he family was the center of social and economic life in ancient Greece. Although the nature of the family changed over the years along with Greek society, some features remained remarkably stable for centuries. The relationship between husbands and wives, the division of household duties, and the raising of children all reflected both the continuity of and the changes in Greek society.

Greek Marriage. The epic* poetry of Homer reveals a wide range of early Greek marriage practices. Both matrilocal marriage (in which the couple lived in the wife’s home) and patrilocal marriage (in which the couple lived in the husband’s home) existed within the same city, and sometimes even within the same family. In a matrilocal system, a potential husband had to prove himself worthy to marry into a woman’s family, and the offspring of such a marriage traced their inheritance through the mother’s side of the family. Potential husbands had to demonstrate their physical or military ability over rivals to win the bride. In the patrilocal system, which became standard in most Greek city-states* by the 500s B.C., inheritance was traced through the father, and it was the bride who had to prove her value, most commonly by providing a dowry. A dowry consisted of money, slaves, possessions, or a combination of these, presented to the groom by the bride’s father.

* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style


Although the average Greek family had only two or three children, households often included grandparents and unmarried female relatives, such as aunts, sisters, and nieces. Since slaves and servants were also part of the household, they were the husband's responsibility as well. Lodgers who stayed in a house while traveling were sometimes considered household members. Considering the small size of even the houses of the rich—about 1,600 to 3,200 square feet—the average Greek family led a crowded existence at home.

Because of the rigid separation of men and women in ancient Greece, the bride and groom were usually strangers to each other. The age difference between the bride and groom in the typical Greek marriage was large. A girl might be promised in marriage as young as age 12, although she usually did not live with her husband until she was older. Men usually married at about age 30, after they had fulfilled their military obligations to the city-state (which required them to remain single). Because of his age and experience, the husband had almost complete control of the family.

Household Roles. The husband was the dominant figure in the Greek household. He controlled not only the family finances but also the movements and activities of all the other members of the family. While men worked outside the home and enjoyed an extensive social and public life, women stayed home and supervised such tasks as cooking, cleaning, making clothes, and raising children. Most wives were not allowed outside the house without the permission of their husbands, and then usually only on errands related to their domestic duties.

The primary function of a wife was to produce legitimate male children to inherit the husband’s property, thus keeping it within the family. The Greeks’ concern with family inheritance was so strong that, if a man died without leaving a male heir, his daughter was required to marry his nearest male relative in order to produce one, even if both the daughter and the male relative were already married. In effect, a wife was only lent to her husband to bear children; she was still considered part of her father’s household, even if she had a family of her own.

Children and Child Rearing. Because of the emphasis on inheritance, male children were more highly prized than females. Family size was usually limited to avoid dividing the family’s estate among too many heirs or providing too many dowries. In most families, about two or three children lived to adulthood, although a woman might bear several children who died while they were still young. To control the size of their families, the Greeks practiced methods of contraception* that were reasonably effective and widely available. Abortion*, while not uncommon, was extremely dangerous to the mother, and, under the oath of the Greek physician Hippocrates, doctors were forbidden to give patients any substance designed to abort a developing fetus. Unwanted children, usually female, were often “exposed” (abandoned in a public place), a practice that was outlawed only in the city-states of Thebes and Ephesus.

Most children were lovingly cared for and raised with equal attention from both parents. Literary sources indicate that fathers were very knowledgeable about their children’s habits and needs, including toilet training, language development, and emotional temperament. Early childhood was seen as an important stage of life, during which children needed special food and clothing, affection, protection, and mild discipline. The Greek attitude toward child rearing was one of tolerance, patience, and love. Surprisingly, young boys and girls were not treated very differently, although by the time they were of school age, they were learning their different adult roles.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

* contraception method or device that prevents pregnancy

* abortion removal of a fetus from a uterus to end a pregnancy

Until about 400 B.C., a child’s parents provided most of his or her daily care and training. As Athens and other city-states prospered, citizens increasingly entrusted child care to nurses, teachers, and slaves. Many Greeks complained that the discipline and ancient values that were once transmitted from parent to child had declined, and various forms of child abuse became more frequent. Many unwanted children, who might formerly have been adopted by a caring couple, were sold as slaves or child prostitutes or deliberately maimed to serve as street beggars.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science

The Family in Hellenistic Society. During the Hellenistic* period, as Greek culture expanded throughout the Mediterranean region, the nature of the Greek family changed. More marriages were between Greeks and non-Greeks, and in these marriages the roles of husbands and wives were less traditional. Hellenistic states outside of Greece did not have the same inheritance and family structures, and the wife’s role in these societies was not seen as merely a provider of heirs. Divorce, once the sole right of the husband, could be initiated by either party, and the rights of a wife in a marriage were more protected. Love and affection, rather than inheritance and property, became the basis of most marriages. Although wives were still expected to defer to their husbands, they were no longer totally dominated by them, and writers and philosophers* more often encouraged couples to share interests and activities.

To many people, these changes signaled a regrettable decline from traditional values. But for many others, especially women, they represented a positive beginning of a more modern approach to marriage and family, one in which the couple worked as a team for common goals and happiness, rather than one person being subject to the rule of another. (See also Family, Roman; Love, the Idea of; Marriage and Divorce; Social Life, Greek; Women, Greek; Women, Roman.)

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