Ancient Greek / Role(s) of Women in the Athenian Society. term paper 41856

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The world today would look strangely incomplete if we eliminate the roles of women in social, political, technological or any field for that matter. She is growing stronger by the day, marching pace by pace with men and is probably beginning to lead the race. She stands tall; shining like a star in the sky whose light is undoubtedly indispensable for the very existence of life.

Women in ancient Athens led a life that can hardly be imagined today in this modern world where we regard sexism as a crime, not only as defined by the law but morally and ethically as well. Sometimes it is a pleasant surprise to compare the modern woman against her Athenian counterpart, who somehow managed to survive with her life controlled and dictated by her father initially and her spouse after marriage.

The drama Sophocles Antigone, to a great extent informs us about the lives of women in ancient Athenian society, describing their attitudes, behavior and motives, bringing into light the various suppressions and exploitations they went through those days. It also gives us knowledge of the roles that women in old Athens had to play and the responsibility they bared on their weak shoulders. The drama very clearly illustrates how the women in old Athens were treated and their place in the society. Women were clearly considered to be the weaker sex in the society. It was believed that the women were only born to assist their men, whatever they did.

The drama is about Creon, the ruler of Thebes who comes into power due to a double slaughter of two ruling brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles by each other. Although Creon is not genuinely the heir to the throne, yet the people fear and honor him. The drama starts with news that Creon has forbidden the proper burial and rituals for Polyneices, declaring him as an enemy of his own land. Everyone knows that the decision is unfair but none dares to give proper burial to the corpse except his sister Antigone, a revolutionary woman who is also the fiancée of Creon’s son, Haemon. Her sister, Ismene severely pleads her not to take such a step and go against the king. However, Antigone is bold enough to confront the king as she is convinced that she is doing no wrong by giving justice. The character of Antigone reflects the inner beauty, honesty and faith that most Greek women possessed those days. She bravely attempts to give justice to her dead brother but eventually fails in her mission. However she is not afraid to face the king and gleefully accepts the brutal death sentence that cruel Creon gives her. The happenings in the drama reveal the greatness and selflessness of the brave woman who desperately tries to protect her sister and take the blame entirely on herself. These aspects reveal that the women of that time, although suppressed and bound, were sacrificing and responsible. They tried their best to incorporate all good values to their young ones, just like a torch struggles to survive the storm.

Another aspect of sexism comes into view through the play. One thing was very certain those days. The woman was hardly ever given her choice of marriage. She was bound to go with any man who convinced her father. Girls were made to marry at tender ages, when it was still time for them to dance and play and were bound with the chains of responsibility and family. And after marriage, multiple pregnancies were common. Women died quickly, wearing out by giving birth to children, year after year. In fact to speak broadly, there wasn’t much requirement for women, other than to do house hold work, give birth to children and of course to sleep with the brave men of that time.

Sexism is again clearly visible through the play when we come to know that Antigone and Ismene are the Creon’s own nieces. Creon’s love and affection for his son Haemon is clearly visible, but the ease with which he decides to give a brutal death sentence to Antigone is quite remarkable. It shows that daughters were not what the Greek men wanted; they required sons who could fight wars and succeed them to the throne. In the play, when Ismene tries to save her sister, Creon makes the statement,


You’re going to kill your own son’s bride?


Why not? There are other fields for him to plough.” (Sophocles

Antigone 650).

The position of women in the society those days is understandable through the above conversation.

When it comes to describing the roles of women in that time, it is the climax of the drama comes into play. It is in later part of the play that the blind old prophet, Teiresias, accompanied my a child gives advice to the stubborn king and reveals the fate of his destiny through his very accurate oracles.

By this time, the king has an argument with is son Haemon who is deeply in love with Antigone. He forbids him to run after the women and rather be clever and follow his father. Haemon defies his father, pitying the blind man and leaves till uncertainty.

The old prophet compels Creon to concede and change is mind, unless it gets late for which only Creon himself shall be solely responsible. So is the reputation of the prophet that even the great king is horror struck. By the time Creon could give rituals and burial to the cold corpse, it is too late. He carries the guilt of taking three live, Antigone, Haemon and his own wife who stabbed herself, unable to bear the news of her son’s death. So finally Creon realizes that he had been doing wrongs since long and that he was in a falsified state of mind about his name, fame and glory. So the entire drama is directed to illustrate the impact of the brave Athenian woman, Antigone who although died but shed light upon the dark false world the king had created for himself.

The second story, Murder of Eratosthenes by Lysias is yet another Athenian scenario where Euphiletos stands accused of the murder of his wife’s lover, Eratosthenes. The entire story runs as Euphiletos tries to convince the jury that whatever he did was not wrong or premeditated, instead it was an instantaneously taken decision when he found his wife engaged in the act of adultery with her seducer, Eratosthenes. This, he argues to be allowed by the Athenian law.

Euphiletos reveals his story in front of the members of the jury, swearing that he is not lying. As Euphiletos runs through, there are some aspects of the Athenian society that comes into light that is strangely different and from the present day world. The story also exposes the lacuna of the Athenian law and to give justice to both men and women equally.

At one point in the story, Euphiletos reminds the jury about the Athenian law that punished seduction more than other crimes such as rape and extortion. From this, we can guess that the Athenian society regarded women as meager assets of men who retorted when it was used by another, just as they would do if any other asset was treated similarly. Further, in a case when a spouse found a man guilty of corrupting his wife, he had the provision to either kill the man or settle for a financial agreement. So money was what was important, not the honor of the woman or her dignity.

There is one more aspect that remains hidden in the story. The protagonist Euphiletos, throughout the story, defends himself, accusing his disgraceful wife to have betrayed him and stabbed him in the back. But never does he once imagine her motive or reason behind the act. The story gives us a hint that such was the plight of the woman in the family that she got misled into a wrong deed which she probably wouldn’t have chosen had she been given more love, importance and happiness.


R Just - 1989 -

J Kelly-Gadol - Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues, 1987 -


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