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In Athens, marriage was viewed as a tool for ensuring a legal heir. This was especially true for the period of Pericles since, according to the laws of the famous statesman, only those whose mother and father were both from Athens could be citizens of the polis. As a result, a wife's only job was to ensure the continuity of the lineage.
Women of the Athens aristocracy married young, at thirteen to fifteen years old, and were respected if they remained quiet and unnoticed. When bringing up a girl, the parents’ objective was for her – in the words of Xenophon – "to see the least possible, hear the least possible, and ask the least possible." In the parental home, girls learned the basics of child rearing and housekeeping, so they would be prepared for their new lives.
Wives lived secluded from the world in the gunaikeion, the women’s quarters. They did not eat with their husbands or sleep together. And since, due to their upbringing, they were completely uncultured, conversations between spouses were also very rare. In a man's life, the wife usually wasn't the only woman with whom he interacted sexually. Women sometimes had to share their homes with their husband's mistresses, because they had no say in what went on in the andron, the men's quarters in the house.
Although the law did not permit women to leave the house or talk to strangers, in practice it often happened that they visited neighbouring women, took part in funerals, and sometimes even assisted with giving birth. Women were not allowed to take part in community events organised by men, so they held their own ceremonies, at which they excluded men.
Women whose husbands were less affluent and did not keep slaves had somewhat more freedom, as they could go to the wells for water, and sell their handmade and agricultural products themselves.
Abducting brides in Sparta
In Sparta, women had much more freedom than in other Greek city-states. Girls had the same upbringing as boys: in addition to various athletic sports (wrestling, running and so on), they learned the art of singing and dancing as well. They usually practiced in the nude, and wore more provocative clothes in their everyday lives than the women of Athens. Men, who lived in military barracks from childhood, married around the age of twenty, but had to wait another ten years to leave the military compound and live with their wives. The marriage began with the abduction of the bride, but after the wedding night the husband had to leave the compound in the utmost secrecy if he wanted to see his wife again during the long transition period. It was reasoned that the strict restriction was necessary because soldiers could thus practice the virtue of self-restraint, and their sexual desire also increased, which helped them father strong and healthy offspring. If, however, a superior caught the man on his romantic excursion, he could make an example of him and punish him.
Consequences of adultery
The ancient Greeks believed that women had far greater sexual appetites than men, and thus found it very difficult to control their instincts. This is how they explained the fact that despite living hermetically cut off from the outside world, they often committed adultery. And husbands did not easily tolerate being cheated on. The laws of Athens allowed the cuckolded man to kill his wife's lover without fear of punishment. The unfaithful wife could not participate in religious ceremonies, could not improve her appearance, and was even prohibited from going to church.
The husband could at any time divorce his wife, and had the possibility of offering the woman to another man without her consent. Women in this respect were at a disadvantage compared to men, as they could only initiate divorce through a mediating relative, on the basis of mistreatment, and the children always stayed under the father's custody.
Garden of pleasures
"We have hetaerae for pleasure, pallakae to care for our daily body’s needs and gynaekes to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households" – was the way Demosthenes categorised women in the fourth century BC. As men did not consider women their equals, they had to look for the source of their happiness elsewhere.
The simplest form of satisfying sexual desire was using the services of the pornai, i.e. the common prostitutes. These women didn't even speak Greek in most cases, were kept as slaves, and were usually employed by male pimps, but could be under the control of a rich hetaera as well. It was general practice for a mother who had become too old or poor to teach her daughters the tricks of the trade within the scope of the family business.
Constant guests of the symposia (feasts) were the courtesans, the hetaerae, who provided services much superior to those of the pornai. They could be rented for a night from entrepreneurs who ran prostitutes, and entertained male companies with dance, instrumental music and witty conversation. Many of them even became celebrities. Rhodopis, Lais, and Phryne, who sat as a model for the Aphrodite statue of Praxiteles, were counted among the most famous people of Ancient Greece.
Sometimes husbands used the services of prostitutes for more than one night. It often happened that they kept concubines (pallakae), who they could take into their households without marriage. Children born of these relationships could not be Athenian citizens, because the pallakae were usually immigrants. The only exception was the favoured mistress of Pericles, Aspasia. The beautiful and witty concubine from Miletus had such political influence in Athens, that her son fathered by Pericles was accepted as a full Athenian citizen.
The other route
In Ancient Greece, several forms of homosexuality were known. In the militarist city-state of Crete, which was run similar to Sparta, the so-called initiation homosexuality, i.e. pederasty, became widespread. This meant a relationship between an older man (erastes) and the teenage boy (eromenos) chosen by him. The erastes abducted the targeted boy amid the fake protests of the parents, with whom he lived and hunted for two months. After the initiation, the abductor presented the teenager with military attire, a wine cup and an ox (which he had to sacrifice to Zeus). If the erastes hurt the boy in any way, the law permitted him to take revenge on his abductor; but this rarely happened.
The ritual was also known in Sparta. In Athens a milder form of the ceremony was common, where mature men flirted with their chosen young men instead of kidnapping them. The laws protected boys who were too young, but when they turned sixteen, supervision of the teenagers loosened up, and they could receive their first gifts from their admirers. The erastes had to be very persistent to become close to his selected one, as it was frowned upon if a boy gave himself too easily to his admirer. The erastes then taught the loved boy how to contain his impulses, and act as a responsible citizen, in exchange for which he only hoped for some gratitude and commitment and of course a bit of sexual consideration.
If an older man who wished for a companion did not find himself a suitable partner, he only had to go to a gymnasium, where he could chose from the many young athletes practicing in the nude. The wall graffiti around the Nemea and Thera gymnasiums are also testaments to the fact that the sight of muscled young men often aroused sexual desire in the onlookers. The comment "Akrotatos is beautiful" was among the more subtle ones, but the one stating "it was here that Krimon made love to the son [...] brother of Bathukles" can explain why the laws of Athens prohibited the gymnasia from staying open before sunrise and after sunset. Of course in addition to male love, tender relations between women were also heard of; but due to the upbringing of the representatives of the fairer sex, few accounts of these exist (they could not write about their experiences). The exceptions are the poems of Sappho from Lesbos in the sixth and seventh centuries BC, which were extremely popular all over Greece.
The phallus cult
If a tourist or merchant travelled to Greece, the phallic symbols on display would probably surprise him. He would be especially surprised if he visited the island of Delos, where the road leading inland was lined with statues of huge phalluses. However, not even the citizens of Athens could step out of their homes without bumping into the hermai, which were phallic stone statues adorned with the head of the god Hermes (the hermai of Athens were mutilated by unknown perpetrators during the Peloponnesian War, before the Sicilian Expedition). Phalluses were used to stake out the borders of land as well, but their main function had been to bring abundance and prosperity. The Greeks also used the dildo, called olisbos, which they made from wood, stone or leather. These usually appeared on pictures on which orgies or fantasies were depicted, but regarding the precise objective and method of their use we have no reliable information.