Women and the Law in Ancient Athens

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Status and protection

An Athenian was an individual who was born to parents who were both Athenian (and so on back into the past). This legal reuirement had existed since 451, when a law introduced by the leader Pericles stated that only the offspring of the two Athenian citizens. The actual content and intention of the law have been intensely disputed in recent year; however, Aristotleis probably right when he ways that Pericles wanted to reduce the number of Athenian citizens. This law was introduced in the height of the Athenian empire, when the city was the centre of the Hellenic world. It seems only natural that they ruling minority of this empire, namely the citizens of Athens, did not want to share their priveleges with many others. Being an Athenian citizen meant to participate in decision-making that affected areas as far away as the Black Sea or the shores of Italy. It also came with the privelged treatment before the institutions of the state, benfits and handouts. It is no wonder that the Athenians wanted to keep their numbers limited, maneable and functional.

Whatever the intentions of the particular law its implications upon family life were far-reaching. First it practically limited the marriage options of Athenian men to Athenian women, and less than a century later, in the firstquarter of the 4th century, the state went one step further: it prohibited Athenian citizens to marry foreigners and imposed severe penalties for the pretence of lawful marriage between an Athenian and an alien. Second, the Periclean law formally reconised Athenian-born women as citizens in their own right, and sanctioned their role in the continuation of the citizen body. Women until then were participants of the polis only in the sphere of religion, where they could hold priestly offices, and perform ceremonial duties in public gatherings. After the Periclean citizenship law Athenian women are recognised as participants in the state, even if not fully, and this comes with certain obligations. Until then only the male party was considered legally responisble for the seduction of a fre woman. However, probably not long after the Periclean citizenship law anothe rlaw was introduced requiring the husband of an adulterous to divorce her under penalty of disfranchisement if he disobeyed, and imposing a ban from all public temples upon the adulteress herself. For the first time the woman would be held personally accountable by the law, and deprived from her privileges in public life if she misbehaved. Thus by turing the spotlight on Athenian mothers the state was determined to protect the legitmacy of children born in Athenian families and make sure those who receive citizenship truly are of citizen stock.

After the Periclean citizenship a child would be of citizen status only if both parents were citizens. However, since the Athenians did not keep records citizen identity was conferref upon the child gradually, and it would mean different things for boys and girls. Tradionally a boy would be presented to the members of the…

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