sparta reconsidered

Athenian men generally did not marry until their early thirties, but it would have been a rare Athenian man who went to his marriage bed without extensive sexual experience.  For a start, it was common for boys to be the objects of the homosexual attentions of men a few years older.  These relationships were considered "honorable liaisons" and could have pedagogical benefits when older lovers took an interest in their protégé's education.  It is interesting to note, however, that in the many erotic depictions on Athenian pottery the boys are not portrayed enjoying the experience, but rather stoically enduring it.

Once an Athenian male reached maturity and citizenship status, he ceased to be an object of sexual desire and became a predator.  He might select a boy or youth of his own class, reversing the roles of a few years earlier, or he might take advantage of the vast array of sexual wares offered for sale in one of the liveliest trading centers of the ancient world.  (There is considerable evidence that one of the principal wares that brought Athens her wealth was slaves.)  These included prostitutes of both sexes, ranging from the cheap varieties offered in streetside stalls to outrageously expensive courtesans, who limited and selected their clientele.  In between were all the various kinds of male and female "entertainers," who performed at the symposia that young men of wealth attended on a more or less regular basis. 

Eventually, the need for an heir would induce a man, by many accounts reluctantly, to marry.  In order to do so, an Athenian would look about for a man or family who was politically useful to him or who could be counted on to pay a good dowry, and inquire about possible brides.  It is highly improbable that a prospective bridegroom would have glimpsed any of the bride-candidates, because these (as we shall see below) were kept carefully guarded inside their homes and only seen in public on rare occasions, when they were carefully segregated from all strange males.  The marriage negotiations would have been conducted with the prospective bride's male guardian.  After the dowry was paid to the groom, the bride would have been collected and removed to the groom's house in a joyful ceremony accompanied by singing, music, dancing, and feasting.

[Athenian marriage] From the groom's point of view, except for the presence of a wife in his household, very little else changed.  Nothing stood in the way of his continued attendance at symposia or his patronage of brothels.  In fact, a man was perfectly in his rights to also contract with a poor man for his daughter to come into the household as a concubine – and of course, an Athenian man was within his rights to sleep with any of his slave girls.  The marriage was only significant as a means by which a man begat legitimate heirs – although in periods of population decline, even this role was weakened by laws that granted citizenship to the children of citizens by concubines and foreigners, thereby degrading a wife’s status even further.

Athenian girls were married as soon after the onset of menstruation as possible.  This meant that most brides were roughly half the age of their husbands.  Athenian girls were reared in their houses on a diet smaller and less nutritious than that of their brothers, lacking meat, fish, spices, and wine.  They were kept indoors, without exposure to direct sunlight or physical exercise, received no formal education, and were usually illiterate.  They were taught that women should speak as little as possible, and certainly not in the presence of men.

Once an Athenian maiden reached sexual maturity, she knew that her male guardian would marry her off, but she had no say in the matter.  Normally girls were married to a complete stranger – a man they did not see until the day he came and took her away from her home, family and everything she had known until then.  She was removed to a strange house, sometimes far away from her parental home, and surrounded by strangers.  She might share the household with her husband's mother, sisters, and even his concubines.

Here she was still not allowed control of money worth more than a bushel of grain, and it was considered a disgrace for her to be seen standing in the doorway of her house, much less in the market or elsewhere.  Talking to a strange man was cause for scandal – until she was old enough to be a grandmother.  She might leave the house only to go to the childbed of a neighbor, to attend a wedding or funeral, or to take part in religious festivals.

It is estimated that on average women in Athens were brought to childbed six times in their lives, and that infant mortality ran between 20% and 40%.  Even more devastating are frequent references to exposing children.  A father could decide to kill any child that seemed an unnecessary financial burden.  Because of the need to provide a dowry for daughters, and given the low value placed on women generally, it is fair to assume that, as in other cultures from China to Afghanistan today, girls were far more likely to be left to die by their own fathers.

Last but not least, if a woman was raped or seduced, her husband was required by law to divorce her.  Even if a husband was u
nderstanding or devoted, Athenian law mandated divorce or the man lost his own citizenship.

An athenian marriage