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The Babylonian Marriage Market: An Auction of Women in the Ancient World

The Babylonian Marriage Market: An Auction of Women in the Ancient World

In the 5 th century BC, Greek Historian Herodotus wrote about the customs and traditions he witnessed while in Babylon. One of the more controversial customs he reports on is the Babylonian marriage market in which young women were gathered up and an “auctioneer would get each of the women to stand up one by one, and he would put her up for sale”.

The writing of Herodotus inspired 19 th century British painter Edwin Long to produce his famous artwork ‘ The Babylonian Marriage Market’ . The painting took Long two years to complete and was unveiled at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1875. In the following year, it was sold for a sum of 6000 guineas, which, at that time, was the largest amount of money paid for a piece of work whose artist was still alive.

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Long’s other works [Left] Queen Esther (1878) [Right] The Finding of Moses (1886)

The Babylonian Marriage Market depicts women being auctioned off as brides (as opposed to, for example, slaves). Long drew his inspiration for this painting from Herodotus’ Histories, more specifically, from ‘Book 1’ of that piece of writing. Towards the end of ‘Book 1’, Herodotus wrote:

“I now turn to their customs, the most sensible of which, in my opinion, is also practised, I hear, by the Illyrian tribe. Once a year, in every village, this is what they used to do. They used to collect all the young women who were old enough to be married and take the whole lot of them all at once to a certain place. A crowd of men would form a circle around them there. An auctioneer would get each of the women to stand up one by one, and he would put her up for sale. He used to start with the most attractive girl there, and then, once she had fetched a good price and been bought, he would go on to auction the next most attractive one. They were being sold to be wives, not slaves. All the well-off Babylonian men who wanted wives would outbid one another to buy the good-looking young women, while the commoners who wanted wives and were not interested in good looks used to end up with some money as well as the less attractive women.”

Fragment from Herodotus' Histories

Franklin Edson Belden in ‘Historic Men and Scenes’ (1898) writes:

“The Babylonians became avaricious to an overwhelming degree. Whatever would bring money was for sale. Even domestic virtues were flung recklessly away for financial gratification. Every woman must once in her life appear in public before the temple of Beltis, as by this means crowds of strangers were drawn to the city. And on regular occasions maidens were brought in large numbers and sold at auction in order that the wealthy princes and libertines of surrounding nations might be drawn to their unscrupulous market. Fathers and brothers with their daughters and sisters stood ready to barter for money the pleasures due only to love. Everything that ministered to the craze for adornment, appetite, and sensualism was supplied and indulged to the highest degree possible. The palace halls were nothing less than harems of polygamy.”

Apart from Herodotus’ writings, Long also consulted ancient artifacts in order to paint his masterpiece. During that time, archaeological expeditions were being carried out in Mesopotamia, and artifacts from that region were being brought back to London. As the painter was able to gain access to the Assyrian collections of the British Museum, he could incorporate a huge amount of detail from those objects into his artwork. This allowed Long to produce something that was closer to what the real Babylon would have looked like, as compared to his predecessors.

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This piece of painting may be interpreted in several ways. For example, it has been suggested that the painting may be read as a subtle reflection of the Victorians’ own version of the marriage market. It has been pointed out that the time of the year that saw the opening of the exhibition was also the period when the British ‘marriage market’ was in action. During this time, people are said to attend social gatherings, during which many matches were made. The painting is currently kept by Royal Holloway College, and another way to interpret this piece of artwork, from the perspective of an educational institution that began as an all-women college, is that it was meant “to act as the stimulus for debate about women’s new role in society, their legal status and whether or not to marry.”

Thomas Holloway, 19th century philanthropist.


    The Babylonian Marriage Market: An Auction of Women in the Ancient World - History

    Babylonian Marriage Market, 1875

    Purchased for Thomas Holloway, 1882 acc. no. THC0039

    To modern viewers this painting looks like a strange picture to choose for a women’s college. It shows women from ancient Babylon, whose families have not been able to afford a dowry, being auctioned off as wives. Was Holloway implying that the women who went to his college would be sold off in a modern day marriage market?

    In fact, it seems likely that Holloway bought this painting to act as the stimulus for debate about women’s new role in society, their legal status and whether or not to marry. In 1870 a new act had been passed allowing married women to retain some of their income and wealth. Before this, upon marriage, the husband and wife became one person under the law, the property of the wife was surrendered to her husband, and her legal identity ceased to exist. She in effect, like the women in the painting, became a possession of her husband. Although this new law was passed, some campaigners felt that it did not go far enough. In the 1870s, when this picture was painted, there was great public debate about married women’s rights. These led to the act being amended in 1882.

    For the women who came to Royal Holloway these laws gave them new legal status if they married, but many of them would also have wanted to debate the need for women to get married at all. By gaining a university education, the students were giving themselves the option of a career as an alternative to marriage. Many felt that in having a professional career they would not have time to fulfil the role of wife and mother and that it may be better, or preferable, not to marry. It seems likely that Holloway chose this painting to act as a springboard for discussion and perhaps as a reminder that he was offering the women the chance not to enter the 19th–century marriage market


    Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Mesopotamia

    Medical texts from ancient Mesopotamia provide prescriptions and practices for curing all manner of ailments, wounds, and diseases. There was one malady, however, which had no cure: passionate love. From a medical text found in Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh comes this passage:

    When the patient is continually clearing his throat is often lost for words is always talking to himself when he is quite alone, and laughing for no reason in the corners of fields, is habitually depressed, his throat tight, finds no pleasure in eating or drinking, endlessly repeating, with great sighs, `Ah, my poor heart!' – he is suffering from lovesickness. For a man and for a woman, it is all one and the same. (Bottero, 102-103)

    Marriage in ancient Mesopotamia was of vital importance to the society, literally, because it ensured the continuation of the family line and provided social stability. Arranged marriages were the norm, in which the couple had often never met, and - according to Herodotus - there were even bridal auctions where women were sold to the highest bidder, but human relationships in ancient Mesopotamia were just as complex and layered as those today and part of that complexity was the emotion of love. The historian Karen Nemet-Nejat notes, “Like people the world over and throughout time, ancient Mesopotamians fell deeply in love” (132).

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    The popularity of what, today, would be called `love songs' also attests to the commonality of deep romantic attachment between couples. A few of the titles of these poems illustrate this:

    `Sleep, begone! I want to hold my darling in my arms!'

    `When you speak to me, you make my heart swell till I could die!'

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    `I did not close my eyes last night Yes, I was awake all night long, my darling [thinking of you].' (Bottero, 106)

    There are also poems, such as an Akkadian composition from c. 1750 BCE, which depicts two lovers arguing because the woman feels the man is attracted to another and he must convince her that she is the only one for him. In the end, after they have discussed the problem, the couple reconciles and it is made clear that they will now live happily ever after together.

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    The Business of Marriage

    Contrasted with romantic love and a couple sharing their lives together, however, is the `business side' of marriage and sex. Herodotus reports that every woman, at least once in her lifetime, had to sit outside the temple of Ishtar (Inanna) and agree to have sex with whatever stranger chose her. This custom was thought to ensure the fertility and continued prosperity of the community. As a woman's virginity was considered requisite for a marriage, it would seem unlikely that unmarried women would have taken part in this and yet Herodotus states that `every woman' was required to. The practice of sacred prostitution, as Herodotus describes it, has been challenged by many modern-day scholars but his description of the bride auction has not. Herodotus writes:

    Once a year in each village the young women eligible to marry were collected all together in one place while the men stood around them in a circle. Then a herald called up the young women one by one and offered them for sale. He began with the most beautiful. When she was sold for a high price, he offered for sale the one who ranked next in beauty. All of them were then sold to be wives. The richest of the Babylonians who wished to wed bid against each other for the loveliest young women, while the commoners, who were not concerned about beauty, received the uglier women along with monetary compensation…All who liked might come, even from distant villages, and bid for the women. This was the best of all their customs but it has now fallen into disuse. (Histories I: 196)

    So while romantic love did play a part in Mesopotamian marriages, it is true that, according to the customs and expectations of Mesopotamian society, marriage was a legal contract between the father of a girl and another man (the groom, as in the case of the bride auction where the groom paid the girl's father the bride-price) or, more commonly, between two families, which functioned as the foundation of a community. Scholar Stephen Bertman comments:

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    In the language of the Sumerians, the word for `love' was a compound verb that, in its literal sense, meant `to measure the earth,' that is, `to mark off land'. Among both the Sumerians and the Babylonians (and very likely among the Assyrians as well) marriage was fundamentally a business arrangement designed to assure and perpetuate an orderly society. Though there was an inevitable emotional component to marriage, its prime intent in the eyes of the state was not companionship but procreation not personal happiness in the present but communal continuity for the future. (275-276)

    This was, no doubt, the `official' view of marriage and there is no evidence to suggest that a man and woman decided to simply get married on their own (although there is evidence of a couple living together without marrying). Bertman writes:

    Every marriage began with a legal contract. Indeed, as Mesopotamian law stated, if a man should marry without having first drawn up and executed a marriage contract, the woman he `marries' would not be his wife…every marriage began not with a joint decision by two people in love but with a negotiation between representatives of two families. (276)

    Once the marriage contract was signed in the presence of witnesses, the ceremony could be planned.

    The wedding ceremony had to include a feast in order to be considered legitimate. The course of the marriage process had five stages which needed to be observed in order for the couple to be legally married:

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    1. The engagement/marriage contract
    2. Payment of the families of the bride and groom to each other (the dowry and bride-price)
    3. The ceremony/feast
    4. The bride moving to her father-in-law's home
    5. Sexual intercourse between the couple with the bride expected to be a virgin on her wedding night and to become pregnant.

    If any one of these steps was not performed, or not performed properly (such as the bride not becoming pregnant), the marriage could be invalidated. In the event the bride turned out not to be a virgin, or could not conceive, the groom could return her to her family. He would have to return her dowry to her family but would get back the bride-price his family had paid.

    The Engagement

    Special attention was paid to the engagement. Bertman notes:

    Engagements were serious business in Babylonia, especially for those who might have a change of heart. According to Hammurabi's Code, a suitor who changed his mind would forfeit his entire deposit (betrothal gift) and bride-price. If the prospective father-in-law changed his mind, he had to pay the disappointed suitor double the bride-price. Futhermore, if a rival suitor persuaded the father-in-law to change his mind, not only did the father-in-law have to pay double, but the rival wasn't allowed to marry the daughter. These legal penalties acted as a potent deterrent against changes of heart and a powerful incentive for both responsible decision making and orderly social behavior. (276)

    These incentives and penalties were particularly important because young people in Mesopotamia, as young people in the present day, did not always wish to comply with their parents' wishes. A young man or woman might well love someone other than the `best match' chosen by their parents. A poem featuring the goddess Inanna, known for her penchant for `free love' and doing as she pleased, and her lover Dumuzi, is thought to illustrate the problems parents had in guiding their children, daughters in particular, in proper conduct resulting in a happy marriage (although, as Inanna and Dumuzi were a very popular couple in religious and secular literature, it is doubtful that young people interpreted the poem in the same way their parents may have). The scholar Jean Bottero describes the work, pointing out how Inanna was encouraged to marry the successful farmer god Enkimdu but loved the shepherd god Dumuzi and so chose him. Bottero elaborates:

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    She furtively left the house, like an amorous teenager, to go to meet her beloved beneath the stars, `which sparkled as she did', then to dally beneath his caresses and suddenly wonder, seeing the night advance, how she was going to explain her absence and lateness to her mother: `Let me go! I must go home! Let me go, Dumuzi! I must go in! /What lie shall I tell my mother? /What lie shall I tell my mother Ningal?' And Dumuzi suggests an answer: she will say that her girl companions persuaded her to go with them to listen to music and dance. (109)

    The penalties and incentives, then, were supposed to keep a young couple on the desired path toward the marriage and prevent them from engaging in romances under the stars. Once the couple was properly married, they were expected to produce children quickly. Sex was considered just another aspect of one's life and there was none of the modern-day embarrassment, shyness, or taboo involved in Mesopotamians' sex lives. Bottero states that “Homosexual love could be enjoyed” without fear of social stigma and texts mention men “preferring to take the female role” in sex. Further, he writes, “Various unusual positions could be adopted: `standing' `on a chair' `across the bed or the partner' taking her from behind' or even `sodomising her' and sodomy, defined as anal intercourse, was a common form of contraceptive (101). He further notes:

    it could happen that an eccentric setting was chosen…instead of keeping to your favourite place, the bedroom. You might take it into your head to `make love on the roof-terrace of the house' or `on the threshold of the door' or `right in the middle of a field or orchard', or `in some deserted place' or `a no through road' or even `in the middle of the street', either with just any woman on whom you had `pounced' or with a prostitute. (Bottero, 100)

    Bottero further points out:

    Making love was a natural activity, as culturally ennobled as food was elevated by cuisine. Why on earth should one feel demeaned or diminished, or guilty in the eyes of the gods, practicing it in whatever way one pleased, always provided that no third party was harmed or that one was not infringing any of the customary prohibitions which controlled daily life. (97)

    This is not to say that Mesopotamians never had affairs or were never unfaithful to their spouses. There is plenty of textual evidence which shows that they did and they were. However, as Bottero notes, “When discovered, these crimes were severely punished by the judges, including the use of the death penalty: those of men in so far as they did serious wrong to a third party those of women because, even when secret, they could harm the cohesion of the family” (93). Bottero continues:

    In Mesopotamia, amorous impulses and capabilities had traditionally been channeled by collective constraints with the aim of ensuring the security of what was held to be the very nucleus of the social body – the family – and thus to provide for its continuity. The fundamental vocation of every man and woman, his or her `destiny', as they said, referring matters to a radical wish on the part of the gods, was therefore marriage. And [as it is written in an ancient text] `the young man who has stayed solitary…having taken no wife, or raised children, and the young woman who has not been either deflowered, or impregnated, and of whom no husband has undone the clasp of her garment and put aside her robe, to embrace her and make her enjoy pleasure, until her breasts swell with milk and she has become a mother' were looked upon as marginal, doomed to languish in an unhappy existence. (92)

    Procreation as the Goal of Marriage

    Children were the natural, and greatly desired, consequence of marriage. Childlessness was considered a great misfortune and a man could take a second wife if the bride proved infertile. Bottero writes:

    Once settled in her new status, all the jurisprudence shows us the wife entirely under the authority of her husband, and social constraints – giving the husband free rein – were not kind to her. In the first place, although monogamy was common, every man – according to his whims, needs, and resources – could add one or more `second wives', or rather, concubines, to the first wife. (115)

    The first wife was often consulted in choosing the second wives, and it was her responsibility to make sure they fulfilled the duties for which they had been chosen. If a concubine had been added to the home because the first wife could not have children, the concubine's offspring would become the children of the first wife and would be able to inherit and carry on the family name.

    As the primary purpose of marriage, as far as society was concerned, was to produce children, a man could add as many concubines to his home as he could afford. The continuation of the family line was most important and so concubines were fairly common in cases where the wife was ill, in generally poor health, or infertile.

    A man could not divorce his wife because of her state of health, however he would continue to honor her as the first wife until she died. Under these circumstances, the concubine would become first wife upon the wife's death and, if there were other women in the house, they would each move up one position in the home's hierarchy.

    Divorce & Infidelity

    Divorce carried a serious social stigma and was not common. Most people married for life even if that marriage was not a happy one. Inscriptions record women running away from their husbands to sleep with other men. If caught in the act, the woman could be thrown into the river to drown, along with her lover, or could be impaled both parties had to be spared or executed. Hammurabi's Code states, “If, however, the owner of the wife wishes to keep her alive, the king will equally pardon the woman's lover.”

    Divorce was commonly initiated by the husband, but wives were allowed to divorce their mates if there was evidence of abuse or neglect. A husband could divorce his wife if she proved to be infertile but, as he would then have to return her dowry, he was more likely to add a concubine to the family. It never seems to have occurred to the people of the time that the male could be to blame for a childless marriage the fault was always ascribed to the woman. A husband could also divorce his wife on grounds of adultery or neglect of the home but, again, would have to return her property and also suffer the stigma of divorce. Both parties seem to have commonly chosen to make the best of the situation even if it was not optimal. Bottero writes:

    As for the married woman, provided she had a little `guts' and knew how to make use of her charms, employing all her guile, she was no less capable of making her husband toe the line. A divinatory oracle mentions a woman made pregnant by a third party who ceaselessly implores the goddess of love, Ishtar, repeating: `Please let the child look like my husband!' [and] we are told of women who left their home and husband to go gallivanting not just once, but two, three…as many as eight times, some returning later, crestfallen, or never coming back at all. (120)

    Women abandoning their families was uncommon but happened enough to have been written about. A woman traveling alone to another region or city to begin a new life, unless she was a prostitute, was rare but did occur and seems to have been an option taken by women who found themselves in an unhappy marriage who chose not to suffer the disgrace of a public divorce.

    Since divorce favored the man, “if a woman expressed the desire to divorce, she could be thrown out of her husband's home penniless and naked” (Nemet-Nejat, 140). The man was the head of the household and the supreme authority, and a woman had to prove conclusively that her husband had failed to uphold his end of the marriage contract in order to obtain a divorce.

    Even so, it should be noted that a majority of the myths of ancient Mesopotamia, especially the most popular myths (such as The Descent of Inanna, Inanna and the Huluppu Tree, Ereshkigal and Nergal) portray women in a very flattering light and, often, as having an advantage over men. While males were recognized as the authority in both government and in the home, women could own their own land and businesses, buy and sell slaves, and initiate divorce proceedings.

    Bottero cites evidence (such as the myths mentioned above and business contracts) which show women in Sumer enjoying greater freedoms than women after the rise of the Akkadian Empire (c. 2334). After the influence of Akkad, he writes, "if women in ancient Mesopotamia, even though regarded at all levels as inferior to men and treated as such, nevertheless seem to have enjoyed also consideration, rights, and freedoms, it is perhaps one of the distant results and vestiges of the old and mysterious Sumerian culture" (126). This culture remained prevalent enough, throughout the history of Mesopotamia, to allow a woman the freedom to escape from an unhappy homelife and travel to another city or region to begin a new one.

    Living Happily Ever After

    Throughout all of the difficulties and legalities of marriage in Mesopotamia, however, then as now, there were many happy couples who lived together for life and enjoyed their children and grandchildren. In addition to the love poems mentioned above, letters, inscriptions, paintings, and sculpture attest to genuine affection between couples, no matter how their marriage may have been arranged. The letters between Zimri-Lim, King of Mari, and his wife Shiptu, are especially touching in that it is clear how much they cared for, trusted, and relied on each other. Nemet-Nejat writes, “Happy marriages flourished in ancient times a Sumerian proverb mentions a husband boasting that his wife had borne him eight sons and was still ready to make love” (132), and Bertman describes a Sumerian statue of a seated couple, from 2700 BCE, thusly:

    An elderly Sumerian couple sit side by side fused by sculpture into a single piece of gypsum rock his right arm wrapped around her shoulder, his left hand tenderly clasping her right, their large eyes looking straight ahead to the future, their aged hearts remembering the past. (280)

    Although the customs of the Mesopotamians may seem strange, or even cruel, to a modern-day western mind, the people of the ancient world were no different from those living today. Many modern marriages, begun with great promise, end badly, while many others, which initially struggle, endure for a lifetime. The practices which begin such unions are not as important as what the individuals involved make of their time together and, in Mesopotamia as in the present, marriage presented many challenges which a couple either overcame or succumbed to.


    English Men Once Sold Their Wives Instead of Getting Divorced

    George Wray tied a halter around his wife’s waist and headed to the nearest market. He wasn’t there to buy anything—he was there to sell his wife.

    Onlookers shouted as he auctioned her off to the highest bidder, William Harwood. After Harwood turned over a single shilling to Wray, he put his arm around his purchase. “Harwood walked off arm in arm with his smiling bargain,”reported an onlooker, “with as much coolness as if he had purchased a new coat or hat.” It was 1847, and Wray had just gotten the equivalent of a divorce.

    The scene sounds like an elaborate joke. In reality, it was anything but. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, divorce was prohibitively expensive. So some lower-class British people didn’t get them—they sold their wives instead. The custom seems outlandish today, but it could be found in public places like markets, taverns and fairs. Historians disagree on when or how the custom started and how widespread it was, but it seems to have been an accepted alternative divorce among lower-class Britons. Wife sales were crude and funny, but they also served a very real purpose since it was so hard to get a divorce.

    If your marriage broke up in the 1750s, you had to obtain a private Act of Parliament𠅎ssentially, an exception to Britain’s draconian divorce law—to formally divorce. The process was expensive and time-consuming, so wife-selling arose as a form of faux divorce. It wasn’t technically legal, but the way it unfolded in public made it valid in the eyes of many.

    People could simply abandon one another, but a woman who entered into relationships with other people were in constant danger of their previous husband swooping in to punish her new lover and get some money in the process. Legally, her husband could demand that his wife’s lover pay him a large amount of money for having sexual relations with his wife, a right she lacked since courts didn’t allow wives to sue their husbands for adultery. Wife sales were a way to sidestep that risk.

    An illustrated scene from Thomas Hardy’s novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge” of a man selling his wife to highest bidder. (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

    Oddly enough, the sales took on theform of cattle auctions of the time. After announcing the sale, the man would put a ribbon or a rope around his wife’s neck, arm or waist and lead her to “market” (either an actual market or another public place). Then, he𠆝 auction her off, often after declaring her virtues to the onlookers. Once she was purchased by another man, the previous marriage was considered null and void and the new buyer was financially responsible for his new wife.

    Usually, wife sales were merely symbolic—there was just one bidder, the woman’s new lover. Sometimes there wasn’t a designated buyer, though, and an actual bidding war broke out. Men could announce a wife sale without informing their wife, and she might be bid on by total strangers. But women had to agree to the sale.

    It would seem that the woman was at a disadvantage during a wife sale, but that wasn’t always the case. Since she was still married to her first husband under the law, he was technically entitled to all of her possessions (at the time, married women’s property all belonged to their husbands). The public nature of the sale, though, made it clear to one and all that the seller gave up his right to his former wife’s possessions. And the woman also sidestepped the very real threat of having her new lover sued by her first husband for 𠇌riminal conversation.”

    “Through the sale,”writes legal scholar Julie C. Suk, “the first husband extracted a bribe from the wife’s lover in return for waiving his civil cause of action for criminal conversation.”

    A husband in desperate need of money, selling his wife to the highest bidder in Guthrie, Oklahoma. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

    Public humiliation also played a role. Treating his cheating or estranged wife like a cow𠅎ven announcing her weight in public and bartering her like a farm animal—seems to have satisfied many bitter husbands. But usually, wife sales didn’t end in enmity. The wife, her new husband and her old one usually sat down for a pint of beer and a good laugh.

    Overall, writes historian Lawrence Stone, the format of the sale was designed to seem legit. 𠇊ll this elaborate symbolism had a very real purpose, which was to try to make the sale appear as legally binding as possible, especially with respect to any future financial responsibility by the husband for the wife,” he writes. Some wife sellers even drew up elaborate contracts to make the ritual seem as sale-like as possible.

    Technically, though, wife sales didn’t dissolve the underlying marriage, and police eventually began breaking up the sales. Stone thinks that the practice was extremely rare, and that it attracted more attention than it deserves because of the temptation to spread word of the strange ritual far and wide𠅊nd even to make up fictional wife sales to sell newspapers. “In the end,”writes historian Roderick Phillips, “too little is known about wife sales to enable us to draw firm conclusions.”

    What is clear, though, is that attending, talking about, and inventing wife sales was amusing indeed. Even the seller and his wife were usually described as gleeful and happy during the sale.

    Take Joseph Thompson, who allegedly sold his wife in 1832,listed his wife’s bad qualities, calling her 𠇊 born serpent” and advising the buyers to 𠇊void frolicsome women as you would a mad dog, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera.” Then he listed her assets, which included the ability to milk cows, sing, and serve as a drinking companion. “I therefore offer here with all her perfections and imperfections, for the sum of fifty shillings,” he concluded, adding a fun flourish to the end of his marriage.

    Wife sales largely ended in 1857 when divorce became easier. With it died a custom𠅊nd tales of the tradition are just as bizarre and entertaining as they were then.


    Roundtable

    A history of using daughters as currency, from ancient Greece to the Stuart monarchy.

    Wednesday, November 20, 2019

    The Babylonian Marriage Market, by Edwin Long, 1875. Wikimedia Commons, Royal Holloway College, London.

    Young women have always been for sale. In the fifth century bc , Herodotus describes the practice of selling Babylonian daughters at a yearly auction in his Histories. He wrote:

    They used to collect all the young women who were old enough to be married and take the whole lot of them all at once to a certain place. A crowd of men would form a circle around them there. An auctioneer would get each of the women to stand up one by one, and he would put her up for sale. He used to start with the most attractive girl there, and then, once she had fetched a good price and been bought, he would go on to auction the next most attractive one. They were being sold to be wives, not slaves. All the well-off Babylonian men who wanted wives would outbid one another to buy the good-looking young women, while the commoners who wanted wives and were not interested in good looks used to end up with some money as well as the less attractive women.

    The Babylonian men paid a bride price, but some of their money would come back to them because the young women were given dowries, which their husbands would administer even if they could not raid it. This exchange seems odd but was not so unusual in the classical world, where women served to cement together two male-controlled families. If a married daughter died without children, her money would go back to her family, which removed any incentive to harm her.

    At the time, virginity was not always necessary to a girl’s successful marriage—the Lydians prostituted their daughters to raise money for their dowries. Because of the dangers of childbirth and high rate of early mortality in ancient Greece, it was common for wealthy relatives to provide not just their daughters but also their poor relations with dowries. Athenian law even required that the State dower poor women of just passable attractiveness teeth were all that were required. Because Athens was under constant threat from its rivals, it depended on its young women to provide it with a constant stream of new soldiers.

    Classical literature is filled with accounts of creative daughter disposal. In some memorable verses of The Odyssey, the father of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, then thought to be a widow, urges her to marry the suitor with the most gifts. Greek fathers took care not to raise more daughters than they could dower. Outright infanticide was abhorrent to ancient Greeks, but they did practice “exposure,” wherein parents intentionally left unwanted infants exposed to the elements. They believed that the gods could choose to save the abandoned children, thereby eliminating their agency while achieving their aims. Husbands were not permitted to run through their wives’ dowries but neither could the wife. A Greek woman’s dowry yielded about 18 percent per year, and if the couple got divorced, either party could request the dowry. It was returned to a woman’s guardian or, in certain cases, kept by the husband, who paid 18 percent interest to his former wife’s guardian for her support. The wealthier the family, the more likely it was that a marriage would take place between two young first cousins. Such marriages keep money in one family and tended to correlate with periods of cultural instability, when power was held by a few important families. Cousin marriage was particularly popular among the higher echelons in Elizabethan England, the Antebellum South, and in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain.

    Greek girls who died in childhood were mourned specifically because they did not fulfill their destiny as wives and mothers. Their epitaphs make reference to their failure to marry, and the girls were quickly writ into myth. Like Persephone before them, they were considered married to Hades and dwelled, as wraiths, in the underworld.

    In the Roman period, women did not fare better. Catullus sums up the Roman attitude toward marriage, writing, “If, when [a young woman] is ripe for marriage, she enters into wedlock, she is ever dearer to her husband and less hateful to her parents.”

    The middle class continued to sell their daughters at regional markets throughout most European countries during the Middle Ages. For the upper middle classes, the social stasis of the period made marrying an heiress one of the only means to improve one’s social status, and it was nearly impossible to do without deception. The middle classes began to consult marriage brokers—a growing cottage industry in Europe—who would help them plot their rise, reconstruct their family histories, then help them relocate in order to achieve success in another part of the country. If a woman did marry up, she would find that she had much less control over both her body and her daily life—where she walked and even what she ate—than she had in a middle-class environment. In the upper classes, the legitimacy of heirs continued to be of primary importance, and as such women’s movements were intensely regulated.

    Women were progressively more visible during the Renaissance. Increased trade created a new culture of conspicuous consumption, propped up by merchants and explorers who transported new goods through Genoa and Venice, Zanzibar and Constantinople, outward to European capitals and the known world. Newly available luxury goods made life easier and more enjoyable—tobacco, tea, coffee, silks, and spices facilitated a culture of male comfort in which wives and daughters played an important though entirely passive role. In ancient Greece and Rome women were kept mostly in the home, but during the Renaissance men put their velvet-swaddled wives and daughters on display, trotting them out in public, where they would often sit separately, saying little if anything but fulfilling a necessary decorative function. A woman’s beauty, or wealth, was most of all a statement about the social status of her presiding male, be he husband, father, or brother.

    For much of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, sumptuary laws on food and goods defined and limited social space. By legislating who could obtain specific fabrics, foods, drink, and other luxuries, governments prevented servants and the middle classes from masquerading as aristocrats by denying them access to the materials necessary to appear richer than they were. Pre-Reformation Europeans were just beginning to let go of feudal social organization. Though more people now lived in cities, family patriarchs had long made decisions for their large clans and were not interested in giving up a privilege that had served them so well. Daughters were married to create important and lasting connections between families. Those who could not be married off in a way that would benefit the clan were often forced into nunneries. For a noble family, sending a daughter to a convent or forcing her into spinsterhood was far preferable to tainting a family line by permitting her to marry beneath her station.

    This system of dispensing with daughters worked peaceably for hundreds of years, until Henry VIII came to need a son and heir. When his attempts to have his first marriage, which had produced no sons, annulled by the pope failed, Henry charged ecclesiastical and secular legal scholars in England with finding a way to divorce his consort Catherine and marry his pregnant mistress Anne Boleyn. Their solution was divorce and breaking away from the Catholic Church. Henry began the violent dissolution of Catholic monasteries in 1536. It lasted for four years, during which the crown plundered church lands, sold them off to rich allies, and used the surplus cash to wage dubious wars in France. For wealthy young women, newly Anglican, there was an additional change, perhaps the single most significant social change women would see until suffrage. Their safe haven—the convent—was now gone.

    The absence of nunneries sent numerous marriageable aristocratic young women into circulation. When once they would have been in the country, awaiting the marriages arranged for them, or preparing to enter a convent, these young girls were now brought to court, which is where they were most likely to find husbands. By the time Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I began her reign in 1558, the atmosphere surrounding marriage had a new urgency. Elizabeth’s rule began in religious chaos after her predecessor, her half sister Mary, violently restored Roman Catholicism to England. Elizabeth spent the better part of her first years on the throne fighting for her father’s Protestantism in an effort to fend off those who wished to depose her. Her legitimacy was questioned with every decision she made, and she understood that her courtiers were her key to maintaining the throne. She tightened her control over the aristocracy by reducing its size to a new low. She stripped disloyal aristocrats of their titles or made it known they were not welcome at court.

    It was against this tumultuous backdrop that Elizabeth, in an effort to form beneficial social and political alliances, began having young ladies ceremonially presented to her at court. These presentations were small affairs and limited to the daughters of Elizabeth’s most important courtiers. They took place in the queen’s “withdrawing room,” a private room, but located next to larger public rooms, where she could go with a smaller party. The girls were led from a public stateroom into the smaller adjoining room at Hampton Court palace, so that other courtiers would know who was being favored. At the more private ceremony of presentation, the young girls curtsied to the queen. The young girls had a vivid experience of being watched and assessed, enhanced by the fact that of the roughly 1,500 people in regular attendance at court, only fifty were women. These presentations came to be referred to as “drawing rooms,” and they engendered a curious experience that blended ostentatious display with the familial and private, a mix that would continue to characterize the debutante ritual for its duration

    Many of the presented young women served her as attendants and became intermediaries between Elizabeth and the wider circle of her court. They helped Elizabeth to exert control over the nobility by creating an elegant buffer between the monarch and her courtiers. In order to present a petition to the queen, one first gave it to a lady-in-waiting, along with a fee that the lady in question would determine based on her closeness with the queen. Elizabeth encouraged her ladies to charge exorbitantly for this service—not so much because they’d have some independence, but so they would have enough money to be able to gamble with her. She also regularly rejected petitions based on their lack of generosity toward her ladies. The queen could also be capricious—Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting could not marry of their own volition. Elizabeth Vernon spent a week in prison (with her new husband the Earl of Southampton) for marrying without the queen’s permission. Lettice Knollys was banished permanently for marrying Elizabeth’s favorite courtier, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. When Elizabeth discovered that another lady-in-waiting, Mary Shelton, was secretly married, she attacked her and broke her finger.

    Elizabeth’s social standards and rituals persisted after her death, with queens taking over control of drawing rooms and social presentations even when there was a king on the throne. Elizabethan presentations-at-court served a very clear political purpose. Though they bore little resemblance to the feverish social theater that characterized the fully developed debutante ritual of the nineteenth century, these court presentations provided the foundation for modern debutante culture and served, too, as its myth of origin. They show the important link between society and politics, a symbiotic relationship that only deepened as the ritual became institutionalized and spread outward to all corners of the British Empire. Elizabeth’s backroom maneuvers—quick conferences with her ladies or political advisers—provided the precedent for the many political meetings that took place at debutante parties in later centuries, and emphasized the soft power of social settings, which were controlled by women who understood that the way to power was not always hard work or even fortunate birth, but judicious conversation next to a sloshing punch bowl or quivering trifle.

    The Stuart monarchs who followed Elizabeth continued the tradition of the drawing room (“with” was dropped from “withdrawing room” in the late seventeenth century), which retained its function as a matchmaking tool. Elizabeth’s successor, James I, arranged the marriage of his favorite courtier, the charming spendthrift James Hay, to Honoria Denny by granting Honoria’s reluctant father a title and royal patent. While these high-level marriages took strategy, marriage law remained chaotic. There was no legislation that defined marriage, and there were no protections for women after they were married. Rather, the absence of law meant that women might be forced into marriage by their fathers, married by capture, or tricked into marriage. The age of consent to marriage was twelve for women and fourteen for men, and contracts were often made during the “unripe years.” It was a particularly dangerous time to be an heiress. During these years women could inherit property. Inheritance law was not clear on whether her property would become her husband’s upon marriage. Without knowing if they could control their property, many women resisted marriage. Restrictive regulations for daughters intensified after they were wives, especially if they were considered to have broken proper codes of behavior. If a wife were to be convicted of adultery, she would lose her dowry or marriage portion and her husband could make a good case that she could punitively lose her property as well. There was no comparable financial forfeiture for adulterous men, and courts habitually disbelieved women who tried to defend themselves against claims of adultery. It is not difficult to explain widespread female acquiescence.


    Divorce and Infidelity

    The Queen of the Night (also known as the Burney Relief) is a high relief terracotta plaque of baked clay, measuring 19.4 inches (49.5 cm) high, 14.5 inches (37 cm) wide, with a thickness of 1.8 inches (4.8 cm) depicting a naked winged woman flanked by owls and standing on the backs of two lions. It originated in southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) most probably in Babylonia, during the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE) / Photo by David Ferro, Wikimedia Commons

    Divorce carried a serious social stigma and was not common. Most people married for life even if that marriage was not a happy one. Inscriptions record women running away from their husbands to sleep with other men. If caught in the act, the woman could be thrown into the river to drown, along with her lover, or could be impaled both parties had to be spared or executed. Hammurabi’s Code states, “If, however, the owner of the wife wishes to keep her alive, the king will equally pardon the woman’s lover.”

    Divorce was commonly initiated by the husband, but wives were allowed to divorce their mates if there was evidence of abuse or neglect. A husband could divorce his wife if she proved to be infertile but, as he would then have to return her dowry, he was more likely to add a concubine to the family. It never seems to have occurred to the people of the time that the male could be to blame for a childless marriage the fault was always ascribed to the woman. A husband could also divorce his wife on grounds of adultery or neglect of the home but, again, would have to return her property and also suffer the stigma of divorce. Both parties seem to have commonly chosen to make the best of the situation even if it was not optimal. Bottero writes:

    As for the married woman, provided she had a little `guts’ and knew how to make use of her charms, employing all her guile, she was no less capable of making her husband toe the line. A divinatory oracle mentions a woman made pregnant by a third party who ceaselessly implores the goddess of love, Ishtar, repeating: `Please let the child look like my husband!’ [and] we are told of women who left their home and husband to go gallivanting not just once, but two, three…as many as eight times, some returning later, crestfallen, or never coming back at all. (120)

    Women abandoning their families was uncommon but happened enough to have been written about. A woman traveling alone to another region or city to begin a new life, unless she was a prostitute, was rare but did occur and seems to have been an option taken by women who found themselves in an unhappy marriage who chose not to suffer the disgrace of a public divorce.

    Since divorce favored the man, “if a woman expressed the desire to divorce, she could be thrown out of her husband’s home penniless and naked” (Nemet-Nejat, 140). The man was the head of the household and the supreme authority, and a woman had to prove conclusively that her husband had failed to uphold his end of the marriage contract in order to obtain a divorce.

    Even so, it should be noted that a majority of the myths of ancient Mesopotamia, especially the most popular myths (such as The Descent of Inanna, Inanna and the Huluppu Tree, Ereshkigal and Nergal) portray women in a very flattering light and, often, as having an advantage over men. While males were recognized as the authority in both government and in the home, women could own their own land and businesses, buy and sell slaves, and initiate divorce proceedings.

    Bottero cites evidence (such as the myths mentioned above and business contracts) which show women in Sumer enjoying greater freedoms than women after the rise of the Akkadian Empire (c. 2334). After the influence of Akkad, he writes, “if women in ancient Mesopotamia, even though regarded at all levels as inferior to men and treated as such, nevertheless seem to have enjoyed also consideration, rights, and freedoms, it is perhaps one of the distant results and vestiges of the old and mysterious Sumerian culture” (126). This culture remained prevalent enough, throughout the history of Mesopotamia, to allow a woman the freedom to escape from an unhappy homelife and travel to another city or region to begin a new one.


    Вавилонский брачный рынок Холст - Вавилон/Шумерский/Ассирийский/Ааккадский - Древнее месопотамское настенное искусство

    Вавилонский рынок брака является 1875 картина британского художника Эдвина Лонга, который изображает группу молодых вавилонских женщин, которые семьи не были в состоянии позволить себе приданое, будучи выстроились в соответствии с тем, как хорошо выглядеть они были и быть проданы с аукциона в брак. Он получил внимание за его провокационное изображение женщин продаются как рабыни, и его внимание к историческим деталям, где художник кропотливо скопировал некоторые из изображений из ассирийских артефактов, найденных в Британском музее. Изображение включает в себя несколько проектов, основанных на древних около восточных артефактов из Британского музея, таких, как южный Месопотамийский белый резной мраморный камень, который был найден в месторождении шумерского короля A'annepada (около 2500 г. до н.э.), и видно служит центральным изображением, где вавилонские жены отображаются над толпой заинтересованных покупателей.

    Картина дебютировала на публике в Королевской академии в 1875 году, где она привлекла большие толпы и получила широкое признание за сходство между ее предметом и современной европейской практики брака, который многие считали наемником и аморальным. Картина в настоящее время проводится в картинной галерее Королевского колледжа Холлоуэй, Эгам, Англия после того, как купил Томас Холлоуэй (английский поставщик медицины и филантроп) в 1882 году по рекордной цене 6615 фунтов стерлингов ($ 8602). Причины Холлоуэй для предоставления этой работы в Королевский колледж Холлоуэй (только для женщин колледж, который он также основал) по-прежнему обсуждаются историками.

    Наши полотна премиум-класса профессионально печатаются с сочетанием более 16 миллионов цветов. Каждый элемент имеет блики сокращения матовой отделкой для того, чтобы отображаться на любой стене без риска отражения от накладных освещения. С 100-летней гарантией, УФ/пыльной защитой и анти warping кадром на всех холстах заказов в стандартной, мы гарантируем, что вы будете любить ваш Вавилон искусства Печати холст.

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    1875 Babylonians in Burlington House

    By Madeline Boden, Doctoral Candidate in the History of Art Department, University of York.

    The scales for Orientalism as a genre tipped at the 1875 Summer Exhibition. For more than half a century, the Western European powers had enmeshed themselves politically, financially, and culturally in the East. Concurrently, their painters had become equally invested in what the visual idea of &ldquothe East&rdquo could offer them. In 1875, this confluence of social investment and painterly interest emerged at the Royal Academy with a number of orientalist paintings at the Summer Exhibition and Edwin Long&rsquos Babylonian Marriage Market crowned as the show-stopper of 1875 (Fig. 1). The painting, a rich composition which William Michael Rossetti described as a mixture of &ldquoantique fact and modern innuendo&rdquo, depicts a sumptuous scene of a fabled Babylonian custom. 1 But while critics such as John Ruskin initially identified the &ldquomodern innuendo&rdquo as a contemporary reflection on Victorian marriage, Long&rsquos painting is more visually striking and impactful physically, measuring ten by six feet, as a painted display of the archaeological artefacts that had been acquired by the British Museum. 2 To contemporary audiences, this show-stopper appealed because of its evocation of the physical and aspirational routes travelled when the British turned so emphatically towards the East during the nineteenth-century.

    The timing of the Summer Exhibition was ideal for painters of the Orient. Trips to the Levant were usually taken during the winter months, October to March, with the return to Britain coinciding with the Academy&rsquos April deadline. Long had visited Egypt and Syria in the winter of 1874. 3 In this period, thousands of Britons were taking advantage of new technological and political circumstances that facilitated safer, easier, and faster trips to the East and promised the potential for new discovery for the amateur, artist, and archaeologist alike.

    Among the Selection Committee for the 1875 show were several veteran travellers, each of whose work was already invested in the growing body of British orientalist painting. Frederic Leighton had travelled extensively and regularly from the late 1850s&mdashto Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Two years after this Summer Exhibition, to accommodate the abundance of Islamic art objects he had collected, he would break ground on his best-known orientalist project, the Arab Hall at Leighton House. 4 At the 1875 Summer Exhibition, Leighton exhibited three works from recent trips to Egypt and Damascus. 5 Another member of the committee, John Frederick Lewis, had taken the rare step of living in Cairo between 1841 and 1851. His conversion from watercolours to oils in the 1860s had established him within the Academy as the interlocutor of harem life. Finally, Edward Armitage had spent 1855 as a war artist in the Crimea, publishing scenes of his travel through Turkey for The Illustrated London News. To the Hanging Committee of Orient-bound travellers who selected Long&rsquos painting along with other Eastern subjects such as Henry Wallis&rsquo Fugitives from Constantinople and Lawrence Alma-Tadema&rsquos Mediterranean inflected The Sculpture Gallery, the artistic sources of this region were too great a subject to be ignored.

    Babylonian Marriage Market is based on the popular 1870 translation of Herodotus&rsquo Histories by George C. Swayne. In the nine volumes that chronicle the history of the Persian Empire, Long selected Swayne&rsquos embellished account of the Babylonian&rsquos marriage custom. Young women are offered up to a room of male bidders where their attractiveness directly correlates to the price they fetched. The women with the misfortune of being judged low in price, according to Swayne, fell to the back of line.

    Nudity, at this point an expectation of Orientalism from the French precedent established by painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme in The Slave Market (1866), is fundamentally withheld in this painting as the women in line all wear dresses or drapery. The painting almost entirely withholds the opportunity to gaze upon the female body. The women&rsquos sitting positions conceal breasts, stomachs, and hips. The woman on the podium, the first in line and therefore the most beautiful is not visible within or out of the picture space. She is turned away from us and her veil is not yet fully lifted for her potential husbands. In the work of fellow British Orientalists such as Lewis in The Reception (1873) or Leighton&rsquos Old Damascus: Jew&rsquos Quarter (1873&ndash1884) formalist, compositional, and decorative interests have been prioritised over a study of the nude and in this painting, Long has followed suit. Alongside raging debates among Academicians regarding the nude, these paintings make evident that British Orientalism does not have erotic bodies at the centre of its works. 6 In place of the nude, real artefacts and archaeological finds became the objects for display, consumption, and pleasure not only as symbols of conquest but also of authenticity and the strength of inter-institutional relationships in the London art world.

    Austen Henry Layard, the diplomat cum archaeologist, had excavated the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh in 1849 and provoked an intense public fascination with the former Eastern Empire and the inheritors of the Babylonian territories (Fig. 2). The first pieces of Assyrian sculpture arrived at the British Museum in 1851. One commentator noted, &ldquoSince the Elgin marbles were brought to England, no similar arrival has occurred so calculated to excite the interests of artists and archaeologists&rdquo. 7 Several of the most famous Assyrian sculptures including the Lamassu, or winged bull, were cast in plaster and displayed in James Fergusson&rsquos Assyrian Court at The Crystal Palace. These initial displays would have been seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors in both venues, making the sculptures instantly recognisable when viewing Babylonian Marriage Market.

    In Babylonian Marriage Market, Layard&rsquos discoveries make their impact in direct translations of the relief sculptures and particularly the depiction of male subjects. These can be seen most clearly in the faces of the bearded men in the suitor&rsquos crowd echoing the panels of the King Ashurbanipal and his soldiers. The intricate decorative back wall panel with fierce lions is reminiscent of the Hunt of Ashurbanipal panel, connecting ancient rituals of violence, contemporary symbols of Imperialism, and visually reinforced by the animal skins that lay at the women&rsquos feet. These painted versions of the sculptures collapse the boundaries of orientalist fantasy into the growing archaeological corpus of artefacts circulating in British museums and collections, asserting their authenticity with regards to the ancient Eastern world. Long&rsquos authentic reproduction of Assyrian sculptures and the painting&rsquos successful reception at the Summer Exhibition reflect the interconnectedness between the objects in the British Museum and new work from the Academy. It also suggests the way that relationship depended on a robust programme of excavation and continued Imperial dominance in the region.

    The visual dominance of archaeology in Babylonian Marriage Market realigns our understanding of British Orientalism towards its Imperial and museological priorities. The East was firmly on the Academy&rsquos agenda by 1875, as travel and collecting artefacts became key components in depicting the exotic. Long&rsquos translation of the Assyrian relief sculptures into this scene blurred the boundaries between fantasy and history and placed the politics of Britain&rsquos involvement in the East at the centre of the Summer Exhibition.

    W.M. Rossetti, &ldquoThe Royal Academy Exhibition&rdquo, Academy 8 May 1875, 486.&hookleftarrow︎

    John Ruskin, Academy Notes (1875), in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin (London: George Allen, 1908), Vol. 14, 277.&hookleftarrow︎

    Mark Bills, Simon Olding, and Juliet Kinchin, Edwin Longsden Long RA (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998), 9.&hookleftarrow︎

    Daniel Robbins and Reena Suleman, Leighton House Museum (London: The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, 2011).&hookleftarrow︎

    These included Little Fatima, Eastern Slinger, and Interior of the Grand Mosque at Damascus.&hookleftarrow︎

    Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).&hookleftarrow︎

    Sidney Smirke to Joseph Scoles, 28 June 1857. Royal Institute of British Architects Archives, London.&hookleftarrow︎


    Classical Depravity: A Guide to the Perverted Past

    “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,” wrote Philip Larkin wryly in his 1967 poem “Annus Mirabilis.” Antiquity thought otherwise.

    Gods and mortals, men and women, satyrs and nymphs, all kaleidoscopically fell into and out of lust. Across the Mediterranean in the classical world, sexual norms were radically different to those in contemporary Western society. The phallus might well contend with the Parthenon as the symbol of classical civilization.

    Ancient Athens was not only the brightest cultural light of antiquity, but also, as Eva C. Keuls puts it in The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens, “a society dominated by men who sequester their wives and daughters, denigrate the female role in reproduction, erect monuments to the male genetalia, have sex with the sons of their peers, sponsor public whorehouses, create a mythology of rape, and engage in rampant saber-rattling.”

    Nor was Athens an exception. In Alexandria, in 275 BC, a 180-foot-long gold-plated phallus was paraded through the streets of the city, flanked by elephants, a rhinoceros, and a giraffe — and decorated, as the Greek Athenaeus noted, with ribbons and a gold star. Those who failed to join in such festivals enthusiastically were more likely to attract criticism than those who did:

    Someone at the court of King Ptolemy who was nicknamed ‘Dionysus’ slandered the Platonic philosopher Demetrius because he drank water and was the only one of the company who did not put on women’s clothing during the Dionysia. Indeed, had he not started drinking early and in view of all, next time he was invited, and had he not put on a Tarantine wrap [women’s clothes], played the cymbals, and danced to them, he would have been lost as one displeasing to the king’s lifestyle.” (Lucian, Calumnies, 16).

    Rome, needless to say, took these aspects of Greek culture and ran with them — the young Julius Caesar was known as the “Queen of Bithynia,” so fond was he rumored to be of cross-dressing. But that isn’t to say that there weren’t taboos, and strict and unforgiving moralities — or limits which most were disinclined to transgress. A benign drunken phallic procession was one thing — an emperor’s debauch could be quite a different matter.

    Here are six sites from the perverted past — some have been shocking for over 2,000 years, while others were once upon a time no more controversial than the corner grocery-store. 


    Reconstruction of Villa Jovis by C. Weichardt (1900) (via Wikimedia)

    In the northeast of Capri, atop a cliff looking out to sea, are the remains of a place of sexual legend. The mere mention of Villa Jovis, home of the Emperor Tiberius for many years, could made even the most debauched Roman blush.

    It was completed in 27 AD. Tiberius retreated there from Rome, governing the Empire from behind its walls until his death ten years later. Tiberius was brilliant, depressive, and increasingly isolated — an ancient Howard Hughes, brooding on the world and disliking what he found. Secluded in Villa Jovis, his pastimes — reported and almost certainly exaggerated by hostile later authors — grew increasingly elaborate:

    Teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. The villa’s bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri’s woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of greenery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this “the old goat’s garden,” punning on the island’s name. He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed tiddlers) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles. (Suetonius, Tiberius, 44).

     
    Bust of the Emperor Tiberius at the Louvre (photograph by Catchpenny/Flickr user)

    Many of the most outrageous stories of Roman imperial excess are almost certainly invented gossip spread by authors writing generations later. We should not put too much faith, for instance, in stories of Messalina, wife of the emperor Claudius, competing with a prostitute to see how many men each could have sex with in one night (Messalina won, with 25, according to Pliny.)

    Therefore how many of the legends of Villa Jovis are true or not is uncertain — but, for obvious reasons, it has fascinated later authors and artists ever since Tiberius’ death. Today, streams of tourists still climb the steep slope to gaze at its ruins, peer over the cliff-top (from where errant subjects were hurled, the legend has it), and wonder just how the afternoons passed, when all the world’s depravities were gathered under one roof.

    Almost all of our sources on love and sex in the ancient world have one thing in common: they were produced by men, and for men. Recovering women’s perspectives is exceedingly difficult, and an ongoing challenge for scholars. For “respectable” women, the great Athenian leader Pericles says in his Funeral Speech, the greatest glory is simply to disappear: “not to be talked about for good or for evil among men” (Thucydides, 2.45).

    Yet Pericles himself is said to have fallen in love with one of the most remarkable and visible women we know of from the ancient world — the brilliant courtesan Aspasia:

    Aspasia, as some say, was held in high favour by Pericles because of her rare political wisdom. Socrates sometimes came to see her with his disciples, and his intimate friends brought their wives to her to hear her discourse, although she presided over a business that was anything but honest or even reputable, since she kept a house of young courtesans. […] Twice a day, as they say, on going out and on coming in from the market-place, Pericles would salute her with a loving kiss. (Plutarch, Pericles, 24).

    Fresco from a brothel in Pompeii (via Wikimedia)

    Ancient Greek, it’s frequently said, has many more words for “love” than English. That’s true. It also has many more words for “prostitute.” Few — very, very few — of these prostitutes had the independence and security of Aspasia, or other educated and prosperous hetaerae.

    At the other end of the scale were the pornae (from whom we get the word “pornography”). It’s a word for which any English translation must be both dismissive and degrading “street-walker” or “bus-station whore.” Their lives were not bright things. Often slaves, rarely with any control or agency of their own, they were frequently confined in brothels.

    A number of ancient brothels have been excavated – most famously in Pompeii. In Thessaloniki, a brothel dating from the second century BC was discovered in 1997 attached to a public bathhouse, in the ancient agora, or marketplace of the city. This was an exceedingly well-equipped house of debauchery: on the ground floor was an elaborate dining room and a direct link to the bath-house — while above, there was a warren of tiny rooms.

    Most eye-opening were the artifacts: a large phallus-shaped alabaster vase, jars with phallic mouths, even parts of an ingenious hand-cranked sexual aid (briefly displayed in a side-room of the local museum, but now gathering dust in storage). It’s one of the few windows we have into the everyday sexual life of an ancient city.

    Curses of all kinds were big business, across the ancient world. Threatening tomb-curses were a feature of many Egyptian burials, and they lingered to trouble overzealous Victorian archaeologists. For example: “Anyone who does anything bad to my tomb, then the crocodile, hippopotamus, and lion will eat him.”

    Collected together, they make for fearsome reading: “I shall seize his neck like that of a goose.” “His face shall be spat at.” “A donkey shall violate him, a donkey shall violate his wife.” “He shall be cooked together with the condemned.”

    Greeks and Romans would scratch these messages to the gods onto sheets of lead now known as curse-tablets, and promise rewards if the gods did their vengeful bidding: “may [the thief] neither piss, nor shit, nor speak, nor sleep, nor stay awake, nor have well-being or health, unless he bring what he has stolen to the temple of Mercury.”

    An ancient Roman curse tablet found in London (via British Museum)

    Many of these curses were explicitly erotic in nature, impotence and sexual misery wished on many a target. Ovid, having disappointed a lover, did not hesitate to blame a witch: “Perchance ‘twas magic that turned me into ice.”

    Love-magic can be traced all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey, where Calypso weaves spells to make Odysseus forget his home. There are, as John Gager notes in Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, “spells to curse rivals, to divorce or separate couples, to cause a downturn in a pimp’s business, and to attract a lover.” Gager points out the vivid urgency of these tablets: “Bring her thigh close to his, her genitals close to his in unending intercourse for all the time of her life.”

    In 2008, while excavating the city of Amathus, on the south coast of Cyprus, archaeologists found a curse which went straight to the point: “May your penis hurt when you make love.”

    This was inscribed once again on a lead tablet, in Greek. Perhaps most surprising was the date of this tablet — the seventh century AD, hundreds of years after the sack of Rome, and the spread of Christianity across the Mediterranean world. While many of the old pagan beliefs had disappeared or been suppressed by this period, it is clear that people’s love of — and need for — sex-curses had not gone anywhere.

    Temple carvings at Khajuraho (via Wikimedia)

    No guide to sexuality and the past could be complete without Khajuraho. In Madhya Pradesh, far distant from the old imperial cities of India, are a remarkable group of temples, eye-popping in their erotic intensity. They were built, it is believed, between 950 AD and 1150 AD. Women, men, and questionable beings embrace athletically and relentlessly in their carvings.

    Khajuraho is sometimes said to have been “discovered” by British colonial officers during the 19th century — though as the temples were well-known to Indians for centuries beforehand, such accounts are problematic. Nevertheless, Khajuraho’s fame in the Western world was sparked in great part by the 1860s account of Alexander Cunningham.

    Cunningham, while fully aware that he should seriously disapprove, was entirely enraptured. He described “a small village of 162 houses, containing rather less than 1,000 inhabitants,” overshadowed by gigantic sacred sites: “All of these [sculptures] are highly indecent, and most of them are disgustingly obscene. […] The general effect of this gorgeous luxury of embellishment is extremely pleasing.” In his published illustrations, however, the faces of the temples — alive with carvings in reality — are blank, subdued, and nonthreatening. 

    The temples of Khajuraho (via Wikimedia)

    Despite its remoteness, Khajuraho has become one of the most popular attractions in India. Scholars still puzzle over the purpose of its erotic carvings — which comprise only around 10% of the total number of sculptures: were they a sex-education manual for cloistered young men, a Tantric text, or something very different? And when exactly — was it at the point of Cunningham’s arrival? — was it that Khajuraho became “obscene,” part of the perverted past?

    Mosaic of a satyr and a nymph from Pompeii’s House of the Faun (via Museo Archeologico Nazionale)

    Ancient sexuality has a long history of making people uncomfortable. Explaining that 180-foot-long, gold-plated Alexandrian phallus was not a task which many scholars fancied in Victorian London, for instance. The 19th century was one of the great periods of rediscovery of the classical past: from sculpture, to poetry, to archaeology, to history, knowledge became sharper and more fascinating. But it was also one of the greatest periods of censorship antiquity was systematically mutilated to fit with contemporary Christian morality. 


    The “Venus Kallipygos” — or “Venus with the lovely ass” — from the Gabinetto Segreto (via Wikimedia)

    The forthright lewdness of many ancient authors was hacked down into a school-room whine: “I have carefully omitted,” wrote one editor of Aristophanes, “every verse or expression which could shock the delicacy of the most fastidious reader.” Even Gibbon, known for his appetites, put all of his most salacious footnotes in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in Latin — so much so that one historian remarked that Gibbon’s sex life was mostly lived out through his footnotes.

    But one of the most notorious cases of censorship came when Pompeii began to be systematically excavated. There were stone phalluses by the dozen, erotic mosaics, an entire ancient brothel, phallic wind-chimes, and a particularly detailed carving of a satyr having sex with a female goat, her cloven feet pressed up against his chest as she gazes back at him, with an expression rarely found on the face of a farm-animal.

    The Gabinetto Segreto’s goat (via Wikimedia)

    King Francis I of Naples visited Pompeii in 1819 with his wife and young daughter. He was given the complete tour, and promptly ordered the censorship of an entire ancient city’s erotic life. All vaguely sexual objects were whisked away from public view. Metal shutters were installed over frescoes. Access was restricted to scholars or enterprising young men, prepared to pay the going rate to bribe the guards.

    Predictably, this censorship cemented the fame of Pompeii’s secret history, and the forbidden collection became a semi-obligatory stop on young aristocrats’ Grand Tours. Remarkably, the Gabinetto Segreto, as it was known, remained hidden throughout the 20th century, and was only opened to the public in 2000. Today, at last fully acknowledged, it remains Pompeii’s best guilty pleasure.

    The Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574) (via Wikimedia)

    “The perverted past” is always at least half-invented: later cultures look back, and judge, and condemn. Nowhere is this truer than in Babylon — city of whispered sin, and ever-taller tales.

    One of the oldest and most storied cities on earth, Babylon was first settled around 4,000 years ago. From a small city-state, it grew to a seat of empire, wealth, and power. Nebuchadnezzar II turned Babylon into perhaps the most astonishing city on earth, its walls lined with a hundred gates, its Hanging Gardens one of the wonders of the ancient world (though their historical form is disputed). Tales of Babylon — and Babylonian depravities — spread across the world:

    The Babylonians have one most shameful custom. Every woman born in the country must once in her life go and sit down in the precinct of Venus, and there consort with a stranger. Many of the wealthier sort, who are too proud to mix with the others, drive in covered carriages to the precinct, followed by a goodly train of attendants, and there take their station. But the larger number seat themselves within the holy enclosure with wreaths of string about their heads […] and the strangers pass along them to make their choice.

    A woman who has once taken her seat is not allowed to return home till one of the strangers throws a silver coin into her lap, and takes her with him beyond the holy ground. When he throws the coin he says these words: “The goddess Mylitta prosper thee.” (Venus is called Mylitta by the Assyrians.) The silver coin may be of any size it cannot be refused, for that is forbidden by the law, since once thrown it is sacred. The woman goes with the first man who throws her money, and rejects no one. When she has gone with him, and so satisfied the goddess, she returns home, and from that time forth no gift however great will prevail with her. Such of the women as are tall and beautiful are soon released, but others who are ugly have to stay a long time before they can fulfill the law. Some have waited three or four years in the precinct. (Herodotus, Histories, 1.199, trans. Rawlinson).

    The site of Babylon, viewed from Saddam Hussein’s summer palace (via Wikimedia)

    In October of 331 BCE, Babylon fell to Alexander the Great, and Alexander would die there, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, eight years later. Babylon’s greatness was soon a memory — its inhabitants scattered, its temples devastated in the wars which followed. The city swiftly passed into legend. The “whore of Babylon,” an allegory of the Roman Empire, marched through the Book of Revelation: ”Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth.” Herodotus’ narrative of the sex temples of Babylon was taken up, unquestioned, by generations of scholars — yet most now agree that it was, at least in great part, fictional a tale of the “perverted other,” told to raise eyebrows and pulses amongst his Greek readers.

    Each generation reinvents the sexual histories of the past, to suit its own desires. From Victorian censorship, to contemporary fascination with “the perverted past,” the history of many of these places is the history of our own shifting and often uncomfortable relationship with ancient sexuality. They show us a different world — they demand we look it straight in the eye, and acknowledge what it is: as potently erotic as it is profoundly alien.


    Sacred Marriage

    In the many myths and stories involving Inanna in ancient Mesopotamia, Inanna does not appear as either wife or mother. Yet it is she that makes the Sacred Marriage with her husband Dumuzi in a fertility rite. Remember that in Mesopotamia, agriculture held primary importance and keeping the land fertile required many religious observances. In the Sacred Marriage, humans took the place of the gods in religious rituals devoted to fertility. The high priestess of the city, acting in the capacity of the fertility goddess Inanna, would have sex with the high priest or the king role-playing the fertility god Dumuzi.

    In the myths concerning Inanna and Dumuzi, due to some of Inanna’s less exalted behavior, Dumuzi must spend half the year in the underworld. When his time is up and he returns from the underworld in springtime, he joyously mates with Inanna and the land reawakens. Those familiar with the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone will recognize the precedence found in the earlier Inanna myths.


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    The Romans and Egyptians prized pearls above all other gems.

    Pearls, in fact, played the pivotal role at the most celebrated banquet in literature. To convince Rome that Egypt possessed a heritage and wealth that put it above conquest, Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony she could give the most expensive dinner in history. The Roman reclined as the queen sat with an empty plate and a goblet of wine (or vinegar). She crushed one large pearl of a pair of earrings, dissolved it in the liquid, then drank it down. Astonished, Antony declined his dinner—the matching pearl—and admitted she had won. Pliny, the world's first gemologist, writes in his famous Natural History that the two pearls were worth an estimated 60 million sesterces, or 1,875,000 ounces of fine silver ($9,375,000 with silver at $5/ounce).

    The Arabs have shown the greatest love for pearls. The depth of their affection for pearls is enshrined in the Koran, especially within its description of Paradise, which says: "The stones are pearls and jacinths the fruits of the trees are pearls and emeralds and each person admitted to the delights of the celestial kingdom is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths, and emeralds is crowned with pearls of incomparable lustre, and is attended by beautiful maidens resembling hidden pearls."

    Over time, a range of pearl styles became available to royalty and commoners alike.

    Pearl Harbors

    During the long history of pearls, the principal oyster beds lay in the Persian Gulf, along the coasts of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and in the Red Sea. Chinese pearls came mainly from freshwater rivers and ponds, whereas Japanese pearls were found near the coast in salt water. Nearly all the pearls in commerce originated from those few sources. Over the next millennium only three substantive events altered what appeared to be a very stable pattern. Considering the minimal state of pearling in the United States today, it is impressive that two of the three developments occurred in the New World.

    As Europe raced to capitalize on what Columbus had stumbled upon, the major powers of the day concentrated on spheres of influence. Spain focused its efforts in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America, the Spanish forced slaves to dive for pearls. The English colonizers along North America's Atlantic coast and French explorers to the north and west, all found native Americans wearing pearls, and they discovered freshwater pearls in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee River basins. So many gems were exported to Europe that the New World quickly gained the appellation "Land of Pearls."

    What is now the United States became famous for two products. Its best freshwater pearls fueled a ready market overseas, purchased by people who, unlike the then less sophisticated frontier Americans, knew the rarity and value of large, round, lustrous pearls. Many of the best examples made their way into Europe's royal gem collections, where they can still be seen on display, usually misidentified as saltwater pearls from the Orient. America also produced mother-of-pearl buttons, which it exported all over the world. Iowa became the center of the trade, shipping billions of iridescent fasteners until World War II, when newly invented plastic virtually drove quality buttons out of the market.

    Mother-of-pearl, the iridescent coating inside oyster shells, once formed the foundation of a thriving button industry in the U.S.

    While North America set a new standard for large freshwater pearls, white saltwater pearls from the coasts of Panama and Venezuela competed with pearls from Bahrain, and black saltwater pearls from the Bay of California (in what is now Mexico) provided an alternative to Tahitian blacks. More pearls arrived in Spain than the country's aristocratic market could absorb. As with the emeralds it was mining in Colombia, Spain found ready buyers for its new pearls across Europe and in India.

    Those pearl supplies continued into the 1800s, until overfishing in Central American waters and in North American streams depleted the beds. Pollution also took its toll as the United States industrialized. Then, toward the end of the last century, the single event that forever reshaped the pearl trade slowly unfolded in the isolated island nation of Japan.

    Son of a Japanese noodle maker, Kokichi Mikimoto single-handedly launched the cultured-pearl industry.

    A Culture is Born

    Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodle maker, had a dream and a hard-working wife, Ume. Together they set about to do what no one else had done—entice oysters to produce round pearls on demand. Mikimoto did not know that government biologist Tokichi Nishikawa and carpenter Tatsuhei Mise had each independently discovered the secret of pearl culturing—inserting a piece of oyster epithelial membrane (the lip of mantle tissue) with a nucleus of shell or metal into an oyster's body or mantle causes the tissue to form a pearl sack. That sack then secretes nacre to coat the nucleus, thus creating a pearl.

    Mise received a 1907 patent for his grafting needle. When Nishikawa applied for a patent for nucleating, he realized that he and Mise had discovered the same thing. In a compromise, the pair signed an agreement uniting their common discovery as the Mise-Nishikawa method, which remains the heart of pearl culturing. Mikimoto had received an 1896 patent for producing hemispherical pearls, or mabes, and a 1908 patent for culturing in mantle tissue. But he could not use the Mise-Nishikawa method without invalidating his own patents. So he altered the patent application to cover a technique to make round pearls in mantle tissue, which was granted in 1916. With this technicality, Mikimoto began an unprecedented expansion, buying rights to the Mise-Niskikawa method and eclipsing those originators of cultured pearls, leaving their names only for history books.

    Mikimoto's efforts made pearls in a range of styles and prices available to consumers worldwide.

    Largely by trial and error over a number of years, Mikimoto did contribute one crucial discovery. Whereas Nishikawa nucleated with silver and gold beads, Mikimoto experimented with everything from glass to lead to clay to wood. He found he had the highest success rates when he inserted round nuclei cut from U.S. mussel shells. Although some countries continue to test other nuclei, U.S. mussel shells have been the basis for virtually all cultured saltwater pearls for 90 years.

    Even though third with his patents and his secrets, Mikimoto revolutionized pearling. Ever the flamboyant showman and promoter, he badgered jewelers and governments to accept his cultured products as pearls. His workers created massive pearl structures, which he displayed at every major international exposition. By mastering the techniques, Mikimoto, then hundreds of other Japanese firms, made pearls available to virtually everyone in the world.


    Watch the video: Women in Ancient Rome The Role of Women in Ancient Roman History (January 2022).