The Family and Social Trends: Overview

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800-323 B.C.E.: The Family and Social Trends: Overview

The Family. In contrast to more well-documented periods of world history, sources for the family and social trends in ancient Greece are exiguous. Most of the evidence comes from literary texts, and of those, the richest material is the poetry of Homer, composed in the Archaic Period, around 750 b.c.e., and Athenian tragedy, performed between 480 and 404 b.c.e., at the beginning of the Classical era. Literary texts, like modern cinema and novels, may provide insight into some of the underlying ideas the ancient Greeks had about family life and social roles, but they do not always reflect the lives of everyday people. Often they focus on a bygone era filled with kings and queens, aristocrats and warriors, a world in which slaves, children, and commoners figure little. Instead, they tell us more about how the ancient Greeks imagined things should be, rather than how they really were. In the Classical Period, a broader array of sources is available: inscriptions, historical works, and law-court speeches provide more insight into everyday life because they deal with actual people and events.

Homeric Society. Emerging from a dark age in which literacy and other forms of culture were temporarily lost to the Greeks, the Homeric poems combine historical and fictional elements to portray a remote past of mythical kings and their heroic exploits. The Iliad and the Odyssey (both written circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.) of Homer describe a world divided into small, regional, clan-based chiefdoms, one that harks back to the societies of the late Bronze and the Dark Ages. Homeric society has no written law, only a set of shared customs handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Nonetheless, these poems represent the family unit as comprised of a male head of household, a wife, children, and the land, the same social organization found in the Classical Period.

Household. The Greek word oikos (household) refers both to the family and its descendants, the clan or tribe, and the physical space they inhabited. Because ancient Greek society was patrilineal, the physical holdings of the household in both the Archaic and Classical Periods passed directly from father to son. This pattern of inheritance closely linked the estate to a particular clan. The Greek household thus became associated with the concept “one’s own,” the origins, identity, and material and emotional interests of a given individual.

Guest Friendship. In the Homeric poems, however, the sphere of “one’s own” could extend beyond the oikos to other royal households with which heroes and their families had a direct political relationship known as xenia (guest friendship). Guest friends formally recognized their connection through the exchange of visits and gifts; after they died, their sons continued these relationships. In the Iliad, two heroes on opposite sides of the battle refuse to kill one another once they learn that their grandfathers had been guest friends.

Proving Oneself. Although the Homeric hero closely identified himself with both his clan and significant personal connections outside his immediate oikos, he nonetheless strove to individuate himself, to make a name for himself, to earn immortal glory. He had to show his potential for leadership through both his ability to persuade others and his skill in battle: he had to be a “speaker of words” and a “doer of deeds.” At the same time, by earning glory in battle, he increased the prestige not only of himself but also of his family and kingdom. In the Iliad the hero Glaucus shows the importance of excelling in battle when he relates his father’s advice “to be always among the bravest, and hold my head above others, not shaming the generation of my fathers.” The identity of the Homeric hero is thus closely bound with his family and household.

Relationships. Throughout Greek history, the most important family interests were those of the oikos and its members, expressed as the relationship between husband and wife, parent and child, and master and slave. The proper relationship between individuals in the household formed the basis of Greek ethical thought, an idea found in the work of the archaic poet Hesiod. This early concept of justice centered on domestic and private relationships, not on the city or world beyond the house. The just man treated his guests well and did not commit adultery by sleeping with his brother’s wife; he showed compassion to vulnerable children and honored his aging parents.

Husband and Wife. One of the most important relationships within the household was between the Homeric hero and his wife. A distinguishing feature of ancient Greek society, in contrast to many other ancient cultures, was the practice of monogamous marriage: although a man, but not a woman, could have other sexual partners outside of marriage, he had only one legitimate wife. Only her children were fully recognized as heirs to his property, and, after the law of Pericles in 451-450 b.c.e., only her children were considered citizens in classical Athens. In Homeric society the institution of marriage distinguished the concubine, who was literally “spear-won,” a prize taken in battle by the hero, and the “wedded wife.” A hero could have a strong emotional tie to a concubine, as King Agamemnon had for Chryseis in the Iliad. In contrast to later Greek marriage customs, there were few formal markers of marriage in Homeric society. Because there was no city-state, no laws, and no citizenship in the Homeric world, marriages involved a complex system of gift exchange and property negotiations. Women themselves served as objects of exchanges through which alliances between male-governed households were strengthened. Even Helen, the most beautiful woman in Greek myth, exerts no control over her own fate in the Iliad, but rather serves as a pawn in a struggle between men.

Wedding Feast. In the absence of a formal ceremony, the relatives and neighbors who participated in the wedding feast witnessed and socially validated the transference of the bride from the house of her father to the house of her husband. In the Iliad the shield that the divine blacksmith, Hephaestus, creates for the hero Achilles after his weapons have been lost in battle depicts a wedding celebration and its importance to the community. The brides are shown being escorted from their fathers’ houses at night by torchlight to their new homes. The female celebrants sing a special wedding song, the hymenaeus, while young men engage in a ritual dance. This scene suggests that Greek marriage in the earliest period involved at least a public recognition of the couple’s union.

Means to an End. In the Homeric world, as in later Greece, marriage could serve as a vehicle for achieving political power and authority for a man, especially if he married a woman from a socially significant family. Although a wife technically did not own any of her husband’s property, she came to have a vested interest in its prosperity; thus, Penelope protects Odysseus’s property from the lawless suitors for almost twenty years, until her husband returns. Women, through their domestic labor and the birth of children, thus played an important role in increasing their husbands’ holdings.

The Classical Polis. While the Homeric poems describe a fictional society influenced by earlier social and political ideas, the audience for these poems actually inhabited a new type of political structure, the polis (city-state). City-states emerged in Greece sometime during the eighth century b.c.e., a time roughly coincident with the appearance of the Homeric poems. City-states were relatively small by modern standards and characterized by political autonomy and social homogeneity. Most inhabitants knew each other by name and lived their whole lives in the same place, often in the same house, if belonging to the landowning class. Many city-states were ruled by a single individual known as a tyrant. This word did not originally have a negative meaning, but referred to a single, aristocratic leader who managed the city, usually beneficently. City-states could also be governed by a small, select group of aristocrats, known as oligarchs. As their wealth and size increased, they erected stone temples that honored individual gods and celebrated their power and glory, beginning around 650 b.c.e.

Colonies. Because opportunities to own land were extremely limited for all but the wealthiest class of citizens, some Greeks of the Archaic Period left their homelands to settle in Greek colonies abroad, in Asia Minor, along the coast of modern-day Turkey, and in Italy. Colonization afforded the average Greek an opportunity to become a landowner. At the same time, colonies increased the public visibility of Greece throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. On the mainland, the scarcity of land created a class system in which rich landowners cultivated an image of themselves as the true aristocrats to whom all others were inferior. They referred to themselves and their families as “the good” and denounced the rest of the population as “the bad,” thereby distinguishing aristocrats from commoners.

Protected Interests. One of the main tasks of the city-state was to protect the interests of the individual household. For Hesiod and later writers, the strength of the polis community depended directly upon the preservation of its households and relationships. Indeed, the household was the social precondition that enabled the polis to emerge. Aristotle described the origins of the city as a primitive social and economic unit created to support individual households in their struggle to survive. From these beginnings the city developed into a major ethical force that shaped the characters of its inhabitants.

Athens. Probably the best known of these city-states, along with Sparta and Corinth, is Athens. Because many of the writings come from this period in Greek history, most people employ the term Greeks to refer to the Athenians of the Classical Period. Although governed by tyrants in the Archaic Period, the city became the first democracy in the world around 508 b.c.e., when Cleisthenes led a revolution against the rule of the Pisistratid tyranny. The seeds of democracy, however, can be traced all the way back to one of Athens’s most famous lawgivers, Solon, who established around 590 b.c.e., a new set of laws that promoted equality among citizens. First, he abolished the practice of debt-bondage, the ability of a creditor to force a man into slavery if he was unable to pay off the debt. Second, he granted citizenship to the foreign artisans living in Athens. Third, he reorganized the citizens into four different property classes, thereby diminishing the power of the aristocratic elite, who previously owned most of the land. Because of these reforms, later Athenians considered Solon the first democrat. Yet, although Athens was a democracy, not everyone could be a citizen. In fact, only about one-sixth of the total Athenian population during the Classical Period could be considered citizens, approximately 50,000 out of 300,000; the rest were slaves, foreigners, or women. While Solon’s reforms, and later the democratic government, created more equality between Athenian citizens, it gradually restricted the independent functioning of individual households. Individuals were encouraged to put the city first and to relinquish personal ties in order to serve the city. These changes resulted in an increase of social control over women in particular and the family in general.

Conflict. A central issue during the Classical Period, and one that is critical in understanding the family and social trends, was the increased tension between the household and the state. In the Homeric world, a warrior was required to have loyalty only to his family, friends, and household; there was no concept of a “state” or other political entity. If he committed a crime, he had to make restitution to the victim’s family; he was neither prosecuted in a court of law nor sent to jail. In democratic Athens, however, citizens were asked to put the city-state first and personal ties second, a trend that resulted in increased constraints on women. A new kind of dramatic poetry became increasingly important to the Athenians as their city began to grow in power and prestige. This dramatic poetry was a special genre probably invented by Athenians and originally produced only at Athens at a special city festival devoted to the god Dionysus. Almost all of the Greek tragedies explore dynamics within families and their relation to the city-state; many feature striking female characters, powerful matriarchs and dutiful daughters, female rebels, and heroines.

Blood Vengeance. In 458 b.c.e. the playwright Aeschylus dramatized the subordination of family ties to the democratic polis in his Oresteia trilogy. In the first play, Agamemnon, the poet tells of the return of the great hero, King Agamemnon, to his palace in Argos after fighting for ten years at Troy. His wife, Queen Clytemnestra, entices him into the palace where she murders him in his bath. She kills her husband and his concubine, Cassandra, because he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigeneia, before he left for Troy. By means of her crime, Clytemnestra honors the bond between mother and child. This plot illustrates an ancient principle of blood vendetta in which an injured party may retaliate against an enemy, normally someone outside the family, with impunity. There was no court of law, no codified set of rules, only revenge for a personal crime. In the play that follows, Libation Bearers, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, after whom the trilogy takes its name, returns to his native Argos to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover. Like his mother, Orestes harms a family member in order to exact justice, but this time the god Apollo sanctions his crime. From a Greek perspective, however, Orestes’ revenge was qualitatively different from that of Clytemnestra; his crime was demanded by a god and honored his father and the paternal oikos. In the third play, Eumenides, Orestes must stand trial in Athens and defend himself against the Erinyes, primordial creatures who pursue matricides. Orestes is acquitted on the basis of Apollo’s argument that the most important tie is not that of mother and child, as Clytemnestra believes, but of husband and wife, because it is sanctioned by the city. At the end of the play, the Erinyes become the Eumenides, the “friendly ones”; cease their hounding of Orestes; occupy the spaces below each household; and ensure the fertility and prosperity of the city. Aeschylus thus departs from the original myth in which Orestes merely visits Athens while fleeing the Erinyes, in order to show the new role played by democracy. The chain of retaliation endorsed by the old system of justice is replaced by a court of law in which the community decides the punishment for individual crimes. What the Greeks formerly considered a private, familial affair now became the business of the democratic city.

Honoring the Dead. Another play, Antigone by Sophocles, produced around 440 b.c.e., also dramatized the conflict between the state and the family. In this play a young girl breaks the law established by her uncle, the king, in order to bury her brother’s corpse. Her father, Oedipus, ruled Thebes until he discovered that he had killed his father and married his mother. After exiling himself from the city, he bequeaths the throne to his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. The brothers quarrel, and Eteocles refuses to relinquish the throne to Polyneices. Polyneices amasses an army in Argos and returns to regain power. A long war ensues, resulting in the deaths of both brothers. Eteocles, as the ruler of Thebes and a political ally, is given a burial with full honors; but his brother, Polyneices, an enemy of the states, is left unburied and dishonored on the battlefield. When the play opens, Creon, the uncle of Antigone and her only remaining sibling, Ismene, has decreed that anyone who attempts to bury Polyneices will be stoned to death. Antigone defies his decree in order to honor her family and the gods of the underworld. When a guard catches Antigone throwing handfuls of dust and singing laments over her brother’s body, she is condemned to die in a rocky tomb outside the city. Her fiance, Haemon, finds that she has hung herself in the cave and straightaway kills himself. Upon hearing this terrible news, Jocasta, the mother of Haemon, also hangs herself. King Creon is left with no surviving family members at the end of the play: he has witnessed the destruction of his own oikos. Like many tragic heroes, he learned his lesson too late; the importance he placed on the city and human law led to the denial of universal and divine law, as well as to a devaluation of women and family. Creon knows that he must pay the price for neglecting this important facet of life. In the end he takes responsibility for his actions: “It was I that killed her,” he says. Sophocles’ Antigone illustrates the importance of the family and women, even in a powerful and wealthy city like Classical Athens.

Political Life. Both the Oresteia trilogy and Antigone show the extent to which Athenians of the Classical Period were preoccupied with both political issues and the place of the family within the polis. This trend resulted from the premium the polis placed on political life, at the expense of the family. Yet, even in the Athenian democracy, the household and family continued to form the basis of Greek ethical and political thought and therefore played an important role not only in tragic drama but also in the city-state itself.

Ancient Sparta. Known as Lacedaemon, Sparta was another powerful Greek city-state, that, under the leadership of the lawgiver, Lycurgus, adopted a slightly different response to the archaic demand for laws and political order. In this society the city-state functioned almost as an enlarged household that shared wives, children, and property (the latter feature is still found in socialist and communist governments today). Lycurgus created equality among his citizens by redistributing the land and ensuring that each Spartan held the same share. He also established unique marriage and child-rearing practices that reveal a strikingly different attitude toward women from the one found in ancient Athens. Spartan women appear to have had greater social and economic freedom than their Athenian counterparts. They had large proïkes (dowries), or marriage settlements, that consisted of landed property and movables given by father to daughter upon marriage. Heiresses were free to marry outside their paternal line and still retain a portion of their patrimony, in contrast to Athenian practice. Euripides’ play, Andromache (circa 425 b.c.e.), seems to have relied on a similar view of Sparta, since it depicts Hermione, the daughter of Helen, as bringing a large dowry into her relatively poor husband’s household. The fact that Spartan inheritance laws liberally allowed women to own property—about two-fifths of the land in Sparta was controlled by women—may have contributed to the prominence of women in public and political life.

Gender Roles. Child-rearing and marriage customs also seem to have reinforced the idea of gender role reversal in ancient Sparta. In addition to participating in dances and choruses, Spartan girls received athletic training, an education meant to prepare them for the rigors of childbirth and the production of vigorous male children who would be good warriors. They were also notorious for public nudity, a feature of Spartan life attested in sources as early as the Archaic Period, and a strong contrast to the Athenian practice of female seclusion and physical modesty. Similarly, Spartan marriage customs must have seemed quite barbarian to residents of classical Athens: for example, the laws provided that an older Spartan husband could introduce into his home a younger woman for the purpose of procreation if his marriage had no issue. A man not wishing to marry might “borrow” another man’s wife for the production of heirs, as long as he received the husband’s permission. These Spartan practices suggest that a child’s legitimacy and citizen status were not as strongly correlated in Sparta as in Athens.

Women in Public. Ancient evidence also indicates that Spartans placed fewer restrictions on the public presence of women, perhaps because they configured public and private spheres in a manner different from the Athenians. Girls’ choruses were a regular feature of Spartan life and frequently took place before a mixed audience of both genders. Occasionally, the female choral members would engage in playful teasing of their male audience, rebuking some young men and praising others. At least two female Spartan poets, including Cleitagora, mentioned by Aristophanes, and Megalostrata, existed. Literary sources depict Spartan women as gifted speakers who, according to Plato, received the same education as men, one especially strong in philosophy, rhetoric, and music.

Strong Mothers. Although preserved in a late text, the sayings of Spartan women provide further support for the idea of women’s strong public presence. Consisting mostly of mothers exhorting their sons to martial valor or rebuking them for cowardice, the sayings represent Spartan women as fiercely patriotic, indifferent to pain, and yet obedient and deferential to their husbands. In one famous saying, Gorgo, the wife of the Spartan king Leonidas, when asked by an Athenian, “Why do Spartan women alone rule over men?” responded, “Because we alone bear real men.”

Communal Living. Spartans were also famous for their practice of communal dining and education. Although the men lived in individual households, they took their daily meals together in a public mess. Spartan fathers did not have final authority over the life or death of their babies, as did fathers in Athens; nor did they introduce their babies to the family hearth and gods within days after their birth. Spartan newborns were brought before a council of elders that determined whether they would live or die. Instead of leaving the education of children to their parents, as was the Athenian, custom, the Spartans created a public official responsible for supervising and disciplining the city’s children. Similarly, parents were given authority over all children, not just their own, in matters of instruction and punishment. Although their main purpose was to bear sons who would protect the city-state, Spartan girls may have enjoyed more freedom than their Athenian counterparts, appearing more frequently in public and receiving some of the same training as their brothers. These social policies were intended to diminish personal ties, foster loyalty to the state and bravery in battle, and create a superior military force.

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The Family and Social Trends: Overview

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