How Did Marriage Develop in the West

Sacrophagus of the Dioscures - depicting a marriage

Marriage is an ancient institution that still persists to today. While many think marriage is a natural state in human societies, the reality is its history is complex in its early development and the fact we see multiple types of marriage systems, including monogamous and polygamous marriages, indicates different developments around the world. Marriage systems have often been related to the development of land, property, and other assets, as marriage also relates to inheritance and establishing the future for households. In Western regions, this is no different, although over time, for most of our history over the last two thousand years, marriage had become more narrowly defined than it initially was.

Origins of Marriage

It is not clear when exactly marriage became part of normal human social behavior. In early evolution of modern humans, it is likely, although not certain, that bands formed revolved around family relationships where there was one dominant male and one or more females that were partners with the male. What is clear is that marriage today is universal in every type of society, including hunter-gatherers. This suggests that it is something that developed early in the development of modern humans. However, it is also clear that its evolution is complex. Studies do not always agree, but early marriage may have included polygamous, usually polygyny relationships often conducted by a more dominant male, and monogamous unions for most other relationships. Using modern hunter-gatherer groups, arranged marriages are among the most common, where the bride and groom are exchanged.

Marriage serves to regulate not only sexual behavior, in a socially acceptable format, but it also seems to serve as a way for bands and groups to introduce new wives and males and thus allow small groups to more diversify their genetic makeup, including avoiding harmful diseases. This practice likely introduced the concept of exogamy, or marrying outside ones nearest of kin. Marriages were also used to make agreements and as a way to resolve conflict.[1]

While in early evolution there is evidence polygamous relationships may have been more common, by the time societies began to settle and farm in the Near East and eventually in Europe in the Neolithic, we begin to get more information and indication of marriage patterns through household remains and then later, with writing, historical data. Polygamy appears to still be fairly common in societies in the Near East and Europe even well into the Neolithic. One group, however, does begin to appear to show more strictly monogamous patterns, specifically the Proto-Indo-European or Indo-Hittite groups that emerged in Asia and Europe. There was a gradual shift in some European societies towards monogamy and patrilocality as farming spread. This could have been both cultural influence but also needs to clarify property rights and inheritance issues, namely selecting someone to inherit possessions, may have emerged.[2]

In polygamous societies, monogamy still seems the norm; however, polygamy was allowed in Mesopotamia and other Near Eastern states where documentary evidence exists. Laws indicate that polygamy, always being polygany in these cases, could occur in cases where the first wife was unable to have children. In fact, the second wife was often one with the status of a slave or secondary, where her role was to provide offspring for the household to continue rather than share in its wealth or future. In fact, it was often the first wife that would help or even be responsible for choosing the second wife. Rulers and elites likely also had polygamous relationships, although the reasons are likely different from more common households. Thus, we see that even in polygamous societies in the Middle East, monogamy was often the norm. One suggestion is that monogamy started becoming the norm as agriculture took hold. In this case, property and possessions started becoming important and passing on these possessions to ones offspring became important.

Monogamy became relatively easier as it helped make it clear who the parents were and who would inherit property. Polygamy, however, was still useful because it provided a greater possibility for those who could inherit in cases where there were no children. Children were critical not just for inheritance but also for labor, particularly in agriculture. Interestingly, we do not see historical cases of polyandry, that is a woman marrying multiple men, although there have been known cases in various ancient societies, suggesting it did occur in more limited places.[3]

Historical Development

Figure 1. Marriage was seen as an important obligation in Greek and Roman society.

Historical information from Greek and Roman societies shows that both had strict rules about monogamy being the only form of marriage, although it was common practice to accept concubines for men and other forms of relationships, usually permissible only for men. In Greek societies, marriage was also an expectation, where the relationship had to be monogamous. However, here we also see that society allowed other relationships to be formed for men, including having concubines or even homosexual relationships. In effect, sexual preference and marriage were sometimes separated for men. In fact, in Greek society children from concubines could be made legitimate if the wife gave consent. Marriage in Greece and Rome was used to unionize families rather than developed as a standard for sexual behavior for men. This meant that marriage was often arranged, although a man could win his wife in competition.

In most cases we see from early historical Europe is these societies were patrilineal and patrilocal, where households would be headed by a man and the wife was expected to live in the husband's household. Marriage was seen as a social practice that supported public interest, specifically continuing society and raising children, rather than a romantic pursuit (Figure 1). Adultery could lead to divorce or even punishment. Adultery was defined as a man having sex with another man's wife (but not a married man having sex with an unmarried woman). Punishment was often carried out by the husband or father in cases of adultery.[4]

In other parts of Europe, particularly Celtic regions, where the Brehon Law documents this social pattern, marriage was polygamous and monogamous. Women tended to have more choice and rights for selection of partners relative to Greek and Roman societies. However, there was also strong family pressure on the spouses from families, as marriage helped create alliances. Celts may have been one of the few European societies to also allow multiple husbands for a woman, as this seems to be suggested in cases given that there was more choice on marital patterns in Celtic societies. Homosexual marriages do not seem to have occurred or at least were not documented. Interestingly, law governed polygamous marriage. For instance, some Celtic law may have allowed the first wife to murder the second after the first few days of marriage, where the only punishment would be a fine. Marriage was also more of a civil matter rather than one that incorporated religion. There was also no distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children, as all had rights to inherit if the parents agreed to this. Divorce also seemed to be easily obtained where one spouse could simply just leave to initiate the end of the marriage.[5]

Rise of Monogamous Marriages

While it is true that the spread of Christianity in Europe and Middle East did further make monogamous marriage the norm, history of this was complex. In some cases, early Christians from the Middle East formed polygamous unions, where early church leaders often did not interfere in these cultural practices. In fact, there were multiple schools of thought on marriage, where some viewed it as something to be avoided all together since Christ would return soon. Josephus, the Jewish writer from the 1st century AD, indicates polygamy was still practiced by Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity seemed to have continued this practice. In fact, the clash of polygamy and monogamy occurred as a cultural clash between Roman society, that saw polygamy as unacceptable, and Jewish culture. Early Christian writers began to discourage polygamy in their believers, particularly as Christianity became established in the Roman Empire. Augustine, Justin Martyr, and Basil were among those who tried to discourage it. The debates in the early church though suggests that for a period early Christianity likely had multiple practices, where some accepted monogamy, others conducted polygamy, and others were against marriage all together. These differences stem from cultural variation between Middle Eastern and Southern European marriage systems, namely Greek and Roman. In fact, it was Augustine who went on to have the most influence on views of marriage in the developing Western tradition after Christianity. Namely, while being celibate was better in his view, following the example of Christ, marriage was preferable over fornication. His writings helped bring marriage closer to Church governance.[6]

With the Roman Catholic Church gaining increasing power in Europe, marriage was still an area left to civil law. This stemmed from Roman and even northern European tradition where marriage was not seen as a sacred act. Although marriage, from the time of Augustine, was increasingly performed in church, laws regulating it often derived from civil laws, sometimes influenced by pre-Christian law. This changed in the 12th century, where an edict was passed by the Pope that now defined marriage as a holy sacrament. This not only solidified marriage but also made it very hard to divorce, as it was now seen as a permanent bond between a man and woman. Adultery or death could break that bond, but an annulment had to be granted by the Church. This developed as a reaction against the Cathars, which was a Christian and Gnostic inspired movement that saw marriage and sexuality as human acts to avoid and as being intertwined with the world and, therefore, evil. These Gnostic ideas had a lot of similar views to Manichaean philosophy that often also had views against any form of marriage.[7]

The next big change to marriage occurred in the Reformation period in the 16th century. At this point, marriage was once again moved back to state authority. This time, Christian Protestants saw marriage as a civil act and the privy of government, as originally seen by Luther. This also meant that divorce could be obtained through civil action if the marriage contract was broken. In effect, marriage became more defined as a civil binding contract rather than holy sacrament.[8]


Over the next few centuries after the Reformation, Europe continued to be split between those more influenced by the Catholic church and influence of the Protestants seeing marriage as part of government action. While since at least the 19th century, and somewhat earlier in continental Europe, marriage has been treated with a more secular viewpoint, allowing greater possibilities for divorce, it was still heavily influenced by Christian thought and custom. For instance, polygamy has not been lawful in any part of Europe or the West for about a thousand years now. Only recently have definitions of marriage began to incorporate homosexual unions, although this is limited to a few countries or states. However, we saw from historical and earlier evidence that marriage was complex and often affected by views of property and inheritance. Health was also an influence in early human development in the practice of marriage.


  1. For more on early evolution of modern humans, marriage and sexual patterns, see: Kramer, K.L., Schacht, R. & Bell, A. (2017) Adult sex ratios and partner scarcity among hunter–gatherers: implications for dispersal patterns and the evolution of human sociality. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. [Online] 372 (1729), 20160316. Available from: doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.0316.
  2. For more on Neolithic marriages in Europe and Middle East, see: Szecsenyi-Nagy, A., Brandt, G., Haak, W., Keerl, V., et al. (2015) Tracing the genetic origin of Europe’s first farmers reveals insights into their social organization. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. [Online] 282 (1805), 20150339–20150339. Available from: doi:10.1098/rspb.2015.0339.
  3. For more on how marriage began to differ in the Middle East, and thus diverge from European traditions, see: Stol, M., Richardson, H. & Richardson, M.E.J. (2016) Women in the Ancient Near East. Boston ; Berlin, De Gruyter, pg. 165.
  4. For more on Greek and Roman marriage and law, which later influenced Christian and European marriage views, see: Beryl Rawson (ed.) (2011) A companion to families in the Greek and Roman worlds. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Literature and culture. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell.
  5. For more on Celtic marriages, see: Dougherty, M.J. (2015) Celts: the history and legacy of one of the oldest cultures in Europe. London, United Kingdom, Amber Books.
  6. For more on early Christianity and marriage, see: Ferguson, E. (1993) Backgrounds of early Christianity. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich, W.B. Eerdmans, pg. 74.
  7. For more on Catholic marriage that emerged in the Medieval period, see: Hitchcock, J. (2012) History of the Catholic Church: from the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium. San Francisco, Ignatius Press.
  8. For more on how the Reformation affected marriage, see: Parsons, M. (2005) Reformation marriage: the husband and wife relationship in the theology of Luther and Calvin. Rutherford studies in historical theology. Edinburgh, Rutherford House.