Ancient and modern

Why the Ancient Greeks thought adultery was worse than rape

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

A footballer serves his sentence for rape, insisting on his innocence. Debate rages whether he should play again. To us, rape is taken to be the most serious of sexual crimes. But would it have happened had he committed adultery? Of course not.

Ancient Greeks would have been baffled. For them rape was the usual violent behaviour, a fact of life, and consent did not come into it. It was violence not against the will of a person but against the protector of that person, i.e. her father, legal guardian or husband. His ‘property’ had been damaged, so a charge of ‘violence’ was brought by her protector, and the offender typically punished with a fine assessed by the jury at the trial.


Adultery, however, was a quite different matter. The reason is that it had a direct effect on the family, the institution the Greeks valued more than any other. Various punishments were possible, but if the adulterer was caught in the act, the protector could kill him on the spot and, if charged with murder, could plead that he had acted lawfully; the wife was automatically divorced.

The reason for this draconian punishment — the term ‘draconian’, derived from the 7th C BC Athenian lawmaker Drakôn, is used literally in this case — was twofold. First, whereas rape was merely a physical assault, the sort of thing anyone could expect at any time, adultery was seduction, an attempt to subvert the loyalty of the woman to her husband, family and home. Secondly, since adultery was not likely to be a one-off but to involve the woman’s eager co-operation, it was more likely to produce children. That jeopardised the whole basis of Athenian society, since only legitimate children could be full citizens. Adultery threatened to debase that vital coinage.

The modern western reaction to these issues is far more humane, but there still lurk rumblings from the past about the eternal accessibility of women, the dominance of the male, and the inviolability of marriage.

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Show comments
  • This is an incredibly weird article, what point are you trying to make?

    Your introduction is a little bit of an obvious point. Yes, adultery is frowned upon, yes we of course regard rape as infinitely worse, yes, genuinely sexist and patriarchal societies of yesteryear unfortunately did not.

    As such, the meat of the article, whether or not you intend it to or not, comes across as a rather underhand justification of that state of affairs, with the plausible deniability of you apparently just giving an account of what these societies thought and why.

    Its a bit like when a terrorist bomb goes off in the Middle-East and some talking head on TV will immediately start spewing their anti-Western dogma behind the shield of “Well, this is how people in that part of the World feel about America! I don’t condone their actions at all but you must realise that *they* think…yadayadayada”

    The conclusion, if you can call it that, is incredibly weak and says essentially nothing, just using a load of weasel-words to eschew responsibility for the articles defensive and condoning tone.

    If you were serious about any of this, you’d have begun your article with what ended up being your final paragraph (because your conclusion is actually just an unsupported assertion), and spent the rest of your article actually illustrating and explaining the links between these ancient practices and modern society.

    All in all this has a sort of deliberately provocative teenager-ish “I’m just sayin’ is all!” tinge to it. Comes off as cheap clickbait.

    Femenazis to the left of me, misogynists to the right here I am, stuck in the middle with very few…unfortunately.

    • Stephen Clark

      Well said Matthew

  • Mrs.JosephineHydeHartley

    Yes it’s a good job we’re not living in ancient Greece..

    • Fergus Pickering

      We would have very good digestions because they ate a lot of beans. And there would be very little obesity and ho air pollution.. So it’s not all bad.is it?

      • doctorseraphicus

        Was that a typo or a pun? no “hoi polloition”, that is pollution caused by the presence of too many people.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Yes, that too,

        • Ambientereal

          I thought the pollution was caused by beans because they produce greenhouse effect gases like methane.

  • UnionJihack

    Consent is overrated in Western societies given that issues are often so complex and full of misinformed irrelevances, it is difficult to argue there was an informed component.

  • omgamuslim

    I tend to agree with the Greeks though not necessarily for the same reasons outlined. Adultery is a breach of faith or a breach of contract or treachery if you like. Its surreptitious and furtive nature adds to the gravity of the situation.

  • scathach

    Is adultery worse than rape? No, it’s not. Not for women anyway. Rape’s a really touchy subject I’d say, and I’d have to agree with Matthew Stevens when I say it’s a really fucking weird article. It really pissed me off actually. If I get down to the knitty gritty of what this article is saying; It is asking a very simple question: Would you rather have your wife cheat on you or get raped?

  • Joe Rogers

    I agree. Rape is overhyped. Then again if people were allowed to protect themselves there’d be less. Maybe we need a more violent society?

  • lucillalin

    As a history student I hate this sort of history writing. Ancient Greece was a different culture from our own with some very different values. True. And that is all. I don’t understand the last bit at all. What on earth are you trying to say?

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  • Mike

    This certainly sits well with Islam as the penalties for women’s adultery is stoning to death whilst rape is actively encouraged in certain areas. Perhaps a certain phophet plagiarized this from the Greeks !

  • Swanky

    Rape is the thing I feared most as a teenaged girl. It was the nightmare of nightmares. It took from you not only your innocence, and your first giving of yourself for your own reasons — that mysterious odd quite bizarre-really connection — but also it held the threat of murder. Anyone that was willing and able to rape was willing and able to murder. I read about it in the papers while growing up. Rapists weren’t just rapists, they were murderers, too. Perhaps that can illuminate the true awfulness of the crime, which the author of this stupid piece — he’s a man, what a surprise — did not suss.

  • Fraga123

    The Greeks also celebrated pederasty and kept slaves.

  • Glock Osborne

    For those who think ancient Greek women were just chattel, get this book out of the library: Portrait of a Priestess by Joan Breton Connelly. Essentially, equality was deified in the form of six gods and six goddess. Priestess served with high honours. And many other things that trolls and historians love to ignore for titillation purposes.
    ISBN-13: 978-0691143842

  • InspiredAndNatural

    I wonder how the ancient Greeks viewed an engaged person’s infidelity. That is what interests me, nothing less or more.

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