DOWRY AND BRIDE PRICE
Love and affection sometimes played a role (Ancient Egypt is a good example), but marriage was always an economic union. Every business transaction has financial questions that have to be answered, and marriage is no exception.
The following chart summarizes the financial considerations facing every marriage and suggests the range of answers possible in the Ancient World. More detailed information can be found under the specific civilizations.
POSSIBLE ANSWERS IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
What guarantee is there that the groom will not change his mind between the betrothal and the wedding? Engagements were usually short unless the bride was under age. Where long engagements were common the law usually saw little difference between betrothal and marriage.
BRIDE PRICE was a sum of money (or property) paid as a gesture of sincerity. This is similar to the modern engagement ring except that the bride price usually went to the bride's father and was usually just a token.
Who will administer the assets of the new partnership? The husband was the usual head of the household in the Ancient World. How much of the required start-up capital should come from the groom's family and how much should come from the bride's family? While the bride usually moved to the groom's home (and not vice versa), it seemed not unreasonable to the ancients that the bride should contribute a reasonable part of the cost of setting up a new family. While the DOWRY provided the bride with economic protection against divorce or the death of the groom, it was also a means whereby the bride's family could share in the expenses of beginning a new and self-sufficient household. If the new economic unit fails (that is, the marriage ends through death or divorce) what should happen to the assets of the marriage. While there were local variations, the DOWRY generally reverted to the woman and enable her to remarry or at least to support herself. If she died the dowry usually passed to her children (and not the children of her husband by another wife). In some societies a woman could write a will and in others she could not. Since the bride (or groom in some societies) will be moving from one economic unit to another, is the economic unit that is losing a member entitled to compensation for lost labor? This was the rationale for BRIDE PRICE in very primitive societies. It may have existed among the Hebrews in their earliest days but did not otherwise apply to any of the great civilizations of the Ancient World where references to BRIDE PRICE are more usually tokens to demonstrate sincerity.
There is no evidence of the dowry in Ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs. When first the Greeks and then the Romans took control of Egypt signs of the dowry begin to appear, but not until then. It is possible that they existed and all of the evidence has disappeared; it is more likely, however, that the practice never came to Egypt. Perhaps there was no need for it since women could own and manage their own property.
Daughters could inherit along with their brothers. There are surviving wills that specify the estate should go to some children and not others, the favored children being the ones who had helped look after the parent. Women could write wills and leave their property as they wished. In general, however, it seems that most people did not write a will and that their estates were divided equally among all of their children, both sons and daughters.
There does appear to be one rule that was always enforced: you had to participate in the burial in order to inherit.
No woman in Athens could own anything more than her own clothing, jewelry and personal slave. She could not sign a contract or purchase anything more expensive than a bushel of barley. She required a male guardian to look after her and to manage her financial interests. The guardian (kyrios) was her father, husband or closest male relative.
When she was ready to marry, her father or other guardian would choose a potential husband and negotiate with him on the size of the dowry. Invariably a woman with a large dowry would marry a rich man and a woman with a small dowry would marry a poor man.
We noted in a previous web-page that part of the function of a dowry was to enlist the services of the bride's family in providing the startup capital needed to set up a new family. As might be expected, the dowry would be administered in whatever way was considered normal in that society for all financial transactions. In Athens it was the husband who handled all of the business affairs of the family.
A second function of the dowry was to provide a financial base that would assure the essentials of life for the wife regardless of whatever disasters might befall. In Athens the dowry was administered by the husband who could spend the proceeds on his family in whatever way he felt appropriate. The dowry, however, remained the property of the wife.
There was no legal requirement that a man provide dowries, but the social pressure to do so was enormous. It was inconceivable that a man would fail to do so. The absence of a dowry would call into question the legitimacy of the marriage. A father was expected to provide equal dowries for all of his daughters. Land was generally reserved for the sons, but fathers would save as much as possible of other forms of wealth to provide for their daughters. Such wealth was invested in mortgages or business and the income used by the new family.
In the event of the death of her husband, or a divorce (regardless of blame) the capital value of the dowry still belonged to the wife. . Of course, no woman could own property, so even though the dowry was hers she would need a man to administer it on her behalf. That man would be an adult son, father or other male relative. The guardian would then be required to use the proceeds from the dowry for the support of the widow or for arrangement of a new marriage.
The dowry helped provide the capital to start a new family and provided a sort of insurance policy to look a woman who faced serious financial trouble.
At her death the capital value of her dowry was divided equally amongst her sons.
At death a man's estate was divided equally among his legitimate sons. In essence, a daughter received a smaller share of her father's estate but she got it when she married rather than at his death. When the father died the daughter received nothing more, unless there were no sons.
A woman was in a somewhat precarious state if her father died without a son. If there were no sons (or sons of sons) then the estate would be divided among the daughters. So far so good, but the nearest male relative of the deceased was entitled to become the guardian of the estate if he were willing to marry the daughter. He could claim her as his wife even if she were already married to someone else unless she had already produced a child of her own. This apparently did not happen that often, but some Athenian women did find themselves divorced because their husbands found they could acquire a larger dowry if they married someone else.
Before the Second Century BCE dowries were seldom more than a small plot of land and a few household articles. As the empire expanded and more wealth flowed into Rome the dowry grew. In the upper classes it could represent a sizable transfer of wealth.
Coming up with a dowry as daughters were ready to marry was never easy. It is one thing to pass on your wealth to your children at death, but it is another to do so before. Fortunately there were mortgages to assist and the dowry was often paid in three yearly installments. Although a dowry belonged to the wife, it was always administered by the husband along with all of the other family assets. Returning a dowry in case of divorce could create considerable hardship for husbands in times of economic downturn.
The dowry was a means of sharing the cost of setting up a new family. It was also a way of ensuring that a woman always had some way of looking after herself in case of widowhood or divorce. If her husband died or if they divorced the dowry was returned to her. In the Empire the law permitted the husband to retain a sixth of the dowry if his wife had committed adultery. He could also retain an additional sixth for each of their children who continued to live in his household after the divorce.
In the upper classes where the dowries were quite substantial a divorced or widowed woman could often continue to maintain her lifestyle. Among the poor, however, the dowries were quite small and offered proportionately less protection.
The dowry went where the woman went, but in theory at least the it was administered by the man who was her legal guardian.