WOMEN AND PROPERTY IN ANCIENT ATHENS

 

            Athenian law would not allow a woman to participate in a business transaction involving anything whose value exceeded a sum of money roughly equivalent to that needed to feed a family for five or six days.  She could buy groceries at the local market but needed the approval of a male guardian to do anything more.

            It is easy to forget that the owner of property in an industrialized democracy cannot always do as he pleases with it.  Zoning restrictions, for example, might prevent you putting a store on your residential lot and the gas company may own the right to run a line across your land even though you do not use gas yourself.  Ownership can be even more complicated in other societies, especially in ancient times.  An Athenian woman might have owned a slave, clothing, furniture, and jewelry and have been quite free to use them on a daily basis as she wished, yet have lacked the authority to sell, bequeath of give away any of them.  She might have had a claim to land as well, yet she would not even have had the right to use it let alone sell it.  In ancient Athens, then, it is probably better to speak of rights and not of ownership when it comes to women’s property.

           

Women acquired property in three ways---gifts, dowry, and inheritance.

GIFTS

    A woman might have received personal use items, such as clothing and jewelry, as a gift from her husband or other relative.

 

DOWRY

    Towards the end of the Archaic Period the dowered marriage became the norm.  Before that, marriages tended to be a means of allying two families, each with something to offer the other.  As the city-state, or polis, grew in importance, family alliances became less and less valuable.  Wives continued to be essential for the production of legitimate children to perpetuate the family, or oikos, but Athenian men seem to have had little interest in marriage beyond that---or at least no interest they were prepared to acknowledge in public with any enthusiasm.

    The following have all been offered as reasons for dowry in Athens, but it should be noted that there is no agreement among scholars on which ones applied:

  1. Daughters got a share of their family’s wealth

  2. The bride’s father retained a stake in the marriage as he could demand the return of the dowry and his daughter at any time.

  3. A wife had a financial stake in her new family

  4. The groom was motivated to keep his wife happy to avoid having to return the dowry.

  5. A wife had some financial resource in the event of divorce or the death of her husband.

    It was possible but rare to include land in a dowry.  It was usually made up instead of money, jewelry, furniture and other movable goods.  A wife’s dowry might make up more than 20 per cent of a man’s wealth but usually much less and often not even sufficient to cover the cost of her upkeep.

    A man was required to return the dowry to his wife’s guardian in case of divorce.  This rule seems to have applied no matter how or why the divorce came about.  If the husband died, the wife could remain in his family or return with her dowry to her family of birth.  Daughters did not inherit the dowry.  If a wife died without sons her dowry reverted back to her family; if she died with a son then the dowry remained with the son’s guardian.

     While a dowry probably supplied a woman with more security than she might otherwise have had, it was rarely large enough to make a serious difference; but Plato’s suggestion that dowries be eliminated in order “to curb the arrogance of women” does suggest that the institution was not entirely without influence.

INHERITANCE

    Athens was primarily an agricultural society and a significant proportion of citizen families, even poor ones, would have owned land.  The family together with its land was called an oikos.  Since a woman could neither farm nor continue the oikos of her father---any children she produced would belong to the family of her husband---it was important to have a male heir.  The end of an oikos was a social death that was thought to be even more horrendous than the physical death that must befall everyone eventually.  The city-state had as much interest in the perpetuation of each oikos as the individual citizen: if land were concentrated in the hands of too few people the result might be the end of democracy and the beginning once again of class warfare.

    The inheritance rules of Athens were designed to ensure the survival of the “family farm” and of the “family name”.  While the society as a whole professed to have a very low opinion of women’s ability and importance, we have no way of knowing what emotions existed within the family itself.  Undoubtedly there were many where genuine feelings of love and affection made women more important in reality than they were in theory, but the need to preserve the integrity of the oikos was more important than anything else.

    Women with one or more brothers could not inherit from their fathers’ estates.  Whatever share of the family wealth the daughter was to get passed to her in the form of a dowry; her share came early but it rarely equaled what her brother would get.    A man with no children could always adopt a son, who would then inherit as long as he had renounced all claim to the estate of his natural father.

    The law was much more complicated for families with a daughter but no son.  This must have been the case in twenty percent of the families.  If time permitted many fathers took care of this by marrying off their daughter to a man willing to be adopted as a son as well as a son-in-law. .  The Athenians were very anxious to avoid any situation where two farms could have the same owner; thus no man could inherit from both a father and a father-in-law.  If a son-in-law had not been adopted he could not inherit.  The estate would then pass to his daughter’s husband and the family oikos would be continued.  If this arrangement had not been made in advance then the daughter became an epikleros.  This term is sometimes translated as “heiress” but literally it means “with the property”.  In other words, the estate passes to the closest male member of the family willing to marry her.  First in line would be the deceased’s brothers and their descendents.  Next would be the sons and grandsons of the sisters.

    If the epikleros were already married, a willing candidate could force her to divorce and marry him, and a claimant who was already married would have to divorce his first wife in order to marry the epikleros and inherit the estate.  It should be noted that an epikleros’ husband kept the estate and enjoyed its income only until her son reached maturity, at which time the estate passed to him.  This legal catch was something a married candidate would want to keep in mind before divorcing his first wife: his hold on the inheritance would be temporary.

    The system was designed to accomplish 3 things:

·        Ensure that all property was administered by a man

·        Ensure the survival of a man’s oikos

·        Maintain as high a number of landowners as possible to ensure the continuation of democracy in Athens.  The fewer men owned land the easier it would be to concentrate power in the hands of a small aristocracy.

 

Women appear to be hapless foils in all of this, but it should be remembered that they never did have any choice in their marriage partner.

 

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