Marriage Laws in the Ancient Near East


Brachnoe pravo drevni︠a︡go Vostoka (Marriage laws in the ancient Near East) originally was written as a doctoral thesis at Kazan University, the premier center for oriental studies in the Russian Empire. The author, Adolf Mikhailovich Osipov (1842‒1905), was a scholar, jurist, and writer. Of Polish origin, he studied in Warsaw and in Germany, and taught at Kazan University, where the book was published in 1872. The book has three chapters. Chapter one gives an overview of the cultures covered in the book (China, Egypt, India, Persia, the Jews, and Greece). Chapter two deals with engagement: its meaning and types in different societies, conditions for entering into an engagement, the forms and rites of engagement, the consequences of entering into an engagement, and the termination of an engagement and its consequences. Chapter three deals with the forms and rites of marriage, with sections devoted to China, India, Persia, the Jews, and Greece. The author notes that while in most cultures the family was viewed as a fundamental unit of the society, ensuring the latter’s strength and continuity, marriage traditions and family life differed across cultures. In China, marriage was defined by the obligation to perform religious rites and produce children, although the birth of a girl was considered a misfortune. The wife was restricted to the home and was not allowed to share the same rooms with the husband. Slaves were considered part of the family and had the same rights as the children. Polygamy was permitted. In Egypt, marriage was imperative for inheritance as it allowed property to be passed on to the children. Women had more freedom than in China and although polygamy existed it was not very popular. In India, marriage traditions were closely linked to religion and concepts of incarnation, reverence for the dead, and mysticism. Women were allowed to travel alone, visit temples, and go outside of the house unescorted. However, the society had a patronizing attitude towards women and viewed them as needing protection by the men. The birth of girls was met with disappointment. Despite a limited freedom, in marriage a woman belonged to her husband. In Persia, marriage laws reflected the teachings of Zoroastrianism. As in other cultures, the birth of a daughter was met with sadness. Having children, especially sons, was one of the main goals in a marriage. In Greece, the family was considered the foundation of the country, and laws on marriage had been in existence from early history. The man was the head of the family, but compared to other cultures, his power was not unlimited. A woman had a strong position in the family. The Jews had a comparatively broader and more inclusive interpretation of the family. Inheritance laws were important and property could be passed only directly from the father to the oldest son. A woman was considered to be a partner of her husband. Women held jobs outside the family and could reach higher positions in the society, such as a judge or official.

Last updated: May 9, 2016