Chapter V. The Women of Athens.

27. How Athenian Marriages are Arranged. - Over this typical Athenian home reigns the wife of the master. Public opinion frowns upon celibacy, and there are relatively few unmarried men in Athens. An Athenian girl is brought up with the distinct expectation of matrimony.[*] Opportunities for a romance almost never will come her way; but it is the business of her parents to find her a suitable husband. If they are kindly people of good breeding, their choice is not likely to be a very bad one. If they have difficulties, they can engage a professional "matchmaker," a shrewd old woman who, for a fee, will hunt out an eligible young man. Marriage is contracted primarily that there may be legitimate children to keep up the state and to perpetuate the family. That the girl should have any will of her own in the matter is almost never thought of. Very probably she has never seen "Him," save when they both were marching in a public religious procession, or at some rare family gathering (a marriage or a funeral) when there were outside guests. Besides she will be "given away" when only about fifteen, and probably has formed no intelligent opinion or even prejudices on the subject.

[*]The vile custom of exposing unwelcome female babies probably created a certain preponderance of males in Attica, and made it relatively easy to marry off a desirable young girl.

If a young man (who will marry at about thirty) is independent in life, the negotiations will be with him directly. If he is still dependent on the paternal allowance, the two sets of parents will usually arrange matters themselves, and demand only the formal consent of the prospective bridegroom. He will probably accept promptly this bride whom his father has selected; if not, he risks a stormy encounter with his parents, and will finally capitulate. He has perhaps never seen "Her," and can only hope things are for the best; and after all she is so young that his friends tell him that he can train her to be very useful and obedient if he will only take pains. The parents, or, failing them, the guardians, adjust the dowry - the lump sum which the bride will bring with her towards the new establishment.[*] Many maxims enjoin "marry only your equal in fortune." The poor man who weds an heiress will not be really his own master; the dread of losing the big dowry will keep him in perpetual bondage to her whims.

[*]The dowry was a great protection to the bride. If her husband divorced her (as by law he might), the dowry must be repaid to her guardians with 18 per cent. interest.

28. Lack of Sentiment in Marriages. - Sometimes marriages are arranged in which any sentiment is obviously prohibited. A father can betroth his daughter by will to some kinsman, who is to take her over as his bride when he takes over the property. A husband can bequeath his wife to some friend who is likely to treat her and the orphan children with kindness. Such affairs occur every day. Do the Athenian women revolt at these seemingly degrading conditions, wherein they are handed around like slaves, or even cattle? - According to the tragic poets they do. Sophocles (in the "Tereus") makes them lament,

"We women are nothing; - happy indeed is our childhood, for THEN we are thoughtless; but when we attain maidenhood, lo! we are driven away from our homes, sold as merchandise, and compelled to marry and say 'All's well.'"

Euripides is even more bitter in his "Medea": -

Surely of creatures that have life and wit, We women are of all things wretchedest, Who first must needs, as buys the highest bidder, Thus buy a husband, and our body's master.[*/

[*]Way's translation.

29. Athenian Marriage Rites. - However, thus runs public custom. At about fifteen the girl must leave her mother's fostering care and enter the house of the stranger. The wedding is, of course, a great ceremony; and here, if nowhere else, Athenian women can surely prepare, flutter, and ordain to their heart's content. After the somewhat stiff and formal betrothal before witnesses (necessary to give legal effect to the marriage), the actual wedding will probably take place, - perhaps in a few days, perhaps with a longer wait till the favorite marriage month Gamelion [January].[*] Then on a lucky night of the full moon the bride, having, no doubt tearfully, dedicated to Artemis her childish toys, will be decked in her finest and will come down, all veiled, into her father's torchlit aula, swarming now with guests. Here will be at last that strange master of her fate, the bridegroom and his best man (paranymphos). Her father will offer sacrifice (probably a lamb), and after the sacrifice everybody will feast on the flesh of the victim; and also share a large flat cake of pounded sesame seeds roasted and mixed with honey. As the evening advances the wedding car will be outside the door. The mother hands the bride over to the groom, who leads her to the chariot, and he and the groomsman sit down, one on either side, while with torches and song the friends to with the car in jovial procession to the house of the young husband.

[*]This winter month was sacred to Hera, the marriage guardian.

"Ho, Hymen! Ho, Hymen! Hymeneous! Io!"

So rings the refrain of the marriage song; and all the doorways and street corners are crowded with onlookers to shout fair wishes and good-natured raillery.

At the groom's house there is a volley of confetti to greet the happy pair. The bride stops before the threshold to eat a quince.[*] There is another feast, - possibly riotous fun and hard drinking. At last the bride is led, still veiled, to the perfumed and flower-hung marriage chamber. The doors close behind the married pair. Their friends sing a merry rollicking catch outside, the Epithalamium. The great day has ended. The Athenian girl has experienced the chief transition of her life.

[*]The symbol of fertility.

30. The Mental Horizon of Athenian Women. - Despite the suggestions in the poets, probably the normal Athenian woman is neither degraded nor miserable. If she is a girl of good ancestry and the usual bringing up, she has never expected any other conditions than these. She knows that her parents care for her and have tried to secure for her a husband who will be her guardian and solace when they are gone. Xenophon's ideal young husband, Ischomachus, says he married his wife at the age of fifteen.[*] She had been "trained to see and to hear as little as possible"; but her mother had taught her to have a sound control of her appetite and of all kinds of self-indulgence, to take wool and to make a dress of it, and to manage the slave maids in their spinning tasks. She was at first desperately afraid of her husband, and it was some time before he had "tamed" her sufficiently to discuss their household problems freely. Then Ischomachus made her join with him in a prayer to the gods that "he might teach and she might learn all that could conduce to their joint happiness"; after which they took admirable counsel together, and her tactful and experienced husband (probably more than twice her age) trained her into a model housewife.

[*]See Xenophon's "The Economist," VII ff. The more pertinent passages are quoted in W. S. Davis's "Readings in Ancient History," Vol. I, pp. 265-271.

31. The Honor paid Womanhood in Athens. - Obviously from a young woman with a limited intellectual horizon the Athenian gentleman can expect no mental companionship; but it is impossible that he can live in the world as a keenly intelligent being, and not come to realize the enormous value of the "woman spirit" as it affects all things good. Hera, Artemis, Aphrodite, above all Pallas-Athena, - city-warder of Athens, - who are they all but idealizations of that peculiar genius which wife, mother, and daughter show forth every day in their homes? An Athenian never allows his wife to visit the Agora. She cannot indeed go outside the house without his express permission, and only then attended by one or two serving maids; public opinion will likewise frown upon the man who allowed his wife to appear in public too freely[*]; nevertheless there are compensations. Within her home the Athenian woman is within her kingdom. Her husband will respect her, because he will respect himself. Brutal and harsh he may possibly be, but that is because he is also brutal and harsh in his outside dealings. In extreme cases an outraged wife can sue for divorce before the archon. And very probably in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the Athenian woman is contented with her lot: partly because she knows of nothing better; partly because she has nothing concrete whereof to complain.

[*]Hypereides, the orator, says, "The woman who goes out of her own home ought to be of such an age that when men meet her, the question is not 'Who is her husband?' but 'Whose mother is she?'" Pericles, in the great funeral oration put in his mouth by Thucydides, says that the best women are those who are talked of for good or ill the very least.

Doubtless it is because an Athenian house is a "little oasis of domesticity," tenderly guarded from all insult, - a miniature world whose joys and sorrows are not to be shared by the outer universe, - that the Athenian treats the private affairs of his family as something seldom to be shared, even with an intimate friend. Of individual women we hear and see little in Athens, but of NOBLE WOMANHOOD a great deal. By a hundred tokens, delightful vase paintings, noble monuments, poetic myths, tribute is paid to the self-mastery, the self-forgetfulness, the courage, the gentleness "of the wives and mothers who have made Athens the beacon of Hellas"; and there is one witness better than all the rest. Along the "Street of Tombs," by the gate of the city, runs the long row of stele (funeral monuments), inimitable and chaste memorials to the beloved dead; and here we meet, many times over, the portrayal of a sorrow too deep for common lament, the sorrow for the lovely and gracious figures who have passed into the great Mystery. Along the Street of the Tombs the wives and mothers of Athens are honored not less than the wealthy, the warriors, or the statesmen.

32. The Sphere of Action of Athenian Women. - Assuredly the Athenian house mother cannot match her husband in discussing philosophy or foreign politics, but she has her own home problems and confronts them well. A dozen or twenty servants must be kept busy. From her, all the young children must get their first education, and the girls probably everything they are taught until they are married. Even if she does not meet many men, she will strive valiantly to keep the good opinion of her husband. If she has shapely feet and hands (whereupon great stress is laid in Hellas), she will do her utmost to display them to the greatest advantage[*]; and she has, naturally, plenty of other vanities (see section 38). Her husband has turned over to her the entire management of the household. This means that if he is an easy-going man, she soon understands his home business far better than he does himself, and really has him quite at her mercy. Between caring for her husband's wants, nursing the sick slaves, acting as arbitress in their inevitable disputes, keeping a constant watch upon the storeroom, and finally in attending to the manufacture of nearly all the family clothing, she is not likely to rust in busy idleness, or sit complaining of her lot. At the many great public festivals she is always at least an onlooker and often she marches proudly in the magnificent processions. She is allowed to attend the tragedies in the theater.[+] Probably, too, the family will own a country farm, and spend a part of the year thereon. Here she will be allowed a delightful freedom of movement, impossible in the closely built city. All in all, then, she will complain of too much enforced activity rather than of too much idleness.

[*]The custom of wearing sandals instead of shoes of course aided the developing of beautiful feet.

[+]Not the comedies - they were too broad for refined women. But the fact that Athenian ladies seem to have been allowed to attend the tragedies is a tribute to their intellectual capacities. Only an acute and intelligent mind can follow Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Nevertheless our judgment upon the Athenian women is mainly one of regret. Even if not discontented with their lot, they are not realizing the full possibilities which Providence has placed within the reach of womanhood, much less the womanhood of the mothers of the warriors, poets, orators, and other immortals of Athens. One great side of civilization which the city of Athens might develop and realize is left unrealized. THIS CIVILIZATION OF ATHENS IS TOO MASCULINE; it is therefore one sided, and in so far it does not realize that ideal "Harmony" which is the average Athenian's boast.