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AJ Johnson

Ms. Noyce

English 9

7 December 2017

Expectations of Loyalty in Ancient Greece

The concept of loyalty has been around as long as humans have had lifelong partners. Loyalty

standards state what a person can do while still being considered committed to their partner. These

standards may differ by time period, age, and most importantly, gender. Loyalty’s definition is ever-

changing, and so are the expectations surrounding what it means to be loyal. The Odyssey by Homer

provides insight for what it means to be loyal, and how those traits differed between male and female

expectations. There was a large double-standard surrounding the expectations of a loyal husband to

that of a loyal wife in ancient Greece. A husband’s loyalty was mental, and based of his belief of being

loyal and included the concept that he could only be with another partner in the day time. A wife’s

loyalty expectations were stricter and based on physical actions or reactions to situations which another

man or woman came into the picture.

The standards of loyalty for men in ancient Greece were that a man had to believe he still loved

his wife, and he could not be with anyone during the day hours. The first scene which Odysseus is

present is him on Calypso’s island Ogygia. It states that “he had grown tired of Calypso… though he was

forced to sleep with her in the cave at night” (Homer 55). Odysseus was on the island for around 8 years,

which means he spent countless nights spent sleeping with the goddess. However, Homer does not

write him as a slime ball character, nor is he said to be a cheater. This is because he only sleeps by her

side in the nighttime and stays on the shore to weep during the day. A husband did not have to spend
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every moment thinking about their wives, it was more important that they may do it in the day.

Furthermore, the fact that he had grown tired of her and longed to go back to Penelope further

solidifies the mental attachment that had to be present for a man to be loyal. One to two years after

leaving the Trojan War, Odysseus and his crew find themselves on the island of the sorceress Circe.

Odysseus states, “So she swore at once as I told her, and when she had completed her oath then I went

to bed with her” (Homer 109). For a man, sleeping with women as a way to get what they need from

them, rather it is their crew turned human again, in the specific case of Circe, or protection on an island,

in the instance of Calypso, was normal. Once Circe made the oath to turn the crew back, Odysseus laid

with her as his side of the deal. After this encounter, he stays with her for another whole year. Based on

this knowledge, it can be said that a man may still be considered loyal, even after sleeping with another

woman. The lack of judgement from both the characters and Homer towards Odysseus is further

evidence of this. Women however, had very different expectations for their loyalty.

The expectations for a woman to be loyal in ancient Greece were that she must not be with any

other man, and while her husband was away she must always be weeping. In a conversation with his

son, Odysseus asks if Penelope has been faithful, to which it is stated by their son that “she does nothing

but lament in your absence, giving hope and sending encouraging messaged to every one of them, but

meaning that very opposite of what she says” (Homer 143). Penelope continues to trick her suitors for

three years after they arrive by the hundreds to marry her. This reinforces that for a woman to be loyal

they must not lie with any man. Being with another man was taboo and discouraged; any woman who

wanted respect had to stay faithful. Penelope’s refusal to give into the suitors is expected by Odysseus,

as he is pleased with his sons answer. If she were to act any other way, Odysseus would not have seen

her as faithful. Upon Odysseus’s return, in an effort to drown the sounds of dying suitors, wedding music

is played to fool the villagers so they may escape. One peasant hears the music, stating, “I suppose the

Queen is getting married at last. She ought to be ashamed of herself for not continuing to protect her
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husband’s property until he comes home” (Homer 236). Odysseus has been gone now for about twenty

years, though it is still expected that Penelope watch over what is his in case he would return. No

villager stands up to disagree with them, meaning that they all either assume that he is alive and will

return home, or thought he was dead and still expected for Penelope to stay in his house and not

remarry. Both ways, there is no chance that Penelope would escape judgement-free from the villagers if

she were to be with a suitor. The ancient Greeks believed that women could have no property, only look

after what the men in the family owned. This was one of a woman’s duties to their husbands. Re-

marrying would mean that she had abandoned the duty of women in ancient Greece. It would also

prove her to have been unfaithful, as women were not allowed to leave their husbands.

The double-standard of loyalty in ancient Greek society can be further illustrated by the

treatment of women when they are seen as not being loyal, as well as the different reactions to the

exact same concept, but when committed by a man. Odysseus slept with at least two women while on

his journey, both multiple instances spanning more than a year each. It is revealed by Odysseus’s

mother what Penelope has been doing in that time frame, when she says, “She is still at the house…

grieving and breaking her heart and doing nothing but weep, both night and day continually” (Homer

166). The statement that she had been crying at all times of day means that it was important that a wife

was not with another man at any time of the day, no matter what. Women were expected to cry and

that was it. If Penelope had done the things that Odysseus had done on his journey, she would be

shunned like the protagonist in The Scarlet Letter, or maybe even killed. But, in the instance where it is a

man committing the adultery, rather it was expected from a man with the rank of Odysseus. Further

evidence of the Grecian loyalty double standard is apparent during Odysseus’s visit to the underworld,

where his old friend Agamemnon states, “Be sure, therefore… and not be too friendly even with your

own wife… tell her part only” (Homer 122). As someone who had already slept with multiple women,

and subsequently cheated on their wife, it is odd that Odysseus would take this advice. A man who by
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our standards had already been unfaithful could still be wary of their wives loyalty in ancient Greece.

This shows the mentality of men in Greece, and how important female loyalty really was to their society.

A woman never had any excuse for cheating, and based on this passage a woman who chose to be

unfaithful would give other women a bad name. After the deaths of the suitors, Telemachus, Penelope

and Odysseus’s son, states, “I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me

and my mother, and used to lie with the suitors” (Homer 230). The loyalty expectations for a woman

reach so far, they may be killed for sleeping with men that their employers do not like, or men known to

be involved in someone else. . The maids were forced to lie with the suitors, and as such, had to be killed

because they were not pure. When Odysseus is ‘forced’ to sleep Calypso, he was not punished by death,

or at all, further showing the expectation of feminine loyalty to be compared to that of a man.

The standards of loyalty in ancient Greece as illustrated by Homer’s Odyssey were quite skewed

for men and women. A male’s loyalty had lax rules and was based on the honor of the man himself, and

physical rules of loyalty applied for only daytime. The loyalty expectations of a wife were more set in

stone, based on physical observation and emotional dependency on their husbands at all times. The

double- standard which existed in ancient Greece is expansive and shown by the reactions of Grecians

when in similar positions to their different gendered counterparts. While these standards may not seem

fair to the observer, that was how it was to be loyal in ancient Greece.