Properties of Blood II.2: Ancient Marriage

This revised text is still a work in progress, but it is time to go on to clean up the chapters on husbands and wives, household defense, and parents and children before doing a final revision.


For decades we have been reading stories in the media about the crisis of the family: the decline in the number of young people getting married, the rise of illegitimacy, the increase in the rates of divorce, popular acceptance of adultery, and, most recently, leftist proposals to legitimate marriage between members of the same sex or the Republican alternative, which amounts to the same thing, so-called civil unions.  Since there is no practical or legal difference between a state-licensed marriage and a civil union, the political debate between the parties is a shadow-boxing contest in which the liberals are playing in earnest and the conservatives merely playing.

The Christian response to the marriage crisis that is mostly frequently heard is that it is the result of dechristianization.  This is true up to a point, but it fails  to account for the obvious fact that marriage had been around for several millennia before the Christian Church came into existence.  Marriage had its ups and downs in the ancient world, but there is no ancient parallel for what we are experiencing.  Whatever hijinks Caligula, Claudius, and Nero were up to, marriage remained the central social institution of the Roman Empire.  Pre-Christian pagans valued marriage highly, which makes it all the stranger that so many Post-Christian pagans declared war on it.  Is it, as so many Christians want to believe, because they are pagan or is it because they are merely Post-Christian?  A good deal hangs on the response.

Defining Marriage

Naturally both postchristian liberals and their Christian opponents have legislative proposals to “solve” the marriage crisis.  But before a problem can be fixed or an institution can be reformed, we first have to know what it is we are dealing with, and, before attempting any description (much less definition) of marriage, we should assess our own convictions and prejudices.  We might begin by examining some conventional characteristics that have been attributed to marriage in the past.  

Marriage has commonly been viewed as:

1) A binding relationship between one man and one woman.  To include Muslims and Middle-Eastern Jews, who practice polygyny, let us even say—one or more women.  (Polyandry, the marriage of one woman to more than one man, is so rare as not to be worth discussing.)   Lurking beneath the surface of this statement are profound differences about which parties are bound and to what degree.  The so-called double standard strictly prohibited adultery in wives but was a good deal more indulgent toward husbands.   

2) For or the primary though not necessarily exclusive purpose of begetting and rearing children.  Some Christians have insisted that procreation is the only legitimate purpose of marriage, but more commonly a married couple is expected to engage in sexual act, even when procreation is not contemplated, to join forces in rearing the children, and to develop a relationship that is something like friendship.  I say “something like,” out of deference to ancient philosophers who denied the possibility of true friendship between a man and a woman. 

3) A commitment entered into voluntarily by people capable of making a rational agreement and possessing the capacity to marry each other.  These two criteria—consent and capacity—were anticipated by Greek and Roman marriage, but stipulated explicitly in Christian rules on marriage.  Taken together, these criteria ensure that neither of the parties is insane, impotent, or so closely related that the union would be incestuous.

4) A life-long union, dissoluble only by proof that the two criteria, consent and capacity, were not fulfilled or by some serious violation of the marriage bond, such as adultery or desertion.  As we shall see, some cultures in their early stages treated marriage as basically indissoluble except for grave cause but as they became more developed, permitted divorce on fairly easy terms.  

4) The foundation of the social order, the seed-bed of the commonwealth, as Cicero said, and for a government to attempt to destroy marriage is tantamount to destroying society itself.  This quality of marriage, while very ancient, is often insisted on by conservative Christians and ridiculed by their opponents.  It is, therefore, a useful criterion for separating the pro-marriage sheep from the anti-marriage goats. 

5) Therefore, it is the legitimate and necessary object of governments, particularly the various governments of the United States, which must be empowered to regulate, promote, and protect marriage in its traditional form and even to draw up a government-sanctioned definition of the institution.

A reader fathoming his own views on marriage should assign himself a score from 0 to 5.  Those who score 0 are bona fide progressive leftists, enemies of marriage, Christian morality, and the social order.  Those who score between 1 and 3 are, in descending degrees, conventional left-liberals, though a score of three is an indication of some residue of common decency.  Four is the Christian score, while an enthusiast for marriage scoring 5 will turn out to be, unbeknownst to himself, the unwitting enemy of marriage.

Most men and women of an old-fashioned bent would probably accept the first four, and a large majority would unfortunately endorse number five.  That is the fundamental mistake that prevents many intelligent people from taking any effective steps to oppose the cultural and moral revolution that has been destroying marriage and the family from since before I was even born.  

Both so-called liberals (leftist revolutionaries) and their self-described conservative opponents (the liberals’ strongest allies) have legislative proposals to solve the marriage crisis.  But before a problem can be fixed or an institution reformed, we first have to know what it is we are dealing with.  Any debate over marriage law has to begin with a clear definition of the institution.  Mistakes can be fatal.  For example, if we mis-defined water as any liquid, then we might ask government to pass a law forbidding people to pour water on a fire, because the kinds of water known as gasoline or nitroglycerine ignite or explode when exposed to flames or high heat.  Alternatively, the opponents of such a law might justify the use of gasoline to put out a fire because, after all, it's only water—understanding water in the traditional sense.  Naturally a rational person would respond to all this that we know what water is and provide a scientific definition.

Then what is marriage, how do we go about defining it?  This is a bit more difficult than in the case of water, which the most elementary chemistry student could define as H2O or in terms of the ionic bonds and molecular structure of water.   Similarly, if we wanted to define a species of plant or animal life, we would turn to a biologist, who would describe its attributes and fit it into either the old scala naturae of Linnaeus or use some more contemporary method of statistical analysis, such as cladistics.

Setting aside prisons, monasteries, and broken societies on the verge of suicide, marriage can properly be described as a universal human institution.  These three words need some clarification.  In saying marriage is universal, I do not suggest that everyone in the world is either married now or will be married at some point.  Children are not married, and some men and women in any society will find marriage inconvenient or impossible.  Nonetheless, the existence of a one-legged sociologist does not vitiate a definition of man as a rational two-legged animal.   

Nor am I insisting that there are no fragments of human life in which marriage is either not practiced or practiced in so bizarre a form as to be unrecognizable.  The term human, when it is not used in a strictly biological sense, implies a set of qualities, norms on which most thriving societies converge.  Food production, the systematized violence known as war, and marriage are all necessary to ordinary human functioning.  A group of people that decided not to defend itself or unite man and woman into a child-rearing family would be as suicidal as one that refused to gather food.

The word "institution" has many meanings in English.  There are institutions for the criminally insane, the institutions of a facility or law, even educational institutions.  The word is derived from the Latin institutio, a word that suggests an orderly arrangement and came to refer to a custom and specifically to education.  The Latin verb instituo means to set something in or in place, hence to set up or establish a thing—as a wall or garden—or a practice or custom.  In English, at least, we generally think of an institution not as the result of an individual whim, but as the collective setting up and continuation of something significant and formal custom that satisfies natural needs.  Human beings obviously enjoy food to survive, sex to propagate, and violence to defend what they have.  They also are inclined to seek power, wealth, and prestige.  Now, if we were all wild individuals, the strongest males would violently seize all the food, wealth, and women.  Fortunately, all animals have ritualized or institutionalized behavioral patterns that govern and moderate their impulses and desires.  In a fight, for example, a defeated wolf or dog will roll over on its back and expose its genitals.  By canine rules, it has surrendered and the winner backs off.  We humans have rules of warfare, dietary laws, property rights, and, to regulate sexual behavior, marriage and family.  

So, then, marriage is an institution for regulating our sex lives.  What sort of institution is it?  How would we describe it?  Defining a human institution such as marriage is not as straightforward as defining a line as the shortest distance between two points.  Geometry and mathematics deal with abstractions and absolutes, but when human practices and institutions are concerned we have to begin not with the postulates of geometry we all learned in the 10th grade, but with concrete examples, from which we can then proceed to draw up general principles.  Before deciding how people ought to behave, we first have to find out how they do behave and how they can behave.  

If we were to begin by defining the human race as a type of bird capable of flight, we might end up leaping from a tall building in a single bound.  Marxists have mis-defined man as an open-ended work in progress that can do without wealth, property, or status.  The predictable results of such a definitional mistake are often catastrophic.  The would-be superman may hit the ground before the Marxist, but the disaster known as the new Soviet Man was equally terrifying.  The New Democratic Man in America, who can do without history or sex distinctions, is an even greater mess than his Soviet counterpart.

With human institutions such marriage, we have to content ourselves with rougher, more approximate answers than geometry would provide, and we must not make the mistake of beginning with abstract postulates about human nature. To answer the question what is marriage, we would begin not by laying down a law but by ransacking history and the anthropological record for examples, which we should then compare to find convergent patters that led us to a basic model.  By this process of investigation, we should discover that human marriage is a strong and long-term sexual bond between one male and one or more females who together rear the offspring of their coupling.   We could go further and say that although the human male tends mildly toward polygamy and promiscuity, the basic model is one man and one woman.  This is so, partly because of the numbers question—every Muslim sheik or Mormon elder with 4 wives is depriving three other men of a wife—but also because polygamous societies are generally less stable and less successful than monogamous ones.  Besides, even in polygamous countries, most men have to be content with one wife.  

But seeking more than this description of what marriage is, we would then ask, "What is marriage for?"  To answer that question, we would look at the function of marriage in biological terms.  Here we might turn to evolutionary biologists who would explain that universal behavioral patterns usually make individuals more successful, more fit.  Since fitness basically means reproductive success, the function of marriage is to facilitate the bearing and rearing of children who will also be successful in reproducing.  In Genesis, man and woman are told to "Be fruitful and multiply,” but Charles Darwin would have said the same thing.

In our effort to understand marriage, we can turn from science and look at the societies that gave birth to our own:  the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews; the Celts, Germans, and Slavs who invaded, wrecked, and ultimately rebuilt the civilization some of us continue to call Christendom.  I have to paint with a very broad brush, but after studying this subject for decades, I can say quite simply that for most ancient peoples of the Mediterranean, as for our own barbarian ancestors, marriage was an agreement between two families or kin groups to unite a male and a female for the purpose of bearing and rearing offspring to perpetuate either one or both of the bloodlines and to transmit property to legitimate heirs.  The Romantic inclinations of oversexed adolescents did not enter much into the negotiations until societies became so urbanized and rich they could afford this luxury.


If marriage is some kind of union of persons, the first requirement of the union is that the parties are capable of entering into it.  There is no point in discussing marriage between members of different species or between members of the same sex: Two males can no more produce natural heirs than a man and a dog.  Capacity for marriage, therefore, is the first requirement to understand.  Under normal circumstances, both parties are presumed to be capable of producing offspring, thus known impotence or barrenness can (though not must) constitute both an impediment to marriage and a justification for dissolution.  Incest is a second impediment.  Every society has its own rules, but, commonly, marriage between ancestors and descendants is not permitted.  Thus vertical incest between parents or grandparents and their children or grandchildren is forbidden.  In most cases, marriage between full siblings is also proscribed.  The advantages—both eugenic and social—of such prohibitions seem obvious.

  In most traditional societies, marriage has been more business than romance: It represented both a union of bloodlines and the mechanism by which bona fide members of society were produced.  The concern to produce legitimate heirs and citizens was particularly strong in Republican Rome.  The primary object was to insure the transmission of property to legitimate heirs and the preservation of the family and lineage and its property.  Marriage, although primarily an arrangement between families, was permitted only between consenting citizens or non-citizens with conubium (the legal right to marry a Roman citizen), because only these had the legal capacity to marry each other.  The prohibition on marriage with foreigners whose community did not have conubium was designed to protect the integrity of the citizen class.  The rules were complicated:  Slaves could not marry, though once freed, they could contract some unions.  Some non-Roman communities had marriage rights, and in some cases exemptions were granted.  The details, however, do not affect my argument, which is to simply that Roman citizens and their legal system were jealous in guarding the rights of citizenship. 

Capacity for marriage was defined by age and circumscribed by the Romans’ rather complicated rules on incest.  In rough terms, girls were able to marry when they reached the age of twelve and/or displayed proof of puberty, while boys had to be sexually mature and beyond the age of needing a guardian (typically 14).  The commonwealth, then, did have strict requirements for a legal marriage, the violation of which could spell loss of civil rights for the offender and render his children incapable of inheriting property.  None of them, however, could be enforced directly by legal officers.  The laws came into play only when an interested party (a potential heir, for example) sued the violators in court.  Finally, at least in principle, it is desirable that both bride and groom enter freely into the marriage.  No matter much pressure has been exerted on one or both, each party should be able to say, however grudgingly, “I will.”  Although Roman parents had considerable say in the marriages made by their children, the mens matrimonii or maritalis affectio (intent to marry or stay married) was at least a technical requirement.

Christianity was far more strict in applying incest rules.  Though the standards fluctuated, the Medieval Church combined Jewish with Roman regulations to produce a system that made it very difficult for the intermarrying aristocracy of Europe. Even god-parent relationships were an impediment.  In post-Roman Europe, where the royal and aristocratic families were closely intermarried, this posed a serious problem, though the Church reserved the right to grant a dispensation except for the closer relationships.  But once a dispensation was granted it could not be revoked at a later date when one or the other spouse changed his mind. 


Marriage may begin in a contract (traditionally the agreement is more often between the families than between the boy and girl), but it is, "a contract to transcend the standpoint of contract," as Hegel put it.  There are societies where in principle marriage decisions are left exclusively either to the potential spouses or to both sets of parents.  More often, the situation is more ambiguous.  In the United States, for example, parents have the power to delay the marriage of their minor children, but they may neither arrange nor permanently prevent a union; and yet, we all know that most young people expect to obtain the consent of their parents, even if that consent is only grudging and formal.  At the other end of the spectrum are those traditional societies in which the children are supposed to have no say whatsoever, but the literature and folktales of such cultures abound with stories of elopements and with cautionary tales designed to warn parents against too stringent enforcement of their rights.  

While marriage, whether monogamous or polygynous is virtually universal, the power to regulate marriage has been vested in various institutions: the family, the civil community, and (in Medieval Christendom) the Church.  In the simplest and undoubtedly oldest system, whatever power is not held by bride and groom is entrusted to their families, typically to their parents.  Athenian and Roman fathers could betroth daughters but not sons against their will, though eventually Roman law required the consent of both parties.  However, no son who wished to receive a generous inheritance would willingly offend his father. 

At Athens consent of the bride was not needed, and, if she were an epikleros (that is, her father’s only surviving child and heir) she was required to marry a close relative of her late father, to prevent the property from passing out of his lineage. Maintaining the bloodline and its property were of primary concern to ancient Greeks, but Greek literature paints a far brighter and less coercive picture than do the law courts. Whatever parental force may have been exerted upon the couple, spouses and parents are portrayed in positive terms.  In the Odyssey, young Nausicaa seems pretty confident of her ability to twist daddy around her finger, and Greek myths and literature are filled with affectionate husbands and wives.  Hector and Andromache are the shining example in the Odyssey, but even the reconciled Helen and Menelaus are a model of marital respect.  Aristophanes’ Lysistrata assumes Athenian and Spartan men will quit killing each other, if their wives will once withhold marital favors.  Sophocles’ Antigone is an epikleros engaged to her maternal cousin, but, though the marriage is clearly arranged, the couple are fond of each other.  We know too little of Greek domestic relations to make sweeping statements except to say that Plato, in doubting the possibility of marital love, was as usual not expressing the common sense of his people.  The poets, in portraying the love of Antigone and Haemon, Alcestis and Admetus, Hector and Andromache, were closer to reality

By the late republic at least, Roman parents consulted their daughters on the choice of husbands.  In his Lex Julia, the Emperor Augustus, eager to encourage the growth of the Roman population, forbade parents to prevent or discourage their children from marrying.  Later enactments gave girls the right to marry without their guardians’ consent.  An 8th century Byzantine law reaffirms, however, the necessity of obtaining the consent of both families.  

We are only human, and all our social arrangements are subject to not quite infinite variation, but if we do not make the mistake of judging all societies by the standards of our own, we can get rid of the silly prejudices that stigmatize earlier forms of marriage as loveless tyrannies.  Even our uncivilized ancestors were creative in finding ways to beget and rear their grandchildren.  Among the barbarians who invaded the empire, the Visigoths--like most Germanic peoples--expected to arrange the marriages of their children, but according to the Visigothic Code (III. I.3), a girl who had been betrothed by her parents but eloped with another would, along with her husband, be put into the hands of the betrothed.  If her family relented, then they had to pay a penalty to the disappointed fiancé.  

   Unlike most other contracts, the marriage bond is entered into in the expectation that it will be permanent and irrevocable.  This was true even in the later Roman republic, where divorces were common (at least in the upper class) and easy to procure.  The permanency of marriage was and is sealed with the arrival of children whose needs are provided for by husband and wife.  Since each child is, in genetics as well as in folklore, half of each parent, it is in the interest of both spouses to maintain the union and to care for the earthly bits of their own immortality.  Ancient pagans understood this well.  Aristotle says that brothers are to some extent the same person, while Plutarch expresses this unity more poetically. "For nature mixes us through our bodies, that take a part of each partner and blending them in common, she produces an offspring that is common to both, so that it is not possible to distinguish one's own part from the spouse's contribution."

The sexual bond, while it is nourished in the pleasures of the bed and in intimate companionship, is essentially procreative, and while the procreative aspect of both sexuality and marriage can be overemphasized, as it has been by some celibate theologians, those who attempt to divorce children from erotic pleasure are missing the point.  It is only in the creation of children that man and woman succeed in the mystical goal of sexual experience: the merging of identities that is, as the materialist poet Lucretius recognized, at the origin of all human civility: 

And woman joined together with man went into union,          and they saw their offspring created from themselves then the human race first began to soften.    


Aristotle, Lucretius, and Plutarch, pagans all, appear to echo, or rather anticipate, the Christian ideal, by which man and wife became one flesh.   While consent has always been an essential part of the Christian theory of marriage, the act of sexual union was the basis of the marital bond.

The basic texts for the understanding of Christian marriage are found in the Scriptures.  The first key is found, appropriately, Genesis.

This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

 This passage of Scripture has been quoted so often that, as is the case with everything we have always known, few of us rarely stop to consider the meaning.  Although Adam’s words are used in Christian marriage services, Adam was not a Christian, at least not in the ordinary sense.  He was the first man, and, therefore, for Christians he is every man who has ever lived.  It is not just Christians, then, who become one flesh in marriage but every married couple.  Christians often forget this.


Almost as familiar is our Lord’s clarification of what Adam’s declaration means: “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”  Moses, he explained to his Jewish audience, had permitted divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts, but from the beginning it was not so.”  Divorce, in other words, had not been permitted to Adam and Even and their descendants.  It was only granted as a concession to human incorrigibility by Moses, and that concession was now being withdrawn.  

Therefore all marriage, by its very essence, is an irrevocable union.  Christ concluded, [Mark 10:11-12]  “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery”.  In Matthew [5:32] a fuller form of the sentence is given, with the concession "except it be for fornication," but nearly all of the Fathers of the Church either cite the passage without the concession for fornication or reject any interpretation that would justify divorce and remarriage.   In the Church, marriage requires the consent of the bride and groom.  This is a necessary consequence of the Christian view of human freedom and dignity.  However, consent of the couple was also important in some cultures at some times, especially among the civilized Romans of the late Republic and the Empire, but it was not, in the early days, the essence of marriage, which is, after all, a merging of two collectivities.  The couple is just a link in a chain, and their feelings and opinions, while of some importance to the success of the marriage, were not in early times the first consideration.

Christians may be tempted to view this phrase “be of one flesh” as only a Christian ideal, but the statements of both the Old Adam and the New Adam, or Christ, make it clear that it is simply in the nature of reality. That is why Paul tells men not to consort with prostitutes because in the sexual act they are annealed to the prostitute and become one flesh with her. 

The Christian Marriage Revolution

Christ’s declaration that he came not to overturn the Law but to fulfill it is beautifully illustrated by the Christian view of marriage.  To the Christian way of thinking, "one flesh" was not so much an ideal as a fact of life.  St. Paul admonishes us to avoid fornication, because erotic intimacy binds us, willy-nilly, in a permanent union.  If one indiscretion brings us into bondage--as it does, at least in the permanent records of our memory and imagination--then cohabitation, with or without benefit of clergy or license, ties up our habits and our imaginings so tightly that divorce or no we can never cut ourselves free from what we were, so-and-so's man, the woman of such-and such.

Although the revolution did not take place all at once, the Christian doctrine of "one flesh" influenced virtually every aspect of European and American marriage.   On the other hand,  there is no point in denying the obvious fact that Christian marriage does not represent a rejection of pre-Christian traditions but a fulfillment of them.  

This is an area in which we must tread carefully, respecting both the teachings of the Church and, in discussions with non-Christians, being careful not to overstate their impact.  In any conversation with non-Christians or with progressive Christians, it can  never be enough to say, "Scripture says this," or "Tradition teaches thus."  For this reason it can often be helpful to separate out the specifically Christian from the generically human or generically Western pattern of marriage.  It should then be much easier to handle non-Christian arguments in favor of no-fault divorce or same-sex marriage.  In the three centuries between the preaching of the apostles at Pentecost (A.D. 33?) and the legalization of the Church under Constantine (313), Christian converts would have retained most of the customs practiced in the part of  the Roman Empire in which they had been brought up.  Apart from the earliest converts in Palestine,  most Christians were at home in the Greco-Roman civilization that stretched from Egypt to southern Britain.  Broadly speaking, their wedding and marriage customs would not have been much different from those of their neighbors.  German and Celtic converts, unless they had assimilated to the traditions of the Empire, would turn to their own body of custom.

It is difficult to speak generally medieval marriage customs, because each country, each region, and in Italy each city had its own traditions and laws. In time, marriages in many parts of Europe either took place in our outside a Church or at least with the participation of  a priest.  This was not, however, universal.  Marriage arrangements in Medieval and Renaissance  Italy, for example, were a complex blending of Roman, Christian, and Germanic customs, though with the restoration of the study of Roman law at the University of Bologna, Roman legal concepts exerted increasing pressure.   Nonetheless, lawmakers in every city displayed considerable ingenuity in framing marriage regulations to address local concerns, and the rich variety of laws makes generalizations difficult.  It was common to have a marriage performed in a church or in the presence of a priest, but customs varied.  It is not certain, for example, when marriages in Tuscany were supposed to be solemnized by a priest.  On balance, it would seem that the private and familial nature of marriage was so ingrained that a priest’s participation was not obligatory before the Council of Trent, which completed its work only in 1563.

The Christian transformation of marriage lay not in the forms but in the understanding of the institution.  Jesus explained to his listeners that marriage had been perfect in the beginning, an indissoluble union between a man and a woman, but over the years it had been corrupted.   Divorce was not justified except in the case of adultery, and even then it was not clear that  a second marriage was permitted.  He did not bring up polygeny,  perhaps because the monogamous union of Adam and Eve was the original pattern.  On the other hand, the prevailing customs of the Greco-Roman world (probably including Roman Judaea) might have made it an aberration unnecessary  to discuss. 

The Gospels, concerned almost exclusively with the Savior's ministry, are not rich in descriptions of married life.  The most important exception consists in the brief allusions to  Mary and Joseph, and these are few and brief.  Mary and Joseph are engaged.  We are not told their age, and the later tradition that makes Joseph and old man has no great authority.  Mary is a virgin in both senses of the word, that is she is an unmarried young woman and intact, and from early on she was regarded as a perpetual virgin.    When by the power of the Holy Ghost she conceives a child, Joseph is understandably upset.  "Then Joseph, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily." [Mat 1.19]  While still believing her guilty of fornication, Joseph had no wish to harm his fiancée.   But Joseph is not only just, he is pious.  When the angel appears to tell him what has really happened, he accepts the news unquestioningly.  Mary is equally trusting, though in Luke she asks the angel how this miraculous conception can be possible.  Reassured, she says simply, "be it so according to thy word." [Luke 1.37]

Mary and Joseph take care of the infant, and even when as a boy he wanders off to teach in the Temple, they are worried sick: "Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?  Behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing."  The Scriptures tell us little else of their married life.  Joseph has disappeared from view before the baptism in the Jordan.  Since there is no mention of Joseph taking a second wife, we should assume monogamy.

Many early Christian writers tend to describe marriage as either a concession to human frailty or at best as a lesser good than celibacy, but a secular scholar who wanted to discover Jesus' precise view of marriage would not have an easy time.  Still, we do get some pretty broad hints.  Early in his ministry, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well, and, when he asks her to go get her husband, she tells him she has no husband,  Jesus' response is cutting: "Thou has said well has thou hast no husband: for thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband."  [John 4:17-18]  It is not clear what the woman's situation is.  Has she had five divorces or been widowed five times or a combination of both?  Is she, like the hypothetical case raised by the Pharisees, merely a victim of the Levirate?  If divorce were the issue, one would have expected a comment on the illegitimacy of divorce and remarriage.  The question is not made easier by John's rather simple Greek in which the word άνήρ is used for both "husband" and "man."  At the least, Jesus' words seem to imply a degree of skepticism about multiple marriages.

If Jesus ever did preach against marriage as an inferior condition, there is no sign of such an attitude in the Gospels.  His first miracle, the turning of water into wine, took place at a wedding, which He was attending, with His mother, as a guest. [John 2]  Elsewhere he used weddings as  a metaphor for the heavenly kingdom.  Christians were to look for His return as if they were bridesmaids awaiting the arrival of the groom (Matthew 25).  Even more explicitly He compares the Kingdom of Heaven with a wedding banquet [Matt 22].   Then this human institution of marriage, divinely ordained for Adam and Eve before the Fall, is treated as an earthly anticipation of  the heavenly bliss the faithful will enjoy after the resurrection.

Christian marriage is more than a practical convenience; it is a union of love.  Thus Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church [Eph 5:25]  This is a statement remarkable for its power and richness.  The verb ἀγαπᾶν and the noun ἀγάπη were not ordinarily used to describe erotic passion but affectionate concern, the brotherly love and dearness (Latin caritas) that Christians are supposed to share with each other.  Marriage then exemplifies Christian charity as a lifetime mutual commitment between husband and wife.  St. Augustine, walking in the footsteps of Aristotle, would later describe marriage as the natural bond of human society, a fellowship shared in the children.   Then, whatever strictures against marriage we might find either in St. Paul or the Fathers, Christ and the Church regard marriage as an honorable and worthy institution, an earthly image of divine love.

Christian Marriage in the Empire

Christ did not come to overturn the law but to fulfill it.  Similarly, Christianity did not overturn the ancient view of marriage, but it did strengthen and discipline the institution, nudging it in the direction of the revealed ideal.   In form, most early Christian marriages would have been simply Greek or Roman customs imbued with a Christian understanding.  Pagan ceremonies would have been stripped of explicitly pagan customs, such as the taking of the auspices, but a pagan attending a Christian wedding would not have noticed much difference.  Marriage was still based on the free consent of both partners, though in the Christian case consent could not so easily be withdrawn.  

Over time, the Church did stiffen the requirement for marital capacity.  The Roman view of consanguinity, which was initially adopted, was in time made more rigorous by combining it with the traditional Jewish view.  One area of possible friction was marriage with non-Christians.  

The Catholic Church today restricts valid matrimony to those who have been baptized in the Catholic faith and, with some restrictions, to a Catholic and members of certain other Christian communions.  In the early Church such rigor was not possible.  Even in the time of the Apostles, it sometimes happened that one spouse converted and the other did not.  Paul lays down the general rule that the Christian partner should remain married if the non-Christian is willing [I Cor 7: 12-13].  Peter also addresses this difficulty [I Peter 3], saying that the Christian wife’s good example may convert a husband who has not so much as heard the word preached.   

This instruction is directed to married converts and not to the unmarried contemplating a mixed marriage.  Succeeding generations of Christians should have been guided by Paul’s denunciation of Christians who marry non-believers: [II Cor 6: 14-15.] “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?   And what accord  hath Christ with Belial?  Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?”    Nonetheless, despite Paul’s injunction, these problems must have cropped up repeatedly so long as paganism remained legal.  In the 4th century, Augustine was the son of a Christian mother and pagan father.  Monica’s Christian parents had apparently married her to a pagan.  However, such marriages were denounced by Augustine’s contemporaries, both by St. John Chrysostom in the East and in the West by Augustine’s own mentor Ambrose.  They were eventually to be expressly  prohibited in both the East and the West.  Such well-intended prohibitions were not and cannot be absolute, because circumstances change.  Besides, such marriages can turn out to have been providential, both for the pagan spouse and for the Church.  Had Clothilde not been married to Clovis or Clovis’s descendant Bertha to Aethelberht of Kent, the conversion of the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons would have been delayed.  More seriously, an absolute prohibition on such marriages encourages us to think of  Christian marriage as an historical invention rather than as the universal ideal given to us at our creation.  

Christian marriage represents an even greater break with Jewish traditions than with the somewhat easy-going pagan customs of the Empire.  Most obviously, Jesus, explicitly rejected the no-fault divorce a Jewish husband could then quite easily procure by the simple expedient of repudiating his wife.  This prohibition may be  partly anticipated by the prophet Malachi [ii.14-15], who denounced Jews who  violated their marriage covenants by divorcing the wives of their youth.  Jewish marriage arrangements (like those of Early Mesopotamia) had required the groom to pay the bride’s family money in advance of the marriage.  This may not have discouraged divorce, since the husband had nothing further to lose. In the first century BC, however, Jews began to adopt the custom of other peoples who insisted on a contract between husband and wife that could stipulate further penalties for a divorce,

  Before the institution of Mosaic law, some incestuous marriages, which were later expressly condemned,  do not appear to have been forbidden: Abraham married his paternal half-sister Sarah, Nahor married his brother’s daughter.  The legality of polygamy and divorce are illustrated in the case of Abraham who took Hagar as a second wife and then sent  her away.  Even an apparent prohibition (Deut 17) on a ruler taking multiple wives is really a warning against rulers who would monopolize valuable resources: The same passage condemns ownership of many horses.!  It is then, perhaps, a curious fact that Jesus Christ nowhere referred to polygamy, neither to condemn nor approve it, though the tenor of his teaching would appear to be solidly against it.   In Roman occupied Judaea,  Roman law and custom, which prohibited polygamy, may have prevailed, but the persistence of polygamy throughout the Jewish diaspora caused enough problems in Christian Europe for it to be suspended.  Although polygamy has more than once forbidden by European rabbis, the prohibition did not apply to Spain, where Maimonides, the greatest of Medieval Jewish thinkers, declared it permissible to take a hundred or more wives.

The early Church’s teaching on marriage is set forth in the epistles of Peter and Paul.  In addition to condemning adultery, fornication, and homosexuality, St. Paul emphasizes the mystical unity of the couple and stipulates that church leaders be men of only one wife (in 1 Timothy and Titus), but whether this is a limitation on polygamy, divorce, or remarriage after 

bereavement, it is not clear.  Perhaps it refers to all three.

To Marry or To Burn

One basic question faced by early Christians was whether nor not to marry at all.  St. Paul praises celibacy but grants marriage as an indulgence to the weak.  It is understandable that Christians who expected Christ's imminent return might regard marriage as pointless. Despite his relegation of marriage to a secondary status, Paul does not approve of a man living with his wife in celibacy.  Celibacy represents an ideal of perfection, but marriage is for most of us a necessity that both enriches our lives and protects us from sin.  The opening of the 7th chapter of I Corinthians captures much of his thought.

“Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.  Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.”

Note the phrase every man.  Marriage is not to be the rare exception but the norm.  The celibate life is best, but marriage, which is preferable to fornication, imposes duties of both kindness and sexual intercourse.  In his “Epistle to Polycarp,” St. Ignatius follows Paul’s lead, in praising celibacy but celebrating marriage as a true union to be solemnized in the presence of a bishop.  Once a marriage was made, it was not to be broken off lightly or treated as a legal fiction.  

Every movement, whether political, intellectual, or religious, develops factions and sects, some of which derive their peculiar teachings from external sources.  Christianity was no exception.  From almost the beginning, the Stoics’ opposition to non-rational pleasures and their advocacy of self-control and chastity had impressed itself upon Christian moral theology.  Major Stoic thinkers were agreed that sexual pleasure was a moral problem--it was not to be actively pursued by a wise man, but they differed on  the manner of solution.  The sect’s founder, Zeno, argued for promiscuity and nudity as a means of escape, while later Stoics more practically taught moral restraint and chastity. On the other hand, the eclectic Stoic Hierocles advocated marriage, in general, as the practice adopted by wise men.

It is sometimes said that the early Christian emphasis for celibacy reflects the influence of some puritanical Judaic sect, such as the Essenes, who are said to have banned marriage and denigrated women, but this is simply speculation.  Our best sources for the Essenes, Pliny the Elder, Josephus, and Philo, agree that celibacy was required  and women were excluded from the community, though Josephus, writing in the first century A.D., also knows of an Essene group that strictly regulated but did not prohibit marital sex. (BJ II.8}:

Moreover, there is another order of Essens, (8) who agree with the rest as to their way of living, and customs, and laws, but differ from them in the point of marriage, as thinking that by not marrying they cut off the principal part of human life, which is the prospect of succession; nay, rather, that if all men should be of the same opinion, the whole race of mankind would fail. However, they try their spouses for three years; and if they find that they have their natural purgations thrice, as trials that they are likely to be fruitful, they then actually marry them. But they do not use to accompany with their wives when they are with child, as a demonstration that they do not many out of regard to pleasure, but for the sake of posterity. Now the women go into the baths with some of their garments on, as the men do with somewhat girded about them. And these are the customs of this order of Essenes.

The Essenes were hardly alone in viewing sex—and even marriage—as impediments to sanctity.  A number of Middle Eastern cults encouraged or required the castration of priests, and, in the early Christian centuries, a variety of “Gnostic” sects enjoined celibacy.  Celibacy was also either demanded or advocated by influential heretics such as Marcion, Tatian, and Montanus, and even among Orthodox Christians there were many who viewed the body itself as shameful and sexual acts as disgusting.  Robin Lane Fox, in surveying these excesses, warns against the tendency to see them as normative, sensibly pointing out “most Christian authors did remember that the highest ideals did not apply to everyone but to each according to his capacity,” adding, “We must do justice to this range of opinion, which was headed by Paul himself.”

The celibate life has been the highest Christian ideal from the beginning of the Church, but in time it became clear that a communal life requiring celibacy and communal property was only possible for the dedicated minority willing to take monastic vows.  As the concept of the sacraments developed, marriage was elevated to the sacramental level.  Sex even within marriage, however, was not given an unqualified license.   Abstinence except when children are intended was the ideal, though it is, nonetheless, not wrong to pay the marriage debt.  In his De bono coniugali, (6)  Augustine says that excessive demands, which reflect incontinence, should not be made, but even in such a case the sin is venial.  Augustine praises the mature couple whose affections grow once they have decided to abstain from intercourse.[9]  In the early centuries of the Church, sex even within marriage was typically looked upon as an irrational and even degrading passion and impediment to sanctity. The most careful exposition is given by St. Thomas, who argues that sexual acts can be without sin if performed in a manner that is rational and consistent with nature.[Summa Th II-III , 153 .]  

Divorce and Remarriage

In the early Church, marriage was honorable, sexual relations legitimate even when not entirely necessary for procreation, and separation or divorce permitted when the marriage made it impossible or difficult to practice the faith.   But were there circumstances under which a divorced person might legitimately remarry?  This was a question that had to be seriously debated, because none of the three principal cultures that influenced the Church--Greek, Roman, Judaic--had preserved primitive prohibitions on divorce.   Ancient Jewish law recognized various justifications for divorce.  Deuteronomy [24.1] is encouragingly vague:

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

"Some uncleanness," translated also as "something obnoxious," apparently refers more to a betrayal of trust than to moral or ritual defilement.  The more liberal rabbis were willing to grant it on the grounds that a man disliked his wife's cooking or had found a more attractive woman to marry.  In the early Church separation (or divorce) was permitted if one spouse deserted or betrayed  the other or made a Christian life difficult.  Jesus recognized both the difficulties of the situation and the bad faith of many husbands.  Divorce, he said, was granted by Moses because of the hardness of the people's heart, but, he concluded, [Mark 10:11-12]  “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry  another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her  husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery”.  (In Matthew [5:32] a fuller form of the sentence is given, with the concession "except it be for fornication.")

The Early Church was suspicious of remarriage under any circumstances, and rigorous Christians could point to Jesus’ answer to the Samaritan woman. There is also the difficult question raised by the Sadducees, who tried to trap Him by citing the imaginary case of a woman married in sequence to seven brothers, each of whom failed to sire an heir.   [Mark 12: 19-25]  To which man, they asked, would she belong after the resurrection?  The question is based on the Jewish custom known as the levirate, by which a childless widow would be married to her husband's brother to produce an heir.  He answered with something approaching contempt for the intricacies of Mosaic regulation: “For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.”  Some moral theologians have wrestled with the problem, trying to ameliorate Jesus’  severe teaching but with no convincing results.

There were several reasons why a Christian could end a marriage, but did any of them justify remarriage?  In the early Church it was debated whether or not a widow or widower could remarry, and if so how many times.   But despite the variety and nuance of Christian doctrine and the evolution of Canon Law, the main point has never been in any doubt, at least among Christians, who take seriously the traditions of their faith.  No matter how many exceptions might have to be made under unusual or extreme circumstances, the Christian understanding is opposed to divorce and remarriage.  Whatever practical accommodations must be made to the ever-deteriorating morality of modern life, we should never lose sight of the plain truth that divorce is at best a grave misfortune.

For Christians, man and wife became one flesh, united in sexual intercourse and in the procreation of children that are the material realization of this union.  To the Christian way of thinking, "one flesh" was not so much an ideal as a fact of life.  St. Paul admonishes men to avoid fornication, because erotic intimacy binds us, willy-nilly, in a permanent union with a partner.  If one indiscretion brings us into bondage--as it does, at least in the permanent records of our memory and imagination--then cohabitation, with or without benefit of clergy or license, ties up our habits and our imaginings so tightly that divorce or no we can never cut ourselves free from what we were, so-and-so's man, the woman of such-and such.  This is true even in post-Christian America, where after a divorce:

 “Many women 'still felt married,' regardless of whether they had any relationship with their former spouses.  Divorce could not erase the memory of their married years or negate the presence of their children, who were a constant reminder of shared parenthood." 

What if a decent husband is faced with an adulterous wife who either leaves voluntarily or is expelled by her virtuous spouse?  This question is taken up by Hermas, an early Christian writer whose mystical treatise, The Shepherd, was highly regarded in the early Church.  In the context of sin and repentance, some Christians, apparently, had taken the position that after conversion and baptism no sins (or perhaps only major sins like murder, robbery, adultery, etc.) could be forgiven.  In one way and another, one can connect this rigorism with other heretical rigorisms that emphasized perfection after baptism (Montanists, Novatianists, Donatists) or a radical emphasis on the power of free will (Pelagians).

Hermas appears to have been criticized for the laxity of his views, but he is a good witness, in general, to the strictness of the early Church on marriage.  Marriage, though less glorious than a life of celibate devotion, is an honorable estate but limited to one man and one woman; no grounds for separation exist except adultery; a man should not live with an adulterous spouse, but he should not remarry after he has put her out of the house, because, if his wife repents and returns to him, he is obliged to take her back as his wife.  A widowed person may remarry, though it would be more glorious to remain celibate.  A man should remain pure in heart, but, if he does have carnal thoughts of other women, he should think only of his wife.  

Hermas is one voice of many in the early centuries of the Church, and one might quibble with the details of his teaching.  In time, both the Eastern and Western Churches would find ways of accommodating the more severe rules to human reality, but the basic outline of  sexual morality and Christian marriage has remained more or less unchanged for churches that preserve the traditional strictness expressed, for example, by the  late 4th century Pope Siricius, who declared that a girl promised in marriage to one could not be taken in marriage by another, and by the time of Constantine the West was moving toward the position that the clergy had to be (not merely ought to be in the ideal) celibate, while in the East celibacy was required only of monks. 

Christianizing the Empire

Neither the conversion of the Emperor Constantine nor the imposition of Christianity upon the entire Empire could bring about a Christian marriage revolution.  This would take a good deal of time.  Even the laws of Theodosius(379-95), who made Christianity the only entirely licit religion of the Empire, permitted divorce, though from the time of Constantine (306-37) on, the justifications for divorce were increasingly restricted to  serious crimes.  Like Augustus and many later emperors, Constantine revised Roman marriage law with the intention of strengthening the institution and promoting morality.  He criminalized marriage by abduction and punished the abductor—probably with death—along with his accomplices and  his bride, if she was willing; he stiffened and broadened the laws on adultery and restored the jurisdiction of a woman's husband and male relatives that had been taken away by Augustus; he restricted a spouse's right to unilateral divorce to a specific set of serious charges--a wife who repudiated her  husband for lesser reasons, such as drunkenness, forfeited her dowry; and he repealed the penalties Augustus had imposed on the celibate. 

These laws have generally been seen to reflect the injection of Christian morality into Roman law, but a closer analysis has revealed that, to a considerable extent, Constantine's concerns were not exclusively Christian.  The penalties for celibacy, for example, had always been resented as had Augustus' meddling in adultery cases, though the restrictions on unilateral divorce probably do indicate Christian inspiration.  Constantine's real innovation was to transfer some of the Empire's social responsibility, such as care for the poor, to the Church, whose bishops would soon be serving as judges and bureaucrats.  The progressive shift of social authority would pick up steam as imperial control in the West crumbled and emperors like Justinian would see the advantage in utilizing Italian bishops as local administrators.

Even after Constantine's conversion, the Church's most powerful weapon in the war against sin was not imperial law but the threat of excommunication. The Church’s own rules, because they did not have to take account of non-Christians, could be far more strict.  At the Council of Arles in 314—the first council held after Constantine’s conversion—men were forbidden to marry again, even if they had divorced wives for adultery.   St. Basil in his Ethica also forbade remarriage, and in his “Canons” he expressed dismay over a double standard that pressured wives into taking back adulterous husbands who persisted in whoring without providing any such remedy for an erring wife.  Basil's friend Gregory Nazianzen also objected to any double standard and criticized Roman law for failing to conform to Church teachings. Nonetheless, the frequent changes and adjustments in laws on divorce are a clear indication that the Church’s theories were not uniformly accepted even by Christians.

In the early centuries of the Christian Empire, rulers had to reconcile Roman marriage law with Christian morality without arousing the resentment of non-Christians.  In such a period, there were inevitably debates, confusion, and backsliding, but it is hard not to perceive that the mainstream of major theologians condemned remarriage after divorce, except, perhaps, when a pagan husband had abandoned a Christian wife because of her religion.  Among the church’ most influential moral teachers after Constantine was John Chrysostom (d. 407), who grew up and lived in the somewhat less rigorous East.   Although St. John permitted a man to put his wife away wife for porneia (adultery or prostitution), he did not condone remarriage.  Jews, he argued, permitted remarriage only because a husband who hated his wife would kill her, if he could not get rid of her by less drastic means..  In his De Libello repudii, he describes a divorced woman who remarries as an adulteress who was married to no one.  In the West, where there was apparently less resistance to the imposition of Christian rules, St. Ambrose warns against putting away a wife, because, if she then became an adulteress, the sin was her husband’s fault.

Although the revolution did not take place all at once, the Christian doctrine of "one flesh" influenced virtually every aspect of marriage.  Celibacy remained the highest ideal in the Middle Ages, but marriage was an institution created by God for the procreation of the human race, though the pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake was condemned even in marriage.  Since most of the information on the secondary status of marriage and the sinfulness of conjugal pleasure comes from clerics, one may well doubt how representative such opinions were in any other class.  

There were distinguished exceptions, such as St. John Damascene, the Eastern theologian who saw nothing wrong in frequent and vigorous sexual activity within marriage.  St. Thomas was, as to be expected, quite moderate in his treatment of marital sex.  Perhaps the most generous interpretation of marital intercourse is offered by St. Alphonsus dei Liguori, a 17th century casuist often regarded as the most comprehensive moral theologian of the Catholic Church.  St. Alphonsus wrestles mightily with the question of whether marital copulation for the purpose of pleasure is illicit.  After surveying the authorities in painful detail, he makes several distinctions.  He concludes that such pleasure is sinful only if the sole purpose is pleasure, because it is a perversion of nature to put means (pleasure) before the end or purpose (procreation), but it is not a sin if pleasure is merely anticipated by a couple that wishes to have children.  But, even in the cases where marital relations are sought only for pleasure, the sin is venial.  


Christianity reformed marriage but hardly affected the pre-Christian wedding and marriage customs the Church took over from Greek, Roman, and barbarian pagan cultures.  Early Christian marriages were Greco-Roman in outward form, but that form was filled with a Christian spirit that rejected such common practices as adultery, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and divorce. It is not too much to say that a religious sect that permits contraception and divorce will sound find itself condoning abortion and same-sex marriage.

Although the Church did not invent marriage, it did impose its own rules.  Nonetheless, marriage remained largely a family affair down to the later Middle Ages, when Christian marriages—in some parts of Europe—could be held at home, rather than in Church, and priests were not actually required to solemnize the union.  This was especially true in central Italy.  The essence of the marital union remained, as it always had been, an arrangement between two families to secure grandchildren to inherit property.  Christian law, like Roman law, also required the consent of the two parties.

If marriage was not primarily a religious affair, it was definitely not an affair of state.  An ancient government that required a marriage license would have been denounced as tyrannical.  For Greeks, Romans, and Jews, the state's interest in marriage was not in the institution per se but in its effects on inheritance of property and on citizenship.  Under the more aggressive Roman Empire, steps were taken to encourage marriage and discourage adultery, but no emperor was mad enough to think he could redefine the nature of marriage or even grant a permit.  Some liaisons—for example, marriage to a foreigner or a slave—might not constitute a legal marriage, but that really only affected the status of the children, who would not be Roman citizens or heirs to their father's estate.  This would only matter where there was an estate to fight over.

In this brief and oversimplified account of the history of marriage, it has been impossible even to sketch out the varieties of marriage forms and rules, much less to trace their evolution; nonetheless, this should be enough information to show that marriage was generally viewed as an arrangement between families and persons to produce heirs to property and social position.  Rules varied, but the fundamental concerns over consent and capacity remained valid.  Governments entered into the arrangements to confirm and enforce rules governing inheritance, citizenship, and social status, and, even after the official Christianization of the Roman Empire, Christian Emperors were not able to make fundamental changes in marriage, much less to impose strict Christian moral theology on their subjects.  The longstanding desires of families to perpetuate their property and status through marriage, while not opposed to Christian marriage, would exist in tension with the new religion.  The impulses of our common human nature notwithstanding, the Christianization of the Empire did result in a Christian marriage revolution, in which requirements for marriage and divorce were stiffened.  The Christianized barbarians of Europe would take some time to adapt their own customs to this revolution.  The process of adjustment would be, as farmers used to say, a long row to hoe. 

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Laura Brickman says:

    Interesting subject. I like the very last sentence, —– a long road
    to hoe”, and agree with it! Some more of your dry humor isneeded. Yes, Jews have practiced marriage with artistic wedding contracts etc. for thousands of years . Have the Chinese
    who have been around as long as the Jewish people ( practiced marige)? Again, intresting and I need to reread it.