The history of infidelity in ancient cultures
Cheating and infidelity have been problems for humanity and human relationships since creation. Ancient stories record how there were always those who thought they deserved to have physical relationships outside of marriage. Infidelity behavior occurred in both ancient and modern civilizations. Understanding how the behavior was viewed and treated over the years can provide insight and insight into your own struggle with this issue.
When dealing with the topic of infidelity, it often helps to understand what infidelity looked like and how it was treated in some ancient cultures.
Modern society did not develop its views and laws on the subject from scratch. Modern views on society and law developed over time. The foundations of modern views were built on ancient precedents. If you want to understand modern laws and customs, it helps to understand their roots. Since Rome and Greece were pivotal in terms of Western law, custom, and civilization, a closer examination of their views provides you with a better understanding of contemporary views of infidelity.
Roman history records that one of the factors behind the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey was that Caesar had slept with Pompey’s wife. Infidelity in higher social circles often had major consequences and affected large numbers of people. Although movies like Caligula make Rome seem like a free place for everyone, marriage was held in high regard. Adultery was often something people fought for. There were periodic wild parties, however, the Romans of the first republic had great respect for marital fidelity and family. When the Republic became an Empire, many of the behaviors and values changed to accommodate the influx of people considered “Roman”. Families often sought to keep their family lines clear, which meant that they viewed fidelity as important. The adaptation of other cultures to the Roman world brought with it a decline in the behavioral morale of many Romans. Some Romans dealt with this wanting marital loyalty but allowing the occasional immorality. The temple prostitutes were a mixture of religion with sexual debauchery. The mixture of the two allowed the Romans the excuse that they were going to the temple, when their motivation for going was suspect. Yes, immorality was common, yet Roman society continued to see the need and value of loyalty in marriage, as they knew that strong families and family life were the fundamental foundation of a culture. Their culture had survived for many years and they wanted it to continue. Its laws indicate that such morality was still valued by most Romans, although some lived very libertine lives. Hollywood movies are often not accurate depictions of Roman society, especially during the days of the Roman Republic. Roman orgies may sell movie tickets, but that was not how most noble families lived.
In Greek civilization, free-for-all sexual hedonism portrayed in movies and many college classrooms was not the standard in the days of free and democratic Greek society. Wasteful hedonism became rampant during the decline and fall of the “free polis,” not before. In the days of the free polis (city-state) and democratic society, virtue in marriage was emphasized. Hedonistic libertine behavior was also not accepted by all levels and classes of Greek society. Although the authors of plays and philosophers joked about him, the behavior was not part of mainstream Greek society. Yes, they had prostitutes, but visiting them often seemed sordid. Sleazy behavior was considered low-class in ancient Greece, as it is in any modern moral society. The plays of ancient Greece often portrayed such behavior on stage, however, like a Hollywood production, there was frequent exaggeration and an overemphasis on debauchery. This hype and overemphasis on debauchery often drew crowds to the stages of ancient Greece.
Marriage, like many of the transactions in ancient Rome, was governed by contracts. As it was by contract, the laws relating to contracts were applied. The concept of Roman contract law is very different from the Biblical / Hebrew concept of covenant marriage. In the pact, the two parties pledge their strength and wealth to each other throughout the generations. A covenant is not revocable and extends to future generations.
A contract is a legal agreement that can be broken when one of the parties does not fulfill their part of the agreement. The terms of a contract are often enforced by law. The duration of a contract is limited to the life of the parties who enter into it.
The idea of using contracts to document the arrangement was not new. In Babylonian law, marriages were also required to have a contract. One of the differences between the Babylonian contract and today’s marriage contract was that it was more like being a ‘bill of sale’ for the wife, rather than a legal arrangement made between two people.
Being governed by contracts, as Rome was, there was a plethora of lawyers in Rome who drafted those contracts. The contracts were fundamental. Without a contract, the marriage was not legal. For this reason, many people had an almost fanatical zeal for marriage lines. They knew that they needed legal legitimacy for their birth. Any doubt about the legitimacy of his birth was a blemish on his character. When he was able to establish good marriage lines, a person established his legitimacy.
Under Greek law, adultery was considered a private matter, although its consequences were public. Since the wife was seen as part of her husband’s family, they were his protectors and guardians. The husband (or a member of his family) was allowed to take revenge for the adultery, even to the point of killing. The government did not intervene as the rapist of the marriage was trespassing on property that was not legitimately his. The consequences of adultery, including death, were considered “justifiable”.
According to Roman law, when the wife had an affair, she gave up her rights as a wife. The contract was annulled, although she was allowed to keep the property she owned and her dowry to marry. If she contested the ‘divorce’ and lost, she was thrown into the river. This was part of the initial trial-by-ordeal concept. Those who floated or swam away were found innocent. Those who drowned were deemed “guilty.” This same practice was also common in ancient Babylon, where some women learned to swim. According to the law, if they survived, even swimming, they were not guilty.
The idea of public deaths in the matter of adultery was not new. Under Greek law, murder was considered a private matter and was left to the family to solve, as were rape, robbery, and battery. Adultery, on the other hand, was considered a subject fit for public persecution. The lover’s murder was considered justified and was generally a public event. Often times, the entire community would gather to witness the public execution of an adulterer.
Ironically, even in the early Christian church writers during the first five centuries of writing, all but one agreed that remarriage, even after divorce, was also considered “adulterous.” Adultery was not viewed favorably nor was it tolerated as an acceptable reason for divorce.
Under Roman law, when a wife left her husband, it was considered the property of her father’s family. She was not an independent woman. Roman law also addressed wandering husbands. When a husband had an affair and left his wife for someone else, and decided not to keep her, the wife had new freedoms. Then she was free to flirt with another man. If and when the husband returned, she was obligated to return to her relationship with him. If she and her children did not return, she was found guilty of adultery with the necessary trial by ordeal.
The marriage was widespread. Even Vestal Virgins had husbands. So the Vestal Virgins weren’t actually ‘virgins’. The only problem with Vestal Virgins was that they couldn’t have children. When they wanted to have children, they had to use a maid to give birth. When a woman remained loyal and faithful to her husband, she was considered noble and virtuous. These women were highly esteemed in ancient Rome.