Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity

EssayBook Report

Sarah Pomeroy asked herself the question, "What were the women doing in the ancient past while the men were active in all the areas traditionally emphasized by classical scholars?" Professors, scholars, and historians typically discuss mostly men’s activity in history. But where were the women? This question is the inspiration for Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. Pomeroy basically wanted to write a book to tell what women were doing during Greek and Roman times.

Women in Classical Antiquity

Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity is the first book written in English devoted entirely to the subject and is a must-read book . Pomeroy decided to write this after she had noticed that she couldn’t find suitable books to discuss with her students, as she was a professor in a women’s college. Pomeroy covers about 1500 years starting from the Bronze Age and ending with the death of Constantine in A.D. 337 in Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. The book is broken down into ten chapters that start with Goddesses and Gods and then travel through time progressing to the women of Rome and the Late Republic.

The Bronze Age brings with it oral traditions of history and storytelling, this tied with hard evidence giving some information on how women were viewed by men. In the story of Homer's Iliad, the ten-year war is fought over the most beautiful woman, Helen of Troy. Women back then were viewed as property. They were won in contests and used for payment of debt. Through the Bronze and Dark Ages, and the entire Archaic period, women were treated pretty much the same way but the severity varies from city to city.

Pomeroy describes many types of women who lived during Classical Greek times, but she had a hard time giving as much detail as the Roman women. She did not necessarily talk about different races of women, but different classes of women instead. There were citizen women, women who were born in the city and has parents that were citizens. To remain a citizen, a woman had to either marry a citizen or not marry at all. There were also slave women. Slave women worked around the house. Women slaves were wet nurses, housekeepers, and babysitters.


Pomeroy does a very good job of describing all sides of life that women went through during these years of antiquity. But in order to give further insight into how women were viewed, the book begins by discussing the divine women of mythology: the goddesses. Greek mythology reflects some of their views on women and how those women are to be treated. Even with titles of goddesses, Aphrodite, Hestia, Athena, and Artemis are still subjects to the male god, Zeus. Some of the goddesses were born of man, not of woman, showing that women weren't even important or needed in childbearing.

Pomeroy also noted that these goddesses were symbols of something for humans and not just diving beings to be worshipped. For example, Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Hestia is the goddess of the heart and family, and domestic life, Athena is the goddess of wisdom, war, art and crafts, and of the virgins, Artemis like Athena is the goddess of virgins but also of the hunt, chastity, and childbirth.

Aside from the goddesses, Pomeroy also discussed in Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity the Amazons. Amazons were known for their wild and uncontrolled nature as they are a band of warrior women. Pomeroy says that they are the representation of the “conquest of the uncontrollable.”


Prostitution was a way of life for many women. If fathers didn't want to kill their newborn daughters, they were given away or said to have been killed but were actually given away. These female babies would most likely grow up to be prostitutes back then. Also, slave girls were sold for the purpose of prostitution. Prostitution was legal and very common in the ancient times. Aspasia was probably the most famous prostitute of the time. She was considered to be a Hetairai, which is a well-educated prostitute or high-class prostitute.

Things did not improve much until Roman times. That said improvement is still not much improvement by modern standards. Women slowly began to be educated and allowed to make their own money or own land in their name. Women were beginning to be seen in public and started to attend or even lead public meetings. With money and land, women obtained power but not as much as a man’s. Roman women still prioritize domestic duty above all else and then some social freedom, if any. Prostitution and slavery thrived as well as ever.


Females were used by their families to gain power through marriages. Women were often forced to marry sons of prominent men at a very young age which is usually in their early teenage years. If a woman was already part of a wealthy family, she usually would have to marry a family relative to keep the wealth and land within the family. As you can see women were thought of as property throughout their lives. The daily life of a woman in the Archaic period was to take care of potential soldiers or command a slave with the task. She would make clothing along with her slaves all day, prepare meals, and bathe their husbands.

Women in other cities did not have to work as much but they didn't have any other privileges either. Women were not given the same education as the males. They weren't even given the same amount of food as males. Women rarely went to public functions or even to draw water from the city well. A wife was to send a slave to do it to protect the wife from being in contact with gossiping women and also away from contact with other men.

Women were treated as inferior to males whose purpose is to serve men and rear children. Boys went to schools to learn rhetoric and exercise whereas women were most often not taught anything at all. As far as political power, women had none. Only free citizen men had authority. Even if women did not have political power, they were at least given some legal rights in dealing with divorce. If a husband was found guilty of adultery, the wife is allowed to divorce him. If divorced, and the man was at fault, he had to repay her dowry. 


Women slaves were subject to sexual relations with the man of the house. A free man could have sexual intercourse with his wife, his slaves, and with other males without fear of punishment. A woman, on the other hand, could only have sexual intercourse with her husband. From the time a woman is even starting in life in her mother's womb, she is meant to inevitably suffer at the hand of males. If a female survived the abortion, it was up to the father whether or not to keep her as a wife.

Female children were seen as a burden or additional cost of expenses to the father. Male children were needed at all times, there was hardly any doubt about letting a male child live unless the male child was weak or sickly. Females were seen to be only needed for bearing children, making clothing, and taking care of the home. When a daughter becomes ready for marriage around the age of thirteen, her father would have to supply her with a dowry. If a father has several daughters, that meant he has to provide several dowries, so fathers often chose to kill females at birth.


Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity is a fine book that certainly begs to be explored more. It's hard for a lot of women to understand why the subject of women in history has been neglected for as long as it has. Pomeroy has compiled a lot of information on the subject and put it into a very well-written and cited book. The information has been there for years but has been neglected by other scholars. It is hard to say if the book has all elements of women known to men in the ancient days but it is a start and better than not having anything that tells of how women lived and were treated before the book was published.

Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity is a valuable piece of work in that it might inspire others to try their hand at writing about a topic in history that has never been written before. There is not much written with a female slant on history and Pomeroy delivered a great start to the cause of retelling history with women as the focal point instead of men.

Women’s voices need to be amplified in order to make a mark in history. In this case, a woman chose to amplify her voice for women in history to be recognized. Today, feminists are graced with many amazing women who lead empowering causes like the Time’s Up Movement and even make films with powerful female leads like Captain Marvel . You may be someone who dreams of becoming one of the game-changers in history. Maybe you need more time to develop your advocacy or gather more people to join your cause and some of your academic writing load is weighing you down. Don’t hesitate to shoot us a message because CustomEssayMeister can surely help you ace your academic writing while you focus on your plan. Let CustomEssayMeister help write your essays!



JCCCvideo. “Great Books: Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, by Sarah B. Pomeroy.” YouTube , uploaded by JCCCvideo, 8 Sept. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=slxkFy3MWqo.

Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

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