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Women and Family in Athenian Law 

K. Kapparis, edition of March 22, 2003

page 9 of 11

· Women and Property ·

Read about the evidence
Demosthenes (Dem. 40).
Andocides (Andoc. 1).

Women from rich families would normally bring into their new household a large dowry, which would then be managed by the husband, even though he never owned it, and had to return it in its entirety in case of a divorce (cf. Dem. 40). The dowry was not a legal requirement, but it was a strong social convention and even poor people would still try to scrape together a small dowry for their daughters. The dowry was the standard route through which a woman inherited part of her father’s property, if he also had male children. If the woman’s father had no male heirs she inherited the whole of his property and thus became an epikleros. The law of the state intervened in that case and ordered the closest male relative of her father in order of seniority to marry her and take control of the property that came with the woman. If he was already married he could divorce his wife and marry the epikleros, or pass on the epikleros to the second closest relative, and so on. Even if the woman had very little or no property the closest male relative of her father still had the legal obligation to marry her or pass her on. If no relative wanted to marry the poor epikleros, the archon, the senior magistrate of the state in charge of social affairs, was legally bound to compel the closest male relative of her father to provide her with a dowry of his own and find her a husband (cf. Andoc. 1.117-124).

The laws regarding an epikleros have attracted a lot of attention in recent years, and have often been interpreted from a late 20th century point of view as a demonstration of complete disregard for the woman’s feelings and wishes. Like an object she was to be whisked around until a man was found to take her and her property under his wing. However, this is not how Athenian eyes would have seen it. The Athenian state did not want to have stray, single females around because then someone would need to take over the responsibility of looking after them. Women could not represent themselves in court, most of them did not have sufficient skills to earn a comfortable living independently, and many would be unprepared from their upbringing for the trappings and difficulties of the outside world. This is why the state with firm and clear legislation made certain that no free-born female would be abandoned to fend for herself in a harsh world. The institution of the epikleros, far from demonstrating disregard for the woman, was established to protect her, and the state trusted that her father’s closest male relative should be the most suitable man to do just that.

Read about the evidence
Xenophon (Xen. Ways).
Plot on a Map

The fact that the woman might not love a husband imposed upon her would not be considered as important by most Athenians. Normally, marriages were not based on love but on the prospect of a good partnership for the future (Xen. Oec. 7-10). Love and respect between husband and wife were hopefully going to develop as time went by. In some cases, of course, infatuation could be there in the first place and Athenian men sometimes did marry attractive women, simply because they fancied them, but this was not the rule. Now, if we judge from the extremely low divorce rate in Athens, compared with the soaring divorce figures of our times, perhaps we may become less critical of this kind of Athenian attitudes towards marriage and family life.

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page 9 of 11