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The Internal Structure of Marriage

Tuesday, December 31, 2019 - 07:00

While re-reading this chapter for the blog, I had a lot of flashbacks to the period after 2008 when California (my home state) first legalized same-sex marriage, then took it away under a ballot proposition, then ruled against the results of the proposition in the state supreme court, then waited for the parallel US Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the USA. The fight isn't over--we are seeing how easy it is for rights to be eroded, roadblocked, or de facto reversed under a hostile regime. Through all that period, there was the constant wave of frustration at how the "one man + one woman" crowd were unable to come up with a coherent logical argument for their model as the sole valid one. I read through the arguments before the California Supreme Court in detail and they rehearse a lot of points similar to what Boswell explores in this chapter -- the long duration of constantly shifting concepts that is "marriage" which has never aligned with the supposed ideal that marriage-conservatives claim to support.

I have a novel outline (one of my few near-contemporary ideas) in which one subplot involves that process in California and the emotional whiplash that potential access to same-sex marriage created. I still remember vividly the day the CA Supreme Court decision was announced (before Prop 8 snatched it away again, temporarily) and that overwhelming euphoria of, "If I had a girlfriend and we wanted to spend our lives together, today we could get married. Just like anyone else." And however I may nitpick aspects of Boswell's gender-blindness in Same-Sex Unions, I'm pretty certain that this book was a major contributor to the process tha made that moment possible.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Boswell, John. 1994. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Villard Books, New York. ISBN 0-679-43228-0

Chapter 2 & 3

Chapter 2: Heterosexual Matrimony in the Greco-Roman World

This chapter explains the structures and functions of various male-female relationships, as a prelude to expanding the focus more generally. There were different types of relationships for sexual fulfillment, property contracts, and production of children.

Of these, property arrangements were the most important in upper class marriages. Marriage might also provide sexual fulfillment or companionship, but these were not the focus. Emotional bonds might happen after marriage but weren’t considered a prerequisite. There is no pre-modern heterosexual union that corresponds in attributes and expectations to the 20th century view of marriage.

The attributes and expectations of heterosexual marriage shifted and altered over time, and not unidirectionally. The properties inherited by the Christian marriage tradition were, in many ways, arbitrary rather than relating logically to Christian theology. A new form of Roman marriage was developing in the later empire that emphasized slightly more equality between the partners and the importance of female consent to the union. Some restrictions developed on the power and rights of the male partner.

Though real-life marriage contracts were very business-oriented, literature began to develop the idea that romantic love might be a spur to marriage.

This chapter discusses four basic types of heterosexual union, including marriage, concubinage, and ownership. [Note: despite the reference to “four types” I couldn’t find a clear list of what the four were.]

Chapter 3: Same-Sex Unions in the Greco-Roman World

In the same period covered by the preceding chapter, there were four general types of same-sex relationships roughly parallel to the heterosexual unions. [Note: Of course, what this means is four types of male-male relationships. In this book and this summary, one should always understand “same-sex” as “male-male” unless specifically contradicted.] The same-sex relationships were more flexible and less legalistic. Here we’re talking about “relationships” that include sexual or romantic bonds.

As with heterosexual relationships, one form is ownership, though the sexual nature of such a relationship tends to be mentioned only in casual records. [Note: this is an example of how “same-sex” does not necessarily include female-female, as there were social and legal restrictions on whether a woman owned her slaves directly or whether they technically belonged to some male relative.]

Same-sex concubinage was similar to heterosexual concubinage in being a recognized long-term bond focused on emotional and physical relations where both parties were free. Male-male concubinage was less common than the heterosexual type, but it was not rare. There are references in poetry to how a male concubine was expected to be dismissed at his partner’s (heterosexual) marriage.

When the partners had equal social standing, something best described as “lovers” might be recognized where there was no legal tie but the partners were united by affection and desire. This is well known from Greek contexts. Modern commentary sometimes focuses on the expectation of an age difference in these relationships, but a similar age difference was expected in heterosexual relationships and the expectations for the roles played within the union were similar. But the demographics were more variable than the common stereotype for these unions. The language used for them was similar to that used for heterosexual pairs. Specific examples of male-male lovers contradict the image that the “beloved” was necessarily an adolescent.

Detailed examples are provided showing different types of relationships with examples of the language used for them. All the examples are male couples.

The fourth type is a formal union, recognized publicly and involving a change in status for one or both men. Examples are given of male-male unions in Rome that are discussed in the language of marriage, although the discussion somewhat glosses over the satirical or political context of some of these examples.

Examples of female same-sex unions are given from the Dialogues of the Courtesans [Note: I’ve reproduced a translation of the dialogue in this podcast] and Iamblichos’ story of Berenice and Mesopotamia. [Note: see this LHMP entry for the text.]

Bowell posits that same-sex “marriage” would not have been a concept before the empire with the rise of the concept of “romantic marriage”. Before that, marriage was solely an economic and dynastic arrangement. Using heterosexual models posed some problems for same-sex unions as the former presupposed unequal roles. A 4th century law forbade same-sex marriage if male-female gender roles were involved. But in some historic contexts, similar laws were promulgated against adultery and against certain types of heterosexual marriage with little evidence of enforcement.

[Note: Boswell’s point here, and in other similar passages, is to point out that the simple existence of prohibitions shouldn’t be taken as a special animus against same-sex unions, or for that matter as evidence that such unions were suppressed, when similar prohibitions existed against types of heterosexual activity that clearly continued to flourish.]

Same-sex marriages were less common in the late empire, but other types of same-sex unions became popular and were referenced in literature. These rituals included swearing pledges and ritual “abductions” similar to those used in heterosexual marriage. Examples of these are given, all male-male.

Another type of formal same-sex union was “collateral adoption” using the language of siblings. These adoptions created rights to inheritance without subjugating one party as a “child” of the other. Boswell notes that Roman law sometimes treated heterosexual marriage as a type of collateral adoption, specifically using language of the wife becoming a sister of the groom.

There is a discussion of the social understandings of “fraternal adoption” and multiple contexts in which it was used. One window on understanding its relation to marriage comes from the concept of “conubium”, that is, the right to marry a Roman citizen. In one law case involving a fraternal adoption, a concept similar to conubium was invoked to assert that a Roman citizen had no ability to enter a fraternal adoption with a non-Roman man.