Xenophon and Aristophanes

In Greek society women had little control over their lives. A husband wanted to be able to control his wife so she would run his household as he saw fit, so she did not damage his reputation, and so he knew the paternity of his children. A husband wanted the girl to be closely controlled by her father before she married for the same reasons. Aristophanes’ comedies and Xenophon’s Oeconomicus contain very different depictions of a Greek citizen woman’s life before she is married and during the time shortly after she is married.
Both the comedies and Oeconomicus examine how girls were educated, how closely guarded they were in their father’s household, and their willingness to deceive their husbands. In Oeconomicus, Xenophon wrote about the ideal girl, but she was exaggerated in the direction of perfection. In the comedies, however, some the female characters were almost the exact opposite of the girl in Oeconomicus.
Even though ideas about how girls were raised and how they behaved after they were married are very different in Oeconomicus and in Aristophanes’ comedies, both sets of ideas get at a husband’s desire for his wife to have been closely controlled by her father, and then by him. Aristophanes and Xenophon illustrate this desire by presenting the ideal characteristics of a wife and the characteristics men fear. They also use exaggeration to make the distinction between the good wife and the undesirable wife even clearer.
Because husbands wanted their wives to be controlled first by their fathers, and then by them, women spent their entire lives under the control of men. There was also a large difference between how closely guarded by her father Ischomachos’s wife was, compared to the girls in the comedies. Girls were not only guarded to keep them from learning too much, but they were also guarded to keep them away from men so they would not have sex with or be raped by them.
Because if a girl was, and after marriage her husband found out, he would be unsure of the paternity of his children. Ischomachos’s wife “had previously lived under diligent supervision in order that she might see and hear as little as possible” (Oeconomicus, VII, 5). She obviously did not leave her house much if her family was making an attempt to have her see and hear as little as possible. Because she was supervised that closely, even if she did leave her house she wouldn’t have had a chance to get into trouble because there would be someone with her or watching her.
In Women at the Thesmophoria, the Kinsman portrayed a female character who was obviously not guarded closely, “I had a boyfriend, who’d deflowered me when I was only seven” (Women at the Thesmophoria, 503). If a man was able to get to the Kinsman’s character when she was only seven she was not being watch closely. Calling the person who deflowered her, her boyfriend, implies that this was not a single instance of negligence on part of her guardian; it implies that she was not being watched closely enough to prevent her boyfriend from continuing to see her.
Ischomachos’s wife reflects the ideal for Greek husbands. Because her father so closely controlled her, she would not have had an opportunity to do anything that would call the paternity of her future husband’s children into question. The Kinsman’s character is a depiction of a girl that shows men’s fears about how their wives might have been raised. She is completely out of the control of her father, so when she marries, her husband will have no idea if she is all ready pregnant.
It is likely that how closely or loosely these characters were guarded is an exaggeration. Although Ischomachos’s wife probably was guarded as closely as possible, her incredible ignorance implies that she was guarded more closely then was achievable. The Kinsman’s character is probably also an exaggeration. Although there probably were some girls who were deflowered when they were very young, it seems unlikely that she would have had a boyfriend at the age of seven.
The exaggeration only makes the ideal of a father’s control more clear. In Ischomachos’s wife’s extreme case there is almost no chance that she was pregnant with another man’s child when she married, but in the case of the Kinsman it would be surprising if she was not all ready pregnant. In order for a husband to be able to control his wife easily and so he would be able to teach her how he wanted her to run his household, girls were supposed to be kept as ignorant as possible before marriage.
Ischomachos’s wife is an example of this ideal. He says that ” [she] had previously lived under diligent supervision in order that she might see and hear as little as possible and ask the fewest questions as possible” (Oeconomicus, VII, 5). In Lysistrata an opposite view of the education of girls is presented. A chorus of women spoke about their experience in several different religious ceremonies and festivals. They use what they learned in the festivals to justify giving the polis advice. We want to start by offering the polis some good advice and rightly, for she raised me in splendid luxury. As soon as I turned seven I was an Arrephoros; then a Grinder; when I was then I shed my saffron robe for the Foundress at the Brauronia. And once, when I was a beautiful girl, I carried the Basket wearing a necklace of dried figs” (Lysistrata, 669). Because they use their experience in religious ceremonies as a qualification, they believe they have learned from these experiences.
The contrast between Oeconomicus and Lysistrata is striking in that Ischomachos’s wife was kept home and an attempt was made to teach her as little as possible, while the girls in the chorus left home for extended periods of time and apparently learned from their experiences. The experience of both Ischomachos’s wife and the chorus girls is an exaggeration of what is possible in reality. Ischomachos seemed to think his wife did not know anything he did not teach her.
When she made a mistake, such as when she cannot find something that Ischomachos asks for, he took full responsibility for it because if he had not taught it to her she could not be expected to know it. “But you are not at fault in this, rather I am, since I handed over these things to you without giving orders as to where each kind of thing should be put so that you would know where to put them and where to find them again” (Oeconomicus, VIII, 2). The list of religious festivals given by the chorus as evidence of their education contains service in five separate religious rites.
This list of religious service is “the most prestigious any Athenian woman could boast” (Lysistrata 669, note 138). Some of the rites were only open to girls from the “noblest Athenian families” (Lysistrata 670, note 139). It seems unlikely that many girls, if any, would have had the experience that the girls in the chorus listed. So the experiences of girls in Lysistrata are exaggerated to make the girls appear more knowledgeable than they probably would be, and in Oeconomicus the girl is more ignorant than seems possible.
The exaggeration illustrates why men wanted ignorant girls. Ischomachos’s wife is incredibly ignorant and is very easy to control. She does exactly what her husband tells her to do, once instructed. This contrasts with the women in Lysistrata who have an unusual amount of experience outside of their homes. The women’s experience, in part, contributed to their attempt to take over the polis. A wife who attempted to deceive her husband was very frightening for Greek men because men spent a great deal of their time away from home.
When a husband was gone, his wife would have the opportunity to do things that would damage his reputation and call the paternity of his children into question. A husband could not really control his wife, if he could not trust that she was doing exactly what she said she was doing. In the Oeconomicus there is an example of a wife deceiving her husband that seems very benign. All Ischomachos’s wife did was put on makeup, but when he sees her with a painted face, he tells her that she should not wear makeup because it is a form of deception. Such deceits may in some way deceive outsiders and go undetected, but when those who are always together try to deceive one another they are necessarily found out” (Oeconomicus X, 8). It seems like he is not just lecturing her about putting on makeup, but also about other kinds of deception. Of course after Ischomachos’s lecture, “she never did anything of that sort again” (Oeconomicus X, 9). The Kinsman’s character not only lied to her husband only three days after they were married, but she lied so she could leave the house to have sex with her boyfriend (Women at the Thesmophoria, 504).
Her actions could damage her husband’s reputation, and would call the paternity of his children into question. Her actions seem to be as bad as possible from the husband’s perspective. These actions are a demonstration of men’s fears about what their wives might do if they were willing and able to deceive their husbands. The Kinsmans’ actions are a stark contrast with Ischomachos’s wife, who after being corrected, never again deceived her husband. Because she was unwilling to deceive her husband, and therefore easy to control, she was an example of the perfect wife.
Although Xenophon and Aristophanes were a part of the same society and wrote about Greek men’s desire for their wives to be closely controlled before and after marriage, they explored this desire in very different ways. Xenophon used it to write a text that gave men advice about what to look for in a perfect wife, and how to treat her after they were married. However, Aristophanes was writing comedies so he exaggerated undesired characteristics to create the worst possible wives for comic effect.
When both Aristophanes and Xenophon’s works are examined to see how a father’s control over his daughter and the characteristics that make it easier for a husband to control his wife are portrayed, it becomes apparent that Aristophanes and Xenophon were writing about the same desire Greek men had for their wives to be controlled – first by their fathers and then by their husbands. This control was meant to ensure a properly run household, an intact reputation, and undisputed paternity. Because of this desire for control, when Greek women came of age, they passed from the control of their fathers to their husbands.

Prof. Angela


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