The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (2): 8th-1st century BCE

This is the second in our series examining the word μονογενής. We not turn out attention to the range of usage across Greek authors and literature.

8th to 6th Century

The term μονογενής does not appear frequently in early Greek literature, with three instances in Hesiod, two in Aesop, and one in Aeschylus. All occurrences comport with the meaning of ‘lacking siblings.’


The first two of Hesiod’s references appear in Theogony, both in reference to Hecate.[1] They are in relatively close proximity, with the first in line 426:

οὐδ’, ὅτι μουνογενής, ἧσσον θεὰ ἔμμορε τιμῆς [426]
καὶ γεράων γαίῃ τε καὶ οὐρανῷ ἠδὲ θαλάσσῃ,[2]

Nor, because she is an only child, does the goddess receive less respect,
and honours on land and sea and sky.

And the second in line 448:

οὕτω τοι καὶ μουνογενὴς ἐκ μητρὸς ἐοῦσα
πᾶσι μετ’ ἀθανάτοισι τετίμηται γεράεσσι.[3]

So then, being an only-child of her mother,
she is honoured among all the immortals

Hesiod’s usage establishes that from the 8th century μονογενής denotes an only child. In Works and Days we encounter an attributive use:

μουνογενὴς δὲ πάις εἴη πατρώιον οἶκον [376]
φερβέμεν· ὣς γὰρ πλοῦτος ἀέξεται ἐν μεγάροισιν·
γηραιὸς δὲ θάνοι ἕτερον παῖδ’ ἐγκαταλείπων.[4]

There should be an only child to feed the father’s household,
for so wealth will increase in your household;
but if you leave behind a second son, you should die old.

Here the concern is with the division of wealth and property, where passing on an inheritance to a single child will see it increase, whereas dividing it among multiple sons endangers the patrimony. This concern is generally held in tension to the more common motif that we see in texts below, where an only child represents an increased danger in that the family line depends upon the survival of a single person.


Moving to the 6th century, we find two occurrences in Aesop’s Fables. These two represent alternate versions of a single story:

υἱόν τις γέρων δειλὸς μονογενῆ ἔχων γενναῖον κυνηγεῖν ἐφιέμενον εἶδε τοῦτον καθ’
ὕπνους ὑπὸ λέοντος ἀναλωθέντα.

A cowardly old man had a noble son, an only child, and saw him in a dream going out to
hunt and then killed by a lion

(296aliter) Υἱόν τις ἔχων μονογενῆ ἀνδρεῖον εἶδε καθ’ ὕπνον ὑπὸ λέοντος θνῄσκειν.[5]

A certain person had a brave son, an only child, and saw him killed by a lion in a dream.

In both versions, a father of an only son sees that son killed by a lion in a dream. The use of μονογενής sets up part of the pathos of the story, in that all the father’s hopes and love rest upon the sole heir.[6] This connotation is prevalent throughout later usages.


The final occurrence in this early period is in Aeschlyus, Agamemnon 898. The context of the passage is Clytemnestra speaking, in an ironic/sarcastic description of how she would hail Agamemnon’s return:

νῦν, ταῦτα πάντα τλᾶσ’, ἀπενθήτωι φρενὶ   (895)
λέγοιμ’ ἂν ἄνδρα τόνδε τῶν σταθμῶν κύνα,
σωτῆρα ναὸς πρότονον, ὑψηλῆς στέγης
στῦλον ποδήρη, μονογενὲς τέκνον πατρί,
ὁδοιπόρωι διψῶντι πηγαῖον ῥέος,
καὶ γῆν φανεῖσαν ναυτίλοις παρ’ ἐλπίδα,   (900)
κάλλιστον ἦμαρ εἰσιδεῖν ἐκ χείματος. [7]

But now, having endured all these things, with my heart freed from grief,
I would address my husband, as dog of the dwelling,
forestay saviour of the ship,
a high roof’s
pillar, a father’s only son,
spring water to a thirsty traveller
the sighting of land to sailors beyond hope,
fairest day seen after a storm.

The effect of μονογενής here is again the sense of focused affection and hope placed upon a sole child and heir (in implied contrast to the diffused affection and increased household survival odds of multiple heirs). Agamemnon, we must note, is not actually a siblingless son,[8] but this is exactly the point, as Clytemnestra recounts how she would regard him, in a series of figures of ‘longed-for hopes,’ and as the profession of her love in face of her sufferings at home in his absence.

5th to 1st Century

As the surviving number of texts increases, so too the number of occurrences. It is also in this period we see several derivative usages emerge in particular contexts. Hence in this section, we proceed by categories rather than strict chronology.

Only child and only son.

Two occurrences are found in Herodotus, both appear to refer to an only son (παῖδα μουνογενέα; παῖδα […] μουνογενέα) without concern for whether daughters are present.[9] This is also the use found in Plato’s Critias, where it is an only daughter (and presumably no son).[10] In Leges, Plato appears to use a slightly extended sense of the term in referring to the royal lineage (in Sparta) being made twofold from a single line.[11] Megasthenes also describes an only daughter, this time in explicit contrast to many sons.[12] Apollonius of Rhodes revives the Hesiodic reference to Hecate in Argonautica.[13]

There are two instances in Diodorus of Sicily, both times referring to a daughter. The first is to Hippodemeia, only daughter of Oenomaus.[14] The second is Tyro, daughter of Salmoneus.[15] Similarly there are three occurrences in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, first to an only daughter of Hersilia,[16] then twice to an only son of Hostilius (who coincidentally married that same sole daughter of Hersilia).[17] The appearance in the fragments of Ninus is a prayer for an only child.[18]

Less clear, however, is the usage in Serapion, where Aquarius is given the epithet μονογενές.[19] Aquarius is typically associated with Ganymede, who is not normally regarded as an only child, having Ilus and Assaracus for brothers. Unlike, for instance, the rhetorical effect of Clytemnestra ironically referring to Agamemnon as one, there does not appear to be any reason in this particular text, unless there is a particular alternate mythological identification in play.

This last anomaly notwithstanding, the primary usage of the term contains to be in reference to a person, who is identified as lacking siblings. Three extensions of this usage to other domains make their initial appearances in this period, which I refer to as philosophical, natural-scientific, and grammatical.

Philosophical usage

The philosophical usage is found in a fragment of Parmenides discussing ‘the whole’ (τὸ πᾶν) as “alone unique and ingenerate.”[20] Similarly, Plato refers to the uniqueness of the cosmos this way:

οὔτε δύο οὔτ’ ἀπείρους ἐποίησεν ὁ ποιῶν κόσμους, ἀλλ’ εἷς ὅδε μονογενὴς οὐρανὸς γεγονὼς ἔστιν καὶ ἔτ’ ἔσται.[21]

for neither did the Maker create two, nor numberless, universes, but this unique, generated heaven, exists and will continue to exist.

The language of the universe, or heaven, as offspring of God certainly borrows or draws upon a generative, even biological, semantic sense. However, the meaning has apparently shifted, from a lack of ‘siblings’, to a lack of others in the same γένος. This seems in line with the idea that the universe is not generated in the same way, and so ‘sibling’ in this sense must also shift to ‘members of the same category’. Hence, ‘one of a kind’ or ‘unique in its class’ becomes an appropriate gloss for the term in the philosophical texts. This usage recurs in other philosophical texts.[22]

Natural scientific usage

Just as the philosophical use depicts the universe as the only one in its class of existence, so too the natural science usage. The earliest instance of this is Theophrastus’ Historia plantarum, wherein he describes the beech, yew, and alder each as having ‘one kind.’[23]


A third, related use emerges in grammatical texts. The earliest instance appears in Democritus, where it appears to denote a unique or single form.[24] It then appears in Philoxenus,[25] and also accounts for the later occurrences in Apollonius Dyscolus and Aelius Herodianus and Ps-Herodianus.[26] In all cases, it can be understood along the same lines, in that γένος represents a class and μονογενής represents a single or sole instance for a class. The jump from the philosophical and natural-science categories is not large, and the use of γένος in grammatical contexts perhaps made it an attractive choice.

Sub-conclusion: 8th to 1st century BC

Excluding the instances in the Septuagint (14), there are 33 occurrences across Greek literature down to the 1st century BC. Of these 22 indicate a siblingless child, 4 are philosophical, 3 refer to natural sciences, 3 are grammatical, and 1 remains unclear. The overwhelmingly common usage is to refer to a person as lacking siblings. The etymological idea that μονογενής derives its meaning from μονο + γένος and is only applied by extension to persons lacking siblings is not borne out by its usage across ancient Greek literature.



[1] Hecate is the sole offspring of the Titans, Perses and Asteria.

[2] M.L. West, Hesiod. Theogony, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966: 111-149. Retrieved from:

[3] M.L. West, Hesiod. Theogony, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966: 111-149.
Retrieved from:

[4] F. Solmsen, Hesiodi opera, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970: 49-85.
Retrieved from:

[5] E. Chambry, Aesopi fabulae, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1:1925; 2:1926: 532-533, 536-538, 545-546, 556-557, 561, 564-565.
Retrieved from:

[6] The fable goes on to relate that the father builds a dwelling to enclose his child and keep him from any danger, but draws pictures of animals. The son, staring at the picture of the lion (and aware of the father’s dream), attempts to ‘blind’ the lion on the wall, but injures himself, resulting in a fever that leads to his death.

[7] D.L. Page, Aeschyli Septem Quae Supersunt Tragoedias, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972: 139-198.
Retrieved from:

[8] Menelaos being his brother. Some scholars have evidenced confusion at how μονογενής could mean siblingless since there are occasions when it is used in reference to persons who aren’t siblingless. I’m not sure how weak a sense of language you need to have to reach that point, but the Aeschylus’ example functions precisely because Agamemnon is not siblingless, but would be addressed as such.

[9] Herodotus, Historiae 2.79.3, 7.222.1.

[10] Plato, Critias 113d2 Κλειτὼ δὲ μονογενῆ θυγατέρα ἐγεννησάσθην.

[11] Plato, Leges 691d-e δίδυμον ὑμῖν φυτεύσας τὴν τῶν βασιλέων γένεσιν (e) ἐκ μονογενοῦς.

[12] Megasthenes, Fragmenta 23.58. καὶ τούτῳ ἄρσενας μὲν παῖδας πολλοὺς κάρτα γενέσθαι ἐν τῇ Ἰνδῶν γῇ, (πολλῇσι γὰρ δὴ γυναιξὶν ἐς γάμον ἐλθεῖν καὶ τοῦτον τὸν Ἡρακλέα,) θυγατέρα δὲ μουνο
γενέην· οὔνομα δὲ εἶναι τῇ παιδὶ Πανδαίην,

  1. Müller, Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum (FHG) 2, Paris: Didot, 1841-1870: 402-439.

[13] Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.1035 μουνογενῆ δ’ Ἑκάτην Περσηίδα μειλίσσοιο.

[14] Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca 4.73.2

K.T. Fischer (post I. Bekker & L. Dindorf) and F. Vogel, Diodori bibliotheca historica, 5 vols., 3rd edn., Leipzig: Teubner, 1:1888; 2:1890; 3:1893; 4-5:1906 (repr. 1964): 1:1-533; 2:1-461; 3:1-497; 4:1-426; 5:1-336.
Retrieved from:

[15] Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca 6.7.2

K.T. Fischer (post I. Bekker & L. Dindorf) and F. Vogel, Diodori bibliotheca historica, 5 vols., 3rd edn., Leipzig: Teubner, 1:1888; 2:1890; 3:1893; 4-5:1906 (repr. 1964): 1:1-533; 2:1-461; 3:1-497; 4:1-426; 5:1-336.
Retrieved from:


[16] Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Antiquitates Romanae 2.45.2.

[17] Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Antiquitates Romanae 3.1.2; 3.1.3.


[18] Ninus Fragmenta P. Berol. 6926. Framgent A, line 108.

  1. Zimmermann, Griechische Roman-Papyri und verwandte Texte, Heidelberg: Bilabel, 1936: 14-35.


[19] Serapion, Framenta 5.3, page 97, line 3.


Ἑλικοειδὲς Αἰγόκερως.

Μονογενὲς Ὑδροχόος.

Λεπιδωτὰ Αἰγόκερως, Ἰχθύες.

Δίμορφα Τοξότης, Αἰγόκερως, Ἰχθύες.

Χερσαῖον Σκορπίος καὶ ὁ Τοξότης ἀπὸ μέρους.


  1. Heeg, Codices Romani[Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum5.3. Brussels: Lamertin, 1910]: 96-97, 125.
    Retrieved from:

[20] Parmenides, Testimonia 22.4 ἀίδιον μὲν γὰρ τὸ πᾶν καὶ ἀκίνητον ἀποφαίνεται [καὶ] κατὰ τὴν τῶν πραγμάτων ἀλήθειαν· εἶναι γὰρ αὐτὸ ‘μοῦνον μουνογενές τε .. ἀγένητον’

[21] Plato, Timaeus 31b3.

[22] Plato, Timaeus 92c9, Spurious-Timaeus Fragmenta 207.1. This also seems to be the sense in Eudemus Fragmenta 150.41, but there it is overlayed as the philosophical interpretation of a myth, identifying Mōumis as “the noetic cosmos coming forth from the two archai.”

A similar usage which likewise straddles ‘only-child’ and the philosophical appears in Posidonius, Fragmenta, 398.15, where Persephone’s description as μονογενής (presumably as daughter of Zeus and Demeter, despite both parents having other children) is interpreted in terms of her liberating the mind from a deceased person, not the composite soul.

(Hermes) λύει δ’ αὕτη μὲν ταχὺ καὶ μετὰ βίας τὴν ψυχὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ σώματος, ἡ δὲ Φερσεφόνη πράως καὶ χρόνῳ πολλῷ τὸν νοῦν ἀπὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ διὰ τοῦτο μονογενὴς κέκληται·

  1. Theiler, Posidonius. Die Fragmente, vol. 1 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1982).

[23] Theophrastus, Historia plantarum 3.10.1, 3.10.2, 3.14.3.

[24] Democritus, Framenta 128.1.

[25] Philoxenus, Fragmenta 441.2, 441.8

[26] Apollonius Dyscolus, De Adverbiis 145.18, 20, 201.10. There are 244 references in Herodianus and Ps-Herodianus, accounting for over half of the 457 references which TLG ascribes to the 2nd century CE. That number drops to 56 in the 3rd century, before exploding to 4613 with the theological impulses of the 4th century.

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