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On-line version ISSN 2413-3086
Print version ISSN 1561-4018

Phronimon vol.18 n.1 Pretoria  2017 



Euripides' Medea and Jason: a study in the Social Power of Love



Kofi Ackah

Head, Department of Philosophy and Classics, University of Ghana.




Euripides' Medea resonates with modern issues in intimate relationships. However, little has been written on this, especially from the social-psychological perspective. This paper explores the breakdown of the Jason-Medea marriage in terms of the social-psychological theory of love as an exchange in a power game in which a certain degree of imbalance in the exchange could account for such a breakdown. I analyse the Medea text in terms of Olson and Cromwell's (1975) tripartite theoretical framework, namely: (a) the bases on which social power is built; (b) the processes by which social power is wielded; and (c) the outcomes produced by the use of social power. I And that Medea carried a greater burden of love towards Jason than Jason did towards her, fuelled and sustained by her enduring and greater need for security and happiness. And in intimate relationships, the principle of least interest (Waller and Hill 1951) works: the beloved tends to dominate the lover. Jason, however, overreached himself when he violated the minimum conditions of his own desirability - fidelity to and respect for Medea. I conclude that Medea's violent reaction to Jason's conduct indicates the fragility of love as a basis of social power in intimate relationships.

Keywords: Love; social power; intimate relationship; exchange theory; fidelity; respect.




Euripides' Medea is rich in its resonances with modern issues in gender, feminism,1and intimate relationship of the spousal kind; but not much has been written on the last, and this study is a contribution to it. It explores the breakdown of the Jason-Medea marriage in terms of the social-psychological theory of love as an exchange in a power game in which a certain degree of imbalance in the exchange could account for such a breakdown. I shall take "social power" to mean the ability to influence the behaviour of others and to resist their influence on us (Bannester 1969, 374; Huston 1983, 169-219), and "love" to mean a kind of feeling of attraction that impels one to want an enduring relationship with another. This conception of love evokes the debate about whether the emotions are transhistorical - whether love as generally experienced by the ancient Greeks is different from or the same as what is generally experienced in today's Western culture. In recent contributions to the debate, Kalimtzis (2012) argues that the emotions are transhistorical, while Konstan (2015) holds that they are significantly conditioned by culture, although certain affects are common to humanity.2 This important issue will be addressed later in this article.

Although social power can be studied in terms of personality characteristics (Veroff and Feld 1971, 1-33),3 I shall analyse the Medea text from a different perspective -Olson and Cromwell's (1975, 131-150) tripartite framework of the bases on which social power is built, the processes by which social power is wielded, and the outcomes produced by the use of social power.4



This section will seek to establish three things:(4) set out the bases of social power; (B) identify "love" as a basis of social power in the Medea; and (C) determine the relative degree of intimacy between the spouses - a key condition of love as a source of social power.

(A) Viewed as a kind of exchange, social power is based on the control of resources. This view raises at least two questions: What are resources? What is it to have control of resources? This second question will be answered much later in this section. To answer the first question now, a resource is anything a person, x, controls which another, y, wants; for y will be motivated to comply with x's wishes in order to secure the resource from x. Thus x will have power over y.

The range of things that normally count as resources in power relations is broad. A useful typology was developed by French and Raven (1959, 150-167) decades ago: (1) reward power dispenses or withholds reward;5 (2) coercive power dispenses or remits punishment; (3) legitimate power has the resource of authority - social, governmental, or religious - recognised by the dependant; (4) expert power is expertise that the dependant needs to rely on; (5) informational power involves information that the dependant desires; and (6) referent power involves such resources as "respect" or "love" by which the dependant is attracted to the other.

(B) This study concentrates on the referent power of love because love, which at any rate includes "respect" for the other, is both a central theme in the Medea, and an important resource for the analysis of social power in the Jason-Medea relationship. The centrality of the theme of love in the Medea may be gleaned from the first six of the following quotations from the Medea, labelled for convenience as T1 (text one), T2, T3, etc.

Let us begin from the moment when Medea confronts Jason for marrying another wife - Glauce, the virgin princess of Corinth - behind her back. Jason's response is essentially that it is a marriage of convenience, intended ultimately to benefit Medea herself and their children (548-567, 539-597). Medea, of course, rejects Jason's reasons, believing one thing: that Jason has done what he has done because he no longer loves her. Thus she tells the visiting Athenian King Aegeus:

T1: Medea: ... once we were lovers (φίλοι); now I am dishonoured.

Aegeus: Did he grow weary of your marriage-bed? Or is he passionately in love (ερασθείς) elsewhere?

Medea: Most passionately in love (μέγανγ҆ έρωτα). He is disloyal to his family (φίλοις) (696-698).6

This passage captures the two, broadly distinct, ancient Greek sentiments which fall under the English expression "love", namely, φλία and έρος. Φιλία covers the range of sentiments of intimacy including "familial love", "fondness", "affection" and "friendship". Under φιλία in T1 falls the nominative plural φίλοι (singular, φίλος) and its dative case (φίλοις). As the contexts demand, φίλοι may mean "lovers" (cf. Xenophon's Memorabilia 3.11.4) or "friends" or "family" (s.v. φιλία in Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 1940). Also in T1, έpασθείς; (the aorist passive participle of έpαμαι), and έρωτα (the accusative singular of έρος) derive from έρος, which, according to LSJ, means, among other things, "passionate love" or "passionate desire" - a more intense form of love or desire, usually with sexual connotations. Thus Vellacott (1963) is not far from target when he translates έρος; at 530 as "helpless passion", where Jason invokes έρος; as what compelled Medea to save his life. At 627-662 the Chorus sing their awareness of the strength and violence of Medea's passionate love for Jason, in the name of έρος; and Aphrodite. Thus the use of φίλοι (with its cognates) and έρος (with its cognates) in the Medea justifies the important distinction between "love" and "passionate love" or erotic passion.7

(C) Given the foregoing, and allowing for some cultural variations of conception, understanding, and feeling of "love" in Greek antiquity and in Western culture today, the distinction in the Medea between φιλία (love or friendship) and έρος (passionate/ romantic/erotic love) can be deemed to correspond to the broad distinction which some social scientists make between companionate love (CL) and passionate love (PL). CL is a secure, trusting attachment that endures between lovers, friends and family members over time; its intensity is equal or similar to liking (Hatfield, Pillemer, O'Brien and Le, Yen-Chi. 2008, 35-64; Peele 1988, 159-188). In contrast, PL is a state of high arousal, filled with the ecstasy of being loved by the partner and the agony of being rejected (Brehm 1992, 98). Thus PL is never pure pleasure; it is a mixture of pleasure, obsession, and anxiety (Hindy, Schwartz and Brodsky 1989, 1-13). Paradoxically, the anxiety may sustain the pleasure and obsession, given the observation that if the beloved's commitment seems uncertain, arousal is constantly recharged and keeps the lover hoping for a state of perfect stability and happiness Brehm (1992, 104).

Given the distinction between CL and PL, I shall now attempt to determine the relative degree of love Jason and Medea had for each other before the break-up; this is a necessary step towards defining the mechanisms by which love acquires potency as a source of power in an intimate relationship. Let us first determine Medea's degree of love towards Jason. In the prologue, the Nurse recalls Medea's obviously passionate love for Jason in their early encounter:

T2: [Medea left Colchis], her heart battered with passionate love for Jason (έρωτ ι θνμόνέκπλαγείσ΄ Ιάσονος, 8) [my emphasis].

Much later, the Chorus sing the refrain:

T3: You sailed from your father's home with maddened heart (μαινόεμ ν α κ ρ α δ ίa) between the double rocks of the sea, and you live on foreign soil abandoned, with no man in your marriage-bed (432-35)[my emphasis].

And Medea, addressing Jason's ungratefulness:

T4: When you were sent to master the fire-breathing bulls, yoke them and sow the deadly furrow, then I saved your life. Every Greek who sailed with you in the Ago knows. The serpent which kept watch over the Golden Fleece coiled round it fold on fold, sleepless. It was I who killed it and so lit the torch of your success. I willingly deceived my father; and left my home. With you I came to Iolcus...showing more zeal than wisdom. There, [to help you succeed to your father's throne] I put your uncle King Pelias [the usurper] to the most horrible deaths, by the hands of his own daughters, and ruined his whole house. And in return for this you have the wickedness to turn me out, to get yourself another wife, even when I had borne you sons (476-490) [my emphasis].

Whoever is prepared to stain her conscience for a life-time by committing such heinous crimes for the sake of a spouse must indeed "show more zeal than wisdom" - must more than merely like the spouse.

Finally, even when Jason rubbishes the help he received from Medea, he incidentally acknowledges that Medea used to love him passionately:

T5: I hold that credit for my successful voyage was solely due to Aphrodite, no one else divine or human. I admit that you have intelligence; [but] to recount how, with his inescapable arrows "έρος ("Love" or "Sexual Desire") compelled you to save my life would be invidious (526-531).

Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is also a euphemism for erotic desire; "έρος" is her male derivative. Medea, then, was passionately in love with Jason. Did the passion continue? Probably not: passions or obsessions are often short-lived. Even so, Medea's long-term commitment to Jason is likely to be between CL and PL, most certainly beyond mere liking. This is suggested by the following passage:

T6: Medea: ... Jason was my whole life; and he knows that well (228-229).

The degree of intimacy implied in T6 would be fuelled by the insecurity and uncertainty associated with Medea's unique circumstances, and sustained by her hope for a state of security and certainty. Medea's state of insecurity and uncertainty arises from a number of peculiar circumstances; first, her being a foreigner among Greeks, who pride themselves on their perceived racial superiority to others. Thus Jason reminds her: "you left a barbarous land to become a resident of Greece; here you have known justice; you have lived in a society where force yields to law" (536-8). Second, out of her passionate love for Jason, Medea had killed her brother who was pursuing to stop her from fleeing with Jason; and she had disclosed the most guarded royal secrets to help him acquire the Golden Fleece (T4). By these crimes, she had broken the bond between her and her biological family and country of origin. Jason, too, is an exile, but he is at least in Greece - his ancestral home. As long as Jason loved Medea, her sordid past receded into her subconscious, and she seemed happy. But Jason stokes up her battered and bruised subconscious when he jilts her:

T7: O my father, my city, you I deserted; my brother I shamefully murdered! (166-7)

Disconsolate, she dismisses the Chorus's advice for compromise with Jason, on the grounds that members of the Chorus are comfortable in their own country, and so fail to appreciate her peculiar predicament:

T8: The same arguments do not apply to you and me. You have this city, your fathers' home, the enjoyment of your life, and your friends' company. I am alone; I have no city. Now my husband insults me...I have no mother, brother, nor any of my own blood to turn to in this extremity (252-5; also 328 and 798-9).

Given a life shot through by such anxiety and insecurity, Medea invests her whole life in Jason (T6). Thus we are tempted to read her love for Jason as probably higher than CL, until Jason's infidelity.

What about Jason? Did he love Medea? If so, how much? In T1 Medea admits that Jason used to love her. Of course, this does not imply that Jason loved her passionately. Yet it seems CL is not intense enough to have motivated Jason to commit himself to Medea, as he did, by vows and solemn pledges (17-23), by oaths (160-162) and promises (208-212), probably in the beginning. Further, the affection Jason displays in the following passage (T9) is likely to have extended through much of his marriage with Medea:

T9: Medea: My poor right hand, which you often (πολλ΄) clasped! My knees which you clung to! How we are besmirched and mocked by this man's broken vows (496-8).

If Jason "often (πολλ΄) clasped" Medea's right hand, it is fair to assume that the clasping was not infrequent. Equally, there is no good reason to think that "Jason's clinging to Medea's knees" would be less frequent. Both forms of affection are romantic, and they are consistent with Medea's confession to King Aegeus at T1 that Jason used to love her. Jason, then, seems to have loved Medea passionately at the beginning - as suggested by his vows and oaths. Over time, Jason's PL may have declined to CL before he was attracted to Glauce. Note that CL is compatible with infidelity: cheating spouses may still love their wives or husbands; and polygamous husbands may still love their first wives. Thus, after marrying Glauce, Jason claims to be still attracted to Medea (555-6).

What the foregoing leads us to is that on balance, and towards the moment of Jason's infidelity and betrayal, Medea had a deeper love for Jason than Jason had for Medea. This imbalance is a significant condition for love to be a power resource in an intimate relationship. How, then, does love work as a basis of power? For a resource to be a basis of power, it is neither necessary nor sufficient that it is possessed. One must also have control of it. Even so, the one who controls it may still lack power, unless at least one condition is met: if the other person desires the resource. Thus, a store owner does not have power over a customer just because he has control over resources in his store, unless and until the customer desires the goods, which will be expressed by an act or intention to acquire them. How much power one has depends on the degree of desire for the resource. Thus if y has a mild desire for the resource that x controls, x has little power over y. This answers the question earlier raised: "What is it to have control of resources?" This answer brings us face to face with the question: Can love, a social resource, come to be in anyone's control? Or, rather, is love something that can be controlled?

The answer to the above question calls for a comparison with the other sources of power. Reward, coercion, authority, expertise or information is a resource that can be neatly and wholly located in an agent who exercises or dispenses it. But love is relational in character, and does not appear to be something in anyone's full control. This issue has been clarified by comparing love with money (cf. Brehm 1992, 236-237). It is clear that whoever owns money, controls it. Equally clear is the vulnerability of money: it can be stolen, taken by force, or lost. Money, moreover, is universalistic, tradable and convertible: it can be exchanged with virtually anything; hence, whoever owns it has a certain freedom in deciding with whom he/she will share. But love is more complex: it cannot be taken by force, stolen, or lost; indeed, it is genuine if given freely and spontaneously. Besides, it is particularistic: whom to share with is not open and free. Further, love is power only when it is bestowed by the lover: its existence and weight precariously hang on the pleasure or desire of the bestower (cf. Spencer 1980, 66-67). This fragility is a significant variable in the power game between a couple.

If, then, love is a fragile thing between a couple, society or culture may increase or complicate that fragility. According to Rodman (1972), resource power works only where culture is unclear about how power should be allocated. Where the culture or subculture has a clear norm about power, it is the norm that matters and resources are irrelevant. For example, in egalitarian cultures - those which endorse the equal or equitable sharing of power - power is not significantly affected by socioeconomic resources. Sweden and Denmark have been touted as clear examples (Rodman 1972). The critical factor, Sprey (1975, 61-79) claims, is how far cultural norms influence what resources are valued. In a culture where economic factors are highly valued, they would be dominant. Similarly, patriarchal societies tend to value the male gender above other resources, creating a system of male dominance. Medea speaks for all women in the patriarchal setting of Greek antiquity, when she laments:

T10: For women, divorce is not respectable; to repel the man, impossible...If a man grows tired of the company at home, he can go out and find a cure for tediousness. We wives are forced to look to one man only (236-246).

And Jason is typically and unashamedly patriarchal:

T11: Jason: If my wife values me at all she will value me above gold (963).

In general, norms may either directly allocate power, or may indirectly distribute power through cultural beliefs about what is valuable in life or who is more important, as implied in T10 and T11 (cf. Safilios-Rothschild1976a). In these respects, certain norms may add to the fragility of love, as they add to the web of beliefs and thoughts that potentially may influence a partner's attitude to a relationship. T10 reflects this: patriarchy connives at male infidelity and frowns upon or condemns female infidelity; in other words, the male partner, but not the female, can have relationship options.

A person's relationship options may affect his commitment to an existing relationship. Without the prospect of other options, people generally are more dependent on what they already have. Where the fragility of love favours the beloved, it keeps the lover hoping for a state of stability and happiness. And it is the beloved, the one less dependent on the relationship, who is the more powerful. Hence the law of personal exploitation (Ross 1921, 136): the one who cares less in an intimate relationship tends to exploit the one who cares more. This is also "the principle of least interest": a person is able to dictate the conditions of association whose interest in the continuation of the affair is least (Waller and Hill 1951, 191).

I suggest that by allocating or distributing power in an intimate relationship, patriarchal norms placed Jason in a position of power over Medea. This includes relationship options favourable to him. In such a position, he was under no pressure to sustain his marriage by anything more than CL. On the other hand, the same patriarchal conditions, reinforced by Medea's foreignness and crimes (T4), placed her in a predicament of continuous need and love for Jason; hence her claim at T6 that "Jason was my whole life". By the "principle of least interest" Jason dictated the conditions of association, Medea mostly acquiescing. The Nurse implies this in the prologue:

T12: To Jason she is all obedience - and in marriage that's the saving thing: when a wife does not challenge her husband (13-15).

The predicament of a wife's habitual obedience or submission to her husband is not limited to ancient female spouses. Murstein, Cerreto and MacDonald (1976), for example, have found that men have more impact on, and thus more power in, heterosexual relationships today. A key aspect of Murstein's thesis is "who needs to understand whom?" A host of researchers have claimed that a wife's understanding of her husband makes a greater contribution to marital happiness than a husband's understanding of his wife's (Dean 1966; Kotlar 1965; Taylor 1967).

So Jason holds love as a source of power over Medea, not by having and keeping it - he probably has little - but by being loved or desired. His desirability is constantly fuelled by Medea's uncertainty and insecurity generated by inadequate love from Jason, by a patriarchy that opens relational options to Jason and closes same to Medea, and by Medea's alienation from her biological family and home.



Once we see a power relationship between Jason and Medea, the scale tilting in favour of Jason, the issue of process emerges - the kind of behaviours that Jason uses to get his way with Medea. Some illumination can be gained from the variety of forms in which power plays out in contexts of intimate relationships in contemporary times: (a) physical violence, (b) language use, (c) decision-making, or (d) forms that may combine two or more of these. Each of these forms comes with its own style or manner of expression. For example, in the use of language, how one talks to one's partner in a crisis situation may be strongly influenced by the balance of power between them (Kollock, Blumstein and Schwartz 1985; Thorn and Henley 1975, 54-68). In the Medea, (b) and (c) are visible. Consider the following passage:

T13: Medea: ...if you were not a bad person (κακόν) you ought to have made this marriage only after convincing me, and not in secret from your loved ones.

Jason: No doubt if I had mentioned it, you would have proved most helpful, when even now you cannot control your raging temper (586-590).

Note that Jason's self-justification in T13 indicates awareness that he is in a position of power and that Medea is not. Thus, he neither consults Medea before marrying Glauce, nor makes an attempt to apologise after the fact. Nor does he consider himself in need of a bargain or compromise. Rather, as T11 shows, he expects or demands obedience. These observations suggest an asymmetrical relationship between Jason and Medea in terms of who carries a greater burden of love: obviously, Jason is the beloved and Medea is the lover - a condition in which the law of least interest applies.

In T1 Medea suggests that Jason has married another wife because he no longer loves her. T13 enables us to glimpse the content of Medea's conception of love: commitment or fidelity to the relationship and mutual respect. And she, according to T12, appreciated that the cost, the exchange rate, of Jason keeping his side of the bargain was obedience to him. But by expecting that Medea would acquiesce in his unilateral decision to marry another wife, Jason, it appears, expected too much. Medea's violent reaction to this expectation suggests that she sees Jason as overreaching himself - as placing himself above or violating the obligations of fidelity and respect, and as inflating his worth and desirability while denying or diminishing hers. In other words, Jason's demand that Medea value him above gold (T11) and accept what decisions he takes (T13) affirms a process of power in which the beloved, Jason, trades love for obedience and submission from a woman who is not an ordinary soul - one who will not sacrifice her dignity as wife and mother without adequate justification.



Studies in social power have largely defined the outcomes of social power in terms of which of the couple gets his or her way in decisions made by the couple or family. But this investigative approach is misleading. Within a relationship, one may have merely "implementation power": he/she simply carries out delegated power, and delegated power can be recalled. But when a partner has "orchestration" power (Safilios-Rothschild 1976b, 275-292), he/she either decides or decides who decides. Equally important is the type or importance of the decisions made: having the power to make trivial decisions is not the same as having the power to make important ones.

In the Medea we have some indication, although not much evidence, of levels of decision-making powers or of the types of matters about which decisions are taken. Three of the indications, T11, T12, and T13 are revealing, and they provide grounds for probability inferences. T11 and T13 imply that where there is disagreement over an issue, Jason expects Medea to yield. In T12 the Nurse states that Medea had been "all obedience to Jason". T11, T12, and T13 indicate that Jason held orchestration power. Medea may have had only implementation power, which is compatible with having the authority to take decisions on minor issues. Given Medea's violent reaction to Jason's second marriage - killing the children and the new bride - Jason learns too late that the exercise of orchestration power has limits: that it is not a licence to do anything one pleases in a relationship; and that its abuse or insensitive manipulation may cost the power-holder his/her desirability, control, or authority over the other.



I set out to explore the breakdown of the Jason-Medea marriage in terms of the social-psychological theory of love as an exchange in a power game in which a certain degree of imbalance in the exchange could account for the breakdown. I began by establishing (a) the theme of love as the relevant basis of social power in the Jason-Medea relationship, and (b) the "fact" that Medea carries the greater burden of love. I then argued that her burden of affection was fuelled and sustained by her enduring need for security and happiness in her marriage, given her status as a non-Greek exile. Jason, on the other hand, was under no such pressure of need and, moreover, had patriarchy on his side. In intimate relationships, whoever is desired or desired more tends to exercise social power - to dominate the relationship. As Medea desired Jason more than Jason desired Medea, Jason thereby acquired power over her. But by conceiving and exercising his power over Medea as a right to total obedience, Jason overreached himself by marrying a second wife without consulting his first wife: he violated what appear to be the minimum conditions of his own desirability - fidelity to and respect for Medea. Her violent reaction to Jason's conduct also indicates the fragility of love as a basis of social power in intimate relationships - that the power of love which accrues to the beloved, depends precariously on the whim of the underdog, the lover.



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1 For recent contributions to the orientation of gender/feminist research in Classical Studies see, for example, Lefkowitz (2007), Blundell (1995), Rabinowitz (1993), Rabinowitz and Richlin (1993), and Pomeroy (1975).
2 See further Konstan (2006, 7-27); Griffiths (1997).
3 Medea has a strong and wilful personality. The Chorus compare her will to stone and iron (1279; cf. lines 38-39, 108-109, 119-121, 395-8, 797, 807-9). She also has a deadly power of persuasion or of cunning. See how Medea persuades or deceives King Creon to relent (335-357); how she binds King Aegeus with oaths to commit himself to receive her in Athens, knowing she will arrive there a murderer (706-758); how she manages to deceive Jason, enabling her to create the opportunity of access to murder the new wife (866-975). But these traits and skills (including her magical skills, 285, 476-187) do not play any significant role in her marriage with Jason until Jason's second marriage.
4 However, the entire paper is influenced by the work of Sharon S. Brehm (1992).
5 Cf. Levinger and Huesmann (1980, 165-188). In intimate relationships, rewards include companionship, love, consolation in times of distress, and, where applicable, sexual gratification. Anticipated rewards are important as well. "Costs" include time and effort spent to maintain the relationship, compromises to keep the peace, suffering in times of conflict, and forfeited opportunities. On such a view, rewards minus costs yield the state of the relationship.
6 In this paper, I have relied on either Vellacott's (1963) or Luschnig's (2007) translation of the relevant passages of the Medea, according to which translation more closely captures the social-psychological tenor of the Greek original.
7 Cf. David Konstan, "Affect and Emotion in Greek Literature." Oxford Handbooks Online. 2015. DOI 10:1093/oxfordhb/9780199935390.013.41. Ancient Greek intellectuals tended to treat passionate love, the effect of
έρος, as a kind of madness when it is taken to be in control of an agent's reason (cf. Sophocles' Antigone, 780-801 and Plato's Phaedrus, 245cff.).Generally, however, Graeco-Roman intellectuals recognised passionate, romantic or erotic love as a special case of love, and made it the subject of powerful poetic creations (Stone 1988, 15-26). The love elegies of Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid are part of a long list of poetic celebration of passionate, romantic or erotic love in Roman antiquity. In Virgil's famous Book 4 of the Aeneid, Dido the queen of Carthage commits suicide when her passionate love for the Trojan hero Aeneas collapses on his sudden flight. Marilyn Skinner (2014) gives us a comprehensive historical and cultural account of the role of passionate or romantic love in Graeco-Roman sexuality.

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