The Concept of the Family

The Concept of the Family as Described in Ancient Greek Literature

The word ‘family’ varies in meaning from one person to another. To some it is all about being together and close to one another. To others it is about having a place to go home to, a base where every person starts their journey into the world. It is where we learn our first words, where we learn how to handle circumstances outside. It is where our identity comes from. Irrespective of where we come from, a family is commonly linked to security and learning.

In Ancient Greece, women were held in high regard in the society. Despite being denied the power to hold political positions, they were the ones that kept the family together and managed the home. The women were thought to have had lesser power in terms of governmental influence, but they could not go unnoticed. It was expected that a woman would keep her family in order. If she failed in her duties, the family structure would have crumbled. This is shown by the character Penelope in the Odyssey by Homer. Even though it was believed that her husband Odysseus had died out in the sea, she remained faithful to her husband and maintained her family. She did not let her loyalty get swayed by numerous available suitors.

In Ancient Greek society, women stayed at home with their families most of the time. It was in these homes that they spent most of their time weaving and knitting. They looked after their children and cooked for their husbands. Few women had much freedom of moving out and about. The rich women had slaves to accompany them, while the poor women worked with their husbands as they did other family chores.

Family members in Ancient Greece would go out of their way to protect each other from possible dangers. This is seen from the play Medea by Euripides. In this play, we get to see a grandfather save her granddaughter from punishment from the gods. Medea kills her own children after Jason, her husband, had left her. Her actions would have made a god punish her, but Helios saves her from impending torture. She is saved due to her family ties. She says:

Why do you batter these gates and try to unbar them?
Seeking the corpses and for me who did the deed
Speak if you wish. You will never touch me with your hand.
Such a chariot has Helios, my father’s father, given me to defend me from enemies.

It is later shown in Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone is willing to die to give her brother a proper burial. She is determined to surrender herself to give her brother burial rites, although the king had affirmed that there was to be none for him. She affirms to the king that she would rather die for her brother who she loved and who loved her back.

From Greek literature, we find that maintaining the structure of a family was highly valued in Ancient Greece. It wholly depended on women to manage it and to keep it in order. If women failed to perform their expected duties, the family structure would crumble and be destroyed.