Friday, February 19, 2010


I promised I’d let you know about some real ancient crimes, didn’t I? Well, in Ancient Athens, there was one form of homicide a man could get away with. If a married man discovered his wife having sex with her lover and killed him, that was OK under the law. Not that he might not be challenged to demonstrate afterwards that he hadn’t set the whole thing up. Such a justification has come down to us in a speech written for the cuckolded husband by legal speechwriter Lysias.

But, you ask, in a city where wives were segregated from men and rarely allowed out of the house, how did they ever get to meet potential lovers? One of the few exceptions was funerals and that is apparently where serial seducer (or so the husband claims) Eratosthenes first set eye on and fancied the wife of Euphiletos. The technique then was to follow the wife’s serving girl when she went on errands to the market, get talking to her and bribe her to deliver a message of love to her mistress. Flattered by the attentions of a younger man (who she may herself have noticed at the funeral) – for, in Athens, the norm was for men in their 30s to marry girls in their mid-teens to be sure of their virginity - the correspondence gradually leads to an assignation and access to her bedroom whenever the husband is away, with household slaves conniving doubtless with a few gratuities oiling the wheels.

In this case, the husband made it easier by agreeing to his wife sleeping in a ground floor room to be better able to nurse their new baby and, one imagines, to avoid having the baby disturb his own sleep in the upstairs bedroom. Surprised to hear doors banging in the middle of the night, he nonetheless believed his wife’s explanations and it was only when, some time later, he received a tip-off from another woman via her slave that he became really suspicious, interrogated the serving girl and made sure he had friends present as witnesses when, on the lover’s next visit, he charged into the room, sword in hand and killed him, despite the man’s hurried offer to pay monetary compensation. Mind you, he did tie the man’s hands behind his back first, so that he knew what was coming to him.

An arguable case as the lover’s family thought when they took the husband to court, which is why we have the speech. Unfortunately that’s all we have, so we don’t know if he really did get away with it or was punished in some way. But Lysias was a very good speechwriter and presents a picture of Euphiletos as a naïve and wronged individual who would be incapable of the machinations necessary to have lured Eratosthenes into a trap. His defence was that he had no other hidden motive for wanting the seducer dead – there was no dispute or argument between them, indeed he had never set eyes on him before that night. He had only done what the law required him to do, performed a ‘lawful execution’ (though the law did allow several other less violent forms of redress which his speech chose not to stress). We’ll never know.

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