On the Murder of Eratosthenes

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Eratosthenes

Euphiletus’s speech was directed towards the Athenian court in an effort to sway its jurors into acknowledging his crime as a lesser crime than was committed by his victim. He states that he was pushed to kill in his attempt to defend the honor of his wife and home. The description of the treatment of his wife and his pleas for Athenian justice in his defense speech reveal aspects of domestic life and public justice in ancient Athens.

To catch an adulterer

From the account Euphiletus gives, one can see that he must have belonged to a higher social class in Athens. He mentions that his house is made up of two floors, with the women residing on the top floor and the men on the bottom. The family must have been fairly well off to have the servants and maids Euphiletus mentions in his story, as well as the loyal friends willing to come with him to catch Eratosthenes and his wife committing adultery.

He knew Athenian law well. Evidence of this comes from his description of how the Athenian people should view his crime as one of stopping people from transgressing against their neighbors. He expected the Athenians to view him as a good citizen carrying out the laws of the city: “For I am now risking the loss of life, property and all else that I have, because I obeyed the city’s laws.” As a man with some influence among his neighbors, Euphiletus felt he could make such a claim.

Athenian Women

Another valuable aspect of the text is found in how it presents women in Athenian society. From the story, a wife seemed more of an object for pleasure until she bore children. Euphiletus only trusted his wife after their first child was born. Lysias recorded him saying, “…thence-forward I began to trust her, and placed all my affairs in her hands, presuming that we were now in perfect intimacy.”

From the quote it appears he also entrusted to her various tasks dealing with his own personal work. Yet, the idea of the women being confined mainly to the house is evident in the text with Euphiletus’s references of going to the country often and his wife being home with the child. He proudly marked the cleverness, tidiness and frugality of his wife as a housekeeper- characteristics of a good Athenian wife.

It is interesting that as Euphiletus describes the atrocious crime his victim committed, he does not blame his wife. He makes her a victim when he accuses Eratosthenes of, “committing this foul offence against my wife and children.” Perhaps he was attempting to protect her from Athenian laws against an adulterous wife. So, he portrayed Eratosthenes as a debaucher of women.

The basics of the story- affairs, jealousy, and murder- could easily be attributed to the world of today. Yet, parts of the defense are unique to ancient Greece. Euphiletus’s denial at the accusation of Eratosthenes having taken refuge at his hearth and the implications if he had killed him under such conditions is particular to ancient Athens. The rounding of friends and neighbors to catch the lover of one’s spouse in the very act is another difference.

Ancient Greece Social Structure

Solely looking at this document, one would get a rather troubled picture of ancient Athens at the end of the fifth century B.C.E. But a decent understanding can be reached from the text of the relationships between husbands and wives, masters and servants, and Athenian citizens and the legal system.

Despite its valuable insights into ancient Athenian society, the document presents only the defense’s case. Not having the evidence of the prosecution, the reader must be cautious in evaluating how truthful the story is, remembering Euphiletus was trying to present himself as innocent and more of a victim than the man he murdered. He claimed to have killed his wife’s lover for the good of the city.

However, his account of what transpired seemed very calculated. His use of the servant to catch the lovers reveals master -servant relationships and the possibility of manipulation in such relationships. He left out any mention of his relationship with his wife after he killed Eratosthenes. He seemed too anxious to portray his crime as done for the welfare of Athens- to protect against others thinking they could get away with dishonoring their neighbors.

Euphiletus stood against the Athenian judicial system to proclaim that he believed he was in the right, but that the laws of the city would condemn him for putting an end to the man who brought dishonor to his house. The text of his defense concludes. There is no description of what the verdict was and the reader is left wondering what actually happened to Eratosthenes and what sentence the Athenians chose for Euphiletus. The account of his defense, nevertheless, is rich with insight into Athenian social hierarchy, gender roles and the judicial system in Greek culture.

Sources:

  1. Lysias, “On the Murder of Eratosthenes: A Husband’s Defense.”
  2. Documents in Western Civilization. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2009.
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