Friday, December 13, 2019


Sarah C. Humphreys, Kinship in Ancient Athens: An Anthropological Analysis (2 vols.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xxi, 1457. ISBN 9780198788256; 9780198788263. $365.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, University of St Andrews (

Version at BMCR home site


The first chapter of Marshall Sahlins' brilliant little book What Kinship Is – and Is Not is titled Culture and the second, on what kinship is not, is titled Biology. Sahlins is one of a long line of anthropologists who have tried to force us to look beyond the phenomenon of the nuclear family. His proposal is that we should see kinship as mutuality of being; 'kinfolk are persons who participate intrinsically in each others' existence; they are members of one another.' Kinship is thicker than blood, writes Sahlins; and it rests between us, not, as endless familial charts have pretended, in the egocentric conception that privileges (often in an unequally gendered way) the act of conception. 'One may be kin to another by being born on the same day (Inuit), by following the same tabus (Araweté), by surviving a trial at sea (Truk) or on the ice (Inuit), even by mutually suffering from ringworm (Kaluli).'1

In her disarming preface to the masterpiece under review, Sally Humphreys explains the formation of Kinship in Ancient Athens. It started on a boat trip around the Aegean.2 This led to thinking about ancient seafaring and economy, to economic anthropology, then kinship. Humphreys recognised the gap between her fellow ancient historians, stuck in 19th-century models (amongst them Fustel de Coulanges), and the new work of anthropology. 'I formed the idea of a new "Cité antique"'; this led to three lectures at Chicago; Edward Shils suggested Humphreys write something longer. And so I have.

The result is 1500 pages of generous size to accommodate around 200 family tables. The selective index of inscriptions refers to about 3500 individual texts. The bibliography is 140 pages long. Across 32 chapters, Humphreys covers (almost) every phase of human life in Attica from birth to death and commemoration, from the midwife to the pallbearer. She addresses every conceivable relationship between humans, from the erotic to the political, from the military to the economic. Reading Kinship, perhaps appropriately, is like crossing an unpredictable and stormy sea. Some of the footnotes are like hidden reefs, jagged with information. Occasionally, and not entirely explicably, the main text reduces to small size font. One of the six parts has a handy one-page summary, which is a welcome but isolated glimpse of a coastline. Single names pop up in the text as references rather than in footnotes from time to time as unexpected eddies, and a list of standard anthropological abbreviations for kinship will be a handy compass when one comes across FBSs and MZSs. Finally, one hits Part Six, a 450-page trade wind that sweeps determinedly across every epigraphically attested deme of Attica. It is at times utterly exhilarating, and sometimes rather exhausting, but what is the harbour toward which we are sailing?

This is not quite as easy to answer as it perhaps should be. Rather self-deprecatingly, Humphreys speaks of her 'spadework on data.' That there is in abundance. Yet there is neither a clear introduction nor any conclusion that spells out what we should make of it all.

We start with a long chapter on Drakon and Solon. This turns out to be fundamental. One subtext of this book is a thesis on the emergence of the polis. Humphreys is against the evolution from strict and invariable models of the family, from which the individual was liberated by the polis. So when Drakon and Solon start regulating the family, they are to an extent creating kinship. 'In Drakon's law, for the first time, rights and obligations were formally attached in writing to degrees of relationship instead of being distributed among more fluid coalitions as they crystallized out in each situation' (17). Solon integrated phratry membership into the developing conception of citizenship (25). The overall argument about the way Solon intervened in the affairs of the oikos is that he gave shape and form to principles that probably existed to a degree in customary and popular justice. And Humphreys hints that it is law, and lawmakers, that are some of the beneficiaries, to the detriment—to an extent—of the elite of the time. So kinship as it develops is a tool of increasing relevance, rather than a given or a goal.

The reader who is looking for a diachronic story must now skip nearly 500 pages, to the beginning of Volume Two, where Humphreys picks up the narrative thread with Cleisthenes. Humphreys returns again to the emergence of the polis; the complex overlapping groups do not nest into each other, and are not necessarily of equal importance. Systematization comes late (sixth century), so this means that when one looks at phratries and genê, one has to strip out any later theory and try to think through what each is doing. For Humphreys, phratry organization is the way that 'the concepts of Athenianhood and citizenship were (eventually) mapped onto territory.' Solonian legislation allowed non-Eupatrids to hold office and vote through the phratries. The relationship between phratries and demes is awkward, and Humphreys sees this most clearly through religion. In some instances demes take over phratry cults; in others phratries retain a significant role. The land and cult-based nature of the phratry militated against its vitality during the Peloponnesian War and the backlash after the oligarchic coup. As time went on, 'the rollicking, country-fair milieu of the phratry began to drift in the direction of the sect or chapel,' i.e, thiasoi and orgeônes (624). The genos starts from an important role as a privileged religious grouping; it is limited over time, repudiated by many, especially in the age of the sophists, and revived as a sort of nostalgia. Tribes, as artificial constructions, were always more administrative than vital. Finally the demes are in some instances early, various in form, size, and history. Some become politically more experienced and sophisticated, especially as a result of the innovations of the fifth century BC; others fade, though only the garrison demes are particularly significant after 300 BC. The detailed evidence then follows.

What did we miss by jumping over the rest of Volume One?

If the surrounding chapters are predominantly about law, structure and politics, the intervening chapters are about life and experience. Humphreys speaks of the distinction between relationships and corporate groups. Starting with adoption, guardianship, marriage, economic aspects and dispute settlement, Humphreys moves on to rituals (naming, rites of passage, funerals, commemoration, festivals), and edges then into informal and then formal political activity.

What characterizes these sections is the depth of detail. Others have described much of this, but the comprehensiveness with which Humphreys illustrates each section is awe-inspiring. There cannot be many familial relationships that we can detect in text or epigraphy that are not here somewhere. (In passing, the absence of a comprehensive index of names means that using the online version will be essential, and it is consequently unfortunate that the OUP interface is relatively clunky.) If the detail is at times precise ('Hipponikos III son of Kallias III of Alopeke married his FZD, daughter of the famous Alkibiades,' 126), there are also many moments of drama, humour, sadness. All human life really is here, from guardianship gone wrong, to unmarried brothers living together, to families of stonemasons, to witness statements, to disputed wills, to boring family dinners. Humphreys can have the most delightful turn of phrase, and excels in empathy for those she describes. For such a vast and profound work of scholarship, it offers at times the guilty pleasures of a family saga novel or soap opera; it is the more generously conceived, upstairs downstairs, full colour version of Athenian Propertied Families and will be as essential.

But what kind of book is this? Is this simply a social history with an immense archival underpinning, a kind of great annales-style run through Attic history? What makes this about kinship, or even, what kind of kinship is it about?

Even if it were archival social history alone, that would be in itself immensely valuable. Take the business of names. Aided by the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names of course, Humphreys has a lot of data. It turns out that the Greek system of naming free-born men is pretty stable and offers transparency as to civic status. The bureaucracy of naming is not inconsiderable and extends to pinakes or identity cards for jurors, for instance. Names reinforce social messages. Slaves and women have less stable, less structural names. There are conventions relating to naming a first-born son after his paternal grandfather, and then adjusting if that child dies young, but maternal grandfathers could be chosen, and we even have rare instances where someone is named after the husbands of their paternal aunts (FZH). The fifth century sees some programmatic names, and a few examples even for women. These are mostly connected with priestly function —Themistocles' use of geographic names, Italia, Asia and so on, is exceptional. For the most part, women's names have no structural significance.

Two factors stand out; first, the repetition of family names tends towards the 'remaking' of the family. Second, the high level of semanticization (Greek names usually mean something) led to a social stratification to begin with, and then aspirant emulation over time. In conclusion, Humphreys notes, 'to name a child was an act of communication.' It speaks to the nearest kin, but the name could be decoded by a wider group, and (although this seems rare) if the connections were sufficiently public, could allude to a wider range of familial achievement.

That word communication is critical. In her preface, Humphreys acknowledges that Kinship is heavily influenced by the scholarship of the environment of the 1980s. By that I take it that Humphreys means the huge impact of Bourriot and Roussel, and the entrance of longue durée approaches into classical studies. One figure who is missing is therefore Latour, and it is clear that in the peer review process there was criticism that Humphreys did not make use of network theory. The figure Humphreys volunteers is Luhmann, and his work on communication systems.

It is surprising to read Humphreys's view that no-one has made use of Latour's work for ancient societies, but it is true that we have been better at talking about networks than actor-networks.3 What then would this book look like if it was Latourian? Network theory would, perhaps, produce different sorts of diagrams, but actor-network theory would be discursive and descriptive, which is what we find here. Perhaps the most significant issues would be what kinds of objects or materiality would participate in a revised account, and how Humphreys would incorporate the notion that actors build and recursively refine and sustain their networks, or fail to. Humphreys's history I think is entirely consonant with the emergent sense that aristocracy is performative and judged, that community is critical, even if its modes of expression are limited, that coercion in small-scale societies is not easy. That looks somewhat Latourian to me.

The other figure in Humphreys's auto-criticism is perhaps more salient. Reference to the theoretical systemizing that Luhmann developed may reflect Humphreys's awareness of a failure to be explicit about the context within which Athenian kinship operated. Humphreys is intellectually closer to Sahlins' cultural model, I think, but the analysis pulls in different directions. There is a tension between evidence and interpretation. So Humphreys states that childlessness is social not biological, but then is empathetic towards individual circumstances. In Athenian society, put another way, you do not become brothers because you share a ringworm infection but through recognisable family connections, but contingency remains fundamental to how much and when you feel the closeness of your kin. Humphreys's evidence makes Athens look like us, though it is not clear that Humphreys wants it to.

Luhmann forces us to ask what is being communicated by kinship, but also what is it about kinship that characterizes and differentiates that communication? It would appear that Humphreys is claiming that Athenians communicate social position through selective and elective communicative strategies that include kinship. Humphreys makes it clear that kinship matters, but variably, inconsistently and selectively. That it is communicative is clear, but it seems to me that even in the sometimes strikingly modern-looking familial behaviours outlined here, it is some level of mutuality of being that is communicated and, largely, desired. However, one very Luhmannian aspect is the interpenetration of subsystems. Luhmann notes that 'the situation of the family changes if other corporate subsystems emerge in the surrounding society.'4 His inspiration was Durkheim; here Humphreys would find the inherent evolutionism problematic but retain the notion of how the different expressions of kinship communicate with each other and internally. Less obvious to me is how Luhmann might help Humphreys explore the gendered nature of communicative kinship, which she has treated rather brilliantly elsewhere.5

By comparison with the rather implicit theoretical framework, the quasi-ethnographic details of family battles laid out in the law-court speeches and the recovery of tight family relationships are far less abstract. Take as a simple example the reconstruction of what we know of the deme Aigilia (1195-6). Humphreys is able to reconstruct a potential family relationship between descendants of the family of Meixonides, whose son, Timosthenes, although not a deme resident, and his sons set up a statue after victory as chorêgoi in the Rural Dionysia. There is a family tomb in the Kerameikos that seems to group descendants of this family with the descendants of Soinautides, from Aigilia.6 The most prominent member of the deme in the fourth century is Klearchos II, who is an example of the son of someone adopted into the deme (88), who returned to their deme but left their son in the adoptive family. Klearchos, who may have shown off his filial piety to his real father, Nausikles, through a major monument in the Kerameikos, ends up with two inheritances, some of the money coming from mining interests, which is useful because he has to pay off Nausikles' debts as a trierarch.

At an abstract level one can see how much performative communication is going on, as well as individual choices (somebody chooses to let a wife's brother be buried in the same complex as the wife and all her husband's family, for instance). The expressions of identity are manifold, even for the same individual. The few examples I have given can only hint at the sheer richness of Humphreys's ethnography of Attica.

This, finally, begs the question of how widely one should draw the circle of what Humphreys means by kinship. As far as I can see, Humphreys never defines kinship. That might be strategic. Kinship is performed and communicated. In response to an earlier question, it may be variably differentiated from other systemic communication, but it would be fascinating to know how Humphreys would answer the question as to where and in what ways the bond of kinship stops and the bond of shared citizenship starts. What Drakon and Solon do is to produce more precise versions of kinship for purposes of polis cohesion, but how much or little kinship an Athenian displayed depended on personal circumstance and varied over time. Here we circle back to Sahlins. Blood is the least of it.


1.   M. Sahlins, What Kinship Is – and Is Not, Chicago, 2013, quotations at ix and 68. Kinship makes no reference to Sahlins.
2.   See P. Minney, Crab's Odyssey: Malta to Istanbul in an Open Boat, Taniwha Press, UK, 2016; the blurb claims that it is about 'two ordinary second year students' which sets the bar for the rest of us rather high.
3.   B. Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory; Humphreys prefers B. Latour, P. Weibel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.
4.   N. Luhmann, Social Systems, Stanford, 1995, 190. I confess I cannot see how Humphreys's approach permits Luhmann's notion of autopoietic autonomous subsystems.
5.   S. C. Humphreys, The Family, Women and Death: Comparative Studies, London 1983 is the obvious starting point. Our volume has a fascinating excursion on how to read the story of the Danaidae in Aeschylus' Suppliants as a negative parable for epikleric marriage, 114-16. Generally the agency that is afforded to women is limited; a focus on maternity, which is here largely absent, might have given a very different account. See among the increasing number of works on this subject, G. Pedrucci, Maternità e allattamenti nel mondo greco e romano. Un percorso fra scienza delle religioni e studi sulla maternità, Rome, 2018.
6.   The family is reconstructed slightly differently from Humphreys's original thoughts in 'Family Tombs and Tomb Cult in Ancient Athens: Tradition or Traditionalism?' JHS 100 (1980) 96-126 at 119.

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