Marriage was central to the organization of families and of society in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The main function of marriage in both cultures was the production of legitimate children—that is, children who were legally recognized as their father’s offspring and who would inherit the family’s name, status, and property. The Greeks and Romans recognized that marriage was not a perfect institution and allowed people in unsatisfactory marriages to divorce their partners.

Greek Customs and Laws. The customs and laws that governed Greek marriage varied from place to place and over time. All Greek marriages, however, shared a few basic features. By the 500s B.C., marriage had become patriarchal, or organized around the male line of descent. Upon marrying, a woman left her own family and joined that of her husband. Men arranged marriages. A woman’s father—or, if her father was dead, her closest adult male relative—gave her to another man to bear his children. Her consent was not required. Marriages between uncles and nieces or between first cousins were common. Such marriages kept the wealth within a family.

A Greek bride usually brought a dowry* to her marriage. Although a dowry was not necessary to make a legal marriage, men were reluctant to accept a bride who did not have one. In such cases, relatives or the state might provide the girl with a dowry. If a marriage dissolved, the husband would return the dowry to his wife’s family.

* dowry money or property that a woman brings to the man she marries

In Athens, legal marriage began with engye, or betrothed, a formal contract between the bride’s guardian and the groom that spelled out the details of the dowry. The wedding followed, sometimes several years later. Women were usually married at the age of 14 or 15, and men were about 30 when they married.

An Athenian wedding was celebrated by rituals* that marked the bride’s progress from one stage of life to another. Before marrying, she bathed in water from a sacred spring. Then, a wedding feast took place at either the groom’s home or the bride’s family’s home. Women attended the banquet but sat separately from the men. Afterward, a procession of friends and relatives escorted the bride to the groom’s house. They carried torches, sang marriage hymns, and played music—all to attract the attention of as many people as possible, who would serve as witnesses to the wedding. The groom’s mother welcomed the bride to her new home, and the guests showered the couple with nuts and dried fruits, which were symbols of fertility. The first food that the bride ate in her new home was a quince, a fruit that also symbolized fertility. If the marriage did not go well, a husband could divorce his wife simply by shutting her out of the house. A wife who wanted to divorce her husband, however, had to obtain permission from the government to end her marriage.

* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious

The main function of marriage in ancient Greek and Roman society was the production of legitimate children to inherit the father’s name, status, and property. Customs regarding women’s rights varied from city to city, however. A marriage scene is depicted here.

Marriage customs in Sparta were quite different from those elsewhere in Greece. Women and men generally married when they were about 18 or 20 years old. Spartans sometimes followed a tradition called marriage by capture, in which a group of young people in a dark room chose their mates at random. In the early stages of marriage, a bride remained in her family’s home. As a sign that she had married, she cut her hair and temporarily dressed in men’s clothing.

According to Greek myth, Cecrops, the first king of Athens, invented marriage as a punishment for women. Before marriage existed, said the myth, women were the political equals of men, but the institution of marriage imposed limits on their power. The Greeks expected that all women—except slaves—would marry. There was no respectable place for unmarried women in Greek society. Over time, however, Greek ideas about marriage changed. By the 200s B.C., marriage was a more equal partnership, and women could obtain divorces as easily as men. Perhaps more important, marriage eventually became a matter of personal choice. Greek culture began to accept love as a motive for marriage.

Roman Customs and Laws. Roman marriage was organized around the orderly transfer of property, rank, and citizenship rights from one generation to the next. People regarded it as the normal duty of both sexes to marry and have children. The state encouraged marriage, and laws passed in 18 B.C. and 9 B.C. levied fines on unmarried people. In addition, unmarried people were not allowed to inherit, and people who were married but childless received only half of their inheritance.

The Romans recognized two basic types of marriage. In marriage with manus, or control, a woman left her family and entered her husband’s family. Marriage with manus was sometimes celebrated with a ritual that symbolized the sale of the bride to the groom. All of the bride’s property became her husband’s upon marriage, but she became one of his heirs and could inherit, along with his children, a share of his property if he died before her. In free marriage, or marriage without manus, a married woman remained either under her father’s guardianship or free and in control of her own property. Free marriage did not change a woman’s legal status. Although she continued to own property, she was not recognized as her husband’s heir.

Customs and laws set limits on Roman marriage. No marriage was valid without the consent of both parties, not just on the wedding day but every day. A marriage lasted only as long as both partners continued to agree to be married to each other. The minimum age of consent for girls was 12. Some girls younger than 12 married to cement alliances between wealthy or upper-class families, but they did not legally become wives until they came of age. Boys could marry at 14, but they rarely did so before the age of 16 or 17. Senators generally married at 21 or 22.

The Romans celebrated both forms of marriage with traditional rituals. Brides parted their hair into six locks and tied the locks with wool. They dressed in long white robes, flame-colored shoes, and a flame- colored veil. In the bride’s father’s house, with friends of both families gathered around, the couple declared their consent to the marriage and joined their right hands. They asked for the blessings of the gods by sacrificing* an animal, often a pig. After a banquet, the guests marched to the groom’s house in a procession. The bride’s attendants or the groom carried her across the threshold of her new home. This ritual ensured that she would not stumble on the doorstep, which would bring bad luck to the marriage.


The Greeks and Romans regulated marriage between citizens and foreigners so that people outside the state could not acquire citizenship simply by marrying citizens. Around 450 B.C., the Athenians passed a law stating that only children of two citizens would be considered citizens. This discouraged Athenians from marrying outsiders. Over the centuries, the Romans created a complex web of laws that defined categories of people who could, or could not, enter into legal Roman marriages. In general, if one partner in a marriage was a noncitizen, the children could not be Roman citizens.

Most brides entered marriage with dowries, which usually consisted of land, slaves, money, or other property. If the husband died or divorced the wife, she regained the dowry, which guaranteed her enough money to live on or to remarry. By the end of the Roman Republic*, divorce was simple and fairly common. It required no legal formalities. Either partner could divorce the other with either a spoken declaration or a written notice. Children of a divorced couple normally remained with the husband. Christian rulers during the late Roman Empire made laws to discourage divorce, which became less acceptable after the A.D. 100s. (See also Family, Greek; Family, Roman; Women, Greek; Women, Roman.)

* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 b.c, to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

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