Frederick Engels
Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State

IV. The Greek Gens

From prehistoric times Greeks and Pelasgians alike, and other peoples of kindred stock, had been organized in the same organic series as the Americans: gens, phratry, tribe, confederacy of tribes. The phratry might be absent, as among the Dorians, and the confederacy of tribes was not necessarily fully developed everywhere as yet; but in every case the gens was the unit. At the time of their entry into history, the Greeks are on the threshold of civilization; between them and the American tribes, of whom we spoke above, lie almost two entire great periods of development, by which the Greeks of the heroic age are ahead of the Iroquois. The gens of the Greeks is therefore no longer the archaic gens of the Iroquois; the impress of group marriage is beginning to be a good deal blurred. Mother-right has given way to father-right; increasing private wealth has thus made its first breach in the gentile constitution. A second breach followed naturally from the first. After the introduction of father-right the property of a rich heiress would have passed to her husband and thus into another gens on her marriage, but the foundation of all gentile law was now violated and in such a case the girl was not only permitted but ordered to marry within the gens, in order that her property should be retained for the gens.

According to Grote's History of Greece, the Athenian gens, in particular, was held together by the following institutions and customs:

1. Common religious rites, and the exclusive privilege of priesthood in honor of a particular god, the supposed ancestral father of the gens, who in this attribute was designated by a special surname.

2. A common burial place (cf. Demosthenes' Eubulides).

3. Mutual right of inheritance.

4. Mutual obligations of help, protection, and assistance in case of violence.

5. Mutual right and obligation to marry within the gens in certain cases, especially for orphan girls and heiresses.

6. Possession, at least in some cases, of common property, with a special archon (head man or president) and treasurer.

Next, several gentes were united in the phratry, but less closely; though here also we find mutual rights and obligations of a similar kind, particularly the common celebration of certain religious ceremonies and the right to avenge the death of a phrator. Similarly, all the phratries of a tribe held regularly recurring religious festivals in common, at which a leader of the tribe (phylobasileus), elected from the nobility (Eupatridai), officiated.

Thus far Grote. And Marx adds:

“In the Greek gens, the savage (e.g. Iroquois) shows through unmistakably.” He becomes still more unmistakable when we investigate further.

For the Greek gens has also the following characteristics:

7. Descent in the male line.

8. Prohibition of marriage within the gens except in the case of heiresses. This exception, and its formulation as an ordinance, prove the old rule to be valid. This is further substantiated by the universally accepted principle that at her marriage the woman renounced the religious rites of her gens and went over to those of her husband, being also inscribed in his phratry. This custom and a famous passage in Diccarchus both show that marriage outside the gens was the rule, and Becker in Charicles directly assumes that nobody might marry within his own gens.

9. The right of adoption into the gens. This was exercised through adoption into the family, but required public formalities and was exceptional.

10. The right to elect chieftains and to depose them. We know that every gens had its archon; but it is nowhere stated that the office was hereditary in certain families. Until the end of barbarism the probability is always against strict heredity, which is quite incompatible with conditions in which rich and poor had completely equal rights within the gens.

Not only Grote, but also Niebuhr, Mommsen and all the other historians of classical antiquity, have come to grief over the gens. Though they correctly noted many of its characteristics, they always took it to be a group of families, thus making it impossible for themselves to understand the nature and origin of the gens. Under the gentile constitution, the family was never an organizational unit, and could not be so, for man and wife necessarily belonged to two different gentes. The whole gens was incorporated within the phratry, and the whole phratry within the tribe; but the family belonged half to the gens of the man and half to the gens of the woman. In public law the state also does not recognize the family; up to this day, the family only exists for private law. And yet all our histories have hitherto started from the absurd assumption, which, since the eighteenth century in particular, has become inviolable, that the monogamous single family, which is hardly older than civilization, is the core around which society and state have gradually crystallized.

Mr. Grote will also please note [Marx throws in] that though the Greeks derive their gentes from mythology, the gentes are older than the mythology which they themselves created with all its gods and demigods.

Morgan prefers to quote Grote because he is not only an impressive but also a trustworthy witness. Grote goes on to say that every Athenian gens had a name derived from its supposed ancestor; that it was the general custom before Solon, and even after Solon, in the absence of a will, for the property of a deceased person to pass to the members of his gens (gennetai), and that in the case of a murder it was the light and the duty, first of the relatives of the murdered man, then of the members of his gens, and lastly of his phratry, to prosecute the criminal before the tribunals: “All that we hear of the most ancient Athenian laws is based upon the gentile and phratric divisions.” (Grote.)

The descent of the gentes from common ancestors has caused the “pedantic philistines,” as Marx calls them, a lot of brain-racking. As they of course declare the common ancestors to be pure myths, they are at an utter loss to explain how the gens originated out of a number of separate and originally quite unrelated families; yet they have to perform this feat in order to explain how the gentes exist at all. So they argue in circles, with floods of words, never getting any further than the statement: the ancestral tree is a fairy tale, but the gens is a reality. And finally Grote declares (interpolations by Marx):

We hear of this genealogy but rarely, because it is only brought before the public in certain cases pre-eminent and venerable. But the humbler gentes had their common rites [this is strange, Mr. Grote!], and common superhuman ancestor and genealogy, as well as the more celebrated [this is most strange, Mr. Grote, among humbler gentes!]: the scheme and ideal basis [my good sir, not ideal, but carnal, germanice fleishlich!] was the same in all. [Quoted by Morgan, op. cit., p. 239. - Ed.]

Marx summarizes Morgan's reply to this as follows:

“The system of consanguinity corresponding to the original form of the gens and the Greeks, like other mortals, once possessed such a gens - preserved the knowledge of the mutual relations between all members of a gens to each other. They learned this, for them decisively important, fact by practice from early childhood. This fell into desuetude with the rise of the monogamian family. The gentile name created a pedigree beside which that of the individual family was insignificant. This name was now to preserve the fact of the common descent of those who bore it; but the lineage of the gens went so far that its members could no longer prove the actual relationship existing between them, except in a limited number of cases through recent common ancestors. The name itself was the evidence of a common descent, and conclusive proof, except in cases of adoptin. The actual denial of all kinship between gentiles ą la Grote and Neibuhr, which transforms teh gens into a purely fictitious, fanciful creation of the brain, is, on the other hand, worthy of ‘ideal’ scientists, that is, of cloistered bookworms. Because concatention of the generations, especially with the incipience of monogamy, is removed into the distance, and the reality of the past seems reflected in mythological fantasy, the good old Philistines concluded, and still conclude, that the fancied genealogy created real gentes!”

As among the Americans, the phratry was a mother gens, split up into several daughter gentes, and uniting them, often tracing them all to a common ancestor. Thus, according to Grote,

“all the contemporary members of the phratry of Hekataeus had a common god for their ancestor at the sixteenth degree.”

Hence, all the gentes of this phratry were literally brother gentes. The phratry still occurs in Homer as a military unit in that famous passage where Nestos advises Agamemnon: Draw up people by tribes and by phratries so that phratry may support phratry, and tribe tribe. The phratry has further the right and the duty of prosecuting for blood-guilt incurred against a phrator; hence in earlier times it also had the obligation of blood revenge. Further, it had common shrines and festivals; in fact the elaboration of the whole Greek mythology out of the traditional old Aryan nature-cult was essentially conditioned by the phratries and gentes, and took place within them. The phratry also had a chief (the phratriarchos) and, according to de Coulanges, assemblies. It could pass binding resolutions, and act as a judicial and administrative body. Even the later state, while it ignored the gens, left certain public offices in the hands of the phratry.

Several related phratries form a tribe. In Attica there were four tribes, each consisting of three phratries, each phratry numbering thirty gentes. Such a rounded symmetry of groups presupposes conscious, purposeful interference with the naturally developed order. As to how, when, and why this occurred,. Greek history is silent; the historical memory of the Greeks only went back to the heroic age.

As the Greeks were crowded together in a relatively small territory, differences of dialect were less developed than in the wide American forests; yet in Greece also it was only tribes of the same main dialect that united in a larger organization, and even Attica, small as it was, had a dialect of its own, which later, through its general use as the language of prose, became the dominant dialect.

In the Homeric poems we find most of the Greek tribes already united into small nations, within which, however, gentes, phratries, and tribes retained their full independence. They already lived in towns fortified with walls; the population increased with the increase of the herds, the extension of agriculture and the beginnings of handicraft. The differences in wealth thus became more pronounced, and with them the aristocratic element within the old primitive democracy. The various small nations waged incessant wars for the possession of the best land and doubtless also for booty; the use of prisoners of war as slaves was already a recognized institution.

The constitution of these tribes and small nations was as follows:

(1) The permanent authority was the council (boule), probably composed originally of all the chiefs of the gentes; later, when their number became too large, of a selection, whose choice provided an opportunity of extending and strengthening the aristocratic element. Dionysius actually speaks of the council in the heroic age as composed of nobles (kratistoi). The ultimate decision in important matters rested with the council. Thus in Ęschylus the council of Thebes makes what is in the circumstances the vital decision to give Eteocles an honorable burial, but to throw out the corpse of Polynices to be devoured by dogs. When the state was established, this council was merged into the senate.

(2) The assembly of the people (agora). We saw among the Iroquois how the people, men and women, stood round the council when it was holding its meetings, intervening in an orderly manner in its deliberations and thus influencing its decisions. Among the Homeric Greeks, this Umstand (standing round), to use an old German legal expression, had already developed into a regular assembly of the people, as was also the case among the Germans in primitive times. It was convened by the council to decide important questions; every man bad the right to speak. The decision was given by a show of hands (AEschylus, The Suppliants) or by acclamation. The decision of the assembly was supreme and final, for, says Schomann, in Griechische Altertumer,

“if the matter was one requiring the co-operation of the people for its execution, Homer does not indicate any means by which the people could be forced to co-operate against their will.”

For at this time, when every adult male member of the tribe was a warrior, there was as yet no public power separate from the people which could have been used against the people. Primitive democracy was still in its full strength, and it is in relation to that fact that the power and the position both of the council and of the basileus must first be judged.

(3) The leader of the army (basileus). Marx makes the following comment:

European scholars, born lackeys most of them, make the basileus into a monarch in the modern sense. Morgan, the Yankee republican, protests. Very ironically, but truly, he says of the oily-tongued Gladstone and his Juventus Mundi:

“Mr. Gladstone, who presents to his readers the Grecian chiefs of the heroic age as kings and princes, with the superadded qualities of gentlemen, is forced to admit that ‘on the whole we seem to have the custom or law of primogeniture sufficiently, but not oversharply defined.’”

[Morgan, op. cit., p. 255 - Ed.]

Mr. Gladstone will probably agree that such an ambiguous law of primogeniture may be “sufficiently, but not oversharply defined” as being just as good as none at all.

In what sense the offices of sachem and chieftain were hereditary among the Iroquois and other Indians, we have already seen. All offices were elective, generally within a gens, and to that extent hereditary to the gens. In the course of time, preference when filling vacancies was given to the nearest gentile relation-brother or sister's son - unless there were reasons for passing him over. The fact that among the Greeks, under father-right, the office of basileus generally passed to the son, or one of the sons, only proves that the probabilities were in favor of the sons succeeding to the office by popular election; it is no proof at all of legal hereditary succession without popular election. All that we have here is the first beginnings among the Iroquois and Greeks of distinct noble families within the gentes and, in the case of the Greeks, the first beginnings also of a future hereditary leadership or monarchy. The probability is, therefore, that among the Greeks the basileus had either to be elected by the people or at least confirmed in his office by the recognized organs of the people, the council or agora, as was the case with the Roman “king” (rex).

In the Iliad, Agamemnon, the ruler of men, does not appear as the supreme king of the Greeks, but as supreme commander of a federal army before a besieged town. It is to this supremacy of command that Odysseus, after disputes had broken out among the Greeks, refers in a famous passage: “Evil is the rule of many; let one be commander,” etc. (The favorite line about the scepter is a later addition.)

Odysseus is here not giving a lecture on a form of government, but demanding obedience to the supreme commander in war. Since they are appearing before Troy only as an army, the proceedings in the agora secure to the Greeks all necessary democracy. When Achilles speaks of presents – that is, the division of the booty – he always leaves the division, not to Agamemnon or any other basileus, but to the “sons of the Achacans,” that is, the people. Such epithets as “descended from Zeus,” “nourished by Zeus,” prove nothing, for every gens is descended from a god, that of the leader of the tribe being already descended from a “superior” god, in this case Zeus. Even those without personal freedom, such as the swineherd Eumaecus and others, are “divine” (dioi and theioi), and that too in the Odyssey, which is much later than the Iliad; and again in the Odyssey the name Heros is given to the herald Mulius as well as to the blind bard Demodocus. Since, in short, council and assembly of the people function together with the basileus, the word basileia, which Greek writers employ to denote the so-called Homeric kingship (chief command in the army being the principal characteristic of the office), only means – military democracy. (Marx.)

In addition to his military functions, the basileus also held those of priest and judge, the latter not clearly defined, the former exercised in his capacity as supreme representative of the tribe or confederacy of tribes. There is never any mention of civil administrative powers; he seems, however, to be a member of the council ex officio. It is there fore quite correct etymologically to translate basileus as king, since king (kuning) is derived from kuni, kunne, and means head of a gens. But the old Greek basileus does not correspond in any way to the present meaning of the word “king.” Thucydides expressly refers to the old basileia as patrike, i.e. derived from gentes, and says it had strictly defined, and therefore limited, functions. And Aristotle says that the basileia of the heroic age was a leadership over free men and that the basileus was military leader, judge and high priest; he thus had no governmental power in the later sense. [1]

Thus in the Greek constitution of the heroic age we see the old gentile order as still a living force. But we also see the beginnings of its disintegration: father-right, with transmission of the property to the children, by which accumulation of wealth within the family was favored and the family itself became a power as against the gens; reaction of the inequality of wealth on the constitution by the formation of the first rudiments of hereditary nobility and monarchy; slavery, at first only of prisoners of war, but already preparing the way for the enslavement of fellow-members of the tribe and even of the gens; the old wars between tribe and tribe already degenerating into systematic pillage by land and sea for the acquisition of cattle, slaves and treasure, and becoming a regular source of wealth; in short, riches praised and respected as the highest good and the old gentile order misused to justify the violent seizure of riches. Only one thing was wanting: an institution which not only secured the newly acquired riches of individuals against the communistic traditions of the gentile order, which not only sanctified the private property formerly so little valued, and declared this sanctification to be the highest purpose of all human society; but an institution which set the seal of general social recognition on each new method of acquiring property and thus amassing wealth at continually increasing speed; an institution which perpetuated, not only this growing cleavage of society into classes, but also the right of the possessing class to exploit the non-possessing, and the rule of the former over the latter.

And this institution came. The state was invented.


[1] Like the Greek basileus, so also the Aztec military chief has been made out to be a modern prince. The reports of the Spaniards, which were at first misinterpretations and exaggerations, and later actual lies, were submitted for the first time to historical criticism by Morgan. He proves that the Mexicans were at the middle stage of barbarism, though more advanced than the New Mexican Pueblo Indians, and that their constitution, so far as it can be recognized in the distorted reports, corresponded to this stage: a confederacy of three tribes, which had subjugated a number of other tribes and exacted tribute from them, and which was governed by a federal council and a federal military leader, out of whom the Spaniards made an “emperor.”

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