Ancient and modern

What would the ancient Greeks have made of Megxit?

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

There are as many explanations for Harry and Meghan’s problems with the royal family as there are commentators. May as well let the ancient Greeks have their say.

Greeks placed enormous importance on philoi, those with whom one made common cause: and one’s prime philoi were one’s family. So when an Athenian citizen put himself forward for any official position, he underwent a public scrutiny to ascertain that he had fulfilled a number of familial, state and religious obligations: in the case of the family, had they treated their parents with proper respect? To that question Harry and Meghan might well have found it difficult to respond.

The central importance of family to a Greek can be gauged from Greek tragedy. It was almost wholly concerned with myths that dealt with family breakdown. In Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, the king Creon, Antigone’s uncle, had decreed that, after a civil war between two of Antigone’s brothers, one should be buried with full honours, the other left to rot unburied, food for the dogs and birds. This for Antigone was a direct assault on her closest philoi: her brother must be buried and she would do it. The tragedy ended in catastrophe for everyone.

The early stages of marriage could be especially difficult, when the husband’s family had to welcome into its bosom — and trust the whole of its future to — a woman with inbred loyalties to her own family philoi. It did not help that a woman’s sexual allure and her associated underhand female wiles were always suspect. A treatise by Xenophon described a husband training his new wife in how they did things in his household. Plutarch alerted the bride to the jealously she would arouse in her mother-in-law and suggested tactics to keep her sweet. So the bride had better learn and submit to her new family’s ways — or else.

The Greek verdict? Submission is not Meghan’s style, even to her own father (no philoi, they). Harry’s passion for her deranged his wits (ah, the dangers of eros). The royal family failed to intercede in time. Bad judgment all round, then, but it began (of course) with the woman.

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