Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.18

Sarah B. Pomeroy, Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Representations and Realities. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. 261. $65.00. ISBN 0-19-814392-3.

Reviewed by Marilyn B. Skinner, Department of Classics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721-0067,

Word Count: 2,646.

With the publication of her foundational study Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1975), Sarah Pomeroy was recognized immediately as the leading authority on conditions of life for ancient Greek and Roman women, an eminence she has maintained for almost a quarter of a century. Her second book, Women in Hellenistic Egypt from Alexander to Cleopatra (1984), sparked off intense scholarly interest in the experiences of women, elite and ordinary, within that particular sociotemporal and geographical milieu. P. also played a critical role in the development and production of the multiauthored volume Women in the Classical World (1991). Recently she has turned her attention to family history. In the wake of her new commentary on Xenophon's Oeconomicus (1993), she offers this treatment of the family in classical Athens (with a brief glance at Sparta) and in Ptolemaic Egypt. In addition to classicists, the book addresses a general audience of historians concerned with European family life. The introduction accordingly describes prevailing conceptual models of classical Greek social history, starting with a critique of earlier research grounded upon the issue of synchronic vs. diachronic perspectives on the Greek family. Rejecting currently popular assumptions of long-term continuity, P. insists that the Macedonian conquest of Greece and the subsequent diaspora radically affected family organization and values; this premise serves as her rationale for extending the investigation into the Hellenistic period. Other models examined are those of demography; Western and Eastern European marriage patterns characteristic of Rome and Greece, respectively; contemporary anthropology; and, finally, the application of gender as a methodological tool. In this introductory section P. concludes that Greek family structures were distinct from those of the Romans and subject to change over time, meanwhile imparting the cautious advice -- not always borne in mind later -- that the emotional content and intensity of members' affective relations with one another are neither completely alien nor wholly similar to our own.

The first chapter, "Defining the Family," attempts to acquaint researchers outside the field with the basic structure and functions of the family in ancient Greece. Employing classical Athens as the paradigmatic instance and then bringing in Sparta for comparative purposes, P. subjects its manifestations in each society to three categories of analysis: orientation towards the public or private sphere, legal and linguistic definitions, and the composition and operations of the oikos. While most of the sources and evidence cited will be familiar to specialists in the area of "Women in Antiquity," P. draws provocative new inferences. She demonstrates the inherent reductionism in the standard dichotomy of "public" and "private," arguing that in Athenian society, at least, there existed a totally public, a domestic/public, and a domestic/private version of "family." Only the last of these recognized women and children among its members. She also voices skepticism about conventional depictions of Sparta as an entirely communal state in contrast to Athens: references to heirs, dowries, adoptions, etc., in the sources imply the existence of a private version of the Spartan family based on the oikos system. "Analogy with Athens, rather than polarity, is the key to understanding Spartan families" (62). In each society, nostalgic appeals to earlier mores and attempts to revive legislation attributed to Solon and Lycurgus blur the picture of historical change in family structures. Lastly, through her use of a gender-oriented framework, P. displays the error in aligning the Greek concept of "family" with the private, the domestic, and the female sector exclusively.

In the second chapter, "Heredity and Personal Identity," P. underscores the crucial importance of family membership in defining individual personal identity -- for men, since women's identity was "more hazy" than that of their male kin (67). Rituals of incorporation into the household for infants, brides and slaves, naming patterns for sons and daughters, and the role of the father's all-male "public" kin group, the phratry, in verifying citizen birth attest to the son's permanent, constitutive attachment to his natal family and, conversely, to the daughter's tenuous connection with natal and marital families alike. Certain medical and philosophical theories of heredity famously bolster a fiction of descent purely through the male line by minimizing the mother's part in passing on inherited traits. Yet both shame and honor can be transmitted through women: as P. observes astutely, Pindar and Bacchylides, in compiling the genealogy of a victorious athlete, do not hesitate to call attention to the exploits of his maternal relatives. Notions of heredity, especially in conjunction with a family's claims to prominence, thus form part of a "consistent symbolic system" (68) molding the identity of particular members, in which gender is obviously the most significant variable.

In her third chapter P. examines the impact of death on the Greek family, taking up legal, literary, and material evidence in turn. According to her, the Solonian legislation governing Athenian funerals was primarily sumptuary; it controlled expenditures by individual families, not (as some have argued) a putative display of resources by extensive, socially prominent clans. Hellenistic funerary foundations, which institutionalized survivors' participation in rituals commemorating the dead and even involved non-relatives, are contrasted with classical Athenian funeral practices and tomb cult. P. plausibly suggests that the establishment of such foundations, with inducements to perform obligations to the dead, was a response to altered conditions of life in the Hellenistic period and so affords an example of how family structures changed over time (110-12). Demographic data provided by Athenian burials, meanwhile, exhibit skewed sex ratios, as high as three adult males to two females; these statistics, she argues, reflect actual conditions of urban family life, implying that a certain percentage of women failed to receive lasting commemoration, and also that female infanticide had created a marked population imbalance.1 Although stylized iconography and language make sepulchral monuments difficult to interpret for the social historian and preclude obtaining information about affective relationships except in a few intriguing cases (e.g., the custom-made stelae discussed on pp. 130-33), P. draws interesting conclusions about limited sizes of families and extent of kin networks from groupings of burials at Rhamnous. Finally, the prominence of female or male family members in specific roles associated with death and burial is once more correlated with orientation toward the public or the private sphere. The intimate duties of preparation of the corpse for burial and ritual mourning are in the hands of female kin, who also incur the pollution consequent upon a death. Commemorative monuments, however, render private relationships public, and accordingly represent males as the dominant figures in the family genealogy.

In contrast to her lengthy discussion of death as an event affecting Greek family life, P.'s fourth chapter on families at work is relatively brief. Agriculture, the economic basis of support for most households, reinforced traditional family structures: girls and boys learned appropriate skills by assisting their parents in storerooms or fields, and land was passed down by inheritance from father to son. Crafts and professions were also inherited. By her own admission, P. ventures on shaky ground in citing the line of descent of the physician Hippocrates as a possible historical example of medical knowledge handed down from one generation to the next but corroborates it with epigraphically attested examples of families of doctors from the Hellenistic period. At Athens, involvement with the theater, or with philosophical schools, also ran in families: continuity sometimes passed through the female line, as in the case of the actors and tragedians who descended from Aeschylus' sister. Priesthoods and priestesshoods were hereditary in particular aristocratic families, succeeding through the male line. As the case of Neaera indicates, hetairai trained purchased slaves, or indeed their own daughters; families of artists and sculptors extending down through generations are historically recorded, and during the Hellenistic period some female painters were taught the craft by their fathers. In short, however income is earned, "the family that enjoys economic success reproduces itself in each generation: the same names and the same professional activities occur" (156).

To extend her general discussions of "sentiment, naming patterns, demographic regimes, choice of spouses, and devolution of property" (161), P. then recounts the case histories of two Athenian families, those of Demosthenes and of Pasio and Phormio. This reviewer, however, feels an obligation to point out that neither family is representative of the norm: their respective legal troubles arose due to unusual circumstances. Demosthenes was forced to prosecute his cousins and former guardians precisely because they did not behave as trusted kinfolk should and normally would, and because his mother, exceptionally, had no male relatives to protect her interests and those of her children. Again, as P. acknowledges, the fact that Pasio was an ex-slave explains his testamentary arrangements, including the marriage of his widow to his own freedman Phormio; and his acquisition of citizenship for himself and his sons was only possible in the modified political climate of the Hellenistic world. This chapter, then, does not fully accomplish its illustrative purposes. Moreover, P.'s determined efforts to summarize the litigation over Demosthenes' property bog down in a welter of tangled minutiae: one can only imagine what a non-classicist will make of her explanation of antidosis (175-76). It would have been better, given the position of the chapter in the volume, to set out the cases of Demosthenes (in much less detail) and of Pasio as interesting examples of how established values associated with the classical Athenian family were changing during the century following the Peloponnesian War and the rise of Macedon.

The final chapter, "Families in Ptolemaic Egypt," draws on information from papyri to offer glimpses of the Greek family in Hellenistic times. While admitting that papyrus documents furnish kinds of evidence unparalleled elsewhere, P. denies that Egypt itself should be treated as a special case, insofar as Greek settlers, like colonials in other times and places, clung tenaciously to their own customs and even attempted to impose them on the native population, rather than adopting native ways (193-94). Thus she regards instances of brother-sister marriage among Egyptian Hellenes as an extension of the principle of endogamy that encouraged marriage between cousins, uncle and niece, and even paternal half-siblings in classical Athens. She also makes a cogent case for seeing reflections of Peripatetic views of household organization in the format of Ptolemaic census lists enumerating persons eligible for the salt tax. Bigamy, found occasionally in the lists, is furthermore explained as a likely imitation of marriage practices in the royal family that can be traced back to the Macedonian court. However, given the implicit assumption of monogamy in idealized portrayals of the Greek household as a marital partnership (in, e.g., the Odyssey and the Oeconomicus), I cannot agree with her that "the oikos model easily accommodates bigamy" (202). Acceptance of the latter practice, even if not widespread, seems to point to a real structural modification in family life. Corroborating evidence of alterations in family structure is plainly seen, as P. herself notes, in inscriptions registering new citizens at Miletus and Ilion: there we discover the novel phenomena of migrant widows without kinsmen, households composed of siblings with families, and matrilocal marriages.

Turning to private documents from the family archives of well-to-do persons, P. reveals how they supplement -- and to some extent again contradict -- the model of the family organized along androcentric and patriarchal lines that occurs in official documents. The Zenon papyri apparently record the activities of a bachelor whose energies were invested in furthering the business dealings of a brother and the careers of aspiring athletes and musicians. P. offers a particularly intriguing reading of the latter relationships: homoerotic favors are being exchanged for patronage, and the guardian will also gain vicarious honor should his young client be successful (216-18). The archive of the Hellenized Greek-Egyptian Dionysius shows a comparable pattern in which the household is structured vertically, through close links between brothers, as well as horizontally. Although women still need legal guardians, they can own property and may be the principal beneficiaries of their husbands' wills; Dionysius' documents therefore depict the economic activities of widowed mothers in cooperation with their sons. Finally, and most tantalizingly, P. speculates about the relationship between two long-term trends in the Greco-Egyptian family. Owing, she thinks, to Egyptian cultural influences, Greek fathers in Ptolemaic Egypt at first show a tendency to rear daughters rather than expose them. Brother-sister marriage becomes well-attested in Egypt during Roman times, in a period when female infanticide may also have been on the increase. Are these phenomena related, and do they point to developing changes in family life under Roman domination? Despite the appearance of homogeneity in Egyptian administrative documents, she concludes, the radical mix of cultures and ethnic backgrounds within this geographical area guarantees that family life under the Ptolemies was complex and far from uniform.

Those conversant with the author's earlier work in family and women's history will already know that this book is accessible, engaging, and characteristically sensible -- although P.'s pardonable desire to clothe the bones of her subjects in real flesh leads her, on occasion, to become unduly speculative, disregarding her own caveat that familial sentiments in Greek culture should not automatically be equated with ours. "One is easily seduced into constructing a scenario, or soap opera, behind the creation of the stela," she cheerfully admits before proposing a hypothetical set of circumstances (130). The absence of responses in the archive to begging letters from Zenon's putative son Cleon calls forth a sad, but wholly conjectural, tale of illegitimacy, class bias, and parental indifference (218-19). Those anxious to preserve Zenon's good name could object that actual evidence for biological paternity is at best ambiguous, and that a true only son, even if illegitimate, would arguably have been recognized, adopted, and raised as heir to his father's sizable estate rather than left to fend on his own.

Errors are few. Jody Rubin Pinault's name is misspelled on p. 144 n. 13 and in the bibliography. On p. 190, in the sentence beginning "Because Pasio had been a slave and of foreign birth," one should surely read "Phormio." I don't understand who is meant by the "benefactor" for whom a son was named mentioned in the next sentence, unless P. has accidentally conflated Pasicles with the younger Phormio. Although she does provide a short summing-up paragraph at the end of every chapter, the book is not equipped with a general conclusion, which would have made it considerably more useful for instructors in "Women in Antiquity" courses.

P. stipulates (13) that her book is not intended to supersede W. K. Lacey's venerable Family in Classical Greece (1968), and indeed it should not. Lacey remains the most convenient source of basic information; this study is less encyclopedic, more attentive to contradictions in the sources, and more inclined to seek out patterns of wider behavior, whether enduring or symptomatic of change over time. It also benefits considerably from attention to class difference and from thirty years' worth of scholarship on Greek gender protocols. In short, it will be better used to supplement, rather than replace, Lacey. But even that cannot happen until OUP brings out a moderately priced paperback edition. The hardback cost, which is simply exorbitant for a book with a mere 229 pages of text, three plates, and ten figures, insures that Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece will not appear as a required or recommended book on my "Women in Antiquity" syllabus, much as I would like to put it there.


1. Although it met with considerable skepticism when first presented in Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (1975: 68-70), P.'s contention that female infanticide was prevalent in classical Athens is now widely accepted.