We all know the ‘wicked stepmother’ archetype: the villains in such fairy tales as Cinderella and Snow White, but thanks to an Athenian court case, we have an example from the ancient world.
Unfortunately, we do not know the stepmother’s name. This is because Athenian convention dictated that respectable women, even those accused of horrendous crimes, could not be named in court. The person bringing the suit against her, her stepson, calls her Clytemnestra after the infamous murderer from mythology (and, lest we forget, very wronged woman). So, for the sake of brevity and because Clytemnestra was pretty fabulous in her own dark, deadly way, we’ll call the unnamed stepmother Clytemnestra too.
The Athenian law courts were ‘an arena for displaying and disputing political, and so male, power’ (Eidinow, 2016: 38), and women (even citizens) were not allowed to participate. Therefore, Clytemnestra was unable to defend herself and had to rely on her kyrios (the male head of the household) to speak for her. The stepson was essentially speaking against, not only his stepmother, but his half-brothers, one of whom was acting as Clytemnestra’s guardian following the death of her husband.
What follows is what was alleged to have happened:
The stepson’s suit outlines how Clytemnestra, with malice aforethought, murdered her husband and his friend, Philoneus. According to the stepson, Clytemnestra tricked Philoneus’ concubine (who was probably an enslaved woman forced into sex work) into giving poison to her husband and Philoneus.
Clytemnestra knew that Philoneus was planning on sending the enslaved woman to a brothel. The woman would likely have been terrified as working in a brothel would have meant that, under the brothel owner’s supervision, she would have been forced into having sex with countless men, and would have been exposed to sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancies.
Clytemnestra summoned the woman and became her friend, claiming that she too had lost the love of her husband. Clytemnestra proposed a solution: a ‘potion’ which would restore the love of both her husband and Philoneus’ for the enslaved woman. All the enslaved woman had to do was administer the potion to the two friends.
An opportunity soon appeared when the husband and Philaneus were visiting Athens’ port at Piraeus – the husband to set off on a voyage to the island of Naxos, and Philoneus to offer sacrifices to Zeus. The enslaved woman accompanied Philoneus to help with the sacrifice.
After the sacrifices had been made, the pair sat down for dinner and the enslaved woman served them wine. The woman administered the ‘potion’, giving a larger dose to Philoneus. They made a libation to Zeus and drank deeply from cups.
Philoneus immediately dropped dead, but the husband, who had been given a smaller dose of poison, became violently ill. The husband survived for three weeks before dying.
The deaths were treated as suspicious, and the enslaved woman was apprehended and handed over to the public executioner after being broken on the wheel. In Athenian law, enslaved people were only deemed to be telling the truth if they had been subjected to torture. Under immense pain, woman likely confessed to administering the love potion, but we do not know if the woman implicated Clytemnestra or not.
Philoneus dropped dead instantly. My father was seized with an illness from which he died in three weeks. For this, the woman who acted under orders has paid the penalty for her offence, in which she was an innocent accomplice: she was handed over to the public executioner after being broken on the wheel. But the woman who was the real causes, who thought out and engineered the deed – she will pay the penalty now, if you and heaven so decree…Antiphon, Prosecution of a Stepmother 20
Despite the limited evidence against his stepmother, the stepson asks the jury to find his stepmother guilty of murder. The speech, written by the orator Antiphon on behalf of the stepson, carefully constructed the argument to elicit the sympathy of the jury by stressing the following:
- the stepson’s youth and inexperience in court.
- how the stepson was standing alone, as his half-brothers were supporting their mother rather than the memory of their allegedly murdered father.
- the father and Philoneus’ piety in contrast to Clytemnestra’s deceptive and irreligious behaviour (Eidinow, 2016: 41-2).
We do not know the outcome of the case, which is not uncommon for Athenian law court cases. Nor do we have the speech made in Clytemnestra’s defence. However, it is likely that it centred on Clytemnestra accidentally killing her husband by administering a love potion which turned out to be poisonous.
This case shows some of the difficulties we have face when dealing with sources from the ancient world, particularly instances where we do not have the full record which, like this court case, only gives us one side of a complex story. It also shows how women’s voices were deliberately omitted from ancient society. Unfortunately, unless new material is found, we will never know what became of Clytemnestra, and we will certainly never find out whether she committed the murder or not.
Antiphon. Against the Stepmother for Poisoning. In: Lefkowitz, M.R., Fant, M.B. 1982. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. London: Duckworth. Antiphon. Against the Stepmother for Poisoning.
Another English translation of the text is available via this link: Against the Stepmother for Poisoning.
Eidinow, E. 2016. Envy, Poison, and Death: Women on Trial in Classical Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wohl, V. 2010. A Tragic Case of Poisoning: Intention Between Tragedy and the Law. Transactions of the American Philological Association. Vol. 140/1, pp. 33-70.