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Marriage and Divorce

Upon marriage women became the legal wards of their husbands, as they previously had been of their fathers while still unmarried. Marriages were arranged by men. A woman's guardian1—her father, or if he were dead, her uncle or her brother—would commonly betroth her to another man's son while she was still a child, perhaps as young as five. The betrothal was an important public event conducted in the presence of witnesses. The guardian on this occasion repeated the phrase that expressed the primary aim of marriage: “I give you this woman for the plowing [procreation] of legitimate children.”2 The marriage itself customarily took place when the girl was in her early teens and the groom ten to fifteen years older. Hesiod advised a man to marry a virgin in the fifth year after her puberty, when he himself was “not much younger than thirty and not much older.”3 A legal marriage consisted of the bride's going to live in the house of her husband. The procession to his house served as the ceremony. The woman brought with her a dowry4 of property (perhaps land yielding an income, if she were wealthy) and personal possessions that formed part of the new household's assets and could be inherited by her children. Her husband was legally obliged to preserve the dowry and to return it in case of a divorce5. Procedures for divorce were more concerned with power than law: a husband could expel his wife from his home, while a wife, in theory, could on her own initiative leave her husband to return to the guardianship of her male relatives. Her freedom of action could be constricted, however, if her husband used force to keep her from leaving.6Except in certain cases in Sparta7, monogamy was the rule in ancient Greece, and a nuclear family structure (that is, husband, wife, and children living together without other relatives in the same house) was common, although at different stages of life a married couple might have other relatives living with them. Citizen men could have sexual relations without penalty with slaves, foreign concubines, female prostitutes, or willing preadult citizen males. Citizen women had no such sexual freedom, and adultery carried harsh penalties for wives, as well as the male adulterer, except at Sparta when a woman was childless, the aim of the liaison was to produce children, and the husband gave his consent.

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