Properties of Blood I.7: Kith and Kin, Part B

Athens: A Commonwealth of Blood and Its Enemies

In modern Europe and North America, where kinship ties are weak and families scattered across a continent like so many handfuls of breadcrumbs flung out to the birds, it is hard to form a mental picture of how the obligations of kinship can hold a community together.  It is easier to appreciate the importance of kinship by looking at pre-modern societies, such as the cities of Medieval Tuscany or the wandering children of Israel.  A good place to start is classical Athens, a city often held up as an example of enlightened detachment from the superstitions of blood and religion.  In fact, Athens has left us a rich legacy of literary, philosophical, and legal evidence for the enduring attractive power of family and kin.

Athens, in the era before the Persian Wars, was a kin-based society, and while the ties of blood were subjected to stress and raveling in the decades following the Greek victory, family and kindred remain at center stage in Athenian social and political life, and the tension between the claims of the city and the claims of blood is a prominent theme in Attic tragedy, from Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, which pitted brother against brother in a war to determine the very survival of the city, to Sophocles’ Antigone, in which a young man, in defiance of her uncle the ruler, has to carry out the obligations of kinship that are normally discharged only by men,  to Euripides’ Orestes. in which Orestes, after killing his mother, who had murdered his father, is threatened by  her father, betrayed by his uncle, and supported by his sister.

Both in tragedy and in Greek religion, the human social world is mirrored at a higher level by the divine.  Greek pagans worshipped a bewildering multiplicity of gods whose relations were determined by their position within the family and kindred.  Zeus and Hera were siblings and spouses, and with their brothers Poseidon and Hades they ruled the human universe in company with their children (whose genealogies were sometimes contrived). In his so-called “Ode to Zeus,” Aeschylus (following Hesiod) goes so far as to explain the universe in terms of the violent succession of divine dynasties, from Uranus to Cronus to Zeus.

If there could be wars in the Greek heaven, families, too, had their conflicts, and while it was considered bad form for an Athenian to take his relatives to court, disputed legacies and personal disagreements incited family members to attack each other.  The arena for these legal combats was the Agora.  Crimes and disputes involving religion were handled in the basileios stoa (A) where a troublesome philosopher (let us imagine in 399 B.C.) has gone for some business involving a suit that has been lodged against him.

The philosopher has been accused not only of teaching atheism but of making religious innovations (the charges may seem contradictory).  Worse of all, he is to be put on trial for corrupting the young, a charge that touches on the integrity of the family and on the authority of parents.  The philosopher meets a young acquaintance, who asks what business takes him to the court, and, when, Socrates (to give the philosopher his name) ironically praises his accuser as a man who knows enough about politics to start at the right end—with the education of the children—Euthyphro (for that is the young friend's name) misses the joke and declares that in accusing Socrates, the politician Meletus is destroying the city "from the hearth," a proverbial expression that suggests Socrates’ accuser is attacking the very center of civil life.

Young Euthyphro's court business turns out to be even more curious than the prosecution that will cost Socrates his life; he is prosecuting his own father for homicide.  Since homicide prosecutions at Athens had to be instigated by private individuals, generally by the victim's relatives, Socrates tries to find out what connection there was between Euthyphro and the victim.  The young man responds by mocking the philosopher, insisting that the gods do not make such distinctions.  The pious young man, who is all for a strict interpretation of the law, is (like the gods) no respecter of persons.  He is, like most modern ethical philosophers, a universalist who believes that, when we are making moral decisions, such distinctions as kinship, ethnicity, and nationality are irrelevant.

As it happens, there are, circumstances that mitigate the father's guilt.  A servant, it seems, had killed a slave, and Euthyphro's father had tied up and neglected the guilty party until he could receive official instructions.  In the meantime, the murderer died.  The case really comes down to an accidental homicide that resulted from an attempt to comply with Athenian law, and a son, of all people, should not be prosecuting his father.  None of these considerations--motive, legality, or filial piety--carries any weight with a young man convinced of his own righteousness.   (B)

The rest of the conversation turns on the question of piety, and it is hard to miss the connection between Socrates' accuser and Euthyphro.  Both of them assume that they know what is right and best for the city, and both are in fact destroying the city "from the hearth":  Meletus, in the metaphorical sense that in prosecuting an honest moral philosopher, he is undermining justice, which is the foundation of civil life, while young Euthyphro is literally attacking his own household in the person of his father.

The idea of the family as a little commonwealth upon which the health and safety of the greater commonwealth depends is very old.  Aristotle treated the familial household as the genesis of the political community, while Cicero (echoing earlier philosophers) described the family as the seminarium, that is, the seed-bed of the commonwealth.  This way of thinking and talking about the family, taken over by the Christian Church, featured prominently in the English Common Law tradition in which the framers of the American Constitution were educated.  Few of the leading American rebels—the obvious exceptions being Franklin and Paine—had any idea of attacking the family, either in the narrow or extended sense, but in retrospect we shall be able to see that a secession from the authority of the Crown and the Parliament gave an opportunity to social revolutionaries who wished to liberate the individual from the familial ties that bind.

Neither Socrates nor his student Plato (who wrote the Euthyphro) are the first people one would think of as defenders of family values.  Socrates neglected his own wife and children in order to improve the minds of his fellow-citizens, and Plato proposed a model republic in which marriage and parenthood (as the Greeks understood those institutions) were virtually eliminated.  Plato’s Republic, however, was speculation; when the time came for a practical decision on who would run the Academy after his demise, the choice was not Plato’s most brilliant student, Aristotle, but his nephew Speusippos.

Socrates, whatever his shortcomings were as husband and father, seems genuinely disturbed by Euthyphro’s disloyalty to his father, more shocked, perhaps, than many of us today might be, since we are frequently told that it is our duty to inform on friends or parents who take drugs, possess illegal weapons, or harbor subversive political views.

But, supposing that Euthyphro came asking for our advice.  What should we say to him?  Can it be right to prosecute your own father, even if you are acting according to the highest and noblest of motives?  Most Athenians would have been shocked by such a prosecution, which, although it was not illegal at Athens (as it would be in Rome), offended their deep sense of family autonomy.  Athenians were not even supposed to go take their distant kinsmen to court, and when they did (in cases of disputed inheritance) they often felt the need to justify their action.

A Stateless City

In resolving Euthyphro’s problem or any one of the myriad social and moral problems that afflict any human society, our first question (unless we are anarchists) would be to find out the laws that would justify the intervention of the state.  In trying to understand ancient Athens, our assumptions get in the way, because there is no good Greek word for “the state,” though political theorists insist on translating polis (city) as state, an institution (at least as we understand it) that really took shape only at the end of the Middle Ages and during the early Renaissance.  While the polis was primarily a place inhabited by interconnected kindreds, the state is an omnipotent institution—Hobbes called it “a mortal god”—that is distinct from the peoples it governs.

While we today often think of the individual as being either the victim or beneficiary of the state, this way of thinking has limited relevance for the pre-modern political communities that created our civilization: ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews, Medieval Italy, France, and England.  A Greek polis, such as Athens, was neither a corporation (as in Medieval Tuscan towns) nor a merely legal institution: It was first and foremost a a community of people living in a specific place.  As a location it was not a mere collection of land and buildings, but a place hallowed by gods and by the bones of dead ancestors; and, as a community, it was not a collection of individuals, each pursuing his own preferences and opportunities.  Athens, like other Greek cities was a community of households, clans, and other corporate groups that shaped the moral, social, religious, legal, and political lives of the people.  The most important social reality was that of kinship.

Many anthropologists make a sharp distinction between the family or household, which tends toward autonomy, and the ties of kinship by which families are integrated into society.  On one level, this distinction is useful, but if pushed too far it obscures the reality that each family is an outpost of typically one kindred united with another to which it is allied by marriage.  The household family, then, is the basic element of the kindred just as the kindred is the basis of society or the commonwealth.

While conservative advocates of social causes like to talk about “family values,” most of their policies--tougher divorce laws, stricter legal definitions of marriage, and subsidies to children from poorer families--have the effect of further subordinating the family to the state.  There was a time, not so long ago, when people involved in political discussions had a basic knowledge of European culture, ancient and modern, and their historical vision was not limited to the conditions and events of their own lifetime.  The servile household of the 1950s and 1960s is hardly an ideal model for family independence.  Even in modern Greece, the family is far more powerful than it has been in the United States for over 100 years.  Before drawing up plans to strengthen the family, conservative social reformers should divert their attention from the past two centuries, when the family has been in decline, and look instead to the formative periods of our history, when the organic bonds of kinship were stronger than the mechanical apparatus of government.

The most basic organic unit of human society, as Aristotle points out in the Politics, is the household.  He used the word household rather than family, because neither the Greeks nor the Romans really had a good word corresponding precisely to our own concept of the family—by which we typically mean a nuclear household made up of a man and wife plus their offspring.  For us, grandparents, poor relations, servants are, for the most part, viewed as temporary add-ons rather than part of the basic definition.  The Greek household (like the Roman) was more complex than our own theory of the nuclear family.

Generally speaking, ancient cultures looked at what we call the family from two perspective, the one spatial and economic, the other temporal or genetic.  In a spatial sense, the family was defined by co-residence in an economically and socially autonomous household that might include more than parents and children.  Since Greek has two closely related words that can be translated, depending on the context, as house, household, or family, to speak of “the family in ancient Greece” can be a bit misleading.

Though Athenians like other Greeks had no good word for the family in our sense, they made do with some rather more precise alternatives.  The physical house itself was usually known as an oikia, while the more metaphorical meanings of house as a domestic arrangement or as a group defined by descent from a common ancestor were covered by the related word oikos.  The distinction is not always as clear as historians would like, but it is oikos that is used when referring to "the line of descent from father to son through successive generations.”   More generally, the line of descent from both mother and father was known as an anchisteia (from anchistos, "nearest"), a term that indicates a capacity for inheritance or for assuming a familial obligation, e.g., the duty to prosecute the killer of a relative.

Athenian law, it has been said by an authority on the subject, is a law regulating individuals, not families, since family relations are not covered by law.  (C) This statement, while true enough in one sense, is susceptible to misconstruction, because most of what went on within families is not mentioned by law precisely because the family was sovereign within its own sphere.  What is more, it is by membership in a household that an Athenian was part of the larger social and political frameworks that made him subject to the law.  A man without citizen-ancestors could not typically be a citizen.

Try not to think of an Athenian household as one our own powerless nuclear families but as a semi-sovereign community.  Economically, the family and extended kin were autonomous.  Since there was no social security, it was up to children to take care of aged parents just as it was a strict obligation of fathers and guardians to provide dowries for girls.  Any breach would result in loss of social status.  No police could enter; there were no schools, much less school attendance laws, no truant officers, welfare case workers, child protection advocates.  Within its own sphere, kinship reigned supreme.

A Greek household was made up of the related people living under one roof, though it did not theoretically, in contrast with Rome, include the slaves.  Another important different between Athens and Rome is that the Athenian father did not possess a life-time patria potestas (paternal authority) that included a power of life and death over his adult children, though he was supposed to command their respect.

A new household was formed by a married couple.  The important fact of life that sealed the marriage was that the bride moved in with the groom, either to his family’s house or to a new one. The marriage had to be registered with the husband’s phratry, a broader kin-group that was a cross between a clan and a religious fraternity.  The purpose of marriage was, at it has always been, the production of children, and a wife had the right to have children.  When the Athenian tyrant Peistratus married the daughter of his powerful ally Megacles of the Alcaeonid clan, he refused to have normal sexual relations, for fear of begetting an heir whose maternal connections might encourage trouble and favor the Alcmaeonid heir.  The refusal to engage in procreative relations was a deadly insult and broke his political alliance with Megacles and his family.

When children came to a Greek household, they too had to be presented to the phratry brothers (phrateres) who, if the child’s citizenship or right to inherit were challenged, might later be called upon to testify to the facts.  The phratry, then, was a formal intermediary,  integrating the members of a family into the commonwealth.

In ancient Greece as in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, a familial or kin relationship (that is, an anchisteia) can be roughly defined in both positive and negative terms.  On the negative side, as a man’s relative I can also be made, whether in early Athens or late Medieval Florence, to share his criminal guilt.  When (in the later 7th century) an Alcmaeonid (also named Megacles) killed a group of Athenian conspirators who had taken refuge in a temple, it was not only he who was exiled but the entire clan of the Alcmaeonidae.  However, on the positive side of the balance sheet, I am an anchistes to someone else if I have a legal capacity to inherit property from him.  In such a society, with rights and duties dictated by the structures of kinship, Euthyphro’s treatment of his father was inconceivably monstrous—as it has been to most sensible people who have read Plato’s dialogue.



I am keeping footnotes to a minimum. If anyone wishes a bibliography of major scholarly works devoted to Athenian social and political organization--household, phratry, deme, tribe--I am willing to supply it.

A  A Stoa is a colonnade, often used for conducting business.  The Stoa Basileios, the King’s Stoa, was the place where the archon basileus, the archon (one of 9 annual Athenian magistrates) who inherited some of the religious powers of the Athenian kings (including jurisdiction over homicide), presided.

B.  The exact circumstances of Euthyphro’s case have been the object of controversy.  Cf. Ian Kidd, "The Case of Homicide in Plato's Euthyphro in Owls to Athens": Essays on Classical Subjects Presented to Sir Kenneth Dover, edited by E.M. Craik (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) 213-21.

C. Douglas McDowell, Athenian Homicide Law, MacDowell, 1989, p. 15.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Divorce was always difficult to obtain. Even after Henry VIII it took acts of parliament restricted mostly to the wealthiest classes. Difficult divorce is part of our common law tradition . I have never understood this denigration in favor of the stupid 20th century libertarian practice of no fault separations. Sure we don’t live in the 18th century but history is not on the side of no fault divorces. It would be imprudent in our day to suggest waiting periods and there is nothing that can be done about cultural polygamy at this point until it runs its course except as Francis suggests, enduring in patience and charity. But it is rather careless to simply ignore the very real and widespread cultural consequences of no fault divorces

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Robert, thanks for the comment. I am not taking up subjects of marriage and divorce until Volume III. Here, this throw-away line is put in simply to indicate that the Conservative Movement’s prescriptions are all designed to strengthen the anti-Christian governments of the United States and thus do nothing but harm. The nuclear family, like the individual human person, cannot stand up against government, the media, or even the organized propaganda known as “public opinion.” The human person should be required to interact as little as possible with government directly but should be able to work through kin associations, churches, etc.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    PS Bonald was quite wrong on the ease of divorce in early 19th century England. It required approval both from the Church and from the Lords.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    “Conservative Movement’s prescriptions are all designed to strengthen the anti-Christian governments of the United States ”

    Yes, that experiment has been proven time and time again. Even Clinton’s defense of marriage act (with duopoly or bi partisan support) which Obama supported until elected was of course later reversed by a Supreme Court consisting mostly of GOP appointments.

  5. Dot says:

    “The important fact of life that sealed the marriage was that the bride moved in with the groom, either to his family’s house or to a new one.” There were at least seven different ethnic groups in the city where I grew up in MA. The new immigrants were labeled “green horns” and tended to live in areas of the city where there were new immigrants. I lived in an area of the city where there were more “green horns”. I am Portuguese and where I lived was called the Portuguese village. My father grew up in the section of the city where the nationalities were mixed. I believe my nationality was more matriarchal because when a couple was married the husband moved in to the house of the bride’s family. A couple also moved into new homes but I can’t think of any family in the village where the bride moved in with the groom’s family home. The houses were and are 2 – 3 family structures. My grandparents lived on the first floor and my parents and brother lived upstairs. I really liked growing up there. It’s changed now.