How to get divorced in ancient Athens

I and the family are on holidays in a lovely town called Coff's Harbour, about 6 hours north of Sydney.  I'm writing this on a netbook tethered to an iPhone, so only the net.gods know how it's going to look when I'm finished.  Anyway, here goes...

People who've been reading this blog for some time know that much of it is research overflow from my books. You can't put everything you know into a story.  So as not to waste anything, I put the leftovers here.  Given the title of this post you might therefore presume that in some future book, someone's going to get divorced.

In classical Athens, if a man wanted to divorce his wife, he needed only to say so.   The wife was then required to leave the marriage home.  She would have to go live with her closest male relative, who typically would be her father if he was still alive, or else a brother.  But there was a kicker to this.  Not only did the wife leave, but her dowry went with her.  Every last drachma.  Or if it was property, every last little bit of land.  This was totally enforceable by law.

The Greek dowry system, you see, was like the ancient version of a trust fund in the lady's name, to be administered by her husband for her benefit.  Obviously in the normal course of a happy married life it's all in the family, and when the wife dies her dowry would be inherited by her sons.  But in the event of divorce the dowry does not belong to the husband.  It's the woman's retirement fund, supplied by her father.  This meant that the larger the dowry, the less likely an unhappy marriage was to break down.  There was more than one man dependent on his wife's dowry property for most of his income.

Women too could declare a divorce, but the process for them was slightly different.  An unhappy wife had to leave her home, walk to the agora, which in addition to being the marketplace was also where all the government offices were, find an archon (that's a city official), and tell him she wanted to divorce.  Quite what happened during the conversation is unclear -- there's not a single surviving text to tell us -- I presume that at the least the archon would satisfy himself that the lady had a male relative to go to.  But the archon would then agree, and at that instant the divorce was complete.  She then left the home, with her dowry.

The divorce rate was much, much smaller than modern times.  Also there was no such thing as gossip rags back then (we've definitely gone downhill on that one).  Consequently there are only a handful of documented divorce cases.  The cases however make it clear that women could divorce simply by seeing an archon.

This rule led to the most bizarre divorce case in the city's history.

There was a General and politician by the name of Alcibiades, whose wife Hipparete despaired of him  because he constantly consorted with prostitutes.  Unable to take it any more, she began the walk to the agora.  Her husband Alcibiades got wind of this.  He turned up just as she was crossing the agora, picked her up bodily, and carried her home.  She never tried again.

Alcibiades' actions were far from the norm, so much so that people were still talking about it hundreds of years after it happened.

Now here's the converse:  there's actually a case where a couple were sued in an ancient Athenian court to prove that their divorce was a sham.  It seemed the husband was due to pay a large sum.  But unfortunately for his debtors, almost all his property had come as his wife's dowry, and it just so happened that she had divorced him moments before the debt fell due.  The debtors promptly sued, asking what archon had heard the wife's divorce (it turned out not a single archon had a record of talking to her), and pointing out that they were still living together.  This scam is absolutely identical to the modern version, where a man about to go bankrupt, or be sued, transfers all his property into his wife's name to quarantine it from being taken.  It seems like such a modern scam, but it was invented  in classical Athens.


Sarah W said...

This is fascinating, Gary (as usual).

Especially Alcibiades. Had no men ever stopped their wives from finding an archon? I would think the loss of a sizable dowry (supposing she had one) would be a big incentive. Or did he lose face somehow by stopping her? Could his motives have been different?

And isn't it interesting that she never tried again . . . Do you think he apologized?

I can think of multiple motives for both, some romantic and some decidedly not.

(the idea of civilization's first private detective taking on divorce work so soon after inventing the job just tickles me)

Brett Minor said...

This is amazing. Despite the fact that it was so much simpler to be divorced, the divorce rate was significantly low due to the high personal cost. The cost is still high today, but it is not a monetary loss in most cases. We could learn something from this.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I love these stories!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Sarah,

I'm pretty sure Alcibiades never apologized for anything in his entire life. The same man, when he wanted a painting for his dining room, invited the city's best mural painter to dinner. He then captured his guest and had him put in chains anchored to the wall, and refused to let the painter go until the wall was a masterpiece. The mural painter was released days later, leaving behind a painting. Somehow he always managed to get away with these outrageous things.

Alcibiades is the only recorded case of a man physically stopping his wife, but it must be said the number of known divorces is tiny. Presumably there were others we don't know of.

A wife determined to divorce would have been tricky to stop, because wife-beating was illegal, and Athenians were very much more likely to intervene in a crime they saw than modern people.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Brett,

Welcome to the blog. I think this is the first time you've commented.

Yes, it's an interesting thing that I can't really explain. For sure the threat of property breakup must have saved some marriages.

But also a woman needed a male relative to take her in, since women couldn't legally own property, which would have discouraged a lot of unhappy wives.

(There were a few independent women. They solved the ownership problem by using a male friend to act as something like a corporate veil.)

This story comes from Plutarch, by the way. Hipparete gets a lot of praise in the original text for being a fine woman of virtue. Very few women get mentioned in ancient Greek books, but when they are, it's almost always to praise them.

RWMG said...

I would have thought her husband consorting with prostitutes would have been the least of Alcibiades's wife's worries.

The man had everything: looks, brains, money, noble family, and oustanding talent as a general, and he managed to be the subject of more jaw-dropping stories then any three 5th century Athenians put together. Why has no-one made a film or TV series devoted to him?

Gary Corby said...

The problem is, Robert, that movies are generally about good guys in the face of adversity. A movie about Alcibiades would be more like a junk bond salesman making everything worse.

But for a book featuring Alcibiades, you could try Eye of Cybele by Daniel Chavarria. Though given how widely read I know you are, you probably already have.

RWMG said...

I hadn't heard of that one, Gary. I'll have to keep an eye open for it.

Amalia T. said...

I don't know how I missed this (or the rest of your latest blogposts) but somehow, I knew none of this, and I'm glad to learn it! There's so much stuff in classical history that falls under the "you can't make this stuff up" category. Alcibiades sounds like his whole entire LIFE fits under that umbrella.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, for Alcibiades, think of a combination of used car salesman and junk bond salesman, with the looks and charisma of a Hollywood star.

He's totally worth a book, but he'd be hard to write believably.

dipylon said...

I doubt that Alcibiades "consorted with prostitutes". The truth is, Alcibiades consorted with anyone he wanted, he was the handsomest man around and just about anyone, woman or man, was his for the asking. Married women would undoubtedly be somewhat off limits for him, but only for practical reasons. Still when he had the chance, he grabbed it: when he fled to Sparta, he seduced the queen herself.

Gary Corby said...

Very true that he got his way with just about everyone.