The modern Western idea of love usually involves the notion of two people “falling in love”—seeing each another, recognizing an attraction, and coming together. The ideal outcome is marriage, followed by a family and living “happily ever after.” This modern idea of love usually includes the following assumptions: that the feeling between the two people is mutual; that the man and woman share similar ideals, beliefs, and tastes; that the relationship is one between equal partners; and that the course of the relationship is determined by the individuals themselves. As surprising as it may seem, the ancient concept of love shared very few of these assumptions.
Romantic Love and Marriage. The Greeks and Romans often acknowledged the physical and sexual side of love. In Homer’s epic poem the Iliad, it is the kidnapping of the beautiful Helen by the Trojan prince Paris that leads to the war between Greece and Troy. Poets and storytellers throughout the Greek and Roman world wrote of love and passion and about their effects on human behavior. To the ancients, intense passion was a sort of sickness or madness which, while fascinating and often irresistible, was certainly neither healthy nor natural. And passion was, by no means, the basis for marriage. The idea that emotions or romantic feelings should determine the choice of a marriage partner was flatly rejected.
The purpose of marriage in the ancient world was primarily to produce legitimate children. Marriages were often made with an eye toward political or social advantage as well, but continuing the husband’s family line was the main consideration. The vast majority of marriages were arranged, usually at an early age, with little thought given to the wishes or objections of the man and woman involved. The parents were concerned with finding suitable partners for their children, not with whether the two people loved, or even knew, each other. In the dialogue Oeconomicus by the Greek general and writer Xenophon, the landowner Ischomachus says this to his bride:
Do you now understand why it was I married you, and why your parents betrothed you to me? There would have been no difficulty in finding another girl to share my bed: I am quite sure you realize that. No; the decision was only taken after a great deal of thought... as to the best helpmeet each of us could find for the care of our home and our future children.
Love Outside of Marriage. Just because most people in the ancient world married for reasons other than love did not mean that affection, and even passion, could not grow within a marriage. However, even men who were happily married had little hesitation about finding sex, and frequently romance, outside of marriage. Greek law allowed a married man to have a concubine* in addition to a wife. Since only his wife could produce legitimate offspring, the purpose of the concubine was primarily to satisfy the man’s sexual desires.
Many married men developed relationships with courtesans, women who lived independently and entertained male suitors, both married and unmarried. Social custom dictated that Greek wives remain within the household most of the time, while men frequently sought the companionship of well-known courtesans. In fact, romance and passion were considered more appropriate in these more casual relationships than they were in marriage. As the Greek orator Demosthenes said, “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily health of our bodies, and wives to bear us lawful offspring and be the faithful guardians of our homes.” (See also Family, Greek; Family, Roman; Helen of Troy; Marriage and Divorce; Prostitution; Women, Greek; Women, Roman.)
* concubine a woman who lives with a man without being married to him