Heracles and his concubine Iole depicted on a Corinthian column-krater, circa 600BC. Nguyen, M. (2008). Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.5
Concubinage in Ancient Greece was the practice of keeping a female partner for sexual and domestic purposes outside of the processes and traditions of marriage. Despite the textual evidence confirming their existence, scholars know few details about the particularities of their individual experiences.
Information concerning concubines in Antiquity can be found across a multitude of primary sources. With the interpretations and translations of scholars working in the field of antiquity, one can reconstruct a rough experience for these women who have been overlooked and underserved by recorded history.
The term attributed to a concubine in Ancient Greece was παλλακή, or pallaké (pallakai plural). A pallaké was “any woman living in a more or less permanent union with a man” (Just, 1989, p. 53) that was not given to him through the process of marriage or dowry (Blundell, 1995, p. 148). Their relationship to the man they served would have been inherently sexual, Apollodorus stating that men kept concubines “for attending day-by day-to to the body” (Davidson, 1998, p. 73). However, it is uncertain whether they were solely sexual objects; laws concerning pallakai are often identical to those concerning wives. Draconian law permitted the murder of any man caught committing adultery with another man’s pallaké, just as it did for his wife (Lysias, trans. Lamb, W. 1930). There are also Draconian laws which permit the murder of any man caught committing adultery with “a concubine kept for the production of free children” (Davidson, 1998, p. 98) , which “implies thereby the existence of concubines kept for the production of children who were not” (Davidson, 1998, p.98). Treated similarly legally, and living within the system of the oikos, where wives were responsible for the running of the household, one can assume that pallakai may have been involved to some degree with the domestic tasks delegated to wives.
Life as a pallaké may not have been the worst of fates; individual experiences would have varied largely, and without firsthand accounts available, it cannot be said with any certainty that the life of a pallaké was objectively better than other women’s. That being said, that “[e]ven those who give their womenfolk into pallakia first reach agreements about the benefits to be furnished to the pallakai” (Sealey, 1984, p. 116) would indicate that this position may have afforded some modicum of comfort, when compared to other stations in life for women at the time.
Pallakai are notably comprised of several different statuses of women, ranging from prisoners of war, slaves, metics (Davidson, 1998, p. 98), and citizens too poor to afford a dowry or “engue” (Blundell, 1995, p. 148). This broad level of class association possibly denotes the regularity of this arrangement in Classical Athenian society, both as a means for survival for those willingly entering pallakia, and as a practice among men purchasing women.
“I have received a maiden . . . just as a mariner takes on cargo, a merchandise to wreck my peace of mind. And now we are two, a pair waiting under a single bedspread for one man’s embrace . . . to live with her, sharing the same marriage—what woman could endure it?” (Sophocles, Trachiniae, trans. Sir Richard Jeb, 1892).
In the above passage, Deianira, wife of Heracles, expresses her frustration with the presence of Heracles’ concubine Iole in her romantic and domestic sphere. Though this example is taken from a mythological work, one can infer from the passage the feelings that a wife may have felt towards her husband’s concubine. As there is little primary evidence from the point of view of everyday wives in antiquity, let alone their husbands concubines, it is uncertain how common Deianira’s feelings were among the masses. R. Just (1989) infers from Aristophanes’ Ekklesiazusai, that jealousy or resentment may have been a common facet of these menage à trois dynamics (p. 137). In the comedy, the women who take over the polis decree the ridding of all prostitution, so that they alone may “enjoy the monopoly of their husbands favours” (Just, p. 137). He argues that though the tone of the play is comedic, it is representative of “certain facets of life” (Just, 1989, p. 137).
Society’s views on the keeping of pallakai point to it being a tolerated, yet generally looked down upon, facet of life. In Andocides’ Against Alcibiades, he critiques Alcibiades for keeping a concubine (trans. Maidment, 1968):
“Then, after obtaining a dowry such as no Greek had ever obtained before, he behaved in so profligate a fashion, bringing mistresses, slave and free, into the bridal house, that he drove his wife, who was a decent woman, to present herself before the Archon, as she was legally entitled to do, and divorce him.”
That Alcibiades behaviour is called “profligate” is interesting, considering the practice was not an uncommon one. Further interpretations can be made when considering scholar J. Roy’s (1997) work “An Alternative Sexual Morality for Classical Athens”, who therein notes that “[t]he status of many pallakai must . . . have been low . . . seen as of distinctly lower status than a lawfully married wife” (p. 17). R. Just (1989) argues that disapproval for the keeping of pallakai would have stemmed from an interest in a “preservation of the social system . . . in which a breakdown of regularly conducted marriage would threaten the existence of the community itself” (p. 42). Whether the majority of societal judgement fell upon the man or the pallaké herself is uncertain, but it would seem that it was not an encouraged practice, and rather a tolerated one.
Andocides. Against Alcibiades, trans. Maidment, K. (1968). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0027.tlg004.perseus-eng1:14
Blundell, S. (1995). Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Davidson, J. N. (1998). Courtesans and Fishcakes. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Just, R. (1989). Women in Athenian Law and Life. New York: Routledge.
Lysias. Lysias, trans. Lamb, W. (1930). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0540.tlg001.perseus-eng1:31
Nguyen, M. (Photographer). (2008). Heracles and his concubine Iole depicted on a Corinthian column-krater, circa 600BC. Retrieved from https://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eurytios_Krater_Louvre_E635_n3.jpg
Sealey, R. (1984). “On Lawful Concubinage in Athens.” Classical Antiquity, 3. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/25010809
Sophocles, Trachiniae, trans. Jeb, Sir R. (1892). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library http://data.perseus.org/citations/ urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0014.tlg059.perseus-eng1:122