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Women and Family in Athenian Law 

K. Kapparis, edition of March 22, 2003

page 4 of 11

· Pericles’ Law on Citizenship ·

The introduction of the Democratic Constitution in the late sixth century does not seem to have effected significant change in the role of the family, or the position of women in it. One major change introduced by Kleisthenes affected only males of citizen status: now they would need to register with the deme rather than the phratry in order to enter the citizen body. The phratries were traditional institutions with religious connotations. Kleisthenes bypassed them when introducing the constitutional reform nowadays known as “Moderate Democracy,” and set up the deme as the basis of public life, a rather secular and more egalitarian institution. However, women were excluded from the demes, as they did not participate in war and politics, and certainly non-citizens and slaves were also excluded. The democratic constitution was intended to broaden the basis of participation in public life as much as possible, but of course it would be unthinkable for women or slaves to be included in the ancient world, while the exclusion of resident aliens from politics still remains universal practice.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Pol.).
Plot on a Map
Black Sea.

The first major change in the definition of the family under the democratic constitution came in 451, when a law introduced by Pericles stated that only the offspring of two Athenian citizens could be citizens (Aristot. Pol. 1278a). The actual content and intention of the law have been intensely disputed in recent years; however, Aristotle is probably right when he says that Pericles wanted to reduce the number of Athenian citizens. This law was introduced in the height of the Athenian empire, when the city was the center of the Hellenic world. It seems only natural that the ruling minority of this empire, namely the citizens of Athens, did not want to share their privileges with many others. Being an Athenian citizen meant to participate in decision-making that affected areas as far away as the Black Sea or the shores of Italy. It also came with privileged treatment before the institutions of the state, benefits and handouts. It is no wonder that the Athenians wanted to keep their numbers limited, manageable and functional.

Read about the evidence
Apollodorus (Dem. 59).

Whatever the intentions of this particular law its implications upon family life were far-reaching. First it practically limited the marriage options of Athenian men to Athenian women, and less than a century later, in the first quarter of the 4th century, the state went one step further: it prohibited Athenian citizens to marry foreigners and imposed severe penalties for the pretence of lawful marriage between an Athenian and an alien (Dem. 59.16). Second, the Periclean law formally recognized Athenian-born women as citizens in their own right, and sanctioned their role in the continuation of the citizen body. Women until then were participants of the polis only in the sphere of religion, where they could hold priestly offices, and perform ceremonial duties in public gatherings. After the Periclean citizenship law Athenian women are recognized as participants in the state, even if not fully, and this comes with certain obligations. Until then only the male party was considered legally responsible for the seduction of a free woman. However, probably not long after the Periclean citizenship law another law was introduced requiring the husband of an adulteress to divorce her under penalty of disfranchisement if he disobeyed, and imposing a ban from all public temples upon the adulteress herself. For the first time the woman would be held personally accountable by the law, and deprived from her privileges in public life if she misbehaved. Thus by turning the spotlight on Athenian mothers the state was determined to protect the legitimacy of children born in Athenian families and make sure that those who receive citizenship truly are of citizen stock.

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