The evidence for brother-sister weddings in Graeco-Roman Egypt can be found in papyri, and this essay will focus on that. A prevalent practise in Egypt throughout the Graeco-Roman period was the inter-family union. Using papyri letters, contracts, and papers that were preserved from the period, this essay aims to highlight the reasons for these weddings and to provide evidence of them. In addition, this article will discuss incest and whether or not society has tolerated weddings between brothers and sisters, as well as who can marry and beliefs regarding inter-marriage.
Every 14 years, the Romans in Egypt conducted a census to count the population and keep an eye on taxes. This knowledge has been utilised by historians and papyrologists in the study of the lives of Graeco-Roman Egyptians. This study and papyri evidence, as well as the work of famous anthropologists, historians, and papyrologists, has helped to answer and understand this dispute today.
The origins and history of the Brother-Sister union
Everyone in Roman Egypt had at least one marriage during their lifetime. Girls in Roman Egypt were expected to marry as young as 12 years old, and most likely by the time they were in their mid-20s. The regulations governing marriage in Greco-Roman Egypt varied from civilization to society, making things even more complicated. In the past, marriages were regulated by contracts and there were no age restrictions, unlike in today's society. Graeco-Roman Egypt's weirdest feature was the absence of a law prohibiting the union of blood relatives. In truth, the practise of marrying brothers and sisters was common in prior generations. Papyri and census records from the Roman era provide evidence for this. Historically, it was thought that women were the traditional heirs to land and that they were required to marry their brother in order to maintain the land's familial ties before the Roman era. This practise was outlawed by the Romans, who would often take the family's property if it occurred. However, Egyptians were exempt from this rule.
Keeping a distance between a brother and a sister who are biologically related is considered natural in many cultures today. Close kin marriages like cousin-cousin marriages or even uncle-niece marriages were tolerated and encouraged in the Mediterranean continent, such as in the Greek and Roman communities.
The Egyptian tradition of "Royal incest," which was practised by the Pharaohs in Egypt as long back as 2000BC, provided the inspiration for brother-sister weddings. According to anthropologist erny, the royal dynasty had a high rate of brother-sister marriages. For example, Isis and Osiris' marriage was viewed as divine incest in order to keep outsiders at bay. During the Ptolemaic Period in Egypt, a royal marriage between a brother and a sister also occurred. Cleopatra married her brother, Ptolemy XIV, and they had children together. These Royal marriages may have been an attempt to keep the Greeks in Egypt from losing their "ethnic political position" or a "strategy to avoid dividing up of property." It was normal for husbands to refer to their spouses as'sisters' throughout the second century CE, even though brother-sister marriage was popular in the royal family and in Graeco Roman Egypt. The evidence presented here, however, is insufficient to prove the union of a brother and a sister.
Each country had its own set of rules governing the union of blood relatives.
Greeks allowed half-sibling marriage if they had the same father but had different mothers, but Spartans only allowed half-sibling marriage if they shared the same mother but had a different father.
According to popular belief, it is common in Egypt to marry one's blood relatives. His sister Arsinoe was married to Greek King Ptolemy II, who perpetuated this practise and broke with his own Macedonian tradition. After that, seven out of the eleven Greek Egyptian rulers married their own sisters, setting off a 'pattern' in royal marriages.
In Graeco-Roman Egypt, "incestuous weddings" or "full brother and sister marriages" are considered to have been a common practise. In fact, the marriages were real, and not merely for the sake of paperwork. The taboo surrounding incest is difficult for many sociologists to fathom.
Papyri dating back to the first century CE show evidence of the weddings. Evidence from papyri suggests that brother-sister marriages were socially and legally permitted at the time of the Ptolemaic period. It's clear from the official census data that many of the marriages took place amongst family members, particularly between brothers and sisters. Attention must be paid while interpreting the papyri, as noted earlier. The term "brother" and "sister" were used in private correspondence between husbands and spouses in Egypt's Fayyum region. Although this should not be taken literally, it is important to note. These marriages are mostly documented on papyri from the Fayyum, and according to Hopkins, the ladies are described as "wife and sister from the same father and the same mother," which "leaves little space for ambiguity.".
It's possible that the existence of brother-sister marriages is the result of a lack of options. Due to the high frequency of arranged weddings in Roman Egypt, many young women married older men or men they had already been introduced to through relatives. As a result of their social and political standing, the options for Greeks and Romans living in Egypt were severely constrained. Despite the fact that many Greeks married Egyptian women, there were strict rules in place governing the status of their offspring. Some Greek households saw marrying a brother and sister as the best solution because it avoided the issue of a dowry or the split of property. Greek prejudice was also overcome via inter-family marriages. In order to avoid tax disadvantages, Greek settlers in Egypt married inside the family, according to Brent Shaw, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
However, despite all of this, it is widely accepted that in both Greek and Roman communities, siblings were forbidden from having sex. However, in the majority of cases, Greek customs regarding endogamy were violated. According to experts, inter-familial marriages were more common among the Greeks than the Egyptians, even though they were legal in both lower and upper Egypt.
Since the Greek Oedipal myth links incest to endogamy, we might deduce that this was a common occurrence in ancient Egypt.
Is a Brother-Sister Marriage Incestuous?
Incest refers to sexual behaviour between two members of the same family and is considered a taboo in most cultures and punishable by severe penalties. Relationships between parents and children and siblings and cousins and cousins may be permitted in some cultures and nations.
Brother-sister marriages have only ever been common in the Greco-Roman Egyptian society; no other society has practised it. As far back as the first three centuries following Christ, full brother and sister marriage was common.
Graeco-Roman Egypt was rife with evidence of incestuous marriage, as evidenced by countless papyri and household census reports. Brent Shaw, an anthropologist, claims that "the word incest is tied to moral, social and legal norms established in Graeco-Roman antiquity." A forbidden act between family members is referred to as incest, which is derived from the Latin word incestum, which meaning "unclean" or "not pure."
A distinction was made between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in ancient Greece and Rome. When it came to incestuous marriage, Roman law and social norms were far stricter than those of the Greek law and norms. Greeks didn't have a word for "incest" until the entrance of Christianity in the society, according to Shaw. This illustrates the divergent views on intermarriage between siblings and other close family members. Close kin marriages were more common in ancient Greece than in Roman times. The story of Oedipus and other tales of this type demonstrate this viewpoint. In Egypt, this mindset was brought across the border and even promoted. The Greek population in Egypt recognised marriage between cousins and half-brother/half-sister marriages as the norm. Due to Roman society's 'strict' regulations against incest, this was a problem. Greek or Roman-Egyptian marriages, for example, were considered undesirable.
There is a long history of sibling marriage in this society, thus it is unclear if these unions can be classified as 'incestuous.' Among Egyptian royalty, this was considered normal behaviour. According to the folklore, incest was considered questionable and brother-sister unions were tolerated.
Even among Egypt's royalty, this was considered a taboo behaviour, but it was not illegal. There are four possible explanations for inter-family marriage, according to sociologist Hopkins, but no one knows for sure. The high mortality rate is one of these factors. In the study of the demographics of Graeco-Roman Egypt at the period, it has been found that the "son looking for a mate must go beyond the family" due to the large gap between siblings. This meant that the only solution was for the couple to marry within their family.
J.R. Fox's "indifference theory," on the other hand, asserts that "boys and girls living and playing together from childhood exhibited an absence of romantic feeling for one other. " Boys and girls raised together have no desire for incest, according to this notion. According to Sigmund Freud's notion of "suppression," "incestuous desires arise from the subconscious." However, there were instances of incest between siblings. In this way, Greek myths like Oedipus and Egyptian legends about the gods Isis and Osiris, who were both husband and wife, have influenced modern-day Egyptian mythology.
Brother-sister marriages may be influenced by social standing. Close-knit marriages were used to maintain "racial purity" among those with a higher social rank.
In Graeco-Roman Egypt, the social strata were clearly defined. The Romans and Greeks enjoyed a better standard of living than the Egyptians. There were no more inter-societal marriages.
Sibling marriages were encouraged because land was to be divided equally among the offspring in the event of a death in the family. However, women in Graeco-Roman Egypt were safeguarded financially in the event of divorce or the death of a spouse through marriage contracts, which ensured that their property and land would not be lost in the event of a divorce. They were exempt from the Roman tax poll if they still owned land. The property a woman had inherited had to be given up by her husband when she married outside the family. If a marriage terminated in divorce or death, the only way to preserve the family's possessions intact would be to marry a brother. It was common practise in ancient Greece for fathers to have the right to choose a spouse for their daughters; therefore, the optimum option was to arrange brother-and-sister marriages so that the family's property would not be lost. It was quite simple to influence the marriages of young Egyptian women throughout the Greco-Roman period.
Bagnall, R.S. and B. Frier (1994) “The Demography of Roman Egypt” (Cambridge)
Lindsay, J. (1963) “Daily Life in Roman Egypt” (Frederick Muller Limited)
Hopkins, K. (1980) “Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt” Comparative Studies in Society and History
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