Ancient History & Civilisation

No shotguns, but everyone from Sparta to Rome had to get married

Interesting, how ancient Athens is always viewed as the glorious, creative, democratic society, and its bête noir, Sparta, as the drear and repressive military society. If you were born back then, your opinion just might have depended on which gender you were.

Although the Spartans had a rep as glumly laconic folks, growing up in ancient Sparta was a far from gloomy affair. For girls, anyway. From toddlerhood, they got acquainted with little boys as playmates, engaged in competitive sports with them, went swimming (and dancing) in the nude. Girls even got to drive chariots in various annual festivals. Spartan girls didn’t marry until age eighteen, and they ate a healthy diet—unlike their counterparts in Athens, who were kept indoors, fed poorly, and married off as soon as they menstruated.

It wasn’t that the Spartans were progressive. They had eugenic reasons in mind: healthy young women produced healthy babies—and male babies were needed to feed the Spartan war machine. (Male babies were examined at birth; any with physical defects were immediately exposed or put to death outright.)

Although boys left their mothers at age seven to live in literally spartan barracks, eat meager rations of wretched food, and train insanely to become the toughest soldiers alive, they still had male urges. Unlike Athens and other Greek city-states, these urges could not be satisfied at the corner brothel, because Spartans did not allow prostitution inside their small city of 8,000 citizens. Growing boys had no access to slaves male or female, either, who in other locales would be obliged to submit to free men. The Spartans had Helots to do their grunt work; these unfree individuals were slaves of the state, not owned by individuals. Helot families lived in the country, and thus were less vulnerable to sexual abuse.

The Spartans devised a rather clever sexual escape clause; free males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty, and unmarried females over eighteen could engage in what books on Spartan history sometimes euphemistically call a “secret abduction” but was more like an elopement. Their first assignation took place after dark (flaunting the boy’s curfew, since he lived in the barracks). After shaving her head boy-style, and dressing in a tunic like the ones preteen boys wore, the young woman would await her new lover. These “secret” meetings were not between strangers; these girls had known these boys all their lives, since they’d played together as youngsters.


Few paintings of real-life couples have survived, making this portrait remarkable. These two are middle-class successes, not aristocrats, who likely perished in Pompeii during the A.D. 79 eruption.

This arrangement could last until the young man turned thirty and retired from active service, at which time he was permitted to establish a household, called a kleros. He and his partner then moved in together. There was no bride price or dowry payment; no religious ceremony either. At this point, unlike other places in Greece, wives ran the household and may have handled the family finances.

Since procreative sex was the main object of marriage, a Spartan wife who remained childless was ordered to do something to remedy the impasse. To find a more fertile mate, Spartan law required her to sleep with another man straightaway! This might sound jolly—or ghastly—depending on your point of view. Being sparse in numbers, the Spartans made certain that every Spartan was paired up. No bachelors or spinsters allowed.

How did these Spartan Greek marital customs compare to the Roman style of marriage?

In the earlier Roman centuries B.C., there were three kinds of marriage, divided by social class. Nobility generally wed with a confarreatio, a bread-sharing ceremony, while plebians married by bride-purchase (a reverse dowry, so to speak) or by living together in mutual cohabitation.

Later, the Romans scuttled all three types in the early republic, instead going for the manus agreement, a one-sided affair that simply transferred the bride from the manus or hand of her domineering father to the hand of her bossy new husband. Fortunately for Roman women, marital agreements got more equitable around the second century B.C., under a new statute called the “free” marriage. The bride brought a dowry; but if they were divorced and no adultery was involved on her part, most of the money was given back to her.

Romans did not practice speed dating, but they did have speed remarriage—especially popular among elite families. New widows (or divorcees) could get hitched again without social condemnation or penalty, since the wedded state was considered the most desirable status for any adult, male or female. It worked out better for the woman as well, since—unlike the first time around—she had much more say in the matter of the bridegroom number two.

(You can learn more about Athenian and other Greek customs in the entries on Thargelia, adultery, divorce, and Aspasia & Pericles.)

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