Women’s and Men’s Worlds in Ancient Greece
By Robert B. Shimko, Ph.D.
Two key concepts useful for understanding gender relations in ancient Greece can be found in the terms oikos and polis. These two terms encapsulate the gender divide as well as the division between private and public realms in ancient Greek life.
The term oikos refers to three interrelated concepts: the family, the home, and the family’s property. In the sense of the family unit itself, oikos represented the basic social building block of most ancient Greek city-states. Aristotle, for example, uses the term to denote everyone living within a given household, including both the biological family and its slaves. Within the typical ancient Greek home, there were certain designated men’s and women’s rooms, called the gynaeceum and the andron respectively. The gynaeceum was usually the innermost room or rooms of the home, or sometimes even a separate building. In either case, it was occupied by the married woman of the household as well as any unmarried women and girls plus female slaves, and it was dedicated to “feminine” tasks like cooking and textiles work. In contrast, the andron was typically used for entertaining male guests and, in wealthier households, contained multiple couches and artwork to admire. That said, some archeological digs have found evidence of women’s presence in the andron, and in some instances female guests may have been invited to the andron as well. Overall, the oikos, and especially the gynaeceum, represented the more private realm of ancient Greek life, with only one public room, the andron, set aside for occasional guests from outside.
Most women’s role in social life was confined almost entirely to the oikos, and their decision-making powers were exercised within the home. In this way, the oikos became the locus of female identity, and a woman’s wellbeing was inextricably tied up with the health of her oikos. The one area in which women played a notable role outside of the home was in religious observances, including prominent roles in weddings and funerals. Still, these occasions were in some respect extensions of private life as they revolved around familial relations of marriage and commemorating deceased family members.
In contrast, the polis was the public realm of commerce and politics. The word literally means “city” and can also refer to a group of citizens. The structure and functioning of the polis was the subject of much examination and debate, most famously in Plato’s Republic. The English words politics, policy, and police all derive from the root word polis. The polis was the public arena of ancient Greek life, and participation in its affairs was reserved for male citizens. Thus, while women—with the exception of a few priestesses who were involved in the religious life of the polis (think of the Delphic oracles for example)—occupied only the oikos, men had roles in both the oikos and the polis.
The concepts of oikos and polis can be used to illuminate the central conflict in Medea, as well as in other Greek tragedies centered on male/female conflicts. One way to read the story of Medea (see the summary of her myth also included in this playbill) is to understand Medea as a woman who, out of love for Jason, not only left her original oikos (i.e. her birth family) but actually gravely wounded that oikos by killing her brother to aid her escape with Jason. Medea eventually achieves a temporarily healthy oikos with Jason when they settle down and have children, but that new oikos is disrupted when Jason betrays her in an attempt to better his position in the polis by agreeing to marry the Creon’s daughter. Jason’s attempt to gain standing in public life is what wreaks havoc in Medea’s second oikos and leads her to attack Jason on the level of family relations by killing his new bride as well as their children. Medea essentially murders her own oikos and prevents Jason from attaining a new one.
Other Greek tragedies centered on the oikos/polis conflict, i.e. the conflict between family life and public life, include Agamemnon and Oedipus Rex. In Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia, King Agamemnon returns to his wife Clytemnestra after fighting the Trojan War. She has been waiting at home, plotting to kill him because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon had killed Iphigenia as a human sacrifice in order to appease the goddess Artemis who had been preventing him and his soldiers from reaching Troy. When Agamemnon returns home after the war, Clytemnestra must wait for Agamemnon to leave the public realm and enter the oikos before she can take her revenge (most of the play involves Agamemnon talking outside of the house, and the dramatic tension derives from the suspense of what will happen when he goes inside). Ultimately, Clytemnestra kills him in the bath—the most private space in the home, apart from the bed. In Oedipus Rex, the curse on Oedipus brings about his downfall in both the oikos (killing his father and marrying and having children with his mother) and in the polis (ending his reign as king and turning him into an outcast when the contagion in his private life is revealed publicly).