Marriage Practices - Part IV

Egyptian Common People During the Roman Period

I have before me a bibliographic list of nearly 500 reference to ancient practices of marriages, incest, disease, and associated elements that would affect ancient populations. The idea that those populations had a taboo against close kin marriage would be far from the truth. The idea of taboo is based mostly on our Victorian notions. But it has greatly influenced the modern scholarly approach to studies of those ancient social habits.

Jaroslav Cerny, Consanguineous Marriage in Pharaonic Egypt, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol 40, The Egyptian Exploration Society, London, 1954 presented a classic in this discussion. As he stated:

. . . Marriages between brothers and sisters are attested during the Pharaonic period in the royal families only, though we may be misled by the fact that the majority of our sources are concerned only with royalty.

He goes on to cite an instance where this is not true. On a stela of the 21st Dynasty from Serapeum a statement is made that shows a certain Pedeese married his own sister. It was in the family of Libyan mercenaries settled in Egypt. Cerny then complains that no serious effort had been made to systematically collect evidence of consanguineous marriages, although a universal belief of such seems to exist among Egyptian and other scholars. He notes that this belief is based on the fact that

  1. such marriages are well attested for the Graeco-Roman period in contemporary papyri,
  2. classical authors provide such remarks, and
  3. in Egyptian texts wives are called sisters.

Cerny then goes on to a detailed discussion establishing that in surviving scripts there is no evidence of wives being called sisters prior to the 18th Dynasty. But we saw from the genealogical record that, indeed, there were multiple brother-sister marriages during the 4th Dynasty. He does not entertain the idea that the practice was so common as to not merit a separate mention in those scripts. He then seems to contradict himself when he offers evidence that statements were made by individuals in the 12th to 13th Dynasty that they were married to their sisters. A certain vizier Senwosret on three different stelae respectively states that "the lady of the house, Deto," "his wife, the lady of the house, Deto," and "his sister, the lady of the house, Deto." Clearly, Deto was both the wife and the sister of Senwosret. Cerny cites other evidence where a priest Efnaierson states that he has a daughter by his sister Bab, and that Bab is his sister because she is the daughter of his mother. In another case a man identifies his son Pepy by "his beloved sister, lady of the house." Cerny goes on to cite other evidence from the New Kingdom where, for example, Amenenhab calls "his sister" "his wife."

Cerny then produces evidence that the inhabitants of a village engaged in the excavation of tombs at Thebes in the 20th Dynasty engraved on the walls of their houses sufficient parental data to permit conclusions concerning their marriage practices. This included more than 70 households. In 11 cases the names of both parents of the married couple are given to show that there was no brother-sister marriage. From these cases Cerny concludes that consanguinous marriages were not practiced in this village, and then extrapolates that to all of Egypt. He expressed disappointment that he did not find more evidence for such marriages.

Keith Hopkins in Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 22, 1980 reviewed the evidence for such marriages. His work was based on the Census Returns taken during Roman rule for the citizens of Egypt. These were extensive and permitted considerable conclusions regarding the practice of brother-sister marriages among common people. Unfortunately, Hopkins did not do his homework. He states that "no known society outside Egypt have brothers commonly married to sisters." He believed the practice elsewhere was confined to royal families. He goes on to remark, again seemingly contradicting himself, that "all the evidence taken together suggests that it was an established practice of considerable antiquity."

The Roman Census of Egyptian Subjects at fourteen year intervals followed a long history of numbering people for the purpose of taxation.

The practice of numbering people, closely connected with the collection of taxes, is known from the Palermo Stone as far back as the first Dynasty, circa 3000 BC. The Greek (Macedonian) conquerors of Egypt also counted the Egyptian population for the purposes of taxation. The few surviving household lists from the twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1850 BC) and from the third century BC are remarkably similar to the later Roman census returns.

 As Hopkins stated, "We owe our knowledge of brother-sister marriage in Egypt to the effectiveness of the Roman administration." He then goes into a detailed analysis of the census evidence.

In birth certificates, in claims for privileged status which were accompanied by explicit genealogies, in contracts of marriage and of divorce, in wedding invitations and in private letters, brother-sister marriages were recorded, mentioned without fuss, and apparently taken as a matter of course.

In numerous examples Hopkins notes full brother-sister marriages for at least three generations. The lack of evidence does not deny the practice in the same family lines for many more generations.

While some persons would claim that this practice was due to estate preservation, dowry rights, or partible inheritance, Hopkins shows that such claims did not satisfy the evidence. In none of these is it assumed by the ancients that the practice was done for economic reasons; care, affection, and love marked the marriages.

Hopkins discusses the impact of close inbreeding but shows that the incidence of biological defects would decrease with time because the defective genes would be weeded out of the population. He does not entertain the concept that the quality of genetic strength goes back to distant ancestry. He admits that he does not have an explanation for the practice; "the origins of the practice are lost in the mists of time." As he said, "there is no evidence that an Egyptian brother marrying his sister thought he was doing something odd."

Numerous other authors could be cited:

Seymour Parker, Full Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt: Another Look, Cultural Anthropology, Vol 11, 1996.

Walter Scheidel, Measuring Sex, Age, and Death in the Roman Empire, Journal of Roman Archeology, Supplemental Series Number 21, Ann Arbor, 1996.

Roger Bagnall and Bruce Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt, Cambridge University Press, 1993, show that "endogamous marriage is fairly widespread in the Eastern Mediterranean." ". . . Greek authors uniformly consider it indigenous."

Many other sources could be cited.

The difficulty is that wherever we look, with whatever evidence we have, brother-sister marriages existed at all levels and at all times in ancient Egypt. I have difficulty believing that this practice suddenly arose among common Egyptians during the Roman period. I believe that the practice had long antiquity and that we see glimpses of it here and there throughout the entire length of the civilization.