Hellenistic Marriages Can Be Mutually Supportive

Hellenistic Marriages Can Be Mutually Supportive

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Hellenistic views of marriage are very different from modern views in many ways, and because of these differences, it can be easy to dismiss archaic and Athenian marriages as loveless or purely functional. However, it should be noted that there are definite examples of these marriages being mutually supportive and loving. One can see these characteristics especially well in two works, Oeconomicus by Xenophon, and Alcestis by Euripides. Although different, these two stories demonstrate both the mutual support and love that can be found in Hellenistic marriages.

In Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, Ischomachos describes his own marriage to Socrates who then relates it to Kritoboulos, and consequently to the audience as well. This marriage retains many of the same functional characteristics that are commonly seen in Hellenistic marriages, but it also exhibits some less common, but still very significant details of how the marriage is mutually supportive, especially in terms of these details of the institution of marriage in Ancient and Athenian Greece. It is evident in the way that Ischomachos describes his wife’s duties to her, that there is a definite teacher-student dimension in their relationship. However, it should be noted that Ischomacus’ intimate knowledge of his wife’s tasks allows him to do something that is not altogether common in modern society—understand the difficulty and complexities of his wife’s duties, and how important they are to the household as a whole. This knowledge and appreciation of his wife’s work is manifested in his response when she makes a mistake with the housekeeping, saying charitably, “Don’t be discouraged, woman…you aren’t at fault in this, but rather I am”(Oeconomicus, VIII,2). By this statement he recognizes the team element of the marriage, and emphasizes that not fulfilling ones duties hurts the marriage in general, in this case taking responsibility for his own actions and reassuring his wife of her good work.

Based on this understanding and appreciation of the roles that each member of the couple plays in the marriage, the marriage becomes a stronger bond, and the couple can function like a team. Indeed, Ischomachos is very generous, at least in comparison to other Greek husbands in famous drama in terms of how he shares his wealth and wisdom with his wife.

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She is much more than a vessel for childbearing to him, as evidenced by the statement he makes to her right after they are married, saying: “everything of mine I declare to be in common”(Oecon., VII,13). Indeed, in this same statement, he even goes so far as to indicate a lasting bond between him and his wife, with the statement “you may trust that as you grow older, the better a partner you will be for me…by so much more you will be honored in the household”(Oecon., VII,42). Both of these statements that Ischomachos made to his wife immediately upon marrying her indicate his feeling that his bond with his wife should go much further than using her simply as a means of continuing his bloodlines, and that he plans on putting forth the effort necessary to make their relationship strong, lasting, and loving.

Yet Ischomachos’ relationship with his wife does not stop at being responsible only in the affairs of the household and the duties that the husband and wife must perform. Indeed, not only is the sense of a long-term bond present, but also the idea of love is even introduced in this play. When Ischomachos relates an instance in which his wife puts on makeup, which he doesn’t approve of, he asks her how she would like it if he dressed up in all types of false jewels and such. She agrees that this type of dressing is false and undesirable, saying “if you did, I could never love you from my soul”(Oecon., X,4). Ischomachos follows this comment, asking if the two hadn’t become “as partners in one another’s bodies?”(Oecon., X,4). Ischomachos continues to ask her if he would seem “more worthy to be loved as a partner in the body”(Oecon., X,5) if he used makeup and false finery. Despite the strange context of this exchange, there are some clear implications that can be drawn from it. First of all, the word love is mentioned for the first time in this work, indeed it is not altogether common to hear of love for one’s husband or wife in Greek literature in general, and this concept of “sharing bodies” is also introduced. While the “sharing bodies” idea seems to lend itself to the concept of marriage as an institution existing for procreation, in this context there seems to be at least some feeling involved. The two parties involved in the relationship, although they are newly married, seem to recognize that there can and will be love present in their marriage, and care about how the other one acts and behaves, based on this love. Indeed, if love were not present in the relationship, there would be no motivation for Ischomachos to care what his wife wears around the house, or how she behaves personally, but he does care what she does, even in the presence of only him, and cares enough to help her become a better wife and person.

Another play that deals with a very strong although somewhat exceptional marriage is that of Alcestis and Admetus in the satyr play Alcestis. It is clear from the beginning of the play that Alcestis and Admetus have a great deal of love for each other, but this is not what makes their marriage exceptional. The fact that Alcestis is willing to, and eventually does die for her husband, makes this marriage peculiar, but this act and acts that are spawned because of it are indicative of mutual support in the marriage of the two, and transcends the pragmatic support with a strong sense of love and devotion. In the spirit of Oeconomicus, there are examples to be found in Alcestis of the common functional relationship between husband and wife. Alcestis and Admetus seem to have the same kind of “teamwork” relationship as the couple in Oeconomicus, indicated by Alcestis’ knack for knowing and performing well her role as guardian of the household, as the chorus indicates, saying “she who in my mind appears noble beyond all women aside in a wife’s duty?”(Alcestis, 83-85). Admetus is likewise conscious of the important role his wife plays in his household, since after she dies he mourns not only her death personally, but mourns the state of the house now that Alcestis is gone, saying “hateful the sight of this house, widowed, empty”(Alcestis, 861-863). In another example of this husband-wife couple working as a team, Alcestis sternly informs Admetus of his role now in raising their children, “And now you must be the children’s mother too, instead of me”(Alcestis, 377), indicating her expectation that Admetus pick up on the household responsibilities where her death leaves off.

Of course, the simple fact that Alcestis is willing to die for her husband speaks volumes about her devotion and love for her husband, as she is heralded as being courageous, a good wife, and a good woman throughout the play. Even the husband’s own family who raised him is not willing to do what Alcestis has done. In contrast to Alcestis’ brave and extremely caring action, Admetus doesn’t go to these same lengths for his wife as she does for him, but he does take steps to support and respect her as she dies. First, he agrees to her dying wishes, including “do not marry again”(Alcestis, 304), out of respect for her, and demands that proper, even extravagant funeral arrangements be made, “saying that he will “ordain a public mourning for his wife”(Alcestis, 426), complete with robes, shaved heads, and chariots. In his personal mourning he again shows his love and appreciation for his wife, in reflecting “I envy the dead…there is no pleasure in the sunshine, nor the feel of the hard earth under my feet”(Alcestis, 866-869). Now that his wife is dead, he would just as soon be dead as well. Therefore, in the love and connection that the two feel for each other, the marriage can be found to be mutually supportive. While Alcestis is willing to die for her husband, Admetus, while he can’t duplicate her love and devotion, does all he can for her in life, as she has him in death.

Clearly, it is hard to make generalizations about Hellenistic marriages being specifically one way or another. Like today, marriages then were as varied and diverse as the people who engaged in them. However, it is important to point out the circumstances in which marriage worked well, as in Alcestis and Oeconomicus. The ways in which these marriages succeed in fostering loving, giving relationships indicate that much like modern marriage, Hellenistic marriages could be good when spouses put forth effort and thought, that they were not inherently flawed. Indeed, minor characters or the chorus venerates the marriages in these two works as models of ideal marriages and demonstrations of love between a husband and wife, and the behaviors of the characters in these works, while not average, would have been seen as the ideal, as the model to be sought after. It is important to notice these examples and others like them before one dismisses Hellenistic marriages as purely functional, loveless, or lacking in mutual benefit.
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