Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.19

Uri Yiftach-Firanko, Marriage and Marital Arrangements. A History of the Greek Marriage Document in Egypt. 4th century BCE - 4th century CE. Münchener Beiträge zur Papyrusforschung und antiken Rechtsgeschichte, 93.   München:  C.H. Beck, 2003.  Pp. 388; pls. 4.  ISBN 3-406-51167-8.  €82.00.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Garstad, Brooklyn College (
Word count: 1699 words

A detailed examination of complex and unfamiliar material does not always go together with a clear and accessible expression of ideas and concepts. This is happily not the case with Uri Yiftach-Firanko's (hereinafter Y.) new book on the Greek marriage document in Egypt, which, while a significant scholarly contribution, can be read painlessly and profitably by practically anyone. Y.'s subtitle properly expresses the scope of his work: it is not a broadly inclusive social history of marriage in Egypt but a study in legal papyrology focused on the provisions included in Greek marriage documents from Egypt. Non-papyrological sources are not considered systematically, but Y. views his work as a contribution to a fuller study of the popular law of the Roman east, which would include sources from literature and Roman law. The chronological scope is determined by the available evidence, which begins in 310 B.C. and ends in A.D. 363. Y.'s book offers a fresh engagement with the papyri, but it also reexamines the theses of important works in the field, especially those of H. J. Wolff (Written and Unwritten Marriages in Hellenistic and Postclassical Roman Law, 1939) and G. Häge (Ehegüterrechtliche Verhältnisse in den griechischen Papyri Ägyptens bis Diokletian, 1968).

After the Introduction the opening chapter (Chap. 2) lists and breaks down the source material to be used, principally 141 Greek marriage documents. Although these are distributed across a more or less full spectrum of time, place, and scheme, most of them are dowry receipts (81 out of 141), and most of them are from the second century A.D. (49%) and the Arsinoite nome (53%). Y. also introduces here the related papyri, mostly legal petitions with a bearing on marriage documents. These chiefly concern the sundering of marriage ties by death or divorce, and the legal, monetary, and material consequences of the break-up.

In discussing the act of marriage (Chap. 3), Y. does not accept Wolff's suggestion that 'free marriage' of mutual consent, without an ekdosis, and with no legal standing, was practiced in Egypt. Y. notes that Wolff's argument is based on the omission of an ekdosis clause from later Ptolemaic and Roman marriage documents but that Wolff had shown that the purpose of these instruments was to document not the marriage itself but the money or goods involved. Y. suggests that an ekdosis is presumed where it is not actually mentioned and concludes that all marriage documents concern a marriage in which the bride has been 'given away'. In remarkable contrast to fifth-century Athenian practice, the ekdosis might have been performed by a woman, most often the bride's mother but on occasion the bride herself.

The initial marriage document in the Ptolemaic chora and Augustan Alexandria (a homologia gamou , or synchoresis in Alexandria) usually contained a clause anticipating the composition of a further document (the syngraphe synoikesiou, or hierothytai syngraphe). These two different documents have been explained as indicating two sorts of marriage (one informal, and the other 'perfect'), or as two stages in the formation of the same marriage. Y. explains this 'double documentation' (Chap. 4) as the private and public records of a marriage. The initial private document included the provision that another copy of the marriage document should be deposited in the public archive. As the initial document came to fall under official supervision, this clause was gradually discarded.

Chapter 5 deals with agraphos gamos or unwritten marriage and related concepts, and Y. admits that it is not at present possible to offer a single explanation which accounts for all of the available evidence. Nevertheless, certain assertions can be made. A man living together in an unwritten marriage with a woman apparently had more extensive rights over the children of that union than if he had entered into an engraphos gamos with his wife. For instance, he had the power to dissolve his daughter's marriage against her will or invalidate his son's will. 'To live together in an unwritten manner' (agraphos syneinai) was not the same as an 'unwritten marriage', but rather indicated that a marriage document had not yet been composed. Marriage documents were composed not to record the formation of a marriage but to record the property arrangements of a marriage. So a document might be drawn up well after the commencement of a marriage, or not at all if other inducements were available to compel the parties to abide by the provisions of the marital agreements (as seems to have been the case in sibling marriages).

The extensive evidence for dowry provisions in the marriage document allows Y. to apply a diachronic perspective to their development. The changes in the dowry provisions indicate a strengthening of the wife's position with regard to the assets she brought to the marriage, at the expense of her husband's power of disposal (kyrieia) and effective dominion (kratesis). In the Ptolemaic period the wife conveyed property into the joint household through a pherne, and her husband had almost complete rights of use and disposal over the items of the pherne. The wife could, however, bring an accusation against her husband if he disposed of this property 'to her detriment', in which case he might be compelled to repay the dowry and a fine. Later, she was able to demand the return of her dowry without going through the accusation procedure and to expect it back within a short period of time. In the Roman period two further dowry categories developed alongside the pherne. The parapherna conveyed items for the personal use of the wife during the course of the marriage, and she retained effective ownership of them. The prosphora conveyed land and slaves, and while the husband acknowledged receipt of these items, he never acquired title to them. The husband had no right to dispose of items in the parapherna, and so wives tended to convey the bulk of their wealth, especially gold jewellery, under this heading. But while the wife retained greater control over her assets, she relinquished her husband's liability for their depreciation over the course of their marriage. This situation changed in the beginning of the second century, when a clause was introduced which stipulated that a husband must return any gold jewellery itself which was included in the pherne, at its original weight and value, thus denying him rights of disposal and making him responsible for depreciation. After this most gold jewellery was conveyed in the pherne.

Y. deals briefly with the 'terms of joint life' (i.e., non-material arrangements) as set out in the marriage document (Chap. 7). These provisions address matters of moral and sexual conduct and also the husband's responsibility to support his wife and so avoid any misconduct not merely for moral reasons but also so as not to spread his resources too thin. They also stipulate the punishment to be imposed for contravention: loss of the dowry in the case of the wife, and repayment of twice the amount of the dowry in the case of the husband. The evidence also indicates that in the wake of a domestic crisis couples might draw up a special document which addressed the causes of their discord specifically.

The contravention of marital obligations might prove to be grounds for divorce, the subject of chapter 8. If the divorce was initiated by the husband, he was obliged to return the dowry and 'send away' his wife. This reversal of the ekdosis formally ended the marriage. If the wife took the initiative, she was in an unenviable position. She had to begin the accusation procedure against her husband, or later to give him notice of her intention, and then remain in the joint house lest she be accused of being 'absent without her husband's consent' and forfeit her dowry. It is not surprising that some women waited until their husbands were gone, seized their dowries and left.

Marriage might also be ended by death (Chap. 9). In this case, the presence or absence of common children made all the difference. Where there were common children the surviving spouse retained ownership of the property and was expected to administer it for the benefit of the children. If a wife died childless, her husband was expected to return her dowry within a certain period of time. If a husband died childless, his wife had the right to extract her dowry from his estate, but the variety of sureties which were attempted indicates that it could be difficult to realize this right.

The wife had recourse to a number of modes of security in order to assure the return of her dowry (Chap. 10). Primarily this was through a legal execution (praxis). In the case of the husband's death she had right of protopraxia in preference to his other creditors, but she also had the advantage of being administrator (kyrieuousa) of the family assets. She retained this position for an interval after her husband's death, and if his heirs did not return her dowry within a fixed period, it became full title.

The conclusion neatly summarizes the foregoing analysis and especially its examination of a development over time. Y. emphasizes two significant points: first that the marriage document was prepared in order to protect the interests of the wife, and second that the changes to the wording of the marriage document over time testify to its continuing vitality and importance. He also raises two intriguing propositions, which might have been developed in the text (as it is, they are introduced in the conclusion): 1) notaries may have had a prominent role in "introducing new provisions or remodeling old ones" in the marriage documents; and 2) the peculiarities of marriage documents in different nomes may indicate regional differences in the legal tradition of Greek Egypt. Hopefully, we may look forward to further work on these matters by Y.

The book ends with two appendices, a bibliography, index locorum, and a select general index. The first appendix is comprised of fifteen charts and tables which present the evidence for the body of the text in detail. In the second appendix, Y. offers an edition of six previously unedited marriage document papyri in the usual format of introduction, text, commentary, and translation (with photographic plates at the back).

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