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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies What is This? Reflects the diverse and interdisciplinary nature of the field and traces both historical and modern conceptions of gender and sexuality in the Bible.”



    Ancient Near East

    This article is organized into four sections: cuneiform evidence for ancient Near Eastern economic activities; issues in reconstructing Mesopotamian economies; gendered dimensions of ancient Near Eastern economies; and a final assessment.

    The Economic Archives Written on Cuneiform Tablets.

    Because cuneiform writing was first created to track the economic activities of large temple households and because its medium was mostly indestructible clay, the written evidence from Mesopotamia is huge: vast records document the economic proceedings of temples, palaces, and private households. The administration of the temple complexes of Uruk in southern Babylonia, for example, covers about three thousand years, spanning the complete Mesopotamian civilization from the origins of cuneiform writing around 3100 B.C.E. until its last upsurge under the Seleucid rulers, albeit with a few interruptions.

    Temple and palace archives.

    Temple and palace archives from other cities cover a much shorter period, usually within a single millennium. These institutional files track the management of temple and palace assets, such as agricultural land, natural resources, traded and manufactured commodities, and labor. The bureaucrats attached to these households developed an intricate system of lists enumerating such details as laborers, deliveries, and expenditures; balanced accounts; labels attached to containers; and sealed tablets recording transfers of commodities with individuals outside of the household. From the second millennium onward, these dealings with outsiders sometimes take the form of bilateral contracts transacted with entrepreneurs who executed a part of the institution’s activities—such as tax farming or retail sale of surpluses—in return for silver. Besides the management of household assets, also recorded are the economic aspects of cultic and political obligations, such as the expenditures on the occasion of a religious festival or an official visit of the king.

    Private archives.

    Private economic activities are recorded on a significant scale only from the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. onward. Around 1900 B.C.E., urban residents discovered the advantages of a written archive. These archives consist mainly of bilateral contracts; administrative accounts occur only in the largest private archives, when the size of the business activities exceeded the capacities of a single manager. Two types of contracts occur in these files: title deeds and obligations. The title deeds establish the ownership of family properties such as real estate, slaves, prebends, and occasionally furniture and silver. They take the form not only of purchase contracts, exchange documents, bequests, and inheritances but also of marriage and adoption contracts in which the person entering a new household brought his or her own possessions in the form of a dowry or a legacy. Title deeds were transferred together with the property to which they pertain, and the resulting “chains of transmission” may have been kept in the family archive over several generations. These title deeds allow an estimation of the economic resources of a family.

    On the other hand, obligations—such as loans, rentals, and leases, which were kept by the party to whom the commodity was due—were destroyed as soon as they were fulfilled. This part of the archive reflects the current affairs of the archive holder and the manner in which he exploited his assets. In times of economic hardship, archives accumulate obligations that cannot be repaid. When obligation default occurs on a large scale, Mesopotamian kings occasionally intervened by cancelling all debts of a noncommercial nature and all the transactions resulting from such debts (such as sales of real estate or family members as a compensation of the commodity owed) to restore economic stability.

    Unfortunately, legal and administrative documents are extremely concise and their interpretation requires significant background knowledge about the participants and the context of the transaction. Only those aspects of a transaction that were legally vital (the identification of the participants, the description of the object transferred or owed along with its value, and the future obligations attached to the transfer) or exceptional (such as an unusual interest clause or bigamy in marriage contracts) are described in a comprehensive way. The reasons for the conclusion of a contract and the exact relation between the different parties can only rarely be reconstructed on the basis of contextual evidence.

    Occasionally, the archives contain letters between business partners, and these may provide more elaborate descriptions of the proceedings. The archives of merchant families organizing the trade between Aššur and Anatolia during the nineteenth century B.C.E., found in Karum Kaneš, consist mainly of business correspondence of that type. During the first millennium B.C.E., these practices culminate in large archives documenting the activities of family firms such as the Murašûs and the Egibis. The introduction of “family names” besides the patronymic to identify participants in the contracts reinforces the economic power of the leading urban families.

    In contrast to the abundant hands-on documentation, the Mesopotamian civilization has left us no theoretical or contemplative economic treatises. The price settings in codices and astronomical diaries and the prospects of the growth of cattle herds bring us as close as we can get to the abstraction of the ancient Mesopotamian economic reality. Moreover, the sources are not spread evenly over time, space and, more importantly, social environment. They originate mainly from cities, towns, or administrative centers. Small villages and rural settlements are investigated only rarely because they are difficult to locate in the alluvial plain and do not yield much written documentation since their smaller-scale context does not require a comprehensive administration. In a parallel manner, lower classes are documented only from the perspective of the institutional households and the upper layers of the society as dependents—i.e., workforce or debtors. Women as well are particularly underrepresented in the written documentation, as discussed in the text that follows. Thus, the archives provide us with only peepholes into some of the households that constitute the complex and constantly changing urban society of Mesopotamia.

    The Reconstruction of the Near Eastern Economy.

    Prior to discussion of the role of gender, the next paragraphs provide an overview of the major characteristics of the Mesopotamian economy.

    An economy of “households.”

    The extremely detailed but fragmentary source material has hampered the mapping of a comprehensive picture of the society and the economy of Mesopotamia. For a long time, the archives of institutional households and of wealthy town dwellers have distorted our view at the expense of the less documented parts of the economy. As a result of this bias, the third millennium has long been characterized as a society in which all the economic means of production were in the hands of the temple or the palace. The private archives that appear at the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. have been considered as a sudden and complete change. A closer look at the cuneiform documentary sources, however, shows that the changes do not have to be situated in the society and its economy but instead may reflect innovations in record keeping, in which different types of households are increasingly integrated within different political constellations.

    At the end of the third millennium B.C.E., the so-called Ur III dynasty (2100–2004 B.C.E.) kept an extremely detailed administration of households and tried to exercise direct authority over the temple and other households. During the subsequent Old Babylonian period (2004–1595 B.C.E.), administration was left to the individual households of the temples and the local governmental institutions, and the central authorities appropriated part of the revenues of the local households through middlemen. This latter policy proved to be more effective and became the more common way of incorporating the local households into the state administration during the first millennium. Also, the administration of these second and first millennium institutional households was less extensive than that of the Ur III state and does not display an exhaustive documentary coverage.

    An integrated picture.

    In the course of its three millennia of existence, Mesopotamian society witnessed increasingly successful attempts toward political unification, but the cities along with their attendant temples remained the pulse of the country. In Babylonia, the alluvial plain can sustain sizable urban populations through irrigation agriculture and through livestock breeding, whereas in the more arid regions of Assyria cities must rely on trade (and on alternatives like levying taxes and undertaking military campaigns) to provide for their populations. The resulting political configurations in Babylonia and Assyria did not significantly alter the organization of the family households and the temple households, the two cornerstones of the Mesopotamian cities. With varying success, the political structures attempted to incorporate the households into their state structures to access their resources (such as labor, land, silver, and authority over groups of the population). A key tactic for doing so was an increasing integration of the different segments of the society. Several members of established families were involved in the cults in their respective cities through (fractions of) prebendary offices. Although these offices could be alienated and divided in fractions expressed in terms of a year (in the first millennium B.C.E. they could comprise only a fraction of a day per year), they preferably were sold or transferred to members of the same family. Only during the Neo-Babylonian period were parties in a contract identified with their family name alongside their patronymic. For the earlier periods, identifications depend on the family lineages, which can be reconstructed from archival documentation but that remain fragmentary.

    Through an elaborate system of middlemen, many of these families were also involved in the management of palace assets. Over time, these activities become part of their family estate, together with their landed property and other assets. The members of the urban middle class may thus have been engaged in managing their own landed properties (fields, gardens, built property), investing their surpluses by issuing credit, and engaging in trade, while also participating in operations involving palace assets and executing temple duties in return for a share in the offerings, a salary, the yields of the fields attached to the temple office, and the social privileges associated with the system (Waerzeggers, 2010, pp. 301–326).

    The family estate was transferred to the next generation through a system of male partitive inheritance. Daughters received smaller shares of the movables as a dowry when they married. Pieces of the family estate could be sold, exchanged, or bequeathed. The number of preserved title deeds gives the impression of intensive speculation in the real estate and prebend market, but many of these transactions took place between members of the same family, for example, to reorganize one’s share after the division of the paternal estate. In many periods or regions of Mesopotamian history, a hesitation toward and (partial) restriction of the alienation of real estate or temple offices can be observed.

    The processes of integration of the local households by temples and rulers can be observed in the cuneiform record by reconstructing the careers and responsibilities of household managers. Especially in the Neo-Babylonian period, the political interference in the temples and their hierarchy becomes apparent (e.g., Waerzeggers, 2010, pp. 53–54, 327–353). Loans were a useful tool to regulate the interaction between the different households.

    In these early urban societies, labor was one of the most valuable assets. Institutional households could obtain a labor force through a system of corvee workers, via dependents who would receive rations—a system that is well attested during the third millennium B.C.E.—and via laborers who were hired during peak periods such as harvest time (Jursa, 2010, pp. 660–728). Deportations in the context of military campaigns, through which large groups of people were resettled far away, also constitute a factor in the state of affairs. Slaves were not employed on a large scale (as in the Roman world) but were one of the assets in the family holdings (cf. Jursa, 2010, pp. 232–240). People could be turned into slaves when they or their parents were unable to repay their debts or when they were captured as prisoners of war. Well-to-do families often owned at least one or two chattel slaves, as can be seen when the family estate is inventoried on the occasion of a division of an inheritance or the bequest of a dowry. Occasionally, slave women could be employed outside the house as tavern keepers. In Mesopotamian literature as well, a female tavern keeper plays a role in the character of Siduri in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

    The problem of the theoretical framework.

    The source material is not the only hurdle to be cleared when discussing the Mesopotamian economy. The theoretical framework that—often unconsciously—underlies the analysis also needs to be clarified. Different approaches, inspired by Marxism, substantivism (introduced in the study of the ancient Near East by Polanyi), and modernism identify very different principles underlying the activities—for example, price setting through market mechanisms and profit seeking versus redistribution and reciprocity. Today, it is generally accepted that the Mesopotamian economy was fundamentally different from the present-day system, both in scale and in principles, and that ancient as well as modern systems are embedded in their own social and economic contexts; moreover, terminology used to describe ancient economies is borrowed from modern economic theory and therefore may unintentionally impute more capitalistic features than intended by the ancient author. The economy of any society contains elements of all the different “ideal types” discussed by economic historians: reciprocity and redistribution as well as market mechanisms and maximization of profit are present in ancient economies as well as in modern ones, but their relative importance differs significantly and cannot be assessed for the ancient societies.

    The Respective Positions of Men and Women in Different Levels of the Economy.

    In the complex economic reality of the ancient world, men and women played very different roles. As can be expected, men are much more prominent in the documentation. Only in the case of slaves, who appear as the objects of title deeds rather than as active participants, is gender more in balance. This bias reflects the traditional roles of the different sexes in the Mesopotamian patrilinear society: men generally occupied the position of heads of the households, inherited the productive components of the family estate, and performed most of the outdoor activities, whereas women fulfilled tasks within the constraints of the house(hold). These latter, “female,” activities are rarely put in writing. This is the case in private as well as in institutional households, as illustrated in the following paragraphs. Since 2012, some case studies on the economic activities of women in Mesopotamia are presented on the website refema.hypotheses.org, coordinated by Francis Joannès, Fumi Karahashi, Bertrand Lafont, and Yoko Wataï.

    Moreover, the archival documents not only mostly concern men but are also mostly written by men. Only a small number of documents, all dating to the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1900–1600 B.C.E.), are explicitly written by female scribes: namely, some of the legal documents belonging to the archives of the nadītum priestesses from Sippar and four school exercises (cf. Lion, 2011). Apart from these attestations, female scribes occur in lists of personnel from the palaces of Mari, Nineveh, and Kalhu. Apparently, female scribes could exercise their profession in a nearly exclusively female environment, although the largest part of the archives of the nadītum priestesses, queens, and princesses were still written by male scribes.

    The royal family.

    All Mesopotamian kingdoms were headed by a male ruler, who was succeeded by his son or his brother or thrown off his throne by a male usurper. In the economic sphere, these kings acted as heads of their royal households, with the help of a hierarchy of administrators. The rulers or their delegates received portions in the redistribution system of local (temple) households, and they occasionally regulated the economics of their country by proclaiming a debt cancellation.

    When, rarely, the king’s mother or wife was able to acquire an influential position, like Sammu-ramat, mother of Adad-narari III of Assyria (823–811 B.C.E.), she was not able to establish a permanent economic role. However, some female members of the royal family were the heads of temple households. The best-documented example is the administrative archive of the household of the goddess Bau, governed by the queen of Lagaš. From the second half of the third millennium onward, female members of the royal family were often installed as high priestesses of esteemed temples located in religious centers outside the royal capital. The extent of the queen’s or princess’s actual clout in the economic management, however, remains unknown. These households may well have been “female” in name only, since the other priests and officials of these temples were all men.

    Administrative offices.

    On the other hand, the lists of personnel of the women’s quarters in the palaces (Mari, ca. 1800 B.C.E., and Nineveh and Kalhu, seventh century B.C.E.) include several female scribes besides a majority of male administrators. Thus, only the female segments of the institutional households have female personnel on all the levels of management. When women occur in lists of redistributional expenditures in the institutional archives, they apparently represent households of a female disposition.

    The clergy.

    Besides the—often royal—high priestesses of some important temples whose economic independence cannot be assessed, the important and economically relevant temple offices were held by male priests. When a woman did acquire a prebendary office by virtue of being a widow or sole heir, she was required to secure a male to execute the office by adopting a person or transferring the office to her sons. During the largest part of the first millennium B.C.E., women could own prebendary offices but could not buy them; they could acquire prebends only when they were a sole heir or a widow without children. This practice changes toward the Seleucid period, when women are allowed to buy prebends (Waerzeggers, 2010, pp. 49–51, 92–97).

    A large amount of archival records has survived from the beginning of the first half of the second millennium B.C.E. documenting the activities of nadītum priestesses, women who vowed their lives to a god and lived celibate (or chaste married) lives. On their ordination, these women received a bequest including landed properties instead of the traditional dowry, which included only movables. This endowment theoretically allowed them to provide for themselves. Still, it remains difficult to estimate the actual independence of these women, since the nadītum’s brothers seem to be responsible for the actual management of their assets and give their nadītum sister a yearly allowance.

    The families in the cities in the urban families.

    Social constraints, crystallized in marriage and inheritance traditions, determined the options for men and women in the management of the family estate. Whereas women received a share of the movable properties (including slaves) as a dowry when they left their paternal house on marriage, all the sons of a family inherited an equal share in the estate, landed properties, and prebends as well as movables. With these productive assets, men could establish themselves as heads of their own nuclear households. Besides the contracts from the family archives, the Code of Hammurabi provides invaluable information concerning the position of and the relation between the two sexes in the family households and more specifically about the ownership of the different parts of the family estate.

    In the Neo-Babylonian period women occasionally invested parts of their dowry by lending small sums of silver (Jursa, 2010, pp. 244–245). Most contracts in which women play an active role do not specify the circumstances in which these women operated. When a woman owned or received real estate, we can assume that she was a widow or that she had a cultic status. Even then, the actual management of the assets may have remained in the hands of her brother or husband. In Nuzi, a mid-second millennium B.C.E. kingdom in modern-day Syria, some contracts illustrate that daughters were “adopted” as sons when they were the sole heir—a tactic for maintaining the patrilinear transmission of productive assets.

    The “working classes.”

    The laborers referred to in the labor administration of temples and palaces had to perform activities on a large scale, such as agricultural tasks, building activities, military campaigns, crafts, and industries. Only in the textile industry, as weavers, did female laborers hold a majority. In other crafts and in agricultural work, women were employed less systematically than men. Female workers were allotted lower rations than their male adult counterparts.

    The slaves.

    Only for slaves do the sources depict both sexes more or less equally. Most often, slaves are mentioned in contracts documenting the ownership of the assets of a private household. The tasks of these slaves most often lie within the limits of the family abode, although the details of their economic activities are not recorded. This situation suggests that the economic value of female workers mainly functioned within the constraints of the house.

    Babylonia was not the best of worlds for women. Occasionally, a woman played a prominent role in the economic arena, but such examples are rare and occur only in the absence of a man, when a woman was widowed or ordained as a priestess. In normal circumstances, her economic activities were located close to the fireside.




    • Briquel-Chatonnet, Françoise, Saba Farès, Brigitte Lion and Cécile Michel, eds. Femmes, cultures et sociétés dans les civilisations méditerranéennes et proche-orientales de l’Antiquité. Topoi Supplément 10. Lyon, France: De Boccard, 2009.
    • Carnet de Refema. refema.hypotheses.org/credits.
    • Garfinkle, Steven J. Entrepreneurs and Enterprise in Early Mesopotamia: A Study of Three Archives from the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112–2004 b.c.). Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology. Bethesda, Md.: CDL, 2012.
    • Hudson, Michael, Baruch A. Levine, Marc Van De Mieroop, and Cornelia Wunsch, eds. International Scholars Conference on Ancient Near Eastern Economies. 4 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University; Bethesda, Md.: CDL, 1996–2004.
    • Jursa, Michael. Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium b.c.: Economic Geography, Economic Mentalities, Agriculture, the Use of Money and the Problem of Economic Growth. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 377; Veröffentlichunen zur Wirtschaftsgeschichte Babyloniens im 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr. 4. Münster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010.
    • Lion, Brigitte. “Literacy and Gender.” In The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, edited by Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson, pp. 90–112. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
    • Lion, Brigitte “Sexe et genre: Des filles devenant fils dans les contrats de Nuzi et d’Emar.” In Femmes, cultures et sociétés dans les civilisations méditerrannéennes et proche-orientales de l’Antiquité, edited by Françoise Briquel Chatonnet, Saba Fares Drappeau, Brigitte Lion and Cécile Michel. Topoi, Supplément 10. Lyon, France: De Boccard, 2009.
    • Postgate, J. N. “System and Style in Three Near Eastern Bureaucracies.” In Economy and politics in the Mycenaean Palace States, edited by Sofia Voutsaki and John Tyrell Killen, Suppl. Vol. 27, pp. 181–194. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Philological Society, 2001.
    • Radner, Karin. “Assyrische Handelspolitik: Die Symbiose mit unabhängigen Handelszentren und ihre Kontrolle durch Assyrien.” In Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World: Means of Transmission and Cultural Interaction, edited by Robert Rollinger and Christoph Ulf, pp. 152–169. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004.
    • Steinkeller, Piotr. “Archival Practices at Babylonia in the Third Millennium.” In Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions: Concepts of Record-Keeping in the Ancient World, edited by Maria Brosius, pp. 37–58. Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
    • Stol, Marten. Vrouwen van Babylon: Prinsessen, priesteressen, prostituees in de bakermat van de cultuur. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Kok, 2012.
    • Van De Mieroop, Marc. Cuneiform texts and the writing of history. London: Routledge, 1999.
    • Waerzeggers, Caroline. The Ezida Temple of Borsippa: Priesthood, Cult, Archives. Achaemenid History 15. Leiden, The Netherlands: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 2010.

    Anne Goddeeris

    Hebrew Bible

    To better understand the life of the average Israelite, one must examine the stage on which daily life occurred—the home. Daily life centered on what could be described as “household economics.”

    Economic Production Modes in Ancient Israel.

    The Israelite household economy evolved from a simple subsistence level in the early Iron I Age (ca. 1200–1000 B.C.E.) to a more complicated system under the monarchy in the Iron II period (1000–586 B.C.E.). During the early Iron Age, Israel was predominantly a community-based society with a household-dominant mode of production. Early Israel was agrarian/pastoral and was mostly free of the extraction of surplus goods by a dominating class. With the growth of the monarchy, Israel grew into a native tributary mode, which extracted surplus from households by (1) state taxation and corvée, (2) interest on debt and rental fees by elites, and (3) tribute and indemnity in the form of higher taxes ultimately imposed on the monarchy by foreign powers. Native rulers, foreign rulers, and domestic landholders and merchants exploited households. With the destruction of Israel (ca. 721 B.C.E.) and Judah (ca. 586 B.C.E.), “Israel” developed into a foreign tributary mode, where foreign rulers imposed tribute on households. This continued through the Hellenistic (ca. 333–63 B.C.E.) and Roman periods (ca. 63 B.C.E.–330 C.E.). However, when Judah was restored in the Persian Period (ca. 539–333 B.C.E.), elites were permitted to maintain some level of control providing they remained loyal, preserved domestic stability, and delivered tribute to the imperial power. Notwithstanding modes of production, there was usually a dominant tribute-imposing class that consisted of the political elite. This elite class extracted (or attempted to extract) surplus from the dominated tribute-bearing class, which consisted of agrarian and pastoral producers, as well as other occupational groups. Regardless of changes that the institution of monarchy initiated, the household and its economy were common denominators throughout Israel’s history.

    The Israelite Household.

    The household economy during Israel’s Iron Age can be described as “pioneer.” Most Israelites lived in rural settlements, such as villages, hamlets, or farms, and were preoccupied with living and surviving off of the often inhospitable land. Those who lived in urban settlements, such as fortified, administrative, and capital cities, were likewise concerned with living off the land, but not to the extent of their rural cousins. Rural or urban, Israel consisted of agrarian communities where the household was the nucleus of daily life.

    The Israelite household entailed social, material, and behavioral aspects, all of which were significant to its economy. The social aspect consisted of household demographics, including the number of people who lived or worked within the household and their relationship to each other. Possible members of a household included family members who lived and worked together, unrelated members who lived within the dwelling (such as slaves), and those related/nonrelated members who worked at the household but did not live in the dwelling (such as hired workers). The material aspect consisted of the actual dwelling or house, accompanying buildings and land, activity areas, and possessions. The final aspect is the behavioral aspect, made up of activities household members performed.

    The ancient Israelite household is often referred to in the Hebrew Bible as the bet ʾav (“house of the father”) and more rarely as bêt ʾēm (“house of the mother”). The physical dwelling of the bet ʾav has long been the subject of scholarly discussion and is often referred to as “the Israelite house,” “the pillared house,” “the four-room house,” and “the Iron Age house.” Excavated Iron Age dwellings in Israel have a similar plan and common features: a back broad room with one to three (typically three) rooms or chambers running perpendicular to the broad room, frequently divided by pillars. The social aspect of the bet ʾav consisted primarily of related family members: the father (or patriarch), the mother (or matriarch), possibly secondary wives, unmarried children and paternal sisters, and married sons and their families, as well as nonrelated members such as slaves, hired workers, foreigners, and guests. Israelite families were predominantly patrilineal, where group membership and inheritance is traced through the father’s line, and patrilocal, where newlyweds live within the household of the husband’s family. The extended family of the bet ʾav was the mišpaḥah, or clan, which could occupy most of a village or nearby settlements. Several clans made up a šebet, or tribe, which typically lived within the same geographical region and allied together against common enemies, famine, and other catastrophes. It was uncommon for Israelites to think of themselves as individuals. Rather, they saw themselves as members of a group or community: family, clan, and tribe (Shafer-Elliott, 2013, p. 14; Meyers, 1988, p. 38; Matthews and Benjamin, 1993, p. 9; Stager and King, 2002, pp. 28–35).

    The behavioral aspect consisted of activities household members performed. Household activities predominantly had to do with surviving off the land. They can be placed into the following categories: production, distribution, transmission, food preparation and consumption, reproduction, and ritual. Production involves tasks of agriculture and animal husbandry, such as planting, harvesting, and breeding. Distribution includes gifts and reciprocal exchange, as well as the act of distribution itself including storage and transport. Transmission is considered part of distribution, but is concerned with transferring rights, roles, land, and property between generations. The preparation of foodstuffs into products and meals, and the consumption of them, makes up the preparation and consumption category. Reproduction consists of the rearing and socialization of children, while the ritualistic category deals specifically with informal and formal worship within the household (Wilk and Rathje, 1982, pp. 618, 622, 624, 627, 630; Goody, 1982, pp. 44–49).

    The daily life of the Israelite household centered on activities that were agrarian and pastoral in nature. The task-oriented existence had daily, seasonal, and annual activities, not to mention unpredictable and sporadic ones. Daily chores consisted of intense labor utilizing all available daylight hours, often working around environmental and ecological limitations such as limited water supplies, drought, poor soil quality, and erosion. Activities included, but were not limited to: shepherding and maintenance of herds; planting and harvesting produce such as cereals, legumes, grapes, and summer fruit, including olives; processing foodstuffs into products that could be consumed, stored, and exchanged; producing textiles and garments, tools and implements; and producing and maintaining the dwellings, agricultural buildings, and terraces (Meyers, 1997, p. 23).

    Gender Archaeology.

    The question of who participated in these activities is complicated. Gender archaeology attempts to answer this question and “considers people in the past, especially the relationships of women and men to the social, economic, political, and ideological structures of particular societies” (Nelson, 1997, p. 5). Gender archaeology attempts to clarify the relationship of material remains to actual activities, participants in such activities, and behaviors behind those activities. As useful as gender archaeology is, gender cannot be directly observed through material remains. For instance, when a cooking pot is excavated, the pot itself is not male or female; rather, the person who used it was. Gender archaeology helps infer who was active behind the artifacts and the behaviors and ideology associated with those tasks by utilizing several resources: ethnography, ethnoarchaeology, iconography, and textual resources. Ethnography is “the study of contemporary cultures through direct observation,” while ethnoarchaeology is “the study of contemporary cultures in order to understand the behaviors and relationships that underlie the production and use of the material culture of a past society.” Observing and studying the remains, activities, and behavior of a present-day traditional culture in various areas of daily life provides insight into, and possible reconstruction of, the daily chores of ancient counterparts. Iconography, or representational art, and textual resources reflect actual and/or idealized aspects of a society. This interdisciplinary approach allows us to better understand the daily activities of the ancient Israelite household (Nelson, 1997, p. 17; Shafer-Elliott, 2013, pp. 19–20, 30, 117–118; Meyers, 2003).

    Biblical Research.

    Few biblical scholars have written as extensively on the Israelite household as Carol Meyers. Her work on the household, its activities, and the various roles of women within households has contributed greatly to our understanding of gender in ancient Israel. Meyers proposes that the survival of any group is dependent upon three factors: procreation (reproduction), production (subsistence), and protection (defense). She suggests that the irregularity of gender roles occurred when an uneven amount of energy was given to one of these three categories. For instance, the procreation factor was largely a female responsibility. Biological factors such as menstruation, pregnancy, birth, lactation, and weaning played a role in the female’s division of labor. The female’s reproductive role dictated that the majority of her daily chores occurred within or near the physical dwelling. Likewise, the protection factor was dominated by males, who were involved in defensive/offensive engagements. This leaves the production factor, which encompasses animal husbandry, farming, and the chores that stem from them like food preparation and storage. The production factor crossed the so-called gender line in that all members of the household were required to participate. However, certain elements within the production factor, such as chores that require more strength like plowing, indicate that it can be seen as predominantly under the male domain. Under certain repetitive conditions, like planting/harvest or war, females were required to bear more production responsibilities. Meyers cites social scientific research stating that the average ratio of female to male household contribution in subsistence households is 2:3, with women supplying 40 percent of the labor. Societies that maintain this ratio value both male and female contributions and correlate with greater prestige for women. Consequently, an increase in female production responsibilities increased female authority and status. Each member was expected to participate in the survival of the household, regardless of sex, age, or other differentials. The division of production labor solely by gender was a luxury that few agrarian households could afford. Authority and power were in the hands of the older generations, both male and female, rather than one gender (Meyers, 1983, pp. 574–576; Meyers, 2008, p. 780; Frymer-Kensky, 1998, p. 96).

    Gender and Domestic Chores.

    Biological factors such as reproduction and physical strength were determining factors in who did what. Men, women, and children carried out daily activities, with certain times of the year, like planting and harvest, requiring contributions from everyone. Beyond those seasonal times, women’s reproductive roles required them to contribute closer to the dwelling. Chores typically done within or near the dwelling include food preparation and weaving. In the archaeological record, material culture such as cooking pots, ovens, grinding stones and slabs, pestles and mortars, and loom weights and whorls are often found within the dwelling or its outdoor courtyard. Cereals used for bread and porridge were essential to the Israelite diet, so much so that the Hebrew word for bread, leḥem, is synonymous with food. Processing grain into an edible form involved a complex chain of activities: soaking, milling, and grinding grain into flour that would be made into dough. Processing grain would occupy at least two hours per day, usually within the dwelling or its courtyard. The location of ovens and food preparation objects indicates that cooking and baking took place in centralized locations, either inside the dwelling or in an adjacent courtyard. The central location of ovens permitted women to conduct other household tasks while preparing food. Centralized ovens also allowed for the sharing of ovens (and fuel) with other women, facilitating social relationships and cohesion among the group (Lev 26:26) (Baadsgaard, 2008, p. 42; Ebeling, 2010, pp. 32–33; Meyers, 2003, p. 436; Meyers, 1997, p. 25).

    Ethnography, ethnoarchaeology, and iconography typically show women in charge of production activities that were carried out at or near the dwelling. Consequently, women dominated certain domestic activities that required the development of technological skills, which men may not have had to the same extent. The household matriarch was in a sense the household manager and directed the manufacture of household goods like soap, pottery, baskets, cloth, and tools. As manager of the household, the matriarch had authority over major aspects of production: the preparation, storage, distribution, and consumption of food. What and how much produce was to be prepared as a meal or stored as other foodstuffs like beer, wine, oil, parched grain, and dried fruits and vegetables, and who was going to perform these activities, were not only matters of household economics but also survival in a subsistence household. The matriarch as household manager would need significant skill, expertise, and diplomacy, resulting in household power and prestige (Matthews and Benjamin, 1993, p. 25; Meyers, 1988, p. 147).

    Gender and the Hebrew Bible.

    Textual resources for understanding daily life in ancient Israel are primarily found within the Bible. However, the Hebrew Bible is not concerned with illustrating the daily lives of average Israelites. Rather, it reflects the concerns of elite, urban men. It ignores not only women, but also the average man, woman, and child unless they have a role in the purpose of the text. On the other hand, some biblical passages provide a glimpse into what daily life was like. One such passage is found in Leviticus 27, which is seen as an appendix dealing with vows and dedications. A vow was viewed as a conditional promise made to God, to be satisfied if the requested conditions came about. More specifically Leviticus 27 addresses: (1) how an Israelite made a vow or dedication at a local sanctuary; (2) how the value of that vow and dedication was determined; and (3) whether or not the vow and dedication had an acceptable monetary substitute. The priesthood restricted whose vows were binding, what could be promised, where the vow was fulfilled, whether a monetary substitute was acceptable, and where payment could be made. Vows made by women who were under the economic and social protection of their fathers or husbands were binding unless said males annulled them. Vows made by women who were divorced or widowed were binding since they were seen as independent (Num 30). The centralization of worship to Jerusalem limited the ability to fulfill vows and dedications, leading to monetary substitution. Leviticus 27 provides a list of monetary equivalents for vows or dedications to the sanctuary divided into categories based on age and gender (Lipka, 2008, pp. 773–775).

    Source: Meyers, 1983, p. 585 (modified).

    Age Male Female
    1 month–5 years old 5 shekels of silver 3 shekels of silver
    5–20 years old 20 10
    20–60 years old 50 30
    60+ 15 10

    Here, females in each age category have a lower value than males. The highest value given for both males and females is listed in the 20–60 age category. Traditionally this list has been viewed as communicating worth, indicating that men were seen as more valuable than women in ancient Israel. More recently, scholars reevaluating this list through the lens of social scientific approaches argue that the monetary value listed in Leviticus 27 denotes the worth of the production capacity of the individual in terms of service to the sanctuary, not the intrinsic worth of the actual person. In early Israel, vows dedicating oneself or one’s child for lifelong service to the sanctuary were made (see Hannah’s vow in 1 Sam 1). When this type of dedication was not feasible, vows of service or the monetary worth of service were made instead. The monetary value represents the amount the service would be worth, not the individual. Dedicating silver or other goods worth the value of the service provided resources that maintained the sanctuary and the priests who supervised its activities (Lipka, 2008, pp. 773–775; Meyers, 2008, p. 780; Meyers, 1983, pp. 582–586).

    The monetary scale in Leviticus 27 reflects the economic productivity potential of males and females at various stages of life. The youngest age category is one month to five years old (Lev 27:6). This value takes into consideration the high infant mortality rate within the Israelite household and suggests that a child could not be dedicated before it was one month old. Most agrarian households expected children to participate in simple daily tasks. The second age group, 5–20 years old, has a low economic value for women (Lev 27:5). This low economic value reflects women’s preoccupation during this age period with reproduction, not production. Marriages were arranged for daughters when they reached puberty and were able to conceive. As part of their husband’s bet ʾav, women were expected to contribute just like everyone else, but reproduction was their main occupation. Consequently, women in this age group were unable to contribute as much to the household economy. Thus, their production value was at its lowest. A secondary factor could also be the high rate of death during childbirth. The third age group is 20–60 years old (Lev 27:3–4). In this age group, the productive worth of males is at its highest. Twenty years seems to be a significant age for men, since at this age they were able to serve in the tabernacle and be recruited for military activities (Num 1:3; Num 4:3, 23). The monetary value ascribed to males in this group reflects their high production capacity. The females’ production capacity increases as their reproductive role diminishes. The final age category, 60 years old and older, reflects a sharper decrease in men’s economic value than in women’s (Lev 27:7). Women were able to maintain their contribution to the household economy with only minimal decrease, whereas men’s contribution decreased, possibly because of warfare and the high physical demand upon them at the 20–60 year old range. A final stipulation for the poor found in Leviticus 27:8 states that priests assessed the monetary value of the vow based on what can be afforded (Lipka, 2008, pp. 773–775; Meyers, 2008, p. 780; Meyers, 1983, pp. 582–586).

    Other incidents involving economic compensation include marriage. When a young woman reached marriageable age (most likely soon after puberty), her parents arranged a marriage for her, typically within their mišpaḥah or šebet. Betrothal gifts were exchanged to solidify the alliance between two families. A mohar was a betrothal gift in the form of money, goods, land, or service from the groom and his bet ʾav to the bride’s (see Gen 34:8–17; Exod 22:16). The loss of a household member, even through marriage, put the household at a productive disadvantage, since there was one less person to contribute to the household economy. The mohar was intended to ease the loss to the household economy of the bride’s bet ʾav. The bride’s household also gave a betrothal gift or dowry to the groom’s household in the form of money, goods, or transferable land (see 1 Kings 9:16). However, the dowry was seen as a way to provide security for the bride, who, in theory, maintained possession of it. Likewise, if a woman of marriageable age lost her virginity to a man outside of an arranged marriage, then the man must pay her father and mother the amount of the mohar given for virgin brides, which was more than that for widows or divorced women (Exod 22:16–17; Deut 22:28–29). The sexuality of female members of the household was more of an economic concern than an ethical one (Goodfriend, 2008, p. 437; O’Donnell-Setel, 1992, p. 34; Frymer-Kensky, 1998, p. 80).

    Economic compensation covered other members of the household, even ones not yet born (Exod 21:22–25). If a pregnant woman was injured during a fight and miscarries, the assailant was required to compensate the household monetarily according to what her husband demands. The fetus was a prospective member of the household; thus, a potential contributor to the household economy is lost. The ordinance also states that if any other injury to the pregnant woman occurs, including death, exact retaliation is expected. Lex talionis, or law of retaliation, was not an excuse for violence; rather, it limited revenge by controlling the type of injury that could be given. Any severe injury to or loss of the woman would affect the household’s survival by diminishing its membership and her contribution to the bet ʾav (Goodfriend, 2008, pp. 433–434; O’Donnell-Setel, 1992, p. 34).

    Lack of descendants also greatly affected the household. In Numbers 27, the unmarried daughters of Zelophehad petitioned their case to Moses. Since Israel was a patrilineal society, and Zelophehad died leaving only daughters, their father’s inheritance would be lost. The daughters proposed a new law that would enable women to inherit land in certain circumstances. The daughters were unmarried and no longer had a father to protect them; as a result, they represented less fortunate members of society. The daughters utilized language that emphasized the bet ʾav and their desire to see it and their father’s name continue. The Lord granted their petition unconditionally and added that it be given to them as their own inheritance, which they could bestow themselves. Consequently, when there was no son to inherit the bet ʾav, daughters had priority over others in the household, clan, or tribe. Later, in Numbers 36, the elders of the tribe to which the daughters of Zelophehad belong (Manasseh) propose that they marry only within the clan or tribe so that the land would not be lost permanently. This condition should not be viewed as an objection to women owning land; rather, it should be seen as preserving tribal land (Goodfriend, 2008, pp. 970–974, 1025–1027; Doob-Sakenfeld, 1992, p. 50; Pressler, 1998, p. 166).


    The study of gender and economics centers on everyday activities and behaviors within the household. The survival of the household dictated who did what activity and when. All physically able members of the household regardless of sex, age, or other differentials participated in the survival of the household. Authority and power within the household was primarily based on generations, rather than gender. Young men and women within the household were under the protection of their matriarch and patriarch.




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    Cynthia Shafer-Elliott

    Greek World

    Scholarship on the ancient Greek economy has not always taken into account the work done by women. That oikonomikos (literally “household management,” from whence the English “economics” is derived) was part of the vocabulary of the educated elite, however, “indicates that estate management had become a science” by the early fourth century B.C.E., the time of Xenophon’s writing of the Oikonomikos, a dialogue perhaps best known for the reported conversation between Socrates and the gentleman farmer Ischomachus on “wifely didactics” (Pomeroy, 1994, p. 47; Too, 2001). With agriculture central to all production, and the polis a community made up of individual households, oikonomia was not merely a private matter. Oikonomia was the science of managing an estate (oikos) so as to yield a profit—oikous auxein (6.4), in Xenophon’s words. What was produced would have to be sold, or exchanged, while expenses included paying for sacrifices, public banquets, hospitality (xenia), horse maintenance, liturgies, and dowries for the daughters of the family. Increasing the household wealth were the wife’s dowry, agricultural produce, the sale of horses, slaves, and sheep.

    Although most women in ancient Greece did not participate in the labor market, they were involved in the domestic economy where, in typical patriarchal fashion, the fruits of their labor were appropriated by their head-of-household husbands. Xenophon, nevertheless, was the first Greek author to give “full recognition to the use-value of women’s work, and to understand that domestic labour has economic value even if it lacks exchange value” (Pomeroy, 1994, p. 59). Yet the skills women were perfecting in the domestic sphere might also be turned into exchange value profits. Brock’s study of women’s participation in “the world of exchange and paid labor” (1994, p. 338) turns up a huge range of work with which citizen women were occupied. Educated in wool-working and textiles production (Xenophon, Oikonomikos 7.6), aristocratic women were turning to these skills for extra income during times of economic hardship, especially during the Peloponnesian War (Xenophon, Memorabilia, 2.7: Aristarchus’s female relatives set up their own domestic textile “factory”). In addition to their central role in textile production women are attested as bread makers; vegetable sellers; and ribbon, garland, and net weavers. There were female innkeepers, bathers, and washerwomen. Participation of women in the crafts market is also attested: two cobblers, a gilder (cursed with her husband the helmet maker), and perhaps even a potter (Brock, 1994, p. 342). Socrates’s mother, Phainarete, was reputedly a midwife, and there is evidence that by the fourth century B.C.E. women were practicing obstetrics as well.

    Not all of these occupations were equally well respected. Female bakers and bread sellers in Athens (Aristophanes, Frogs 857–858; Lysistrata 458; Wasps 238) are represented in comedy as loud-mouthed abusive types, which, as Brock suggests, “might be simply popular prejudice, but a low class status elsewhere is suggested in the linking of bread sellers with prostitutes by Anacreon PMG 388.4–5” (1994, p. 339). Many of the aforementioned occupations rely, unsurprisingly, on skills women would have developed in the domestic sphere, such as washing, baking, cooking, weaving, child care, and so on. Least well understood is women’s contribution to Athenian agriculture. Here the interference of ideology (i.e., the cultural expectation of female seclusion) makes it especially difficult to gauge the reality. In Demosthenes 57, for example, Euxitheos is forced to defend his claim to citizenship against allegations that his mother, because she has done menial wage labor, was not of citizen status. The Greek cultural bias against working women makes the evidence of the archaeological record—on women’s tombstones, nursing is the best-attested female occupation—especially valuable.

    That citizen wives lived out their lives in the domestic quarters, secluded and unseen except by other women and family members, is challenged by the widespread references in literary sources (especially Old Comedy) to working women whose jobs would have taken them into different neighborhoods of the city and maybe also into the fields on a daily basis (see the market scenes at Wasps 493–499 and Lysistrata 555–564). The ideology of female seclusion prominent in Greek textual sources thus requires qualification, and we may conclude that the notion that women spent only minimal time outdoors, as indexed by their pale complexions in Greek iconography, is best taken as a societal ideal rather than as a norm.

    Xenophon’s Oikonomikos and the Good Wife.

    Aristotle frames marriage as a hierarchical relationship, one that subordinates the wife to her husband (Politics 1252a: 24b–27). Xenophon’s account, by contrast, describes the wife as a partner in marriage, her management of domestic affairs complementing her husband’s management of agricultural matters. Socrates suggests to his interlocutor Critoboulos that the wife who is a good partner (koinonon agathēn) contributes as much to the good of the household as her husband (Oikonomikos 3.15–16), and it is to substantiate this claim that he recounts at some length his earlier conversation with Ischomachus on precisely this subject.

    Set in Athens, the first half of the Oikonomikos is devoted to the theory and the second half to the practice of running an estate. The conversation between Ischomachus and his wife is “mediated by a process of triple quotation” (Murnaghan, 1988, p. 10), a literary framing device that places the content of what on the surface appears to be a fairly straightforward, pedestrian discussion of home economics between scare quotes, as it were. The effect is to defamiliarize what might appear almost too “natural” to require exposition. The household was generally aligned in the popular imagination with private wealth. But as Murnaghan has argued, the main objective of the Oeconomicus is to eliminate “the distinction between public and private interests” (1988, p. 10). If Xenophon can depict farming as an egalitarian pursuit that requires little specialized education or knowledge, then the running of the farm and household would take on the appearance of advancing the public (collective) good rather than merely increasing the wealth of estate owners.

    As a member of the landowning class, Xenophon was writing for a community concerned with the ever-widening gap between public and private interests. By, for example, likening well-ordered kitchen utensils to a dithyrambic chorus, Xenophon’s dialogue may be trying to suggest a harmonious balance between the public and private spheres: the orderly household is presented as a counterpart to the well-governed state. Although its apparent focus is on training the wife to become an autonomous and productive manager of the domestic quarters, Xenophon’s “dialogue is not really concerned with her as a distinct individual”; the wife, rather, comes to symbolize her husband’s “mastery of the feminine potential for disorder and self-indulgence in his own personality” (Murnaghan, 1988, pp. 13–14). This accounts for the curiosity that it is a man teaching his young wife skills that ordinarily would have been passed down by mothers to their daughters. Like its framing, the content of the dialogue is markedly fictional—some would even say “utopian.”

    Men and women, according to Ischomachus, are suited by nature to their social roles (7.23–24), men naturally gravitating to the outdoors, where their bodies are better equipped for “enduring cold and heat, journeys and campaigns,” while women, less capable of such endurance, have had meted out to them “a larger portion of affection for newborns” (trans. Xenophon IV, 2013). She enjoys a share of “memory” (mnēmē) and attention (epimeleia) equal to her husband’s as well as the capacity to practice self-control (7.26), yet the apparent symmetry between husband and wife in Ischomachus’s household nevertheless conceals a deeper disparity: the highest compliment a woman can be made is that she has a “masculine mind,” as Socrates’s pronounces of Ischomachus’s spouse (10.1). In the world of Xenophon’s dialogue, the sexes perform complementary roles, but they are not social equals. Still, the Oikonomikos offers overall a more positive representation of women as economic players than is found in the archaic poetic tradition represented by Hesiod and Semonides. For Hesiod, women are the descendants of Pandora, whose acceptance by Prometheus augurs in an era of scarcity and toil (before woman, men were living a Golden Age existence); Semonides compares women to various unflattering forms of animal life, reserving his singular praise for the bee-wife.

    With Persephone’s descent to Hades providing the mythical model, marriage signaled the “death” of girlhood for the bride, who was often only half the age of her prospective husband (fifteen years old, on average, to his thirty years), and who followed the groom to his new home, leaving behind her entire known world. Marriage inaugurated a new phase of life whose main purpose was to bear children who would carry on their father’s name and, among the land-owning classes, inherit their father’s estate (oikos). Our literary sources rarely record the experience of marriage from a female point of view: the textual tradition was almost entirely male-authored and transmitted. But Greek drama does give imaginative glimpses of what it may have been like for those wives whose status in their own marriage was undermined by an inability to procreate. In Euripides’s Andromache, for example, the childless Hermione feels her wifely position threatened by the presence of noble concubine Andromache, who has borne a son for Hermione’s husband, Neoptolemus. Hermione turns to her father for help. As the legitimate wife plots to kill the concubine and her son while being simultaneously courted by Orestes, her husband’s eventual murderer, the entire household and its domestic world hang precariously in the balance. Andromache’s estimation in the eyes of her “husband” stems from her having performed the essential role of the ideal wife—she is the mother of Neoptolemus’s only son.

    Conversely, the fact that Hermione can hold the entire household hostage to her malign schemes shows what power a wife might derive from her (well-to-do) natal family, the material expression of which was to be found in her dowry. The dowry—(moveable) wealth that a wife brought with her into her marriage—served as capital for the estate of her husband but at the same time remained a permanent link between the woman and her natal family; unless she needed to call in favors to negotiate her status within her husband’s household (à la Hermione), the wife’s dowry primarily served the needs of the husband. But it may have functioned as a psychological deterrent, keeping the husband’s transgressive behaviors in check. For in the event of a divorce, he would be legally obligated to repay to his father-in-law the entire value of the dowry his wife had brought with her into their marriage.

    Moreover, the category of moveable property known to us from the forensic sources as himatia kai chrysia (“garments and gold jewelry”) suggests that women may have contributed to their own dowries with the weaving they did in their fathers’ homes. Schaps describes this collocation as “a technical term for the personal accoutrements brought along by the bride into the husband’s house” (1979, p. 10). We still do not know whether these personal items were included in the calculation of the monetary value of a woman’s dowry; counting them as part of the dowry would have created an intimate tie between a woman’s social agency and her economic wherewithal. The connection is one that tragedy exploits to great effect, particularly in its examination of wives who avenge themselves on wayward husbands through the medium of poisoned, or otherwise dangerous, fabrics—a topic explored in the next section. Hermione’s particular plight, then, is the stuff of myth, but the social and economic situation in which she finds herself was real enough.

    “Bad” Wives: The Oikos Turned Inside Out.

    An important source of economic, and hence of social, agency for women can be found in the production of textiles, themselves a form of “liquid wealth” (Pomeroy, 1994, p. 62). Women from all social strata (slaves, noblewomen, goddesses) are shown working at the loom in Homeric epic. But as Lyons (2012) has recently argued, whereas gifts of cloth are for the most part harmless in epic, in tragedy, textiles form the centerpiece of dangerous exchanges. In epic, the good wife weaves and cloaks her husband in the works of her loom (think: Penelope). The wives in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Sophocles’s Trachiniae, by contrast, turn textiles into husband-killing weapons. Clytemnestra is never directly associated with weaving, but Deianeira inadvertently murders her husband, Herakles, with a robe she has woven with her own hands. Lyons reads Deianeira as a “kind of latter-day Pandora,” a wife who also stores her poisons in an urn, this one made out of bronze (2013, p. 82). Tragedy offers ample evidence that in the cultural imaginary of the ancient Greeks, “marriage becomes the site of greatest anxiety about women and exchange” (Lyons, 2012, p. 90).

    In Agamemnon, when Clytemnestra asks the Herald to convey to her husband, newly returned from Troy, that she has been faithful during his long absence, she says that he will find her in his house, a trusty guard-dog “just as he left her.” She exploits the imagery of the seal to strengthen her rhetoric. Tell my husband, she says, “that I have not broken his seal in all the length of time” he has been away (pp. 609–610). Clytemnestra clearly intends to highlight her housewifely preservation of the goods that are safely sealed in jars in the storerooms. But in an interlinear gloss, an ancient commentator on the play noted that sēmantērion suggests “chastity seal.” The subtext of Clytemnestra’s metaphor is that the wife’s body is itself a vessel to which the husband alone has authorized access. In leaving for war, Agamemnon would have expected his wife to remain “sealed” until his return. But even the oblique assertion that she has been faithful to her husband rings slightly false, and what she says in the next two lines easily converts suspicion into alarm.

    Clytemnestra concludes her speech with the striking assertion that she knows “no more of the pleasure nor of the rumor of another man than she has knowledge of the dyeing (or tempering) of bronze.” The phrase chalkou baphas (p. 612) refers to the process of “tempering” metal. But baphē is the technical term for dyeing fabric as well. The phrase thus alludes proleptically to the manner in which her murder of Agamemnon will combine the crafts of metallurgy and cloth-making. She of course knows a great deal about the “tempering” of bronze. But in emphasizing her ignorance in this regard, she anticipates for her audience how her murder of her husband will take the form of a perverted act of wifely virtue, an act ironically fitting for this woman of “man-counseling heart” (androboulon…kear, 11). The “tempering of bronze” will in fact become a dyeing of fabric.

    Clytemnestra, then, “weaves,” but only in the sense of turning her own husband into the ergon (the “work”) of her right hand, as she boasts triumphantly over his corpse:

    "Test me as if I were a senseless woman, but I speak to those who know with untrembling heart. As for you, it is the same (to me) whether you praise me or blame me: This man is Agamemnon, my husband, and a corpse, the work (ergon) of this right hand—a just craftsman. This is how it is." (Agamemnon, 1401–1406)

    Here Clytemnestra plies craft metaphors, calling herself a tektōn and the murder itself, or, rather, her husband’s body, an ergon. It is telling that she frames the murder as a matter of woven works (erga), considering that any reference to their crafting was precisely what was missing from her description of the garments in the Carpet Scene, where she had lured her husband to tread expensively dyed, money-bought, purple fabrics (e.g., 949 argurōnētous t’huphas: “silver-bought weavings”). There, Clytemnestra avoided saying by whose hands the heimata were made; she represented them as artifacts mysteriously generated by the house, their origins ascribed to the sea (958–965). Here, by calling Agamemnon’s corpse the “work of her right hand” Clytemnestra takes credit for the first time for an artisanal product. But her blended metaphor—based on baphas—effectively collapses the boundaries between the feminine sphere of cloth and the masculine world of war from which Agamemnon has recently returned.

    Clytemnestra as the disgraced wife is traditionally contrasted with Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife, who waited patiently for her husband and kept to womanly tasks and roles (see in particular Agamemnon’s praise of Penelope at Odyssey 24.192–202). But Penelope used the womanly craft of weaving to exert a typically female devious agency, keeping the suitors at bay for three years (Odyssey 24.139–145). Though “tempering” the sword and dyeing fabric in her husband’s blood, Clytemnestra did not weave when she would have been expected to—to preserve and increase her husband’s wealth. Instead she has saved her one act of “weaving” for his homecoming and death. By specifying, however, that she has performed the deed (ergon) with her right hand, Clytemnestra privileges the masculine sense of baphē, since the right hand is the weapon-wielding one. When not engaged in combat, men used the right hand customarily for sealing oaths with a handshake. Weaving proper, by contrast, was either the work of a hand (right versus left remaining unspecified) or of hands, plural. Her mixed metaphor perfectly captures the perverted kind of “weaving” Clytemnestra has done; hers is a murder that takes aim simultaneously at her husband as target and the normative practice of women’s work.

    Clytemnestra’s “weaving” in this way commemorates Agamemnon’s death rather than the hands of the weaver. It does not proclaim his fame (kleos) to the world, as Penelope’s weaving did for Odysseus in the Odyssey, or as Helen’s will do for herself. What Clytemnestra has woven is not the robe of death—she has “woven” her husband dead. When she stands boastfully over her kill, she takes credit for the dead bodies, robe-wrapped, that lie before her, spread out for all to see. To return to the other wife, the inadvertently murderous Deianeira of Sophocles’s tragedy, if Herakles at first takes the robe as evidence that his wife has plotted a Clytemnestra-style homecoming for him, he later changes his mind when he hears from his son of the centaur’s role in persuading Deianeira (Sophocles, Trachiniae 1141–1142). Hyllus has only to mention the name “Nessus” (1141) and Herakles is reminded of an ancient prophecy told to him by his father. Nessus, Herakles realizes, is the key to decoding this prophecy that foretold his death at some unspecified time in the future, at the hands of “one who does not breathe” (1160). Herakles, however, would not have been taken in by Nessus’s trick, were it not for his wife’s “sealing” of the box containing the poisoned robe with her distinctive signature-ring, the sphragis that Clytemnestra also mentioned, metaphorically, as a guarantor of her sexual fidelity.

    Deianeira explains to the herald Lichas, who will deliver her robe to Herakles, that the mark of her seal ring is a sign (sēma, 614) that her husband will easily recognize (614–615). What the seal of her sphragis guarantees is not a discursive truth, but rather the gift’s origin: the sēma functions as a surrogate for the act of physically handing over the robe in person. Because it marks the origin of the container, moreover, it effectively labels the object as an extension of the domestic interior. In recognizing his wife’s sphragis, Herakles handles the box confidently as a familiar entity; it is a reified fragment of the oikos itself.

    Wooden chests containing textiles are especially evocative of danger in tragedy. In Trachiniae and probably Medea as well poisoned fabrics are transported in these sealed boxes. Lissarague suggests that the representation of boxes, chests, and baskets on vases and other vessels delineates the feminine space of the Greek household, where women engaged in wool-working and oversaw the domestic economy. Of the representation of containers on a terracotta plaque from Lokri (British Museum, inv. no. TC 1226), Lissarague writes: “The gathering of containers of all types clearly defines an indoor space where things are put away and stored” (1995, p. 95). On the tragic stage as well, chests and containers act as symbols of the deepest and darkest recesses of the royal palace. Containing things that are normally kept hidden from view, they offer the spectator a tantalizing glimpse into the domestic interior, whose furnishings and invisible trappings only occasionally spill out into the visible realm of the city’s public spaces. A combustible mixture of textiles smeared with deadly pharmaka are contained in these innocent-looking vessels, whose contents are presented as gifts—their potency unknowable before the deadly drugs kick into action under the catalyzing force of daylight and the warmth of human flesh. The victims of these textiles’ carnivorous force realize their predicament only when it is already too late. Herakles hardly suspects that the box containing a robe from Deianeira will turn out to be his final and deadliest labor yet, for the robe is reassuringly packaged in a box sealed with Deianeira’s personal sphragis (acting here as her signature), its exterior designed to instill trust. Such was the inherent doubleness of oikonomia for the ancient Greeks.




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    Melissa Mueller

    Roman World

    The Roman economy was a typical premodern system in that agriculture was the primary component and production was located predominantly within households. It expanded steadily with the growth of the empire, but began to wither in the fifth century C.E.

    Family and Familia.

    Any investigation of economics and gender must begin with the family, which functioned as the basic social and economic unit in the Roman world. Production and commerce were centered on the family, which was also the primary mechanism for transferring wealth and property across generations. This idea of family encompassed two interconnected issues: The first was a legal definition of “family” that was based upon the concept of the paterfamilias and its relationship to property rights. Paterfamilias is best translated as “head of household” and described the eldest male in a direct agnatic lineage; the familia consisted of all the descendants of the paterfamilias (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren) following a male descent line. The second was an understanding of “family” as the unit formed by parents and their children; authors frequently used the term domus (house) to refer to the household or nuclear family.

    Under Roman law, a male paterfamilias possessed complete financial and legal power (patria potestas) over his descendants (the familia). This meant that a paterfamilias alone possessed legal ownership over the property held by members of his familia. Children, grandchildren, and possibly the wife of the paterfamilias could own nothing, and anything acquired by these individuals became the legal property of the paterfamilias. When a paterfamilias died, each of his sons (and quite possibly his daughters) became a paterfamilias in his or her own right. Social custom dictated that all children—including daughters—should inherit on an equal (or near-equal) basis.

    The Roman economy swelled during the military expansion of the Republican Era (sixth to first centuries B.C.E.), and the increasing amount of wealth and complexity of commercial transactions made this system of property ownership increasingly cumbersome and inefficient. Accordingly, Roman law developed the peculium as a means to mitigate the situation. The peculium was a fund granted by the paterfamilias to someone in his potestas (a daughter, grandson, slave, etc.) to manage as his or her own money in order to pay for life expenses. The individual treated this money as his or her own, but it remained the legal property of the paterfamilias and it was revocable at any time.

    In a landmark study on life expectancy, Richard Saller added a new wrinkle to our understanding of the paterfamilias and the economic landscape of ancient Rome (1994, pp. 9–69). Combining data from funerary monuments, comparative demographic information, and a very sophisticated computer modeling program, he determined that the relatively short life expectancy in the Roman world meant that most adults would not have been in the power of a paterfamilias. Using the most optimistic assumptions, his model shows that more than 25 percent of all Roman children would have lost their father by the age of fifteen, nearly 50 percent would have lost their father by twenty-five, and 80 percent would have lost their father by the age of forty. These percentages are based on the most generous assumptions about life expectancy; the actual percentages of Romans without a living father were almost certainly even higher.

    Rights of Women.

    Roman women possessed greater property rights and economic agency than women in nearly any other premodern society; they could own land and possessions, form contracts, and conduct financial transactions. Roman law protected the assets of married women, requiring that they be held independently from those of their husbands. This was especially important because the social expectations regarding equal distribution of patrimonies meant that women had a realistic opportunity to acquire wealth. Upon the death of her father (or her husband if she was under his potestas), a woman would become independent (sui iuris) and a paterfamilias in her own right. Finally, Roman women possessed the right to make wills and control the distribution of their assets after their death.

    There were some constraints placed upon the property rights of women, most notably that they needed a guardian (tutor) to approve major financial transactions for their entire lives. This condition was more restrictive than that for men, who needed a tutor only until the age of fourteen and then were under a limited financial guardianship (cura) until the age of twenty-five. A paterfamilias might name a tutor for a dependent in his will, or, in cases where he died intestate, a magistrate would appoint an individual (until the first century C.E., usually the closest male agnate). Women were generally not eligible to serve as guardians themselves, although in the Imperial Era exceptions were sometimes made in cases involving a mother and child.

    The primary duties of the guardians of adult women were to approve large commercial transactions and the creation of a will. By the end of the Republican Era, the institution had begun to weaken; a woman gained some legal recourse to compel a tutor to grant his approval and the capability to apply for a new guardian if she believed that hers was not acting in her best interest. In the first century C.E., the emperor Augustus introduced a law that allowed women who gave birth to three children to be wholly exempted from needing guardianship.

    Roman women possessed no direct political rights, meaning that they could not vote in elections, hold political office, or serve on juries. Women were allowed to make public speeches in a law court, but only if they were personally involved in a case. Nonetheless, the ability to own property gave women the means to influence affairs or enact civic change. There are many examples of women exercising de facto political power through men (often their male relatives) and using their own resources to enact civic change. The exercise of this political influence became more common and wide reaching after the advent of the empire, when government came to be located in the imperial family. As the wives, daughters, and sisters of emperors (and emperors-to-be), women such as Livia and Agrippina the Younger became immensely powerful political figures. Women controlled a substantial amount of wealth in the Roman world; they frequently had their own clients (both men and women) and acted as civic patrons, providing funds for the construction of buildings and monuments throughout the Mediterranean region.

    Marriage and Divorce.

    The foundation of the Roman household was the nuclear family, and newlyweds usually established their own residence (made possible by the grant of a peculium if they remained in the potestas of a paterfamilias). The average age of first marriage seems to have been the late teens for women and the late twenties for men (although the average ages for members of the senatorial order were about four to five years younger for both men and women). This meant that on average the age difference between husband and wife was about ten years, although it was not unusual to see even larger age gaps for later marriages. For example, Pliny the Younger married his third wife, Calpurnia, when he was in his forties and she was in her teens. Marriage was frequently used to cement political and/or economic alliances between families, which explains the earlier ages of marriage for Roman elites.

    By the late republic, both individuals needed to give their consent in order to be married (in the early republic, a paterfamilias may have been able to force his children to marry against their will, but the evidence is unclear). Individuals under the potestas of a paterfamilias also needed to gain his consent to get married (regardless of their age). However, early in the Imperial Era, daughters gained the power to legally compel their paterfamilias to issue his consent.

    A Roman wedding was a public celebration, the focal point of which was a “rite of passage” procession from the bride’s current house to the new house that she would share with her husband. Before departing, the bride made a sacrifice of her childhood toys to her old household gods. Her family then escorted her to new house and symbolically handed her over to the groom, effectively transforming her from a girl to a matrona—a Roman woman.

    There were two forms of marriage (or marriage statuses), and each had important economic repercussions for the families involved. A marriage cum manu (with authority/control) transferred a woman from the potestas of her father to that of her husband, who then became her paterfamilias. A marriage sine manu (without authority/control) meant that the woman remained under the potestas of her father. Both forms existed during the republic, but sine manu marriages became much more common than cum manu marriages by the late republic/early empire. The most likely reason for this shift was the growing wealth of Rome, which meant that more was at stake financially. Marriages sine manu allowed families greater control over their resources, since a woman’s dowry and/or share of the inheritance would remain under the control of her birth family after her death (rather than passing to her husband).

    According to Roman tradition, the bride’s family was supposed to provide her husband with a dowry, ostensibly for her expenses in an amount relative to their socioeconomic standing. The husband was to manage these resources for his wife, but he could keep any profit earned. His access to the dowry itself was limited by law, since in cases of divorce, a husband was required to repay the dowry to the paterfamilias of his former wife.

    A primary goal of marriage was the production of children and the extension of the family line. All children came under the potestas of the father, which meant that a woman might be a paterfamilias herself, but would never have any individuals under her authority (other than slaves, whom the law classified as owned property).

    Unsurprisingly, with marriage being an instrument of political alliance, divorce in the Roman world was common and easily accomplished. Both women and men had the right to initiate divorce, which gave wealthy women a degree of leverage; with the advent of marriage sine manu, women or their family members retained ownership of their property, and divorce would remove these resources from the former husband. Up until the mid-second century C.E., a paterfamilias could dissolve a dependent’s marriage, even against his or her will. In cases of divorce, it was customary for any children to remain with their father (who was their paterfamilias). Accordingly, mothers had very little legal authority over their children.

    Social Expectations.

    Gendered norms and idealized virtues helped to define individuals’ places in the Roman world, which in turn had significant ramifications for their socioeconomic participation. Our understanding of gender and social expectations is dominated by elite male voices, given the nature of the surviving sources. However, the fact that most of these ideals appear in the funerary inscriptions of more middling citizens suggests that they were well diffused throughout Roman society.

    Men were supposed to engage in “public” affairs such as politics, warfare, and commerce in accordance with their socioeconomic status. Concepts of masculinity centered on qualities and virtues such as physical strength, emotional self-control, honorable conduct, and loyalty/service to the Roman state. The last of these was tempered by a sense of freedom and bodily integrity that came with the possession of citizenship.

    One critical offshoot of this vision of masculinity was a denigration of both wage labor and commerce in general. The inherent obligations of wage labor and the fact that the work was being done for the benefit of another individual encouraged an association with servitude. Similarly, commerce was deemed to be a low and disreputable endeavor, and thus not suitable for elite men. As the supposed moral core of Rome, they would ideally earn their income from their land, and Roman law technically restricted members of the senatorial order from engaging in business enterprises (although most found ways to circumvent these regulations). Despite this negative association, participation in commerce came to be seen as the hallmark of the equestrian order. An individual’s occupation was commonly cited and celebrated in funerary epitaphs, and Sandra Joshel has persuasively demonstrated that many people in the Roman world—and especially slaves and freed slaves—embraced their profession as an integral aspect of their identity (Joshel, 1992).

    Roman women led a much less secluded life than many other women in the ancient world; they commonly attended large dinner parties and public events, including spectacles, shows, religious events, and even political gatherings. Upper-class women generally received a rudimentary education, which involved instruction in reading, writing, basic mathematics, literature, arts, and music. The social role expected of most Roman women was that of wife and mother; a wedding was supposed to be the seminal moment in a woman’s life. While women performed a variety of household tasks, spinning wool was imbued with particular moral significance and was treated as the activity par excellence for the virtuous Roman woman.

    The single most important determinant of a woman’s virtue and honor was her sexuality. For a respectable woman, any sexual activity outside of marriage was potentially shameful and detrimental to her social status. Moreover, illicit sexual acts, such as engaging in adultery and prostitution, could diminish a Roman woman’s legal rights. Concerns about association with (or accusation of) dishonorable conduct might deter or influence a woman’s participation in public life.

    Labor and the Economy.

    In every respect, ancient Rome was a slave society; slaves were ubiquitous at all levels of society and in every component of the economy. While there has been significant debate among modern scholars about the exact number of slaves, all agree that slaves were a very significant part of the Roman labor force. Roman law classified slaves as property owned by a paterfamilias and, as such, they were also considered to be part of the familia.

    The division of labor in Roman society was rooted in the male/outdoor, female/indoor model prevalent in most premodern agricultural communities. In this model, men performed the outdoor/public labor that generated tangible sustenance, whereas women were responsible for the maintenance and support of the household (although for upper-class men and women this meant overseeing the servants and slaves rather than doing the work themselves). One important contributing factor to this model was the perceived bodily weakness of women, which encompassed both a physical and an intellectual deficiency. Accordingly, the type of labor classified as “male” acquired more prestige than “female” work. Other important factors were a sense of propriety and a desire to embody the idealized virtues and satisfy social expectations prevalent in Roman society. While it would have been uncomplicated for slave owners to ignore these conventions, given the marginalized status of the laborers, the surviving sources indicate an overwhelming adherence to these gendered norms. One major exception was the use of male slaves to perform lesser “female” tasks as a form of extravagant conspicuous consumption.

    Agricultural labor.

    Agriculture was the primary component of the Roman economy, and most labor was dedicated to food production. Duties would have included the planting and harvesting of crops, animal husbandry, and the construction and maintenance of the necessary supplies and infrastructure. The majority of the people in the Roman world worked smaller household farms with subsistence-level production. Families maintained their own plots, with men focusing on the agricultural tasks and women on household upkeep and ancillary support work. Family labor might be supplemented by a few slaves and/or hired wage laborers. Alternatively, male householders might hire themselves out as temporary wage laborers as situations demanded.

    The influx of wealth and prisoners of war that occurred with military expansion during the Republican Era led to the creation of giant agricultural estates (latifundiae) staffed by slaves. Our information on the agricultural work performed by men and women predominantly comes from the agronomic writings of Cato, Varro, and Columella, who offered instructions and advice for ideal estate operation. In addition to the cultivation of crops, key agricultural industries included the production of wine and olive oil.

    The bulk of the agricultural work was assigned to men—specifically male slaves; very little is said about the work of women. Perhaps most telling about Roman attitudes toward agricultural labor are the estate parameters formulated by Cato, in which the author outlined the precise types of equipment and personnel necessary to ensure the ideal operation of a farm. Here Cato specified the exact number of slaves needed to staff an estate, but only mentioned one woman on his lists: the vilica (De agri cultura 10–11).

    The vilica was the household manager, who was commonly the wife/partner (contubernalis) of the vilicus, the slave or freedman placed in charge of an agricultural property. A vilica need not necessarily have been a slave, but slaves frequently fulfilled this role. According to the agronomists, the primary responsibility of the vilica was to assist her partner in the oversight of the villa, which included supervising the household stores, the production of wool, and the preparation of food. The vilica was not solely responsible for performing all of these duties, only for managing, instructing, and assisting other household slaves engaged in these tasks. The most probable duties for these women would have been textile production, food service, and household cleaning. Furthermore, Columella implied that it was not unusual for female slaves to be working outside of the villa in some capacity. He advised that the vilica have wool work available for days when a woman could not perform tasks outdoors because of inclement weather (De re rustica 12.3.6). It is likely then that female slaves would have participated principally in ancillary support work, such as cooking, cleaning, and the tending of small animals, rather than the primary agricultural production of the estate.

    Despite trivializing women’s labor, Roman authors recognized that the presence of female slaves was a useful, and perhaps necessary, component of a stable household. While the agronomists largely ignored female slaves as a source of labor, they did mention these women as a potential reward and support network for male slaves. Varro argued that allowing estate overseers (praefecti) to have fellow slaves as conjugal partners made them “stronger and more attached to the farm,” and it was on account of these relationships that slave families from Epirus were both very reputable and valued (Rerum rusticarum de agri cultura 1.17.5). Female slaves were also highly valued for their reproductive capacity, which was necessary to replenish the labor force; children of slaves were born as slaves themselves.

    Urban labor.

    There is evidence for a diversity of skilled artisanal work and large-scale manufacturing taking place in urban locations. The best sources for the range of tasks and services being completed is the collection of funerary inscriptions in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. Free people and slaves labored in the same occupations, often working side by side with one another.

    The scope of tasks broadened, yet women still remained centered on the household and personal service, and men on income and material production. Roman cities were financial and industrial hubs at the center of wide-ranging trade routes that spanned the Mediterranean world. Men engaged in a wide variety of commercial and artisanal activities, ideally in accord with their socioeconomic standing. Sons generally learned a trade from their father, although some artisans (especially those without male children) might take on an apprentice. Women worked primarily in service jobs, especially food preparation, hospitality, personal care, and prostitution; storefront commerce; and the manufacture of textiles, clothing, jewelry, and perfume. There is some evidence of women holding more prominent professional positions, but they seem to be the exception rather than the norm in the Roman economy. Female slaves appear as personal attendants and secretaries for women, weavers, seamstresses, midwives, wet nurses, and caregivers for young children. Moreover, as in the case of rural households, women would often work alongside their husbands in a support capacity (especially in less wealthy families), essentially creating family-owned and -operated businesses.

    It was common for artisans to organize themselves into associations (collegia) by craft. Collegia functioned as community support organizations; members and their families came together to fund burials, celebrate religious rituals and holidays, exercise political influence, and provide sustenance and care to associates in need. There is also evidence to suggest that some collegia made use of communal workspaces in order to boost production and profits. Modern scholars have debated the extent to which collegia actually worked as business collectives or guilds, but generally all agree that there were economic and social advantages gained through participation.




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    Matthew J. Perry

    New Testament

    Several difficulties complicate the effort to understand the interaction of gender and economic realities in the New Testament world. Historians of the Roman economy have tended, until recently, to treat economic patterns and questions of mode of production without particular regard to gender. Similarly, historians of Roman law, which was predominantly concerned with property, have discussed women primarily as they appear in the ancient sources: that is, as their behavior as wives, mothers, or daughters affected the property and honor of Roman men. Gender roles, on the other hand, have been more often scrutinized from the perspective of cultural anthropology than of economics. Given the androcentric nature of the New Testament texts and of the cultural matrix in which they were written (and in which they tend still to be interpreted), simply putting gender at the center of analysis and taking women’s roles seriously (a modest definition of feminist scholarship) requires diligent and imaginative effort.

    Through the end of the twentieth century, much mainstream scholarship on the social world of the New Testament was less interested in economic realities than in broad generalizations regarding “honor and shame” cultures and social status. Some scholars could imagine first-century poverty as resulting from “some unfortunate turn of events or some untoward circumstances,” being normally neither enduring, nor pervasive, nor related to fundamental socioeconomic patterns such as class (Malina, 2001, pp. 99–101). Other scholars announced a “new consensus,” according to which the early Christian assemblies constituted a cross-section of Roman society, including a preponderance of individuals from broadly defined middle and lower classes, meeting by necessity in the more spacious homes of a few wealthier and higher-status members. This conclusion was drawn, in part, from Paul’s statement that the Corinthian church had from the beginning included “not many” wise, powerful, or nobly born members—which implied that it did include a few well-to-do members (1 Cor 1:26–27). Whatever differences in socioeconomic status existed in these early assemblies, they were mitigated by the convergence of other factors (gender, ethnicity, family pedigree, education, individual achievement) to produce an indeterminate flux of “ambiguous status” (see Meeks 1983, pp. 51–73). The attraction of the new movement lay not in any promise to bring about significant change in material conditions but, to the contrary, in its practice of a “love patriarchalism” that “allows social inequities to continue but transfuses them with a spirit of concern, of respect, and of personal solicitude” (Theissen, 1978, p. 139).

    Since the turn of the twenty-first century, however, some New Testament scholars have pushed back against this alleged consensus. They have used more sophisticated methods to bear out older observations from classical historians regarding the “steep social pyramid” of ancient Rome, topped by a tiny but powerful and wealthy aristocracy and, at the bottom, a much greater mass of the totally indigent—a reality to which modern language of a middle class “simply does not fit” (MacMullen, 1974, pp. 88–120). Against the tendency to regard poverty as a relative matter of social perception, these scholars insist that poverty was materially an absolute condition for those living “at or near subsistence level, whose prime concern it [was] to obtain the minimum food, shelter, and clothing necessary to sustain life, whose lives [were] dominated by the struggle for physical survival” (Meggitt, 1998, p. 5). The Pauline congregations, no less than the apostle himself, probably “shared in this general experience of deprivation and subsistence” (Meggitt, 1998, p. 75).

    The Economy of the Principate.

    At the beginning of the common era, tremendous wealth flowed into Rome, extracted from the natural resources of conquered lands and from the labor of the ever increasing numbers of the empire’s subjects. To some, the fabulous luxury of Rome was an outrage crying to heaven for redress (Rev 18). But to others, probably the majority of the surviving literary sources, it was evidence of Rome’s superiority and a matter of pride to loyal subjects (witness Aelius Aristides’s Panegyric on Rome, mid-second century C.E.).

    The Principate (beginning with Augustus, the princeps or “first man” in Rome, 27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) marked a dramatic consolidation of the power of the Roman upper classes to extract wealth from the Italian lower classes and, increasingly, from the lands and peoples within the empire’s expanding reach. The Roman Republic had long exemplified what Karl Marx called the “Asiatic” mode of production, and what Gerhard Lenski termed an agrarian tributary empire: a system in which surplus agricultural production (that is, production beyond the subsistence needs of the producers) was effectively reallocated to the metropolitan center. The regular means of redistribution were taxes, tributes, and tithes, revenues normally sacralized by a temple system and represented ideologically as the reciprocity owed to human and divine lords for their beneficence. The facts were more brutal: in its provinces, Rome tended to contract tax collection to locals, free to profit as they might, breeding corruption and considerable cruelty, as Philo (De spec. leg. 2.92–94; 3.158–62) and a wealth of papyri from Roman Egypt attest.

    With the Principate, agricultural economies became increasingly capitalized. Rome incorporated conquered lands into the imperial economy, ensuring the cooperation of local aristocracies by guaranteeing their enrichment. Substantial numbers of people from the lower classes were enslaved and resettled on agricultural plantations in Italy as well as in the provinces. With market prices undermined by slave labor, independent small landholders were further stressed by taxation. Increasingly, their lands were confiscated through foreclosure, and they were reduced to tenancy (sharecropping), or replaced with slaves. Josephus (Ant.) and the Gospels speak to what on some estimates was the conversion of 60 to 70 percent of arable lands in Galilee and Judea to export-oriented agriculture. The elements of this new economy fill Jesus’s parables: newly purchased fields, with newly installed fences and presses; idled men seeking daily hire to work fields at demeaning wages, managed by contemptuous and brutal overseers; produce appropriated by agents, stockpiled in newly constructed barns, until sold (and exported) to enrich owners in distant lands. The influx of slave populations into the economy did not so much alter the agricultural mode of production as alienate it from its traditional moorings in family, clan, and village, and thus reorient it to the generation of profits for strangers.

    New and more exploitative relationships were normalized through the ideology and practice of patronage and clientelism, at least for those above the level of subsistence. (So successful was this ideological project that Roman patronage continues to appear to some contemporary historians both ubiquitous and inevitable, despite the equally abundant evidence of countervailing collective effort and strategies of mutuality among the poor.) Similar persuasive effects were achieved through civic ceremony, panegyric, and iconography, which represented Augustus as the most pious and beneficent of lords and the most solicitous and just of “fathers,” not only as pater patrias (“father of the fatherland”) but also as head of a “household” that included the civil service in Rome.

    The Symbolic Domestication of the Feminine.

    The gender-coded Roman order was expressed in a gender-coded ideology of masculine supremacy and aggression, and feminine docility and weakness. Visual representations of conquered peoples, in monumental sculpture throughout the empire, included vanquished women and children: notoriously, the image on a Roman coin of a defeated Jewish woman seated beneath a palm tree with the legend “Iudaea Capta,” “defeated Judaea.” But such images of defeated women also represented conquered nations in the repertoire of Roman imperial iconography, a blurring of meanings that normalizes both imperial conquest and the patriarchal subordination of women, including their control through physical and sexual violence.

    At the same time, Roman cities, and most spectacularly Rome “herself,” were represented symbolically as idealized, royal, and divinized women, often seated on thrones or wearing crowns (resembling the city’s walls) or other emblems of deity. The cults of Livia, Augustus’s wife, and of the goddess Roma were popular in Greece and Asia Minor. Virtues and ideologically construed aspects of Roman supremacy (peace, victory, fecundity) were likewise represented as idealized, divine feminine figures. The image of the proper Roman matron—tranquil, still, controlled—was ubiquitous. Through such schedules of iconic representation, actual women of the ruling and lower classes alike were schooled in the values of the Roman order. They were invited to suspend their own social experience of the privileges or, more often, the burdens of imperial rule and to identify rather with the projection of one or another heavily symbolic femininity, either representing the Roman order as holy and life-giving or representing subject peoples as destined to submission or degradation. The symbolization of Rome as the “great whore” in Revelation 17 is clearly an aggressive reversal of this encoded imperial strategy, as is the projection into heaven of the sanctified community as an idealized woman, “clothed with the sun” (Rev 12). Notably, the wickedness of the imperial city is manifest in its economic exploitation and devaluation of the whole earth; but no countervailing practices of a just or life-giving economy are named. Rather, the apocalyptic resolution of earthly injustice has become thoroughly transcendent, deferred to the arrival of the heavenly Jerusalem.

    Women in the Rural Economy.

    Women’s prospects were closely circumscribed within agricultural communities like those in Galilee. Strong gender norms prevented their direct involvement in fieldwork or fishing, thus limiting the general productivity of their communities, and confined them to “domestic” work, largely invisible in our sources. Despite their considerable labor in that sphere and its indirect contribution to clan and village alike, their welfare remained dependent on male relations—fathers, then husbands, then sons—by custom and by law. (We learn that a number of women accompanied Jesus and his male disciples to Jerusalem only because they are mentioned performing the gender-specific work of “serving” the men [diakonein: Matt 27:55, Mark 15:41]. Otherwise, their identities are lost to us—were they wives, daughters, sisters of the male disciples, or independent women acting on their own? Their presence in other Gospel scenes is quite invisible.) The situation of rural women was inevitably worsened when their villages lost control over their production to bankers and tax “farmers.” When women are mentioned in the Gospel accounts, they often appear in desperate situations: awaiting food in hungry throngs (Matt 14:21; 15:38), mourning the loss of a last male relative (Luke 7:11–12), being beaten by a wicked fellow slave (Luke 12:45), ransacking the house in search of a single coin (Luke 15:8), imploring justice from an indifferent judge (Luke 18:2–6), contributing the last fragments of livelihood to the upkeep of the Temple (Mark 12:42–43; Luke 21:2–3). Widows were especially vulnerable; social legislation in the Torah made them dependent on the brothers of the deceased husband or, failing these, on the community’s aid, but their stereotyped mention as objects of pity suggests that these mechanisms were inadequate to make up the loss of a husband.

    If, as some have argued, Jesus’s intentions included a revitalization of traditional village economic life and resistance to the inroads of financial capitalization, women would inevitably have benefited, albeit indirectly. But women’s economic status is not itself described as an explicit concern in his interactions with them, which tend instead to align with the norms of patriarchal honor. Thus, Jesus is described as defending a woman accused of adultery from the prescribed death penalty (John 8:3–11), but he does not address the selective prosecution of the woman alone (see Lev 20:10). Neither his rejection of divorce (Matt 19:3–8; Mark 10:2–12) nor his answer to the Sadducees’ question regarding a woman married in succession to seven brothers (Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–38) mentions the wife’s welfare as a concern. His refusal of aid to a woman’s sick child (Matt 15:22–28; Mark 7:25–30) is couched in an ethnic insult (“dogs”), and it is overcome by the woman’s persistence (her “faith”), not by an awakened solicitousness on Jesus’s part for her or her child’s welfare.

    Even the large-scale infusion of slave labor into agricultural plantations did not markedly improve food production in the empire; it simply made agriculture more profitable for the landowners. Peasants, sharecroppers, and slaves probably never provided more than enough surplus to feed a tenth of the empire’s population (those living in cities). Cooperative efforts among the urban poor toward mutual survival inevitably fell short of the capacity for self-sufficiency that was imaginable in rural areas; thus, the early communities of Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem and Judea were unable to sustain egalitarian ideals for long. Luke describes the “apostolic communism” practiced in Jerusalem in ideal terms (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–37), but then reports that this amazing meeting of everyone’s needs depended on a daily distribution of food that proved unreliable or unsustainable, leaving out some widows (Acts 6:1–2). Luke never reports the problem’s resolution, proceeding instead to narrate the spread of apostolic preaching. (The long-lived hypothesis that communities of Jesus’s followers remained vital in Galilee after his death is an extrapolation from prophecies in Matt 26:32; 28:7, 10; Mark 14:28; 16:7; alas, these are no substitute for hints at socioeconomic realities.)

    Women in Urban Households.

    In urban households as well as rural, women’s labor was chiefly confined to the domestic sphere: nursing, child care, preparing food, and providing clothing for the family, all labor-intensive activities but generally invisible in our sources. Female slaves were similarly more occupied with domestic tasks than with manufacture, where male slaves predominated. Female and male slaves alike were subject to the indignity of sexual use by their masters and their masters’ guests, but in the domestic sphere, female slaves were more common and thus perhaps more commonly abused.

    We know, especially from funerary inscriptions, of women active in crafts and trade, but they are a minority and generally appear in gender-specific roles (food preparation, clothing manufacture, hospitality, prostitution). Probably necessity dictated that many women worked alongside their husbands (e.g., Priscilla and Aquila, Acts 18:2–3), and probably far more often than appears in our sources. To speak of such craftworkers as “middle class” would, again, be anachronistic.

    Luke’s naming of Lydia, a woman of some means and apparent independence (Acts 16:14–15), was probably meant to encourage other such women of means to emulate her hospitality, but we cannot say how many such women there were. Augustus’s marriage legislation in 17 B.C.E. and 9 C.E. has often been hailed as “liberalizing,” allowing women more economic independence. This understanding of the legislation has spawned speculation regarding the creation of a subclass of “new” women available as leaders and patrons to the nascent Christian assemblies (and as a source of vexation to the apostle Paul, who considered their expressions of freedom from more conventional mores personally shocking and disruptive to the assembly). That legislation, however, probably affected a small number of elite women in Rome and the provinces. It had the effect, and probably the purpose, of allowing a growing aristocracy to accumulate and retain more wealth, thus fixing the gulf of economic disparity, even as it presented to the lower classes a picture of a more stable, and more virtuous, ruling class.

    But what of the role of women as benefactors of the early church? The picture of an assembly gathered in the spacious dining room of a wealthy patron, drawn from excavations of grand estates in well-heeled neighborhoods of Athens and Rome, still predominates in scholarly imagination, but it is giving way to a very different picture of “tenement churches” gathered in the courtyards and common areas of the close-packed apartment buildings and insulae (islands) that covered most of the residential areas of Roman cities. On the second view, women’s leadership would have been more congruent with their management of “domestic” space. Here, patronage (as traditionally understood) would have been less important than practices of economic mutuality as the social interstitial tissue of the early movement.

    But the rhetoric of patronage, of gratitude for benefits received, could be adapted to promote and encourage mutually advantageous actions in communities where gross inequalities of status and wealth, that is, the asymmetry usually taken to define patronage, were the exception. Note that Paul readily identified a number of women associates, ostensibly as apostolic peers and even superiors and benefactors: for example, Phoebe, “deacon” and “benefactor” (prostatis) of Paul and many others ((Rom 16:1–2); Prisca, a co-worker, who with her husband risked her life for Paul (Rom 16:3); Junia, who with Andronicus (her husband?) was “prominent among the apostles” and “in Christ before” him (Rom 16:7).

    Women’s Patronage and Women’s Mutuality.

    Nowhere have these issues been more closely examined—and contested—than in Corinth. Paul’s letters (as we have them, fragmentarily, in 1 and 2 Corinthians) give us our most detailed information about social realities in that assembly. Gerd Theissen’s landmark work (1978) saw economic stratification in the congregation as the primary factor in the range of controversies that occupy those letters. An explosion of subsequent studies have sought to relate archaeological and inscriptional data, models of social and economic relationships, and Paul’s rhetoric, though often on the assumption (albeit often implicit) that Paul’s “opponents” were high-status Corinthian men. Antoinette Clark Wire’s “reconstruction” of the Corinthian “women prophets” proceeds instead on the assumption that since women were clearly present and the community’s questions about marriage occupied Paul’s attention, women in Corinth were a significant target of Paul’s rhetoric in 1 Corinthians. Observing that women are directly in view at several points in the letter (7:1–39; 11:2–16; 14:34–35), Wire further argues that they are the primary target of the whole of the letter. Wealthy and powerful males may have been present, but what drives Paul’s letter, Wire argues, is the discrepancy between his own social experience of having lost privilege and status, a loss he identifies with coming to “know Christ” (see Phil 3:7–11), and the experience of lower-status women who have found new freedom and opportunities as they gather in Christ’s name and in the power of the Spirit.

    One of the contributions of Wire’s work is to articulate a plausible interaction between gender and economic status in Corinth. The measure of autonomy experienced by some Corinthian women as sanctified members of a community of equals implies their freedom from the constraint of patriarchal marriage. Wire considers Augustus’s “liberalizing” legislation a possible factor, but also infers from 1 Corinthians 7 that women have taken the initiative to withdraw from betrothals and to withdraw sexually from their marriages (if not actually to divorce). Subsequently other scholars have suggested that higher-status women, enjoying new privileges under the Augustan “reform” legislation, began to appear in public in ways that obscured or removed the cultural signals of their “belonging” to their husbands. Wire’s argument goes in a different direction, suggesting that the material condition enabling the autonomous practices of lower-status holy women in Corinth is the mutual support they have found in the Spirit-filled gatherings of the assembly, separate from the conventionally patriarchal lines of marriage and patronage. Another contribution of the work is Wire’s framing of Paul’s rhetorical response less as a matter of strategic calculation, his desire to safeguard “his” church, than as expressing the social perception of a higher-status male who regards his own experience of status loss as normative for the assemblies.

    We know from the late second- or early third-century Acts of Paul that at least in some Christian communities, the “gospel” Paul proclaimed was remembered as including the autonomy of women free from the constraints of marriage. Thecla, who responds to Paul’s “gospel of virginity,” breaks off her engagement to a Roman aristocrat. Her own subsequent evangelization in cities of Asia Minor draws other women away from high-status husbands and fiancés, eliciting anger from the offended men and civil efforts to punish the offending women. Missing from the story, however, is any reference to such practices among these women as might sustain them materially as a community. One possible inference is that at least for the intended audience of the text, the practice of Pauline “virginity” is an option primarily for women of independent means. The text proved quite popular nevertheless, surviving in numerous copies, including early Greek Bibles.

    Meanwhile, the pseudo-Pauline writings that proved far more successful (Ephesians, Colossians 1, 2 Timothy, Titus) adopted an unambiguous program of subordination of slaves and wives alike. These texts do not simply identify proper attitudes within the life of a worshipping congregation; they also powerfully reinforce the embedment of economic power and control in the patriarchal household, rather than the potentially more egalitarian assembly.




    • Friesen, Steven J. “Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-called New Consensus.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26, no. 3 (March 2004): 323–361.
    • Gardner, Jane F. Women in Roman Law and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
    • Garnsey, Peter, and Richard Saller. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
    • Hopkins, Keith. Conquerors and Slaves. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
    • Lopez, Davina. Apostle to the Conquered: Re-Imagining Paul’s Mission. Paul in Critical Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.
    • MacMullen, Ramsay. Roman Social Relations 50 B.C. to A.D. 284. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 1974.
    • Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3d ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
    • Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983.
    • Meggitt, Justin J. Paul, Poverty, and Survival. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998.
    • Osiek, Carolyn, and Margaret Y. MacDonald, with Janet H. Tulloch. A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.
    • Saller, Richard. “Women, Slaves, and the Economy of the Roman Household.” In Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, edited by David L. Balch and Carolyn Osiek, pp. 185–204. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003.
    • Ste. Croix, G. E. M. de. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981.
    • Theissen, Gerd. The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth. Translated by John Schütz. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.
    • Wire, Antoinette Clark. The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction through Paul’s Rhetoric. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.

    Neil Elliott

    Early Judaism

    The study of gender and economics in early Judaism is beset by the same difficulties as any investigation that seeks to move beyond the androcentric gaze. In ancient sources all people are men unless otherwise specified. Social and economic differentiation based on sex and consequently constructed gender roles are discussed only insomuch as they intrude, for good or for ill, upon an otherwise exclusively male reality. Women (like children and those of low social status) appear only occasionally in ancient sources. On such occasions, information about them can rarely be taken at face value.

    Literary and documentary sources comprise the two broad categories of evidence pertaining to gender and economics in early Judaism. Literary sources speak of “women” as an abstract category, prescribing how they should behave or where they ought to be without reference to individual women or the realities of everyday life. Authors also invoke women as rhetorical stereotypes, emblematic of either good or evil. Documentary evidence, on the other hand, offers specific information about individual women but without indicating the degree to which their circumstances should be taken as representative of most or all women. Hence, literary sources are unhelpfully general and stereotypic, while documentary data are frustratingly particular and specific.

    Despite the problematic nature of these sources, their evidence permits the broad conclusion that women made significant contributions to the economic and social structures of their communities, however much those contributions went unacknowledged or contravened idealized visions of Jewish society. Women worked, inherited, owned, and sold property; lent and donated money; initiated legal proceedings to assert their rights; and received public recognition for contributions to their communities.

    Literary Sources.

    In many respects, postbiblical literature takes its attitudes toward women from biblical precedents. The sign of Abraham’s covenant was marked upon men only, by means of circumcision. God’s commandments were given to and incumbent upon Israel’s male members at Sinai. Proverbs’ wisdom addressed “my son” specifically, not “my child” as some inclusive-language English translations would have it. The prophetic books metaphorically position Israel as a harlot who, after chastisement, could regain her status as a virtuous wife. While the biblical text does allow for greater ambiguity in the characters of some individual women, women in the abstract have little middle ground between the extremes of virtue and vice.

    In other ways, however, the opportunities available to virtuous women—at least in the literary rhetoric of male authors—decline in the postbiblical period. Whereas the capable wife of Proverbs 31 is actively and publically engaged in commerce and receives praise for her economic and social contributions to the household, many early Jewish authors appear to adopt the Hellenistic ideal that modest women are properly secluded. This ideal is prescriptive rather than reflective of an actual change in economic and social possibilities open to women, perhaps indicating the adoption/adaption of Greek gender values by Jewish authors.

    Postbiblical literary sources tend to place women in one of two categories: paragons of virtue or epitomes of vice. By implication, all women fit into one or the other of these categories. Any knowledge of women’s social and economic opportunities in early Judaism is filtered through an author’s idea of how those opportunities might classify a woman as virtuous or unrighteous. The remarks that the following postbiblical literary sources make on the economic and social realms open to Jewish women in the Hellenistic and Roman periods must be read in light of the aforementioned tendencies of the writers to speak generally, prescriptively, and categorically about women and their activities. Nonetheless, they provide occasional comments about social and economic factors pertaining to women that transcend generalizations and offer small glimpses into issues such as employment possibilities, legal standing and guardianship, inheritance, and property ownership.

    Philo of Alexandria.

    Philo epitomizes the practice of dividing women into two groups: pious wives who modestly remain in seclusion and harlots who do not. In Special Laws 3.169 he lists various occupations suitable for Jewish men before noting that women are best suited to staying behind closed doors. Philo’s experience of women appears to have occurred among the upper classes of cosmopolitan Alexandria, among whom the practice of seclusion was more feasible.

    More usefully, Philo reveals that, at least in Alexandria, some Jewish women followed the Roman practice of tutela and were represented by a guardian for legal and financial purposes (Special Laws 3.67). His brief comment does not reveal whether this practice was universal or mandatory among the Jewish communities of Hellenistic Egypt.

    Flavius Josephus.

    Josephus discusses the prominent women of Jewish history from biblical characters to Hasmonean and Herodian royalty but spends little time discussing the role of women in Jewish society more generally. He concurs with the Torah prohibition on women as witnesses, noting that their boldness and levity make them unsuitable (Jewish Antiquities 4.219), so it appears that this stricture was still in place in the first century C.E. Josephus also notes, critically, that the Herodian princess Salome presented her husband with a note of divorce (Antiquities 15.259). Jewish law (Deut 24:1–4) gives that right only to husbands, but Salome may have taken advantage of Roman legal precedent.

    Third Maccabees.

    The inaccurately named 3 Maccabees shares Philo’s expectation that modest women remain secluded. When, according to the story, Ptolemy IV attempts to enter the Jerusalem Temple, the population of Jerusalem is thrown into disarray and mourning, to the extent that mothers and nurses abandon infants and young women their secluded chambers (3 Macc 1:18–20). While the author’s comment clearly comes as part of a hyperbolic description of the lengths to which the Jerusalem community went to protect the sanctity of the Temple, it illustrates the expectation that young women remain secluded.


    Judith, a postbiblical novella, takes numerous liberties with historical fact to establish its fictional character. With that practice in mind, a reader cannot be sure how seriously to take the comment that Judith inherited and maintained the estate of her husband, Manasseh, including money, slaves, livestock, and land (Jdt 8:7B). Heroines of novellas were necessarily beautiful and pious; they were usually wealthy as well, and it is possible that the inheritance mentioned is simply part of a plot device to portray Judith with the requisite endowments. On the other hand, inheritance by daughters was a continually contested issue in both biblical and postbiblical periods.

    Testament of Job.

    In light of Judith’s inheritance, the pseudepigraphic Testament of Job’s disinheriting of Job’s daughters is of particular interest. The biblical book of Job mentions that his daughters were given an inheritance along with their brothers (Job 42:15B). The Testament of Job changes the story to say that they were given protective amulets or girdles, which, when they put them on, transformed the women into angels singing hymns to the mysteries of heaven (T. Job 46–50). While the author of the Testament might have considered his change a positive one for the daughters, this revision alters one of the few biblical stories of daughterly inheritance (cf. Num 27 on the daughters of Zelophehad).

    The Damascus Document.

    The sectarian literature of the Qumran community—an at least intermittently celibate group of male would-be priests—is an unexpected source for information on Jewish women’s social and economic roles. Contrary to expectation, the Damascus Document includes women within its vision of the community. Moreover, women’s legal circumstances are improved upon in comparison with biblical law in several ways.

    First, witnesses must testify to a women’s immodest behavior and a hearing must be held where the accused may defend herself before she can be made to undergo the test for adultery (cf. Num 5). Similarly, if a prospective husband has suspicions about his fiancée, she must be examined before the wedding rather than after, thus risking only shame rather than the execution demanded by Deuteronomy 22:20–21. Women also benefit economically from the community’s prohibition of polygyny.

    The sectarian community’s authoritarian structure and emphasis on purity also meant that, in many cases, men’s actions and bodies are regulated with a stringency elsewhere required only of women. While women of the community were still as strictly regulated in terms of purity and sexual behaviors as elsewhere in Jewish society, men lost some of their normative freedoms and privilege through submission to the authority of the community.

    Finally, the Damascus Document describes a community that appears to welcome women’s participation in its institutions. Girls and boys both received an education. Contrary to biblical law, women’s oaths were honored and women were able to take the oath of covenant and become full members of the community. As full members, they could participate in restricted community meetings. A group of elder women, “the Mothers,” might have had lesser status than the corresponding “Fathers,” but were still recognized as an authoritative body.

    The New Testament.

    Ordinarily a useful source for some elements of early Judaism, the New Testament has more to say about the economic and social circumstances of Paul’s female gentile converts, such as Lydia, the purple-cloth dealer of Acts 16:14–15, than about Jesus’s Jewish female followers. Like his male followers, they were presumably peasants who had no means or standing. Luke 8:3 briefly mentions a group of women who provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their own resources. The New Testament includes no socially or economically prominent Jewish women comparable to Nicodemus (John 3) or the rich young man (Mark 10:17–22).

    Rabbinic texts.

    Rabbinic attitudes toward women are as varied as the texts themselves and cannot easily be summarized. Exceptional women appear occasionally in the pages of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmuds. One of the best known is Beruriah, whose expertise in Torah was acknowledged as equal to that of male scholars. Generally, however, the rabbis adhere to the idealized vision of pious women as separated and secluded, even while their stories and discussions belie that prescriptive ideal. Women in rabbinic texts attend synagogue, buy and sell goods at the market, and participate in the social events of their communities. While it is clear that not all rabbinic voices approve of the many activities in which Jewish women were engaged, it is also evident that their disapprobation was not universal.

    Documentary Sources.

    Literary sources are supplemented in the postbiblical period with two types of documentary evidence:

    • (1) archives, receipts, and other personal social and economic records, and
    • (2) inscriptions documenting women’s social prominence and economic wherewithal in the form of donations.

    These types of data are invaluable for countering literature’s prescriptive notions of how early Jewish women should participate in economic and social activities.

    As significant as these finds are, they represent only the tiniest fraction of Jewish women in the postbiblical period. To say anything substantive about women generally based on these documentary data requires extrapolation from a very small number of examples.

    The women represented in the following papyrological and epigraphic sources are primarily property owners and financial patrons. Their social and economic circumstances should not be taken as normative or representative of those of all Jewish women.

    An additional difficulty with documentary data, particularly inscriptions, is their deceptively straightforward nature, which has contributed to a false notion that such data do not require interpretation. In reality, inscriptions and other documentary data are as affected by social conditions as literary texts, albeit in different ways. The ongoing disagreement over whether titles such as “head of the synagogue” and others are primarily religious or socioeconomic in their implication exemplifies the challenge of interpreting laconic epigraphic statements. Despite their difficulties, documentary data are an excellent complement to literary sources for determining how gender shaped social and economic conditions in early Judaism, in some places confirming and in others expanding upon the possibilities open to women in social and economic spheres.

    The Nahal Hever archives.

    Used as a hiding place during the Bar Kochba revolt, the so-called Cave of Letters yielded some of the best-preserved documentary evidence for Jewish lives in the second-century C.E. Roman province of Arabia. Notable among these documents are the collections of legal documents belonging to two Jewish women, Babatha and Salome Komaise, from the village of Maoza on the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea. Their archives offer concrete examples of how issues of property, inheritance, and guardianship, discussed generally and rhetorically in literature, played out in the real lives of Jewish women.

    Analysis of the legal documents in the Babatha and Salome Komaise archives suggests that Jewish women could and did receive, own, sell, and gift property but could not inherit property from either their husbands or their fathers. In contrast to the biblical succession in Numbers 27:8, which says that daughters would inherit after sons but before brothers of a deceased man, the archives indicate that the brother and nephews of a deceased man took precedence over daughters. To circumvent these inheritance practices, property was transferred to wives and daughters in the form of gifts. Thus Babatha’s father gifted property to both his wife and his daughter; Babatha’s second husband gifted property to the daughter of his first marriage; and Salome Komaise received a gift of property from her mother, Salome Grapte. Inheritance customs might have disenfranchised women, but strategies existed to protect their financial interests.

    When given property, the women in the Nahal Hever archive appear to have retained control over it regardless of their marital status. Although her stepfather witnessed the gift made to Salome Komaise by her mother, this new husband was not otherwise involved in the legal disposition of his wife’s property. Babatha’s claim to ownership of four date groves is in her own name without reference to her second husband, Yehudah. Another contract documents a loan of 300 denarii made by Babatha to Yehudah, further attesting to her control of her own financial resources.

    Evidence in the archives also demonstrates that women could sell or gift their property to others. As mentioned, Salome Komaise’s mother makes a gift of property to her daughter, perhaps on the occasion of the latter’s marriage. Babatha’s father purchased a date grove from a Nabataean woman, ’Abi‘adan.

    Philo’s comment that guardians represented women in legal and financial matters is at least partially supported by the documents in the Nahal Hever archives. Husbands most commonly served as guardians of their wives in the archive documents, except in cases where the document consists of a contract between husband and wife, in which case another man, often a family member, served as guardian. Despite their presence, there is little indication in the Nahal Hever archives that male administrators exercised any real control over the financial dealings of the women over whom they had guardianship.

    Although the issue of guardianship does not seem to have inhibited women’s control of their own financial matters, guardianship did create a problem for Babatha because she could not act as a guardian for her son from her first marriage. Instead two guardians were appointed by the town council. Babatha had several legal interactions to ensure that these guardians acted in the best interest of her son. Jewish tradition considered children of deceased fathers to be orphans, and Babatha refers to her son in this manner in documents pertaining to him.

    Evidence from the Nahal Hever archives suggests that while inheritance laws disenfranchised women, in practice Jewish families had alternative means to protect the financial interests of women. Once property was legally in female hands, no restrictions were apparently imposed upon its use, sale, or disposition. Women were in some cases represented by male guardians in their legal and financial transactions, but were not apparently constrained by their representation. In Babatha’s case, however, the rules of guardianship did affect her insomuch as her son was considered an orphan and taken from her control after the death of her first husband.

    Egyptian papyri.

    Papyrus documents preserved by the dry Egyptian climate and published in the Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum (CPJ) offer small snapshots into the social and economic circumstances of Jewish women in the postbiblical period. While no multidocument archives comparable to those of Babatha or Salome Komaise have been found to date, individual documents supplement our knowledge of possibilities open to Jewish women in Roman Egypt.

    Little is known about jobs or professions available to women outside the home. Household tasks of both wives and female slaves or servants are known from various sources. The picture of women’s employment opportunities is augmented by contracts for the engagement of Jewish women as wetnurses (CPJ 146 and 147). These contracts document one of the only known extramural, income-earning jobs available to a group almost exclusively unrepresented in any source: Jewish freed- or free women of lower economic status.

    Philo’s comment on the practice of guardianship is substantiated in the Egyptian papyri, although, as at Nahal Hever, Jewish women do not seem impeded by their guardians in the transaction of business. Guardianship aside, the Egyptian papyri likewise demonstrate Jewish women’s capacity to control and administer property independently. Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum 453 attests to a female property owner leasing her land to a tenant. In Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum 26, a woman stands as the guarantor of a loan between two men.

    In the matter of inheritance, Jewish women in Egypt appear to have been able to inherit directly, in contrast to the situation described by the Nahal Hever documents. Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum 143 documents the receipt of half a total inheritance of 200 silver drachmae and terms for distribution of the balance to a Jewish woman. In Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum 455, a Jewish woman complains of theft from a threshing floor that she had inherited from her husband. The capacity to inherit could also be a mixed blessing. Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum 148 attests to a Jewish freedwoman inheriting the debt of her patron.

    The Egyptian papyri support the general picture of Jewish women’s social and economic circumstances evident in contemporaneous literary sources and documentary evidence. At the same time, however, differences in details such as inheritance practices caution against drawing overly universal or broad conclusions. Local customs likely dictated the particular opportunities available to women in a given time and area.

    Epigraphic evidence.

    Inscriptions in both Palestine and the Mediterranean Diaspora attest to Jewish women donating money to their communities’ synagogues as well as to other civic projects. Financial patronage of both civic and private institutions is well attested in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Some Jewish communities apparently emulated this practice, albeit with various adaptations.

    A woman named Theopempte, referred to as a head of the synagogue, and her son Eusebios donated a chancel screen to a synagogue in Caria. Jael, a prostates (patron), together with her son Josua, heads a list of financial patrons in the city of Aphrodisias. Nine women are credited with financing various lengths of mosaic floor at the synagogue in Apamea, each “in fulfillment of a vow,” for the salvation of herself and her family. These inscriptions are just a few of the many testifying to various forms of women’s financial contributions to Jewish community institutions.

    A singularly unusual inscription is that of Rufina from Smyrna, which documents that she, a Jew and head of the synagogue, constructed a tomb for the exclusive use of her and her husband’s freedpersons and slaves. Rufina is given sole credit for the construction of the tomb without mention of whether the aforementioned husband is deceased or living.

    The question of whether women’s financial support of synagogues constituted “leadership” and was sometimes rewarded in Greco-Roman fashion with titles of honor has yet to be definitively resolved. In some cases, like those of Theopempte and Jael, titles and donations are linked, while elsewhere, as at Apamea, no such designations are given. This ambiguity leaves open the question of how to understand titles in nondonative contexts, such as the numerous funerary inscriptions that commemorate titled women.

    The discussion of titles and women usually falls under the rubric of women’s religious role in early Judaism rather than their socioeconomic roles. In this situation, however, the two categories cannot easily be distinguished. Whether or not women were named head of the synagogue, mother of the synagogue, elder, etc. because they gave money, it does seem likely that once named, monetary support was part and parcel of their role. Regardless of whether these titles are seen as having primarily religious or economic import, their inclusion in funerary inscriptions attests to such titles’ concomitant social significance for those who held them.


    In contrast to earlier periods, the study of how gender affected social and economic conditions in early Jewish communities benefits from a greater variety of complementary source material. The prescriptive, generic view of women provided by literary sources’ elite male gaze is nuanced by highly individualized documentary data on particular, but perhaps unrepresentative, women. Taken together, sources indicate that a variety of social and economic opportunities were available to Jewish women in the postbiblical period. These opportunities, however, were as heterogeneous and variable as other aspects of Jewish communities at the time and preclude generalizations about economics, society, and gender in early Judaism.




      Primary Sources

      • Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae. 3 vols. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010–2012.
      • The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1989–2002.
      • Horbury, William, and David Noy, eds. Jewish Inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
      • Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. 3 vols. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2004.
      • Noy, David, ed. Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993–1995.
      • Tcherikover, Victor A., ed. Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957–1964.

      Secondary Sources

      • Baker, Cynthia M. Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.
      • Brooten, Bernadette. Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982.
      • Greenfield, Jonas. “The Texts from Naḥal Ṣe’elim (Wadi Seiyal).” In The Madrid Qumran Congress: Proceedings of the International Congress on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Madrid 18–21 March, 1991, edited by Julio Trebolle Barrera and Luis Vegas Montaner, pp. 661–665. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1992.
      • Ilan, Tal. Integrating Women into Second Temple History. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001.
      • Kriger, Diane. Sex Rewarded, Sex Punished: A Study of the Status “Female Slave” in Early Jewish Law. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2011.
      • Meyers, Carol, ed. Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
      • Oudshoorn, Jacobine G. The Relationship between Roman and Local Law in the Babatha and Salome Komaise Archives: General Analysis and Three Case Studies on Law of Succession, Guardianship, and Marriage. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.
      • Wassen, Cecilia. Women in the Damascus Document. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.

    Carrie Elaine Duncan

    Early Church

    A study of economics and gender in the early church reveals both Greek and Roman influence, as well as points of divergence from those influences. As with the Greeks and Romans, early Christians understood space as either private or public, with women belonging in private space and men in public space. That the early church accepted this may be seen in the deutero-Pauline household codes and in the Didascalia’s opposing depictions of the “good” widow who “remains at home” and the “bad” widow who is a “gadabout.” Indeed, in exhorting women to keep to their homes, the Didascalia likens good women to the altar of God, stating, “For the altar of God never strays or runs about anywhere, but is fixed in one place” (15.3.6). As a result of this gendered division of space, a gendered division of labor developed. However, this ideal representation did not necessarily reflect the reality of the lives of Greek, Roman, or Christian women.


    Literary, epigraphic, and documentary evidence are the main sources of information about the roles of women in the ancient economy. It is undisputed that certain biases and constraints accompany each body of evidence: literary evidence presents the perspectives of elite, literate men; epigraphic evidence, particularly funerary inscriptions, likely reveals more about ancient ideals than ancient reality; and documentary evidence is overwhelmingly geographically limited to those regions in Egypt where conditions lent themselves to the preservation of papyri. Taken together and interpreted according to its genre and context, however, our evidence does illuminate our understanding of economics and gender in the early church.

    Labor in the Private Domain.

    The labor involved in ensuring the smooth functioning of the household economy was almost certainly entirely undertaken by women. Throughout history, housework performed by elite and nonelite women included childcare, textile production (spinning, weaving, sewing, and mending of clothes), food preparation, and water carrying (Pomeroy, 1995; Treggiari, 1979). Christian women engaged in similar work.


    Literary evidence of different genres, including household codes, letters, and apocryphal texts, consistently emphasizes the role of women in bearing and caring for children. A number of Christian examples of reliefs of women bathing infants have also been found in Roman Ostia (Kampen, 1981). Women might also work in the home of another woman as a wet nurse or a nurse.

    The ongoing nature of childcare is attested in P. Benaki 4 (fourth century C.E.), a letter from a mother to her son informing him that she had sent him “a basket of parsley roots, a basket of shoots (?) and a basket of some small raisins.” He was then given these instructions: “Wash them and put them outside in the sun, wherever possible. Then put them into a funnel and two Knidian jars, and, when you have them ground into flour, let me know by letter” (Bagnall and Cribiore, 2006, p. 326). Clearly, this Christian mother continued to care for her son, who was evidently grown and independent. Even women in monastic communities engaged in childcare, as attested by a letter from Maria, a nun, to Apa Kyriakos, her anchorite, in which she reported that she had taken an orphan into her home (O. Brit. Mus.Copt. add. 23, sixth to eighth centuries C.E.).

    Textile production.

    Christian women were encouraged to engage in textile production, as attested in Jerome’s advice on how to raise a daughter: “Let her learn too how to spin wool, to hold the distaff, to put the basket in her lap, to turn the spinning wheel and to shape the yarn with her thumb” (Letter 107.10; translation in Kraemer, 2004, p. 174). Textile production freed the mind for prayer (Jerome, Letter 130.15), and the clothes produced, which were to be warm and modest, could be worn, sold (with the proceeds being given to the poor), or given to the poor directly (Clark, 1993). Evidence that Christian women did engage in weaving may be found in P.Oxy. 31.2599 (third to fourth century C.E.). In this letter, the woman Tayris wrote to her father, Apitheon, to request that weaving equipment, specifically, two weaver’s combs, be sent to her. She also mentioned that Didyme should continue to make “double thick material” (translation in Rowlandson, 1998, pp. 269–70; see also Bagnall and Cribiore, 2006, pp. 400–401).

    Food preparation.

    In his description of the housewife, Jerome acknowledges the work performed in the private domain by women and then places a further burden on her shoulders, namely, the practice of hospitality:

    "Over there the babies are prattling, the children hang on her for kisses, the accounts are being added up, and the money got ready for payment. Here a posse of cooks, girded for action, is pounding meat, and a crowd of weaving-women chattering. Then a message comes that her husband has brought his friends home. She circles the rooms like a swallow: is the couch smooth? Have they swept the floor? Are the cups properly set out? Is dinner ready?" (Against Helvidius 20; translation in Clark, 1993, p. 99)

    In this text, the wife oversees not only childcare, financial transactions (on which, see below), and textile production but also food preparation for the members of the household and her husband’s friends.

    In ascetic communities, women continued to bear this responsibility. Thus, according to Gregory of Nyssa, Macrina baked bread with her own hands, while Paula and her daughter prepared vegetables together (Life of Macrina 11). Food preparation and other kitchen work was thought to develop humility. Thus, Palladius told the story of a member of the Pachomian convent at Tabennisi who “showed her humility by insisting on staying in the kitchen doing menial tasks, even when it was not her turn” (Lausiac Hist. 34; Clark, 1993, p. 103).

    Labor in the Public Domain.

    While the Greek and Roman ideal was one in which labor undertaken in the public sphere was the responsibility of men, other bodies of evidence reveal that women could and did labor in the public domain as well.

    Preparing women for work.

    Most girls would have learned the skills necessary to manage a household from her parents. It was also possible for girls to learn a trade through an apprenticeship, as attested by three apprenticeship contracts for freeborn females. In P.Heid. 4.326 (98 C.E.), “a man and a woman entrust their daughter to another man and another woman” (van Minnen, 1998, p. 201) and P.Heid. 4.327 (99 C.E.) refers to this earlier document, identifying it as an apprenticeship contract for the daughter. In a second apprenticeship contract (SB 18.13305, 271 C.E.), a man entrusted a girl to a craftswoman named Aurelia Libouke, and in a third apprenticeship contract (KSB I 045, eighth century C.E.), a woman entrusted her daughter to a craftswoman named Maria (van Minnen, 1998).

    That Christian girls should be educated is clear from Origen’s practice of teaching both men and women (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.8.2). It is also suggested by the circulation of Coptic versions of the Acts of Paul and Thecla in Christian Egypt, in which Thecla was depicted as being able to write to her son from prison (Rowlandson, 1998). The belief that Christian girls should be educated is most prominently seen in the importance that Jerome placed on literacy for girls. Thus, his letter to Eustochium included the following advice on the rearing of her daughter:

    "Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound. Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the style upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these. Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in." (Jerome, Letter 107.4; translation in Kraemer, 2004, p. 170)

    As she progressed in the skills of reading and writing, she should also learn Greek and Latin (Jerome, Letter 107.9). The ultimate goal of this education was to enable her to read the scriptures.

    Women as scribes.

    Literate women were sometimes employed as scribes (Gk. grammateusasa and/or kalligraphia, Lat. libraria), as attested in both Greek and Latin inscriptions (e.g., CIL 6.3979, 7373, 8882, 9301, 9525, 9541, 9542, 33892, 37802), as well as in “an early second-century marble relief from Rome that preserves an illustration of a female record keeper or clerk” (Haines-Eitzen, 2000, pp. 44–47). According to Eusebius, Origen, while still in Alexandria in 232 C.E., worked with female scribes: “As [Origen] dictated there were ready at hand more than seven shorthand-writers, who relieved each other at fixed times, and as many copyists, as well as girls trained for beautiful writing” (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.23; translation in Haines-Eitzen, 2000, p. 42). This is consistent with the later accounts of Melania the Younger (ca. 383–439 C.E.), who “copied them [the Old and New Testaments] herself and furnished copies to the saints by her own hands” (Gerontius, Life 26; translation in Haines-Eitzen, 2000, p. 48) and the monastic women at the convent of Caesaria the Younger in Arles who “beautifully copy out the holy books” (Vita Caesarius 1.58; translation in Haines-Eitzen, 2000, p. 49).

    Women in sales and services.

    In her study of inscriptions, Treggiari noted that a woman’s name was frequently paired with a man’s, suggesting that many women worked alongside their husbands in public spaces. Thus, she concludes, “it would seem reasonable that the wife specialised in selling, while her husband produced the goods in the back shop” (Treggiari, 1979, p. 76). Indeed, some women did work as dealers of such items as perfume, incense, or purple, and one Christian woman is known to have been a bottle seller (lagunaria). A woman might also work in the public domain at tasks associated with the private domain if the work was organized at a commercial scale, as was the case for some women weavers.

    Women might also offer services as an innkeeper, a cookshop owner, or a brothel keeper; women who worked in inns or cookshops were also expected to offer the services of a prostitute (Treggiari, 1979). Certainly, the early church frowned on this practice.

    Women and financial transactions.

    A woman might engage in financial transactions by administering the family estate following the death of her husband. She might also do so following a divorce, for if the marriage had been arranged without manus (authority) and her father was deceased, then the dowry would be returned to the divorced woman, who would then have control over its management. It is unclear whether the practice of the early church involved marriages with or without manus. It is clear, however, that divorce was not encouraged in the early church. Rather, marriage was conceived as a lifelong arrangement (Clark, 1993). Thus, examples involving Christian women engaged in financial transactions likely have widows in view.

    There is evidence attesting that Christian women managed their family’s finances. In P.Mich. 3.221 (296 C.E.), Ploutogenia wrote to her mother concerning financial transactions: “The bronze vessels that you have by you, give them to Atas and then get them back from the same Atas full. And write to me how much money you received from Koupineris and do not be neglectful” (Bagnall and Cribiore, 2006, p. 294). In SB 14.11588 (late fourth century C.E.), Aria wrote to her son to chastise him for neglecting her and to inform him that she was in need of money. In doing so, she offered a clear account of her financial transactions:

    "And I wish you to know that of the 1,000 myriads (of denarii) I did not get anything from…nianos except the 500 myriads, would you get them and send them? You know where I got them. And I went to the bleacher for the 3½ pounds. And as you said, “Go to my sister Maria and she will give them to you,” I went and she gave me nothing. So, what does go right for me? So know this too, know that the orphan child is in my house and I also need to spend for myself. And about the two and a half pounds—2½—I owe nothing except the pay for the bleacher. But if I owe something, I pay with this stuff of mine. And in fact I have sold the same linen stuff at 10 myriads per pound." (Bagnall and Cribiore, 2006, p. 302)

    Whether Aria was experiencing numerous mishaps or simply enjoyed complaining, she demonstrated her ability to handle her family’s finances, providing for herself as well as an orphan, and paying various debts.

    In their financial transactions, women provided for their families, as in the cases of Aurelia Julia, a Christian woman, who used her wealth to establish a family tomb (Gibson, 1978, no. 32, 296/7 C.E.), and Melania the Elder (ca. 340–410 C.E.), who provided for her son. They also provided for the church, as in the cases of Paulinus of Nola (ca. 354–431 C.E.), Macrina (327–379 C.E.), and Paula (347–404 C.E.), who all established monasteries out of their own funds.

    There is also evidence of women in monastic communities engaging in economic activities. A pair of letters from the fourth century C.E. are thought to have been written by nuns because of their references to “the sisters.” In the first letter (P.Oxy. 14.1774), Didyme and the sisters wrote to “my lady sister Atienatia” as follows: “Let us know if you received your orders. There is a balance with us from the money of your orders, I believe of 1,300 denarii. Canopic cakes received for you from them will be dispatched” (Bagnall and Cribiore, 2006, p. 194). In the second letter (SB 8.9746 = SB 3.7243), we learn that Didyme and the sisters received “7 double knidia [containers of wine] and a coarse sack of sour grapes.” They also inquired about the supplies that they had sent:

    "I wish you to know about the cloth that you sent to Loukilos that I sent you 2 pairs of sandals of the same value, which were bought directly from the weavers for 4 talents (?) but that you did not mention to me in writing, and through the sailor Sipharos son of Plou… (?) for the bride of Pansophios (? or daughter-in-law of Pansophion) a large ostrich egg and a small basket containing Syrian palm dates, but you did not write about them." (Bagnall and Cribiore, 2006, p. 196)

    That these women were receiving orders for goods, making disbursements, expecting acknowledgements, and keeping financial accounts suggests to Elm that they were “running a small business, which specialized in the distribution of goods” (Elm, 1994, pp. 242–243).

    Women and property.

    Christian women also managed property. Demetrias, a fatherless heiress, “was given the property which would have been her dowry, and used it to fund church-building in Rome after the Gothic sack of 411” (Clark, 1993, p. 54). In her letter to her brother Eudaimon and sister-in-law Apia (P. Neph. 18, mid-fourth century C.E.), Taouk wrote about an aroura of land and six artabas of wheat:

    "I am writing this for the second time to you about the one aroura. For as you see me in such a state, and this…because you have right now 6 artabas from my supply, even though you know the price of the wheat, (and) that I am a woman, I cannot buy (it). Nor on the other hand did you write, “We don’t want the aroura.”…take it myself or give it to Erisia (?), and what I gave through you, you ought to send me by yourself, the six artabas, or whatever…If you rob me, let me know and you will see before God." (Bagnall and Cribiore, 2006, p. 207)

    Apparently, Taouk felt that Eudaimon and Apia should have delivered to her the wheat that she claimed they owed her.

    Women and the agricultural economy.

    In addition to the “indoor housework,” women might also have contributed labor to the agricultural economy. Scheidel (1995; 1996) accepts that Roman sources stress that women should remain indoors and engage in textile production; however, he argues that in order to survive, women, particularly those who were nonelite, could not have been exclusively engaged in domestic work, but would have participated in agricultural work as well. While women likely did not engage in plowing, there is evidence that they harvested, gleaned, and threshed grain. They also participated in grape and olive harvesting, as well as wine and olive oil production. Women even participated, in limited ways, in animal husbandry. A number of texts refer to women milking sheep or cattle, and to women tending sheep or goats (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 2.554; Horace, Epodes 2.39–46; Dio Chrysostom 1.53ff.). That Christian women also contributed to the agricultural economy is attested in P.Mich. 3.221 (ca. 296 C.E.), for Ploutogenia exhorts her mother, “Take care of the irrigation machine and of your cattle” (Bagnall and Cribiore, 2006, p. 294).


    By examining the work performed by women in the early church, a picture emerges that reveals their not insignificant contributions in both the private and the public domain to a broad variety of sectors within the ancient economy. Whether the women were elite or nonelite, or whether they lived in the city or the countryside, it is clear that their labor was considerable.




    • Bagnall, Roger S., and Raffaella Cribiore. Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC–AD 800. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
    • Clark, Gillian. Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.
    • Elm, Susanna. Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
    • Gibson, Elsa. The “Christians for Christians” Inscriptions of Phrygia: Greek Texts, Translation, and Commentary. Harvard Theological Studies 32. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1978.
    • Haines-Eitzen, Kim. Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
    • Kampen, Natalie. Image and Status: Roman Working Women in Ostia. Berlin: Mann, 1981.
    • Kramer, Ross Shepard, ed. Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
    • Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken, 1995.
    • Rowlandson, Jane, ed. Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
    • Scheidel, Walter. “The Most Silent Women of Greece and Rome: Rural Labour and Women’s Life in the Ancient World (I).” Greece and Rome, 2d ser., 42 (1995): 202–217.
    • Scheidel, Walter. “The Most Silent Women of Greece and Rome: Rural Labour and Women’s Life in the Ancient World (II).” Greece and Rome, 2d ser., 43 (1996): 1–10.
    • Treggiari, Susan. “Lower Class Women in the Roman Economy.” Florilegium 1 (1979): 65–86.
    • van Minnen, Peter. “Did Ancient Women Learn a Trade Outside the Home? A Note on SB XVIII 13305.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 123 (1998): 201–203.

    Agnes Choi

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