Marriage Through Time

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

It is believed that the first “marriage” took place when a primitive man went into a primitive woman's cave and carried her off to be his mate. He chose her not for love but for her ability to do work. Since then, of course, the idea of marriage has changed quite a lot.

Ancient Egyptians

Ancient Egyptian women had rights and privileges on par with their male counterparts. To them, a person's legal rights had more to do with social class than gender. This was unlike most other ancient societies, and even some modern ones. After marriage, women held control of their independence, property and wealth, and either person could easily get a divorce. For two people to be considered married, all they had to do was move in with each other. There was no legal or religious ceremony to formalize the union; in fact the Ancient Egyptians did not even have a word for such a ceremony. Subsequently, a wife shared control with her husband of all property obtained during the marriage. If either person died, the wife or husband was free to remarry.

Ancient Greeks and Spartans

All marriages were arranged by parents and approved by the gods in ancient Greece. Women in their early teens were married to men in their mid-thirties. A husband then had to buy his new wife from her father. Many couples did not see each other until after the ceremony, when the bridal veil was removed. On the night before the wedding, the girl's hair was cut off and she was bathed in holy water from a sacred fountain. Her childhood toys were then taken away and dedicated to a goddess. Greek wives were “owned” by their husbands, who could lend or sell them to others.

The Spartans believed that a person's athletic ability matched their fitness for marriage. Before marrying, a couple was required to wrestle in public to show their compatibility. Spartan women married in their twenties. The groom's father chose a bride for his son. Twelve months after the selection, the couple was married. During the marriage ceremony, the bride wore a white robe, a veil, and jewelry given to her by her new husband's family. The ceremony took place in the groom's tent and the festivities lasted seven days. If a woman was wealthy, she might have a husband for each house she maintained.


Roman brides wore white tunics with orange veils and orange slippers. Following the ceremony, the groom carried his bride over the threshold of their new home to symbolize his ownership of her.

Medieval Christians

Christian church marriages were thought to be made in heaven and therefore could never be broken. The father of the bride gave a dowry of land or money to the groom. If the marriage was unsuccessful, the wife and the dowry were returned to the father's home, but neither partner was allowed to remarry.

Ancient Japanese

Until the 1400s, married couples did not live together in Japan. They stayed in separate homes, meeting only at night. The old Japanese word for marriage meant, “slip into the house by night.”

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