Freedom And Its Problems: The Life Of Neaera Essay, Research Paper
Freedom and its Problems: The Life of Neaera (pg. 111)
Ancient Greece, the inventor of democracy, philosophy and much of modern western culture and thought, was also the proprietor of the most dehumanizing institution known to mankind, slavery. The excerpt from The Ancient World, Readings in Social and Cultural History, entitled The Life of Neaera, tells the ever so sad story of a slave girl sold into a life of prostitution and all the hardships she must endure in her quest for survival and happiness. Through out the course of this semester we have learned about many aspects of ancient Greek culture and civilization, three of which we learn about on a very personal level through out the story of Neaera. Namely these aspects are Citizenship and it’s restrictions, Slavery vs. Freedom and what that meant, and finally sexuality and how it was viewed in ancient Greece.
One of the central themes of this piece and the basis of the prosecutor’s argument is citizenship and the rights afforded to those who have it. Or should I say the restrictions applied to those not so fortunate to have been born into citizenship. For unlike the status of slave which was one that could fluctuate, citizenship was something that one either had or didn’t. Unfortunately for Neaera she was not born with this privilege and this comes back to haunt her in the future. Neaera meets an Athenian citizen named Stephanus and decides to move back to Athens with him and become his wife. This in itself caused a great problem because, as Demosthenes wrote: “Unlike the situation at Rome, however, where freedom brought with it automatic citizenship, freedom for a slave in Greece was hedged about with severe restrictions. A freed slave had no political rights, could not marry a citizen, and had only limited property rights.” (pg.112) Not only does she marry a citizen but they also try to pass off her children as his and give them the full rights of citizenship. These two actions of Neaera’s where considered to be great offenses to the state and where not taken lightly. The resources and infrastructure of these ancient city states of Greece where designed and built to sustain a certain amount of citizens, which meant that the if these states wanted to survive laws had to be put in place to protect the population from exploding. This was done by granting citizenship only to those people whose parents where citizens, allowing no outsiders to become enveloped in the mass of the constituency of a state.
Neaera, the antagonist of our story, has a very difficult life that starts out in slavery and prostitution. As a slave she is bought twice, once by Nicarete who teaches her the prostitution trade and the second time by two of her lovers to become their personal mistress, which I’ll talk about later. After her two lovers decide to marry they wish to give her the opportunity to buy her freedom from them. She calls on past lovers for aid and Phrynion comes to her aide, paying off the rest of her debt. At this time she is technically a free women, though not a citizen, although she has the obligation to Phrynion because he paid her debt, so has she really become a free women after all? The answer is obviously no. Phrynion treats Neaera with no respect and causes Neaera to flee Athens and the mistreatment of Phrynion. Neaera is forced to take her happiness and well being into her own hands because she has no family, or more importantly, no male relatives who would be able to come to her rescue and intimidate Phrynion into changing his abusive ways.
I am a U.S. citizen and have been so for my entire life. I do not see this changing in the future nor do I have fear that it will. There is a security of citizenship in this country that did not exist in ancient Greece. For the status of one’s societal standing was something that could change at the drop of a dime, through war, hard work, or tough times. Through war an entire city could become enslaved, if a family was enduring some difficult financial times the father could decide to sell his children and even his wife into slavery to resolve these difficulties, and through hard work a slave could earn the resources to buy his, or her, freedom from their master. This reality of a lack of permanence created in the ancient Greeks a view of slavery much different from our own. To an American of modern times (at least the ones I know !) the idea of slavery is something of inconceivable cruelty and generally thought of as a permanent state of life. In ancient Greece however, it was not so. Due to this impermanence of slavery, it was viewed as just another facet of life that must be accepted. This acceptance of slavery by the slaves themselves was a shock to me when I first encountered it. An example of this acceptance comes from the opening line of the excerpt, “She was one of seven little girls bought when small children by Nicarete, a freedwomen who had been the slave of Charisius of Elis, and the wife of Charisius’s cook Hippias.”(pg. 111) Nicarete who was a freed slave herself, obviously has no problem owning her own slaves which proves this idea that slavery was just a fact of life, for a freed slave of America’s south would not have had the same mentality to be able to own slaves, when they knew what it is to be one.
Neaera’s profession being what it was meant that her sexuality was a large part of her life. This gives us a very special look into how sex was viewed and some of the accepted norms of the time through this piece. Coming from a perspective such as mine, a member of a sexually conservative society founded upon Puritanical ideals, I found it a bit surprising that Neaera was able to have “worked openly in Corinth as a prostitute and became famous” for it. Obviously, by the statement that she became famous for the work she did, prostitution was something that was socially accepted. The insight that I have gained is that the actual act of having sex was not something that was held as sacred as the act of having children. It was acknowledged that sexual desire is a reality of human existence, but that your wife was not someone with whom all these desires could be fulfilled. A man’s wife was held on a pedestal as something pure while prostitutes, though regarded as an acceptable and necessary part of society, where not held in nearly this high of a regard. This is exhibited when “Lysias did not admit them(prostitutes) to his house, out of respect for his own wife,?, and for his mother, who was somewhat advanced in years and lived in the same house”. Also when the two lovers and owners of Neaera were “being about to get married, they informed her that they did not wish to see the woman who had been their own mistress plying her trade in Corinth nor kept in a brothel”.
As we have seen the life of Neaera was an extremely difficult one, which has given us many insights into the everyday life of ancient Greece. Citizenship was clearly something highly prized in ancient Greece. Even more important than citizenship perhaps was having a family, which is something that Neaera did not have to provide for her financially as well as give her the physical security a woman of the ages needed. This physical security that could be provided by a family was something secure, if one had it, unlike one’s societal status. We have seen that the acceptance of slavery as a part of life was a reality for ancient Greeks that was not questioned. Finally through the lifestyle of Neaera we learned a lot of sexuality in ancient Greece and had insights into how sex could have been viewed as something less sacred, or at least more of a reality that will be dealt with, than it is in our society today.