Family in Classical Athens


Families can be a bit fraught with strife. It won’t surprise anyone to know this is especially true of my maternal line once they realise I am a pretty average example of the species. Civil struggle in that side of the family is rife, but gradually diminishing as everyone is getting too old to care, which is why it’s lucky there is the new generation to carry the torch.

In my mind, the difficulties derive directly from the virtues of the house. We are all intelligent, capable and determined. That is to say, we think we know best, we’re happy to act on our own authority without consultation, and we are stubborn. I can’t really hold Stef’s order of Board Games for VUWCG against him too strongly, as I realise in his position I would probably have done the same, so at least I feel hypocrisy is a fleeting trait alloyed only within our stubborness. I don’t for a moment suppose that families constituted by the slow witted, incompetence and pliable would be any less riven, but their difficulties will be of a different quality.

Most of what goes on in a family is difficult to distinctly catalogue because it is constituted of unspoken assumptions, intuitions and a history of the same. As with human emotion and interaction generally, I doubt that even those most intimately involved could with clarity cite the various contingencies and eventualities. I suppose that much of it is underpinned by a hope for quid pro quo, itself a subjective and fraught principle. A hope, alas, that becomes a demand given the right provocation.

One of the major aspects of my study this year has been the consitution of the family in Classical Greece, and what is shown is not entirely different from the earlier incarnations of the Nuclear Family. In fact, most of the essential mechanisms and components of family life seem to be fairly continuous in western culture until Women’s Lib. The oikos is defined in various places, but boils down to being the useful property of the householder or kyrios. Aristotle defines this role in three ways: the slave owner, the husband and the father. His sense is that the male is largely in control of each of these three prongs; the man commands, and each participle obeys. There is not in Aristotle the sense of the kyrios as bread-winner, his ideal citizen has slaves to actually earn the household’s money, and so is a man of leisure.

Three things for certain can be said about a man of leisure: they have sufficient free time to make full investigation into what should be done, they have the time to enact such of these things as they are capable, and they have the opportunity to observe the laxity of others in those pursuits. Of the busy, we might say that they have to make whatever shortcuts they can to accomplish what must be done, without time to always consider the best ways of doing them, and must therefore often find their efforts to be insufficient by the judgement of the idle.

Of the various components of the household, the one which provides the most trouble to the kyrios is his wife. As those of you who are married might expect. 😉 His situation is more complex and fraught than ours in several ways. Primarily, his wife is the necessary accomplice in the getting of legitimate offspring which is his main ambition in life. Should she be unfaithful his whole patralinear line is called into question and so he takes as much care as possible to confine her within the house and ensure that she has no opportunity to stray. His wife is also a substantial financial stakeholder in the commercial enterprise of the oikos, bringing with her a dowry that must be returned in the event of a divorce. The flip-side of this is that the kyrios must think to the future and the provision of a dowry for his own daughter. In a practical sense, the wife is also the household manager. While he is away at the agora or wrestling-school, his wife has control of most of the day-to-day management of the house.

On his side is the legitimate moral authority to enforce obedience through virtually unlimited means. And if it doesn’t work out, divorce is simply a matter of returning the wife and her dowry to her father. The kyrios even gets to keep or dispose of the children as his whim dictates: custody laws have come a long way since Victorian times.

The general gist of the statistics seems to be a life expectancy in the mid 30s for women, and mid 40s for men in this period, giving some indication of the lifestyle of a woman in comparison to a man. She is also socially isolated, poorly educated, and probably underfed. Let’s not even talk about medical science, whose principle cure for female ailments was pregnancy.

Truly, a woman’s lot was hard, and I can only imagine that forming genuine affection for a man who was free to treat you as he liked, needed you only for procreation and did not trust you one iota must have been difficult. And so the inevitable consequence of this arrangement is that the wife is at once a member of the oikos and an outsider. On the one hand, she is necessary for children, but at the same time she must necessarily retain loyalty to her father’s oikos to prepare for the possibility of divorce. She is also integral in the managemet of the household, but not trusted to exclude contamination of the line through adultery.

This analysis naturally brings to mind the arrangements of the modern family, and obviously the family with which I am most familiar is my own. It’s very tempting to try and assign the various roles to my own family, especially since my grandparents’ farm functions in many ways as the oikos of ancient greece did. My grandfather is kyrios, and a man of leisure; the female children have been parcelled out to suitors, and live in those oikoi (sp??), while the male children have until recently remained within the family estates. The farm is sustained by labourers who are primarily under the supervision of my Grandmother.

Fortunately, I think that’s about as far as the analogy can be taken. The internal politics of the house are completely different, and the children have independant lives. They do not depend on the support of their father, the way an ancient Athenian did: insolvent until their father died and left them the necessary starting capital for their own lives.

I suppose that at the end of my free inquiry, the main conclusion I can reach is that the members of a modern family have a hitherto unknown degree of autonomy one from the other. We have moved from the structure of an oikos where the man was the main decision maker, and all family members were dependants in a family business, to the point where even relatively young children live their own lives. Modern New Zealand children leave the house at 5, and I wonder whether they ever really come home again.

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2 Responses to Family in Classical Athens

  1. Nice ending to your essay. Solid, yet snappy.

  2. adrexia says:

    I guess it would have been an unlucky lot to be born to a well-off Athenian man. But with any luck he will be off fighting battles for most of his natural life and you’ll have the running of the household in his absence. If not, at least you will be let at for the Dionysian festivities. It guess you could avoid marriage at all if your father were nice enough to let you dedicate your life to a temple. What I would like to know is whether the society ideal Aristotle describes actually existed at all, or whether it was actually just the ideal.

    If that trully is the lot of a rich Athenian woman, then I’d rather be poor or a Spartan any day. Actually, I’d rather be a Spartan anyway.

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