Athens, 4th cent. B.C. (Xenophon, On Household Management [Oeconomicus] 6.17-10, exc. G)

In Plato’s dialogues Socrates often seeks out and examines people who claim to be experts in a topic and usually manages to show that they have only a confused understanding of their subjects. In Xenophon’s dialogue Socrates describes a conversation he had with Ischomachus, in which he tried to learn from Ischomachus how he managed to have such leisure from managing his estate. Ischomachus explains that he leaves the management up to his wife, and describes to Socrates how he trained her. By using simple analogies and creating polarities, Ischomachus explained to his wife that the role assigned to women by society is natural, since it was ordained by the gods, and that it works to the advantage of both sexes. 

Although in this dialogue Ischomachus claims that he has trained his wife to run the household effectively, it seems likely that he was deceived about the extent his wife’s innocence and malleability.[1] In the course of her education, Ischomachus has not allowed his wife to assume any unusual authority; she runs the house, but remains accountable to him. It is important to remember that in training her his purpose is to serve his own convenience, not hers; Ischomachus is not concerned with his wife’s particular needs as a female, but rather wants her to behave as little like a conventional woman as possible.[2]

(6.17) Since I had heard everyone-men, women, foreigners, and Athenians-call him an excellent person, I thought I ought to try to get to know him. (7.1) One day I saw him sitting in the stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, and since I thought I had the time, I went up to him and sat down next to him and asked, ‘Why is it that you are sitting here at leisure, contrary to your usual behaviour? Usually you are busy doing many things, or at least something, and have no time to waste in the Agora.’ 

(7.2) Ischomachus replied, ‘You wouldn’t see me here now, Socrates, if I weren’t waiting for some foreigners’. 

‘But when you’re not waiting for someone’, I said, ‘by the gods, how do you spend your time and what do you do? I want to learn from you what you do in order to be known as an excellent person, since you don’t spend your time indoors, nor does your physique look as if you do.’

(7.3) Ischomachus laughed at my question about what he did in order to be known as an excellent person, and he seemed happy to reply as follows: ‘I don’t know whether some people talk with you about me and call me by that name. No one calls me “excellent person” when they’re looking for a contribution for fitting out a trireme or supporting a chorus; they ask for me plainly by own name, Ischomachus son of my father.[3] But now, Socrates, as to your question why I don’t spend time indoors any more, that is because my wife is completely capable of running my household affairs’.

(7.4) ‘Ischomachus’, I said, ‘this in fact is what I’d like to learn from you-did you teach your wife yourself what she needed to know or did you take her from her father and mother knowing everything she was supposed to do?’ 

(7.5) Ischomachus replied, ‘What could she have known when I married her, since she wasn’t fifteen years old when she came to me, and in the time before that she had lived such a protected life that she saw and heard as little as possible, and asked the fewest questions?’

(7.6) ‘Aren’t you satisfied that she came knowing only how to take the wool and produce clothes, and seeing how the spinning was distributed to the women slaves?'[4]

‘She came to me, Socrates, quite knowledgeable about food, a matter that seems to me important for both men and women to know about’.

(7.7) I then asked,’But what about other matters, Ischomachus? Did you teach your wife yourself to do what she needed to do?’

‘No indeed, Socrates’, Ischomachus said, (7.8) ‘not before I offered a sacrifice and prayed that I could teach and she could learn what was best for us both’. 

I asked: ‘Did your wife join you in offering sacrifice and making the prayer?’ 

‘Yes, indeed,’ he said, ‘she offered to fulfil many vows to the gods if all went as it should, and it was clear that she would be attentive to what she was taught’. 

(7.9) ‘By the gods, Ischomachus’, I said, ‘explain to me, what did you start to teach her first? It would give me more pleasure to hear you recount that than a success in games or with horses.’

(7.10) And Ischomachus answered: ‘What did I do, Socrates? Since she was already manageable and domesticated enough to participate in a discussion, I asked her something like this: “Tell me, my dear, do you know why I married you and your parents gave you to me in marriage? (7.11) I know and it is obvious to you too that it would have been possible to sleep beside someone else. But I took counsel on my own behalf and your parents on yours how we might best share a home and children, if I chose you, and your parents chose me, as they apparently did, from the other possible candidates. (7.12) If the god allows it, children will be born, and then we will consult together how we will best educate them. This will be an advantage that we can share, to obtain the best allies and supporters in our old age.[5]

(7.13) ‘But now there is the home we share, as follows. I shall share with you all my property, and you have shared with me everything you brought with you. We do not need to make an accounting of which of us contributed the larger amount, but you should realise that whichever of us is the better partner will make the most worthy contribution’. 

(7.14) ‘Then, Socrates, my wife answered me: “But what can I contribute? What potential do I have? The only accomplishment I learned from my mother is to behave properly”. 

(7.15) ‘”Yes, by Zeus, my dear, that’s what my father taught me also. But it is the task of a proper husband and wife to keep their property as well as possible and see that so far as possible other property accrues from their just and good behaviour”.

(7.16) ‘”What is it that I can do”, asked my wife, “that might cause the household to prosper?” 

‘”By Zeus”, I said, “you can try to do what the gods made you able to do and custom advises”. 

(7.17) ‘”And what is that?” she asked. 

‘”I think”, I said, “that it is a most important responsibility, unless you think that the work the leader bee supervises in her hive is unimportant.”

(7.18) ‘”For it seems to me, my dear”‘, Ischomachus told me he said, ‘”that the gods took considerable care to establish this yoke as it is called, male and female, so that it might be most effective in partnership. (7.19) First of all this yoke exists so that the race of living things will be continued by the begetting of children, and then human beings provide themselves with care in their old age by means of this yoke. Furthermore, humans do not live their lives in the open air, as animals do, but it’s evident that they require roofs over their heads. (7.20) But it is important for humans to conserve what they are going to bring into their homes from the work they do outside in the open air-for ploughing and sowing and growing and herding are all of them outdoor work, which provide our provisions. 

(7.21) ‘”It is important then, when the provisions are brought into the home, for someone to keep them safe and to do the work of the household. A home is required for the rearing of infant children, and a home is required for making food out of the harvest. Similarly a home is required for the making of clothing from wool. (7.22) Since both indoor and outdoor matters require work and supervision”, I said, “I believe that the god arranged that the work and supervision indoors are a woman’s task, and the outdoors are the man’s. (7.23) For the god made a man’s body and soul better able to endure the cold and heat of travel and military service, so that he assigned to him the outdoor work. But the god endowed the woman with a body less able to endure these hardships and so”‘, Ischomachus told me he said, ‘”I believe that he assigned the indoor work to her. (7.24) With this in mind the god made the nursing of young children instinctive for women and gave her this task, and he allotted more affection for infants to her than to a man. 

(7.25) ‘”The god designated that the woman should guard what is brought into the household, because he knew that a fearful soul is better at guarding. He also gave a greater share of fearfulness to the woman than to the man. Because he knew that it would be necessary for the one who did the outdoor work to defend the household, if someone tried to hurt it, he allotted to him a greater share of courage. (7.26) But because it was necessary for both to give and take, he divided the shares of memory and concern equally between them, so that it is impossible to decide whether the female or the male excels in this respect. (7.27) And self-control where needed he divided equally, and the god allowed whichever of the two was better, whether it was the man or the woman, to get more advantage from this benefit. (7.28) Because the natures of the two sexes are not equally well equipped in all the same respects, for that reason they have greater need of one another and the yoke is mutually beneficial, because what one lacks the other has.

(7.29) ‘”Now, my dear”, I said, “since we both understand what has been assigned to us by the god, each of us must try to accomplish the work appropriate to us. (7.30) This is what the law intends”‘, Ischomachus told me he said, ‘”when it yokes man and wife. Since the god made them partners in their children, so the law makes them partners in their household. And that the law shows that the arrangement that the god made each more competent in certain respects. For it is better for a woman to remain indoors than to go outside, and it is more disgraceful for a man to remain inside than to take care of the work outside. (7.31) If anyone does something contrary to the nature the god gave him, it is quite possible that his disorderliness will not escape the notice of the gods and that he will pay the penalty for ignoring his proper work or doing a woman’s work.

(7.32) ‘”I believe”, I said, “that the leader bee has the same kind of work assigned to her by the god”.

‘”And what sort of work is it”, said my wife, “that the leader bee does that resembles the kind of work I ought to do?” 

(7.33) ‘”It is”, said I, “that the leader bee, although she stays within the hive, does not allow the bees to be lazy, but she sends outside those bees who ought to work outside, and she knows what each of them brings into the house and receives it, and she keeps it until it is needed. When the time comes to use it, she sees that each bee gets her just share. (7.34) And she supervises those who weave the wax inside, and sees that they weave well and efficiently, and she looks after the young that are being born and sees that they are cared for. And when the little bees are grown and are ready to go to work, she sends them out with the leader of the new hive.”

(7.35) ‘”Will it then be my job”, asked my wife, “to do this?” 

‘”It will be your job”, I said, “to remain indoors and to send out those of members of the household who must work outdoors, (7.36) and to supervise those who must work indoors, and to receive what is brought in and to allocate what each must spend, and you must decide what surplus needs to remain, and watch that the expenditure set aside for a year is not used up in a month. When fleeces are brought to you, you must take care that they become cloaks for those who need them. And you must take care that the grain that is stored remains edible. (7.37) One of your duties, however,” I said, “you may find unwelcome, which is, if one of the household slaves is ill, you must see to it that he is looked after”. 

‘”By Zeus”, said my wife, “that would be a welcome task, because the slaves who are cared for would be grateful and better inclined towards me than before.” 

(7.39) ‘And I’, Ischomachus said, ‘was pleased with her answer and replied, “Isn’t it because of this sort of concern also on the part of the leader bee that the bees are so dependent on her, that when she leaves, none of the bees thinks of being left behind, but they all follow her?” 

(7.39) ‘And my wife replied: “I would be surprised if the work of the leader bee didn’t apply to you more than to me. (7.40) For my keeping watch over and managing what is inside would seem to be inconsequential, if you didn’t supervise how whatever is outside was brought in.” 

‘”But my bringing it in would be inconsequential”, I said, “if there were no one to keep it safe once it got there. Don’t you see”, I said, “how people pity the people in the proverb who draw water in a broken jug, because they toil in vain”.[6]

“By Zeus”, said my wife, “indeed they are to be pitied if that is what they do”. 

(7.41) ‘”Other pleasant responsibilities”, I said, “remain for you, such as when by taking a woman who is ignorant of wool-working you make her into a skilled worker and she becomes twice as valuable to you, and when by taking someone who is ignorant of housekeeping and serving and make her into a skilful and faithful servant you have someone completely worthwhile, and when you have the power to favour the proper and helpful members of your household, and it is possible for you to punish anyone who proves to be useless. (7.42) And the greatest pleasure of all will be if you prove to be better than me, and make me your slave, and you won’t need to fear that with advancing age you will have a lower standing in the household, but you will be confident that as you grow older you will become a better partner for me and guardian of the house for our children and have a proportionately higher standing in the household.[7] (7.44) “For personal excellence”, I said, “does not come from beauty, but increases in human life on account of virtue”. It is something like that, Socrates, that I seem to remember telling her in our first discussion’.

(8.1) ‘And, Ischomachus’, I said, ‘did you discover that as a result of your discussion she became more inclined to take over?’

‘Yes by Zeus’ said Ischomachus, ‘in fact I know that she was upset and very embarrassed when I asked for something that had been brought in from outside and she couldn’t provide it. (8.2) But when I saw that she was troubled I said to her, “Don’t be discouraged, my dear, that you can’t give me what I happen to ask for … No”, I said, “you are not to blame for this, but I am, because I turned things over to you without putting them in order and arranging everything so that you would know where to store everything and from where to retrieve it”‘ … 

(8.3-9.14) Ischomachus then discusses the importance of order in human life, the best example being the arrangement of a ship, and describes his plans for the arrangement of his household. … 

(9.15) ‘Then I directed my wife to make regulations, and to supervise their enforcement within the household, and whenever she thought fit to demand an accounting of its inventory, in the way a captain of the watch might demand an accounting from his guards and inquire if everything is in good order, as the council investigates the cavalry, and like a queen[8] to praise and honour the deserving members of the force, and to criticise and punish the deficient members” … ‘ 

(9.18) ‘Well then, Ischomachus’, I said, ‘when your wife heard this did she manage to comply?’ 

‘Yes indeed, Socrates’, he said, ‘she told me that I was mistaken if I thought my directions about looking after everything involved difficulties. It would be more difficult, she said, if I had directed her not to look after her own work rather than to insist that she cared about the welfare of the household. (9.19) For a proper woman was created in order to care for her children and not to neglect them, and so she said that a proper woman would prefer to care for the welfare of her own possessions rather than to neglect them’.

(10.1) ‘When I heard’, said Socrates, ‘that his wife gave him that answer, I said, “By Hera, Ischomachus, your wife has a man’s intelligence’.[9]

‘I can give you other illustrations of her great intelligence, to show that once she heard me she quickly obeyed’. 

‘Give me some examples’, I said, ‘because I enjoy hearing about the excellence of a living female more than I would if [the famous painter] Zeuxis showed me a drawing that he had made of a beautiful woman’. 

(10.2) Ischomachus then said, ‘One time, Socrates, I saw that she had covered her face with white lead, so that she would seem to have a paler complexion than she really had, and put on thick rouge, so that her cheeks would seem redder than in reality, and high boots, so that she would seem taller than she naturally was.[10]

(10.3) ‘So I said, “Tell me, my dear, would you consider me more worthy of your love as a partner in our shared wealth, if I told you what I was worth, and didn’t boast that I had more than I actually had, and didn’t hide anything from you, or if I tried to deceive you by saying that I had more than I in fact had, and showed you counterfeit money and necklaces of gold plate and said that they were real?” (10.4) 

‘She interrupted me at that point and said, ‘don’t say such things; don’t become that sort of man, because if you did, I couldn’t love you from my heart”. I replied: “Haven’t we come together, my dear, as partners in each other’s bodies?” She replied: “At least so people say”. (10.5) “Then tell me”, I said, “if I would seem to you to be a more worthy bodily partner, if I cared for myself and tried to make myself more healthy and strong, and because of that were in reality healthy-looking, or if I smeared myself with vermilion and and put flesh colour on my eyes[11] and presented myself to you and made love to you deceiving you and presenting you with vermilion to see and touch rather than my own skin”. (10.6) “I would not”, she said, “enjoy touching vermilion as much as your own skin and I do not enjoy looking at flesh colour as much as your own and I would not enjoy seeing your eyes covered with make-up as in good health”.

(10.7) “Don’t think then, my dear”‘, Ischomachus told me he said, ‘”that I enjoy the colour of white lead more than the colour of your own skin, but just as the gods made horses prefer horses and cattle prefer cattle, and sheep sheep, so human beings prefer the natural human body. (10.8) You might successfully fool someone outside the household by this kind of deception, but insiders always get caught when they try to deceive one another. For they can be found out when they get up in the morning before they have time to prepare or they are caught out by sweat or put to the test by tears and exposed completely by washing.”‘

(10.9) ‘What, by the gods’, I asked, ‘was her response to that?’ ‘What else than that’, he said, ‘she never put on make-up again, but tried to present herself with a clean face and suitably dressed. And she asked me if I could advise her how she might look beautiful in reality, and not just appear to be beautiful. (10.10) And I advised her, Socrates’, he said, ‘not always to sit about like a slave, but with the help of the gods to try to stand over the loom like a master and to teach what she understood better than another, and to learn what she knew less well, and to keep an eye on the baker, and to stand near the housekeeper when she was doling out portions, and to go around making sure that each thing was in its proper place. For these tasks seemed to me to provide both supervision and exercise.[12] (10.11) For I said it would be good exercise to moisten and knead the bread and to shake out and fold cloaks and coverlets. I said that if she had taken exercise in this matter she would both eat better and be more healthy and in truth have a healthier colour. (10.12) Her looks, if in comparison to a servant’s, would be appropriately cleaner and better dressed, would be more arousing, particularly if she showed herself willing to please her husband rather than be forced to acquiesce. (10.13) Women who sit around pretentiously ask to be categorised with the women who use make-up and deceit. And now, Socrates’, he said, ‘you understand that my wife, after she received this training, conducts her life in the way that I taught her and as I have just explained to you’.


1. If, in fact, this woman-whose name is not mentioned-is the same wife of Ischomachus (Chrysilla) whose daughter married Callias. Chrysilla seduced her son-in-law, drove out her daughter, and had a son by her son-in-law Callias, whom Callias later tried to have enrolled as his legal heir (Cf. Euctemon’s machinations in no. 87). Andocides, Myst. 124-7. Cf. MacDowell 1962, 151-2; Anderson 1974, 174 n.1; Harvey 1984, 68-70; Nais 1985. 

2. Cf. esp. de Ste. Croix 1981, 557 n. 30; Murnaghan 1988, 9-22, esp. 16-18. 

3. A joke: Ischomachus assures Socrates that people are interested in him not for his good character but for his money. 

4. In Homer a housekeeper supervised the slave women’s weaving, e.g. Od. 22.422-3, Homeric Hymn 5.144.

5. According to Hesiod, producing children is the best reason for marriage: ‘The man who escapes marriage and the baneful works of women by preferring not to marry, comes to a deadly old age for want of someone to tend him in old age’.

6. In the Pseudo-Platonic dialogue Axiochus (371e), this task is specifically assigned to the Danaids in Tartarus, as punishment for murdering their husbands.

7. Ischomachus implies that he would be her ‘slave’ within the context of the household, but not in other respects. A wife’s concern that her husband will neglect her in favour of other younger and more beautiful women is expressed in many myths, where the husband brings home a concubine, e.g. Cassandra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Iole in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis; hence, probably, Ischomachus’ wife’s attempt to put on make-up.

8. The word basilissa (perhaps with a diminutive connotation, like ‘mini-queen’?) occurs for the first time here; the ordinary word is basileia

9. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon Clytemnestra has “a heart that plans like a man’s” (androboulon kear, 11); cf. also ll. 348, 590-3. 

10. Women ordinarily put on make-up when they wanted to make an impression; cf. nos. 88, 90.

11. I.e., like an actor, as Aristophanes is said to have done when taking the role of Cleon in the ancient Life of Aristophanes, 11, or Demetrius the Besieger in 290 B.C., in an attempt to impress the population of Athens, Duris of Samos 76 FGrHist Fr.10.

12. Contrast to this prescription for exercise within the household, Plato’s female athletics programme in Republic 5, no. 73.