History: The myth and reality of the absolute authority of the kyrios

(adapted from a paper I wrote for a course on ancient Athenian law)

The ancient Greek kyrios, the head of the household, is, at first glance, a symbol of some backwards time long past.  He is iconic of patriarchal despotism, wielding authority absolute authority over his entire household.  This view, it must be said, plays conveniently into a popular framework of Whig-history, in which the benighted people of “olden days” lived lives of fear and oppression, in contrast with the enlightened contemporary age.  But how closely does the apparent reality of the kyrios in the everyday experiences of the ancient Greeks really line up with this self-congratulatory version of history?  A far cry from a household tyrant who commanded unconditional obedience, the kyrios was subject to checks on his power from without and within the oikos (household).

Even before consulting evidence, the idea of the absolute sovereignty of the kyrios seems implausible to the critical eye.  The viability of unchecked power, upon consideration, is found wanting.  Just as with any ruler, a family patriarch draws his authority from the consent of those under his power.  This is not to suggest that the ancient Greek family unit must, therefore, have been an egalitarian arrangement, by any means.  What this does mean, though, is that there we can be sure that there were many shades of grey within the power of a kyrios over his dependents, even before determining how those shades of grey might manifest.

Within the popular media of ancient Greece, one sees more nuance in the family unit than the Whig-history conception of the kyrios would suggest.  The entire plot of Aristophanes’s “The Wasps” centers on a young man, Bdelycleon, attempting to confine his elderly father, Philocleon, to the house, in order to keep a check on the latter’s addiction to the law court.  It is true Bdelycleon, being an adult, does not fall under the direct control of Philocleon, who, at this point, is no longer his kyrios.  That said, it is notable that Bdelycleon even thinks to lock up his father and set guards around the house (and, indeed, to drape a net over the house).  If such disrespect for the patriarch, even when he no longer wields legal authority over his antagonist, can be displayed, it suggests that the power of the kyrios was never all that absolute and terrifying in the first place.

An obvious objection is that “The Wasps” is not some court case (though it may mimic one, in places), nor a memoir, nor a letter, but rather a comedic play.  Could it not simply portray  a comical, topsy-turvy world, unrelated to reality?  Perhaps, but its very status as comedy is what makes it a more viable source, amongst fictional accounts.  “The Wasps” is not some tragedy, in which Philocleon’s imprisonment at the hands of Bdelycleon is an affront to the gods, or an injustice that plagues the very land, as murder and incest are in “Oedipus.”  The audience is not expected to generate a hubbub of righteous indignation at the thought of a son bossing his father around.  On the contrary, the crux of the play’s humor and appeal lies in the universal experience of the frustration that accompanies dealing with an obviously incompetent authority figure.  In order for “The Wasps” to have succeeded in performance, the Athenian audience must have, on some level, seen the patriarch, and, by extension, his legal office of kyrios, as someone who can be undermined.

But did not the kyrios have the power to decide which babies would live and be raised, and which would be left out to die?  Indeed, exposure, like the office of the kyrios itself, is often taken as another symbol of just how backwards and barbaric “those people” living “back then” were.  Exposure in reality, however, seems to have been quite different from the caricature in the contemporary imagination, in which some stern father or grandfather storms into a birthing chamber, inspects a newborn, and then declares, on the spot, whether the child will live or die.  In Cynthia Patterson’s article “‘Not Worth the Rearing': The Causes of Infant Exposure in Ancient Greece,” she argues that exposure was not an arbitrary decree, but rather a generally accepted and expected response to certain scenarios.[1]  Deformed children, who would make poor citizens in a pre-industrial society in which farming and warfare were two of the most noble pastimes, were certainly left out for exposure.  Bastards, too, who could not truly share in the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship, were left to the elements.  Patterson also notes that the burden of a large family could lead to the exposure of an infant, on the grounds that trying to keep and raise the infant in those circumstances would probably result in the child dying anyway, but not before consuming some of the family’s resources.  There is, of course, the infamous matter of female exposure and infanticide.  However, Patterson takes pains to point out that the typical evidence given for the prevalence of the practice, those being the disparate gender ratio and the perceived sexism of ancient Greece, do not necessarily point to an excess of female exposure and infanticide.

In the image that Patterson sets forth of exposure, the kyrios in is not so much an absolute tyrant, but rather an arbiter of how to allocate household resources.  It is true that this is still hardly an egalitarian and democratic domestic environment, but it does depart notably from the idea of kyrios as filicidal ogre.  Indeed, the conditions under which a child could be exposed were a source of ongoing public discourse,[2] indicating that the measured decision of a kyrios to expose a child was further constrained by societal pressure.

Regarding this societal pressure, Susan Lape, in her paper, “Solon and the Institution of the ‘Democratic’ Family Form,” touches upon the particular pressures that might lead to a bastard being undesirable.  It is not simply the puritanical shock at sex out of wedlock, as we might like to think, that stigmatized bastards in Athenian society, but rather the way in which the society, and systems of inheritance, were constructed.[3]  Traditionally in most societies, and legally in Athens, a bastard was not to be a scion of the wealth or powers of his household.  Lape tells us that, in reaction to the aristocratic chaos that had taken place prior to the arrival of Solon, the famous law code of Athens makes power contingent upon property and citizenship, rather than noble blood.  As such, bestowing equal privileges and consideration onto a bastard as onto a legitimate child conveys the message that it is family ties, rather than financial clout or civic participation, that confer one’s standing.  Such an idea, that a son is worthy of all the admiration of his father before him not because of his continuation of the father’s role in civic life, but simply because he is his father’s son, was abhorrent to the well-to-do democrats of Athens, and thus was stigmatized to the point that a bastard could be exposed with the consent of the oikos and the community, and not simply for the disdain of the kyrios.

The status of women is often taken as evidence of the power of the kyrios over the members of his oikos, locking them within the household, and away from public life.  In opposition to this idea, however, Steven Johnstone argues in his article, “Women, Property, and Surveillance in Classical Athens,” that women were left out of the public sphere not because they were being kept in the house by their kyrios, but because of commerce law.  In the article, Johnstone notes that the kyrios did indeed have a role to play when it came to women and property, but that that role was not as the enforcer of misogynistic social conventions.  Rather, he could serve as a woman’s representative in the marketplace, making the transactions that she could not, and, through these transactions, forming the networks that she could not.[4]  Again, we see that the kyrios was not a household despot, but more of a legal personification of the oikos, and one constrained by social and legal factors at that.

This very distinction is pointed to by David Schaps in his paper, “What Was Free About A Free Athenian Woman?”  It is tempting to the modern observer to write off the kyrios, particularly where women are concerned, as an owner and master in all but name.  However, Schaps points out that, unlike slaves, the charges of a kyrios had legal recourse if they were ill used by their patriarch.[5]  He then goes on to note that the expected activities of a woman were not the cooking, cleaning, and dirty work that modern audiences have come to expect for women living “back then,” but that they were set in charge of the household, and proudly so.[6]  Clearly, the women under the control of a kyrios were not on completely equal footing with him, but they were most certainly not frightened victims, trembling at his approach and clinging to his every dictate.

We see, then, that the will of the kyrios was not absolute, and his dependents were not to be conflated with subjects or property.  Ardent filial piety, which is the cornerstone of a system of absolute patriarchy, is conspicuously absent in popular media of Classical Athens.  Exposure, often taken as the prime example of the unchecked power of the patriarch, was in fact a broader custom, dictated by both social pressure and practical concern, rather than the whim of the kyrios.  Women, far from being property themselves, could act through their kyrios to access the spheres denied them by law, rather than paternal tyranny, and were mistresses of the household themselves.  To top it all off, the availability of legal recourse for the dependents of a kyrios demonstrates that obedience was not an unquestioned right afforded the patriarch, but conditional upon his own competence, and the agreement of his dependents.  In conclusion, the kyrios was not the notorious patriarchal despot of popular legend, but the legal representative and executive of the oikos, more president than dictator.

[1] Cynthia Patterson, “‘Not Worth the Rearing': The Causes of Infant Exposure in Ancient Greece” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 115 (1985), pp. 103-123

[2] Patterson, 113-114

[3] Susan Lape, “Solon and the Institution of the ‘Democratic’ Family Form” The Classical Journal, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Dec., 2002 – Jan., 2003), pp. 117-139

[4] Steven Johnstone, “Women, Property, and Surveillance in Classical Athens” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 22, No. 2 (October 2003), pp. 247-274

[5] David Schaps, “What Was Free About a Free Athenian Woman?” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 128 (1998), pp. 161-188

[6] Schaps, 166

2 Responses to “History: The myth and reality of the absolute authority of the kyrios”

  1. June 28, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Interesting, thought provoking, and well written exposition on ancient Athenian culture. Thanks for sharing.

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