Patriarchy in Antiquity: Putting It All in Perspective (The Ethos of Civilization, Part VI)

[The Ethos of Civilization PDF VERSION full article]


VI. Patriarchy in Antiquity: Putting It All in Perspective


It is a very common thing for modern society to look at third-world countries that oppress women, call them “patriarchies,” and then assume somehow that women in the West have ever lived under such conditions pre-feminism. But the fact still remains that these countries aren’t so much “patriarchal” as they are male “supremacist” (and this latter observation could certainly be disputed, but it is not my intention to dwell upon it at present). Contrary to the conditions in true patriarchal societies, male “supremacist” societies are generally characterized by a third-world existence, replete with widespread poverty, political and religious intolerance, and few- if any- civil rights for all citizens (male or female). They are also typically quite subject to lawlessness, rendering them dangerous places for foreigners to even visit and oftentimes making it dangerous for even native females to go many places alone.

Patriarchal societies in the West have never resembled their uncivilized counterparts in the East. Western men may dream of harems and other visions common in the stereotypical male fantasy whenever the word “patriarchy” crops up and mainstream society at large probably has in mind such horrors as female genital mutilation (FGM), “honor killings” and young brides being murdered for their dowries. But such “patriarchal” visions run counter to the true history of patriarchal societies as are found in such civilizations as Ancient Greece, Rome, and traditional English and Anglo-Saxon law.

As far as polygamy is concerned, it was frowned upon by the Romans and the Greeks alike- and the laws of England never allowed it. Among the Romans it was held that a man who held himself out as unmarried in order to take a second wife could be charged with criminal debauchery (stuprum) and that, “Official disgrace (infamia) undoubtedly attends a man who has two wives.” Bruce W. Frier & Thomas A.J. McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law 38 (2004) (Translating the emperors Valerian and Gallienus in 258 A.D.). And despite the general acceptance of a sexual “double standard” among the Greeks, marriage was still considered (with a brief exception- debatable among scholars- arising during the hardships of the Peloponnesian War) to be a monogamous institution:

…Sophocles’ striking use of marriage terminology in reference to Deianeira and Iole may in fact show that despite the relative sexual freedom of Greek men (and especially Herakles), marriage was quite clearly and unambiguously understood in Athens to be properly a singular relation which linked (or yoked) two people, one husband and one wife. The relation was not symmetrical, nor did it have the same impact on its two parties, male and female, but it was nonetheless a recognized and, in the Athenian context, highly valued relationship, whose violation could bring on even Herakles’ destruction… Sarah B. Pomeroy, Women’s History & Ancient History: Chapter 2: Cynthia B. Patterson, Marriage in Athenian Law 57 (1991).

Though Rome is often cited as a prime example of patriarchy for its infamous instances of paternal authority, paternal authority was limited only to some fathers, who only had control over some children- and even then Rome did have laws curtailing paternal power (see, eg., Frier & McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law, at 199 (cited supra), for the case of a father who was exiled and lost his citizenship for killing his son- who was committing adultery with his stepmother at the time- and the discussion of the jurists that “…a father’s power (patria potestas) ought to be founded upon pietas not cruelty (Marcian)). For instance, fathers only had control over legitimate children that were the product of a legally valid marriage (see Frier & Mcginn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law, 299 (cited supra): “…but even when a child is illegitimate, he [the father] will not (be able to) summon his mother into court…it is a legitimate marriage that shows who the father is.” See also James Kent 2 Commentaries on American Law 215, n.a (3d ed. 1827): “…The power of the putative father over the illegitimate child, was denied in the Roman law, and it is equally so in the Spanish law.”). And in some instances perhaps the father did not even have control over his legitimate children, for if a father was himself a “son-in-power” then his children might actually come under the power of his ownpaterfamilias– even if the father himself was later emancipated.

The perpetual tutelage of women in Roman law (like manus marriage) seems to have faded quite early, being reduced generally to no more than a formality by the classical period. But even when it did exist, it seems to have been greatly surpassed in its intensity by the guardianship of women under ancient Athenian law, where “…an Athenian woman seems never to have been independent, with no kyrios.” Douglas M. MacDowell, The Law in Classical Athens (Aspects of Greek and Roman Life) 84 (1986).

…[I]t was realized that children and women could not be expected to act independently, but were generally protected and controlled by men; and so the law recognized the position of a man who was kyrios (‘lord,’ ‘controller’) of another person. The kyrios of a child or woman had authority over, and responsibility for, the dependent. He was expected to see that his dependent was housed and fed, and the dependent was expected to obey him. He had charge of any property which belonged to the dependent; and if the dependent was involved in legal proceedings, he had to speak for the dependent in court…A woman’s kyrios was normally her father until she was married, her husband thereafter…An Athenian woman seems never to have been independent. MacDowell, The Law in Classical Athens, at 84 (cited supra).

Again, the law ties authority with responsibility. A woman might bring a dowry into the marriage, but this was by no means required. It seems the Romans placed more emphasis on dowries, linking them to the financial support of the wife, as in later times marriages were based solely upon mutual affection (“maritalis affectio” see Frier & McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law at 49-50 (quoting Gaius Inst. 3.151.): “Partnership lasts as long as they (the partners) persist in the same agreement (consensus). But when one renounces the partnership, it is dissolved.”), divorces were common, and husbands didn’t appear to be bound to support their wives even if the husband continued to bear the “common burdens” of marriage. And among the Greeks, the dowry was an important part of marriage custom, but it was still not required, as a woman could still enter into legitimate marriage without a dowry (marriage was not limited to the privileged elite):

Whether or not we choose to call them citizens, Athenian women were clearly part of the privileged “insider” community of the Athenian polis. When Sealey argues…that “many Athenians were very poor” and so gave their daughters as concubines without dowries rather than by enguē with a dowry, he misrepresents the significance of the dowry and of the relationship between the dowry and the enguē. The dowry was the daughter’s share of her family estate and contribution to the new joint conjugal estate created by her marriage and inherited by the children of that marriage. If her family had nothing, she could bring nothing; but we should not suppose that dowries were given only by the rich. And finally, if a man gave his daughter as a concubine to another Athenian, he would have thereby jeopardized the citizen status of her children and so his own grandchildren. Citizenship may arguably have been of slight importance to some at the lower edges of Athenian society, but nonetheless it was not a privilege to be dispensed with casually. Pomeroy, Women’s History & Ancient History at 71, n.61 (cited supra) (emphasis added).

And could a man kill his wife over the dowry (or perhaps even an adulterous affair)? The answer to this is a simple no. “Although the lex Iulia may not have specifically stated this, it granted no right [under Roman law] to kill a wife. Thus, Papinian(Coll. 4.10.1) remarks: ‘In no section of the statute is a husband allowed to kill his wife; so it is clearly and unambiguously against the law for him to have done this [apparently referring to the case of a husband who had killed his adulterous wife in a fit of rage].’” Frier & McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law, at 114 (cited supra). The Roman statutes also extended to non-wives as well.

Though the Roman law cases above are all from the “classical” period of Roman law (about 31 B.C. to 235 A.D.) after the fall of the Republic, and though perhaps it is not well known what manus marriage would have truly been like for women in its entirety, the laws of Ancient Greece, as discussed above, also came from Greece’s classical period which date to around the same time as manus marriage (and the Roman Republic) would have existed. Undoubtedly the two cultures profoundly influenced each other.