Xenophon: The Role of the Athenian Wife

In this excerpt from Xenophon's Oeconomicus (Household Management), Ischomachus tells Socrates how he began to train his fifteen-year-old bride. His views reflect conventional Athenian wisdom. Xenophon lived 444-357 BCE.

Well Socrates as soon as I had tamed her and she was relaxed enough to talk, I asked her the following question "Tell me, my dear," said I, "do you understand why I married you and why your parents gave you to me? You know as well as I do that neither of us would have had trouble finding someone else to share our beds. But after thinking about it carefully, it was you I chose and me your parents chose as the best partners we could find for our home and children. Now if God sends us children, we shall think about how best to raise them, for we share an interest in securing the best allies and support for our old age."

My wife answered, "But how can I help? What am I capable of doing? It is on you that everything depends. My duty, my mother said, is to be well ."

"Oh, by Zeus," said I, "my father said the same to me. But the best behavior in a man and woman is that which will keep up their property and increase it as far as may be done by honest and legal means...."

"It seems to me that God adapted women's nature to indoor and man's to outdoor work.... As Nature has entrusted woman with guarding the household supplies, and a timid nature is no disadvantage in such a job, it has endowed women with more fear than man. It is more proper for a woman to stay in the house than out of doors and less so for a man to be indoors instead of out.... You must stay indoors and send out the servants whose work is outside and supervise those who work indoors, receive what is brought in, give out what is to be spent, plan ahead for what is to be stored and ensure that provisions for a year are not used up in a month.... Many of your duties will give you pleasure for instance, if you teach spinning and weaving to a slave who did not know how to do this when you got her, you double your usefulness to yourself."

Xenophon. "Oeconomicus." In Julia O'Faolain and Lauro Martines, Not in God's Image. Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians. London: Temple Smith, 1973.