The Complete Athenian Woman

Portrayal of Women throughout Greece


The evolution of Greek art and archaeology and thus the portrayal of women should first be examined against the background social, political and economic conditions.  This essay will discuss the portrayal of women in Athens as well as other areas in Greece, throughout the Archaic Age, Classical Age and the Hellenistic Period, ending with discussions on possible assumptions and conclusions that can be drawn about Greece as a whole.

The Archaic Age, 750-479 BCE, was the time in Grecian history that the historical development, culture, and physical remains of Athens are the best documented and well preserved.  A revolution in Greek culture took place. New political and social structures and artistic and intellectual traditions emerged.  The city states surrounding Athens were thriving under various forms of government.  Beyond the bounds of Greece to the east, the Persian Empire was developing, thus causing significant fighting and destruction.[1]  Most of the evidence we have about society and women from the Archaic Age is from literary sources written by men.  Hesiod and Semonides saw the role of woman as a curse sprung from the first female Pandora. Evidence from drama and epic however presents a stark contrast.  Most of the evidence about women in this time comes from Athens. The Athenian trend of democratization however, did not extend to women. The Greek household was patriarchal, and most women were denied a public political role. The only women in Greece who enjoyed a public life were prostitutes.

Women in art during this time were mainly presented in a very modest but enchanting manner.  This portrayal reflected the attitudes of the time.  This is apparent in the Kore from the Acropolis and the Peplos Kore.


   Kore From Acropolis                                          Peplos Kore

The maturity of these korai show us that these maidens are parthenoi (physically mature but unmarried adolescent girls)[2].  The characteristics that are represented by the korai are consistent with the Grecian ideas and conception of a parthenoi.  According to Ellen D. Reeder in her book Pandora, “A girl on the edge of womanhood was viewed as enchanting; she was to be adorned with clothing and jewelry like a doll, in a manner in which Pandora was first fashioned and then ornamented to be a bride for Epimetheus.”[3]  Conversely however, during this time period, Greeks also believed that young maidens possesed extreme “sexual curiosity, an almost uncontrollable spirit, and an irresistability to men”[4]   Young maidens during the Archaic age were expecited to behave however in a manner that seems to be the opposite of the way women are portrayed as Korai.  Young maidens were to cast their eyes downward in an expression of aidos, which connoted modesty, shame, respectfulness and submission[5].  They were also expected to conceal their legs and figures behind the himations and chitons.  The Peplos Kore and Kore from the Acropolis however have direct gazes.  The Kore from the Acroplis has her chiton and himation pulled extremely close to her body revealing the bulge of her breasts and her figure. 

            The Classical Age, 479-336 BCE, also known as the Fifth and Fourth Century, was the time in which Athens “knew both the heights of glory and the depths of defeat”[6]  The Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 BCE and was a catastrophe for Athens. The chief result of the War was that the Athenian Empire was divided, the subject states of the Delian league were liberated, direct democracy failed and Pericles, the leading statesman from about 460 to his death, was ostracized.  After the death of Pericles and the disorder of a century of warfare, the Greek city-states and direct democracy went into decline. However, art and architecture flourished . The Athenian dramatists were the first artists in Western society to examine such basic questions as the rights of the individual, the demands of society upon the individual and the nature of good and evil.  Greeks in the Classical Age were still very patriarchal with women being subservient to men.  The only exception to this could possibly be the women of Sparta. Spartan women were more independent than other Greek women. Spartan women managed property because their husbands were away training and fighting.  Spartan women had access to some education - basic writing so that they could keep the accounts, and gymnastics because Spartans thought strong women bore strong sons. Athenian women however obtained power only when they became the wife of an influential citizen or could obtain some influence by their relation to a man.  They were still restricted in their activities to within the realm of a family or in the context of the activity of a courtesan.  In a play by Euripides it is stated that

Women run households and protect within their homes what has been carried across the sea, and without a woman no home is clean or prosperous.[7]


However he goes on to say,



Consider their role in religion, for that, in my opinion comes first We women play the most important part, because somen prophesy the will of Loxias in the oracles of Phoibos.  And at the holy site of Dodona near the Sacred Oak females convey the will of Zeus to inquirers from Greece.  As for the sacred rituals for the fates and the Nameless Goddesses, all these would not be holy if performed by men, but prosper in women’s hands.  In this way women have a rightful share in the service of the Gods.[8]

   It is apparent in this passage the dual rolls of women.  Women represented some of the most beautiful and powerful deities.

            The statuary of the Classical age reflected the societal ideals of the time.  The nude male body was exalted as the highest king of beauty.[9] In other cultures nudity represented shame defeat or humiliation; the Greeks were the first to glorify it.[10]  Nude women were also depicted in Classical Greek art, but not in the same idealized fashion of the male nude.  The Statuette of Aphrodite (430 BCE) and the Nike of Paionios (420BCE) exhibit remnants of the Archaic ideal, including, showing sensuality through the fully draped figure.


          Statuette of Aphrodite                                 Nike of Paionios

 Starting from the late Archaic Age, naked women appeared on Attic vases.  However, these women were hetairai.  Respectable women were never shown nude on vases.  If they were on a vase, they were clothed.[11]

Nude Dancer

Towards the middle of the fourth century, the portrayal of the female body changed dramatically.[12]  Praxiteles is the sculptor who brought the nude females to center stage with his portrayal of the nude Aphrodite.[13]  Aphrodite then became the choice of other artists who wanted to portray so called realistic and sensuous females.  This piece was the first to show the female body in a realistic, very naked way.  Before this statue most sculptures of nude females looked somewhat masculine.  This statue had profound impact on the perception of the female body.  Nudity in Greek statues denoted divinity or athletic prowess.  Divinities such as nymphs were sex symbols and therefore portrayed nude.

Aphrodite at Knidos

Nude Aphrodites were usually posed bathing or preparing for a bath.  Pomeroy explains that “with these statues the female nude finally took its place beside male nude in Greek sculpture.  These nudes operate on two levels: as the nude male embraced a medley of both homosexual and heroic, so the Aphrodite figure was sexually attractive while she simultaneously embodied religious ideas.”[14]

            The Hellenistic Age, 336-168 BCE, was an age of constant conflict among the great states, most notably between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids over the Syria/Palestine area.[15] .  Athens was now a politically unimportant university town and cultural center.  Political units and the variations among and within the nation-states were vast.  Cities that varied in size, age, ethnic composition and religion were joined together by a common language.  Greek culture was extending into surrounding lands.  A new secular more cosmopolitan culture was formed.  The Hellenistic kingdoms were to ultimately be conquered by Rome.    Women in the Hellenistic age still led limited social lives.  However, the mimes, plays and poems in Hellenistic literature reveal, as does Hellenistic art, that women were considered individuals.  Through the art we see the sexual attractiveness and passionate side of Hellenistic women portrayed quite differently from the courtesans of the fifth century vases.[16]

            Art in the Hellenistic age seemed to express less interest in the all-male experience and more interest in the individual experience.  The experiences and emotions of everyday people captivated Hellenistic artists.  Varieties of people—old women, dwarves, children, and barbarians found expression in Hellenistic art.  Famous Statuary of the Hellenistic age regarding women include the Drunken Woman and The Statute of a Veiled and Masked Dancer. 


Veiled and Masked Dancer                                   Drunken Old Woman


The Veiled and Masked Dancer and the Drunken Women show a distinct shift in the types of women represented in art.  The Dancer is covered from head to toe, however her complex body motion can still be seen.  The Drunken Woman is Hellenistic realism at its best.  The extreme aging of the face and neck and the position of the head, thrown back in a drunken stupor make a powerful impression on the viewer.[17] In the Archaic times, “normal” women such as these would not be portrayed.  These statues including those of males of the time (Dying Gaul, Old Fisherman etc) show a preoccupation with realism.  Pollitt says that in the Hellenistic age, “change and individuality became more attractive than perfection and the result was realism.”[18]  Nudes were still being made into the Hellenistic Age.  The Aphrodite of Melos is a classic portrayal of Aphrodite with a Hellenistic twist. 

Aphrodite of Melos



            Throughout the ages and the areas of Greece, statuary art and the portrayal of women have varied simultaneously with political, social and economic changes.  Women of respectable profession and status were respectfully portrayed in art.  Ancient Greeks thought their women were the most beautiful women in the world.  Art and statuary accurately portrayed women’s dress and mannerisms of the times.    


Return to Portrayal of Women Throughout Greece

Return to Main Page (The Complete Athenian Woman)


[1] Biers. William R.  The Archaeology of Greece.  Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 1980

[2] Reeder, Ellen D. Pandora.Princeton.  Princeton University Press:1995

[3] ibid.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Biers



[9] Bonfante, Larissa. “Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art.” American Journal of Archeology. Vol 93 1989: 546-559

[10] ibid

[11] ibid

[12] Fantham, Elain (et al.) Women in the Classical World:  Image and Text, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987 140-166

[13] Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books, 1975 118-147

[14] ibid

[15] Biers

[16] Macurdy, Grace Harriet.  Hellenistic Queens: A study of woman-power in Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt, The John Hopkins University Studies in Archeology, No 14. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1932.

[17] Biers

[18] Pollitt, JJ.  Art in the Hellenistic Age.  Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1986  1-5, 141