It was the father’s obligation to arrange an appropriate marriage for each daughter. This involved the provision of a dowry and the selection of a suitable groom. A loving father would, of course, want a man who would make a good husband, but we must remember that the father was not only picking his daughter’s husband but his own son-in-law, and in theory, at least, marriages in Ancient Athens were arranged at a meeting between the fathers of the young couple based on the needs and best interests of the senior men, with little concern for the thoughts of the groom and absolutely none for the wishes of the girl. Hopefully the one he picked would do a good job in both roles, but many fathers were more interested in expanding a business or forging an alliance  between families than finding a kind and loving mate for their daughters. We have no real way of knowing how often a girl’s first look at her future husband occurred on the wedding day or shortly before, but certainly among the better classes it was possible that the bride and groom had never met let alone had a chance to fall in love and even the potential for compatibility seems to have played little or no role in the matchmaking. Picking a cousin, even a distant one, or a close friend, might make a father less unhappy about the loss of that part of his estate going to the dowry, and under these circumstances a girl might have seen him at a family party or at least have heard mention of his name.

       After establishing a home, raising several children, perhaps a grandchild or two, and living together for two or three decades, couples with arranged marriages in a wide variety of societies often end up feeling “love” for each other as evinced by the song “Do You Love Me?” in the hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” but the romantic passion that stage and screen today regard as de rigueur for a successful marriage was not considered helpful let alone necessary in Athens. Does that mean that romance played no role in marriage? Was the mutual attraction between one man and one woman that we today assume to be part of what it means to be human totally absent or merely ignored? Athenaeus describes people who have fallen in love with someone they know only in a dream. [1] Some of Menander’s comedies feature men and women in love. In The Litigants two men argue over the ownership of a few trinkets that will eventually clear up a series of misunderstandings that had driven apart a newly married couple, still very much besotted with each other. Before the bride and groom had even met let alone married, he had raped her at night in another town under circumstances that meant neither recognized the other. When he learned about a baby she had given away, he assumed he had married an immoral woman. He knew that Athenian law and morality required him to divorce her but he could not bear to do so because he was too much in love. The bride’s father wanted her to divorce her husband because they erroneously believed he had switched his affection to a mistress. If you can accept the play’s premise that marriage followed a rape with neither party being aware of the other’s role in the assault, then the rest of the action is as believable as most comedies ever get, and love triumphs at the end. [2] 

       The Girl From Andros, set in Athens and probably based on another play by Menander, was written by the Second Century BCE playwright, Terence, and features the machinations of two couples as they try to outwit their parents and gain permission to marry. [3] When you put all of the ingredients of a comedy together and add them up, the sum total is often quite ludicrous, but what are we to make along the way of those individual items. A slave trying to curry favor with his master, the necessity of citizenship in a bride, the importance of her virginity and the avoidance of marriage to a harlot, a marriage-banquet at the home of the bride’s father, the necessity for permission to get married, these are all quite realistic. What, then, are we to think of the idea of a man and woman in ancient Athens falling in love and wanting to get married? Was this something the audience would accept as quite plausible or was it so ludicrous that it was a part of the comedy? It was certainly not the norm, nor even thought to be a good idea, but surely it must have happened. When large extended families met for a wedding or birthday celebration there must have been plenty of opportunity for distant cousins to meet and as we move down the socio-economic ladder, it would have become harder and harder and eventually impossible to keep single men and women apart. We can hope and dream that with human nature being what it is that there were many love matches, but apart from a handful of comic plays the record remains silent. [4] 

       Men were in their late twenties or early thirties when they married for the first time, while girls were only fourteen or fifteen. Various reasons have been suggested for the late marrying age for men: a desire to finish military obligations before starting a family, a desire to prolong the joys of the single life for as long as possible, and a shortage of women due to the unwillingness of fathers to raise girls who had to be supplied with dowries. It was one thing for a man to bequeath his property at death when he no longer has need of it, but quite another to give away large sums of money to daughters while he is still living and in need of it to support himself. The discrepancy in ages more or less ensured that the more experienced man was going to be in charge and that there would be a large number of young widows seeking second and third husbands.

       There is no single source discussing the typical Athenian wedding, but it is possible to make a composite from several weddings. As we will see elsewhere in the Ancient World, there was no one moment when an official pronounced the couple husband and wife. It would appear that an Athenian marriage was a series of events that happened over a period of time, perhaps even over a very long period of time, and seems to have included a betrothal in front of witnesses, an agreement as to the value of the dowry, the transfer of the dowry to the groom, and perhaps even the birth of the first child. Certainly there was no record of marriage ceremonies kept by the government. If there was ever a dispute as to whether a genuine marriage had taken place, the testimony of witnesses was crucial.

       Along with birth, death and the arrival of the first child, marriage is one of the great events in an individual’s life that most societies, with the exception of Ancient Egypt, [5] commemorate in some special way. A public celebration allows friends, family and neighbors the chance to acknowledge the change in relationship and to welcome a man and woman into society as husband and wife. Because marriage is such a life altering occasion, the bride and groom strive to get everything right. Perhaps, you think, luck has nothing to do with it, but why take chances? Modern brides usually dress in white, and somewhere on their person carry “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” and expect guests to throw rice or confetti at them.

       Much the same thing happened at a typical Athenian wedding. The ceremony seems to have included a sacrifice performed by the bride’s father, the cutting of the bride’s hair, and a ritual bath in sacred water, followed later in the day by the wedding feast where friends and family gathered at the bride’s home to celebrate the union of husband and wife. After sundown the guests processed with much music and singing to the couple’s new home, the bride, groom and the groom’s best friend riding in a chariot drawn by mules or horses. Where modern guests might throw confetti, the Athenians showered the bride and groom with nuts and dried fruit, symbols of fertility and prosperity. At her new home the bride was welcomed by her mother-in-law and escorted to the hearth, the focal point of life in any Greek home.


       The dowry was an integral part of any marriage in Ancient Athens. For information on the legal aspects of the dowry see Women, Money and the Law in Ancient Athens.    While one might hazard a guess there is no means by which we can know what Athenians were thinking when they first conceived the idea of a dowry; we can say, however, what they saw as the advantages and results of a dowered marriage. Setting up and maintaining a home was as expensive an operation then as it is now, and the dowry was the woman’s contribution to those costs. Though an individual daughter’s dowry was worth considerably less than what her brother could expect some day to inherit, the dowry had to be paid in advance and it had to be paid out of the savings that might otherwise be used to support a father in his retirement. It was one thing to give away your wealth to sons after your death, but quite another to have to give it away to a daughter before you were finished using it. Providing a generous dowry was a source of prestige in the community and a useful ploy in arranging a marriage that was as much if not more about forging an alliance between families and picking a good son-in-law than it was about finding a suitable husband, but it still left a hole in the family’s finances. It is no wonder that men were reluctant to have daughters and willing to abandon or expose the ones they considered superfluous. As the generations moved along, daughters received considerably less of their family’s wealth than sons did and therefore had less to contribute to setting up a home in each new generation. Occasionally a wife’s dowry represented as much as 20 percent or more of her new husband’s wealth, but it was usually much less, often under 10 percent, and would not even have produced sufficient income to cover the cost of having a wife in the home.

       The dowry did provide a woman with a bit of security if her husband died or divorced her and offered her a chance at remarriage if she were young enough, and failing that gave a bit of incentive to whichever kinsman was prepared to take her in. Not least, the dowry seems to have given the wife a little more power in the relationship than she might otherwise have had in such a male dominated society, for at one point Plato suggested the abolition of the dowry on the grounds that it would make women less arrogant and men less servile. [6] If her life got too bad she could leave, forcing him to sell off enough assets to raise the cash necessary to return the dowry. Finally the dowry provided an incentive for the wife’s birth family to retain an interest in the marriage and in her well-being. The modern world is often critical of dowered matrimony for standing in the way of true love. We must remember, however, that even if there were no such thing as the need for a dowry, the woman with nothing to offer but her poverty was never going to get a rich man for a husband and a look through the results of having a dowry, as the Athenians viewed them, leaves little doubt that the wife gained a great deal more from the system than the husband.


[1] Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists of Athenaeus of Naucratis, Book XIII, “Concerning Women”

[2] Menander, Epitrepontes

[3] Terence, Andria 

[4] For further discussion on this topic see P. G. McC. Brown, “Love and Marriage in Greek New Comedy”, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 43, No. 1 (1993), pp. 189-205

 [5] See