BMCR 1991.01.06

The Greek Way of Life

, The Greek Way of Life: From Conception to Old Age. London: Duckworth, 1990. xiii, 376 pages. ISBN 0715622617.

Following an introduction (1-16) describing “the structure of human life” come six chapters, each beginning with some general remarks and then divided into numerous sub-sections whose titles give a good idea of their contents:

1. Conception and Pregnancy (17-58): the origins of sexual dimorphism, conception, recommended ages for procreation, intercourse as a possible source of pollution, procreative predominance of sperm over womb, reproductive theories, sex differentiation, genetic transmission, twins, superfetation, fertility and sterility, pregnancy, foetal superiority of the male, the pregnant woman, contraception, abortion, conclusions.

2. Childbirth (59-105): the birth setting, midwives and assistants, deaths of women in labour, deities of childbirth, labour and delivery, stillbirths, premature births, multiple births, monstrous births, day-superstition, swaddling the newborn, thank-offering for delivery, exposure, the Amphidromia, pollution, numbers of offspring per family, population policy, conclusions.

3. The Growing Child (106-62): infant mortality, divine protection of the growing child, nurses, weaning and teething, registration of an Athenian infant in a phratry, the Choes, paidagogoi, toys games and pets, modes of child-rearing, Athenian education, Spartan education, apprenticeship and child employment, pederasty, representations of childhood in biography, representations of children in Greek art, the role of children in religion, mothers and fathers, parental authority and the legal rights of children, orphans, conclusions.

4. Coming of Age (163-198): terminology, age of puberty, vulnerability at puberty, the perils of self-abuse, portraits of emergent adulthood, rites of passage, the Spartan ephebeia, the Koureotis, enrollment on the deme Athenian register, the Athenian ephebeia, the homosexual phase, the Arkteia, the role of parthenoi in religion, choirs of parthenoi, sacrifice of parthenoi, conclusions.

5. Early Adulthood (199-241): the military and civic status of young adults, generational conflict in Classical Athens, Athens as a youth-oriented culture, sexual activity of young males, age at marriage, choosing a partner, the marriage ceremony, husbands and wives, a wife’s duties, divorcees and widows, extra-marital relationships, conclusions.

6. Elders and the Elderly (242-87): life expectancy, explanations of longevity and ageing, medical interest in the elderly, menopause, the threshold of old age, the desirability of a long life, physical plight of the elderly, economic plight of the elderly, spinsters, second marriages, legal safeguards for the elderly, retirement, elderly slaves, representations of old age in literature, representations of elders and the elderly in art, respect for the elderly—Athens versus Sparta, lower and upper age limits for public office, political authority of the elderly—Sparta, political authority of the elderly—Athens, euthanasia and suicide, signs of impending death, conclusions.

There are no footnotes as such, but the fifty pages of notes at the end are generally keyed to the titles given above, whose primary and secondary sources they describe, sometimes in a few lines but often in miniature essays. In addition we find notes on the hebdomadal system, threefold division of life, fourfold division of life, analogies between the human life-cycle and the seasons, influence of age on character, embruon used in a post-partum sense, numphê, reckoning a person’s age in years, biography, women’s biological need for sexual intercourse, female authorities, sources, allusions to reproduction in Plato, Herophilos of Chalkedon, the human womb, dissection of the human body, sexual abstinence, Eileithyia, Artemis, Iphigeneia, Hekate, Moirai, Genetyllides, Kalligeneia, caesarean section, embryotomy, Opteria, magic charms, tenth-day ceremony, circumcision, lochial discharge, pais, proportion of children to whole population, nurses, innate deficiency in intelligence as a mark of childhood, fiendish monsters, the teachability of virtue, parthenos, kouros, hebe and ephebos, Telemachos, violent rupture, hair-cutting, Oinisteria, dedication to the gods upon coming of age, Arrephoroi, coming of age as an indeterminate categorisation, delinquency, roles available to women, penalties imposed on bachelors, Hippolytus, Hellenistic marriage contracts, increased status of the wife upon the birth of the first child, Greek society as two-generational, liability for military service, elderly women, old age in lyric and elegaic poetry, old age in mythology, adoption, terminology for the elderly, Nestor, gerontes in Homer, old age in tragedy, old age in comedy, old age in satyr plays, old age in Platonic philosophy, old age in Aristotle, 30th- and 40th-year age-requirements, Diaitetai, minimum age requirements for priesthoods, upper age limit for public office, marginality of the elderly, the elderly as controllers of rites of passage.

The Bibliography contains over four hundred items, mostly in English (54 French, 23 German, 8 Italian), mostly after 1950 (43 before 1950, 18 before 1930) and before 1988 (four “forthcoming” in 1989—3 from one book; five from 1988, plus two talks).

The Index Locorum shows the most popular sources to be: Herodotus (45 references), Homer Odyssey (43), Soranus (39), Aristotle Politics (33), Plutarch Moralia (32), Homer Iliad (31), Plato Laws (28), Aristotle History of Animals (27), Plutarch Lykourgos (24), Plato Republic (18), Aristotle Generation of Animals (16), Pausanias (13), Aristophanes Clouds (12), Hippocratic Aphorisms (12), Aristotle Athenaion Politeia (11), Pliny Natural History (11), Demosthenes (11), Thucydides (9).

A General Index ends the work.

There are 45 generally well-chosen (though poorly cited) illustrations: fig.45 looks like a satyr to me (but lacking inventory number or publication data I can’t be sure); fig.31 probably does not have “wandering hands”; I missed commentary on the “bride’s property” in fig.32 and the “wedding ring” in fig.34. I caught no significant typos.

A survey ranging over so many topics must necessarily depend on others’ research (though G. spices his smoothly written narrative with numerous interesting personal observations) with the result that description largely replaces analysis. G. depends to a great degree on standard works (e.g. Lacey on family; Harrison on law, MacDowell on Sparta) supplemented by recent articles. The one repeated theoretical construct is demographics, primarily based on the Roman estimates of Hopkins, Saller etc. (women marry at 12 and die at 35, men at 30 and 45)—the most obvious lack to me was any sense of family structure, particularly evident in G.’s treatment of the elderly. I was disappointed at the small importance given to archaeological information, though this may be a reflection of the state of our scholarship, and at the extremely limited use of specialized commentaries on the testimonia. Also, since G. is interested in thoughts as much as facts, he includes considerable literary summary, as one could guess from the relative popularity of Homer as a source.

The book suffers a certain schizophrenia, being both an introduction to Athenian (and Spartan) culture with extensive review of the familiar (e.g. the Kleobis and Biton story; Hippolytus’ diatribe against women) and at the same time a specialized handbook. There is sometime considerable slippage in the shift from one mode to the other. I found my response followed the life-cycle being described: my enthusiasm was engendered by and grew under the light shed on the medical writers in the early chapters but by the end I had become cranky and irritated at the growing weight of plot summary and implausible generalization. In retrospect, though, I am impressed with the author’s range and style, both intellectual and literary.

Herewith a sampling of the best and worst:

12: “brephos denotes both an unborn and newborn child.”

14: Pollux “lists no fewer than twenty words for a newborn child or infant”.

14: “age-related terms are not always used in precisely the same way…even within the space of two sentences.”

22: “Hippolytos’ outburst may not have struck Euripides’ audience as being quite so cranky and outrageous as it does us” (contrast 210: “his vilification is so hysterical and so fanatical…”).

56: “The gynaecological evidence upon which medical writers chiefly rely appears to have been provided by prostitutes.”

56: “It is difficult to see how the rival claims of pangenesis and epigenesis could have aroused much interest outside medical circles since they lacked any practical application whatsoever.”

83: “Apart from its supposed physiological side-effects, swaddling also had the benefit of freeing the mother to attend to her household chores.”

104: “Birth—like death—was perceived to be an extended process.”

120: “It is extremely unlikely that animal milk would have been trusted for infants, given the belief that character could be transmitted through milk.”

129: “Strepsiades…stands for decency, common sense and traditional values.” (Strepsiades the arsonist and debt-dodger??)

133: “The majority of adult males [in Athens] were expected and required to be literate in order to discharge their state duties.”

153: The paucity of pictorial representations of mother and child is explained by “the absence of an appropriate artistic genre through which to give it prominence”.

154: “Father-son conflict was widely recognised in Greek society.”

173f: Telemachos defines “his identity in terms of an ever-widening and ever more challenging social milieu… By contrast Nausikaa is described exclusively in terms of her budding womanhood…Athena serves in both cases as the catalyst”.

175: “There is a fundamental problem: how to identify and isolate what did or did not constitute a rite of passage.”

196: “For an Athenian male, both the sixteenth and eighteenth year marked significant stages in the passage to manhood…The twentieth year…marked a further important transition.” (Three in five years??)

197: “We expect the Greeks to be more dogmatic and simplistic in their categorisations than we are. But the testimony examined here demonstrates conclusively that they were not.” (Compare 289 “Greek age-terminology tended to carry with it a far heavier ‘cultural load’ than does its English equivalent” and 242 “Adult Greek society was primarily organised on a two-generational principle, withdrawal from the ranks of the neoi was accompanied by immediate promotion to the presbuteroi or elders”).

200: “At least some freeborn and metic women would have chosen to become hetairai or prostitutes, rather than to go through life as old maids.”

212f: “The marked disparity in age between bride and groom is often, perhaps rightly, interpreted as a strategy for enforcing the subordination of women… Other considerations [include]… [1] the importance…that one’s bride should be a virgin; [2] Soranos argues that this is the safest age for child-rearing; [3] the emotional stability and physical well-being of parthenoi… could best be solved by sexual intercourse; [4] if childbearing is hazardous even for a young woman, it must surely become more dangerous the older she becomes.”

237: “An Athenian woman remained a pais throughout her entire life.”

246: “Median age at death is not, of course, the same as ‘when most people die’. The so-called mortality curve has peaks at birth, early childhood and the early twenties.”

255: “Their final illness in the overwhelming majority of cases would have been mercifully brief, painless and uncomplicated.” (Compared to what??)

256: “What proportion of the elderly lived alone…is impossible to estimate.” (I guess 0%)

258: “Of all categories of the elderly, it was the spinster who was regarded with most loathing… Many of the most alarming and terrifying figures in Greek mythology…are spinsters.” (What is the Greek word for “spinster”?)

263: “Many elderly slaves, having outlived their usefulness, may simply have been left to die of neglect.” (In the mines surely, but in the homes?)

271: “There is no real discussion anywhere in Greek literature of what today are perceived to be the central issues facing millions of elderly people in modern society.” (Hmm!)

275: “There is no surviving study of an old woman which does more than portray her as the representation of an almost sub-human species of animal life.” (What is old if women die at 35?)

281: “An upper age limit for public office…was the exception rather than the rule.” (With the median death at 45 this is not surprising)

290: “A slave is designated a pais all his life.”

In sum, this survey will inform and irritate, delight and misinform, but it should not go ignored and should be the parent of many more detailed studies.