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An Alternative History of Marriage: Sources on Love and Relationships From Mesopotamia to The Middle Ages

Marriage, or at least arranged marriage, has existed as an institution from the early migrations of modern humans out of Africa as a fundamental element of human economic, social, and kinship networks. [1] Marriage rituals and practices range from culture to culture, involving strict and deeply socially entrenched restrictions in some societies, or existing mostly as unregulated courtship in others. [2] A generalised definition of the purpose of ancient marriage is summed up nicely by Bertman, concerning the ancient Mesopotamians. He writes:


…marriage was fundamentally a business arrangement designed to assure and perpetuate an orderly society. Though there was an inevitable emotional component to marriage, its prime intent in the eyes of the state was not companionship but procreation; not personal happiness in the present but communal continuity for the future. [3]


Ancient marriage and indeed ancient romantic relationships in general were, however, much more varied and complex than these theories would imply, as the human relationships of the ancient world were just as intricate and nuanced as those of today. Therefore, with Valentine's Day fast approaching, we will look at a selection of historical sources that provide an interesting alternative to the general conception of ancient love and marriage. These examples are not authoritative, but they do help us to peek behind the curtains of ancient cultural ideals, learn about some exceptional women who went against the gender norms ascribed to their marital roles, and demonstrate how love persists throughout time (Fig. 1).

Gold ring with a bezel composed of two clasped hands.
Figure 1. Medieval Gold Fede Ring. Ca. AD 1600. The expression 'fede' or 'mani in fede' is taken from the Italian, meaning 'hands clasped in trust' and was often used on love gifts and marriage rings during the Medieval period. £2250.




Beginning with the aforementioned Mesopotamians, they generally practiced arranged marriage and, according to Herodotus, even held bridal auctions where women were auctioned off to the highest bidder! [4] Despite this, love still seems to have made its way into the literary canon of this patriarchal and restrictive system, as evidenced by this cuneiform tablet (Fig. 2). A medical text from the library of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), the last great king of Assyria, also paints a more empathetic picture, it reads:


“When the patient is continually clearing his throat; is often lost for words; is always talking to himself when he is quite alone, and laughing for no reason in the corners of fields, is habitually depressed, his throat tight, finds no pleasure in eating or drinking, endlessly repeating, with great sighs, `Ah, my poor heart!' – he is suffering from lovesickness. For a man and for a woman, it is all one and the same.” [5]


Not a wholly positive review of falling in love, but regardless this text demonstrates the emotional dimension of Assyrian relationships that existed adjacent to more serious legal and historical evidence. It is also interesting to note that loving men and women is considered, “one and the same”, a glimpse into the more fluid sexual relations of the ancient world that are curtailed by the rise of Christianity in the Late Roman Period.

A sumerian cuneiform tablet with a love poem inscribed onto it
Figure 2. "A Love Song of Shu-Suen (Shu-Suen B)" A Sumerian cuneiform tablet from Nippur widely considered to be the world's first love poem. Ca. 2037-2029 BC. Istanbul Archaeological Museums, L.2461. Credit: Andriy Makukha.


The Greek World


When discussing marriage and relationships in the Greek world, we often rely too heavily on Athenian sources due to the lack of comparative evidence from other contemporary city-states. These sources paint a rather grisly picture of marriage, as an institution chiefly concerned with the status and economic well-being of the family, and rarely the emotions and inequalities of the principal actors (Fig. 3). This is especially pertinent when it comes to the lives of women in Attica. Pericles’ advice to married women in his famous funeral speech puts it succinctly, Thucydides writes:


 “If I am to speak of womanly virtues to those of you who will henceforth be widows, let me sum them up in one short admonition: To a wife not to show more weakness than is natural to her sex is a great glory, and not to be talked about for good or for evil among men.[6]


Thankfully, Pericles'/Thucydides' ideas on gender roles are not representative of the Greek world as a whole, and we know from a plethora of other sources of the diversity in romantic relationships that existed in the Classical Greek world.

For example, an interesting fragment of a contract from Ptolemaic Egypt provides us with an alternative style of relationship within the confines of the marital institution in 311 BC:

It shall not be permitted for Herakleides to bring home another wife in insult of Demetria or to have children by another woman or to do evil against Demetria on any pretext. If Herakleides is discovered doing any of these things and Demetria proves it…Herakleides shall give back to Demetria the dowry of 1000 drachmas of silver coinage of Alexander. [7]

We cannot make a case for Hellenistic Egypt as a feminist utopia based on this information, but it does demonstrate a rare example of a morality clause in an ancient marriage contract. It also shows how in some cases women could be legally protected against the bad behaviour that was commonplace in the literary record of Athens.

two men in himation facing each other on a vase, with filling elements in the middle.
Figure 4. Large Greek Apulian Bell Krater - TL Tested. Ca. 400-300 BC. The scene depicts two laureate males. clad in himatia, facing each other.

Moving away from the heteronormative, Xenophon's Constitution of the Spartans, a slightly-fanciful early 4th century BC treatise on the Spartan constitution, is our next example. It is a particularly useful resource for demonstrating not only the existence of accepted homoerotic relationships in the Classical world but also for peeling back the Athenocentric curtain to reveal social relationships existing in other Greek Poleis. He writes:

I think I ought to say something also about intimacy with boys, since this matter also has a bearing on education. In other Greek states, for instance among the Boeotians, man and boy live together, like married people; elsewhere, among the Eleians, for example, consent is won by means of favours…The customs instituted by Lycurgus were opposed to all of these. If someone, being himself an honest man, admired a boy’s soul and tried to make of him an ideal friend without reproach and to associate with him, he approved, and believed in the excellence of this kind of training…thus he purged the relationship of all impurity…resembled parental and brotherly love. [7]

To unpick the complexities of ancient Greek sexual politics would require a dissertation or perhaps several books to do justice. Primarily, the text shows us that the idea of homoerotic love championed by Xenophon and "Lycurgus" fits with the educational, intellectually-driven idea of homoerotic love prevalent in Athens (Xenophon himself being an Athenian). This highly-formalised relationship was how scholars, and the rest of the world, viewed "Greek Love" for many years. The preceding sentences help us to dispel this theory, by demonstrating that alternative courtship methods and even marriage-like arrangements were occurring in other Greek city-states between men.

Of course, relationships between women existed in the Greek world and later Roman one, but these are less well-documented. They are represented chiefly by a small corpus of lewd wall paintings, some very disparaging sources written (unsurprisingly) by men, and the wonderful archaic poet Sappho; whose poems professing her love for unmarried girls have been argued about virtually from the moment that they were written.

The Roman World


Roman marriage was a similarly highly regulated affair, especially after the restrictive marriage laws instituted by Augustus in the late 1st Century BC. [9] Laws like Lex Julia (18 BC), which forbade unmarried people of a certain age from inheriting wealth, from marrying below their station, and threatened murder or exile for those who engaged in sex before marriage, created a hostile environment for love to blossom. Nevertheless, we do have some remarkable contemporary sources that demonstrate deep affection between married couples.


The Laudatio Turiae, a public funerary inscription commissioned by a high-ranking Roman for his deceased wife, is a wonderful example of love at the upper end of the social ladder. The text reveals to us a powerful woman with access to the male-dominated public sphere. She defies social norms out of care for her husband, confronting senators and going to court to defend their respective inheritances:


You then confronted his colleague Marcus Lepidus, who was in charge in Rome, about my reinstatement [to office]…You defended our shared position by stating the facts…each of us should hold onto our inheritance rather than having you alone take possession of the whole estate. It was your firm intention to uphold the acts of your father. [10]


After singing the praises of his wife, the speaker concludes the inscription with a touching line that demonstrates the depth of feeling in the marriage.


The conclusions of my speech will be that you deserved everything but that it did not fall to my lot to give you everything as I ought; Your last wishes I have regarded as law; whatever it will be in my power to do in addition, I shall do. [11]


While this speech may be slightly performative given the public nature of the inscription, it does demonstrate how love persisted within the institution of Roman marriage, despite its heavily practical purpose and ever increasing complexity of its laws.


The Vikings


Turning now to the Vikings, who practiced a different and more fluid version of marriage than the societies we have previously discussed. There is much evidence to suggest that Scandivanian societies from the Viking period practiced polygony (having multiple wives), and concubinage, a semi-formal union adjacent to marriage that involved sexual activity and occasionally cohabitation. [12] This was especially pronounced the further up the social scale one went and, while less rigidly regulated, did still lead to a degree of female seclusion and inequality. [13] 

Bronze viking era diadem with bells, emblematic of female power
Figure 7. Viking Era Bronze Women's Diadem. Ca. AD 900-1100. These diadems were often worn as headpieces by Viking women, signifying their elevated status and power within the community.


This evidence goes against the popular conception that Viking women enjoyed a considerably greater level of power and authority compared to other ancient societies, as in reality this level of independence was only afforded to a small number of women (Fig. 7). One such woman is the character of Aud, wife of Gísli, from the Icelandic Gísla saga Súrssonar (The Saga of Gisli the Outlaw). [14] Aud remains loyal to Gísli throughout the saga, physically fighting with a bounty hunter who arrives at her house offering 300 silver pieces for information on her husband. She also fights, together with her foster daughter Gudrid, in the final battle of the tale. Though this is a work of fiction, Aud’s actions in the saga demonstrate the possibility for love and devotion in Viking marriage, and the participation of women under exceptional circumstances in the male-dominated world of battle.




Therefore, although ancient relationships were generally patriarchal vehicles for procreation and societal cohesion, we have seen that this basic idea manifested itself in a myriad of different ways. From lovelorn Mesopotamians to devoted Roman husbands, to fiercely loyal Viking wives, it seems that love, devotion, and loyalty persisted regardless of gender, both within and adjacent to marriage. Given the normative and idealistic nature of the sources that come down to us, this emotional dimension may be more widespread than we will ever know, as the everyday machinations of non-elite relationships that we have seen in our Ptolemaic marriage contract will forever be hard to come by.


 Written by Ella Wakefield


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Bertman, S., 2003, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Oxford University Press.

Bottero, J., 1992, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Halldórsson, B. and others, 1987, Íslendinga sögur og þættir II, Reykjavík: Svart á hvítu.

Murdock G. P., 1949, Social structure. New York: Free Press.

Raffield, B. & Price, N. & Collard, M., 2017, “Polygyny, Concubinage, and the Social Lives of Women in Viking-Age Scandinavia” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. 13. 165-209.

Walker R. S. & Hill K. R. & Flinn M. V. & Ellsworth R. M., 2011, “Evolutionary history of hunter-gatherer marriage practices” PLOS ONE 6(4): e19066. 



[1] Murdock 1949, 258.

[2] Walker et al. 2011.

[3] Bertman 2003, 275-276.

[4] Hdt. 1.196

[5] Bottero 1992, 102-3.

[6] Thuc. 2.45.2

[7] Rowlandson no. 123 = P. Elephantine 1 (311 BC) = (§4).

[8] Xen. Const. 2.12-14

[9] The extent to which these laws impacted the lives of everyday Romans, given their focus on the upper classes and subsequent public backlash, remains up for debate.

[10] ILS 8393, l.11-18.

[11] ILS 8392, I.67.

[12] Raffield, Price & Collard 2017, 169.

[13] Raffield, Price & Collard 2017, 187.

[14] Bragi Halldórsson and others 1987, 890-1.


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