Ancient mtDNA sheds some light on gender roles in Ancient Greece

Historians have for a long time thought ancient women of Greece were treated as property. That’s because most of the written Grecian record came from Athens and wrote of women as inferior creatures, scarcely more intelligent than children. The little bit we know about the other Greek states was more often than not written by an Athenian.

Since much of the Western modern culture has been based off of Greek culture and social structure, it is with little doubt that some influence of modern gender roles has been inherited from Athenian lifestyle. Other cultures of the time had much different gender roles. Recent research, coming from the University of Manchester, on the founders of Mycenae, Europe’s first great city-state and capital of King Agamemnon’s domains now indicates that Ancient Grecian women were, in fact, major power brokers.

Research has continued the work of Heinrich Schliemann, the man who claimed he found the graves of Agamemnon, Eurymedon, and their companions, all killed by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos at modern day Hisarlik, Turkey…. just like the myth says. You may recognize this artifact, which Schliemann said was the death mask of Agamemnon. We now know the graves are much older than when the myth says Agamemnon alive, but they are opulent graves, clearly that of important people.

Recently, Terry Brown has gotten his hands on some of the remains. He was able to extract mtDNA from 22 of the 35 bodies found in the grave circle. Only four samples produced enough mtDNA to fully analyze. Since mtDNA is inherited from the mother, it is possible to associate some rudimentary ancestry, i.e. who is related to who. Two of the males in the sample were unrelated. But the remaining pair, the remains of a male and female, revealed they were siblings.

The two were thought to have been married. And it was also thought, by archaeologists, that the only reason this woman was buried in a richly endowed grave was because she was the wife of a powerful man. That was in keeping with previous ideas about Ancient Greece – that women had little power and could only exert influence through their husbands. Brown interprets this finding as an example of women in Ancient Greece holding positions of power by right of birth. Brown comments,

“The problem has been that up until recently our interpretation of life in Ancient Greece has been the work of a previous generations of archaeologists, then a male-oriented profession and who interpreted their findings in a male-oriented way. That is changing now and women in Ancient Greece are being seen in a new light.”

3 thoughts on “Ancient mtDNA sheds some light on gender roles in Ancient Greece

  1. Well, they were related anyhow. This isn’t much of a proof of anything, IMO.

    Said that it’s possible that in different areas women had more rights. Think of Sapho of Lesbos, for instance (though she had to go to exile anyhow). Or Hypparchia the Cynic; she obviously made her own choice of lifestyle and husband in spite of her father’s opposition. But both cases are peripherical Greeks (Hipparchia was from Maroneia, a colony in Thrace), where maybe local customs weighted somewhat.

    You see the same with Romans (who thought pretty badly of the liberal egalitarian customs of their Etruscan neighbours) and Germanics: women had little power in most Indoeuropean cultures, though among Celts and Illyrians you do find some notable exceptions clearly.

    Among Greeks, apart from the examples above and surely some other exception I may have forgotten about, you find no notable women – and certainly no queen nor political leader like among British Celts or Illyrians.

  2. I think that Brown’s perspective is interesting in that it raises awareness that interpretations of findings and studies are not necessarily objective, i.e. they may be skewed in light of the attributes of those examining them.

Comments are closed.

A Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: