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Ancient Greek marriage law

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Ancient Greek marriage law

"Wedding preparation"

Ancient Greek wedding customs encouraged responsibility in personal relationships. Marriages were usually arranged by the parents. Professional matchmakers were used reluctantly. Each city was politically independent, with its own laws affecting marriage. Orphaned daughters were left to an uncle or cousin. For the marriage to be legal, the woman's father or guardian gave permission to a suitable male who could afford to marry. Wintertime marriages were popular. The couple participated in a ceremony which included rituals such as veil removal but the couple living together made the marriage legal.

Marriage as a public interest

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 provide that she be 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; in any case, there is no instance on record of its application.[8] Plato appears to give a similar role to the state in regulating and applying 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

Marriage was usually arranged between 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 the woman's family was not simply selling her or rejecting her; the gifts formalized the legitimacy of a marriage. Gifts from the betrothed wife (hedna) usually consisted of cattle.[12]

A man 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 bred from the concubine would be acknowledged as heirs to the husband.[12] This practice was mainly confined to high status wealthy men, allowing them multiple concubines and mistresses but only one wife.[13]

Marriages were also arranged through the meeting of the fathers of the young couple, basing the marriage on their interests in expanding a business or forging an alliance between the families, with little concern about what the groom thought of the situation, and no regard for what the wife wished.[14]

Selecting a spouse

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.[15] With this in mind, childless persons would sometimes adopt unwanted children, including children who had been left to die.

By Athenian law, a citizen was not allowed to marry a foreign woman, nor conversely, under very severe penalties.[16] 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.[17] Thus brothers were permitted to marry even with sisters, 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.[18]


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). In fact the heiress, 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.[19] This was not the case, however, in later Athenian law,[20] 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).[21]

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 her anchisteia, or next of kin, and Anaxandrides his own sister's daughter. Moreover, if a father had not determined himself concerning his daughter, the king's court decided who among the privileged persons or members of the same family should marry the heiress.[22] 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, or women who made a profession of it, and who were therefore called promnestriai or promnestrides.[23] The profession, however, does not seem to have been thought very honourable or to have been held in repute, as being too nearly connected with that of a panderer (proagogos).[24]

Dates for marriage

There were usually certain dates preferable for getting married. According to some, ancient Greeks married in the winter. There are 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.[25]


In the Ancient Greek world of Athens, women had different rights concerning the process of engagement and marriage. A daughter was not allowed to marry unless a krios, which was a daughter’s father, blood brother, a grandfather, or legal guardian, allowed it.[26] The krios would announce that he was allowing his daughter to marry.[27] The suitors would compete against each other for the daughters hand in marriage. They would bring extravagant gifts or compete by song, dance, or games.[27] When the suitor was chosen for the daughter, the suitor and the father would proceed in a process known as engysis, (‘giving of a pledge into the hand’), which is where the two men would shake hands and say some ritual phrases. The woman did not decide who she would marry, only under very special circumstances, and she played no active role in the engysis process, which was not out of the norm for that time period.[28] After the engysis, the two would make a binding promise, which occurred before the marriage.

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,[29] and consequently, if sons, isomoiroi, 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.[30]

In Sparta the betrothal of the bride by her father or guardian (kyrios) was requisite as a preliminary of marriage, just as at Athens.[31] Another custom peculiar to the Spartans, and a relic of ancient times, was the seizure of the bride by her intended husband (see Herodotus, vi. 65), but of course with the sanction of her parents or guardians.[32] 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,[33] 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 intercourse were called parthenioi.

Marriage celebration

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 bride's 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.

Marriage ceremony

A gamos, a marriage ceremony, was conducted. It started with a sacrifice, proteleia, (premarital), which was for the gods to bless the two being wed. Then the future wife would cut her hair signifying her previous virginity. The two would then take a ceremonial bath in holy water, known as loutra. The water would be poured from a loutrophoros. Smaller loutrophors where possibly given to the gods to bless the marriage. After the loutra a feast was prepared at the bride’s house, however, the women would sit and wait until the men were done.[34] This same custom of men eating before the women, was up held in other meals as well as the marriage feast. Women were allowed to control the conversation, once allowed to dine with the men.

The woman consecrated the marriage by moving into the suitors living quarters.[35] Once the woman stepped in the house the sunoikein, ‘living together’, legalized the engysis that the suitor and the kyrios made. A dowry was given to the husband from the wife. She often did not have any possessions to give, the father or the kyrios provided a dowry, which was important for the couple.[36]


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.[37] 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 taken such a course without sufficient justification, she, or rather her guardian, was permitted 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[38] 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, besides 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;[39] and from a passage in Dio Chrysostom,[40] it has been inferred that women were in the habit of imposing suppositious children with the object of keeping (kataschein) their husbands; but the word permits, if indeed it does not (from the tense) require, a different interpretation. The duties of an Athenian wife are stated somewhat in detail in the Oeconomicus (Xenophon).

See also


  • Powers, Jennifer. "Ancient Weddings". Classics Technology Center. AbleMedia. Retrieved November 28, 2011. 
  • Dillon, Matthew (2002). Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. New York: London and New York:Routledge. pp. 211–215. 


  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. ^ a b Powers, Jennifer. "Greek Weddings: The History of Marriage." SUNY Albany, 1997. Web. 18 March 2014.
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ Thompson, James C. "MARRIAGE IN ANCIENT ATHENS." MARRIAGE IN ANCIENT ATHENS. N.p., n.d., July 2010. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.
  15. ^ Isaeus de Apoll. Hered. p. 66. Bek.
  16. ^ Demosth. c.Neaer. p. 1350
  17. ^ Isaeus, de Oiron. her. p. 72.
  18. ^ Becker, Charikles, vol. ii. p. 448.
  19. ^ Muller, Dorians, ii. 10. § 4.
  20. ^ Demosth., C. Steph.; p. 1134.
  21. ^ Demosth. C. Aphob.; p. 814.
  22. ^ Herodotus, vi. 57 ; Muller, /. c.
  23. ^ Pollux, iii. 31.
  24. ^ Plato, Theaet. 2. p. 150.
  25. ^
  26. ^ Flaceliere, Robert (1974). Daily Life in Greece. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., INC.. pp. 57.
  27. ^ a b Mireaux, Emile (1959). Daily Life in the Time of Homer. New York: The Macmillan Company. pp. 215.
  28. ^ Flaceliere, Robert (1974). Daily Life in Greece. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., INC.. pp. 60.
  29. ^ Demosth. c. Steph. p. 1134
  30. ^ Meicr and Schoeman, p. 415.
  31. ^ Muller, Dorians, ii. 4. § 2.
  32. ^ Xen. de Rep. Lac. i. 5.
  33. ^ Strabo, x. p. 482
  34. ^ Garland,Robert (1990).The Greek Way of Life. New York:Cornell University Press. pp.119-120
  35. ^ Flaceliere,Robert (1974).Daily Life in Greece.New York:Macmillan Publishing Co., INC..pp.62
  36. ^ Osborne,Robin (2008).The World of Athens an Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture.New York:Cambridge University Press.pp.154
  37. ^ Demosth. c.Neaer. p. 1374.
  38. ^ Athenaeus; xiii; p. 559
  39. ^ Herodotus vi; 61
  40. ^ Orat. xv; p. 447

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray. 

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