A Day with Macedonian Archaeology – Women in Antiquity: Voices of the Hushed

Irena Teodora Vesevska

Ss. Cyril and Methodius University
Faculty of Philosophy
, Skopje

The status of women in early Christianity is an inspiring topic for debating in the last few decades. The New Testament is full of texts that testify to the involvement of women in early Christian communities. In the Epistles of St. Paul, he salutes the women, addresses them as collaborators, addresses one of them as a deaconess, even one calls it the Apostle. Before trying in detail to understand exactly what these terms meant, we would make a brief overview of the role and position of women in antiquity, which, in addition to the later analysis of their place in the early Christian world, would best show whether and how much the new religion influenced their, to use here an exquisite modern word, emancipation.

Ancient Greece

In Athens, the foundations of the formalized approach to women are laid down as a creature subordinated to a man, a predisposed and projected humiliating attitude that we can follow until Homer.

Socrates, as Plato declares in the “Republic”, although it is against the division of obligations by sex, nevertheless emphasizes that in every work the woman is weaker than the husband. For his student Xenophon, the ideal woman is the one who sees as little as possible, speaks as little as she can and asks even less.

Aristotle devotes an important place in his works to the family, that is to the woman, who he sees in a subordinate position in relation to the man, that is, the male. The secondary role of the woman is obvious, which arises primarily from his understanding of a society in which a woman has no formal role. Since the life of a political state is the peak of social life and by nature is more superior than family, it is understood that men have the advantage of organizing political life and participating in it.

While Aristotle examines the place and role of a woman within the state and general social-political philosophy; his contemporary Demosthenes, a speaker and thinker, speaks of the same questions in the context of everyday life: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.” (Demosthenes, Against Neaera, 59, 122)

Although women lived retreated, in the home circle and homework, especially in the classical world, it is evident that after the 3rd century BC, they begin to move in wider social circles. A number of women received primary education, which in this case involved: athletics, musical knowledge and reading. Although there are examples of women involved in philosophy, these examples were still rare and the participation of women in such schools did not mean that they did not have a humiliating and disdainful attitude towards women.

Ancient Rome

Women, or more correctly, girls, were usually married by the time they were twelve years old, sometimes even younger. Aristocratic families wanted male children to carry on the family name and lineage, and expected their wives to be perpetually pregnant. Infertility was actually grounds for divorce, and women would often offer a divorce so that their husbands would have the opportunity to have children with someone else.

Although the role of women in ancient Rome was primarily child-bearing, women also played an important role in raising the children. This differed greatly from the Athenian tradition which placed both the cultural and educational aspects of raising boys exclusively in the hands of men. In the Roman world, women were encouraged to teach their children Roman culture. When the boys grew up, the mother would spend both her money and time to advance their political careers. Even the girls would receive this sort of home education because they would be expected to teach their own children one day.

Could be seen in public, not having the right to vote, allowed in public spaces (baths, separated; amphitheatre, even to fight as gladiators, and in religious ceremonies), not allowed to act.

A dichotomy existed within the lives of Roman women. They did have some personal freedoms, but they had little chance for individuality or personal choice. They were under the constant supervision of their fathers, male relatives, and husbands, who regularly kissed them on the mouth to find out if they had drunk wine. Drinking wine was strictly forbidden for Roman women and they could be punished by death. (!!!)

Another controlling device used against Roman women was the practise of not allowing them to have personal names. Instead, a woman took her father’s middle name or nomen and feminized it. From a Roman woman’s name you could tell who her father was and therefore, her position in society.  Women existed within their families and had no identity of their own. Their fathers had absolute control over their lives and could even sell them into slavery or force them into a marriage and out of one, too. Some women were forced to get a divorce because their fathers had found more lucrative and prestigious families for them to marry into. If they had children at the time of the divorce, women were forced to leave them behind. When marriages dissolved, women had no legal rights concerning the offspring and often never saw them again. Marriages were often without manus, meaning that the father kept the property of his daughter and would therefore, retain a hold over her wealth. A marriage with manus gave power over the woman to her new husband, as well as ownership of her property. In either case, Roman women were not permitted to do anything they wanted with their own money, since personal wealth is always equated with power.

Women had to know their place, remain modest, be tireless, and both loyal and obedient to their families – emotionally, physically, and financially. That was what Roman men were looking for in a wife.

Women in Judaism

The role of women in Judaism is determined by the Hebrew Bible, the Oral Law (the corpus of rabbinic literature), by custom, and by non-religious cultural factors. Although the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature mention various female role models, religious law treats women differently in various circumstances.

Gender has a bearing on familial lines: in traditional Judaism, Jewishness is passed down through the mother, although the father’s name is used to describe sons and daughters in the Torah, e.g., “Dinah, daughter of Jacob”.

Marriage and family law in biblical times favoured men over women. For example, a husband could divorce a wife if he chose to, but a wife could not divorce a husband without his consent. The practice of levirate marriage applied to widows of childless deceased husbands, not to widowers of childless deceased wives; though if either he or she didn’t consent to the marriage, a different ceremony called chalitzah is done instead, which basically involves the widow removing her brother-in-law’s shoe, spitting on it, and proclaiming, “This is what happens to someone who will not build his brother’s house!”

Laws concerning the loss of female virginity have no male equivalent. These and other gender differences found in the Torah suggest that women were subordinate to men during biblical times, however, they also suggest that biblical society viewed continuity, property, and family unity as paramount. However, men had specific obligations they were required to perform for their wives. These included the provision of clothing, food, and sexual relations to their wives.

Women also had a role in ritual life. Women (as well as men) were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem once a year (men each of the three main festivals if they could) and offer the Passover sacrifice. They would also do so on special occasions in their lives such as giving a todah (“thanksgiving”) offering after childbirth. Hence, they participated in many of the major public religious roles that non-Levitical men could, albeit less often and on a somewhat smaller and generally more discreet scale.

Women depended on men economically. Women generally did not own property except in the rare case of inheriting land from a father who didn’t bear sons. Even “in such cases, women would be required to remarry within the tribe so as not to reduce its land holdings.”

Traditionally, Jewish “men and women pray separately. This goes back to ancient times when women could go only as far as the second court of the Temple.” The reason for this is so that the men do not gaze at the women (which in itself can be a sin) and get distracted from their prayers.

Women in Early Christianity

The New Testament Gospels, written toward the last quarter of the first century CE, acknowledge that women were among Jesus’ earliest followers. From the beginning, Jewish women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). He spoke to women both in public and private, and indeed he learned from them. According to one story, an unnamed Gentile woman taught Jesus that the ministry of God is not limited to particular groups and persons, but belongs to all who have faith (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28). A Jewish woman honoured him with the extraordinary hospitality of washing his feet with perfume. Jesus was a frequent visitor at the home of Mary and Martha, and was in the habit of teaching and eating meals with women as well as men. When Jesus was arrested, women remained firm, even when his male disciples are said to have fled, and they accompanied him to the foot of the cross. It was women who were reported as the first witnesses to the resurrection, chief among them again Mary Magdalene. Although the details of these gospel stories may be questioned, in general they reflect the prominent historical roles women played in Jesus’ ministry as disciples.

The letters of Paul (mid. I century CE)

Vivid clues about the kind of activities in which women engaged more generally. He greets Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries in pairs with their husbands or brothers (Romans 16:3, 7, 15). He tells us that Prisca and her husband risked their lives to save his. He praises Junia as a prominent apostle, who had been imprisoned for her labour. Mary and Persis are commended for their hard work (Romans 16:6, 12). Euodia and Syntyche are called his fellow-workers in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3).

Paul’s letters also offer some important glimpses into the inner workings of ancient Christian churches. Paul tells of women who were the leaders of such house churches (Apphia in Philemon 2; Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19). This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:15) and Nympha of Laodicea (Colossians 4:15). Women held offices and played significant roles in group worship. Paul, for example, greets a deacon named Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and assumes that women are praying and prophesying during worship (I Corinthians 11). As prophets, women’s roles would have included not only ecstatic public speech, but preaching, teaching, leading prayer, and perhaps even performing the eucharist meal. (A later first century work, called the Didache, assumes that this duty fell regularly to Christian prophets.)

Other Christian women

Mary Magdalene was a Jewish woman who followed Jesus of Nazareth. Apparently of independent means, she accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of her own resources (Mark 15:40-41; Matthew 27:55-56; Luke 8:1-3; John 19:25). Although other information about her is more fantastic, she is repeatedly portrayed as a visionary and leader of the early movement.( Mark 16:1-9; Matthew 28:1-10; Luke24:1-10; John 20:1, 11-18; Gospel of Peter ). In the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus gives her special teaching and commissions her as an apostle to the apostles to bring them the good news. She obeys and is thus the first to announce the resurrection and to play the role of an apostle, although the term is not specifically used of her.

Other women appear in later literature as well. One of the most famous woman apostles was Thecla, a virgin-martyr converted by Paul. She cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and took up the duties of a missionary apostle. Threatened with rape, prostitution, and twice put in the ring as a martyr, she persevered in her faith and her chastity. Her lively and somewhat fabulous story is recorded in the second century Acts of Thecla.

From very early, an order of women who were widows served formal roles of ministry in some churches (I Timothy 5:9-10). The most numerous clear cases of women’s leadership, however, are offered by prophets: Mary Magdalene, the Corinthian women, Philip’s daughters, Ammia of Philadelphia, Philumene, the visionary martyr Perpetua, Maximilla, Priscilla (Prisca), and Quintilla.

Archaeological data that directly or indirectly state the place, role and involvement of the female population in Early Christian church organisation are rare and therefore even more estimated. First of all, specification of the problem requires maximum caution in interpretation and attribution of the material remains. Three didactic mosaic fields incorporated into the pavements of early Christian basilicas in Stobi and Plaoshnik, bearing inscriptions of their female dedicators shed light upon this question.

The first inscription is placed in the north-western angle of the first field of with mosaic decoration, incorporated into the pavement arrangement of the first phase of the Philip’s basilica in Stobi.







υπέρ ευ[χῆν]

τῆς ματ[ρώας]

η ευλαβ[εστά]

τη διακ[όνισσα]

τήν έξὲδραν


Due to oath

Of the matrona

Most pious


has paved the exedra

with mosaic


The second inscription is situated at the lower part of the third mosaic field incorporated in a decorative arrangement.




υπὲρ εὐχῆς



Due to oath

Made by



The last mosaic with a vowel inscription is located in the deaconicon of the South Basilica at the site Plaoshnik, Ohrid.  In the middle part of the room, surrounded by a shield of black and white triangles, there is a four-edged inscription in a circular field, complemented by two ivory lists in the lower zone.






Υπὲρ μνήμης

τῆσ Σοσίας Παύλας

τῆς διακόνου

In memory

Of the deaconess

Sosia Paula



The chanting inscriptions bear witness to the still developed and active female clergy who maintained uninterrupted ties with the municipal elite (matron, in the case of Stobi) who practiced the new religion.

Stobi, Gradsko, R. Macedonia

Stobi, Gradsko, R. Macedonia

Plaošnik, Ohrid, R. Macedonia




Ancient sources:

Aristotle, Politics 1, 2 http://www.humanities.mq.edu.au/Ockham/y6704.html

Demosthenes, Against Neaera, 59.122

Plato, The Republic, New York, 1956

Xenophon, Within The Home, 1943

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