Ancient Greek marriage law

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Ancient Greek marriage law concerns the laws and practices involving the institution of marriage in Ancient Greece. Culturally, this was a highly significant event for the woman as it marked a transition from childhood in her family home to adulthood in the home of her husband.

Marriage as a public interest[edit]

The Ancient Greek legislators considered marriage to be a matter of public interest. This was particularly the case at Sparta, where the subordination of private interests and personal happiness to the good of the public was strongly encouraged by the laws of the city. One example of the legal importance of marriage can be found in the Spartan governing laws, the laws of Lycurgus of Sparta, which required that criminal proceedings be taken against those who married too late (graphe opsigamiou) or unsuitably (graphe kakogamiou), as well as against those who did not marry at all (graphe agamiou).[1][2][3] These regulations were founded on the generally recognised principle that it was the duty of every citizen to raise up a strong and healthy progeny of legitimate children to the state.[4]

The Spartans considered teknopoioia (childbearing) as the main object of marriage. This resulted in the suggestion that whenever a woman had no children by her own husband, the state ought to promote that she be allowed allowed by law to cohabit with another man.[5] On the same principle, and for the purpose of preventing the extinction of his family, the Spartan king Anaxandridas II was allowed to cohabit with two wives. He kept two separate establishments: this was a case of bigamy, which, as Herodotus[6] observes, was not at all consistent with Spartan nor indeed with Hellenic customs. Thus, the heroes of Homer appear never to have had more than one kouridie alochos: lawfully wedded wife;[7] though they are frequently represented as living in concubinage with one or more.

Solon also seems to have viewed marriage as a matter of social and political importance; we are told that his laws allowed agamiou graphe, though the regulation seems to have grown obsolete in later times; regardless, there is no instance on record of its application.[8] Plato appears to set a similar significance on the state's ability to regulate and apply political and social pressure to encourage marriage. According to his laws,[9] any man who did not marry before he was thirty-five was punishable not only with atimia (loss of civil rights), but also with pecuniary penalties, and he expressly states that in choosing a wife, every man ought to consult the interests of the state, and not his own pleasure.[10]

Arranged marriage[edit]

Marriage was usually arranged by the parents of the bride, and the groom himself. A man would choose his wife based on three things, the dowry which was given by the father to the groom, her presumed fertility, and her skills, such as weaving. There were no established age limits for marriage. Most women were married by the age of 14, while men commonly married around the age of 30. Polygamy was popular during this time as rich men could have several wives.[11]

Betrothing a woman was seen as a gift. The son-in-law and father-in-law became allies, etai, through the exchange of other gifts in preparation for the transfer of the bride. Gifts, dora, signified the alliance between the two households. The exchange also showed that woman's family was not simply selling her or rejecting her, the gifts formalized the legitimacy of a marriage. Gifts generated from the betrothed wife, hedna, usually manifested in cattle. [12]

Men could marry a woman by winning her, through competition, as a prize. A husband might have a wife and a concubine. If the wife gave consent, children breed from the concubine would be acknowledged as heirs to the husband. [13] This practice was mainly confined to high status wealthy men, allowing them multiple concubines and mistresses but only one wife. [14]

Marriages were arranged through the meeting of the fathers of the young couples. Basing the marriages on their interests, in expanding a business to forging an alliance between the families with little concern to what the groom thought of the situation, and no regard to what the wife wished [15]

Selecting a spouse[edit]

Independent of any public considerations, there were also private or personal reasons (particular to the ancients) which made marriage an obligation. Plato mentions one of these as the duty incumbent upon every individual to provide for a continuance of representatives to succeed himself as ministers of the Divinity (toi Theoi hyperetas an' hautou paradidonai). Another was the desire felt by almost everyone, not merely to perpetuate his own name, but also to prevent his heritage being desolate, and his name being cut off, and to leave someone who might make the customary offerings at his grave.[16] With this in mind, childless persons would sometimes adopt unwanted children including children that had been left to die.

By Athenian law, a citizen was not allowed to marry a foreign woman, nor conversely, under very severe penalties.[17] However, proximity by blood (anchisteia), or consanguinity (syngeneia), was not, with few exceptions, a bar to marriage in any part of Greece; direct lineal descent was.[18] Thus brothers were permitted to marry with sisters even, if not homometrioi or born from the same mother, as Cimon did with Elpinice, though a connection of this sort appears to have been looked on with abhorrence.[19]


In Athens, in the case of a father dying intestate, and without male children, his heiress had no choice in marriage. She was compelled by law to marry her nearest kinsman not in the ascending line. If the heiress were poor (thessa) the nearest unmarried kinsman either married her or portioned her suitably to her rank. When there were several co-heiresses, they were respectively married to their kinsmen, the nearest having the first choice (see Epikleros). The heiress in fact, together with her inheritance, belonged to the kinsmen of the family, so that in early times a father could not give his daughter (if an heiress) in marriage without their consent.[20] This was not the case, however, in later Athenian law,[21] by which a father was empowered to dispose of his daughter by will or otherwise; just as widows were disposed of in marriage, by the will of their husbands, who were still considered their rightful guardians (Kyrioi).[22]

The same practice of marrying in the family (oikos), especially in the case of heiresses, prevailed in Sparta; Leonidas married the heiress of Cleomenes I, as of anchisteia, or next of kin, and Anaxandrides, his own sister's daughter. Moreover, if a father had not determined himself concerning his daughter, it was decided by the king's court who among the privileged persons or members of the same family should marry the heiress.[23] A resemblance to the Athenian law respecting heiresses is also found in the Jewish code, as detailed in Numbers (c. xxvii. 1 — 11), and exemplified in Ruth (c. iv.).

But match-making among the ancients remained outside the dominion of political and legal regulation. This was entirely left to the care and forethought of parents, for women who made a profession of it, and who were therefore called promnestriai or promnestrides.[24] The profession, however, does not seem to have been thought very honourable nor to have been held in repute, as being too nearly connected with a panderer (proagogos).[25]

Dates for marriage[edit]

There were usually certain dates preferable for getting married. According to some ancient Greeks married in the winter. There is also many superstitions that say they married during full moons. A common month in which they married, though, was “Gamelion” or January, which was sacred to the goddess Hera. [26]


In Athens the engyesis, or betrothal, was in fact indispensable to the complete validity of a marriage contract. It was made by the natural or legal guardian (kyrios) of the bride elect, and attended by the relatives of both parties as witnesses. The law of Athens ordained that all children born from a marriage legally contracted in this respect should be legal gnesioi,[27] and consequently, if sons, isomoiroi, are entitled to inherit equally or in gavel-kind. It would seem, therefore, that the issue of a marriage without espousals would lose their heritable rights, which depended on their being born ex astes kai engyetes gynaikos: i.e. from a citizen and a legally betrothed wife. The wife's dowry was also settled at the espousals.[28]

In Sparta, the betrothal of the bride by her father or guardian (kyrios) was requisite as a preliminary of marriage, as well as at Athens.[29] Another custom peculiar to the Spartans, and a relic of ancient times, was the seizure of the bride by her intended husband (see Herod, vi. 65), but of course with the sanction of her parents or guardians.[30] She was not, however, immediately domiciled in her husband's house, but cohabited with him for some time clandestinely, till he brought her, and frequently her mother also, to his home. A similar custom appears to have prevailed in Crete, where, as we are told,[31] the young men when dismissed from the agela of their fellows, were immediately married, but did not take their wives home till some time afterwards. Muller suggests that the children of this furtive kind of intercourse were called Parthenioi.

Marriage celebration[edit]

The ancient Greek marriage celebration consisted of a three part ceremony which lasted three days: the proaulia which was the pre-wedding ceremony, the gamos, which was the actual wedding, and the epaulia which was the post-wedding ceremony.


The proaulia was the time when the bride would spend her last days with her mother, female relatives, and friends preparing for her wedding. The proaulia was usually a feast held at the bride’s father’s house. During this ceremony, the bride would make various offerings, called the proteleia, to gods such as Artemis and Aphrodite. “Toys would be dedicated to Artemis by adolescent girls prior to marriage, as a prelude to finding a husband and having children. More significant as a rite of passage before marriage was the ritual of the cutting and dedication of a lock of hair.” These offerings signified the brides’ separation from childhood and initiation into adulthood. They also established a bond between the bride and the gods, who provided protection for the bride during this transition.


The gamos was the wedding day, where a series of ceremonies surrounded the transfer of the bride from her father's home to that of her new husband. The day's rituals began with a nuptial bath which was given to the bride. This bath symbolized purification as well as fertility. The bride and groom then made offerings at the temple to ensure a fruitful future life. A wedding feast would be attended by both families. However, men and women sat at different tables . The most significant ritual of the wedding day was the anakalupteria, which was the removal of the bride's veil. This signified the completion of the transfer to her husband's family.


The epaulia was similar to a bridal or groom shower. It was where the bride and groom received most of their gifts preparing them for their journey as husband and wife.


In cases of adultery by the wife, the Athenian law subjected the husband to Atimia, disenfranchisement, if he continued to cohabit with her, so that she was ipso facto divorced.[32] But a separation might be effected in two different ways: by the wife leaving the husband, or the husband dismissing the wife. If the latter supposed her husband to have acted without sufficient justification in such a course, it was permitted for her after dismissal, or rather for her guardians, to bring an action for dismissal (dike apopompes): the corresponding action if brought by the husband was a dike apoleipseos. If, however, a wife were ill-used in any way by her husband, he was liable to an action called dike kakoseos so that the wife was not entirely unprotected by the laws, a conclusion justified by a fragment in Athenaeus[33] in which married women are spoken of as relying on its protection. But a separation, whether it originated from the husband or wife, was considered to reflect discredit on the latter independent of the difficulties and inconveniences to which she was subjected by it. At Sparta, barrenness on the part of a wife seems to have been a ground for dismissal by the husband;[34] and from a passage in Dio Chrysostom,[35] it has been inferred that women were in the habit of imposing suppositious children with a view of keeping (kataschein) their husbands: not but that the word admits of, if indeed it does not (from the tense) require, a different interpretation. The duties of an Athenian wife are stated somewhat in detail Oeconomicus (Xenophon).

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Pollux, viii. 4 0
  2. ^ Plutarch.
  3. ^ Lycurg. 15.
  4. ^ Mulller, Dorians., iv. 4. § 3.
  5. ^ Xenophon. de Rep. Lac. i. 8.
  6. ^ Herodotus. vi. 39, 40
  7. ^ Buttmann, Lexilogus, 73
  8. ^ Platner, Process, &c. vol. ii. p. 248.
  9. ^ Leg. iv. p. 721
  10. ^ Leg. vi. p. 773.
  11. ^ Walter Scheidel; 2008; Monogamy and Polygamy in Greece, Rome, and World History
  12. ^ Powers, Jennifer. "Greek Weddings: The History of Marriage." Greek Weddings: The History of Marriage. SUNY Albany, 1997. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.
  13. ^ Powers, Jennifer. "Greek Weddings: The History of Marriage." Greek Weddings: The History of Marriage. SUNY Albany, 1997. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.
  14. ^ Apostolou, Menelaos. "Sexual Selection Under Parental Choice: Evidence From Sixteen Historical Societies." Evolutionary Psychology 10.3 (2012): 504-518. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014
  15. ^ Thompson, James C. "MARRIAGE IN ANCIENT ATHENS." MARRIAGE IN ANCIENT ATHENS. N.p., n.d., July 2010. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.
  16. ^ Isaeus de Apoll. Hered. p. 66. Bek.
  17. ^ Demosth. c.Neaer. p. 1350
  18. ^ Isaeus, de Oiron. her. p. 72.
  19. ^ Becker, Charikles, vol. ii. p. 448.
  20. ^ Muller, Dorians, ii. 10. § 4.
  21. ^ Demosth., C. Steph.; p. 1134.
  22. ^ Demosth. C. Aphob.; p. 814.
  23. ^ Herod, vi. 57 ; Muller, /. c.
  24. ^ Pollux, iii. 31.
  25. ^ Plato, Theaet. 2. p. 150.
  26. ^
  27. ^ Demosth. c. Steph. p. 1134
  28. ^ Meicr and Schoeman, p. 415.
  29. ^ Muller, Dorians, ii. 4. § 2.
  30. ^ Xen. de Rep. Lac. i. 5.
  31. ^ Strabo, x. p. 482
  32. ^ Demosth. c.Neaer. p. 1374.
  33. ^ Athenaeus; xiii; p. 559
  34. ^ Herod, vi; 61
  35. ^ Orat. xv; p. 447

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSmith, William, ed. (1870). "article name needed". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray.