By Barry Strauss

As history's first democracy, classical Athens invited political discourse. The Athenians, although couldn't thoroughly separate the politicals from the non-public sphere; certainly father-son clash, from patricide to murdering one's son, used to be an important public in addition to a personal subject. In a desirable ancient reappraisal, the writer explores the results, for Athens and us, of the robust effect of familial ideology on politics.

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Film is less permanent or definitive than sculpture, but it offers a great variety of perspectives. Like a cameraman, I have tried to “pan” over the spectrum of the subject of fathers and sons in Athens in the Peloponnesian War era, sometimes “zooming” in for detail, other times pulling back for depth. It was clear from the outset of my work that it would take several large volumes to do justice to the full range of relevant ancient evidence. For example, virtually all of extant Attic tragedy and comedy is germane, as is much in oratory, philosophy, and the classical historians, as well as in the numerous post-classical anecdotal accounts (Plutarch, Athenaios, Aulus Gellius), commentaries, and scholia that are well known to classicists.

Pericles’ ideals are repeated in thousands of ways by thousands of Athenians in everyday life. As many feminist scholars have argued, gender is one of the most basic of ideological symbols. Research about such diverse places as seventeenth-century Britain and its North American colonies and third-millennium BC Mesopotamia has shown that politics, no less than private life, is gendered—that is, it uses gender as an important category. Arguing in a similar vein, other feminist 31 FATHERS AND SONS IN ATHENS scholars have shown that politics is also “familialized,” that it uses the family too as a category.

One might employ a “safety-valve” explanation: better to acknowledge an inevitable problem than to try to repress it and risk an eventual explosion. Some father-son conflict indeed seems inevitable, given the universal struggle in all societies over the intergenerational transmission of power and property, and the universal alternation of dependence and independence. The subject of father-son conflict appears, moreover, to raise questions of profound symbolic significance. A varied group of intellectuals—Freud and his followers, anthropologists, ethnologists, and historians of religion—have argued that patricide or the patricidal urge is at the root of civilization.

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