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.


  1. Just asking a question that I have heard repeated, “What happens then when two men want to marry the same woman? Or five women want to marry two men? Can ‘love’ exist in a marriage where there are multiple partners?”

    Typically, marriage is the union of two people who love each other. It is about equality! But how can three or more people love each other equally?

    1. Actually a better question is “why can’t they?” Polyamory (or Multiamory or Polyphilia to keep the Latin and Greek roots together) is about consenting adults deciding they *do* love more than one person. As for “equal love,” as Cassie pointed out above, until pretty recently “love” had nothing to do with marriage. If we are going to go back to “Traditional Marriage” then no one should be marrying for love, but for some sense of duty.

      And as interesting aside, in English we have one word for “love” but in Greek they had many. The kind of love between a man and a wife was called “Storge” (pronounced STOR-gay) and was a household love of duty. There was also Philia, the love between close friends (Philadeliphia, City of Brotherly Love), Agape (AGA-pay) which is the love of God to the Church and Eros, sexual love. Men could have Storge and Eros toward women, but only men could have Philia and Agape toward each other, as women were considered to be less than men.

      So what you’re talking about is a modern interpretation of romantic love, and again as Cassie pointed out, is what fuels our modern ideas about marriage. Up until fairly recently though, this concept of romantic love is not what drove the need for marriage, and there was certainly not a shred of equality between a man and his wife in almost all societies. Marriage was a civic duty to maintain heirs and lines of property in families.

      If the concept of marriage then has gone from one of duty to society to one of “romantic love,” which is a huge switch, then why can’t people of the same sex love each other and have that union? Why can’t three, four or more people who all love each other have that kind of union? As long as people are consenting adults, this concept of “romantic love” cannot necessarily be contained in only one kind of relationship. You and I and Cassie might not be polyamorous, but why must we say ‘I wouldn’t do it, so you people who say you love three or four people can’t do it?” Marriage is about love, right?

      I’m just waiting for someone who says “I only believe in Traditional Marriage!” to tell his or her daughter, “Guess what, dear! You’re marrying your first cousin so we can keep the family business in the family. Don’t worry, you’ll grow to love him over time!”

      — Dani

      1. The only insight or enlightenment I gained from your response is that you like to talk (Type) and you are skilled in the ‘side step’ method of (not answering) answering a question. Good for a laugh. However, you still did not answer my question. How can three or more people love each other equally? There are numerous studies that have suggested that polygamy is harmful to women. Now, you made an assumption about me, that I am Orthodox Jewish or Christian, and proceeded to give me a vocabulary lesson on the four kinds of love and give me the pronunciation of Storge (which is WAY more complicated than just ‘duty’) and the only purpose I can see for that was to put ‘gay’ in your response. Don’t see the point in that but At any rate, I am a Christian but I do not follow “Traditional Marriage,” as you assumed but I do follow the marriage Jesus Christ spoke of when He said, “4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female , 5 and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH ‘? 6″So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6) And since you avoided my question I will ask it again so you can address it, hopefully in earnest, once more, if you choose or anyone else to ‘tackle’ my question.
        How can three or more people love each other equally?

        Now you stated that polygamy was not for you or me but it why not others who choose it? Well, in that spirit, would you be supportive if your daughter or son came to you and said, “I want to get married to another man and three other women.” Please do not give me the typical ‘knee jerk’ approval like I have heard just to ‘win’ a discussion, really think about it. I know I have.

    2. It can be done, because we do it all the time.

      Do you love your parents, your children? Unless you play favorites, you’re able to love them equally, in different ways.

      Just like I’m able to romantically love several people – because I do.

      1. I sure hope we DON’T do it all the time!!

        Yes I love my parents! I love my Nieces and Nephews! If I had children, I’d love them too!

        However, those are different types of love! I hope you do NOT love your parents and children the same way you love your spouse or significant other! Because then that would be incest, unless you are into incest, which is a crime and should be!

        Loving a spouse is Eros love!
        Loving parents, children, nieces, nephews, etc is called Storge or “family love”
        Loving friends and everyone else is Philia love.
        Loving God is, or rather God’s love for us, is Agape.

        You being able to erotically (Eros) love several different people says that you truly do NOT love them but you love AT them. A kin to when someone says they love their car or they love pizza. You really do not LOVE those things but you enjoy them to the point that it brings you physical pleasure in some form or another. It is a common misconception of love that many people make, then realize the error and correct.

  2. Translation: “I don’t like what you wrote, so I’m going to toss about a bunch of stupid remarks (the one about about ‘you wanted to stress the GAY in storge’ was the lamest thing I’ve seen in ages), insult you, toss out Bible verses that only Christians care about (hint, I’m not a Christian, so I don’t care what your Bible says), and then procede to reiterate a question that I am demanding be answered within my inflexible paradigm.”

    You see, Senor, there is no answer that would suffice for you since you’ve already made up your mind that three or more people cannot love each other. That’s fine,you can believe anything you want, However you are using tenacity (“I’m right”) so there is no way to have a discussion on this with you. I see no issue with many people loving each other. I’ve loved many people at the same time with a firery, romantic love. And I don’t give ten cents worth a dead dog that you believe that or not.

    As for your last question, since you’ve laid a false dilemma trap — either I say “Oh I wouldn’t like that at all” or I am giving a “typical, knee jerk reaction” if I say I wouldn’t care — I’m not going to even bother tackling your question.

    I’ve been on the ‘Net for well over 20 years, and recognize that you Sir, are a troll that just wants to try to trap people in your paradoxical thinking. This is all the response you will get from me, so flame away.


    1. You STILL did not answer the question! LOL Talk about lame, you stated you were NOT a Christian and that is fine but by your statements, you sure like to put yourself on the cross! Get down from it dear, somebody needs the wood! lol

      Now I am done!

      1. Hmm… well, it seems the answer was given quite clearly to me. but I can give it a shot. I think what is overlooked here is that marriage wasn’t about love in days of old. It was about money and joining families and gaining of an heir legitimately to whatever estate managed to be built. And I don’t know where you are coming from but I’ve never seen any marriage that was absolutely equal all the time. Sometimes the brunt of it is on the man’s shoulders, other times a woman carries it. Even within the same marriage things shift over time. Usually in a marriage someone takes the majority of the lead and the other goes along. Even in a good marriage and after discussions, compromises and decisions, one person is usually who makes the final decision and makes the steps to arrangements in finances, kids, medical, whatever the issue might be.
        If you are talking marriage for love, real love, then there are no limits in love, who you love, or even how many you love. It becomes a matter of how each individual feels about love and how they express it, how many they wish to include in that circle of love. If someone can be open enough to commit to 2 or 3 others and everyone is in agreement and in understanding of pecking orders in any group situation, then I see no problem with marriage including more than just 2 people. This isn’t a new concept. It is just that two in a single marriage has been most promoted as right and proper, quite possibly for simplicity’s sake.

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