Marriage in Ancient Greece was not mandatory, but strong social criticism was directed towards single people. There are reports indicating ceremonies in which single men were ridiculed in public who in turn would wander about naked singing songs admitting to a fair punishment.
The family served two main purposes: first to obtain offspring who would serve the city and secondly to ensure the care of parents in their old age.
Monogamy was the prevailing system in all cities. Despite this fact men could have non-marital relations while being lawfully married.
The appropriate age for marriage for men was 24 to 30 and for women 12 – 16. In Athens there was a law that forbade a man to marry a woman who did not belong to a family of Athenian citizens, although many times this law was not applied.
The process of marriage in ancient Athens
In most Greek cities, mainly in Athens girls were not allowed to have any with men outside of their family until they got married. So the only way for a man to choose a spouse was through a matchmaker. The fathers of the bride and groom would have a meeting arranged whereby they would agree in the presence of witnesses to have their children betrothed without any need of their children’s presence and opinion in the matter. The agreement was called a guarantee and it was a very important agreement despite the fact that it was an oral and not written agreement.
The main topic at such a meeting was the dowry. The father had to give the daughter of the 1 / 10 of his property as a dowry. Usually the dowry for his daughter included money, utensils, furniture, clothes or jewellery. In the case of the boys the father would give property. The dowry was the property of the bride but not the property of the groom. If they separated he was obliged to return the dowry to the family, not to the bride as we know in most cities and especially in Athens, the woman had no rights and had never been independent but was always considered the property of the father or of her husband.
In contrast to Sparta where the position of women was significantly better and where they enjoyed many rights even after a divorce, the dowry remained the property of the brides that is why there were many rich Spartan women.
In Athens the weddings were held in the Gamiliona month in January and the ceremony lasted three days. On the first day the father of the bride made the customary offerings to the gods, the bride would give her childhood toys to the goddess Artemis in order to symbolically cut her ties to her past, and the newlyweds would bathe in water brought to them in a special container from a sacred water source known as the Kallirroi. On the second day was the wedding feast arranged by the father of the bride, then afterwards the bride was transported by coach to her new home. On Tuesday, the bride would accept wedding gifts at her home. The marriage was always dedicated to the goddess Hera, the protector of the institution of marriage.
The process of marriage in Ancient Sparta
In Sparta, when a man wanted to marry he would abduct the woman he wanted to marry in the middle of the night. He would then allow a woman known as the nymfeftria to take charge, she in turn would cut the woman’s hair, dress her in men’s clothing and tell her to lie down on a mattress of hay alone and without a source of light. After the groom left his camp he would go to his bride, pick her up in his arms and move her to the bed. Having spent some time with her, he would then return to the barracks. Do not forget that in Sparta a large part of the men’s lives was spent in the army camps – so that they would always be ready for combat. They could only live with their wives when they were thirty, as this is when they completed their military service. Many times the bride would help contrive opportunities for her husband to secretly get together. This continued for some time that they would have children before the husband had ever seen his wife in the light of day. Another witness stated that all the girls used to gather together in a dark room with all the young single men who could choose any girl. Obviously then, there was no ceremony attatched to marriage in Sparta in contrast to Athens where the betrothal of the bride was not necessary for a legitimate marriage.
Divorce in Ancient Athens
It was difficult for a woman to divorce her husband. Most divorces in ancient Greece were by the husband. If he chose to divorce her he would reject her in front of witnesses or merely send her back to her family home. Upon the divorce, the dowry would be returned and the children (if any) would remain with the father. Women would lose all rights to their children. If however, the woman had committed adultery the husband did not have to return the dowry. For a woman to divorce her husband she would have to endeavor to find an archon (and Athenian official) and provide good reasons for a divorce to be granted. A man, however, could put a stop to all this by simply confining the woman to the home. Athenian fathers had all rights to end the marriage, until the woman produced a child. Before that, he could break up the marriage so that the woman could return home, or marry another man.
When a man was unfaithful he would face severe penalties because polygamy was prohibited. It was forbidden to be married to two or more women, but he could have as many non-marital relationships he wanted. Such penalties were paid in a monetary fine, or shaming blindness. The infidelity of a woman was punished with expulsion from the marital home and a ban on participation in all religious celebrations. Generally the punishment of women was more lenient than that of men because woman had no rights and therefore were not held responsible.
Divorce in Ancient Sparta
In Sparta, however, things were much simpler. The main reason for a marriage was to have children who could then fight and defend their homeland. If a couple was unable to have children the man could leave his home to marry another that would give him children. There are reports that a man could not divorce his wife but could bring another into the house with whom he would have children with. If in a marriage the couple were childless because of the man being infertile ,the woman could become pregnant by another man but only after her husband had given his consent. It was common for three or four men to have the same woman, and even siblings could share the same woman. When one spouse had acquired many children it was an honor for him to give his wife to marry one of his friends. Therefore if there were no children in a marriage because of the husband, this did not mean that a family line could not continue. In such cases someone else took the position of the husband and the wife was obligated to have children with him. The child born of this union, was considered a child of the husband. It has been said that in Sparta adultery was something unknown.
In most Greek cities and in Athens the married women lived in women’s quarters and spent their time overlooking the management of their home, caring for and raising children. Rarely did they venture outside, only in special cases (religious festivals), and always in the escort of their husband. When her husband received visits at home, they would venture into special rooms, their zenana. They had no political rights and never expressed their views on political issues. Unlike the married man who enjoyed his freedom and could keep non-marital relationships at home was rare. He ruled out in public and in symposia.
In Sparta the married women were not at all subjugated to their husbands, they played a major part in their community, did not remain at home and mixed with men. They could express their views freely on important issues as Spartan women received as much education as men. Perhaps this was because men were constantly in the barracks or the battlefield, so they were required to take on a more active role in their society. Spartan women enjoyed a status, power and respect that was unknown in the rest of classical Greece. They controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army.
Mistresses and courtesans.
A mistress who was a slave would live under the same roof as the lawful wife, who does not react to this arrangement but on the contrary finds it a completely normal relationship. The husband would have a mistress of the same faith which is also required from the legal wife. He could also acquire children with her who would usually not have full political rights.
Since the legal spouses were limited to the home, husbands would participate daily at the symposia accompanied by a courtesan. These partners were women from «outside», and they would speak to men as equals. They were free, independent, had money and charm. Many significant male figures in Greek history were influenced by courtesans as was Pericles who was influenced by the famous courtesan Aspasia.