To begin with, the question Has Odysseus been unfaithful to his wife? would not make sense to the people of ancient Greece. Such a question presupposes that the Greeks had a concept of marital love and fidelity similar to ours, which they didn't. As Stephanie Coontz has pointed out, the idea of marriage as a partnership based on romantic love is a product of the 18th century:
For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage....[O]nly rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.
Marital love in Greek society was not thought of as an enduring romantic and emotional bond between two equals, with sexual fidelity a marker of their trust in and satisfaction with each other. The Ancient History Encyclopedia says:
[With girls being] Married at the typical age of thirteen or fourteen, love had little to do with the matching of husband and wife. Of course, love may have developed between the couple but the best that might be hoped for was philia - a general friendship/love sentiment; eros, the love of desire, was to be found elsewhere, at least for the male.
If marriage for the ancient Greeks was not an erotic [from eros] bond, then this raises two questions: (1) What was marriage for them? and (2) What was an erotic bond for them? Let's look at each in turn.
Marriage among the ancient Greeks
With regard to the first question, Nicholas Rauh explains that among landholding Greeks, women were married off to neighboring men to consolidate land ownership, to bear children, and to look after the household:
To insure the sanctity of the marriage relationship and the purity of the family line, freeborn Greek children underwent a highly restricted, segregated upbringing, at least insofar as sexual interaction with the opposing gender was concerned. Within the social stratum of freeborn landholding citizen elites, young people of opposite genders remained rigidly segregated. As with other ancient cultures, the freeborn daughters of respectable landholding families entered into contractually arranged marriages with males from neighboring families for purposes of procreation and to maintain the economic foundations of both families. Dowries and gifts of land parcels accompanied the coming of age in Greek society. Religious taboos, such as the need to produce a male heir to preserve the ancestor cult, added the additional requirement that the Greek bride be a virgin at the time of her marriage. Typically, young freeborn females of respectable society would experience no sexual experimentation, no dating as we know it, prior to marriage. They would be kept carefully cloistered in the private recesses of the family household and even more carefully chaperoned in public. They were generally required after puberty to hide their features whenever they were in public, donning costumes similar to those worn by females in contemporary Islamic society. Virginity prior to marriage was a requirement of the marriage contract, and chastity and modesty after marriage were norms not only expected of, but imposed on respectable Greek females. Married women were expected to maintain the household, to spin and weave clothing for the family (as well as for retail sale), to direct household servants, to attend to the highly demanding tasks of cooking, cleaning, and domestic hygiene, not to mention, the raising of the family's young. In view of the limited technologies available for these tasks the number of laboring hours devoted to them was considerable. These requirements inevitably induced families to arrange marriages for female children early on in life. On the whole, young freeborn women of property holding families would be married as soon as they reached puberty to begin the process of child bearing and to maintain the domestic quarters of the newly formed family.
This is a classic example of what Gayle Rubin, in her celebrated 1975 essay of the same title, called "the traffic in women": a man gives his daughter or sister as a gift to another man, so as to augment the status of both men as well as maintain the social economy. The woman in this scenario is property. Before her marriage, she belongs to her father or brother; after, to her husband. Sexual fidelity was de rigeur for Greek women because adultery allowed another man access to the husband's property; and this raises the further, more threatening possibility that the children who inherit that property may not be his own. This would destroy the social economy entirely.
This role of women would explain why, as Coontz mentions, marriage based on love would be considered "a serious threat to social order". Marriage was the means by which social bonds were consolidated, status maintained, property acquired, and its orderly transfer ensured. Erotic love cares about none of those things, being based on individual desire rather than social needs. So it had no place in marriage.
Erotic life among the Greeks
If marriage was not for the fulfillment of sexual desire, then it is understandable that, as we saw earlier, men formed erotic relationships "elsewhere". Where was that? Rauh lists three outlets for men's sexual energies (quote has been edited for length):
- prostitutes, particularly highly gifted, highly articulate hetairai. These women tended to arise from slave and/or foreign origin. They were trained by their "pimps" in music, dance, and on occasion intellectual skills such as rhetoric. Apart from sexual favors, these women were able to appeal to their lover's minds.
- female servants (slaves) in their households. One problem with courtesan relations was their high costs. Sexual exploitation of female servants directly under one's household control was a far cheaper alternative. This practice by freeborn Greek males may have been relatively commonplace.
- homosexual relationships ... occurred very young in life as Greek males participated in the athletic regimen and education of the "gymnasium." Adult Greek males tended to "prey" on younger males for sexual favors and emotional relationships in this environment. Since young males had no monetary resources, could not afford hetairai or even more common forms of prostitution, and could not expect to date respectable females in any manner, their outlets for sexual experimentation were basically restricted to relations with household servants, if available, and to other males. Evidence of fairly elaborate courting rituals among older Greek males and their younger lovers indicate the likely commonplace character of these relationships.
So the sort of ritual we expect around romantic love—a man chasing a reluctant love object, wooing that object with poetry and gifts, eventually overcoming that reluctance—was associated in ancient Greece with homosexuality, not with one's eventual marital partner. Coontz says that the Greeks even considered this sort of homosexual love the noblest of all:
In some cultures and times, true love was actually thought to be incompatible with marriage. Plato believed love was a wonderful emotion that led men to behave honorably. But the Greek philosopher was referring not to the love of women, "such as the meaner men feel," but to the love of one man for another....Some Greek and Roman philosophers even said that a man who loved his wife with "excessive" ardor was "an adulterer."
Certainly in The Iliad, the love we see that's closest to our current ideals of romantic love is the one between Achilles and Patroclus.
So much for the men. What about the women? Very, very little is known about the erotic life of Greek women of the land-holding classes. The women depicted in the sexual couplings abundant on Greek pottery are likely servants or courtesans rather than women of the household. The few fragments we have from Sappho are probably not representative; but one could use those fragments to speculate that with husbands being at best affectionate friends, and other men being taboo, perhaps women too found their erotic fulfillment with each other rather than with men.
It's easy to see that Homer's epics share this view of the marital relationship. In the Iliad, the whole point of the Trojan War is to recover a woman stolen from Menelaus. Menelaus does not revile Helen as an adulteress. Rather, he and the other Greeks see her as his property, and Paris as a thief who must be punished. Since Menelaus is brother to Agamemnon, who is the most powerful king in Greece, Agamemnon must help him; and as Agamemnon's vassals, all the other Greeks are drawn into the war too. By stealing Helen, the Trojans have destroyed the very fabric of Greek society, and the only way to restore it is by forcefully retrieving her.
We see in the Odyssey that Helen is back at Menelaus's side, still his queen. She isn't discarded as no longer a worthy partner, someone who has betrayed his trust through her elopement with Paris. As the daughter of Zeus and the most beautiful woman on earth, she is still extremely valuable property, and Menelaus still values her. (And let us remember that Helen didn't really choose to run off with Paris. She had no choice; Aphrodite gifted her to him. A woman's erotic preferences are beside the point.)
What does this tell us about the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope? Well, for Penelope, as for all Greek women of her class, maintaining her own fidelity is a big deal. It's not that her fidelity marks her exceptional love for Odysseus; it's that it shows how wonderful a wife she is. She runs his household impeccably, not allowing anybody to despoil his property—including herself. One of the main complaints against her suitors is that they are ruining Odysseus's home and fortune by their extravagant demands on her hospitality. That she is able to hold them off with her wit and skill makes her an exceptional woman, well worthy of praise. But to be praised as a good wife in this context is to be recognized for her role as custodian of Odysseus's property: for Odysseus himself, if he's alive; for his son Telemachus, if he's not.
And for Odysseus? Of course he sleeps around. It would be odd if he didn't. How strange to believe that he would or should reserve his erotic energies for his wife! Calypso even comments on the double standard: men are expected to play around; if a woman does the same, it needs to be squelched immediately:
You gods are the most jealous bastards in the universe—
Persecuting any goddess who ever openly takes
A mortal lover to her bed and sleeps with him.
The unspoken subtext is Zeus himself has no problem sleeping with mortal women all over the place; but let me take a mortal lover, she says, and he comes down on me like a ton of bricks.
So if Odysseus's little dalliances with Circe and Calypso go unremarked on by Penelope when he eventually makes his way back to her, it's because they are, in that world, unremarkable. They say nothing about the strength of their marriage.
The strength of their marriage
Curiously, though, the Calypso episode does reveal something about the strength of their marriage. It shows that Odysseus's commitment to the marriage is as strong as Penelope's. He grows increasingly unhappy over the time he's forced to share Calypso's bed. He's been there seven years, and he starts to itch. He longs to go home, and is delighted to get his demob. Calypso offers him divinity in exchange for his staying back with her. This is his response:
Goddess and mistress, don't be angry with me.
I know very well that Penelope,
for all her virtues, would pale beside you.
She's only human, and you are a goddess,
Eternally young. Still, I want to go back.
My heart aches for the day I return to my home.
It is true that Penelope is mortal, and bound to have aged in the twenty years they've been apart. Calypso, on the other hand, is a goddess, eternally young and beautiful. But Odysseus is honey-tongued, a trickster, a master of words. Does he really think that Penelope is no match for Calypso? Or is he merely saying that to placate the goddess? Who knows.
But we do know that he does really want to go home. He wants to reclaim his lands, his son, and his wife. If Penelope is loyal to her marriage, then according to his lights, so is Odysseus. His homesickness may not be romantic, exactly, but it does show that he is committed to the values of his society. Better to live and die as a Greek freeborn landholder, than to be immortal but enslaved to a goddess, eternally young and beautiful though she may be.
We probably think that this whole story shows how terrible Penelope's lot was. The little woman, fighting against the odds to save her home and her child, faithfully waiting for her philandering husband to return home: is there anything more clichéd? And to have that woman presented as a heroine: is there anything more antithetical to our sensibilities? True. And yet, how impoverished a reading that can see only all that's abhorrent in this scenario. Penelope would find our reading strange. To turn down immortality and choose to go home instead: when Odysseus has done that, then Penelope would find it hard to cavil that he hasn't kept it in his pants.
Odds and Ends
- In the time when this was written (ancient Greece). Whether Homer's epics can rightly be considered written is a whole 'nother question. Short answer, no.
- In the time when this was written (ancient Greece). Most of what we know about ancient Greece, including the stuff about marriage and sex that's in this answer, is from the classical period: 5th C BCE. The texts as we know them were likely written down around the 8th C BCE. Three hundred years is a long time. Think how much our own social structures and sexual mores have changed since the early 1700s, and use your judgment.
- Translations are by Stanley Lombardo, from Book 5, pages 73 and 76.