Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
K. Kapparis, edition of March 22, 2003
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This article was originally written for the online discussion series “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context,” organized by Adriaan Lanni and sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies.
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Athenian authors of the classical period imagined a mythical past where women were subject to similar restrictions in their legal standing and social roles as in their own timeframe. Greek Drama amply portrays female characters in the settings of Mycene, prehistoric Thebes, or Athens at the time of the kings. Those women resemble Athenian wives, concubines, mothers, sisters, or daughters in their roles and, despite a wide variation of temperament and degrees of conformity with established rules, obey or disobey the same social conventions as
First, the law of Drakon probably enshrined into the letter of the law the existing concept of what is a family. By naming the female members of a man’s household this law defined the family as a wider unit encompassing all free females and went as far as to include even slave-concubines. Slaves belonged to the family, if not as persons at least as valuable property. This widely defined entity, consisting of all the persons that lived in a household and all its assets was called oikos. The oikos was probably a very old concept, and despite some changes in its character and legal standing over time, essentially remained a constant in Greek life. Aristotle saw the city-state (polis) as a constellation of oikoi, and his remark certainly underlines the importance of the family-unit in Greek public as well as private life (Aristot. Pol. 1253b).
The second major implication of Drakon’s homicide law was the recognition of the sanctity of the family and family life. No matter how powerful or influential a person was, he still did not have the right to enter someone’s house and seduce or force the women under this man’s authority, for the law provided the most efficient deterrent: self-help. The wronged man would not need to seek justice elsewhere; he could avenge his injured honor there and then. So, it seems that from early times the Athenian state made a firm commitment to protect the family and all individuals in it. The main reason behind it probably was the fact that the state had vested interests in the continuation of the citizen stock and the upholding of traditional values, and saw the family as the custodian of these important matters.
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The legislation of Drakon was largely replaced by that of Solon a generation later (
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The introduction of the Democratic Constitution in the late
The first major change in the definition of the family under the democratic constitution came in
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
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After the Periclean citizenship law a child would be of citizen status only if both parents were citizens. However, since the Athenians did not keep birth records citizen identity was conferred upon the child gradually, and it would mean different things for boys and girls. Traditionally a boy would be presented to the members of the phratry and possibly the genos or other such associations to which his father belonged not long after his birth. After the reforms of Kleisthenes membership of these bodies was not an obligatory requirement for citizenship, but most Athenians belonged to them, and failure to present a legitimately born citizen boy to these bodies might give rise to questions, and later prejudice his registration with the deme. Thus the presentation to these bodies amounted to an early declaration of the boy’s legitimacy and citizen status by the father to the community. Then the father or legal guardian had the obligation to educate the boy and teach him how to become a good citizen of Athens. In adolescence the boy would become a full member of the phratry or genos. When he reached his 18th year he would appear before the deme and seek registration sponsored by his father or legal guardian. Once he was registered with the deme he became a full citizen. If he was rejected by the deme, he could appeal the decision before the court, but this was risky: if he lost, he was sold as a slave (cf. Dem. 57). Thus the state firmly discouraged frivolous claims of citizenship.
For women the process was considerably different. There is some evidence that girls could be presented to the phratry, but this was not obligatory, and some Athenian men might not even bother presenting their daughters, as this had no real legal significance. This is why the evidence for presentation of girls to the phratry is rather sporadic. Girls were educated at home, and were taught how to become good mothers and prudent housewives, how to count, and in some households how to read and write. When time came, ideally while still in adolescence, they were given in marriage to an Athenian man. Girls were not registered with the deme. Their citizen status should be known to family members and other women in the community, but respectability demanded that a woman ought not be discussed in public. In cases of dispute of a woman’s citizen status, as in Isaios 3 “On the Estate of Pyrrhos,” or in Dem. 59 “Against Neaira,” it would be difficult to produce conclusive proof, and it would be up to the jury to believe one side or the other. Precisely because it was not easy to prove or disprove objectively a woman’s citizenship status, the state felt the need to introduce some safeguards in the
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The numerous aliens living in Athens (“metics”) were in a similar position to that of resident aliens in the US at present. They could not vote or be voted into office, but their property rights were protected and they could represent themselves in court, although in certain procedures they needed to use an Athenian agent (prostates). Marriages between metics were legally valid unions while their person and sanctity of family life were protected by Athenian law. As it happens in several countries today, non-citizens could not own real estate, unless given this right through a special resolution (egtesis) for good service to the state. The most coveted of privileges, Athenian citizenship, was only granted to aliens as an exceptional reward for great services to the Athenian people (andragathia). However, in practice this reward rarely went to metics living in Athens; in the
Read about the evidence
Xenophon (Xen. Ways).
The large slave population of Attica was mostly under private ownership, except for a small number of public slaves (demosioi). They had no rights, and only very limited protection against abuse or injury. A mistreated slave could always ask to be sold to someone else, but besides that he or she would be completely at the mercy of the master. Slaves were valuable commodity, and an injured or disabled slave would be no good as he/she could lose much of their value. This financial dimension probably afforded more protection against extreme abuse than the law itself. Attractive female slaves bought for the purposes of practicing prostitution would be groomed and pampered, and could be very expensive. Slaves kept as concubines might be treated with generosity and enjoy certain privileges at the discretion of the master. Unions between slaves and procreation were possible if the master permitted it. A
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A respectable woman’s place was at home. There she should look after her children and her family, take care of the household, delegate duties to her servants, guard the property of the family, and make sure that domestic life run smoothly (Xen. Oec. 7-10). If a good wife had performed her duties properly her husband would not have to worry about family matters. Thus he would be free to take care of the affairs of the outside world and act as the representative of his oikos in the polis. Ancient authors frequently state that a man’s domain is outdoors, while a woman’s domain is indoors. The leading male of the household (kyrios ) had the legal duty to represent in court-cases the members of his household who could not carry such responsibility themselves, such as women, children and slaves. Other adult males of the household, such as unmarried brothers, a retired father, or an elderly uncle were legally independent, but still under the control of the kyrios , as he was the one in charge of the family property, and this sometimes created friction (see Aristophanes Wasps).
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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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Women from rich families would normally bring into their new household a large dowry, which would then be managed by the husband, even though he never owned it, and had to return it in its entirety in case of a divorce (cf. Dem. 40). The dowry was not a legal requirement, but it was a strong social convention and even poor people would still try to scrape together a small dowry for their daughters. The dowry was the standard route through which a woman inherited part of her father’s property, if he also had male children. If the woman’s father had no male heirs she inherited the whole of his property and thus became an epikleros . The law of the state intervened in that case and ordered the closest male relative of her father in order of seniority to marry her and take control of the property that came with the woman. If he was already married he could divorce his wife and marry the epikleros , or pass on the epikleros to the second closest relative, and so on. Even if the woman had very little or no property the closest male relative of her father still had the legal obligation to marry her or pass her on. If no relative wanted to marry the poor epikleros , the archon, the senior magistrate of the state in charge of social affairs, was legally bound to compel the closest male relative of her father to provide her with a dowry of his own and find her a husband (cf. Andoc. 1.117-124).
The laws regarding an epikleros
have attracted a lot of attention in recent years, and have often been interpreted from a late
The fact that the woman might not love a husband imposed upon her would not be considered as important by most Athenians. Normally, marriages were not based on love but on the prospect of a good partnership for the future (Xen. Oec. 7-10). Love and respect between husband and wife were hopefully going to develop as time went by. In some cases, of course, infatuation could be there in the first place and Athenian men sometimes did marry attractive women, simply because they fancied them, but this was not the rule. Now, if we judge from the extremely low divorce rate in Athens, compared with the soaring divorce figures of our times, perhaps we may become less critical of this kind of Athenian attitudes towards marriage and family life.
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For less well-off women some of these parameters and moral standards were not applicable, as they often needed to work in harsh conditions in order to support their families. It would be easy for a financially comfortable matron to seek a respectable life away from the crowds, but the poor Athenian woman who had to sell vegetables in the market, just to take one example, spent the whole of her day talking to strange men. Dealing and trading in places where respectable women would not go might be a necessity for a poor woman, and a soft, pale, lady-like skin, fine jewelry and nice clothes would be dreams beyond her reach. If her husband was dead or away on military service and she had no rich relatives to support her, she would need to become the man and the woman of the household, feed her children, take care of their upbringing and face all the pressures that working single parents with a modest income had to face throughout history. Job opportunities for women were limited, and those that existed were to be found mainly in the health sector (nursing and midwifery), small businesses, petty trading, and small-scale manufacturing (Dem. 57.33-45). This is why some found it easier to follow the path of prostitution, if their looks allowed it, with its sudden rewards but also its many dangers. Male and female prostitution was permitted by Athenian law, and treated in a similar manner as other disreputable but necessary jobs, such as a sausage-seller or a worker in the public baths. Male prostitutes should refrain from advising the assembly, accept certain offices or serve as one of the nine archons (because of the extensive religious responsibilities of these offices), but otherwise they could live as they wished (Aeschin. 1.19-20). Brothels had to pay taxes, and operated under a fixed ceiling price. Most of the workers in brothels were slaves. Considering that they had a high turnover of low-class clientele, and little or no medical care, their life expectancy would be rather low, and the conditions of their lives often appalling. Free-lance prostitutes had a higher chance of a better life as they could make more money, regulate their working hours, and take control of their lives. High class prostitutes, the famous hetairai of the ancient world, lived a life of wealth and luxury while they were at their prime, and had a much better chance of finding someone willing to take them as concubines and allow them to live their mature years in respectability. Unlike most women in the ancient world these hetairai received an education intended to enhance their seductive prowess, were given long lessons on good social skills, and taught in a manner that would allow them to develop a charming personality (see Athenaios, book 13, and Dem. 59.18-40). It is perhaps an irony that those respectable matrons who scrupulously lived a life of virtue behind the walls of their household have been forgotten, while the often despised courtesans of Athens, Corinth, Megara, and Ionian Greece have secured a personal place in history. Some of these women played an important role at the side of influential men, while some others were the only women in the ancient world who were able and willing to live independently without a man at their side. If they were free-born or already liberated from slavery, they could put aside some of their earnings, amass a large fortune, and then spend it as they fancied, unfettered by the boundaries which respectable women had to observe. Lais, Neaira, Thais, Glykera, Gnathaina, Bacchis, Nannion, Nikarete of Megara and several others have become legends in their own right, and can be viewed as early representatives of feminist assertiveness and independent spirit.
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