Family values have allegedly declined in recent times. It depends, of course, of what you compare it to. It would be a mistake to assume that the family has been steadily weakening, and therefore the further back in history we look, the stronger the family is.
To pick a period when family histories were well documented, let us turn to ancient Greece, Persia, and the Middle-East. Specifically, the court of Philip II, King of Macedon, and father of Alexander the Great. It is 338 BC; Alexander is 18 years old, and his father is about to marry another wife, relegating Alexander’s mother Olympias to the background. At the nuptial celebration, the uncle of the new bride, one of Philip’s generals, invites the guests to drink in honor of a new legitimate heir. Alexander shouts: “What do you take me for, a bastard?” and throws a drinking cup in his face. Philip drew a sword to cut down his son, but staggered from all the heavy drinking and fell. Alexander jeered: “This is the man who would pass from Europe to Asia, and he trips passing from couch to couch!” Alexander and his mother went into hiding, she back to the kingdom of Epirus where she was sister of the King. Since Epirus was a politically important ally, advisors patched up the quarrel, and Alexander was allowed back into court.
That was not the end of it. On the eve of Philip’s departure with his army to conquer the Persian empire, while the royal procession paraded the streets with pomp and circumstance, an assassin broke in and killed Philip with a dagger. Olympias and Alexander were suspected, but Philip’s other generals supported Alexander-- who already had a reputation as a soldier. Once her son was installed as King, Olympias had her rival’s baby killed, and forced the mother to hang herself; the uncle was sent off with the advance guard to Asia and murdered. Alexander took over the Persian expedition and conquered his way to fame far eclipsing his father. *
* More on this in "What Made Alexander Great?" The Sociological Eye, February 6, 2014.
Father tries to kill son; son and mother are implicated in a plot that kills the father; mother has her rival wife (step-wife? we need a term for these relationships) killed along with her son’s half-brother. No one expressed remorse about any of this, implying that what they did was not considered sinful or immoral. No one was prosecuted, since there was no judiciary other than the King, and under these circumstances possession of power was ten-tenths of the law.
These kinds of events were not unusual in that period. Philip’s predecessor as King of Macedon killed his own step-father, who was his guardian, in order to take sole rule in 365 BC. When he in turn was killed in battle in 359 BC, his son and rightful heir was a child; so Philip, an uncle, was appointed guardian. Soon after, he deposed his nephew and became King in his own right. The child was lucky to be left alive (as far as we know). There was not a lot of sentimental attachment in these families. Philip probably never had seen the boy, since he had been dispatched as a youth to be a hostage in another Greek state (Thebes), a typical procedure when alliances and treaties were made between states that didn’t trust each other. Philip’s take-over did not go uncontested; another pretender to the Macedonian throne-- i.e. another relative of these convoluted royal families-- had been living in exile, and the foreign power that hosted him (Athens) sent a fleet to try to put a friendly ruler on the throne, but failed. All quite normal; Philip took advantage of yet another pretender, his own half-brother who was sheltered by a nearby state, to declare war on it and enlarge his conquests.
Notice that no one disputes the importance of the family. Legitimate rule is passed along as family inheritance: family members fight over the inheritance (sounds familiar today?) Matters are exacerbated because these states are unstable; borders are changing, conquests are made and lost; alliances and federations are created and torn apart. In this situation, in most states there are factions who are in and others who have been thrown out. Prominent members of the outs go into exile, where they are happily received by some other state ready to use them as pawns in the struggle to make favorable alliances, or indeed conquests, of their neighbours.
Structural Conditions for Murderous Family Infighting
These are not just really bad people; the structural conditions in which they live are conducive, not to love and family solidarity, but to family jealousies and strife. To briefly list the conditions:
-- Marriages are typically arranged as political and diplomatic alliances. The women have no choice in who they marry; rulers regularly offer a daughter, or sister, to gain an ally or buy off a foe. This is an attractive deal on the receiving side, since the children of such a marriage have a claim to the succession of the family state they came from-- not that they will automatically succeed to the throne, since there are probably other candidates, but it is a good investment. And sons too sometimes are used by their fathers in the same fashion, or pawned as hostages. This means young persons of high rank normally expect they will go to live among people they do not really trust; on the other hand, people don’t trust each other that much where they grew up (among other reasons because most people are married to someone they didn’t choose), and there are good opportunities for personalities who develop the skills to plot and manipulate. Some women (for instance, Queen Olympias, Alexander’s mother, who plays a major political role when he is away and after his death) can become quite powerful by playing the game. If women are pawns, they also have close access to the networks of power, and network opportunity is more important than abstract cultural definition of status.
-- Love has nothing to do with marriage. But the term love does exist; we read in the ancient sources that Philip fell in love with the daughter of his general Attalus, and decided to throw off his political-alliance wife in her favor. Later Alexander will choose a wife, Roxane, who he finds captivating beautiful and falls in love with her during his conquests in central Asia; it doesn’t hurt that her father is an important chieftan and the marriage cements an alliance. On the other hand, it does not prevent Alexander, after returning to the Persian capital at the end of his conquests, from arranging a mass wedding of thousands of his soldiers to Persian wives, he himself taking a daughter of the conquered Persian King. (Roxane is still around, and she is still considered mother of the legitimate heir.) Falling in love had more or less the superficial meaning it has today, being smitten by someone’s beauty or sexual charm. We hear about Alexander’s soldiers who want leave to go back to Greece because they are in love with a courtesan; and one of Alexander’s most important generals, Ptolemy, sends for a famous courtesan from Athens to entertain them in Persia; she becomes his mistress and bears him several children, while he becomes King of Egypt.
This shows a way that ordinary women could rise in social rank. Although only women from royal families could play marriage politics, women who were beautiful and accomplished could make themselves so attractive that powerful men would fall in love with them, and even marry them. They were courtesans-- prostitutes; but exclusive enough so that they had to be courted. It was not a pathway that would be open to middle-class women of respectable families, who were closely guarded, even locked up at home; but courtesans who learned the arts of allurement had an arena where they could meet men of the highest rank-- they were famous entertainers at their banquets and drinking parties, and thus they too got a network connection with the elite. Once again, network closeness trumps mere abstract status.
One gets the impression that courtesans, although obviously gold-diggers, were not as cynical as the upper-class women in arranged marriages. We do not hear of courtesans murdering anyone, although they would have had plenty of opportunities. Their lack of family connections made them too vulnerable to risk it.
-- Geopolitics takes the form of multi-sided unstable conflicts. There are more than two great powers; there are three, four, five of them. And there are a lot of smaller players who can maneuver on the margins or in the interstices of the major conflicts, building little local empires without much notice, then intruding into the major conflicts, just as Macedon blindsided the bigger Greek players Athens, Sparta, Thebes, the Boeotian League, and their Asian opponent Persia. Weakening one of the major powers did not mean reducing the number of players, since others’ gains were only temporary. This was not the balance-of-power strategy employed by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries, where they would intervene on the Continent on the side of whichever coalition was weaker; that was a strong third party intervening into a two-sided conflict, whereas the Greek situation was more highly multi-sided. Geopolitical theory of conflict needs to recognize that conflicts among 4 or more are inherently more unstable than conflicts among 3 or less.
-- Combine this multi-sided geopolitical instability with external support for internal rivalries, and the ingredients are present for murderous family conflict. Exiles sheltered by a foreign power; hostages who become acclimated to a foreign point-of-view; these create the danger of “pretenders” to the throne awaiting the opportunity to return. Notice the mixture of altruism and calculated strategy: sympathy for exiles in hard times was also a device for expanding one’s power. (Similar in this respect is the modern practice of humanitarian interventions.) The result is a network of states who are used to receiving and sending well-known persons among each other, and have an interest in each other’s internal affairs. Interfering in the internal affairs of another state became an habitual practice. Rich states, who had a lot of gold, would send funds to the faction they wanted to support in another state, whether a rival state, an ally or one that could swing either way. These could be called bribes (usually by the opposing faction), gifts, subsidies, or even tribute (if the recipient construed the money as a sign of the giver’s inferiority). Today's equivalent would be foreign aid (in the altruistic language of American foreign policy), or subsidies (like those sent by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to rebel factions in Syria, thereby prolonging its interminably multi-sided civil war.)
To sum up: combine hereditary monarchy, arranged political marriages, unstable multi-sided geopolitics, networks of exiles and pretenders, and foreign intrusion in domestic affairs: the result is violence in the heart of the family, uninhibited by love or loyalty.
Succession Crises and Family Murder
The family of Alexander the Great is only the most famous in which this sort of thing happened. In the centuries just before and after his life, family murders were a recurring feature of top-level politics.
Consider the Persian Empire. The founder, Cyrus (reigned 559-530 BC, two hundred years before Alexander) unified the tribal chiefs in the highlands of Iran; conquered the major nearby states (Media, Babylon), then expanded west (into the Greek kingdoms and city-states of Asia Minor) and east (into the tribal zone of Central Asia). His methods sowed the seeds for the troubles that would come later. Where he conquered by force, he always legitimated himself as successor to the local kings or restorer of the local gods. Many of his accessions were peaceful, since his reputation preceded him and smaller chiefs welcomed him as a “friend”-- which is to say, a political friend, involving obligations of military support and material or monetary tribute. In cities which had strong internal politics-- such as the Greek city-states-- Cyrus operated more by subsidy/bribery, resulting in takeovers that the losing faction regarded as treachery. Superficial political friendships were the prevailing manner; underneath was an atmosphere of side-switching and distrust.
When Cyrus the Great King died, the regions of the empire took the opportunity to revolt. Violence broke out in the royal family; the first son inherited and killed his brother, who ruled the eastern provinces, to eliminate opposition. This pattern would repeat itself, with a succession crisis after each death of a King. Sometimes the new King that emerged was weak, sometimes the process filtered out the weak and created someone strong.
The third King, Darius, rose from being son of a provincial satrap. He got his chance when the previous King, Cambyses, was away putting down a revolt in Egypt, whereupon an impersonator of the King’s brother was placed on the Persian throne. Cambyses died of a wound during the struggle to regain the throne; Darius joined the conspiracy to assassinate the pretender and emerged on top. Darius reigned 522-486 BC, spending his first two years traveling around the Empire with a mobile army putting down revolts, and started the first Persian invasion of the Greek mainland, which was turned back at the battle of Marathon (490 BC). After Darius died came the usual round of revolts, temporarily derailing the Greek enterprise, while his son Xerxes had to deal with revolts in the major provinces of Egypt and Babylon. Xerxes put together a huge army for another invasion of Greece, which eventually petered out through problems of logistics and maintaining connection via a mercenary fleet. Xerxes was assassinated in a palace plot in 465. His son Artaxerxes I ascended the throne, but his brother revolted (with the support of Athens-- both sides could play the game of interfering in internal affairs of the enemy); eventually all the royal brothers were assassinated. Next came Darius II (reigned 424-405), an illegitimate son, who killed his illegitimate brother, who had killed his legitimate brother, Xerxes II, a murderous game of tag. Darius II married his half-sister, a cruel woman who controlled him and ruthlessly suppressed all enemies.
And so on. Artaxerxes III (reigned 358-338 BC) came in with the usual round of violence, in which several dozen brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, and cousins of both sexes were killed. Now we hear of killing royal women; apparently connections on the female side were becoming increasingly important. Artaxerxes III was poisoned by his favorite court eunuch in 338 BC, followed by several years of royal family plots and assassinations; so many were murdered that the succession had to turn to a distant cousin. In the same year Artaxerxes III was murdered, Philip of Macedon won a great battle over the Athenian alliance (with his 18-year-old son Alexander leading the cavalry), making Macedon hegemonic in Greece, and setting the stage for the invasion of Persia. It was precisely the bloody succession crises that made Persia look like an easy target.
The atmosphere of betrayal and revolt spread into the administrative structure, even beyond the royal family. In the struggles and revolts under Artaxerxes II around 390 BC, a rebel satrap was betrayed by his son, who switched sides to line up with the victorious ruler, and had his father crucified. This sort of thing goes beyond family rivalry; it was a cruel public display of family hatred. Artaxerxes II is remembered mainly because his brother, Cyrus, with the support of his mother the former Queen, recruited the famous Ten Thousand mercenaries from Greece for an expedition to capture the Persian throne. This Cyrus died trying to cut through the bodyguards to reach his hated brother.
Murderous Succession Crises in the Hellenistic Era
The Hellenistic period of Greek and Middle-Eastern history is not a popular one, because there are no heroes to simplify our memory, and above all because it is too complicated. Alexander’s conquest did not change the pattern of succession crises. As soon as he died, at least 10 contenders came forward to take control of the Empire, including the older generals Alexander inherited from Philip, plus his own important commanders. This produced a volatile situation of multisided conflict that took over 20 years to settle down.
The first three years after Alexander’s death were a shifting kaleidoscope of alliances, side-switches, and deals. The senior commander of the infantry phalanx proposed as successor Alexander’s half-brother, a feeble-minded illegitimate son of Philip (under his guardianship, of course); rivals proposed Alexander’s infant son by Roxane. Perdiccus, the senior cavalry commander, proposed as a compromise that both should rule jointly, then had the phalanx commander murdered, leaving himself as sole guardian. Perdiccus then alienated Antipater, the Macedonian viceroy, by jilting his daughter to marry Alexander’s sister Cleopatra.* Perdiccus in turn was betrayed by his own troops to Antigonus, a one-eyed general whose lineage would eventually get the Macedonian part of the empire. It wasn’t just family members who killed each other in this atmosphere of betrayal.
* Not the famous Cleopatra who ruled Egypt 51-30 BC, had affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, and ordered the murder of her own brother Ptolemy, her adolescent co-ruler. Cleopatra and Ptolemy were both popular Macedonian names.
Eventually the 10 contenders winnowed down to 4 or 5. After the initial free-for-all, the strongest concentrated on hunting down and eliminating Philip and Alexander’s relatives, all the contenders and pretenders. Alexander’s son by Roxane, who should have been the legitimate heir, was killed at age 13. The Empire began to settle into a pattern of 3 states: Egypt; an Asian state in the heart of the old Persian Empire (Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria); and Macedon/Asia Minor. But they kept trying to take each other’s territory-- general Ptolemy in Egypt for instance used his fleet to control the Greek cities around the Aegean Sea-- and wars and betrayals kept on happening. In Macedon, a surviving son of the monarchy, now called Philip III, was manipulated by his wife into allying with the son of the viceroy Antipater; they were opposed by Alexander’s mother, Queen Olympias, who engineered the death of yet another of her stepsons, until she herself was executed.
Forty years after Alexander’s death all his relatives were dead, but the sons and daughters of his generals were still at it. The current ruler of Macedon, Lysimachus, was persuaded by his third wife, Arsinoe, to put his own son to death, in favor of her own children. Lysandra, the widow of the slain man, allied with her brother Ptolemy II and the Asian forces of Seleucus to invade Macedon and kill Lysimachus; at which point Ptolemy II had his ally killed so as not to share the spoils with him. And this was another sibling quarrel, since Arsinoe, Lysandra and Ptolemy II were all half-brothers and half-sisters, all children of the many wives of Ptolemy I. It was a chain of revenges and murderous ambitions such as the Greek dramatists described as divine powers of the Furies, or Nemesis.
When Oedipal Conflicts Were Real, Not Mythical
Is it a coincidence that the Oedipus story and the Orestes/ Electra story were first made popular in Greece, in the century before Philip and Alexander? These were the most famous plays of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They were performed at the great festival in Athens, when theatrical drama was just being created, beginning in the years after the Persian invasions were turned back (490-466 BC). The theme of sons and daughters killing fathers and mothers and vice versa, and of sibling loyalty and betrayal, are just what they would have heard about the Persians, with their bloody succession fights from the time of Cyrus onwards, indeed what happened to Xerxes the most dangerous invader.*
* Xerxes was murdered in his palace (quite possibly by his son and heir) in 465 BC; Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy was produced in 458.
The Greek dramatists set these themes in the historic or mythical past--- not a time of democracy like the present, but of hereditary kings in the most important cities of Greece-- Argos, Thebes, Corinth, Athens. And what did they find most dramatic about them?
What the dramas depicted was happening in Persia at the very time they were being performed in Athens; would happen again in places like Macedonia on the Greek periphery that still had kings; and would follow in the career of Alexander and his successors.
The story of Orestes and Electra, brother and sister, is the story of a father killing his daughter; a wife and her lover killing her husband; and a son and daughter killing their mother and step-father. It is tacked onto the Homeric history of the Trojan war. Agamemnon, greatest of the Homeric kings (and one of the bad guys in the Iliad plot), is depicted as having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to procure a favorable wind from a goddess for his voyage to Troy. During the ten years while he is away, back in Argos his wife Clytemnestra takes a lover, Aegisthus-- a conventional enough story of soldiers away at war (in the US Army, hearing from such a wife used to be called getting a Dear John letter). Agamemnon finally returns; the lovers kill him, and Aegisthus becomes King. (This isn’t too different from Arsinoe displacing a previous wife to the King of Macedon and killing the heir; whereupon the aggrieved wife calls on her siblings to take revenge.) They search for Agamemnon’s son and heir, the baby Orestes, to eliminate any threat to the succession, but his older sister Electra has taken him away and entrusted him to a foreigner to bring up. Orestes finally returns, grown to adulthood, and he and Electra murder their mother and King Aegisthus.*
* Nobody really cares about the murder of Iphigenia, except her mother Clytemnestra, which is her initial motive for taking a lover and murdering her husband. But Clytemnestra is depicted as evil, and the lives of females did not count much anyway in this system. It is killing a husband/father that is the really bad thing.
In real life, as we see from the Persian, Macedonian, and Hellenistic cases, the story would have ended here. Orestes would have set up as legitimate King, and who was to criticize him? In the plays, however, the plot turns surrealistic; supernatural vengeance, in the form of the Furies, chase Orestes from city to city.
The Oedipus story, which Sophocles produced about 440-400 BC, is about an attempted infanticide (which fails); whereupon the boy grows up, kills his father, and marries his mother. Like Orestes, the parent-killer is marked to be killed as a child, but is brought up by foreigners (like Philip and many other exiles and hostages). When he is strong enough he returns home, gets into a prideful quarrel with a pugnacious older man-- a road-rage dispute-- and kills him (one can easily substitute Alexander and his drunken father). The mother-marrying angle is the only part that is not paralleled in real life; one can say that it is what Sophocles the dramatist adds to make the plot a real shocker, but it does have a structural aspect, since it is by marrying her that Oedipus becomes King-- the goal that everyone was always fighting about.*
* Once again the infanticide is glossed over, it being normal then for parents to kill their children; the Greek audience presumably thought no one should resent it, although Alexander’s life suggests that some sons did not take kindly to being menaced by their parents. That this sort of thing regularly happened in the ancient Mediterranean world is attested by laws in the Hebrew Old Testament that parents should have a disobedient son stoned to death (Deuteronomy 2:18-21). Another indication is Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac in blood sacrifice, although it is finally called off by the Lord’s angel with a promise that the people of Israel will conquer all their enemies (Genesis 22: 1-18). Child-sacrifice for war-success continued down to 150 BC in Carthage, a colony of Phoenicia, one of Israel’s neighbours. Alexander witnessed it himself: a Balkan tribe that opposed him in 335 BC preceded their battle, as was their custom, by sacrificing three boys, three maidens, and three sheep. Alexander's attack interrupted the sacrifice (Bury p. 742). Parents killing their children historically preceded the children fighting back. Freud misinterpreted this as a childhood fantasy.
The details of the Oedipus saga bring out the political aspects. Laius, King of Thebes, is driven out by a rival; he takes refuge with Pelops (ancestor of Agamemnon), but brings down a curse on himself and his family by kidnapping Pelops’ son. Returning to power in Thebes, he marries Jocasta, but is warned by a god that their son will kill him; so they drive a spike through his feet and leave him on a mountain to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to Corinth, where the King and Queen bring him up as their own son-- a variant on the usual practices of exile and hostage. Oedipus’s killing of his father Laius and becoming King of Thebes we know. The more elaborate story follows the fate of his sons.
After Oedipus blinds himself in shame at his offense, he curses his two sons that they will kill each other. The father is deposed and the sons succeed him, agreeing to divide the kingship by ruling in alternative years. But the one who rules first refuses to make way for his brother, who has gone into exile and married the daughter of the King of Argos; whereupon the father-in-law puts together a coalition to attack Thebes (the usual story of exiles getting support for interfering in domestic politics). The attack fails, and the two brothers kill each other simultaneously. The next King, Creon, is another harsh bad guy, leading to further troubles of the remaining daughter, Antigone, trying to get proper burial rites for her favorite brother; this is probably just the playwrights spinning out a favorite story with sequels, but it fits the general theme-- bad blood in the family keeps on perpetuating itself.
Finally there is mitigation. The playwrights begin preaching that the cycle of ancestral sins and punishments passed on from generation to generation must have a stop; barbaric fury must give way to civilization. Aeschylus attributed the turmoil in Agamemnon’s family to an ancestral curse, deriving from his ancestor King Pelops who cheated and killed a rival for a king’s daughter. Oedipus discovers his own sins because his city is cursed with a plague which the oracle says cannot be dispelled until the murderer of the previous king is found, and Oedipus puts a curse on his own sons which causes them to kill each other. The chorus of the playwright Sophocles prays at Oedipus’s death for absolution. In the end, Orestes too finds relief from the Furies that pursue him.
Durkheim showed that the gods are constructed as a reflection of society. The Greeks saw multiple gods and spirits around them, pushing and warning humans one way and another; but above them all was Fate, Nemesis, a higher order of things. The most important of these patterns, revealed in the most famous plays that their dramatists created, was that fighting over hereditary power was never-ending; it generated family murder, in a chain passed along from generation to generation. The only way to stop it was to introduce the rule of law, law above the kings and queens and their ever-striving, ever-vengeful sons and daughters. This meant the end of hereditary monarchy; the Greek word for king-- tyrannos-- eventually came to mean tyrant. Democracy, for all its faults-- and it had its own form of violence in faction fights and judicial prosecutions-- would remove the legitimacy of rule from mere family heredity. Democracy at any rate eliminated succession crises and the structures that promoted family murder. Unfortunately for the Greeks, kingship returned with the Macedonians and the successor-states to the Persian Empire.
The Breakdown of Democracy and the Return of Family Murders in Rome
And so it went. The Roman Republic had a strong antipathy to kingship; when it came back, in the hereditary succession of the Caesars, its was accompanied by a renewal of family murders. The great founder and administrator Augustus kept domestic peace. He was personally very upright, moralistic, even prudish; but the younger generations of his family turned out just the opposite. Succession crises grew steadily bloodier through the next four rulers. It got so complicated you can’t tell the murders without a scorecard.
Augustus lived to be 77, and the only one of his children or grandchildren who survived him was his daughter Julia, who was so profligate with her lovers that he banished her and adopted as his heir a favorite general, Tiberius. Tiberius grew paranoid of conspiracies as his reign went on, resulting in a veritable reign of terror encouraged by his chief ministers, in which over 100 suspects were killed, and Tiberius’ only son was poisoned. Tiberius’ brother Drusus was long since dead, but his son Germanicus was another popular general; Tiberius had this nephew killed out of jealousy, along with his wife and two sons. To keep the lineage alive, the youngest of Germanicus’ sons was spared (only 7 years old at the time of these murders), and when Tiberius died (37 AD, at the age of 79), he had grown up to become the Emperor Caligula. Caligula in turn banished or murdered almost of all of his relatives except his incestuous sister; reigning only 4 years, he was killed by the Praetorian guard. The soldiers then put on the throne the only remaining member of the imperial household, Caligula’s old uncle Claudius, a retiring scholar, son of Tiberius’ brother Drusus. Claudius was an ineffectual emperor, run by his third wife Messalina-- she married her own uncle. Notorious for her sexual appetite, Messalina also killed the daughters of Germanicus and Drusus, expanding the victim list from males to females to clear away potential rivals. Claudius finally had her killed when she married her lover in public. His next wife was even worse: Agrippina, one of the daughters of Germanicus that Messalina missed; she got Claudius to put aside his own son and adopt her son by a previous husband, Nero, as heir. That accomplished, she apparently poisoned Claudius.
Nero, finally, murdered Claudius’s son-- just to make sure; then killed his own mother-- the evil interfering Agrippina; followed by killing his wife, another wife, another daughter of Claudius who he offered to marry but was turned down, and took yet another wife after killing her husband. Finally the legions rose against him and he committed suicide, replaced by one of the generals. From then on, things moved away from family murders, into a pattern where the army generally decided the succession; in some periods of orderly rule the emperor would adopt a competent follower as his heir.
It was almost an experiment in all the things that can go wrong with family succession: aging rulers who outlive their own children; spoiled brats with unlimited resources surrounded by plotters; paranoia about conspiracies leading to preemptive murdering of all possible candidates, in turn resulting in even more unsuitable candidates, either completely unworldly types like Claudius or irresponsible pleasure-seekers like Caligula and Nero, Messalina and Agrippina. The amount of husband-murdering, wife-murdering, child-murdering, and even mother-murdering that went on match pretty much anything that the Greek dramatists could have plotted from their nightmares, without the dignity of projection into the world of myth.
I am aware that the structural conditions listed for the family murders in the Persian/Greek period do not all hold for the Roman period. The early Roman Empire was not a time of complicated multi-sided geopolitics; nor of exiles and pretenders at foreign courts eager to interfere. What was similar was hereditary rule based on personal loyalty, without checks and balances or administrative bureaucracy; and legitimate succession through marriages calculated purely for political advantage. The Romans seemed more reflective about it, in the sense that they looked for plots everywhere and engaged in paranoid purges to forestall possible rivals. Arranged marriages did exist in Rome, becoming quite prominent during the last two generations of the Republic, when the country went through repeated civil wars.
Despite the strong patriarchal structure, maternal connections became important; for instance Julius Caesar got his start by being related through his mother to Marius, the famous general and leader of the liberal faction during the Social Wars. Julius made his daughter Julia marry his various political allies, and divorce them when alliances changed. Since Rome did not have polygamy, divorce became common. Elite women got used to being important political actors—like Anthony’s wife, who carried on politics in Italy during his absences. The situation became more gender-symmetrical as the Empire was established; strong rulers like Augustus insisted that his favorite generals divorce their wives to marry into his family. This helps explain why there were women like Messalina and Agrippina. Roman women of the elite, unlike in Greece, were much more active schemers in their own interest; the nearest Greek equivalents were Alexander’s mother, and the last Cleopatra.
The classical Greek/Persian situation did reappear in some later instances, as in England during the time of Henry VIII and his 6 wives, in the midst of volatile foreign alliances and religious side-switching. It culminated in the struggle between two of his daughters, Queen Mary (“bloody Mary”) and Queen Elizabeth, the latter winning out via a series of revolts, plots, stake-burnings, and executions. Once parliamentary rule was established, murders inside elite families became a thing of the past.
Contemporary Relevance: the Family Curse of Big Money
Are there any wider theoretical implications, any lesson for our own times? One might say that family problems as they exist today-- child and spousal abuse; the one-third portion of the murder rate that takes place in families-- are mild compared to what the ancients did. But there are some structural parallels. The really bad families of ancient times were the elite families, not the poor families which today are the site of most violence and abuse. Annette Lareau, in research at the University of Pennsylvania, finds that the troubles of rich families in raising their children revolve around their expectations and disputes over family money; the result, in our pacified era, is not physical violence but emotional struggles, hostile breaks between and within the generations, sometimes carried out by lengthy lawsuits. In our society, where not much of importance is hereditary, the exception is among the very rich, and there the situation is structurally similar to the unstable empires of ancient politics.
Freud and the Oedipus Complex
Freud overemphasized the paternal side, as has been recognized in many critiques. The central importance of the Oedipus complex in Freudian psychology is that the conflict is normally resolved by the child identifying with father, internalized into the unconscious self as conscience or Superego. This is the key step in socialization, turning the barbaric drive-driven infant into the responsible adult. For Freud, too, the internalized father is crucial in explaining religion, since God is explained as a projection of the Father. For this reason Freudians have made convoluted explanations of the development of the female’s Superego, since it is depicted as an internalized male authority and religious ideal. The sociological approaches of Durkheim and of George Herbert Mead give an alternative way of explaining childhood development of a social conscience; it is not internalization of the father per se, but internalization of adult authority. In Mead’s nicer, more democratic version, it is internalization of the Generalized Other, of society in general, the capacity for taking the role of the other, any other; hence what the child develops is the capacity for universal sympathy and altruism, as a guide to one’s own conduct. This is an ideal, and not everyone is so altruistic; some individuals for reasons not yet well theorized are more altruistic than others.
We can now pin down why the classic version of the Oedipus complex-- and for that matter, the Electra complex, where the daughter wants to kill her mother and loves her father-- is so father-centered. It came from the specific political structure of family succession in ancient hereditary kingship. Its primacy in particular historical periods is not psychological, but political.
J. B. Bury. 1951. A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great.
R. Ghirshman. 1954. Iran: From the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest.
F. W. Wallbank. 1981. The Hellenistic World.
Sarah B. Pomeroy. 1975. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary. 1984.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary. 1984.
Arrian. Campaigns of Alexander.
Plutarch. Life of Alexander.
Appian. The Civil Wars.
Old Testament Bible. Book of Esther.
Aeschylus. Orestes Trilogy; Seven Against Thebes.
Sophocles. Antigone; Electra; Oedipus Rex; Oedipus at Colonus.
Euripides. Electra; Orestes; Iphigenia among the Taurians.