Hipparete: Life of an Athenian Wife

Although we have only limited evidence for the lives of non-combatants in the Peloponnian War, it is possible to put together information from a variety of sources to present an account of how an individual’s life might have been affected by the war. On such individual is Hipparete, the wife of the Athenian politician and General Alkibiades. Hipparete was born about 440 B.C.E. She was the daughter of a prominent Athenian citizen, Hipponikos, whose family owned a large amount of land in Attika and obtained considerable revenue from the silver mining industry. Indeed he was reputed to be the richest man in Greece. Hipparete’s mother, whose name is not known, had previously been married to the famous Perikles, but they were divorced in about 455 B.C.E. and she married Hipponikos soon after.


Hipparete’s childhood was as comfortable and happy as was possible for the daughter of a citizen. Upper class Athenian girls led quiet, sheltered lives, surrounded by women and only occasionally venturing out of their homes to participate in religious festivals, particularly those associated with Athena, the patron goddess of the Athenians. In the words of one Athenian writer, Xenophon, the daughter of a wealthy citizen was expected to be raised, ‘ under careful supervision, so that she might see and hear and speak as little as possible.’Hipparete spent most of her childhood unde the watchful eyes of her slave nurse and her mother, learning the skills considered appropriate for a young woman. These included cooking, spinning, weaving and caring for the sick. Since her family was wealthy, she may even learned to read and write, although such education was not considered necessary or even desirable for girls, whose upbringing was geared towards preparing them to be capable but subservient wives.


The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War must have had a profound effect on Hipparete’s life. The City in which she was growing up would have changed, both in appearance and atmosphere. It was already becoming more densely populated, both in the main urban centre around the Acropolis, and the secondary area of Peiraieus. The increased prosperity which had accompanied Athens’ expanding imperial power and flourishing maritime trade encouraged people from near and far to come and live there.

Perikles’ strategy of avoiding pitched battles witht eh invading Peloponnesian armies resulted in many families having to abandon the countryside around Athens and move with in the fortifications of the Long Walls. The narrow strips of land between the walls became home to many thousands of refugees, who built houses and cultivated the ground trying to compensate for the loss of their agriculture resources, which were at the mercy of the invaders. Their numbers were swelled by refugees from Plataia, who arrived in the city in the summer of 431 B.C.E., after an attack by the Thebans had demonstrated their city’s vulnerability.

He crowded, unsanitary conditions, especially in the hot, dry summers, must have made the city a particularly unpleasant for these refugees to live. In 430 B.C.E., when a deadly plague broke out in Athens, life there became much worse. The plague reached Athens from the East, having already ravaged parts of the Persian Empire. The very maritime tradeers whose business was so vital to the city’s economy also provided transport for the leathal bacteria. Initially the plague struck in the port of Peiraieus, where the first cases were reported in the summer, soon after the Peloponnesians had begun their second invasion of Athenian territory. From Peiraieus the epidemic spread rapidly to the main part of the city.

Hipparete was almost certainly infected by the plague, which did not discriminate between rich and poor in its devastating rampage through the city. Thucydides, who also survived the infection, describes its symptoms in vivid detail. They included the high fever, severe thirst, coughing, stomach pains, retching, uncontrollable diarrhea and ulcers, both internal and external. Many modern experts have tried to identify the disease from his description, but they have not reached a firm conclusion. It was certainly very contagious and probably killed about one-third of the inhabitants of Athens over a period of about four years, with the worst casualties coming in the first year, when the lack of any acquired immunity made the population particularly vulnerable.

Thycydides tells us that so many people died of the plague, and so quickly, that proper funeral procedures were neglected. Normally Athenian funerals were marked by elaborate private and public rituals, especially in the case of the richer families, who like to use such occasions to show off their wealth and social status. Preparing the body of the deceased was a duty for the women of the family, who would wash the corpse, anoint it with oil and garland it with flowers. It would be laid on a bier for a day and a night, allowing time for family and friends to mourn, and pay their respects. The laws of Athens required the funeral to take place before dawn on the following day. A procession would leave the house of the deceased and go outside the walls of the city, to either a communal or a family cemetery, where the body would be buried or cremated. The men of the family would lead the procession, with the women walking solemnly behind the corpse and singing a mourning song. When the plague was at its height, however, many bodies were left lying untended, at the mercy of dogs and carrion birds. Others were buried or cremated in haste, sometimes several together, without proper rituals. Thucydides even describes people carrying corpses around looking for a recently dug grave to drop them in, or an already blazing pyre on which to throw them.

Hipparete was fortunate to have survived this disease, although some mebers of her father’s household must certainly have died, possibly including her mother. We know that her father survived because he was in joint command of an Athenian expedition against the Boiotian city of Tanafra in 426 B.C.E. Her brother Kallias also lived through the infection, but with horrific effects of the epidemic will certainly have left a lasting impression on the family. Young Hipparetes had no choice but to remain in the city while all this was happening, whereas her father and many other men could leave the city on commercial or diplomatic missions or as part of the military forces sent to raid against the Peloponnesians and their allies. We can be sure that it was a dark and troubled period of her life, as she longed for relief from the anxieties of war, like thousands of other women and girls in the city.


One example of the change in moral standards during the war may be the extravagant behavior of Hipparete’s husband, Alkibiade, whom she married about 424 B.C.E., when she was aged no more than 16. Alikibiades was at least 10 years older than her, as was usual in Classical Athens. He came from one of a group of Athenians families known as the Eupatridai, or noble families. His father Kleinias had been killed in the battle of Koroneia in 446 B.C.E. His mother Deinomache, was relative by marriage of Perikles and for a time after his father’s death Alibiades lived in the household of Perikles, who along with his brother Ariphron, was Alkibiades’ guardian. Given the closeness of their respective families it is probable that Hipparete would have met her future husband before they were married, but she is unlikely to have spent much time in his company. Although Athenian marriages were normally arranged between the parents or guardians of the couple and it was not usual for cousins or even siblings to arrange for their respective children marry, renewing and strengthening family ties. In this case it is very likely there were strong financial considerations on Alkibiades’ side, as Hipparete would have brought a substantial dowry to the marriage. There were also political advantages in the match, as her family connections were of the highest order. She would have been seen as the perfect wife for an ambitious young man.

The primary duty of an Athenian wife was to bear children for her husband, preferably a male child, who could inherit his father’s property and continue the family line. Hipparete fulfilled this duty by providing her husband with a son, also called Alkibidaes, and a daughter, whose name is not known. It is likely that she had another son, but he died in infancy, when medical knowledge was very limited.

In stark contrast to her husband, who participated in diplomatic missions and military campaigns as her father had done, once she was married Hipparete probably rarely travelled beyond the confines of her home. Nor is it likely that Hipparete would have been involved in any of Alkibiades’ activates. Citizen women participated in funerals, and certain religious festivals, in some cases as the main celebrants, but otherwise they had no role in public life of the cities. She will have heard about her husband’s wartime adventures and, possibly, discussed them with him, but war and politics were seen as exclusively the concern of men. In a famous speech, which Thucydides puts in the mouth of Perkiles, in honor of those who died in the early stages of the war, the only mention of women is a comment addressed to the widows of the fallen, that their greatest glory is not to be talked about by men, whether in praise or criticism.

Hipparete had been brought up to respect and obey the men in her life and she seems to have done all she could to be a god wife, but on at least one occasion her husband’s behavior drove her to attempt to end their marriage. While Athenian men expected their wives to be completely faithful, married men thought nothing of having intercourse with their female slaves, or with prostitutes, who might be slaves or free women from outside Athens. It was even considered acceptable for an unmarried man to keep concubines in his home, but he would be expected to end such arrangements once he took a wife.

When the Athenians captured the island of Melos in 416 B.C.E. they killed the men and enslaved the women and children. Alkibiades bought one of these unfortunate women and kept her in his household as concubine, eventually having a son by her. The effect of the Melian slave’s presence upon Hipparete must have been devastating. Here was woman whom her husband had purchased as booty, yet he preferred her to his own well-born wife as his sexual partner. We can image that Hipparete might have sympathized with the woman’s plight, for if Athens were to be defeated in the war, then she too could expect to be enslaved by the victors. On the other hand, by installing another woman in their home Alkibidaes was showing a lack of respect to Hipparete, even though she was the mother of his children and daughter of a prominent Athenian citizen.

It seems to have been this situation that finally induced Hipparete to leave her husband and return to her brother’s house, her father having died by this time. An Athenian woman had the right to leave her husband’s household if she was being mistreated, and petition a magistrate to grant legal recognition of the divorce. When Hipparete approached the magistrate, however, Alkibidaes himself was there. He dragged her back to his house, where she remained until her death, which occurred soon afterwards. Her life was not a long one, but at least she did not live to see her husband tried for impiety and forced into exile in Sparta, his property auctioned, and her son threatened with banishment because of his father’s political activities. Nor did she witness the bitter end of the war.


SOURCE: The Greeks at War
BY: Philip de Souza; Waldemar Heckel; Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones