The Hearth and the Television

One of my favorite weeks when teaching US History since 1865 is when we get to discuss the 1950s and the American family. One of the exercises I have the students do is to analyze the Simpsons from the perspective that the eponymous family is a representation of the 1950s nuclear family. I ask the students leading questions in order to reach this point, dad (works), mom (stays home), two and a half kids, etc., etc., and one of the final issues we come to is what the show considers to be the central room of the house. There is often a bit of hesitation on this point until I ask how the credit sequence ends, to which there is an immediate chorus of “in front of the tv!”

This semester I gave a lecture on the topic of the ancient Greek family. Along with the delineation (and gendering) of space, one of the traditional talking points on this issue is that the household is defined by its hearth. This is borne out in myth with the representations of Hestia and the ideologically charged declarations in literature about the sacredness of the hearth. And yet the sources for burning in the archeological record vary and there is rarely unambiguous evidence for a stationary or permanent hearth. Similarly, lease agreements from Olynthus indicate that buildings were not disposed of as complete units, but individual rooms could be leased out for domestic use. I don’t find this revelation to be particularly surprising, but it is notable that some of the rooms allocated for domestic use show no evidence of a hearth. Thus the hearth that makes the home may be symbolic rather than actual.

I offer the television as the object that has this same ideological potency in the modern American household. One extreme example is illustrative. In the pilot of the AMC show Madmen, Don Draper taunts his mistress for having purchased a television despite her insistence that she didn’t need one, with the result that she throws the offending device out the window of her apartment in the Village. Draper is mollified by the exchange, but his return home at the end of the episode (as it is meant to) offers a striking contrast. Not only does he return to a house where there is a wife and kids, but they kids are watching TV and Draper settles in with them—-because a television is something that you have with your family, not with your mistress.

As an addendum, I still think even in our decentralized media environment there is something to the television holding symbolic weight as a place for family, whether that is an actual place in a household or something that can be alluded to in fiction. The range of portable devices on which one can watch the shows themselves signify something else, but the television as a place and object continue to carry this weight. In turn, the violation of this communal aesthetic, such as the image of a single person repeatedly watching shows heightens the sense of obsession, perversity, or trauma.

Macedonians: Greek or other?

As I tossed back at my advisor in my thesis defense, this question in short comes down to the eye of the beholder. To Greeks, the Argead king may have been Greek, but usually just when he insisted upon this right. To Macedonian kings they sure were Greeks, to the Macedonians themselves they were not. Yet they are notably included in the Iliadic tradition of Greeks. Philip married women who clearly were barbarians, yet also a woman who traced her lineage to that great Greek hero Achilles and lived in the same mixed state as he, all the while holding a majority vote on the Amphyctonic council through his position as tagus of the Thessalian League. Although this quagmire of evidence leads nowhere or in circles quite quickly, there is much that suggests that Macedonia was in fact Greek-esque, but resembled the less civilized, Homeric kingdoms of Greece, rather than truly civilized peoples.

One of the leads I would like to know more about is marriage practice in Macedonia. By all accounts men were permitted to have multiple wives if they could take care of them and Philip went so far as to marry in order to solidify his conquests and allies. There was differentiation between prostitutes and wives, but other than that I have been unable to make out much. In contrast, each Greek group had their own practices, and while some were eccentric, they were also largely monogamous. From this angle, Macedonians were not Greek.

A second, non-Greek, aspect to the Macedonian identity was the distinct lack of poleis. There were some of these city-state units, but they were usually reduced solely to the city limits, while the surrounding farmland, which was always the second constituent piece of a polis, became property of the king who then distributed that land amongst his supporters. Such was the case with Amphipolis and the Olynthian League on the Chalcidice. Macedonia did have limited representation in the form of the Army Assembly and the King often yielded to the political wisdom that consulting and heeding advisors often resulted in smoother function of the kingdom, but he didn’t have to.

In short Macedonians were not Greek, but they were Greek enough to push that identity when it suited their needs. All of this took place while keeping a distinct ethnic identity.