Marriage and Family Life In Ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel

We in the modern world are so quick to condemn the ancients for misogyny, for not treating women as equals, for subjugating women, we forget how dangerous it was to be a woman in the ancient world.  Indeed, those in the ancient world would be puzzled by these accusations, they would reply that their entire culture is built around the need to protect women, for it was dangerous for pretty women to be wandering about town for any reason, rape was a constant threat, women were sequestered partially for their protection.  The Hebrews in the Old Testament culture did not sequester women quite as much as the Greeks,[1] many of the stories in the Old Testament describe how romances center around the wells where the women draw water for their flocks.[2]   This was true even in the middle ages, St Francis and his monks could choose to minister to the townspeople, but St Claire and her nuns were always cloistered.

The ancient world was a dangerous place for women.  The plot of the ancient Greek Homeric tale of the Iliad revolves around the dispute between the warrior Achilles and King Agamemnon over their captured concubines, Briseis and Chryseis.  We are reminded that these concubines were often not low-class women, the father of Chryseis, Chryses, a priest of Apollo, brings down a plague on the Greeks until they release his daughter.  We also hear the laments of the warriors of Troy, how they know the future will see the Greeks defeating Troy and enslaving their wives and children.

The Iliad was not the only ancient story of men kidnapping women to be their concubines or their brides.  One of the founding myths of Rome was the ancient Romans hosting a festival for Neptune, inviting those from the neighboring Sabine tribe, and on a signal by Romulus the Romans seized the women attending to be their brides.[3]  There is an even uglier story in Judges describing how the men of the tribe of Benjamin were allowed to abduct women to be their brides.  Whereas the Aeneid pretends propriety on the part of Romulus, there is no pretense of propriety in the abduction in Judges, the chapter ends with the disconcerting refrain we hear often in Judges and today in our modern world, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”[4]

Eloping, which was not always voluntary, was a problem up through the Middle Ages.  Indeed, several church councils in the ancient church up through the Middle Ages had to remind Christians that it was just not proper courting to kidnap the girl you wanted to marry, that it was better morally to ask permission from her father first.  One of the reforms of the Council of Trent was to de-legitimize the common-law marriages of young couples who eloped, insisting that only those marriages recognized by the Church were legitimate marriages, making marriage more of a community affair.  You have the same problem in all ages with young Romeos.  Men lie, they tell the young girls that they love them, until their child is born, then they want to deny their vows, pretending there were none, if possible.

When we read the seemingly harsh warnings against concupiscence or intimacy by the Stoic philosophers, St Augustine, and the other Church Fathers, we must remember that intimacy in the ancient world literally risked the lives of women who would find themselves pregnant.  Women would often make sure their will was updated when they learned they were pregnant.  We have no hard numbers, but scholars guestimate that the maternal mortality during childbirth could be as high as ten to twenty percent.

Infant mortality was also extremely high, the Church Fathers just do not often claim that human life is sacred, because death was so common in the ancient world.  Scholars guestimate that a quarter of all infants died in childbirth or shortly thereafter.  In ancient Greece, the newborn infants were not incorporated into family for five days, and infants were only named if they survived for ten days.  Many more children died in early childhood and adolescence.  There was no aspirin in the ancient and medieval worlds, it was not uncommon for otherwise healthy people to die from fevers.

The ancient mortality rate was not helped by the primitive hygiene.  People often relieved themselves in the stables and the fields, providing fertilizer for the crops.  This also fits into the lifecycles of the ringworm, farmers would become infected when tilling their crops barefooted, ringworm is still a major problem today in rural India.  People sometimes slept with their animals under the same roof, and they did not realize that rats were a vector for the spread of the plague.

The Church Fathers and Scriptures just do not mention abortion that often, it is not the issue it is in modern society with our medical advances.  People in the ancient world really were unable to care for infants with severe birth defects, St Augustine in passing mentions monsters that are sometimes born to unfortunate mothers.  The ancients did perform primitive abortions, but the moral issue in the ancient world was not abortion but exposure.  This was a practice in ancient Greece, particularly Sparta, if an infant was not healthy or had birth defects he would be left or exposed in the forest for the wild animals to tear apart.  One of the common themes in ancient stories was the shepherd who came across an exposed infant and raised him as his own.[5]  In Hebrew society, when a child was born the father decided whether the child would be accepted into the household.  If not, he was left in the field, this practice is referred to in Ezekiel 16.[6]

We in the modern world may forget that women have only been voting for about a hundred years, and it has only been for the past fifty years that feminist scholars have been beating our ancient ancestors over the head for their patriarchal societies, accusing them of misogamy, a word or concept that did not even exist in ancient or medieval societies.  In all ages these restrictions applied more strictly to upper class women in towns and cities.  There were fewer restrictions for the majority of women who lived outside of the towns and cities or who were poor, out of necessity they either have to help with the farm chores or help the family to survive.  We just do not have detailed accounts of how the vast majority scratched out a living, we have more detailed accounts of how the poor lived in pre-industrial times, we can cautiously extrapolate these accounts to the poor in ancient times.  The stories of the Old Testament are illuminating, as the patriarchs from Genesis are Bedouin herders from the Iron Age.

Most upper-class marriages in the ancient world were arranged marriages.  Modern scholars emphasize that ancient marriages were mostly arranged for economic reasons, that romance rarely played a part, but the truth is probably more practical, most daughters were as protected from the outside world as were their mothers, there just was not any opportunity for romance to blossom.

GREEK AND ROMAN WOMEN

Whereas today women live longer than men, in ancient Greece it was the opposite, men usually lived five or ten years longer than women, mostly because of multiple pregnancies and a high mortality rate during childbirth.  Most marriages were arranged between men usually in their thirties and usually girls who reached puberty at fourteen years.  Women were provided dowries by their parents, if they were divorced the husband was bound to return the dowry.

Women were strictly forbidden to philander in ancient Greece, this would threaten the bloodline of the family, adultery was considered a public civil offense rather than a private offense.  However, philandering was tolerated and expected for men.  Both homosexual and flute players they often invited to the symposia or drinking parties in the front room of their houses, we read about symposia in the writings of Plato and Xenophon.  In the Odyssey we hear that Odysseus slept with many goddesses on his voyage home and even told his wife, Penelope, how he left their arms to come home to spend the rest of his life with her.

Women were sequestered in ancient Greece.  We hear in the Homeric tale, the Odyssey, how Odysseus’ wife Penelope lived in the women’s quarters which were built in the second floor in the back of the house.  Servants did the daily shopping, in ancient Greece the only time you saw women in public was at funerals and religious festivals.  Spartan women were more independent, because the men lived in their military barracks.[7]  The women in ancient Greece were always spinning thread for cloth, even the goddesses in the Odyssey had spinning wheels.

Women had more freedom in Rome, some young women were able to date, the poet Ovid suggests taking your girlfriend to the Circus Maximus so they could sit close together.  Marriages could be either “with the hand,” where the women were provided a dowry and had no legal rights, or the more popular “without the hand” marriages where there was no dowry and they were more independent of their husbands.  Unlike the Greeks, Roman wives often attended the banquets their husbands hosted.  More marriages were for love, the custom where the groom carried his bride over the threshold lest she stumble and bring bad luck on the household was a Roman custom that we have continued.[8]

SOME OLD TESTAMENT OBSERVATIONS

Many of the observations of the lives of Greek and Roman women and family apply to any ancient Mediterranean culture.  One difference is the Old Testament may infer that the ancient Hebrew culture has fewer slaves, more servants, and is more egalitarian and rural than that of Rome and Greece.  If we knew more about ancient Greek and Roman rural life there would be more similarities, but our ancient sources are mostly silent on this topic.

The poor are somewhat invisible in the Greek and Roman sources, but this is not true in the writings of the prophets of the Old Testament.  These prophets show great concern for the plight of the poor, particularly the widows and the orphans.  There were many widows and orphans among the Hebrews, often the wife was ten or fifteen years younger than the husband,[9] which was also often true in ancient Greece, and to a lesser extent, Rome.  The Torah commands that the farmer leave the left-over grain in the fields at harvest time for the widows to glean, we see this practice when Ruth gleans in the field of Boaz.

Leviticus 18 has many strange commands that men should uncover the nakedness of your sister or half-sister or granddaughter or aunt or daughter-in-law and other close relatives.  Who would want to do that?  Unlike today, families in the ancient world intermarried.  For example, we read how Abraham sent for a wife for his son Isaac from his cousin Laban.  So, there was a need to forbid some too-close relationships as taboo in Leviticus.

The marriage covenant itself was followed by the man draping his cloak over either his wife or his concubine, which may be the source of the commands that start with “thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of” the marriage blessing, since these are relationships that are taboo and reprehensible.  The Hebrew words for mistress and concubine do not necessarily have the same negative connotation they have in English, sometimes they refer to secondary wives. [10]

[1] Phillip King and Lawrence Stager, “Life in Biblical Israel” (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 49-52.

[2] King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, pp. 123-126.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rape_of_the_Sabine_Women

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=judges+21&version=NRSVCE

[5] Robert Garland, “The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World”, lectures recorded by The Great Courses (www.thegreatcourses.com, 2012), Lecture 11: Growing Up Greek

[6] Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin, “Social World of Ancient Israel, 1250-587 BCE” (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993), pp. 10-11.

[7] Robert Garland, The Other Side of History, Lecture 14, Being a Greek Woman

[8] Robert Garland, The Other Side of History, Lecture 26, Being a Roman Woman

[9] King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, p. 12.

[10] Matthews and Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel, pp. 14-15.

About Bruce Strom 142 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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