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Women’s Work in the Greco-Roman World

Jean-Francois Millet

In the Greco-Roman world, a woman’s character and social reputation were based on the management of her household. Yet women were not isolated at home, for the house was a center of production, and was often located above the family’s shop or close to their fields. The labor of slave women contributed much to the economy. Hard physical labor was the norm for most men and women, who worked to provide the necessities of food and shelter, with little time or money left over for leisure activities. Overall, women’s work was highly valued because it contributed to the survival of the household.

Wealthy women often held prominent social positions and were educated to read and write and learn philosophy, a discipline that focused on the meaning of life and how to live well. Women were not expected to speak publicly as orators or government officials, nor did they serve in the military. Nevertheless, women might have extensive political and social influence based on their wealth or family connections. For example, Eumachia, a first century C.E. citizen of Pompeii, was patron to the fullers’ guild (cleaners and clothes makers); they honored her with a statue and inscription that reads, “To Eumachia, daughter of Lucius, public priestess, the fullers [dedicated this statue]” (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005, p. 159). Some women owned expensive property and rented prime real estate. Others bought and sold, and could be responsible for large sums of money as they traded in fish sauce or slaves, for example.

Poor women worked in agriculture by farming family plots and shepherding flocks. Mothers took care of lands and children while their husbands were in military service or traveling on business. Some women managed estates. For example, in the second century C.E., Ptolema writes to her brother Antas concerning an estate, “All the fields are in good condition…We have sold the grass in our allotments for 112 drachmas…Grass is selling very cheap” (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005, p. 204). Unmarried women competed as athletes, while a few others fought as gladiators, facing other women or male dwarfs in the arena.

Wives worked side by side in family businesses with their husbands, as exemplified by the tentmakers Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:1-3), and by a funerary inscription honoring a husband and wife blacksmithing team (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 9398). Female shopkeepers sold vegetables or poultry, for instance. Women worked in the clothing and cloth-making industries, weaving and tailoring, as well as the dyeing industry, where they might dye cloth or manage business, as Lydia did (Acts 16:14).

Following the model of the sixth century B.C.E. poet Sappho, a few women were well-known artists and poets whose paintings and poems garnered a high price. In the first century B.C.E., Sulpicia wrote love elegies using the pseudonym “Cerinthus” for her lover. The wife and daughter of scholars, Pamphila of Epidaurus in the second century C.E. wrote thirty-three books on historical materials, which are together entitled Hypomnenata Historika (Fantham 1994, p.368).

Women alone held two essential, respectable occupations: wet nurse and midwife. While most poor women breastfed their own babies, those with any extra means would contract a wet nurse, or buy a slave wet nurse. Wet nurse contracts extended for about eighteen months; the wet nurse lived in her home with the baby, and the baby’s family visited several times a month to check on the infant. A midwife might be trained in the medical knowledge of the day, and would have experience with herbal treatments. She might be a wealthy family’s slave, or a freedwoman who would be well paid for her services. Men, including physicians, were not present during labor and delivery. The most famous biblical midwives are Shiphrah and Puah, who helped deliver Moses in defiance of Pharaoh’s orders that they kill all male Hebrew babies (Exod 1:15-22).

  • Lynn H. Cohick

    Lynn H. Cohick is Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. She studies Jews and Christians in the settings of Hellenism and the Roman Empire, as well as women in the ancient world. Her publications include Philippians in The Story of God Commentary (Zondervan, 2013); Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic, 2009).