The History of Infidelity in Ancient Cultures

The History of Infidelity in Ancient Cultures

Cheating and infidelity have been problems for mankind and human relations since creation. Ancient histories record how there were always some who thought they deserved physical relationships outside of marriage. The behavior of infidelity occurred in ancient civilizations as well as modern ones. Understanding how the behavior was viewed and dealt with over the years can provide you with understanding and insights into your own struggle with this issue.

In dealing with the topic of infidelity, it often helps having an understanding of how infidelity was viewed and how it was dealt with in some ancient cultures.

Modern society did not develop its views and laws on the topic out of thin air. Modern views in society and law developed over time. The foundations of modern views were built on ancient precedents. If you want to make sense of modern laws and customs, it helps when you understand their roots. Since Rome and Greece were foundational in terms of law, custom and western civilization, a closer examination of their views provides you 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 the higher social circles often had major consequences and impacted large numbers of people. Although movies like Caligula make Rome look like a free for all, marriage was actually held in high regard. Adultery was often something that people fought over. There were periodic wild parties, yet Romans of the early republic placed a high regard on marital fidelity and family. When the Republic changed into the 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 regarded fidelity as important. The accommodating of other cultures into the Roman world brought with it a decline in the behavioral morals of many Romans. Some Romans dealt with this by wanting marital loyalty yet allowing occasional immorality. The temple prostitutes were a mixing of religion with sexual licentiousness. The mixing of the two allowed 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 seeing the need for and value of loyalty in marriage since they knew that sound families and family life were the foundational bedrock of a culture. Their culture had survived for many years and they wanted it to continue. Their laws indicate that such morals were still valued, by the majority of Romans although some lived very profligate lives. The movies of Hollywood are often not accurate portrayals of Roman society, especially during the days of the Roman Republic. Roman orgies may sell movie tickets, yet this was not how a majority of the noble families lived.

In the Greek civilization, the hedonistic sexual free-for all portrayed in movies and many college classrooms was not the standard in the days of the free and democratic Greek society. The profligate hedonism became rampant during the decline and fall of the ‘free polis’, not before it. In the days of the free polis (city-state) and democratic society, virtue in marriage was stressed. Profligate hedonistic behavior was also not accepted by all levels and classes of Greek society. Although it was joked about by the authors of plays and philosophers, the behavior was not part of mainstream Greek society. Yes they had prostitutes, yet visiting them was often viewed as being sleazy. Sleazy behavior was seen as low class in ancient Greece, as it is in any modern moral society as well. The plays of ancient Greece often portrayed such behavior on stage, yet like a Hollywood production, there was frequent exaggeration and over-emphasis on licentiousness. This exaggeration and over-emphasis on licentiousness often drew crowds to the stages of ancient Greece.

Marriage, like many of the transactions in ancient Rome was governed by contracts. Since it was by contract, the laws regarding contracts were applied. The Roman contract law concept is vastly different from the Biblical /Hebrew concept of covenant marriage. In the covenant, the two parties pledge their strength, and wealth to each other throughout the generations. A covenant was non-revocable and lasted into future generations.

A contract is a legal agreement that can be severed when one party fails to keep up their end of the agreement. The terms of a contract are often enforced by law. The length of a contract is limited to the life of the parties making the contract.

The idea of using contracts to document the arrangement was not a new one. In Babylonian law, marriages were required to have a contract as well. One of the differences between the Babylonian contract and today’s marriage contract was that it was more akin to being a ‘bill of sale’ for the wife, rather than a legal arrangement made between two individuals.

Being governed by contracts, as Rome was, there was plethora of lawyers in Rome that drew up those contracts. The contracts were essential. Without a contract, the marriage was not legal. For this reason, many of the people had an almost fanatical zeal concerning marriage lines. They knew that they needed legal legitimacy for their birth. Any question regarding the legitimacy of their birth was a stain on their character. When you could establish good marriage lines, a person established their legitimacy.

Under Greek law, adultery was considered a private matter, although its consequences were public. Since the wife was viewed as part of her husband’s family, they were her protectors and guardians. The husband (or a member of his family) was allowed to take revenge for adultery, even to the point of killing. The government did not interfere since the violator of the marriage was trespassing on property that was not rightfully his. The consequences of adultery, including death were seen as ‘justifiable’.

Under Roman law, when there was an affair by the wife, she forfeited her rights as wife. The contract was annulled, although she was allowed to keep the property she had and her dowry going into the marriage. If she contested the ‘divorce’ and lost, she was thrown into the river. This was part of the early concept of trial by ordeal. Those who floated or swam away were judged to be innocent. Those who drowned were considered ‘guilty’. This same practice was also common to ancient Babylon, where some of the women learned to swim. Under the law, if they survived, even by swimming, they were not guilty.

The idea of public deaths in matters concerning adultery was not new. Under Greek law, murder was considered a private affair and left to the family to settle, as was rape, theft and assault. Adultery on the other hand was viewed as a matter suitable for public persecution. The killing of the lover was considered justified and was commonly a public event. The whole community often gathered to watch the public execution of an adulterer.

Ironically, even in early Christian church writers during the first five centuries of writing, all but one of the writers agreed that remarriage, even after divorce was considered “adulterous” as well. Adultery was not viewed favorably nor was it condoned as an acceptable reason for divorce.

Under Roman law, when a wife left her husband, she was regarded as property of her father’s family. She was not an independent woman. Roman law also addressed wandering husbands. When a husband had an affair in and left his wife for someone else, and chose not to support her, the wife had some new freedoms. She was then free to take up 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 considered guilty of adultery with the necessary trial by ordeal.

Marriage was widespread. Even the vestal virgins had husbands. So the vestal virgins were not actually ‘virgins’. The only catch with the vestal virgins was that they could not have children. When they wanted children, they had to use a handmaid to give birth. When a woman remained loyal and faithful to her husband, she was regarded as noble and virtuous. Such women were held in high esteem in ancient Rome.