Household Interests: Property, Marriage Strategies, and Family Dynamics in Ancient Athens

The Athenian household in classical Greece extended beyond the nuclear family and its property (including domiciles, urban workshops, farmhouses, slaves, other livestock, olive trees and grapevines, and farmland transferable apart from plants on it). The elite, source of most surviving evidence, had a bifurcated strategy. They usually kept wealth within their patrilineal kin-groups, but they also cultivated matrilines, friends, and neighbors (local endogamy). Cheryl Anne Cox’s virtue is to stress tendencies of division in this system of partible inheritance. The Athenian problem of “overparceling” the smallish Attic farms (a territory smaller than Rhode Island) in a society with a high death rate found various solutions, including small dowries and the epiclerate. This peculiar institution transmitted the estate of a man without sons through his unmarried daughter by her marriage to his closest male kinsman from a shared male ancestor.

Athenian society and law exhibit primitive and sophisticated features often without analogue or influence on other ancient and subsequent legal systems. Stephen Todd, in The Shape of Athenian Law (1993), contrasts this non-legacy to the vast influence of Roman law. Cox, whose bibliography generally stops after 1991, ignores Todd’s excellent survey of the forest to examine some tall trees. Todd’s useful glossary for readers not versed in Attic legal procedures has no counterpart here, a disappointment that constricts the audience for a topic in family and women’s history.

Cox argues for the instability of the Athenian oikos (household). Death, remarriage, service abroad, exile and colonial residence, and fluid boundaries complicated the ideal life cycle of a family unit. Like quantifying women’s happiness or Spartan courage, gauging standards for this relative term poses a serious problem. Cox’s thesis and contribution is that the interest of the Attic household looked beyond the patriline to the matriline, families with similar political and economic interests, also non-kin neighbors (when not foes), concubines, freedmen, and slaves. Beyond the male family’s DNA, custom and law allowed for adoption (a mother’s brother, a sister’s son, a neighbor, a slave), guardianship, and extended loan (sometimes a hidden divestment of property).

In-marriage and out-marriage alternate among leading families in obscure strategies of building new and affirming old alliances. The search for better land and concerns to spread agricultural risk drew men from ancestral demes (wards, villages, and political units studied by David Whitehead and Robin Osborne) to those of their wives, contrary to the usual rural virilocality. The uninitiated must note that a person’s demotic (Pericles of Cholargos) identifies one’s family’s residence at the time of Cleisthenes’s 508–507 reform, and does not thereafter change. It never proves residence at the time of a lawcourt oration or grave inscription, and this problem vitiates any conclusion about the distance between the actual homes of two marrying persons. Many households owned holdings scattered across the varied Attic landscape and in town and might possess no property in their original demes.

The ancient evidence is fragmentary and biased towards the wealthy. Cox necessarily proceeds family by family (relying heavily on John Kenyon Davies’s essential Athenian Propertied Families 600–300 B.C. [1971]), with frequently acknowledged conjectures about connections and motivations. The book provides no map despite repeated and necessary references to property locations in the demes. Any study laying weight on deme location and proximate holdings of intermarrying families (e.g. pp. 17–22) must suffer from this frustrating absence.

Successive chapters explain how the elite’s practices manipulated legal standards of patriliny; how they trafficked in women (oratory), how propinquity of property mattered less to city families (tombstone inscriptions); how siblings, including women, exercised private power in arranging marriages and defending relatives’ inheritances (controversial); and how wealth was acquired, transmitted, and dispersed between generations and across a single one in specific situations.

Cox notes that norms and laws are to be obeyed, bent, or ignored as advantage dictates and opportunities knock. Crisis strategies, when the paradigm fails, keep the oikos intact and prevent its extinction; guardianship (frequently litigated in a record-poor society), adoption (convenient for amalgamating estates), and remarriages of fathers and mothers (the bane of step-siblings) provide solutions and new problems. Marriage itself was less stable and less exclusive (especially for males) than we assume. Divorce was simple, and concubinage and extramarital sex were unremarkable. Slaves themselves are known to have been freed, adopted, and even married into their Athenian masters’ families (Phormio’s fortune).

The book’s full title shows that Cox has compiled disparate topics relevant to the Attic transmission of wealth. Its central thesis, the fluidity of the oikos, finds compelling support in her thorough survey of the orators’ evidence. Cox, detailing the frequent fusion and fission in the Attic oikos, shows us that the Athenian family absorbed various non-lineal elements. She has fruitfully complicated an already difficult historical picture.

Donald Lateiner
Ohio Wesleyan University