and bear children.  This emanated from the notion that “the best woman was the one about whom the least was heard, whether it be good or bad.[2]” Like in other ancient societies, adultery was highly frowned upon and could have hazardous results.  Definition of adultery was unique and differed from that of Babylon. While in Babylon it only touched on the wife, Athens’ laws permitted men to kill those that they found in illicit intimacies with their wives, close relatives or concubines.  The institution of marriage in ancient Rome was very similar to the one espoused in the modern world but in retrospect very different from that of Athens and Babylon.  All the ideals of today’s wedding, such as rings and virginal white gowns are seen to have originated from Rome.  Besides the embellishments in marriage though, marriage life for women in Rome was similar to that of Athens and Babylon. Women were regarded as were properties of their husbands, their core responsibility being child bearing.  This was done with the help of servants if the family could afford.  The slight difference that can be discerned is that women were supposed to play good hosts and entertain their husband’s visitors.  They were influential within the family unlike in Athens where their role was relegated to that of servant hood.  Adultery too was not condoned in Rome and where it arose it would result to divorce or even worse; death.  The definition of adultery like in Athens and Babylon only involved a married woman and a man not his husband.  Although men would have sexual relations outside marriage it was not the concern of the authorities.  It could only be solved within the domestic precincts.  Compared to the aforementioned societies, it is the ancient Egypt that had an equal role to women within the marriage institutions.  As Thompson summarizes, “Egypt treated its women better than any other major civilizations of the ancient world.”[3]

            The marriage ceremony in Egypt can only match that of Rome in terms of pomp and color.  Similar to Athens, marriage in ancient Egypt was regarded to as a contract.  Unlike in Athens where contracts were skewed to the disfavor of women, in Egypt marriage contracts were solely for the mutual social and economic.  Such contract too included the payment of dowry paid by the man to the wife’s father.

            Another aspect that arouses interest in regard to women in the ancient societies is their economic roles within marriage and in the society.  Most of these ancient societies did not allow women to own property even through inheritance.  Ancient Egypt however displays uniqueness as far as ownership of property by women is concerned.  Unlike the Hammurabi Law Code that did not address the economic inequalities in Babylon, “there was no legal restriction on the economic activity of women in ancient Egypt.”[4] There exists evidence that women and men could involve in economic activities and enter into business contracts.  Women too were allowed to own properties, inherit or bequeath it to anyone they wished in their wills.  However, it is important to point out that fewer economic opportunities existed for women outside their homes.  Hence most women with some plots of land engaged in small scale farming to supplement their incomes.  Income in this case was in form of merchandize as the ancient Egypt’s economic system was uniquely devoid of the monetary currency evidenced today.

            A sharp contrast to the economic powers of women in ancient Egypt is the case of Rome and Athens both of which accorded subtle roles to women.  In Athens, women had no role outside their domestic responsibilities.  They were married off at a tender age while still in their puberty and they were brought up with the assistance of a guardian referred to as the Kyrios, similar to Pater familias in the Ancient Rome.  Women could not own properties as they were regarded as having weak minds and needed guardians.  The only property they could manage was within the family holdings.  Ancients Athens had a number of categories for women depending on their status in the society.  As mentioned by Thompson , “Athens divided all women into two groups; wives and potential wives in the first and all the others in the second.[5]”  Non-wives too had their own categories and it becomes interesting to note that in sharp contrast with the aforementioned civilizations, Athens laws recognized the existence of prostitutes and dictated on the fee to be charged and the conduct of such prostitutes in the public.  There were the heteras, synonymous to the modern day call girls, who entertained men at a fee.  There were also those that resided in brothels.  These were the ones that could engage in economic activities which were limited to trading their bodies.  The heteras as has been noted could get wealthy and owned properties.

            The economic disparities also characterized the situations in ancient Rome.  Classism existed in Rome and status was dictated by birth.  Properties according to the law were put under the tutelage of the pater familias.  Women were regarded as properties of their men although later in the years after the Carthaginian invasion, women could now manage properties in the absence of men. Women could now play more influential roles in their economic lives. (Thompson 7) Under the social changes that were occurring, women could now manage their own properties on their own or through proxies.  It is this financial independence that saw women become more treacherous, engaging in adultery.  Under the Athenian law, women could own small amount of properties, such as slaves and jewelry, but unlike the Egyptian system which gave them exclusive rights to dispose their properties, Athens women could not bequeath such properties to anyone else; they remained the property of the family.  The inheritance system in Athens too fundamentally contrasts that of the ancient Egypt where women could acquire property through inheritance, however in Athens property was usually bequeathed to men.  If a son only had daughters he would prefer to adopt suitors for his daughters to ensure his property was inherited by a man.  A woman’s share of inheritance was seen as passing in the form of dowry which her parents paid to her suitor.  Hence, property could only be passed to a daughter in case the family did not have sons or none was adopted.  Such property still would be in the hands of the woman’s husband.  There is no mention of the lives of women in the royal families in both Athens and the ancient Babylon; however, this issue gains prominence in the ancient Egypt and Rome.

            A look at both these ancient civilizations indicates that women at the throne of power wielded much influence within the circles of leadership.  Although there were no queens in ancient Rome, wives of the emperors usually resulted to machinizations so as to have their sons become the anointed heirs.  Such machinizations are well chronicled as well as examples of women that were manipulating the emperors to further their own agendas.  The emperors had no legal obligation to consult with their wives for advice but they did and the women took advantage of this.  Women in Rome had no leadership responsibilities and the closest they got to power was through their husbands.

            Similar to Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt too had no room for women leaders, but with the provision for a position of a queen, these women became very influential.  There is evidence that one such queen, Hatshepsut went ahead to become a “pharaoh and ruled in her own name for a number of years.” [6]

Queens were supposed to bring up heirs, run the palace and be supportive to king.  Unlike Rome, women in Ancient Egypt wielded real powers and had numerous titles to demonstrate this power.  Indeed the lives and roles of women both in power and out of power in Egypt were more prestigious compared to the other ancient civilizations.

            In conclusion, it is apparent that lives of women in the ancient times differed from one civilization to another. Women by then were not accorded similar roles and equal opportunities to those of men. A look at Athens, Babylon and Rome indicates that although the institution of marriage was held with importance, women played a subtle role in it. They were reduced to mere servants with no real responsibilities apart from tending to their families. Women were not entitled to properties and if they did it was through their families or husband. Athens for example regarded women to be of weak minds and as deserving patronage which was done through guardians. It is the Ancient Egyptian civilization however that held a favorable view of women. Women in Egypt led better lives as they were considered to be equal partners in the institution of marriage. They could own properties and dispose them they way they wished. Queens too in Egypt held immense powers and were able to influence the affairs of the kingdom.

Work Cited

James C. Thompson. The status, role and daily life of women in the ancient civilizations             of Egypt, Rome, Athens, Israel and Babylonia. 2005; 1-7.

[1]Women in Babylonia under the Hammurabi Law CODE http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/hammurabilawcode.htm

[2] Women in Athens


[3] Women in Ancient Egypt

[4]Women in Ancient Egypt

[5] Women in Athens

[6] Women in Ancient Egypt


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