in Classical Greece
by Dimitra Fotopoulos
Our earliest historical records indicate that the institution of marriage has played an important role in society; for instance, within Greek mythology we note that the father of the gods, Zeus, takes Hera as his wife, a union which, despite all the ups and downs including Zeus’s unfaithfulness, lasts forever.
In Classical Athens, every respectable woman became a wife if she could, as there were no genuine alternatives for her other than marriage, excepting for virgin priestesshood. The character of the Classical Greek world is partly establishable through analysis of the traditional sacrifices and rituals that were practiced at wedding ceremonies.
In addition, Greek wedding ceremonies are portrayed in many pottery paintings and in literature. Since a girl was regarded as the property of her father, if she did not get married she became a dishonourable financial burden to her family.Marriage itself was recognised and validated not by a specific legal ceremony or certification on papyrus, but by the communally witnessed rituals and events that over time established its legitimacy. As far as age was concerned, there were no formal laws governing the minimum age of marriage, but according to Hesiod (Works and Days 696-8), a man should marry at about thirty, while the girl was much younger, perhaps two years past puberty, around fourteen to sixteen. Go to Aristotle’s Politics and biology for more contemporary evidence regarding the Classical period, a period to which Hesiod definitely did not belong. His biology has it that young girls were being forced into marriage and pregnancy on puberty, and his Politics recommends that no female should be married off until she is 18, while his biology insists that 22 is the earliest a female should be made pregnant. He believed no male should marry prior to the age of 37. This could have stemmed from the fact that Aristotle was married at 37 to Pythia who was 18.
Marriage procession on vase
Marriage in Classical Athens was only sanctioned between a citizen and the daughter of a citizen, and was constituted by the acts of betrothal, ekdosis and gamos. The betrothal was nothing more than a necessary verbal contract between the bridegroom- to-be and the bride’s father or guardian (kyrios), so as to ensure the legitimacy of the marriage and the bearing of children. At the time of contracting, the dowry was agreed upon, a necessary component of marriages. The dowry consisted of the daughter’s share of the father’s inheritance-either money or moveable wealth. We have evidence to suggest that the dowry represented between five and twenty percent of the father’s wealth. The handing over of the dowry signified the transfer of the guardianship from the father to the future husband, which was sealed by a binding handshake. This agreement was as strong as any written contract, since from this moment onward, the daughter was regarded as being married. Despite the fact that the betrothal and the transaction of the dowry directly affected the welfare of the daughter, the bride-to be did not need to be present at any of these rituals. It should be noted that the father (as head of the family) had absolute rights over his children just as he did over his slaves. During the Homeric Age, we encounter a different kind of ‘dowry’, the edna. The ednai constituted gifts a man would offer to his prospective father-in-law to impress him enough to win his daughter’s hand. We have evidence that there were instances where many young male suitors lived in the desired bride’s father’s house for a period of time, during which time they had only one goal: to show that each one of them was more worthy than the other to be the future son-in law.
"Ekdosis" was the giving away of the bride from father to husband. The ekdosis did not occur at a single moment, but was a process of transfer during which a variety of preliminary sacrifices are performed.
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