Motherhood in Ancient Greece

In this article, I will be focussing on Athenian women during 5th century BCE Athens. Specifically, the importance of mothers and childbearing in ancient Greek society. My intention throughout this article is to approach the differences between Athenian and Spartan women in relation to motherhood. To do so, I will be comparing the social and political rights of Athenian women to Spartan women. The purpose of this article is to provide insight into Athenian women’s experiences of marriage and motherhood. Motherhood during the ancient Greek society is an interesting topic because there are many similarities of motherhood in today’s society due to the pressures to have children. This topic is worth discussing because Athenian women were expected to sacrifice themselves and their needs when becoming mothers (Lewis 2012, p. 39). Athens and Sparta had conflicting opinions on the role of women, and this created institutional differences between the two cities. Although there were contrast between the city states, both Athenian and Spartan women’s lives were centred around motherhood (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 49). As a result, the women had a responsibility to successfully produce children of their husbands’ lineage.

Athenian and Spartan women had a special position in ancient Greek society due to their ability to produce children (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 53). The Athenian women’s roles consisted of running the household and caring for the children. Spartan women did not perform domestic duties the way that Athenian women did. In Athens, wealthier husbands would hire enslaved persons to help their wives with the domestic tasks (Seitkaimova 2020, p. 52). If the husbands could not afford it, the women would have no other choice than to complete the duties by themselves. These roles have shifted in modern society, it is now socially acceptable for fathers to stay at home with the children while the mothers work. Athenian women had to cater to their children’s needs and also to the needs of their husbands. These women were practically servants to them. This suggests that Athenian women were independent as mothers and allows a more in-depth understanding of women in antiquity.

Male babies were much more preferred than female babies in ancient Greece. Boys were more respected because once they were of age, most contributed to society by joining the Athen army. Although, there were no birth certificates issued by the ancient Greeks (Beaumont 2012, p. 18). This means there was no legitimate way to keep record or check a person’s precise age. Tracking exact ages would be important because Athenian boys started from their “eighteenth year on [being] identified according to his membership of a community designated age class which served as the basis for his call-up to military service.” (Beaumont 2012, p. 18). To further differentiate Athenian and Spartan boys, every Spartan boy had to join the army. Girls did not receive a formal education, they were brought up and taught the skills in how to run a household of their own one day (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 53). During childhood, the boys and girls would be taught gender-specific norms (Beaumont 2012, p. 20). The Athenian and Spartan girls were consistently educated and informed on their significant role of childbearing. The mothers would additionally teach their Athenian daughters traditional female skills such as household management, weaving, and spinning (Beaumont 2012, p. 147). However, Spartan girls grew up differently because they were not taught domestic duties the same way as Athenian girls. Spartan girls were trained to physically strengthen their body and engage in athletics on a regular basis (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 66). The Spartans believed only the physically fit women were able to produce strong children. Strong Spartan women’s “embryo would make a strong start in strong bodies and would develop better.” (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 69).

Athenian Women Wool-Working (Source; Wikipedia)

Athenian and Spartan Women’s Legal Statuses

In 5th century ancient Greece, Athenian and Spartan women had fewer legal and political rights than male citizens (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 49). Although, Spartan women experienced more equality in social rights compared to Athenian women. In Athens and Sparta, women were not able to take part in voting nor attend public assemblies (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 52). Having restricted rights meant the women had limited power and consequently little political value in society. Athenian women had limited freedoms and were under the guardianships of men (Varadharajulu 2020, p. 6). Women were regarded as second-class citizens; they were prevented from accessing the same political and economic institutions as men (Varadharajulu 2020, p. 9). 

Athens and Sparta had different cultural and societal rules (Varadharajulu 2020, p. 2). It is important to recognize that ancient Greek society was patriarchal and dominated by men (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 53). Athenian women spoke to their husbands scarcely and were economically dependent on them (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 70). Athenian women were attentive to the needs of their husband or to their father. These women were represented as inferiors during this time. Spartan women were not restrained by their husbands and were economically independent (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 71). However, these women were not completely free from their husbands. Their responsibilities included procreating, and as a result they needed to have sex with their husbands. Sparta was the “only Greek city in which women was treated almost on an equality with man.” (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 63). Therefore, Spartan women were treated with a similar respect to what men were. These women were granted access to education because of their valued status, their status refers to their ability to birth Spartan men. The Spartans “were the only Greek girls for whom the state prescribed a public education.” (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 66). The education they received mostly incorporated physical training. Another difference between these women were that Athenian women weren’t able to own or control property. Spartan women and men divided their valuable belongings to make sure there was no difference in the amount of property they owned (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 72). This proposes that Athenian women did not experience the same privileges that Spartan women did.


In ancient Greece, there was an expectation of women to marry (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 53). Athenian women had no alternative than to marry because it allowed them to fulfil their role of producing children. This idea relates to modern society and the presumption that women should be married before having children. In Athens, girls as young as 13 years old were having their marriage arranged by their father (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 53). Oftentimes, the husband was significantly older than the young bride. The usual age-gap between them would be 15 years (Lewis 2002, p. 59). Spartan girls would generally marry when they were a couple years older than 13 years to men similar in age. Whether Athenian or Spartan, the husband would not often be present nor significantly involved in the wife’s lives (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 78). In fact, Spartan men and women did not live together until years after marriage. Prior to the wedding, the Spartan women would have their hair cut off and dressed in a man’s cloak and sandals (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 69). The Spartan husbands would sneak off to have sex with their wives on the wedding night and leave afterwards, this customary practice continued on (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 69). The Athenian marriage law is an essential part in the discussion of marriage in ancient Greek society. According to the Athenian law, if a married woman engaged in adultery, she faced a terrible fate as her consequence. The woman would be divorced from her husband and forbidden to participate in public religious acts. The husband would be allowed to kill the man under strict conditions without any repercussions (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 52). Adultery affected men’s and women’s status and brought shame to the family.

The Citizenship Law of Pericles

In Athens, Pericles’ citizenship law stated that both parents needed to be Athenian citizens in order to produce Athenian citizen children (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 81). Pericles was “one of the most renowned Athenian statesmen.” (Pepe 2018, p. 153). Before Pericles introduced this law, an Athenian citizen man was able to have children with a non-Athenian citizen woman and their children would still be classified as Athenians (Whitehead 1986, p. 110). This law made Athenian citizenship eligible and exclusive to those who were fully Athenian. As well as the legislation prevented sons and daughters that tried to become citizens when they were not authorized to. After this law was enacted, the democracy in Athenian was limited to men that came from two Athenian citizen parents (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 81). Female Athenian citizens were not able nor allowed to participate in democracy (Fantham et al. 1995, p. 81). This law was aimed to control the Athenian citizen status within public and private life. It created a divergent between those with the same status and those without it.


To conclude, Athenian and Spartan women had their lives defined by their ability to produce heirs. Ancient Greek society excluded women from political life and restricted their legal status (Seitkasimova 2020, p. 53). Furthermore, Pericles introduced a citizenship law because it enforced respect among Athenian citizens and protected their political rights. As stated before, both Athenian and Spartan women were expected to bear children and take care ofAthenian women had no rights to vote and were under the guardianship of men (Varaharajulu 2020, p. 6). It is evident that Athenian women did not experience the same freedoms that Spartan women did. During 5th century BCE Athens, mothers stayed home with their children while the fathers were at work. The role of a mother was thought to be the most purposeful role in an Athenian and Spartan woman’s life (Lewis 2002, p. 39). Their duty of childbearing contributed to the procreation of society. This information about motherhood in ancient Greece matters because it allows us to compare motherhood in modern society. Now, women’s lives do not evolve around their children because they have careers and other responsibilities. Although, there is still an expectation of women to marry and have children in today’s society. As stated before, both Athenian and Spartan women were expected to bear children and take care of them. Overall, Athenian women were obligated to give their lives to their children and husband.


Beaumont, Lesley A. (2012). Childhood in Ancient Athens: Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies. London: Routledge. Web.

Camsara99. (2019). Vase Painting of Women Engaged in Wool-Working [File]. Wikipedia.

Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B., & Shapiro, H. A. (1995). Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. ProQuest Ebook Central, 63-128.

Lewis, Sian. (2002). The Athenian Woman. London: Routledge. Web.

Painter, Pan. (2006). Clothes Washing Louvre [Photograph]. Wikipedia.

Pepe, Laura. (2018). The (Ir)relevance of Being a Mother in Motherhood and Infancies in the Mediterranean in Antiquity. Oxbow. Web.

Seitkasimova, Zhulduz Amangelidyevna. (2020). Status of Women in Ancient Greece. Open Journal for Anthropological Studies, 3(2), 49-54.

Shakko. (2009). Wedding Preparation [File]. Wikipedia.

Varadharajulu, Sara Divija. (2020). The Burden of a Child: Examining the Effect of Pregnancy on Women’s Power in Ancient Egypt and Greece. International Social Science Review, 96(4), 1-29.

Whitehead, D. (1986). Women and Naturalisation in Fourth Century Athens: The Case of Archippe. The Classical Quarterly, 36(1), 109-114. 

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