BMCR 2019.06.24

Slave-Wives, Single Women and “Bastards” in the Ancient Greek World: Law and Economics Perspectives

, Slave-Wives, Single Women and "Bastards" in the Ancient Greek World: Law and Economics Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2017. xii, 227. ISBN 9781785708633 $55.00 (pb).


By examining Greek nuptial institutions from the Archaic through to the Hellenistic period, Morris Silver presents an original and thought-provoking analysis from his perspective as an ancient economist. Utilising an abundance of source material from different genres (literature, epigraphic, onomastic, and iconographic) and even historical cultures (Roman and Near Eastern), Silver’s scope is certainly ambitious. Yet he anchors his broad research on Greek nuptial practices to an examination of their impact on the three crucial status groups listed in his title, the pallakē (slave-wife), the hetaira (single woman), and the nothos (bastard). His main objective is therefore to trace the legal standing of the slave-wife and the single woman, and thus the implications for their bastard children. The author focuses on interpreting the key economic contribution that all three groupings made to Greek society. The finished product is a stimulating survey of the marital roles of women, one which will prove to be an invaluable addition to current scholarship on both gender and economics in the ancient world.

Silver’s book consists of nineteen concise chapters, including three specific case studies which draw his work to a close, and a final review of the author’s main conclusions. One of its main strengths lies in the fact that the author’s primary contentions are presented to the reader early in his first chapter, which is titled ‘Overview and Summary of Main Conclusions’. Given both the diversity of his sources and his broad reach, the placement of Silver’s key arguments at this stage eases the reader into an understanding of his divergent take on the subject matter, and enables them to follow along more readily with his radical approach to the nature of Greek marital transactions. Moreover, he presents a series of explanatory definitions in order to facilitate his specific appraisal of the evidence. For example, it is argued here that the pallakē has all too frequently been dismissed in translation as merely a ‘concubine’ rather than a ‘slave with wife-status’, and that the basic social meaning of hetaira is neither ‘prostitute’ nor ’courtesan’, but ‘single woman’ – a woman who was legally recognised as living under her own authority ( kuria).

In chapters II-VIII, Silver dedicates the main thrust of his argument to the view that there were two distinct forms of marriage in both Classical Athens and in the ancient Greek world generally: legitimate marriage, referring to ‘marriage by loan of the bride to the groom’, and pallakia, which was ‘marriage by sale of the bride to the groom’ (p. 29). But his study not only seeks to demonstrate that pallakia was a legally recognised institution, but that there is no existing evidence to show that legitimate marriage was the norm in ancient Greek society. His research goes on to reveal that the pallakē existed as a type of privileged slave in Greek society, one who served as manager of the household and potentially as an agent for her husband, and one who bore free-born children.

Silver’s findings are radically different to other scholars in this field.1 In particular, his interpretation of the verbs employed by the source material in the context of marital transactions. The author maintains that the verb egguan refers to the formation of a betrothal contract and that, specifically, the egguētē -wife remained the property of the male kurios who had pledged her, rather than passing into the ownership of her new husband (pp. 30-31). While his theory is certainly appealing, his model for the uses of ekdosis and sunoikein in relation to non-legitimate marriages requires further attention; for example, while he relies on content from Demosthenes’ Against Euboulides to clarify his position on legitimate marriage via egguē (p. 31), he omits any detailed reading of the speech as a whole. However, in Against Euboulides (57.40-43), the speaker exercises all three terms when referring to his mother’s marriages, first to Protomachus ( ekdosis) and subsequently to his father Thoucritus ( sunoikein, egguan), and when his half-sister was given away in marriage by Protomachus ( ekdosis) – who, according to Silver’s hypothesis, would have remained under the kuria of her mother, if she had been the daughter of a pallakē (p. 89). Since the speaker’s case rests on proving his legitimacy, the nuptials that he refers to are of vital importance. While the complexity of the terminology remains resolute, Silver’s theory casts a spotlight on the issue and introduces new possibilities to its analysis.

As the work continues, Silver rightly gives due consideration to the transfer of wealth between the father of the bride and the groom as a crucial feature in marital contracts. Chapter X explores why legitimate marriage entailed a sum paid to the new husband in the form of a groom-price, and from him in the case of a bride-price for pallakia. Silver expounds the hypothesis that the likelihood of selling a bride rose with increases in the distance between the ancestral residence of the groom and the father’s household, and declined in favour of the groom receiving the financial sum with the proximity between homes being closer. Though he briefly mentions the demotics listed on fourth century Attic grave stelae, he concentrates more fully on episodes from Greek tragedy and divine myth to test the effects of distance on marriage form. Given the variables in the socioeconomic structures between societies in the Greek world in general, further assessment would be required to obtain a clearer picture of whether groom-price or bride-price was more prevalent during a specific period.

In the latter section of the work, the author seeks to address a gap in the scholarly literature, overlooking the social role played by single citizen women. And so, in chapters IX and XI-XIV, Silver evaluates a large body of evidence which suggests that hetairai were a class of respectable, but socially and sexually active single women who, in the absence of the protection from a male-headed household, had joined together in a form of group living, more frequently inside live-in workplaces. Drawing specifically on Greek myths, such as those of the Daniads and the Amazons, the author reflects on the real-life manifestation of clusters of women living independently in both urban centres such as Athens and even more isolated locations like Brauron. Interestingly, Silver makes use of Attic vase paintings to dispel the common misconception that all hetairai were prostitutes of one kind or another, and urges his reader to view the depictions as women maintaining control of their own sexualities and wealth.

Silver’s final category is that of nothoi. Although the term is often translated as bastard children, such offspring are not necessarily considered to be illegitimate in the sense of having unmarried parents. Abiding by his definition of slave-wives, Silver maintains that the offspring of citizen pallakai routinely qualified for Athenian citizenship, as did the offspring of foreign pallakai before the implementation of Pericles’ Citizenship Law in 451/0 BC. He argues that this legislation was an attack on foreigners rather than the pallakē institution, which continued on regardless in serving the interests of Athenian citizens. Nonetheless, his analysis in chapters XV and XVI makes it abundantly clear that such offspring had lesser civil rights than the children of legitimate wives, specifically lacking the legal right to inherit from their fathers’ estates. While scholars continue to dispute the classification of nothoi,2 Silver’s reading of the evidence offers an engaging alternative view.

Undoubtedly, Silver’s book would be a welcome addition to anyone’s library. His success lies in the fact that he has gathered a vast body of evidence on ancient Greek nuptial practices in a single volume. Unfortunately, however, the book does not feature a final index of the primary source material, which would have been an especially useful supplement given the breadth of the material consulted by the author. Nevertheless, the concluding summary is a welcome reminder of the underlying themes of Silver’s work and this section, entitled ‘Summary of Main Findings and Problems for Future Research’, re-emphasises his interpretation of key texts. Undoubtedly, his greatest accomplishment is to provoke new thinking on this rich subject matter; his final words encourage his reader to pursue new avenues for research and to apply many of his ideas to related fields such ritualism and cult participation. This book serves as an excellent introduction to the intricacies of Greek marital transactions, and stands as a useful stepping stone for those seeking to delve further into the details of the social and economic role of women in the ancient world.


1. Scholars including (but not limited to) Wolff, ‘Marriage Law and Family Organisation in Ancient Athens’, Traditio 2 (1944): 43-95; Sealey, ‘On Lawful Concubinage in Athens’, CA 3 (1984): 111-33; Ogden, ‘Women and Bastardy in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World’ in The Greek World, ed. A. Powell (London: Routledge, 1995), 219-44 and Greek Bastardy in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Kamen, Status in Classical Athens (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

2. Walters, ‘Perikles’ Citizenship Law’, CA 2 (1983): 314-36; Patterson, ‘Those Athenian Bastards’, CA 9 (1990): 40-73; and, more recently, Blok , Citizenship in Classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).