Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Contraception, and Abortion.
K. Kapparis, edition of March 22, 2003
page 8 of 11
The Athenian kyrios did not have a right of life and death over the free members of his household, with the exception of newborn infants who had not yet been formally acknowledged and thus recognized as free persons with certain rights. Shortly after birth a father still had the right to have a newborn killed. Perhaps with the exception of some infants with severe disabilities infanticide was extremely rare because of religious scruple. The ordinary Athenian would fear the pollution (miasma) which taking a life might bring upon himself and his household, and this is why he would probably choose to expose an unwanted infant, and thus shake off the responsibility. The exposure of infants has been a striking theme of fictional literature (Tragedy, New Comedy, Novel), but in reality it rarely happened. Perhaps its frequency was higher in times of financial crisis (e.g. the final years of the Peloponnesian war), but on the whole the Athenians did not expose their infants more frequently than we do.
Unwanted births could be controlled through contraception and abortion, but both procedures were neither safe nor foolproof. Athenian law said nothing on either contraception or abortion, presumably because Athens, like most Greek city-states, preferred a rather limited and manageable population, and therefore had no good reason to resist such practices on a collective scale. In fact Plato and Aristotle recommend abortion in their utopian states as a method of population control (Plat. Rep. 460a-461c; Aristot. Pol. 1335b 19-26). However, as it happens today, some individuals might feel strongly against such practices. In the
Abortions for aesthetic reasons do not seem to be a Greek phenomenon. Athenian women took pride in motherhood as they drew prestige and social status through their role as wives, mothers and matrons of respectable households. Better-off women might enjoy the luxury of a rather leisurely life at home, and were able to dedicate all their energy to the care of their family and household, and socialize with female friends and relatives. On special occasions they would dress up and go into town or to a sanctuary, participate in a festival and celebrate with the rest of the community. Athenian housewives were financially dependent upon their husbands, unless they were widowed with young children. In that case they could choose to remain in the house of their deceased husband, and take on the responsibility for the family assets. Occasionally they might need some help from male relatives in their transactions with the outside world, as respectability would not allow them to go to the financial centers of Athens and directly deal with strange men, but some of these independent-minded widows were definitely in charge (see Dem. 41).
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