The chapter “Adultery, women, and social control” in David Cohen’s book Law, Sexuality, and Society argues that adultery in Classical Athens was not as straightforward as the laws created for it, and that scholars need to start looking at the how and the why of it to truly gain insight.
What Cohen is examining in this chapter is how sexuality and honour are linked. For a man, it’s actively protecting the sexual purity of the women in his care. For a woman, it’s maintaining that purity before the eyes of others. We can see this, Cohen says, in the community standards: the man’s realm being outdoors and the woman’s indoors. Cohen notes how authors (Euripides and Aristophanes in particular) depict women as powerful, yet dangerous. They have the ability to reproduce, but are also aligned with the left (that is, from the devil) and thus the weak link of the family. The family unit, however, does help rein the women in to reach their beneficial side.
He then looks at all the times it was socially acceptable for women to leave the house, and how fear of adultery stems from here. The man is ignorant of what a woman does when she leaves the house, yet the same conventions that dictate that her place is indoors and his outdoors prevent him from staying home to monitor her. In this way, Cohen says that women are responsible for policing their own purity. Because the men weren’t around to do so, they accepted the responsibility of keeping their own names free and clear on their own. Female gossip was a tool used to keep women in line with the social standards.
How then did the Greeks deal with the dichotomy of the ideal (the woman stays indoors) and the reality (her business forces her out)? Cohen says it’s a very fine line, realizing your wife has matters to attend to outdoors and actually catching her outdoors. There’s also some inherent deceit going on, as the woman will tell her husband she went to borrow this or that, and he takes her word for it.
Cohen’s final argument is looking at the “why” of adultery given that punishments were fairly severe. Cohen states that a great deal of men cared for their wives, and so adultery not only broke the external code of honour but also the internal trust built up between the two. But if a woman wasn’t emotionally satisfied at home, it could push her towards this act and that’s why she’d face automatic divorce. The motivations for the man involved are less clear, but could be trying to establish dominance over the other male to his falling in love with the married woman himself.
Overall, I found this chapter an interesting look into the laws of society as they pertain to adultery, and how that society then uses them. I appreciated the idea that just because something is law, doesn’t mean that people are punished to the full extent of it; that a grey area exists.
This chapter addresses some questions I’ve had while learning about women in the ancient Greek world. In particular, why would the punishments...