A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 21

Marriage comes under control of the state

The widespread employment of agricultural production in certain areas of the planet generated great wealth in those areas. The minority in possession of this wealth developed a variety of strategies to maintain their privileged status.

The appearance of patriarchal religions represented one such strategy. The authority of priestly figures standing on high platforms above the masses to summon supernatural powers superseded the authority of village headmen and found common cause with warrior leaders. The tenets of patriarchal religion brought a message to the masses that male supremacy and economic and social inequality were simply the natural order of things.

The rise of powerful city-states in Mesopotamia, the region in Southwest Asia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was illustrative of another strategy, this one based on the development of a warrior caste and the employment of the material threat of physical force. The city-states of Sumer are most often cited as the first appearance of “civilization.” A more appropriate label for these novel urban formations is the one introduced by Jared Diamond in his book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (New York: Norton, 1999). He refers to all state formations, which rest on the wholesale theft of the wealth created by the unpaid labor of innumerable slaves, serfs, peasant farmers and proletarians, as “kleptocracies.”

The Marxist view of ‘the state’

The existence of a repressive force beholden to the wealthy in all class societies was analyzed in detail by the great communist leader, V. I. Lenin. His written work on this subject, “The State and Revolution,” has stood for almost a hundred years as the definitive guide to understanding the role of the state as the pre-eminent instrument of class domination and control. (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965)

Drawing on the original formulations of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Lenin paraphrases: “The state is the product and the manifestation of the ‘irreconcilability’ of class antagonisms. The state arises when, where and to the extent that class antagonisms objectively ‘cannot’ be reconciled. And conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable. … According to Marx, the state is an organ of class ‘rule,’ an organ for the ‘oppression’ of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order,’ which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between the classes. … A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power.” (pp. 8-10)

So it was with the city-states of Mesopotamia and, later, in a few other relatively densely populated areas of the planet where states arose. J. M. Roberts in “The New Penguin History of the World” notes: “Somewhere in the fourth millennium B.C. is the starting-point of the story of civilizations. … We begin with the first recognizable civilization in Mesopotamia. The next example is in Egypt, where civilization is observable at a slightly later date, perhaps about 3100 B.C. Another marker in the Near East is ‘Minoan’ civilization, which appears in Crete in about 2000 B.C. … Meanwhile, further east and perhaps around 2500 B.C., another civilization has appeared in India. … China’s first civilization starts later, towards the middle of the second millennium B.C. Later still come the meso-Americans.” (London: Penguin Books, 2004, p. 42)

All these centers of wealth accumulation witnessed the rise of what Engels called “a special public power,” or, in Lenin’s words, “special bodies of armed men which have prisons, etc., at their command.”

Legal infringements on the freedom of women

In Mesopotamia, as elsewhere, the evolution of state power was accompanied by legal restrictions on the institution of marriage, as first seen in the Code of Hammurabi. While having mostly to do with property considerations — patriarchy demanded that the inheritance of property through the male line be guaranteed — these laws already reflected the misogynistic brutality that has been so typical of patriarchal rule.

In her book “The Creation of Patriarchy,” Gerda ­Lerner describes the plight of Mesopotamian women accused of adultery: “For women even the accusation of adultery could prove fatal. If the husband so accused his wife before a court, she could vindicate herself by taking an oath. … If, however, the accusation came not from her husband but from others in the community, the wife could vindicate herself only by undergoing the ordeal, that is, she had to ‘leap into the river for her husband,’ … The river-god would then decide on her guilt or innocence.” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 115) And further along, “The various laws against rape all ­incor­porated the principle that the injured party is the husband or the father of the raped woman. The victim was under an obligation to prove that she had resisted the rape by struggling or shouting.” (p. 116)

For ruling-class figures in these early states, marriageable daughters became pawns in efforts at further wealth amassment, interstate diplomacy and alliance building. In Stephanie Coontz’s “Marriage, a History,” we read: “Whereas heads of state today ratify treaties with a signature and ceremonial stamp, rulers — or aspiring rulers — of the past often sealed their deals with a marriage ceremony. … Few rulers took account of their children’s desires when they arranged such political marriages.” (New York: Penguin Books, 2006, pp. 54-55) Further along she writes that “many families voluntarily offered their daughters or sisters to rulers with the aim of gaining a useful family connection.” (p. 56) She cites examples of these practices in the early state societies of Egypt, China, Mexico, Greece and Rome.

Coontz also comments on the economic manipulation of marriage among the general populations of these states: “In the kingdoms of the ancient world, marriage was important for the common folk as well. In the millennia before the development of banks and free markets, marriage was the surest way for people lower down the social scale to acquire new sources of wealth, add workers to family enterprises, recruit business partners, and preserve or pass on what they already had. People who aspired to even the lowest rungs of government office often found it crucial to contract a marriage with the ‘right’ set of in-laws. Intensified demands for tribute and taxes forced peasants to choose mates and in-laws who could help them increase agricultural production.” (p. 54)

But the dominance of patriarchy was always evident: “In ancient Athens, if a woman became an heiress (this could happen only if her father died without leaving a son), she could be claimed as a bride by her closest male relative, even if she was already married, in order to keep the property within the family. If the kinsman who claimed the heiress was also married, he could summarily divorce his wife.” (p. 65)

This overtly economic and ­political ­rationale underlying marriage in early state societies has remained a fundamental basis for this institution up to the ­present.