The phratriai comprised fraternal families. The word phrator (or, in its Doric form, phrater) is common to the Indoeuropean languages, and signifies 'brother'. But family and phratria often overlapped and it would be a vast oversimplification were we to regard the first as a pure subdenomination of the second. The phratria was to a great degree based on common worship at local shrines. At Decelea, for instance, there was a shrine of the Demotionidae, who appear both as family and as phratria. There is an inscription from this shrine with the particular laws of the phratria. At Myrrhinus there was a shrine of the Dyaleis. The Medontis phratria was linked to the deme of Gargetus; the Thymaitis phratria to the deme which bore its name. The deities worshipped at local shrines were mainly Zeus Phratrius and Athena Phratria; and sometimes local heroes.

Until Cleisthenes' time, the phratriai had political as well as religious competence. By at least the time of Dracon, every Athenian belonged to a phratria, as is implied by the role which its lawgiver assigned to it in a case of manslaughter. There were three phratriai for each tribe, so there were twelve in all. Towards the end of the Archaic period their importance was gradually reduced and they were transformed simply into unions of phratores with a common shrine and festivals, such as the Apaturia. This festival, celebrated in the month of Pyanepsion (corresponding approximately to September), had, and still continued to have in the Classical period, a fundamental role in the Athenian citizen's acquisition of his status. On the third day of the festival (Cureotis, as it was called), new members were officially presented to the phratria. At the secretariat (grammateio), all the male children born since the preceding Apaturia were registered, and ephebes who had reached their eighteenth birthday were presented for a second time in order to take their rights as full members. Adopted children (eispoietoi) were also presented to the phratria.

This event was the most important proof in legal confrontations or controversy about citizen rights; and the testimony of the phratores was equivalent to a birth certificate. Things were rather different for women; but it seems that daughters, too, were socially linked with their father's phratria. Among the functions of the phratria was recognition of marriages and inheritance rights.

Cleisthenes kept the same number of phratriai for the ten tribes as well. It was not the abolition of the phratria or the family that his reforms envisaged, but their exclusion from the political system. This was why he left their social and religious significance untouched. Belonging to a phratria was no longer essential if one was to have civic rights; yet the phratriai continued to keep their own lists in parallel with those of the demes (Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia 42.1). They also continued to own property, and to have the right to bring actions in the law courts.

There were phratriai in other cities of Hellas too: at Aegina, Corinth, Thebes, and Delphi (from where the regulations for the Labyadae phratria survive on an inscription). The Dorians usually called the phratria by the name patra: the only exception was Crete, where the corresponding institution was known as hetaireia.

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