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Ancient and modern

Marriage is becoming more like it was before Christianity

20 April 2019

9:00 AM

20 April 2019

9:00 AM

The Christian church ordained that marriage, a sacrament imparting divine grace, was for life. In 1857, the state enacted its first generally applicable divorce law, to be triggered only by sexual misdemeanours. Liberalisation slowly followed,and now ‘no fault’ divorce is being proposed in England. We edge closer to pre-Christian practice.

To generalise: in both Greek and Roman worlds, marriage was essentially an understanding between two families, with fathers on both sides agreeing to and sealing the deal (that does not mean the couple’s view was irrelevant), and the bride being given a dowry by her father. The state had no official stake in the relationship. It did not keep records of births, marriages, divorces or deaths. There were, of course, laws about the legitimacy of children — Pericles enacted a law that an Athenian citizen had to have an Athenian mother and father — but if a dispute on that matter came to court, no state-authorised documents would be available to prove or disprove the case. Evidence would be provided by families, witnesses to marriage ceremonies, birth rituals and local ‘legitimising’ traditions, all at a personal level.


The process of divorce, whatever the circumstances that led to it, was equally informal. In Athens, the husband sent his wife back to her father; the wife wanting divorce had to notify an official. In Rome, husband or wife simply walked away from the marriage, informing the relevant parties and sorting out division of property. In both cultures, children stayed with the husband and, all things being equal, the dowry reverted to the wife.

But whatever the conventions, marital relationships went their eternally human way. Cicero described how Pomponia, wife of his son Quintus, went into a strop about who ran the household. ‘You see what I have to put up with all the time?’ said Quintus. She then refused to attend lunch and returned the food Quintus sent her. Cicero registered his disgust at her behaviour. One longs to hear Pomponia’s side. It all ended badly.

The great virtue of ancient — and now perhaps modern —‘no fault’ divorce is that it ends the absurdity of arguing before judges about the ins and outs of such everyday human behaviour.


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