(Necessary) Bigamy in Classical Athens? Socrates’ Two Wives

A few years back, when I was collecting some anecdotes about Socrates’ wife Xanthippê, I willfully ignored the Suda’s comments on his second wife:

“And Socrates took home two wives: he had a son Lamprokles from Xanthippê and two sons with Myrto the daughter of Aristeides the just, Sophroniskos and Menedêmos or Menexenos, as some believe.”

καὶ γαμεταῖς δὲ συνῴκησε δύο, Ξανθίππῃ, ἀφ’ ἧς ἔσχεν υἱὸν Λαμπροκλέα·καὶ δευτέρᾳ Μυρτοῖ, τῇ ᾿Αριστείδου τοῦ δικαίου θυγατρί, ἐξ ἧς ἐγένετο Σωφρονίσκος καὶ Μενέδημος ἢ Μενέξενος, ὥς τισι δοκεῖ.

This detail doesn’t fit the basic narrative of an impoverished philosopher with a nagging wife. There is an explanation in the tradition found in Diogenes Laertius’, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 2.26

“Aristotle records that Socrates had two wives. The first was Xanthippe who gave him a son, Lamprokles. The second was Myrto, who was the daughter of Aristeides the Just, whom he married without a dowry. She gave him two sons, Sophroniskos and Menexenos. Others report that he married Myrto second. And some—including Satyros and Hieronymous of Rhodes— claim that he married both at the same time. (They assert that because the Athenians had a lack of men and wanted to increase their number, they voted that citizen may marry one woman and have children with another. This is what Socrates did.)”

Φησὶ δ’ ᾿Αριστοτέλης (Rose 93) δύο γυναῖκας αὐτὸν ἀγαγέσθαι· προτέραν μὲν Ξανθίππην, ἐξ ἧς αὐτῷ γενέσθαι Λαμπροκλέα· δευτέραν δὲ Μυρτώ, τὴν ᾿Αριστείδου τοῦ δικαίου θυγατέρα, ἣν καὶ ἄπροικον λαβεῖν, ἐξ ἧς γενέσθαι Σωφρονίσκον καὶ Μενέξενον. οἱ δὲ προτέραν γῆμαι τὴν Μυρτώ φασιν· ἔνιοι δὲ καὶ ἀμφοτέρας ἔχειν ὁμοῦ, ὧν ἐστι Σάτυρός τε (FHG iii. 163) καὶ ῾Ιερώνυμος ὁ῾Ρόδιος (Hiller, xxvi. 3). φασὶ γὰρ βουληθέντας ᾿Αθηναίους διὰ τὸ λειπανδρεῖν συναυξῆσαι τὸ πλῆθος, ψηφίσασθαι γαμεῖν μὲν ἀστὴν μίαν, παιδοποιεῖσθαι δὲ καὶ ἐξ ἑτέρας· ὅθεν τοῦτο ποιῆσαι καὶ Σωκράτην.

Most of the anecdotes in Diogenes’ life speak of Xanthippe and not Myrto. Athenaeus repeats the detail (13.556a) and notes that if it were true, it probably would have been mentioned by the comic poets. But are there other records of legalized polygamy in classical Greece?

And what about the sons? Regardless of the mother, the number accords with what Plato has Socrates say in the Apology (34d) “I have three sons, Athenians, one an adolescent and two still children….” (μοί εἰσι καὶ ὑεῖς γε, ὦ ἄνδρες ᾿Αθηναῖοι, τρεῖς, εἷς μὲν μειράκιον ἤδη, δύο δὲ παιδία·)

A face only (two) women could love….

Strabo (6.3.3) mentions something similar among the Spartans during their conflict with the Messenians. The Spartans are also said to have a concern about their lack of population at 8.5.4). Apart from some fragmentary historians, however, there’s not much evidence for the laws. Our good friend and contributor the Fabulous Festus pointed me to a Roman account:

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 15.20

[Euripides] is reported to have hated women in a rather serious way, either because he despised the company of women by nature or because he had two wives at the same time (which was the law made by Athenian decree) and was worn down by his marriages. Aristophanes also memorializes his hatred in the first version of the Thesmophoriazusae:

Now, then, I address and advise all women
To punish this man for many reasons:
He has accosted us with bitter evils,
This man raised on a garden’s bitter harvest.

And Alexander the Aitolian composed these lines about Euripides:

The strident student of strong Anaxagoras, the mirth-hater,
Addressed me and never got used to making jokes while drinking.
But what he wrote, honey or a Siren could have made.”

6 Mulieres fere omnes in maiorem modum exosus fuisse dicitur, sive quod natura abhorruit a mulierum coetu sive quod duas simul uxores habuerat, cum id decreto ab Atheniensibus facto ius esset, quarum matrimonii pertaedebat. 7 Eius odii in mulieres Aristophanes quoque meminit en tais proterais Thesmophoriazousais in his versibus:

Νῦν οὖν ἁπάσαισιν παραινῶ καὶ λέγω
τοῦτον κολάσαι τὸν ἄνδρα πολλῶν οὕνεκα·
ἄγρια γὰρ ἡμᾶς, ὦ γυναῖκες, δρᾷ κακά,
ἅτ’ ἐν ἀγρίοισι τοῖς λαχάνοις αὐτὸς τραφείς.

8 Alexander autem Aetolus hos de Euripide versus composuit:

Ὁ δ᾽ Ἀναξαγόρου τρόφιμος χαιου στρίφνος μὲν ἔμοιγε προσειπεῖν
καὶ μισογελος καὶ τοθαζειν οὐδὲ παρ᾽ οἶνον μεμαθεκως,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ τι γράψαι, τοῦτ᾽ ἂν μέλιτος καὶ Σειρηνον ἐτετεύχει.

2 thoughts on “(Necessary) Bigamy in Classical Athens? Socrates’ Two Wives

  1. Let’s see. Aristides the Just died in 468 BC, according to Wikipedia. The Apology is set in 399 BC. Any daughter of Aristides would be at least 69 years old in 399 BC, and probably much older. Definitely too old to be the mother of a meirakion or a pais in 399..

    At best, Myrto (if she existed) was a great-granddaughter of Aristides. I suspect that Aristides is just dragged in because he was another great noble and good Athenian done in by the demos.

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