An oikos was the basic unit of society in most Greek city-states, and included the head of the oikos (usually the oldest male), his immediate family (wife and children), and slaves living together in one domestic setting. Large oikoi also had farms that were usually tended by the slaves, which were also the basic agricultural unit of the ancient economy.
The Greek oikos differed significantly from the Roman domus in architectural layout, although Greece became part of the Roman Empire for a long time. It was built around paved peristyles and had very distinct male and female spaces.
The first part of the house consisted of a gynaikonitis (γυναικωνῖτις, "women's gallery"), or peristyle (περιστύλιον), with the oikos proper, the center of domestic activity, beyond. This latter area consisted of bedrooms and dining rooms. The second part of the house, the andronitis (ἀνδρωνῖτις, pl. ἀνδρωνῖται), was the focus of male activity. There one could find more dining rooms, guest suites, and libraries.
A man was the head (kyrios, κύριος, "master") of the household. In this sense, he was responsible for representing the interests of his oikos to the wider polis and providing legal protection to the women and minors with whom he shared his household. Initially the kyrios of an oikos would have been the husband and father of offspring. However, when any legitimate sons reached adulthood the role of kyrios could, in many instances, be transferred from the father to the next male generation. When a son was given his portion of the inheritance, either before or after his father had died, he was said to have formed a new oikos. Therefore new oikoi were formed every generation and would continue to be perpetuated through marriage and childbirth. The complex relationship between father and son was also bound intrinsically to the transfer of family property: a legitimate son could expect to inherit the property of his father and, in return, was legally obligated to provide for his father in his old age. If a son failed to care for his parents he could be prosecuted and a conviction would result in the loss of his citizen rights. However, fathers could also be prosecuted by their sons for maltreatment if they prostituted them or failed to provide them with a techne. Furthermore, the heir to an inheritance would also be required to perform burial rites at the deceased's funeral and continue to provide annual commemorative rites. This would have been an extremely important consideration for the Athenians, who were notoriously pious.
Although men were part of both the polis and oikos, women had a role only in the oikos.
As depicted in Homer's poetry, female characters of the upper classes led a relatively independent life. Although women were technically of citizen status, they had no rights of citizenship. Women had no political rights and could take no part whatsoever in government. They could conduct only limited business and hold and inherit limited property. All business was conducted on a woman's behalf by her husband or father.
Women rarely received inheritances, since the law of inheritance was through the male line. Instead, they received dowries on marriage. Indeed, written wills were allowed at Athens only if there was no son. At Sparta women were able to own and inherit property. Marriage was arranged for a woman by her father or male guardian.
In the home women were kept segregated in their own quarters, called gynaikonitis, and were virtually unseen. They were responsible only for their oikos, which included providing for slaves, children, cooking, cleaning, caring for the sick, and making clothes (from spinning wool to finishing the garments). But much would be done by female slaves only under the supervision of the head of the household.
Women rarely left the house, and even then would be accompanied by female slaves. Women did go shopping and to the wells to fetch water, but this was done mainly by slaves and by poorer women without slaves. Older women and widows had more freedom, as did Spartan wives. Wives in Sparta were also permitted to drink alcohol, which was forbidden in most other city-states. As well as exercise more authority in the oikos. However, as evidenced in the literature of the time, this standard was rarely observed. Poorer women undertook work, including selling goods in the market, spinning, making bread, agricultural laboring, acting as wet nurses or working alongside their husbands. It was not possible in such households to segregate men from women. Poorer widows often had to work, if they had no means of financial support.
Within religion women did play an important role, such as a dominant role at funerals, weddings, and a large number of public festivals. There were many priestesses, and women also had their own festivals. At some festivals, though, it is believed that women were not present; nor may they have attended associated performances at theaters.
Childbirth took place at home, with all the women of the household in attendance. A female midwife (maia, μαῖα) may have been present, and a male doctor called in if complications arose, but virtually no information on midwifery exists. Childbirth was regarded as polluting so was not allowed to take place on sacred ground. At birth the guardian (usually the father) had to decide whether to keep the child or expose it. If it was kept a purification ceremony took place on the fifth or seventh day after birth.
It was the mother's duty to breast-feed her children, but wet nurses were employed, and pottery feeding bottles are also known. There is evidence from vase paintings for cradles of wickerwork or wood. From the 4th century BCE children appear much more in artistic representations. Children played a number of games, and evidence of toys comes from literature, vase paintings and surviving examples of the actual toys.
It was customary at various festivals to give children toys. When girls were about to marry and when boys reached adolescence, it was customary for them to dedicate their playthings to deities.
Male children were favored for many reasons. They perpetuated the family and family cult, cared for parents in old age and arranged a proper funeral for deceased parents. In addition sons could inherit their mothers' dowry. Boys were raised in the female quarters until about the age of six, when they were educated in schools, but girls remained under the close supervision of their mothers until they married. They rarely went out of the women's section of the house and were taught domestic skills at home, though they did attend some religious festivals. In Sparta boys were removed from their families at the age of seven to be reared by the state.
In order to continue the family it was possible for a man to adopt a son, although the adopted son did not have as many rights of inheritance as a son by birth. It was usually a method of providing a man with an heir. By the 4th century BCE in Athens, adoption could be inter vivos (adoptive father and adopted son both alive), or a son could be adopted after a man's death through a will, or assigned to the family after his death if none was mentioned in a will and there was no heir.
Some animals were kept in the home from at least the time of Homer, who mentions dogs. The most popular pet was a small dog, often represented on 5th-century BCE Attic gravestones.
There were a number of reasons for which men often carefully guarded the faithfulness of their wives. Illegitimate children were deprived of many rights in most Greek city-states; should a man's heirs' legitimacy be questioned on grounds of his mother's chastity, his family could end. Illegitimate children could also be a considerable economic drain on their family, while giving little back. Another cause of fear was the threat of an outsider gaining access to the oikos, either through the woman he was sleeping with, or their child. Presumably, the fear of adultery is linked to the ban on women's consumption of alcohol, as evidenced in such plays as Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae and Lysistrata. These fears were intensified by the nature of marriage in Ancient Greece. Marriage was arranged by the bride's father, and many men did not have a close relationship with their betrothed before the marriage.
In modern sociology
The term oikos is contemporarily used to describe social groups. Several dozen to several hundred people may be known, but the quality time spent with others is extremely limited: only those to whom quality (face-to-face) time is devoted can be said to be a part of an oikos. Each individual has a primary group that includes relatives and friends who relate to the individual through work, recreation, hobbies, or by being neighbors. The modern oikos, however, includes people that share some sort of social interaction, be it through conversation or simple relation, for at least a total of one hour per week.
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