Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.06.07

Cynthia B. Patterson, The Family in Greek History.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1998.  Pp. xii, 286.  ISBN 0-674-29270-7.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Tim Parkin, University of Canterbury (
Word count: 2035 words

'It is both a natural and a proper desire to learn, if possible, how all [the] ages upon ages of past time have been expended by mankind; how savages, advancing by slow, almost imperceptible steps, attained the higher condition of barbarians; how barbarians, by similar progressive advancement, finally attained to civilization; and why other tribes and nations have been left behind in the race of progress -- some in civilization, some in barbarism, and others in savagery. It is not too much to expect that ultimately these several questions will be answered.' So wrote Lewis Morgan in the preface to his Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization (New York, 1877). Times, interests, and attitudes have changed. But the unfortunate legacy of some nineteenth-century approaches is not so easy to discern or to dismiss, even as we broach the study of new aspects of the past.

Cynthia Patterson's new book reminds the reader of this and confronts the problem head-on. It is a welcome and useful addition to the very recent body of scholarship that has appeared on the ancient Greek family and, although the title might not at first explicitly indicate it, to the much more considerable scholarship on the role of women in the Greek world. It is a book with both a broad ambit and a definite thesis, and even if it is not as innovative or revolutionary as the author might assert, it is an important contribution to several on-going revisionist debates in the field of Greek social history.

Despite the lead that W. K. Lacey provided over thirty years ago with his now classic The Family in Classical Greece, sociohistorical study of the Roman family has left its Greek counterpart very far behind, and this is not just a result of the nature or abundance of the testimony. Only in the last few years has that situation begun to be remedied, most notably through the publication of books by Sarah Pomeroy and Cheryl Anne Cox,1 as well as through the appearance this decade of many articles, and a few other related books, by scholars such as Patterson. The books by Pomeroy and Cox are both more specialized in their focus and approach, and ultimately more sophisticated and more stimulating, than the book currently under review. Patterson (henceforth P.) has in many ways attempted to do what Lacey did, in providing a very broad chronological survey (although one which is sometimes limiting, as in chapter 3) and geographical overview of the Greek family, based predominantly on literary texts; in the process P. eschews most comparative anthropological material and analysis. Lacey's book, P. asserts, 'was essentially a retelling of the old story for a new audience' (p. 37), but I am not so sure that the same cannot be said of this book -- a new audience with a different agenda. That is not to say, however, that this book is not an advance in certain respects. P. has made some good use of scholarship on the Roman family (her book effectively begins and ends with reference to Suzanne Dixon's The Roman Family). Also, and more importantly, P. asserts that she is challenging the line that Lacey has helped to make conventional. In other words, the similarities between this and Lacey's book should not obscure some fundamental differences in approach. This is not a book to replace Lacey -- to my mind it is not as good -- but one to supplement and update parts of it. P. promises much and challenges many (alleged) tenets. If she does not deliver as much as the reader might at first expect in the opening pages, she does provide nevertheless a very useful and quite provocative study of several key aspects relating to Greek social history, based on a carefully considered thesis and very good use of source criticism, as well as a sound sociological, historical, and demographic (p. 43) awareness.

In this short review I do not intend to analyze each chapter in turn, particularly since the book covers such a vast range. Inevitably, the central focus is on classical Athens, but these chapters are well framed with discussion of earlier and, to a lesser extent, later material from the wider Greek world. P.'s second and third chapters cover Homer and Hesiod, and archaic Athens, Sparta, and Gortyn. Two central chapters utilize selected literary and legal texts to discuss classical Athenian marriage (briefly) and, at considerable length, adultery. This latter chapter is particularly successful, with a detailed and sensitive reading of the classical approaches to the tortuous and traumatic tale of Clytemnestra's adultery; it is worth recalling, incidentally, that Lacey deliberately avoided the use of Greek tragedy in his book. A final chapter considers early Hellenistic Athens, mainly through the writings of Menander. Lacey never mentions Menander, and Pomeroy scarcely at all. But according to P.'s analysis, Menander offers the social historian much more than has often been realized. P. argues, primarily on the basis of Menander's focus on domestic concerns (though P. draws in Aristotle as well), that a fundamental change occurred in Athenian society as a result of wider political events in the later 4th century, with a new emphasis away from the interaction of polis and oikos toward private communities of interrelated households.

The various chapters bring in more besides. There is much engagement with recent scholarship on a variety of questions: for example, David Cohen on the public/private dichotomy and on adultery (P. provides useful analysis, including criticism of the use of the term 'adultery' in the first place and consideration of adultery as a crime against the entire oikos), and Stephen Hodkinson's important work on Sparta (though P.'s overall thesis seems to me to be weakened by the Spartan exemplum and it would perhaps be better to use Sparta as the exception that proves the rule, rather than trying to make it fit). Readers will also find engagement with more modern times, especially in chapter 5, with discussion of the intersection of sexual misdemeanours with the public interest. It is apparent that P. is versed in the broad range of her subject, and the close reading of particular texts, literary and legal, especially in chapter 5 again, provides many good insights.2 The book is clearly and plainly written and requires very little prior knowledge; in this latter respect it is well suited to the astute undergraduate, and it also has much of interest to those very familiar with the general subject. Having said that, however, on occasion both types of reader will be a little frustrated by the pedestrian pace and the uneven coverage of some topics, particularly in the early chapters on Homeric society and on archaic Greek law codes. Recent research on the nature of the polis and its emergence, as well as on Athenian democratic society, could also have been better utilized.3 But those who might be frustrated by the oversimplification of some related questions and by the lack of in-depth discussion of the broader, critical issues should not ignore the merits of the often perceptive comments that are made in the course of the close reading of some texts and that result from the comparison between related bodies of evidence, e.g. on the epikleros.

The chronological survey is prefaced by a methodological chapter, and this provides one of the key themes of the book and an important contribution to a debate that should interest all students of Greek history, social and political. It is P.'s central purpose to challenge the 'traditional, evolutionary paradigm' that the emergence of the polis superseded or overthrew the oikos, and that with the oikos' defeat went any notion of the equality of the genders or even the superiority of the female over the male. This paradigm is erroneously based in part on Aristotle Pol. 1252b; as P. later argues (chapter 6), Aristotle's views on the oikos are hardly typical anyway. The family, P. asserts, remained fundamental to Greek history throughout the period she covers, and indeed the emergence of the polis went hand-in-hand with, and could not have happened without, the continued strength and development of the household. As my last sentence makes evident and as historians of the Roman family are also well aware, terminology in relation to family and kin is a real problem, and this is a theme to which P. returns again and again.4 In this regard, and as a further elaboration of her argument, P. lays bare and refutes the traditional belief, based on the work (often on analogy with archaic Rome) of Fustel de Coulanges, Maine, Morgan and Engels -- to name the four protagonists of P.'s first chapter -- that, in a nutshell, early Greek society was based around a clan/kin/bloodline/'gentile' lineage or descent-group system which in time developed into, or was superseded by, a more civilized (patriarchal) political state. This P. shows to be fundamentally wrong, just as the vague use of terms such as 'primitive' is misleading. P. repeatedly attacks the woolly definitions given to terms such as genos -- itself, of course, carrying many shades of meaning in different contexts -- and shows how imprecise even some recent scholarship has been (pp. 1-2, 17, 22-23, 25, 38, 46-48, 53-54, etc.). She is surely right to highlight, and it is salutary to be reminded of, the predominance and vitality of the oikos and the nuclear family. What mattered most in a practical sense, she avers, were relationships within the household: husband/wife, parent/child, master/slave, rather than extended bloodlines, which typically underemphasize the role of women.

But I am not entirely persuaded that undermining this traditional tenet is so innovative. P. gives too little due to much scholarship of recent decades, particularly that by Sally Humphries in relation to the genos.5 Perhaps the need to ensure that her views are more widely understood might be held to justify the detail of P.'s arguments, and the first chapter alone deserves close reading by all those interested in Greek society, as well as those interested in the history of scholarship in this field.6 The message is forcefully put, that not only the emerging studies of the Greek family but also much of the scholarship on Greek women have been too often misplaced, based as they are on spurious or dubious premises and on the traditional, simplistic divisions between public and private, and between political and social history. (If there is any scholar who still believes that the history of the family is of little relevance to the history of ancient Greece, then he or she should certainly read this book.) P.'s admonition is indeed salutary, even if the 'unmasking' of the deception and the revelation of the true nature of the status and role of Greek women are not as dramatic as the reader might have expected from the opening chapter. In fact some of the main thrust of the argument might be better learnt by turning to more concise treatments which have influenced P., such as the stimulating work by Marilyn Katz.7

I suspect that Lacey, who himself wrote in his 1968 book that the family was 'the most central and enduring institution of Greek society' and that it 'remained stubbornly entrenched as the fundamental institution of the Greeks' (p. 9), would wonder what much of the fuss is about. Lacey, like so many others, was influenced by the 'traditional paradigm', but was more influenced by the primary sources he chose to utilize and by his wider knowledge of Greek history and society. In teaching the history of the Greek family and of the nature of gender roles in Greek society, I will continue to recommend Lacey to my students, despite its age, and then direct them to read Pomeroy op. cit. and at the very least to peruse P., before I steer them towards more specialized studies. Certainly all scholars with a particular interest in ancient gender studies and the history of the ancient family should read this book.

The book is well-produced, with very few slips and no serious misprints.8 The index is barely adequate, a proper index of citations would be useful -- and the absence of a bibliography is most unfortunate.


1.   Sarah B. Pomeroy, Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Representations and Realities (Oxford, 1997); Cheryl Anne Cox, Household Interests: Property, Marriage Strategies, and Family Dynamics in Ancient Athens (Princeton, 1998). In 1999 a very important new contribution, particularly from the archaeological perspective, will be Lisa C. Nevett's House and Society in the Ancient Greek World (Cambridge).
2.   This is also one of the strengths of B. S. Strauss, Fathers and Sons in Athens (Princeton, 1993); like P. in her later chapters, Strauss emphasizes the plasticity of the boundary between private and public in Athenian democratic life. Often overlooked on the subject of public and private in Athenian life is the detailed discussion in B. Moore, Jr., Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History (New York and London, 1984) 81-167.
3.   Some fairly basic information is also occasionally missed. To give a trivial -- and fascinating -- example: on the subject of the execution of the 'clothes-stealer' (λωποδύτης) in Lysias 13.68 (referred to with some surprise by P. on p. 161 and p. 269 n. 53, though she omits the reference), see (e.g.) D. M. MacDowell, The Law in Classical Athens (London, 1978) 148, and note also D. Cohen, Theft in Athenian Law (Munich, 1983) 79-83, an important discussion.
4.   For the meaning of oikos in the Athenian context see now especially Cox op.cit. On the relationship between oikos and polis in classical Athenian society, see also, most recently, the general overview by J. Roy in G 46 (1999) 1-18.
5.   S. C. Humphries, Anthropology and the Greeks (London, 1978), part 3. The fundamental works are F. Bourriot, Recherches sur la nature du genos (Paris, 1976) and D. Roussel, Tribu et cité (Paris, 1976).
6.   Most important now is R. P. Saller, 'Roman kinship: structure and sentiment,' in B. Rawson and P. Weaver (eds.), The Roman Family in Italy: Status, Sentiment, Space (Canberra and Oxford, 1997) 7-34.
7.   E.g., 'Ideology and "the status of women" in ancient Greece,' in History and Feminist Theory, ed. A.-L. Shapiro (History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History, Beiheft 31 [1992]) 70-97 -- abbreviated and partly updated in R. Hawley and B. Levick (eds.), Women in Antiquity: New Assessments (London and New York, 1995) 21-43.
8.   For the record, at the bottom of p. 13 for 'form' read 'from'; in the middle of p. 15 for 'deserves' read 'deserve'; in the middle of p. 87 'Eupatridrai' should read 'Eupatridai'; at p. 241 n. 11 for 'genew' read 'gene' (with a macron over the second 'e'); at p. 256 n. 67 for 'five oikos' read 'five oikoi'; at p. 267 n. 24 for 'ot' read 'of'; at line 9 on p. 129 for 'undisputable' read 'indisputable'; on the last line of p. 156 for 'is' read 'are', and on line 8 of p. 216 for 'are' read 'is'. At p. 239 n. 95 for 'Elizabeth Rawson' read, of course, 'Beryl Rawson'. On p. 136 footnotes 78 and 79 seem to have been misplaced: the second passage quoted on this page is in fact Plato Laws 784e-785a, and footnote 79 should presumably come on the next page, after '"... abomination in the sight of the gods."'

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