Adultery. Even though prostitutes and sexual partners other than their wives were available to Athenian men, adultery was not uncommon. The Greek word for adulterer was moikhos. From the Homeric poems onward, this type of person is characterized as deceptive, dangerous, and even effeminate. The Trojan prince Paris, for example, is the
original adulterer in Greek myth, because he abducted the beautiful Helen from her husband’s house and brought her to Troy, thereby initiating the Trojan War. In the Iliad (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.), his brother Hector scolds him for his reckless actions: “Evil Paris, beautiful, woman crazy, cajoling, better had you never been born, or killed unwedded.” Paris would rather spend his time in the boudoir with the beautiful Helen than on the battlefield.
Preventive Measures. Because Pericles’ law of 450-451 b.c.e. decreed that only the legitimate offspring of Athenian parents were entitled to citizenship and full participation in the democratic polis, adultery became more than just a private offence in the Classical polis; it jeopardized the welfare of the city as a whole. Not surprisingly, Greek tragedies from the Classical Period repeatedly show a preoccupation with adultery. A common plot is the trouble wives get into, particularly their involvement with other men, when their husbands are away. For example, Clytemnestra in Agamemnon takes on a lover after long years of awaiting her husband’s return. The seclusion of women within the house, their segregation from men, and the practice of veiling when in public were all measures geared at protecting them from adultery, and therefore ensuring the legitimacy of a man’s children.
Retribution. In the view of the Athenians, the concept of adultery pertained more to women than to men, who were allowed a broad range of sexual partners outside marriage. At the same time, the adulterer, the male participant, received a harsher penalty than the adulteress, even if she initiated the affair. The law allowed a male head of household to kill any man with impunity if he caught them in the
act with any of the women under his guardianship, including his mother, wife, sister, or daughter. The speechwriter Lysias describes a situation in which a young wife was seduced by Eratosthenes, a well-known philanderer who caught sight of her at her mother-in-law’s funeral, one of the few occasions in which men might come into contact with well-born women not related to them. Her husband, Euphiletus, murdered the lover when he caught them in the act. Eratosthenes’ relatives then brought a case against the husband on charges of homicide. Euphiletus won acquittal by arguing that in murdering his wife’s seducer, he was actually enforcing the law concerning adulterers, handed down by the lawgiver Draco. It is unclear whether death was always the punishment mandated for adulterers; in Greek comedy, payment, depilation (the practice of removing pubic hair by singeing), and other debasing gestures are some types of compensation demanded of them.
Partner in Crime. The penalty for the woman engaging in adultery was somewhat lighter. The law required a husband to divorce an adulterous wife, although he may not always have followed through with it, especially if it involved repaying a large dowry. It also forbade the adulteress to wear jewelry and to participate in public religious activities. Most husbands, however, refused to initiate a divorce because it meant testifying against their wives in public. Revealing a wife’s misconduct would have called into question the parentage and citizenship of a man’s children and would have publicly diminished his honor. Why did the Athenians mete out such a harsh punishment to adulterers and not to adulteresses? They considered the woman a passive partner in the crime; in their view women were the easy targets of seducers because they, like children, lacked judgment and self-control. The man, on the other hand, engaged in a premeditated and illegal activity that potentially jeopardized the integrity and stability of another man’s household.
Rape. In the Archaic Period, Solon denounced adultery as a crime worse than rape, a view that persisted throughout the Classical Period, and one quite the opposite of our modern thinking on the subject. While an adulterer caught in the act by a husband might be killed, the rapist only had to pay a monetary fine to compensate for his violent crime. Why was the penalty for rape less than seduction or adultery at Athens? Any physical assault, whether sexual or not, against an Athenian citizen man, woman, or child, was considered a serious offense because one of the primary rights of citizenship was physical protection. This central right explains why Athenian laws concerning rape involve a strict social hierarchy of fines, from free man to slave. To the Athenians, adultery potentially undermined both the household and the city. For if an Athenian had an affair with a citizen woman not his wife, his child would have no claim to his property, or familial or religious associations. The woman, on the other hand, would be forced to claim that the child belonged to her husband, thereby upsetting the fragile network of kin and cult connections founded on the legitimacy of offspring. If the woman were caught, all her children would have had difficulty proving their citizen status. In effect, adultery was considered a crime not against an individual, but against the household unit and even against the city itself, since its stability relied, to a great extent, on the welfare of the individual oikos (household).
Corrupting Influence. There is yet another reason why the Athenians considered adultery a far worse crime than rape. In their minds, the person who achieves this end by persuasion corrupts the mind as well as the body of the woman, gaining access to her male relative’s possessions and jeopardizes the legitimacy of his offspring. For example, Xenophon explains adultery as a more problematic crime than rape because it affects a wife’s attitude, her philia (love) toward her husband. In the case of rape, her feelings toward her husband would remain unchanged. Similarly, adultery is a habitual activity, occurring more than once, while rape normally involves a single incident.
Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Shocken Books, 1975).