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Ancient Weddings
by Jennifer Goodall Powers, SUNY Albany
Original text © 1997 Jennifer Goodall Powers

Greek Weddings

The History of Marriage

These types of marriages were either commonly practiced (or recently made obsolete) around the fifth century. To understand fifth century practices, it is necessary to take a step back and review the history of marriage in Greece, for Sappho, who flourished in the seventh century B.C., drew on patterns of marriage that were as much mythological as sociological, or legal, and for whom marriage as an institution triggered personal responses.

Pandora was the first bride,9 as well as the first woman. Didomi, the word meaning to give, from which Pandora's name is derived, reflects that the bride was originally a free gift that came to the groom's home bearing gifts. Leduc explains the importance of the bride-gift:

The free gift was, I believe, the organizing principle of the Hellenic system of legitimate reproduction. From the eighth to the fourth century B.C. a woman was always given (didomi) to her husband by another man, and this man always gave other riches (epididomi) along with her.10

In keeping with the notion of a bride as a gift, the Homeric bride brought gifts to her new oikos.11 This arrangement is a daughter-in-law marriage.12 During the "betrothal," the son-in-law and father-in-law became etai, allies, by exchanging gifts in preparation for the bride transfer. The dora, gifts, were a tangible sign of the alliance between the two households. This exchange also indicated that the bride's family was not just selling or rejecting her. The bridewealth generated by the passive bride, on the other hand, was called hedna and it usually manifested itself in cattle. This gift exchange formalized the legitimacy of a marriage and legitimized the children of the union.

In Homeric epic, a man could also "marry" a girl by winning her in a competition or by stealing her as booty. The Greek heroes left Troy with Trojan women as their "prizes." There was no "polygamy"; instead, a husband might have a wife and concubine, as seen frequently in ancient works about the Homeric heroes. If the wife gave her consent, the children of the concubine could be appointed as heirs. Yet, society demanded that a woman be faithful to her husband, begetting legitimate children.

One compelling motivation for marriage was the political alliance between noble families that the marriage would establish. Gradually, however, money replaced birth as a conduit to political influence, and marriages were consequently not as necessary for establishing political alliances.

Occasionally, sexual attraction would be a reason for marriage, but it was still only the attraction of the man, leaving the woman's feelings unaccounted for. Achilles' anger when Briseis was taken away from him indicates the deep feelings of a man for a woman who was worth fighting for. Helen acts on her own lust, but her actions are considered unique and improper by her peers.13

The daily lives of women during the dom of movement, they were not expected to mix freely with men. Women out of the house were usually in the company of other women.14 Women's activities consisted mainly of ensuring the smooth running of the household, bathing and anointing their husbands, raising their children, and participating in religious festivals. Women also contributed economically to their households through textile production. Vases often depict women weaving, as seen on this Berlin tondo:

The woman seated on a chair on the left has one bare foot propped on a special foot-support. Her chiton and mantle are pulled up above her knees, so that she can twist the loose wool around her leg prepatory to spinning it. She holds a thick strand of red wool in her hands. A basket stands near her ready for the finished yarn ... On the far right, a second wool basket stands on a cushioned stool.15

The women were solely responsible for producing the textiles used by all the household members.

During the era of colonization and unsettled times which followed, many of the characteristics of and motives for marriage, such as political and economic motives, were inherited from the Homeric age. Sentimentality and love prevailed too.16 Convenience was a predominant motive; colonists commonly "married" native women. There was also a movement from bridewealth marriages, in which the groom paid the bride's father, towards dotal marriages, in which dowries went to the groom's family. This gave the father of the bride a personal stake in the marriage: he might be more discriminating in whom he would select as his daughter's groom since he would, in effect, be paying this man to take care of her. If the kyrios picked a whimsical man, the groom might waste the dowry money. The policy of returning the dowry in the event of divorce also deterred the husband from divorcing the woman frivolously. Meanwhile it also set a certain standard of living for the bride in her new household since her father could initiate a divorce and thereby reclaim the dowry if he was unhappy with her arrangement.

Marriage in seventh century Sparta deserves a mention in this context.17 The role of a woman as reproductive mother was equally as important as the role of reproductive father and marriage was viewed simply as a basis for procreation. But procreation was not limited to married couples. Wife-sharing and selective breeding were common practices in the Spartans' quest for the production of strong warriors. Spartan society placed a very high value on physical strength and bred children for strength. So if a man was not physically strong, he would most likely not procreate with his wife and instead would allow a stronger man to impregnate her. If a man did not father boys or did not have the desired Spartan qualities himself, the woman was encouraged to seek another man to impregnate her. Spartan women enjoyed more power and freedom than other Greek women, as their men were often away training for military service and responsibilities both within and outside the household fell to them. Spartan women were allowed out of the house and were encouraged to exercise and stay strong. This is in contrast to other Greek communities which limited women's activities to the domestic sphere only.

Because data from the Homeric Age and Age of Colonization are sparse, many of the details about marriage and the status of women discussed in this study are based on Athenian practices of the fifth and fourth centuries. The formal guardianship of women, the ages of the couple at wedding time, the economic and political motivations for marriage, and the goals of marriage and motherhood for women are just some of the features we recognize from Athenian marriages. The development of the Athenian polis from the seventh century onwards, however, did qualify the role of women. To ensure the stability, strength, and identity of the developing polis, the role of child-producing woman rose in importance.18

9. For a full explanation of Pandora as the first bride and of marriage in the Homeric age, see Leduc, Claudine. 1992. "Marriage in Ancient Greece" in Pauline Schmitt (ed) A History of Women in the West: Volume I: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: 233-295. Leduc discusses the relevance of offering gifts with the bride in Homeric times and explores why this ritual was practiced differently by later societies.
10. ibid., 235-36.
11. For a full explanation of marriage in Homeric times (eighth century B.C.), supra n. 9.
12. Examples of daughter-in-law marriages abound. Penelope represents a wife who gave up her own family in order to be incorporated into her husband¹s family. Nausicaa¹s situation, on the other hand, if Odysseus had accepted her hand in marriage, would have resulted in a son-in-law marriage since the husband would have been incorporated into the household of the bride¹s father.
13. There are other women who act on their own desires as well (Medea, Clytemnestra), yet they too are viewed as improper.
14. Nausicaa, for instance, accidentally met Odysseus while waiting at a well, but she did not feel comfortable alone with an unrelated man. She tells her girl servants "Stay with me!" (Hom. Od. 6.213) Her biggest fear, though, is being seen entering the city with an unrelated man by the villagers and makes him follow after her.
15. Berlin F2289, vase description, Perseus 2.0, 1996. New Haven.
16. Periander, tyrant of Corinth in the seventh century B.C., is said to have fallen in love at the sight of his soon-to-be wife Melissa (Athenaeus 13, 589F).
17. Marriage and the status of women in Gortyn have also been examined as a parallel comparison to Sparta, since Dorian women in general shared a freedom other Greek women lacked. Leduc, supra n. 9, also outlines marriage in these two communities.
18. Male babies were needed to maintain the existing number of families, especially during the Peloponnesian War.


Table of Contents > Greek Weddings: The Wedding Ceremony

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