Imagining Illegitimacy in Classical Greek Literature


The question of paternity (with which we started in the introduction) is deeply bound up with the association of deception with nothoi. For just as the son may ask which man is his father, the father can ask whether this is really his son. Ariston in Herodotus’ account uses biology (wonderfully rendered by the image of his counting months on his fingers) as his guide for determining whether the child his wife claims is his really is, but his wife explains that biology is not always consistent. Ajax and Teucer search for ways to prove that they are true sons of Telamon, and Ajax gauges his son’s reactions to him to test whether Eurysakes is, in turn, truly his. Hippolytos, too, longs for recognition as his father’s son, and Theseus wishes for an easy outward mark to tell a true philos. Counting months and the physical resemblance of father and child so prized in Hesiod (Works and Days 235) turn out to be unreliable signifiers of legitimacy. The possible deception by the wife and mother, another problem connected to their potentially “wild” sexuality, is ascribed also to the child, who is suspect in all things once he is suspect in birth. Both Teucer and Hippolytos arewomen accused of attempting to take what is not theirs through nefarious means.

Nothoi are represented as particularly identified with their mothers. Some names given to illegitimate sons, such as those of Teucer, Eudoros, Hippolytos, and the Partheniai of Sparta, seem to reflect qualities of their mothers, and so their very names link these nothoi to their mothers. We have also seen that nothoi are imagined to inhabit the same physical space as their mothers. This characteristic imparts to them a lack of public visibility and attributes to them the same lack of agency as that of women and young children.

Thus, significantly, nothoi can be imagined to remain perpetually underage, never making the transition to manhood. Related to this notion of a lack of manhood are other statuses that are secondary to the citizen: nothoi can be compared to slaves and foreigners, for example, in addition to women and children. These associations in turn link the lack of manhood to a lack of manly virtue: in other words, nothoi are cowards. This correspondence was seen in the version of the narrative of the Partheniai in which their fathers were Spartan men who refused to go to war, and the accusation of cowardice is seen as well in discourses regarding the figure of the archer as nothos in characters such as Teucer, Herakles, and perhaps also Paris.

Achieving manhood is concomitant with becoming a citizen, and the portrayal of nothoi as boys who do not grow up, such as Hippolytos, reveals the conflation of citizen status and the definition of manhood. The exclusion of nothoi from the company of men, the polis, in these narratives prompts the question of the potential value of these bastards. Hippolytos, for example, counts himself first among men in virtue, but must take second place in the public realm. In other narratives, such as Euripides’ Ion and Andromache, the nothos son is the only one who can carry on the illustrious lineages of heroes such as Erechtheus and Peleus. And in the Ion, it is not only the household but the city as well that is saved by a nothos.

Ion’s reincorporation into both household and city is an example of how legitimization can occur within narratives (although not without questions and problems remaining). Another pattern of legitimization is that of colonization, as we saw in the narratives of Teucer as the founder of a New Salamis on Cyprus and of the Partheniai as founders of Tarentum. Marriage and colonization are reciprocal metaphors, and the founding of a new city provides the opportunity for legitimacy, since the previously illegitimate are now the original citizens of the polis. Heroic nothoi like Perseus and Herakles—those sons of gods whose legitimacy is questioned only in a civic context—can prove themselves to be true sons of immortals in the exploits their narratives relate. For Hippolytos, the recognition by his father of the proof of his legitimacy (writ large) comes at the expense of his life, but he becomes an agent of legitimacy in his cult.

As I suggested in the introduction, in the figure of the nothos ideas about women, sexual reproduction, and marriage converge with those about citizenship and the composition of the citizen body. The metaphors of illegitimacy, once decoded, can provide access to these ideas and their relationship to one another. Many of the metaphors taken together point to the social ideology of exclusive citizenship, which in turn can produce further metaphors, as we saw in the multiple connections between noncitizens, such as the equation between nothoi and archers, slaves, and foreigners. The concept of illegitimacy is thus shaped by such metaphors into an increasingly outsider status. The polis may claim priority in the final decision regarding who should be included in the citizenry, as we have seen with the metaphor of the counterfeit coin, but it relies on the oikos to govern the sexual relationships of women, leading to further tensions in the definitions of legitimacy. Instead of trying to mine the poetry for nuggets of facts regarding the reality of individual nothoi, I would assert the value of such insights into the concept of illegitimacy itself.


[ back ] 1. Reeder 1995.267 notes that the “ancient sources leave little doubt that Danaë was responsive to Zeus’s overture.”