What was life like for a girl in Classical Greece and Rome?
Classical Greece and Rome are portrayed as the start of Western Civilization. During the period from 500 BCE to 250 CE, these civilizations flourished – bringing about achievements in fields like art, medicine, and philosophy that continue to influence us today.
Evidence about young girls in these civilizations can readily be found. Yet many museums have yet to reveal their stories.
In this exhibit, we bring the girls of Classical Greece and Rome to life – showing how their daily lives were similar and different, both from each other and from our modern lives. Travel back with us to these heralds of Western civilization, and discover the surprisingly complex lives of girls.
Want to infuse your classroom with critical thinking and curiosity? Help your students discover the lives of Classical Girls through fun activities aligned with US and UK educational standards.
Portrait of a girl, Roman, c. 15 – 40 CE. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
A Day in the Life…
Based on historical research, these diary entries reflect what “Flavia” (a Roman girl) and “Chilonis” (a Spartan girl in Greece) might have felt and done in their lives.
“Flavia” is an Ancient Roman name meaning “blonde.” Two Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox saints are named Flavia, and it is also the name of several fictional characters.
“Chilonis” was the name of two Spartan princesses: the daughter of Leotychidas and Cleonymus, who was recorded in Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus, and one who became a queen in 272 BCE and was central to the rule of four different Spartan kings.
I don’t like market days that much because it means getting up before the sun rises. And now, in winter, it means leaving the warm hearth of the house. Dad always says that we need to do this because we want the best spot to sell our vegetables. This time of year, we mostly sell cabbage. I hate cabbage–I can’t stand the smell. I wriggle my nose. I wonder how dad deals with the smell, but he probably has more important things to think about.
We don’t have the luxury of a boat, so we enter Rome in the early morning. Our cart is not the best, but it holds, and the same goes for our little donkey. Lucius’ hoof make clicking noises on the pavement while we cross the river via the pons aemilius which leads straight to the forum bovarium, the meat market. But we don’t stop there; we turn around, going left. This early not many people are passing by. I wrap my cloak closer around myself, but the fresh air keeps me awake and I am longing for our home. Normally, I would get up now and start the fire. A few weeks ago, my mom said that I was old enough to take care of the fire. My brother Marcus had been a bit jealous, but mom said this is a very important duty for a young girl, especially if she wants to find a good husband in a few years.
There is a big porticus opening to the forum holitorium. That’s where we’re going. The vegetable market. It is smaller than the meat market, and at the moment less busy. We are almost the first to arrive.
“Come on Flavia, we have to set up before the first customers arrive!”
I never had to go to the market until my baby sister was born. Mom would come with him, but she needs to stay with the baby and prepare our food. Dad and I will be starving once we’re back. Marcus wanted to join us, but he is supposed to be someone someday, and mom says education is really important for a young man.
Chilonis, Sparta (Greece)
The dread of war was hanging over us, and the air was sliceable in our little house. A messenger arrived a couple of hours ago with the combat order. This war was happening. Mom had been upset at first, of course, but her feelings of despair soon made room for those of pride. She didn’t say much to me. I was to do my household chores and stick to my role as silent observer. I knew better than to talk to her about it. She would have punished me if I had.
We lined up in front of our house with the rest of the city, my brother and my father both in full armor. They looked intimidating with their heavy helmets and spears. They were going to fight the Persians and their king Xerxes at Thermopylae, led by our King Leonidas. At least that’s what I could decipher from the note my mom had gotten. I wasn’t supposed to know. She was looking tougher now, hiding her emotion. Spartan women do not cry. I heard that often enough, the last time only an hour ago, when I cried because my brother was sent off to fight against an overwhelming enemy. I was not doing my family proud, but I pulled myself together for the departure. Mom was right. I should not cry. This was a moment to be proud. My brother would come back a hero. Or so I hoped.
I briefly hugged my father, saving a longer hug for my brother. I was going to miss him terribly, but after my mother’s scolding, I didn’t dare show much emotion. He knew better than to question that and hugged me right back.
“I’ll miss you, little sis!” His voice was filled with feelings that were difficult to interpret, but fear was one of them. I nodded and squeezed his hand. I stepped back to give my mom space to say her goodbyes. She kissed my father, handing him his shield. She turned to my brother.
“As a warrior of Sparta, come back with your shield … or on it!” She handed him his shield and I had to swallow a cry. She was dead serious. I could see my brother’s reaction in his eyes, otherwise he didn’t let show how much that startled him. We both knew the rules, but it’s different when you face them.
Home and family were the center of Greek and Roman girls’ lives. In Greece, social ideals limited how much a girl could do outside the house. Greek girls spent most of their time inside, working or learning in the home. Often, a girl’s worth and virtue was measured by her domestic activities. The house was also the centre of her social life, where she met and engaged with other girls and women in work and play.
Roman girls had far more personal freedom than ancient Greek girls, including the right to own and inherit property or to go into public spaces. The extensive Roman slave trade meant that many freeborn Romans had leisure time; they didn’t have to spend all day in the house spinning or cooking. We know that Roman girls enjoyed going to the theatre and watching competitions and gladiatorial games in the arena. Domestic activities like spinning, weaving, and raising children continued to be symbols of virtue and womanhood. However, a girl’s beauty was also considered an important part of attracting a husband. The private world of personal adornment and hairdressing had far-reaching implications for girls’ futures and reputations.
The ideal Greek girl was neither seen nor heard: she spent her time inside, spinning wool and learning how to manage her household in preparation for marriage. However, we know that many women and girls who couldn’t afford this lifestyle (or were born or captured into slavery) led entirely different lives as craftswomen, vendors, or domestic servants, and would have had far more interaction with the outside world than girls who were free. Few Greek women left any written records of their lives, so we have to rely on literary sources (written by men) and objects that depict domestic life.
From early childhood, freeborn Greek girls were in training for marriage. By watching her mother and other women at home, a young girl learned not only cooking and wool-working, but how to manage a household. She might hear her mother give instructions to the family’s slaves, see how the household budget was managed and spent, and get to know where food and utensils were kept.
The knowledge and skills she gained at home made her attractive to suitors and prepared her to take over her husband’s home when she married, often in her early teens. For most girls, this would likely have been the extent of their education: it’s not clear how many Greek girls could read or write, though we do have a few examples of educated women such as the writers Erinna and Sappho. (Spartan girls, who were given an education in reading and writing, seem to be the only exception to this rule.)
This terracotta figurine from Boeotia shows a seated woman instructing a young girl in cooking over the fire. The smaller figure may represent her daughter or a young slave girl, but their pose, with the girl’s hand laid over the woman’s wrists, suggests the close relationship of a mother and daughter.
Slave girls would have learned and carried out many of these tasks in the household too, although not with the goal of preparing for marriage: rather, their job was to support the household through their labour. As well as cooking, spinning and weaving, cleaning, and running errands for the mistress of the house, female slaves could carry out other work such as making and selling goods and wet-nursing.
Preparing wool to be woven into clothing was one of the most important household tasks. Most girls would have learned how to work wool early in life, and wool-working consumed a huge amount of their time. Raw fleece, sheared from sheep, had to be spun into fine yarn by hand before it could be woven into fabric. It was rolled over the knee in long, thick ropes, then twisted tightly using a spindle and wrapped around a distaff. It would then be woven at a loom to make cloaks, clothing, or other textiles. To keep the natural oils in the wool from staining her clothing as she worked, a Greek girl would have worn a sheath called an onos or epinetron over her knee and thigh.
This 6th-century epinetron shows scenes of women or girls bent over their wool-working, perhaps rolling long and narrow bundles of fiber (called roving) over their knees. The sculpted face on the end probably represents a goddess – like Athena, who was known to be an accomplished weaver herself. It may have been intended to protect the girl who owned the epinetron from harm. In Athens, particularly skilled young girls might be chosen for the honor of weaving a peplos (cloak) for Athena as part of the Panathenaia festival.
Wool-working was such an important part of Greek girlhood that some girls were buried with epinetra when they died. Girls who lived to marriageable age might dedicate their childhood epinetra, toys, and clothing to the goddess Artemis. Once married, they were given new epinetra as a symbol of their transition from childhood to womanhood.
This box, or pyxis, would have held jewelry, trinkets like brooches and hairpins, cosmetics, or a set of knucklebones. It shows girls playing with sets of knucklebones and a ball. The game of knucklebones or astralogoi is thousands of years old and has many variations: players might throw the bones on the ground and count up points according to the way they landed, or throw them in the air and try to catch them on the backs of their hands as they fell. The basic rules of knucklebones have survived to the present day, although modern girls are more likely to play with a rubber ball and jacks than a set of sheep’s bones!
Household work also presented opportunities for recreation and social interaction. There are many literary references to girls and women singing, talking, and telling stories to each other at the loom. Although it was hard work, spinning and weaving gave girls a chance to learn from and talk to their mothers, sisters, household slaves, and peers.
Because Roman girls were far more visible in public than Greek girls, their appearance was extremely important to them. Everything about a young woman, from her jewelry and clothing to her hairstyle and makeup, was used to send signals about her class, status, and character when she appeared in public. Roman girls’ personal objects tell us not only about their appearance but their place in the world, from slave girls in Pompeii who treasured gifts from the master of the house to make-up loving girls in Britannia (Britain) who used local materials to imitate Roman fashion.
Unlike Greek women, Classical Roman women were allowed to own property, in the form of land and money, as well as precious objects like gold, silver, and gemstones. Women and girls sported rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and hair ornaments – often all at once. Young children wore special charms called bullae around their necks to protect them from evil. Jewelry wasn’t just ornamental and protective, but represented a form of wealth that could be moved and stored easily, resold for cash if necessary, and dedicated as an offering to the gods. Roman girls literally wore their wealth on their bodies.
Rich, freeborn girls were most likely to own jewelry, but we know they weren’t the only ones to adorn themselves. A snake-shaped gold bracelet much like this one was found near Pompeii, and is inscribed Dominus Suae Ancillae (‘from the master to his slave girl’). It was buried in a bag with some other items of jewelry. This bag may have been left by a female slave who hoped to return for her precious belongings after the eruption. The heavy gold bracelet must have been among her most valuable possessions, and the inscription would have given it special significance. We don’t know why the bracelet was given to its owner: she might have had a romantic relationship with the master of the house or been a favored slave. Not all enslaved girls were as fortunate: as slaves had few rights under the law, many became the targets of physical or sexual assault from their owners.
A video featuring the Snake Bracelet and British Museum curator Paul Roberts can be watched here.
This stucco relief from a tomb in Carthage, in the Roman province of Africa, shows an ornatrix braiding a woman’s hair. Some of it is already arranged in tight curls around her forehead, but the rest is still hanging down over her shoulders and back. The ornatrix is depicted with relatively short hair, telling us she is a slave, and she looks younger than her mistress. She may be in her late teens. Looking at the relief, we can imagine how long and tedious the process must have been for both hairdresser and client!
From the first century onwards, the hairstyles of the emperor’s wife, mother, or daughter generally set the fashion across the entire empire. However, there were also traditional hairstyles that endured over time, like the seni crines, which marked a girl out as a Vestal virgin or a bride. For this hairstyle, the girl’s hair was traditionally parted with a spear. Because Roman brides are always depicted with veils covering their heads, we aren’t sure exactly what it looked like.
Roman girls used powdered mineral cosmetics as well as oil-based pastes and perfumes. They whitened their faces with highly toxic lead paste and used vermilion and cinnabar to redden their cheeks and lips. They even used sparkling, colored eyeshadow made from copper ore, azurite, or graphite. Some girls even had miniature makeup kits for their dolls! These pigments were imported from across the Roman empire and could be expensive, but even in Britain, at the very edge of the Roman world, girls might have used local lead, hematite, chalk, and charcoal on their faces.
Metal grinders like this one were used to prepare cosmetics in Britain even before the Romans settled there, and they continued to be used for centuries afterward. However, contact with Rome changed what was considered beautiful and fashionable in Britain and what kinds of materials were used. The girls who used these tools were mixing their own native traditions and elements with Roman ideals of beauty.
In both Rome and Greece, what girls did inside their homes defined them. In Classical Greece, where most girls couldn’t take part in public life (with a few exceptions, such as religious festivals), a young girl knew that her future marriage depended on her skill in household management and wool-working, and she took her work very seriously. Freeborn Roman girls might have spent less time working around the house, but they probably devoted much more time than Greek girls to their appearance. The way a Roman girl arranged her hair, makeup, and jewelry at home determined how other people thought of her when she left the house. However, wealthy girls depended on the labour of slave girls to arrange their hair and do household work, leaving them with free time to spend outside their homes.
Although each society had strict ideals for girls’ lives and roles, depicted in their art, we know that not all girls fit inside them. A girl’s life might look very different depending on where and when she lived, and how wealthy her parents were. Some must have worked outside their homes out of necessity, while some were more educated than others, but it can be difficult to find visual evidence of girls engaged in unusual activities.
Classical Hair How-To!
Learn how to recreate a seni crines hairstyle in this video with hairdresser and archaeologist Janet Stephens:
A Tale of Two Toys
Play was an integral part of girls’ lives throughout history. Classical Greece and Rome were no exception. In both cultures, girls played with a variety of toys. The importance of play is known to us through the objects and paintings that accompanied them in death. In the cemeteries of Greece and Rome, archaeological finds show us not only what girls played – but whether or not they played with boys.
Children of Classical Greece had a variety of toys that they loved to play with, much like children today. Archaeologists have uncovered many types of objects in a variety of locations, including burial plots and households. Many of the toys are similar to those of today; it seems children have always played with rattles, spinning tops, and pull toys. The quality and decoration of these items greatly depended on the wealth of the family; however, almost all children would have had a toy of some kind. If a child passed away before they came of age, their toys were likely buried with them.
The Little Horse on Wheels was found in the Kerameikos Cemetery in Athens, and dates to between 950 and 900 BCE. It would have had a string attached, so a small child could pull it. This style of item is called an athyrma, as it is in the shape of an animal. Similar items have been uncovered elsewhere, with most in the shape of a pig or horse. As horses were important animals in classical Greece, the popularity of this shape would be the same as a toy car today. Whilst some were clearly tailored for girls and boys, the majority of toys were unisex.
Another popular game was Knucklebones. This game was played with the ankle bones of sheep and goats, which were thrown around like dice or the modern game of jacks. They were inexpensive, and children often carried them around in pouches. An item similar to the yo-yo is believed to have originated in Classical Greece as well. This was made from two separate terracotta discs with a string in the middle, and was referred to as a disc.
Little Horse on Wheels Toy, 950-900 BCE, excavated in Kerameikos Cemetery, Athens, Greece. Kerameikos Museum, Athens.
A marble panel from a sarcophagus of a child depicts a group of both Roman girls and boys playing the same game with nuts, 3rd Century CE, Rome. Chiaramonti Museum, Vatican City. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
While upbringing was largely determined by social status and wealth, children in Classical Rome played and enjoyed themselves in similar ways through games, toys, and pet animals. This marble panel from the sarcophagus of a child depicts a group of both Roman girls and boys playing a game with nuts. On the right side of the sarcophagus, there is a group of boys tossing nuts around, while in the middle panel several boys roughhouse over some of the nuts. In the left panel, a group of five girls play their own game with the nuts.
Despite being depicted beside each other, these scenes are split: the boys and girls do not play together, but are completely separate. Between the left and middle panels, there is a subtle curtain put up behind the girls, as if to separate the male space from the female space. The boys play-fight and have more aggressive expressions, while the girls are shown as handing nuts to one another and kneeling on cushions. Roman girls were allowed to play, but only inside the family home, while boys had no such restrictions.
What’s surprising about these toys? Though Grecian girls were far more restricted than Roman girls, these playful finds – a toy horse, a sarcophagus painting – tell a different story. As a unisex toy, the horse from Greece speaks of girls playing with boys – or at least with the same things boys played with. In contrast, the sarcophagus painting from Rome shows girls and boys differed in both the spaces they occupied and the games they played.
Why do these toys tell such a different story? So much remains unknown to us about Classical Greece and Rome, while much of what we do know is still debated by scholars. Together, these objects reveal a key part of history: that the story is far from complete.
The pool of the sacred spring with the stepped retaining wall (L), the temple podium and the church of Hagios Georgios at center. Temple of Artemis at Brauron. Image courtesy J. Matthew Harrington, 2007, Wikimedia Commons.
Religion played an important role in Greece and Rome. Gods were involved in politics, war, household duties, marital relationships, and other parts of daily life. Greek and Roman girls would encounter the gods, talk to them, bring them offerings, and pray for their favor in matters big and small. Although many houses had small shrines, the most significant pleas were made in the temples.
Some gods were more relevant to girls’ lives than others. Greek girls asked Artemis or Athena for help with marriage, conception, and childbirth, all of which would help raise their status within society. Roman girls turned to Vesta, Bona Dea, or Mater Matuta. The goddesses were honoured in temples like the one in Brauron (just outside Athens) or the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum.
Round remains of the temple of Vesta, Forum Romanum, Rome. Image courtesy Jebulon, 2013, Wikimedia Commons.
In temples, girls celebrated their transition to womanhood in rituals and bonded with other girls and women. In many cases, girls played an important part in conducting the ceremonies and were in charge of the cults, like the Vestal Virgins. High-status roles in cults were reserved for a very small group of privileged girls coming from wealthy families. However, lower classes could participate by presenting offerings and asking for favors from the goddesses. These activities provide insight into the daily struggles and challenges Classical girls were facing.
A marble votive statue, from the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, date unknown. Wikimedia Commons
As soon as I turned seven I was an Arrephoros;
Then when I was ten I was a Grinder for the Foundress;
And shedding my saffron robe I was a Bear at Brauronia;
And once, when I was a fair girl, I carried the Basket,
Wearing a necklace of dried figs.
— Aristophanes, Lysistrata 640
This fragment of a Greek play is one of the rare glimpses into the world of female priestesses that ancient sources give us. Arrephoroi were young girls of the wealthy Athenian families, who spent a year living on the Acropolis – the most important Athenian sanctuary – learning how to perform certain rites and helping to weave ceremonial robes for the goddess Athena. The Grinders are more mysterious – some scholars suggest they were making bread for the Arrephoroi. Bears were girls selected from all Athenian suburbs (demes), who were sent to the temple of Artemis at Brauron to go through a rite of passage. Carrying the basket probably refers to the festival of Panathenaia, when maidens about to get married carried offerings for Athena in big baskets.
Who were these girls? They had to be a specific age, some of them as young as seven. The passage also suggests a progression, with girls moving from one role to another as they were growing older. The access to these positions was limited – you had to come from a certain family to be considered, and most likely, the girls were selected by the assembly of all Greek citizens. Taking part in these rites was considered an enormous privilege, as it allowed the girl to establish a personal connection to the goddess she celebrated.
Marble head from a portrait statue of a veiled priestess of the goddess Vesta, c. 2nd century CE, Roman, The British Museum.
Although public and religious life in classical Rome was dominated by men, a group of Roman girls resided in the temple in the middle of the Forum. These girls were known as the Vestal Virgins. They oversaw the eternal fire of the goddess Vesta, who protected Roman homes and families. There were six Vestal Virgins living in the temple at any given time.
To become a Vestal Virgin, a girl had to fulfill certain criteria. She had to come from a family of living, free-born parents, which meant she could not be the daughter of a slave. She also needed to be born in Italy, not in the provinces of the Empire. In practice, the post was so prestigious that only daughters of wealthy patrician families were considered. When a Vestal decided to retire, the Pontifex Maximus (chief Roman priest) would select her replacement from a group of twenty eligible girls.
A new Vestal Virgin started her training as young as age 6, and she had to commit to 30 years of service. She spent the first 10 years learning the rituals and how to tend the fire in the temple, the next 10 years practicing, and her final 10 years teaching the novices. After these 30 years, she was free to leave, but most of the Vestal Virgins decided to stay. In exchange for her service, a Vestal Virgin could manage her own will, was held in high esteem by society, had the best seats at public events, and could free a convict if she touched them.
But before you start dreaming of becoming a Vestal Virgin, are you willing to make a personal sacrifice? Once they were serving the goddess, Vestal Virgins had to observe absolute chastity. The breach of this regulation was met with terrible consequences: the priestess was buried alive in a specially built tomb where she slowly starved to death.
Libation bowl (phiale), Greek, c. 450 BCE. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
It is very difficult to establish what Greek girls were doing when they were in the temples. As all written sources were created by men, we do not have statements by the girls themselves. What is clear is that they were important – in Athens alone, citizens celebrated 170 festival days each year. Additionally, the work of archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly has revealed the names of more than 150 historical Greek priestesses.
Vase paintings suggest that dancing and singing were an integral part of many rites. This is backed by some contemporary writings, such as this letter from Aurelius Asclepiades to Aureleus Theon in 295 CE:
I desire to hire from you Tisaïs, the dancing girl, and another, to dance for us at our festival of Bacchias, for fifteen days from the 13th Phaophi by the old calendar. You shall receive as pay 36 drachmai a day, and for the whole period 3 artabai of wheat, and 15 loaves; also, three donkeys to fetch them and take them back.
Other duties may have included weaving the ceremonial robes and cooking. There also seems to be a clear hierarchy in place: younger girls were learning from their older counterparts how to conduct the rites. This created a strong sense of community among the girls as they were growing up and learning together.
Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries), Pompeii, First Century CE, Wikimedia Commons.
Among their many duties, Vestal Virgins were responsible for organization of the Bona Dea Festival, which took place during spring and winter. We do not fully know what the Bona Dea was responsible for, but she seems to be closely connected to women as they were the only ones allowed to take part in the celebrations. The winter part of the festival took place in the house of the highest magistrate and was hosted by his wife (similar to a First Lady). Although the exact rites are uncertain, we know it was considered sacrilegious for a man to attend – or even be present – during the ceremonies. In 62 BCE, a Rome-wide scandal occurred when Publius Claudius Pulcher, disguised in woman’s clothing, got into Pompeia’s house during the celebrations. He faced a trial for putting state security at risk and enraging the gods!
Performing religious rites in the home tells us that houses could be significant religious spaces. In Rome, houses were considered sacred places where you worshipped the household gods, celebrated your ancestors, and tended the household fire. As women were responsible for the household, they played significant part in home-based rites. Evidence of this comes from paintings in Roman homes, like this one from a first century Pompeii villa. It shows women participating in the initiation rites of the Cult of Dionysus, which are still a mystery to us. In this scene, a noble Roman woman approaches a priestess seated on a throne. A small boy stands beside the throne, reading a scroll that may have been a declaration of the initiation. On the other side of the throne, the initiate wears a purple robe and myrtle crown while holding a sprig of laurel and a tray of cakes, perhaps as an offering to Dionysus.
Three bronze votives to Athena: Athena Promachos. Late 6th-early 5th c. BCE; Athena. Mirror support. 500 BCE; Athena Promachos. 530-520 BCE. The Acropolis Museum, Athens.
Among many archaeological finds, there is evidence that girls of lower social and financial status also prayed to the gods and gave offerings. Clay figurines were an affordable way to show appreciation to the goddess and ask her for favors. In Brauron, many clay figures show women or girls, which emphasizes the link between girls and the sanctuary.
At the Acropolis in Athens, dedicated to the goddess Athena, votive offerings were left as tokens of piety to please the goddess. A common votive offering were korai, marble statues of a young women. The style and size varied, but all korai had a strictly defined sculptural type and austere body posture. Typically, Korai held an offering to the goddess in one hand, such as a wreath, fruit, bird, or flower.
Over time, votive offerings on display in the temple might number in the hundreds or thousands. Each offering represented a person that the deity helped, a testament to that deity’s power.
Clay-backed uterus, Roman votive offering, no date, Wikimedia Commons.
Similar to the Greeks, Roman girls addressed particular gods with specific problems. For example, when girls were about to get married or were pregnant, they would turn to Mater Matuta. The goddess is usually represented holding a number of children in her arms, so we know she dealt with fertility. Offerings to Mater Matuta included small clay wombs. Young wives would offer these to the goddess in the hopes of becoming pregnant quickly, as having a child would raise their position in society.
If a girl had problems with her body, she left a clay model of the body part that was troubling her as an offering to the gods. These clay models were produced by workmen at healing centers, and left in the temple votive pits or hung from walls and rafters. From the ones archaeologists have found, we know common illnesses and diseases that girls faced. These included ailments of the arms and fingers, legs, breasts, and genitals.
Classical Greece and Rome had similar religious roles for girls: priestesses, worshippers in rituals, or in giving offerings to the gods. Archaeological evidence enables us to piece together the narratives left out of contemporary writings, showcasing the variety of challenges that girls faced in life and the power they held in religious ceremonies. New evidence is constantly reshaping our view of girls’ lives in Classical societies, refuting the long-held belief that Classical girls were silent spectators. As the evidence from temples shows, girls were anything but silent.
The use of public spaces for girls throughout the Classical period was vastly different between the Greeks and Romans. Greek society was much more controlling of girls’ movements in public spaces, while Roman girls were able to claim much more power and show off their status in these spaces. Young girls in both societies were raised to follow in their mother’s footsteps of rearing children, tending the home, and taking little to no role in public affairs.
Early philosophical perceptions that justified the separation of women from men in the public sphere are evident in contemporary Greek writings by Euripides, Xenophon, and Aristotle. Greek society was very male-centered, with a strict structure of respect and honor towards a family’s patriarch. Social ideals dictated that girls and women should stay in the private sphere of the household, although we know that they could and did work as craftswomen, shopkeepers, sex workers, and midwives. However, this was considered to be work for poor adult women, not respectable wives or young girls. Greek girls had very little opportunities to go into public spaces, and were mainly confined to the family home.
The Romans had a more capitalistic approach when it came to the public sphere. Roman girls could not vote or hold political office, but they could have independent wealth, initiate a divorce, leave a will, and even inherit property. Most Roman women in poverty were expected to earn their own living through jobs as wet-nurses, midwives, in agriculture or crafts, or even in infames (“dishonorable”) careers such as acting or prostitution. Roman girls, like the Greeks, had few opportunities to go into public spaces, and were mainly confined to the family home or family business.
This hydria depicts women lined up to gather water from the civic fountain known as Callirrhoe in Athens, chatting and balancing hydria on their heads. Vulci, Italy, 510 BCE. The British Museum, London.
In Classical Greece, potable water was difficult to come by, so any viable source had to be channelled into the cities where it could be collected by girls for their homes. Since most Greek girls were not allowed to leave their homes unescorted, the only time a girl could leave the home was to fetch water for the family. Greek girls would spend a lot of their time going to the public fountain to get water, at least two to three times a day. Water was to be carried home for their family to drink, cook with, wash in, or do laundry. Richer women would send slaves, but women of lower classes went to the fountains themselves or would send their daughters.
People thought of these trips to the fountain as dangerous for women, who were often harassed or assaulted by strange men there. However, it was at these communal watering fountains that many women and girls would have the time to converse with other females as they waited to fill their respective jugs.
Some Roman girls or their slaves would also have fetched their water from public fountains, supplied by a huge network of aqueducts. Built of stone, brick, or concrete, aqueducts moved water using gravity – sloping along downward gradients from water sources to the cities, aided by bridges or pipes. By the third century CE, aqueducts were able to sustain populations of over a million, supplying public baths, latrines, fountains, and private households. Some of the aqueducts were so well built that they are still in use today.
Although Roman society did not allow girls to gain official political power, it did allow them to enter business. Rome was much more lenient than Greece when it came to the intermingling of the sexes, but only in the world of commerce and aiding the family financially. Unless a girl was born into a family of high social status or of great wealth, she would need to learn a trade or take on a career as a midwife or wet nurse.
Images of female merchants are plentiful all over the walls of Pompeii. According to 2nd century CE Roman writer Suetonius, the emperor Claudius introduced legislation in which women who owned ships of a large enough size and imported grain to the city for six years would gain privileges equal to those granted to a mother of four children. Additionally, a passage attributed to 3rd century CE Roman legal writer Ulpian states that either a man or a woman could employ a ship in business activities or be placed in charge of a ship. Interestingly, this included even young daughters or female slaves.
Within Roman society, it was considered respectable not to work at all, but this was only possible for freeborn, wealthy women. The same might have been true for Greek society. Though social ideals dictated girls stay in the home, archaeological evidence has shown that girls did work as garland-weavers, professional wool workers, and sex workers, among many other trades.
Two women help a fullery (cloth-making/dying) shopkeeper to hang laundry in the streets of Pompeii. Pompeii, 1st century CE. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.
The Curious Case of Agnodice
While most Roman and Greek girls had occupations in traditionally female roles, there are some accounts of girls taking on male professions. One such girl was Agnodice – who became a physician even though it was forbidden by Greek law! According to an account by Hyginus, a Latin author of the 1st century CE:
A certain maiden named Agnodice desired to learn medicine and since she desired to learn she cut her hair, donned the clothes of a man and became a student of Herophilos. After she learned medicine, she heard a woman crying out in the throes of labor so she went to her assistance. The woman, thinking she was a man, refused her help; but Agnodice lifted up her clothes and revealed herself to be a woman and was thus able to treat her patient. When the male doctors found that their service were not wanted by the women, they began to accuse Agnodice, saying that she had seduced the women and they accused the women of feigning illness [to get visits from Agnodice]. When she was brought before the law court, the men began to condemn Agnodice. Agnodice once again lifted her tunic to show that she was indeed a woman. The male doctors began to accuse her all the more vehemently [for breaking the law forbidding women to study medicine]. At this point the wives of the leading men arrived saying “you men are not spouses but enemies since you are condemning her who discovered health for us.” Then the Athenians emended the law so that freeborn women could study medicine.
Unfortunately, many scholars think Agnodice’s story is not true. Yet her tale does hide some bit of truth: up until the 5th century BCE, childbirth was the domain of female kin and neighbors who had themselves given birth. Some of these women became known for their skills and were given the title of maia, or “midwife.” This tradition lasted until the Hippocratic practices of the late 5th century BCE took over, and male doctors became more involved in girls’ bodies.
A large wall mosaic depicting a series of women participating in sports. The young women perform sports including weight-lifting, discus throwing, running, and ball-games. To the far left, a girl in a toga offers a crown and victor’s palm frond to the winner. Sicily, 4th Century CE. Piazza Armerina.
Originally interpreted by early archaeologists as a type of “beauty contest,” this mosaic is now believed to show girls competing in athletics. Whether these girls are real or representations of fortuna-figures (deities that governed the fortune and prosperity of a city and its destiny) is still debated, but the majority of scholars believe that the events represent female athletic competitions. Roman girls competed in women’s events at festivals, including running and chariot racing. Since the mosaic was found in the private quarters of the villa, that this could have been used as a gym.
Unlike Roman girls, Greek girls could not compete in the same athletic events as boys, such as the Olympic games. Instead, Greek girls competed in the Heraean games, held in honor of Hera, wife of Zeus. Second century Greek traveler Pausanias wrote that the games were organized by a committee of sixteen women from the city of Elis, took place every four years, and featured a new peplos presented to Hera inside her temple. Unmarried girls competed in the games and wore their hair free over tunics that covered only the left shoulder and breast. Married girls could not compete.
Evidence of girls’ athletics in both Greece and Rome is minimal. Among the many questions that remain is one that only a single object alludes to: Did Roman girls become gladiators? This relief held by The British Museum shows two women fighters, called “Amazon” and “Achilia,” who earned their freedom by giving a series of outstanding performances. Several contemporary eyewitness accounts also detail women performing as gladiators in the arenas, some even at night! However, by 200 CE, Emperor Severus banned women from competing – and no one knows why.
While girls in Greece and Rome fulfilled traditional gender roles, such as water-bearers, there is evidence that girls also occupied public spaces more than previously thought. Girls of lower classes were more likely to have careers, since they had to help support their families, but Roman girls could also become merchants who were accorded special rights in society. Additionally, Greek and Roman girls competed in athletics, though society dictated whether their sports were integrated into public festivals or separated into their own celebrations (like the Heraean games). Mysteries abound as to the true role girls played in the public sphere. Did Agnodice – and female doctors like her – really exist? Did female gladiators fight to the death in the arenas, even the Colosseum? Or were girls still more likely to reside at home, dreaming of such grand adventures?
Marble relief with female gladiators, c. 1 – 199 AD, Halicarnassus. The British Museum, London.
Classical Girls Bodies
In Classical society, women were seen as being completely different to men, even considered a different race. Aristotle went so far as to say that they were a different species and because of this, their societal roles were biologically defined. He is quoted as saying,
‘’as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.”
If men and women were so different, how did the Classical world view the female body? Join Lucy Bickley in our GirlSpeak podcast to discuss how the Hippocratic Corpus and writings by Aristotle give us insight into how important the female body was to Classical Greece and Rome.
There is a great deal of similarity between the Classical Greeks and Romans when it comes to their funerary practices in the classical period.
They both believed in “pollution,” which is the idea that death caused a religious disease that could affect those in the surrounding area. As a result, all cemeteries were placed outside of the city walls. An example is the Kerameikos Cemetery in Athens, which was in constant use from the 9th century BCE until the late Roman period.
The Greeks had three stages to their funeral procession, all of which were done by girls. The first was the prothesis: the laying out, washing, and anointing of the body. Once carried out, mourners could pay their respects. Next came the ekphora, which was a funeral procession to the cemetery that took place just before dawn. Finally, there was the cremation or burial of the body.
While similar, the Romans had 5 stages to their burials, which were also completed by girls. First was the procession, a noisy parade of mourners. Next came the cremation or burial of the body. If the deceased was important, they would have a eulogy at the gravesite, following which a family would have a feast. Finally came the commemoration, which remembered the deceased over several days.
The Greeks and Romans shared similar deities who were believed to control the underworld. The Greeks had Hades and Persephone, while the Romans worshiped Hades and Proserpina. Both pairs are commonly represented in imagery and poetry throughout cemeteries.
A “stele” was a large block commonly made from marble or stone, but there are also a few wooden examples. These were taller than they were wide, and usually held either official text or an image of importance. A stele with an image was particularly common in Classical cemeteries as it was used to mark the location of, and memorialize, a deceased loved one.
An example of a stele is the Marble Grave Stele of a Little Girl. It was found on Paros Island in Greece and dates to between 450-440 BCE. While it depicts a young girl, it is far more likely to have been the stele for her mother and father. Other examples of child burials in Paros were marked with small stone structures, or their bodies were placed in large marble vases.
The Ancient Cemetery of Paros was one of the most important cemeteries in the Cyclades and was in constant use for approximately 900 years, between the 8th century BCE and 3rd century CE. During the early period, the mortality rate of children was very high, so the majority of child burials were in vessels, due to the expense of a formal burial. Despite being in use for a large time period, the majority of the burial sites date to the latter half of the 7th century BCE. Much like the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens, the cemetery was kept separate from the town with a large brick wall in order to prevent “pollution.”
The best preserved example of a traditional Kore statue is the Phrasikleia Kore. This piece was created by sculptor Artiston of Paros and dates to 550-540 BCE, slightly before the Classical period. The Phrasikleia Kore was discovered in a tomb that had been converted into a church, in the ancient city of Myrrhinus in Attica (now more commonly known as Merenda). This statue was found separated from its base, which had been built into part of the church. Phrasikleia is wearing a full-length, sleeved, dress (called a chiton) and had a tall wreath decorated with flowers in her hair. There is an inscription on the base which reads, “Tomb of Phrasikleia, Kore I must be called, evermore, instead of marriage, by the Gods this name becomes my fate.” As a Kore, Phrasikleia was unmarried and would remain this way for the rest of eternity, as she pledged herself to the gods.
A lekythos was an Greek vessel that stored oils for celebrations or funerals. These vessels came in many different shapes and sizes, but would all have had handles and a narrow neck leading to a wider mouth. The decoration was usually found on the opposite side of the handle, painted in the traditional dull red or black technique. Lekythos depicted a variety of scenes including domestic life, loss and mourning, or the Chthonic deities.
This squat lekythos depicts a female goddess that is believed to be either Persephone or her mother, Demeter. The spiraled plant design hints that this is more likely a representation of Persephone and her yearly rise to the earth from the underworld realm. Persephone was believed to be the embodiment of the fertility of the harvest, with her fruit being the pomegranate, as it holds many seeds. Her yearly rise and fall from the earth was how the Greeks explained spring and winter and the effect this had on their harvest. While the overall paintwork on this lekythos is extremely dark, the detail can still be seen in a lighter colour and is almost perfectly intact.
This vessel contained a fragranced olive oil, which would either have been offered to the deceased or to the Chthonic deities during the funeral. Some of the lekythos from poorer families were fitted with a small hidden chamber in the neck of the vessel. When the jug was filled with the oil, a smaller amount was needed to give the impression of a full jug. As the oil was very expensive, poorer families had to give the illusion of a full offering without spending too much money.
Following the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE, Egypt fell under Roman control. While Roman Egypt and Rome were fairly similar, Egypt did retain some of its traditional values and customs. One of these was the continued use of Mummy Portraits, which flourished between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE. The body of the deceased was mummified in the traditional Egyptian method, and a painted image was then placed in the mummy wrappings. This differed from tradition, as Egypt had previously used death masks, such as that of the famous Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Mummy portraits were a blend of the Roman and Egyptian burial methods.
The Fayum Mummy Portraits are the largest surviving group of mummy portraits from the Classical period, with over 900 pieces found. They are so named because the majority were discovered in the Fayum Necropolis, a city found 100 kilometers southwest of Cairo. This particular female portrait is one of the most well-known of the collection. It dates to between 55 and 70 BCE, and like many of the others, is made from lime wood with wax paint.
While her identity is unknown, this girl was likely from a wealthier class as her portrait is made with higher quality paints. She is wearing multiple pieces of jewelry, showing she is a member of the Roman Egyptian elite. The use of gold in Egypt was associated with the Pharaoh and would have been largely reserved for depictions of the gods and the use of the ruling family. Similarly, while the Romans made jewelry easier to purchase through the introduction of colored glass instead of gemstones, it was still reserved for the higher classes.
Eumachia was a priestess of the Roman Imperial Cult in Pompeii during the middle of the 1st century CE. She was the Matron of the Concordia Augusta, a cult formed by Livia in honour of Livia’s husband, the deified emperor. Eumachia was also made a Matron of the Fullers, an economically powerful guild of cloth makers.
Eumachia obtained a large amount of wealth in her own right before marrying into one of the established families in Pompeii to raise her social status. Her life shows how a female outside of the imperial family could become involved in public affairs in the city. Her wealth and status in later life led to the construction of a large building next to the public forum, which is believed to have been used as the headquarters for the Fuller’s Guild and was dedicated to her son and the Concordia Augusta. In response to her generosity, she was awarded a statue.
Eumachia also used her wealth to fund a tomb for herself, rather than using public funds as other members of the wealthier classes did. The tomb is located outside the Nuceria Gate in Pompeii, and is regarded as the largest and most impressive tomb in the area. It has a complex floor plan that consists of many levels, a designated seating area, and a roof terrace. The decoration was an Amazonian frieze, which was used to signify her status as a strong and powerful Roman woman. Depicting the deceased in a mythological scene was a popular way of showing that they were not only cultured, but could also connect them to the attributes of a particular mythological character.
Roman sarcophagi were widely used throughout the Roman Empire from the 2nd century CE onward. They were typically made of marble, stone, lead or wood; marble was reserved for the higher social classes.
The Sarcophagus of a Young Girl depicts a young upper-class girl on her deathbed in the process of conclamatio, a traditional element of a Roman funeral where the deceased would be placed upon a couch, with the family calling out her name until the burial. The conclamatio was done to ensure that the deceased really had passed away and that the spirit was not lingering in the home.
This sarcophagus was found in the Lazio province of Rome and dates to between 200 and 220 CE. The 3rd century CE saw a rise in self-representation in the detailing of sarcophagi, whereas before they had shown daily routine. This sarcophagus is an example of a funerary scene, while many in this later period would have had the deceased in a mythological setting, to demonstrate that the family was well cultured. The garlands carved around the top were designed to resemble the garlands of fruit that were at her funeral, furthering personalizing the item.
As this is a particularly lavish example of a sarcophagus, despite being designed for a young girl, it is highly likely her family were of the upper Roman elite. Examples of sarcophagi from poorer families usually depict the profession of the deceased, or are kept impersonal as this was a less expensive option. We can see that the funeral procession for this young girl was large, and professional mourners were in attendance and surrounding her body.
These lavish objects all came from wealthier families, who could afford to memorialize their daughters in some way, either with a named statue or a special ceramic pot used to store ceremonial oil. The Tomb of Eumachia is a rare example of a woman commemorating her own passing. As both the Greek and Roman cultures believed men to be of a higher social status than women, it is rare for a female to have achieved as much recognition as we have seen in these examples.
Looking for Girls in the Classical World
by Jennifer Lee
Throughout this exhibition, you’ll see objects that belonged to and represented girls all over the classical world, from Greece to Britain. The Junior Girls on the exhibition team have chosen these items with care: each one tells a story about girlhood in the past. But how do we know what we know about girls’ lives in ancient Greece and Rome? What information are we missing, and how can we learn more about classical girlhood to fill in the gaps?
A lot of the evidence that tells us about the lives of girls in the classical world falls into two types: literary evidence from written texts like plays, poems, and histories, and archaeological evidence, which gives physical proof of how girls lived and died. These types of evidence are hugely useful to historians, but they both have limits and gaps. What we see in the archaeological record doesn’t always match up with what writers tell us about their world: history and archaeology can both get messy. It’s a good idea to use both when we think about the classical world, so that we can compare the stories that they tell us.
Nearly all surviving Greek and Roman writings are by men. We only have the work of a handful of female authors, but there must have been more whose work is now lost. This makes it difficult for us to know what girls and women thought, felt, and experienced. Male authors tended to write about the things that concerned them most, like war, politics, philosophy, and farming: all areas of classical life that didn’t involve adult women, let alone young girls. Women and girls were systematically excluded from the places where these important conversations happened: the agora, the assembly or Senate house, the military, and the symposion or drinking party. The audience that these authors wrote for was also largely male. Although some girls in Greece and Rome were literate (especially wealthy Roman women, who wrote and received letters) many probably weren’t – we know that, unlike boys, they didn’t go to school. So most ancient literature isn’t about or for girls, and therefore can’t tell us much about their lives.
The poet Erinna, who lived in Telos, Greece, around 350 BC, gives us a rare, first-hand glimpse of the lives of young girls. She wrote a long, heartfelt poem in memory of her friend Baucis, who died shortly after getting married. According to ancient sources, Erinna herself only lived to be nineteen years old – it’s clear she still remembered her girlhood vividly when she wrote this poem. One section recalls young Erinna and Baucis at play, playing a tag-like game called Tortoise and acting out stories with their dolls between helping out around the house:
“We clung to our dolls in our chambers when we were girls, playing
Young Wives, without a care.
And towards dawn your Mother,
who allotted wool to her attendant workwomen,
came and called you to help with the salted meat.”
Erinna’s poem was helpful as I wrote about household objects in this exhibition, inspiring me to think about young girls at play and work in their households, and Greek girls’ close relationships with their friends. It also gives us concrete details about the lives of these two young girls: they played with dolls together, and they were expected to help out in the kitchen, even at a very young age and very early in the morning.
Another female poet, Sappho, wrote movingly about the experiences of girls and young women. While the work of other authors has survived nearly complete, we only know Sappho’s work through scattered quotations and scraps of papyrus, so there are ‘holes’ in the text called lacunae, where words or lines are missing. One fragment reads,
“It’s no use
Mother dear, I
can’t finish my
soft as she is
she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy”
– [trans. Barnard]
Sappho’s depiction of a lovesick young girl, too distracted to do her household chores, always makes me smile, but we can be pretty sure that it’s part of a longer poem which hasn’t survived. Because we don’t have the whole work, we might be missing some important information about how girls felt, talked, and worked! There are a lot of frustrating gaps like these in the historical record.
Some male authors did write about girls, too, although never in as much detail as we’d like. The Roman writer Pliny wrote a letter about his friend’s daughter, Minicia Marcella, who had recently died. Pliny praises the girl for her good qualities, so his letter shows us the standard that Roman girls were held to at the time. Minicia is described as modest, affectionate, patient, studious (some evidence for Roman girls reading!), and agreeable. Her death is considered even sadder because she was engaged to be married. In the classical world, girls were judged not only on their own merits, but also on what they represented. Minicia was a beloved daughter and sister, but like other classical girls, she was a bargaining chip to be sold in marriage and create a bond between two families. In texts by male authors, girls are rarely just girls: they’re symbols and objects, too.
Inscriptions, or messages carved on tombs, memorials, or ritual offerings, are somewhere between archaeological and literary evidence: they are texts which survive as physical traces of girls’ lives. At times of transition and potential danger, like puberty, marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth, girls looked to goddesses for help and protection. When we read girls’ votive inscriptions, the notes they left when donating items to gods and especially goddesses, we seem to hear them speaking in their own voices. These notes are intensely personal, and so were the items that girls left at sanctuaries as offerings. One inscription reads:
“Timareta before her wedding dedicated her tambour and her lovely ball
And the hair-net that held her hair;
Her korai [dolls] too, a kore to a kore as is fitting,
And the clothing of the korae to Artemis of the Lake.
Daughter of Leto, do you place your hand over the girl Timareta
And in purity may you preserve her purity.” [AP 6.280]
Timareta, and other girls like her, left their prized childhood toys like dolls, balls, and tambours [drums], as well as their clothing, as gifts for the goddess Artemis. In Timareta’s case, leaving her belongings at the temple meant that she was no longer a kore, an unmarried maiden, but an adult woman. From reading this inscription, we can feel what a momentous occasion it must have been for her. But we can also feel her anxiety about this change in her life as she asks Artemis for her protection. Inscriptions like this give us a unique route into girls’ emotions, which are sometimes hard to read in other sources.
Inscriptions can also tell us about things and people that don’t get recorded by authors. One Roman inscription is dedicated to the memory of a nine-year-old girl named Viccentia, who worked as a gold-spinner (aurinetrix). It’s the only one of its kind; if we didn’t have this inscription, we wouldn’t even know that aurinetrix was a job title. We know that children who performed jobs like this did it because they were poor; often, they were slaves or their parents were former slaves, so we’re not likely to read about them in the Roman history books. Looking at inscriptions is useful because it gives us evidence for girls like Viccentia, who are ‘invisible’ or ignored by writers. (Evidence like this often raises more questions than it answers: what does a gold-spinner actually do? Your guess is as good as mine.)
Archaeological evidence can come from excavated sites like Troy, Brauron, and Pompeii, where archaeologists carefully note the relationship of each object to the space and items around it – we call this a context. Unfortunately, many Greek and Roman objects were removed from their original contexts or disturbed by accidents or theft, and we no longer know where they came from or how they got there. Sometimes, all we have to go on is the object itself. When this happens, we can look at the decoration for clues (this is useful for items like painted vases or carved sarcophagi) or compare it to similar objects to figure out how it was used and by whom.
In the past, archaeologists often excavated in hopes of finding evidence to confirm what they already ‘knew’. For example, Heinrich Schliemann was searching for the city of Troy to ‘prove’ the truth of the Iliad. Modern archaeologists don’t just start digging: they choose where to excavate based on what has already been found in an area and what is known about its history, But if our understanding of the ancient world is shaped by texts that are only concerned with men and their activities, we can miss clues to uncovering the world of girls and women.
Sometimes even experts lack the knowledge to make connections and inferences about daily life in the classical past. For a long time, scholars assumed that Roman girls held their hair in place with long, straight pins – in any case, (mostly) male historians weren’t particularly interested in figuring out Roman hairstyles. It took the experience and interest of Janet Stephens, a hairdresser by trade, to figure out that the complicated updos seen on Roman statues would have to be sewn in place. When Roman writers used the word acus to refer to a hairdresser’s tool, they weren’t referring to a pin, but a needle and thread. Stephens realised this and wrote a paper about it, which she published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. Of course, this would have been obvious to a Roman reader, but over time this knowledge had been lost. Most archaeologists and historians are specialists with deep knowledge of a few topics. To fully understand ancient hairdressing, scholars needed help from someone with relevant knowledge outside their field.
Another problem is the durability of many types of evidence. Some materials last longer and age better than others in archaeological conditions. For example, stone wears away slowly over time, but it lasts a lot longer than paper, cloth, and wood, which can all rot away in damp conditions. That’s good news if you study inscriptions or ancient architecture, but it won’t give us the whole picture. Because stone sarcophagi (coffins) and stelae (gravestones) survive, we have a lot of information about girls in death, but it’s harder to find physical evidence that we know for certain was left by living girls.
Ancient textiles were made of organic materials such as wool and linen, which rot and disappear quickly except in very rare conditions (namely deserts: most surviving classical textiles come from Egypt and the Middle East). This is not good news if you’re interested in girls’ lives, because many girls spent their time working on textiles, which have now vanished! Without this physical evidence, we’re missing a crucial piece of girls’ experience. We can use what we know about textile work from classical art, literature, and anthropological research to try to fill in the gaps and recreate classical conditions, trying out woolworking and weaving techniques to see if they give us insight into girls’ lives. This is called experimental archaeology, and it’s a great way to gain knowledge when archaeological evidence is missing.
Looking for girls in the classical world is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing: it’s difficult, but when we bring all the pieces together we can get a sense of the big picture, even if we don’t have all the details. Although archaeological and literary evidence aren’t perfect, they help us to imagine the lives of ancient girls when we use them together and separately. As more women have studied classics and archaeology and gender studies has become a discipline in its own right, we’ve learned more and more about girls’ lives in the past, and we can hope to learn even more in the future.
Five guidelines for finding girls in the classical world:
Look for female voices in literature and inscriptions. There aren’t many, but they were there, and they can help us understand how some girls felt and thought. Evaluate these on a case-by-case basis: who was the author? When, where, and how did she live? Whose experiences aren’t represented in this writing?
When you read about girls in other classical texts, read between the lines. How do these male authors think about girls? What do girls represent to them? Who would have read this text, and how does that change our understanding of it?
Ask for help! By inviting experts in other fields to share knowledge, you can deepen your own understanding and discover new connections. Everyone benefits when we are open and generous with our research and experience.
Look for what’s missing in the record. What evidence would you like to have? Why isn’t it available? Is there any way you can draw on other kinds of evidence to fill in the gaps?
Read and share the work of scholars who study women and girls. Recognise their work as important.
Real Classical Girls
Looking for more real girls who lived in Classical Greece and Rome? Use the arrows to navigate through our slideshow of awesome girls, or scroll down to hear the remarkable stories of an empress and a scholar.
Also known as Julia Augusta, Livia Drusilla was the wife and advisor of the Roman Emperor Augustus. They had no children together but stayed married for more than 50 years, until his death. She was perceived as a loyal Roman wife, running the household and caring for her family. But behind the scenes, Livia was essential to her husband’s rule. She was the de facto First Lady of the Roman Empire, and her family connections and wealth ensured that she was a powerful force in her own right. Livia outlived both of her husbands and saw her son from a previous marraige, Tiberius, become the new Roman Emperor. She died in 29 CE at age 86.
Eumachia from Pompeii
Eumachia was a public priestess in Pompeii in the first century CE. Eumachia inherited money from her father, Lucius, and was an independently wealthy woman. She used her wealth to fund the construction of a building next to the public forum in Pompeii. She was also a successful patron of the Fullers, an important clothing-related guild in Pompeii. The Fullers guild erected a statue in Eumachia’s honor as a way of thanking her for her support. Classical historians say that she was seen as an example of how a Roman woman of non-imperial descent can exert influence in public affairs and politics. She died when the city was buried in 79 CE following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Aspasia of Hipparchia
Aspasia was a female philosopher born in 470 BCE in the Greek city of Miletus, now in modern day Turkey. In 450 BCE, when she was 20 years old, she moved to Athens, where she would spend the rest of her life. In Athens, it is thought that Aspasia became a hetaera, or courtesan, to upperclass men. Women who were hetaerae had more independence than the average Greek women. Being a foreigner and a hetaera, Aspasia was able to participate in public life in Athens. According to Greek philosopher Plutarch, Athenians used to bring their wives to Aspasia’s house to listen to her speak. Her house was considered one of the intellectual centers of the city. Historians believe she died around 401-400 BCE.
Cleopatra was the last ruler of Egypt before the country was absorbed into the Roman Empire. She ruled Egypt with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, and then with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. She faced many challenges from her brothers, who wanted to force her out of Egypt and consolidate their own power. In 47 BCE, she began a relationship with Julius Caesar in hopes of solidifying her grip on Egypt. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra began a relationship with Roman general Mark Antony, and had three children with him. She died in 30 BCE shortly after Antony. With her death, the Ptolemaic dynasty came to an end and Egypt fell into Roman control.
Sappho was a Greek poet who lived from 630 to 570 BCE. She wrote poetry about love and women, most of which is lost today. Little is known about her life, although it is known that Sappho was from a wealthy family in Lesbos. She was exiled to Sicily around 600 BCE, most likely for political reasons. Sappho was popularly portrayed in classical Athenian comedy as a promiscuous, heterosexual woman, but modern scholars continue to debate her sexuality. Sappho and her poetry regained prominence in the Renaissance period, starting in the 16th century CE. Her work has influenced other modern day writers, and fragments of poems written by Sappho have been discovered as recently as 2014.
Phryne was an Ancient Greek courtesan, or hetaera. She was born around 371 BCE and spent most of her life in Athens. She was extremely beautiful and used to model for a number of Greek painters and sculptors. Greek author Athenaeus wrote about her in his book Deipnosophistae, stating that she used to cover herself with a long tunic most of the time, but on an important feast day, she shed all of her garments and went to bathe in the sea. Sculptors used Phryne as a model for various artistic portrayals of Aphrodite. Athenaeus also recorded that Phryne was one of the richest, self-made women of the time. She was the target of a famous trial for impiety. During the trial, Phryne’s clothes were torn and the judges were so stunned by her Aphrodite-like beauty that they ruled in her favor. Historians think she died around 315 BCE.
The Mystery of Empress Lucilla
Lucilla was born in March CE 148 or CE 150 as the second daughter of Marcus Aurelius – later emperor of Rome – and his wife Faustina. Her younger brother Commodus became emperor after the death of his father in CE 180.
As part of a political allegiance, Marcus Aurelius married his daughter to his co-emperor Lucius Verus in CE 164. Lucius Verus was her father’s adoptive brother and eighteen years older than his new bride. When she married Lucius Verus, she became empress and automatically received the title of Augusta. She was very proud of the title and behaved accordingly, enjoying time in the capital but also going with her husband on military campaigns. The couple had at least three children, one daughter and two sons.
Lucius Verus died in CE 168/169, and Lucilla lost her status as empress. She also lost some of her influence, which did not sit well with her. Because she was the emperor’s daughter, she didn’t stay a widow for long. Her father married her to Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus, even though both Lucilla and her mother disagreed with his choice. Quintianus was a successful politician from Syria, and a couple of years older than Lucilla. Despite her objection to her new husband, she gave birth to a son in CE 170, whom she named Pompeianus.
Lucilla is best known for her participation in the conspiracy against her brother. The conspiracy came up quite early in the reign of Commodus, between CE 181-182. Also unclear is the role she played in the plot: whether she was the mastermind behind it all or an informed accessory. Other conspirators were Tarrutenius Paternus, the head of the praetorian guard (the emperor’s bodyguards); her alleged lover, Quadratus; and a nephew of her husband, Quintianus.
The assassination was well planned and was supposed to happen during games, probably in the winter of CE 181. Commodus was on his way into the arena when Quintianus jumped out from his hiding spot, lifted a dagger, and screamed: “This is what the senate sends you!” But before anything could happen to the emperor, Quintianus was overwhelmed by Commodus’s bodyguards and killed.
Why would Lucilla want to kill her brother? We’re not sure. Some think she wanted to become emperor, even though a woman on the throne of Rome was unthinkable – a fact she must have known, no matter how much she wanted to be empress. Another reason might be that she didn’t think her brother was capable of ruling the imperium and that someone else would do a better job. She might have even wanted to ensure one of her sons took the throne.
Participating in the murder of her brother because she wanted to see her own son on the throne of the empire seems the most logical answer. She would have been able to pull the strings from the background, becoming Augusta again as the mother of the emperor. She would rise again, reclaiming her power as empress and playing a role behind the scenes. Unfortunately for Lucilla, she was caught. In an investigation by Commodus, he found that she had played some role in the plot and exiled her to Capri. Lucilla was later found murdered – a crime that remains unsolved to this day.
Marble portrait bust of Lucilla, daughter of Marcus Aurelius and wife of Lucius Verus, c. 165-166 CE, Rome. The British Museum, London.
Hypatia was a Greek scholar in Egypt. She was born between 350 and 370 CE and her father, Theon, was a professor at the University of Alexandria. She was one of the first women to study and teach mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy at the University. There are few primary sources about her life, so we must use what we know about girls in the Roman Empire to figure out how Hypatia’s childhood might have influenced her.
From an early age, Classical Greek and Roman girls learned how to manage a household, in order to prepare for marriage. For some, that was the extent of their education. Yet, hundreds of years later, Hypatia was well educated in subjects that had been reserved for boys. Theon raised Hypatia without traditional gender roles of the time and sought to cultivate her mind, raising her like he would if she had been a boy. Theon taught Hypatia mathematics and astronomy, and she worked with her father on many of his commentaries. Some of Theon’s work could be credited to Hypatia due to her contributions.
Hypatia was very much in charge of her own life. She never married, although she is said to have turned down many proposals. Instead, Hypatia focused on her career as a teacher at the University of Alexandria. In addition to Hypatia’s teaching duties, she would also give public lectures in the city center, speaking about Plato and Aristotle to anyone who would listen. Like most women of the time period, Hypatia didn’t leave any written records of her work. The records that she did keep were probably destroyed. However, some of her students did keep records in the form of letters and other documents. From these, we know what Hypatia taught and where she was, but we can only speculate on whether her life was similar to other women of her time.
During Hypatia’s life, the city of Alexandria was undergoing various political and social struggles. By the late 300s, Christians came to view science and learning on the same level as paganism, leading to fighting between the Jews, Christians, and pagans. As a result, much of the Library of Alexandria was destroyed by the year 391 CE.
Hypatia had many fans, including the governor of Alexandria, Orestes. Her links to him became the catalyst for her death in 415. In 412, an archbishop, Cyril, became the head of the main religious body of Alexandria. There was an immediate power struggle between Cyril and Orestes, who was in charge of the civil government. Orestes didn’t want to cede power to the church. Cyril tried to have Orestes assassinated but was unsuccessful.
Cyril switched tactics and began to target Hypatia, knowing that she was friendly with Orestes. He had Christian priests write accounts of her that stated Hypatia was a pagan devoted to magic who tricked men with her Satanic wiles. A rumor spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from resolving their conflict, using her Satanic wiles to keep Orestes from attending church. While returning home one night, Hypatia was set upon and killed by an angry mob.
Decades later, Hypatia’s memory lived on. In various accounts, including those by Socrates Scholasticus (writing between Hypatia’s death in 415 CE and 450 CE), Hypatia is described as virtuous, intelligent, skillful, and eloquent. She was accomplished in literature and science, at ease in talking to magistrates or assemblies of men, and respected by her male colleagues. From what we know, Hypatia’s life was remarkable, as evidenced not only by her lasting well into the accounts of those who lived after her – but in how we remember her today.
Reflections on Classical Girls
Flavia. Chilonis. Sappho. Hypatia. Lucilla. The names go on and on, conjuring images of girls in Classical Greece and Rome. In this exhibition, we have explored parts of their lives – including their homes, professions, religions, and deaths. We have seen how girls played, how their bodies were used as a means of social control, and the real-life accounts of their achievements. Yet again, our exhibition reveals that girls lives in the Classical world are far more complex than we imagined, that they held power in distinctive ways, and that their ideas and actions influenced the world around them. As new archaeological and literary evidence is found, our perceptions will continue to expand – revealing the surprising history and culture that girls possessed, and how that culture shaped our world today. Thank you for viewing Classical Girls.
This exhibition was produced by Devon Allen, Lucy Bickley, Sage Daugherty, Jennifer Lee, Sarah Jackson, Izzy Playle, Tiffany Rhoades, Michalina Szymanska, Stefanie Ulrich, Brittany Wade, and Katie Weidmann. Exhibit logo and banner created by Nicky Lacourse.
- Stung With Love: Poems and Fragments of Sappho. Trans. Aaron Poochigan, Penguin Classics.
- The Roman Mysteries series by Caroline Lawrence follows the adventures of Flavia Gemina, a first-century Roman girl, and her companions Nubia, Jonathan, and Lupus.
- Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, by Joan Breton Connelly.
- I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome, by Diana E. E. Kleiner and Susan B. Matheson.
Shows / Movies / Documentaries
- Janet Stephens, hairdresser and experimental archaeologist, recreates classical hairstyles on Youtube.
- TED-ED videos on Classical girls:
- Agora is a semi-fictionalised feature film about Hypatia, starring Rachel Weisz.
- “Games for Girls”, on girls’ participation in athletic competitions. Thomas Scanlon, Archaeology.
- Who were the Vestal Virgins?
- Help archaeologists investigate four graves in Roman Britain, including that of six-year-old Savariana, at Romans Revealed.
- The Votives Project https://thevotivesproject.org/
Exhibitions / Museums
- The Archaeology of Daily Life collection at the Johns Hopkins Museum of Archaeology features many objects that Greek and Roman girls would have owned and played with, including children’s toys, jewelry, and figurines.
- The Field Museum in Chicago displayed “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” from November 2015 to April 2016. Select objects from the exhibit regarding girls and women can be found on this website.
- The Walters’ collection of Ancient Greek art, from the Cycladic to the Hellenistic periods, can be viewed online here.
- The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan has several virtual exhibits: