WOMEN, MONEY AND THE LAW IN ANCIENT ATHENS

 

 

       Athenian law required and assumed a woman to be under the control and protection of a kyrios or guardian who was responsible for her safety and well being, and acted on her behalf anytime she needed legal contact with the outside or public world. His duties, of course, included effective control of any money or property that she might possess. As a child she would normally have been under the guardianship of her father and when she married she would leave her family, move to her husband’s home and pass into his control and guardianship. Athenian guardianship, at least as far as money and marriage was concerned, was real and never became the legal fiction that it did in the Roman Empire when unmarried women were able to work around their guardians’ wishes, and sometimes even dispense with them entirely. Anything the Athenian woman possessed belonged to her guardian and he was free to dispose of it as he wished. At the same time, he was responsible for making sure she had food, clothing and shelter, and if appropriate he was supposed to provide her with a dowry if she was of a marriageable age. If he failed to live up to his obligation the archon would enforce it.

       On her own a woman could not make a contract or enter a financial transaction worth more than a medimnos of barley, [1] a quantity sufficient, perhaps, to feed a family for four or five days. She could sell vegetables and handicrafts, and she could purchase household supplies on a day to day basis, but anything bigger than that required, at least in theory, the permission of her kyrios. How strictly enforced this regulation was in real life is unknown . Young women about to be married regularly gave their toys and other childhood property to the temple, and several wealthy women are known to have donated considerable sums in their own names to a god or goddess. A number of hetaera, both freed and citizen-born, must have had considerable wealth, yet the record makes no mention of their having a kyrios or anyone else to participate in the conduct of their financial lives. It seems likely, then, that many women did conduct affairs on their own that were over the limit, but anyone making an agreement with a woman that exceeded this amount would know that it could not be enforced in a court of law.

       While she was not allowed to buy or sell, she could certainly possess, use and enjoy property of any sort with no upper limit on its value. She might have her own personal slave, jewelry or some of the furniture in the house. We tend to think that the owner of an object should be free to do with it as he wishes, but even today that is not always true. Zoning regulations might prevent you using your home as a store, and the gas company may have the right to run a pipe across your lot even though you are not one of their customers and do not have any gas appliances in your house. In the ancient world there were even more forms of ownership and the person who had the right to use property may not have been the person who had the right to sell it or bequeath it. Thus a woman might own the use of a personal slave, but not the slave herself. A woman might own the use of a piece of jewelry, but not the jewelry itself.

       Though it was probably a social rather than a legal requirement, a dowry was an integral part of almost every marriage in Classical Athens and a rich man was unlikely to marry a girl without one no matter how desirable she was in every other way. The dowry, representing a daughter’s share of her father’s estate, usually consisted of a sum of cash, though some from poorer families were made up of household goods and in every case a note was made before witnesses of the cash value before it was handed over to the groom, for that had to be returned to the bride after a divorce or death. If the marriage produced a son, a widower could keep his dead wife’s dowry until her son was old enough to inherit it and if it was the husband who died the widow could return to her family with her dowry, or she and her dowry could remain with her husband’s family. If the husband or his heirs could not or did not repay the dowry after a divorce, however it was caused, interest had to be paid at the rate of 18 per cent per annum. [2]

       A second way women could acquire property was through inheritance. Daughters usually got their share of the paternal estate in advance in the form of a dowry, leaving the balance to be divided among the sons. Once a man realized he was never going to have a son, he usually adopted the man he was planning to pick as his daughter’s husband, allowing his estate to go to them in the normal manner. A problem arose when a man died with a daughter but no son and no adopted son. The daughter was the logical heir, but this created a serious problem, for it meant the end of the father’s line and the passing of his property into another family.

       The Greek word we usually translate as family was oikos, but the word meant a great deal more than mom, dad and the kids. Of course, you say, we have to add assorted servants, aunts, cousins and perhaps a widowed mother, but the Athenian would also add the family home and farm. Since this is such a totally foreign concept to us, there is no word in the English language that encompasses all that Athenians meant when they talked about the oikos.

       Athens was a state comprised of families and the family included land, the home, and all of the people in the home. The death of the head of the oikos might be a shock, but there was every reason why the remainder of the oikos, which was so much more than one man, should continue on. A single son would take over immediately and at least on the surface everything would carry on much as it had before. Two or more sons would require dividing up the oikos and all of its contents, human and otherwise, with nothing and no one left out, but if there is no son the oikos would come to an end, and the mere thought of such a catastrophe was enough to inspire endless nightmares in Ancient Athens. When an oikos ceased to exist, all of its members lost their place in society.

       Making it illegal for a woman to inherit anything more than her dowry would prevent an oikos passing into a different family, but it would not prevent the death of the oikos itself. If the deceased’s nearest male relative married the daughter, she could produce the grandson who would ultimately not only inherit but continue his grandfather’s oikos. Thus arose the Athenian concept of the epikleros, or heiress.

       Out of convenience we usually translate epikleros as heiress, but the literal meaning of the Greek word is “with the property”. If an Athenian died without a son or an adopted son, his daughter became an epikleros, which is to say she became the person who carried the property. She did not inherit it, but rather became the means by which the property would be transferred to someone appropriate, and as a result was obligated to marry her father’s closest male heir. In the meantime, she held the property in trust until such time as the son such a marriage hopefully produced came of age and her father’s oikos could be revived in the hands of a grandson. Since all daughters took it for granted they had little or no say in the choice of husbands, the epikleros was really no worse off than any other young Athenian woman, unless she already had a husband, in which case she could be required to divorce him. [3]  The kinsman who married the epikleros got to manage and live off the estate but only until such time as the resulting son reached maturity. The son would then take over the property in his own name allowing his grandfather’s oikos to continue just as if nothing untoward had ever happened.

       Some kinsmen thought the deal was too good to pass up, while others rejected its temporary nature, particularly if they had to divorce an existing wife in order to marry the epikleros. If there were no kinsmen, or none willing to marry her, the epikleros was free to take her father’s estate and marry a man of her own choosing. Some people today have seen the laws on the epikleros as misogynous, but the Athenians would probably have denied the charge, arguing that the survival of the oikos was vital and that every citizen, whether man or woman, was expected to make sacrifices for the good of the community. Further, they would say that every marriage was arranged and in that sense the epikleros was no different from any other woman.

 

 

[1] Isaeus 10.10

[2] Apollodorus, Against Neaera

[3] Isaeus 3.64

 

 

 

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