Ancient Greek Fatherhood

Apologies for the dearth of blogs, but there have been many changes around here that have made it harder and harder to find the time. The most fundamental change has been my acceptance to pursue a PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University. This in turn has brought about other tangential changes which have been hard to adjust to.

As many of you know I have been a stay-at-home Dad for 2 years. A position that has brought much joy, and frustration, but has sadly come to an end; replaced by full time study. My eldest, of two, is 3yrs old and has recently embarked on her latest adventure: pre-school. This has been both a joyous and heart wrenching occasion for me and my wife, and subsequently has put me in a reflective mood on the notion of fatherhood.

When the decision was first made that I would stay at home with the children I remember a good friend asking me, in earnest, “But how does that affect your . . . manliness”.

It was a strange question, but one that came from our paralleled youth and the questions of identity and gender roles that such an age produces. The use of the term ‘manliness’ betrays my friend’s Classics background, it is the translation for the ancient Greek word andreia, and also got me thinking about ancient Greek attitudes to fatherhood.

There is a persistent belief that the involvement of fathers in the raising of their children, or even simply enjoying time with their children, is somehow a modern behaviour. At first glance the ancient sources seem to agree, with father’s often depicted as stern, strong, powerful, or vulnerable, but rarely loving, and almost never playful with their children.

Aristotle simply condemns a father’s love as inferior to that of a mother’s:

“Now to receive a benefit seems to involve no labour, but to confer one is an effort. This is why mothers love their children more than fathers, because parenthood costs the mother more trouble [and the mother is more certain that the child is her own].” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1168a)

While in another work, the philosopher claims that fathers only like their children for one reason:

“Since, then, all men are selfish, it follows that all find pleasure in what is their own, such as their works and words. That is why men as a rule are fond of those who flatter and love them, of honour, and of children; for the last are their own work.” (Rhetoric, 1.11.26)

Yet, it is not all doom and gloom for Dads. In Euripides’ play, Herakles, the eponymous hero declares his love for his children, a love that is shared by all men for their offspring:

“[F]or I too do not reject the care of my children; here all mankind are equal; all love their children, both those of high estate and those who are nothing; it is wealth that makes distinctions among them; some have, others want; but all the human race loves its offspring.” (Herakles, 633-636)

Rather unfortunately, and *spoiler alert* for any who have not seen nor read the play, this speech is steeped in irony. Herakles’ love for his children will not save him from the madness that later consumes him; a madness which drives him to slaughter those same children. So, while this episode does show an almost idealistic love of a father with his children, it is not perhaps the best example – filicide is not a desirable trait in a Dad.

There is one example of an ancient Greek Dad enjoying his time with his children and, returning to my friend’s question earlier, there is no manlier man in classical Greece than the Spartan warrior-king, Agesilaos II:

“It is a fact also that Agesilaos was excessively fond of his children, and a story is told of his joining in their childish play. Once, when they were very small, he bestrode a stick, and was playing horse with them in the house, and when he was spied doing this by one of his friends, he entreated him not to tell anyone, until he himself should be a father of children.” (Plutarch, Life of Agesilaos, 25.5)

Here is a touching moment that can transcend culture and time; a moment that many Dads can relate to, where they are making a complete fool of themselves to entertain and play with their children. It is also interesting to see that the king’s response to his friend seems akin to a modern phrase often heard, to the ire of many I’m sure: “you’ll understand when you have kids of your own”.

Needless to say I did not have a good answer to my friend’s question then, and I don’t really have one now. The impact that a child has on you is immense; but its impact on manliness, which must surely be an external assessment made about you not an internal reflection, must remain subjective. For me, I’ll stick with Agesilaos, for the laughter of my children is worth more to me than the nodding approval of my peers.

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1 Response to Ancient Greek Fatherhood

  1. Wendy says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I think it’s fair to say that parents have always loved their children, it’s strange when you hear that people in history can’t have, or didn’t. The most recent claim I hear about this was that parents in Medieval England didn’t love their children, or withheld their love, because child mortality was so high, which as a mum I found strangely offensive.

    As to manliness – I understand that as a species we’re still fighting this idea that men must go out and provide to be good fathers and partners. It’s still a very pervasive message. I doubt your wife felt it impinged on your manliness. I know I love my husband all the more when I see the joy he and our children share in each other.

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