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What were the roles of women in Hellenistic kingship and society?
Did women matter?
In the Hellenistic period women began to matter much more than they ever had done during the classical period. That is not to say that they all did; many would have been subject to the same strict restrictions placed upon the lives and roles of women that they always had been, but for a select few well born women, such as queens, priestesses and benefactresses the Hellenistic period certainly seems to have given them the opportunity for much improved access to and control of personal wealth as well as even political influence in some, even rarer, cases. It is useful to examine the full class spectrum of women as well as keeping in mind the differences between the various Hellenistic kingdoms since geographical location could have an effect on the extent of a woman's influence. It will be shown that women did have the potential to become as wealthy and influential as the most important men of their time. However it must be kept in mind that, although some of the examples are quite striking, they are very rare and an overall evaluation of the role of women in general is quite hard to come by. Often it is the case that the importance of women in kingship and society is something that is hard to quantify during this time. Throughout the Hellenistic period the role of the vast majority of respectable, ordinary and even high class women was the birthing and rearing of legitimate offspring as well as looking after the home. Often there was very little they were allowed to do beyond this, unless they were very low class or courtesans; for example in Athens there is plenty of evidence to show that they were not allowed to vote, attend drinking parties or go out in public without an accompaniment of slaves to keep an eye on them, this was probably much the same in Greek cities throughout the world. As well as socially there were also severe restrictions placed upon them economically; they were rarely allowed to become the legal owners of property and any financial transaction they took part in had to be supervised by a male relative acting as guardian. This domination by the male members of their family is shown by Athenian legislation, which shows that a marriage was simply a contract between the bride's father and her new husband with the dowry acting as a conditional gift to ensure the wellbeing of the woman but she never at any point legally owned it; a woman could not enter into this contract by herself and women without a dowry could often be left unmarried so the continued support of her father was always required. Despite this Schaps 1 argues that a woman with a dowry larger than the overall wealth of her new husband did have a lot of de facto control over him because of the fact that if she decided to divorce him (one of the few powers women appear to legally have with regard to marriage) then he would have to pay back the dowry, an act which might cripple him financially, and so he would have to keep her happy. This is a reasonable theory but is impossible to quantify in any significant way due to lack of evidence, furthermore the internal dynamics of a marriage is unique to that particular couple and would depend entirely upon the personalities of the two partners; the 1
Economic Rights of Women in ancient Greece.
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