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The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

Gender in the Ancient Greek World

Many ancient Greeks saw the world through a system of binary opposites, such as free / slave or Greek / barbarian (foreigner). The categories into which a person was classed defined their status within the world, how they were regarded by others, and what they were entitled to do. The concept of gender was an integral aspect of this social hierarchy; power was not evenly distributed and only men were allowed to participate in prestige activities such as politics, law, or the military. Consequently, it was vital that men prove their masculinity, in order to prove their worth and to earn their place in the major social institutions, and that women exhibit qualities that would suit them for life in the home, on the farm, or in whatever role suited their class and family circumstances. Although men were generally regarded as superior to women, not all men were considered to have been made equal. As a result, they strove to compete in terms of manliness to assert their worth and to develop their prestige.

Art and literature are important areas in which societies explore and express the boundaries and characteristics of social norms. When Greeks began to decorate their pots with figural scenes it became possible for them to depict ideas about what it was to be human and what humans do. Pottery was used for every aspect of life in the ancient world and, especially when images of human activities decorated vases used in those activities (e.g. symposia), it provided artists with an ideal medium in which to experiment in the depiction of humans. Vase paintings thus provided artists and their patrons with a system of communication through which to create, reflect on, and perpetuate ideas about what it meant to be a man, or a woman, what men and women do, separately and together, and how they appear in relation to other men, women, and other individuals.

Ideas about differences between males and females were expressed in vase painting. Men and women are depicted performing different tasks, according to what was considered suitable to their gender. Differences are also expressed through artistic convention. Initially women were depicted in white paint in contrast to black-figure men.


Men

Women

It is also very common to see men 'wearing' heroic nudity [ 51.7.1 ] in contrast to the heavy drapery worn by women ([65.6.1] and [REDMG:1951.150.1]).

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File last modified: 20 Sep 2017