Women's History and Ancient History

By Sarah B. Pomeroy | Go to book overview

CYNTHIA B. PATTERSON


Marriage and the Married Woman in Athenian Law

In the midst of describing the strange and exotic customs of the Egyptians, Herodotus pauses to note that the Egyptians, "like the Greeks," each have only one wife (2.92)--that is, that both the Greeks and the Egyptians are monogamous. That, at least, is what most readers of Herodotus (generally belonging to monogamous societies themselves) have very reasonably taken him to mean. Herodotus' exact wording is gunaiki miē hekastos autōn sunoikeei, literally "each of them lives together with one woman." 1 But was this marriage--to Herodotus or to an Athenian audience? In this essay I discuss the ways in which such "living together" of a man and woman was recognized and validated by classical Athenian law and custom, establishing what we can indeed call a marriage or marital relationship. I argue that although classical Athenian law concerned itself primarily with the identification of the wife as bearer of legitimate children and heirs, and secondarily (from at least the mid-fourth century) with prohibiting marital cohabitation of Athenians with non- Athenians, 2 significant aspects of the marital relationship, such as the celebration of the marriage and the setting up of the new household or oikos, were the domain of social ritual and custom. Marriage as an institution involved both kinds of validation, legal and social. Rather than search for a single formula for what constituted the legal event of "solemn marriage" (or "die rechtsgültige Ehe"), 3 we ought to see Athenian marriage as a multifaceted process, 4 comparable in this respect to the socially recognized processes of birth, coming of age, and death--which with marriage might be said to define the life of an ancient Athenian.

By what means or signs, then, did the Athenian community recognize that a marriage was a marriage and give validation to the "living together"

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