C) What is marriage? Why marry?
Marriage is “the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women; it is through the role of wife that that subjugation of women is maintained.”
— Marlene Dixon
That’s a quick review of the historical concept of Woman. So how was marriage viewed? If it’s the cornerstone of civilization there should be a fair amount of reverence surrounding it, right?
Well, no. Like the concept of Woman, the concept of Marriage has varied and changed significantly over the millennia.
There was no romance about marriage in Athens. Pure and simple, marriage was how men produced heirs. The only respectable role for an Athenian women was as the wife of a wealthy man, managing his household and kept with her serving women, children, and slaves in the back of her husband’s house — prisoners of society’s expectations. The difference between the married woman and the slaves owned by her husband was uncomfortably slim — today’s prosperous housewife could easily become tomorrow’s slave.
The husband, on the other hand, had a fair amount of sexual freedom. Slaves, boys, prostitutes, concubines, or hetairai were all available to him for sexual “use” whenever he wished. He owned and controlled his wife as much as he owned slaves or land, and could divorce her if he wished. Her sole purpose was to produce male heirs for him — but that was critically important. A man without heirs was a man who was failing his family. It is important to note wives, aunts, sisters, and daughters weren’t included in the category of family or bloodline — only male relatives were.
The man who escapes marriage and the baneful works of women by preferring not to marry, comes to a deadly old age for want of someone to tend him in old age.
Friendship between men (including homosexual friendship) was considered far nobler and more spiritually satisfying than a husband’s possible love for his wife. As an example, Socrates’ wife Xanthippe was summarily dismissed by him as he lay on his deathbed. His stated preference, approved by all the men present, was to die in the company of his male companions.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of marriage as a cornerstone of classical Athenian civilization, is it?
So what was Marriage in Rome? Well, depends on what economic class you were as to what type of marriage you had. The Romans did come up with some interesting new ideas, at least in comparison to how Athenians viewed women. These included the concept of consent from both parties being necessary for a marriage to occur, and setting minimum ages for grooms (14 years) and brides (12 years).
Depending on your social class, there were three different types of marriage. The rich got a confarreatio, which was in effect a public celebration of the union, possibly including special food and sacrifices. The common people simply moved in together and were eventually considered married — there doesn’t even seem to be a special name for this arrangement. Worst case (at least for the women) was being in a coemptio, in which the woman was considered legally a child, and pretty much sold to her husband.
What did Roman men write of marriage? I couldn’t find much — I don’t think it was considered at all interesting or worth discussion. Juvenal wrote of it only in passing, as he soundly berates women who are better educated or smarter than their husbands. It sounds quite insecure of him… and, sadly, very modern.
Isn’t there anyone then in such large herds of women that’s worth marrying?
According to Livy, in 17 BCE Augustus read a speech in the Senate to support his own legislation encouraging marriage and childbearing:
If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance; but since nature has so decreed that we cannot manage comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our lasting preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure.
Let me point that out again, please: “If we could survive without a wife, all of us would do without that nuisance.”
The very fact a law had to be passed to encourage men to marry, in order to breed “legitimate” heirs, speaks volumes concerning the validity of this supposed “cornerstone.”
We could say Augustus knew it was necessary for preservation of the civilization, and call that a cornerstone. However, to be fair we’d also have to note what he really wants is male comfort, continued male lineages, and soldiers to continue Rome’s expansion — not that he believes in the wonderfulness of marriage or women.
Also, it’s a shaky cornerstone indeed which has to be legislated for, and which treats a portion of the populace as nothing more than breeding material. Then again… isn’t that what we’re doing today also, when we try to deny women the ability to choose when they will bear children? As the old bumper sticker notes: “If you cannot trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?”