Infanticide & Filicide in Ancient Greece
In Euripides’ Medea, Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women, Lycurgus and Xenophon’s Spartan Society, it is made clear that filicide is a byproduct of the dichotomy of an honor vs. shame society. Medea, the barbarian wife of a man who remarries in order to gain citizenship, resolves to inflict what she believes to be the same amount of pain and shame onto those who have hurt her. On the other hand, in Plutarch’s more historical approach, albeit still saturated in rhetoric and a type of mythical esteem, Sayings of Spartan Women conveys individual accounts of the pride several female Spartan citizens took in raising brave young men who were ready for battle, as opposed to their grave abhorrence of any offspring whose fearfulness and timidity at war brought them back home. Nevertheless, in Lycurgus, Plutarch deals with Sparta as a whole and illustrates how the city’s laws and practices took preemptive measures in order to avoid any acquisitions of shame by way of a cowardly Spartan. Xenophon culminates the aforementioned notions of honor vs. shame and therefore demonstrates how these actions lead to the obedience and fluidity of Spartan Society. Contextually, this theme is approached in a variety of different ways, however the causal connection between all of these readings is the retribution or prevention of shame. The following paragraphs explore how the interweaving of a cultivated honor versus shame mentally allowed for and conceivably justified one of humanity’s more despicable actions and the reasoning behind it.
Dishonored by her husband after betraying her fatherland for him (p 74. 31-32), Medea bemoans over the sequence of events leading up to her current feelings of shame and humiliation. Numerous thoughts of death and worthlessness consume her. According to her nurse (p 74. 24-26), “…she gives up her body to pain, and has been wearing down the nights and days with tears, since she first found she had been wrongly treated by her man.” Knowing the complexities of her character and scheming nature, Medea’s nurse could foresee that the children’s lives were at stake simply by the way their mother glared at them whenever they were near. To Medea, her two sons represented the life that she and Jason had built and the very thing he was so quick to dismiss. Her sons were fresh, young and fragile, just like the newer, calmer lifestyle she and her husband were starting to develop in Corinth. Although they were not citizens of the city, Medea was able to do well for herself and her family all while supporting him. She undoubtedly clung to Jason as her only source of familiarity, and at such a low point of despair, felt as though her life was insignificant without him.
After the loss of her most treasured asset, Jason, Medea feared nothing and would therefore take whatever risks she had to wreak the same amount of havoc on his life that he had so guiltlessly done on hers. When placed in a situation where they have nothing to lose, one tends to execute the most radical of actions without remorse or repentance. In this instance, Medea felt that the only way to punish for the public shame of Jason’s actions was to wreck his entire house (p 106. 794), climaxing with the murder of his own children. Adding insult to injury, she not only slaughtered the boys, but she also took away any chance of Jason giving them a proper burial, something she knew he would so desperately beg for. The shame that Jason would feel in being left to realize how his actions lead to the downfall of his house was enough for Medea’s thirst for vengeance to be quenched. Although this may seem ruthless, it should be made clear that Medea did not necessarily want to kill her sons. Had Jason been a successful naval officer who commanded and owned fleets of ships that were the dearest of all things to him, or perhaps been an artist whose pottery, sculptures and paintings been made out to be his beloved possessions, Medea would have had other avenues of retaliation to explore. However, because Jason was a hero on his own accord, and became Medea’s most beloved possession, in the act of him taking himself away, Medea felt it only right to do the same. This meant doing away with what he treasured most, the lives of his two young boys.
Whereas Medea’s prize was her husband Jason, according to Plutarch’s text, Spartan women were proud of their sons. They paraded their offspring to their neighbors and visiting foreigners, boasting about how courageous and strong they were or how fit for battle they would be when it came time for them to fight. They did not, however, feel remorse for any instance of cowardice that displayed itself. Sons who were not willing to fight seemed to suffer a fate worse than being killed at war by being killed by their own mothers. It was to be accepted socially that any one who wasn’t willing to die in battle be disowned and done away with. This can be attributed to the ostracizing nature of the Spartan culture for those who were known to be lacking the necessary bravery so well associated with the Spartan mirage. To bring that type of shame onto one’s family was highly unfavorable and suicide was often encouraged by family members in an attempt to thwart any connection between the two.
The institutions responsible for the Spartan society’s acceptance of filicide is often attributed to a seemingly mythical lawgiver named Lycurgus. Before newborn children were even allowed to be raised in the rigorous upbringing that their families were setting up for them, they were examined based on health and supposed ability to one day fulfill their gender role obligations. Male children were tested for strength and the probability of them one day defending their country, whereas the female children were inspected upon the basis of childbirth and any other deficiencies. Those that passed inspection were handed over to their families to begin nurturing, and the others were merely disposed of. Sparta was a military state and in order to maintain its success, the citizens needed to comply with whatever rules and laws that were to be given. A proud system in itself, it can be assumed that the citizens were happy to compete and compare themselves at all times in attempts to procure as much honor as possible. Therefore, it made no sense for the state to designate land or funds on a child who they thought would one day grow older yet bare no benefit or even be detrimental to the culture. Raising tremblers, as they were called, would not have fared well for their war efforts, as those individuals would have put the lives of the other soldiers at risk by fleeing.
Each of the texts treats filicide differently. The chorus of women met Medea’s murdering of her children with outrage, however in Plutarch’s text, it was supposed to be believed that the Spartan women cared so much about the bravery of their military, anything that hindered its goals of triumph was disposable, even if it meant that their children had to die by their own hands. Reading about Ancient Greece and comparing it to modern times, there are plenty of obvious distinctions and connotations that can be attributed to it. Filicide, a deplorable action in today’s terms was a genuine and justifiable practice and in an honor vs. shame socioeconomic era incorporates many controversial derivatives that should be noted as such.
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In Euripides’ Medea, Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women, Lycurgus and Xenophon’s Spartan Society, it is made clear that filicide is a byproduct of the dichotomy of an honor vs. shame […]