One of the most abundant sources of information from the Athens of Pericles is the large number of surviving legal speeches. These are not all about matters of politics or international policy. The majority, in fact, are examples of the many suits generated in the Athenian courts by property disputes between or even within families. In this lecture, we will use speeches by Lysias, Demosthenes, and Isaeus to investigate the complex web of family ties and property ownership. In the case of Diogeiton’s family, the members of one branch of the family sued their relatives, claiming that trust funds had been embezzled by their own grandfather! More typical was the dispute in which two families came to blows over a wall erected along the property line preventing runoff water from reaching one of their farms. In a third case, disputes arose when Ciron died, leaving descendants from two marriages to battle over the inheritance. These cases give a fascinating glimpse into the lives of ordinary families of 5th-century Athens, for whom the land was the supreme measure of wealth.
The Athens in which Pericles grew up was an example of a face-to-face society, a small world in which the ties of family and clan were central to every aspect of life.
As early as the Homeric poems of the 8th century, the distinctive institution of social life in Athens was the oikos, or household. The oikos was not just the nuclear family but could also include daughters-in-law, unmarried daughters, and dependents, especially slaves. These households could be multigenerational, with perhaps three generations of the same family living under one roof and dozens of people in the same family compound.
Although the Homeric poems do not record the details of a single historical society, the depiction of Priam’s family, comprised of dozens of sons and daughters all living in one palace, would have struck Pericles’s generation as a heroic version of the family life they recognized.
In addition to the oikos, there were other kinship groups that fixed an Athenian’s position in society. An Athenian was part of a network made up of cousins, called the anchisteia, and was usually a member of religious brotherhood called the phratry. Many Athenians, especially among the elite, were proud to be part of a clan (genos), an exclusive group that was often a subset of the phratry. Pericles, for example, was related to the famous clan known as the Alcmaeonidae on his mother’s side.
Clans would support their members in political matters, and intermarriage between the clans was a common way of cementing political alliances.
Although these institutions were important in creating the social identity of the Athenian, they also served a more concrete role. The institutions of family and kinship groups were supposed to guarantee the prosperity of the family into the next generation. This prosperity was measured in property, and to safeguard the family’s property, the Athenians shaped marriage and adoption practices to keep inheritance in the family.
In the first place, it was common for first cousins to marry; in this way, property that might have been divided between brothers, then partially lost in the form of dowries for daughters, would be folded back into a single inheritance. Speech 10 by Isaeus, on the estate of Aristarchus, reveals that when Aristarchus died, his brother Aristomenes arranged the marriage of his daughter to Cyronides, the son of Aristarchus. In this way, the daughter’s dowry was simply transferred from one branch of the family to another.
B. Another strategy designed to simplify the control of property was adoption. Unlike our institution, which is primarily concerned with orphaned children and childless couples, Athenian adoption was designed to prevent property being lost to the family.
In speech 6 of Isaeus, on the estate of Philoctemon, we learn that Philoctemon had adopted his nephew Chaerestratus. After Philoctemon died, Chaerestratus claimed his inheritance, but this was disputed by a certain Androcles, who maintained that Philoctemon had a number of legitimate children who all had a legitimate claim to the property.
The case turns on issues of legitimacy. According to one side, Philoctemon had no legitimate children and had, therefore, adopted his nephew. According to the other side, he had numerous children and Chaerestratus’s adoption was bogus, invented to give him a claim he did not deserve.
The third peculiarity of Athenian family and property law was an institution called the epikleros. When a man died with no male heirs, Athenian law assumed that his property was inherited by a daughter. However, she was not supposed to have the use of this inheritance; instead, she became the vessel by which it was transferred. In practice, this meant that cousins or even uncles would marry their close female relatives, cousins or nieces, to guarantee that the inheritance stayed in the family.
So powerful was the pressure on the family to keep property from leaving its control that if an epikleros was married, she would be divorced from her husband so that she could be married to her closest agnate relative, thereby keeping her inheritance in the family. The Athenians also appointed guardians for minors, whose job it was to protect the inheritance until the minor could take possession of it. The guardian was, again, a close male relative, usually an uncle of the minor.
Ironically, the measures taken by Athenians out of concern for family property only created more complications. A large proportion of the private lawsuits brought by Athenians revolved around property disputes, and virtually all of these intersected with family disputes.
The legal case involving the family of Pyrrhus illustrates how the marriage of cousins failed to simplify matters. In this case, Pyrrhus married his first cousin, the daughter of his uncle Lysimenes, but after his death, two sets of claimants to his property emerged: on one side, the children of Phile, his alleged legitimate daughter, and on the other, his nephew. In other words, the attempt to keep property intact by marrying first cousins only led to counterclaims between the second cousins of the next generation.
Adoption, too, could be a nightmare. In one complicated case, involving the estate of a certain Apollodorus (Isaeus 7), the legal complications of a three-generation property dispute were further complicated by the fact that one of the parties to the dispute, named Thrasyllus, was in the process of being adopted when the property holder, Apollodorus, died.
Thrasyllus could bring witnesses to the fact that Apollodorus had taken him around to the members of his genos and his phratry and that, at a religious festival, Apollodorus swore in front of witnesses that Thrasyllus was now his adopted heir. Unfortunately, Apollodorus died before Thrasyllus was introduced to the members of Apollodorus’s deme. His adoption was incomplete.
Thrasyllus’s cousins opposed his deme registration, but Thrasyllus was successful and was accepted by Apollodorus’s demesmen as a legitimately adopted heir. Even the position of the heiress created more complications than it solved. Not only could marriage to an epikleros precipitate a divorce, but the heiress herself might become the focus of competing claims to the inheritance attached to her. In the case of Philoctemon and Chaerestratus, the latter expected to inherit from his uncle after being adopted, only to be blocked by a counterclaim lodged by a distant cousin who claimed that the proper heir was Philoctemon’s sister. She was the epikleros, and Androcles, the distant relative, claimed that he was obliged to marry her and receive the contested property.
Potentially the most fraught legal relationship came from guardianship. Because the guardian was usually a family member, the distinctions between the guardian’s and the minor’s property were easily confused. Furthermore, because property and investments were liable to failure, a young man coming into his majority faced the prospect of receiving far less than he had inherited on paper.
The most famous example of a legal dispute involving a guardian was brought by the orator Demosthenes against his cousins and guardians, Aphobus and Demophon. Demosthenes showed in court that his father left him an estate worth 13 talents, a considerable fortune consisting of more than 50 slaves, a factory, a house, and cash. Demosthenes was 7 at the time of his father’s death. Aphobus and Demophon were named guardians. Aphobus was to take Demosthenes’s mother as his wife and receive her dowry, while Demophon would receive Demosthenes’s sister and 2 talents. By the time Demosthenes was 17, the estate had shrunk to 14 slaves, the house, and small change. The guardians had defrauded him and failed in their obligations by the terms of the will.
The Athenian family, therefore, was a very different institution from our own. Whether judged in terms of marriage patterns or property and inheritance rules, the family was a unit that required constant legal maneuvering, thanks to the overarching concern for its prosperity and the integrity of its property.
[ Courtesy: Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D.]