The Traditional Purpose of Marriage: Why Same-Sex Marriage is Rare in History
You’ve heard the claim ad nauseam at this point: homosexual marriage is not real marriage. It’s most commonly defended from a Judeo-Christian religious position declaring that God ordained marriage to be between one man and one woman (if one ignores the polygamous bits of the Old Testament).
Others, understanding religious arguments have zero place in American debates of law, have pointed to history, where the vast majority of marriages are, indeed, between a man and a woman. While there’s some involving one man and multiple women, you’re hard-pressed to find homosexual marriages (although they are out there).
Why is that? The knee jerk answer is “homosexual relationships are immoral.” Certainly, that’s the case in ancient Israelite culture. The Torah says men who engage in sexual relations with one another should be put to death. But that’s not the case in many others. Multiple cultures neighboring Israel lacked laws against homosexuality. Homosexuality was an important aspect of Ancient Greek culture. Ancient Roman culture, from which Christian culture emerges, may have limited certain homosexual relationships, but there was no general condemnation.
So if homosexuality was ok, why weren’t these couples allowed to marry? The answer has to do with the purpose of marriage in these cultures.
For Property and Family
The Code of Hammurabi, the oldest complete law code we possess, is dominated by laws governing business transactions and property, highlighting their importance in Babylonian culture. One of the ways you protect your property is to make sure it remains in the family.
Marriage is, in large part, about providing legitimate heirs: those who will inherit your property and carry on your name. It’s why so many cultures penalize female adulterers more severely than male ones: if you can’t trust your wife is faithful, then you can’t trust her children are yours, and you don’t want your hard-earned wealth going to some other man’s bastard. In Babylon, the penalty for an adulterous woman is to be tied to her lover and drowned.
That situation is far from unique. In Ancient Greece, there was no social or legal expectation of fidelity from the husband. Married men commonly had sex with female slaves and prostitutes as well as potentially adolescent boys. The only reason they weren’t having sex with freeborn women was because these women already owed their sexual loyalty to someone else.
Women, meanwhile, were married off young, found themselves highly isolated (at least the upper class ones, whose families could afford the luxury of isolation), rarely interacting with men outside the family, were confined to their homes and needed a chaperone to go out in public. Adulterous ones potentially faced death.
Augustus’s Marriage Laws
Rome took preservation of the family one step further. While other cultures legislated who was a legitimate child, Emperor Augustus’s marriage laws actively encouraged the production of children.
Rome’s upper class, the patricians, was comprised of a distinct set of families. No new family could join its ranks, so if one died out, the entire class was diminished. Divorce and extra-marital affairs were common, and many couples were actively attempting to limit their number of children. Augustus considered the situation as a threat to Roman culture, which he saw as resting on the shoulders of the dwindling patrician class.
So, rather than merely legislate good marital behavior, he began enforcing marriage itself. He required women between the ages of 20 and 50 and men between 20 and 60 to be married. Divorce was not forbidden, but both parties had to remarry within six months. Widows and widowers were to remarry within a year. Betrothals were to be followed up within two years by marriage. Husbands who did not punish adulterous wives were subject to punishment themselves. There were rewards for having legitimate children, although no penalty for not having them.
Marriage and Religion
Despite some conservative claims, there is nothing inherently religious about marriage. In Rome, a marriage was simply a contract between two parties, and this was the context in which Christianity developed. Certainly, a priest might bless the union, but the nature of that union remained legal, not religious. Only over time did it become more and more entwined with the Church, until marriage became the seventh sacrament in 1215.
Practically speaking, the providing of legitimate children continued to be a purpose for Christian marriage. However, from the very first days of the religion, marriage also became a way of controlling what was seen as a greatly sinful force: sex. In the Bible, St. Paul cautions that chastity is the best state of being. However, for those unable to bear it, marriage was an acceptable alternative. Marriage became a way of saving people from spiritual stain.
The Modern Marriage – Marrying for Love
Today, most Americans marry for love, and so more and more people have asked: “Why should love be limited by gender?” And the answer for more and more Americans is it shouldn’t.
By why haven’t cultures done this previously? Because love wasn’t part of the equation. Marriage has traditionally centered around providing legitimate children. In that context, same-sex marriage doesn’t make sense. But when marriage is primarily about joining two people in love, the gender no longer matters.
Conservatives say supporters of same-sex marriage are redefining marriage. We’ve already redefined it. When we got rid of bride-prices and dowries, when marriages stopped being political arrangements between families, when we stopped marrying off 13 year old girls and then locking them away in their husband’s household, at all of these points we redefined marriage. When marriage came to be about love, that was a redefinition of marriage. Allowing for same-sex marriage is hardly an assault on an unchanging institution. It’s merely a development within a change that has already occurred.