This essay will be focusing on brother-sister marriages in Graeco Roman Egypt

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Was it common to find brother-sister marriages in Graeco-Roman Egypt? What is the Evidence for this?

This essay will be focusing on brother-sister marriages in Graeco Roman Egypt, and the evidence that we have for it through papyri sources. Although inter-family marriages are not common today, they were certainly practised during Graeco-Roman Egypt. The aim of this essay is to high-light the reasons why such marriages occurred and also, provide evidence of such marriages by means of papyri letters, contracts and documents that was saved from the period. Furthermore, this paper is going to present ideas about incest, and whether or not brother-sister marriages were accepted by society, who can marry, and theories for inter-marriage.

During the Roman Egypt period, a census was orchestrated every 14 years, in order to take a household count, and to control taxes. Today, only 172 legible census reports remain, and historians and papyrologists have used this information to analyse the lives of the Graeco-Roman Egypt citizens. This analysis and papyri evidence, and also the works of notable anthropologists, historians and papyrologists, has helped to answer and understand this argument today.

Background and Origins of Brother-Sister marriage

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Nearly everybody in Roman Egypt was married at some point in their lives. Girls in Roman Egypt were expected to be married as young as 12, and definitely by their mid 20s. In Graeco Roman Egypt, marriage laws were different and confusing amongst each society. Marriages were performed under contracts, and for most marriages, there were no age restrictions, unlike today. The strangest element of Graeco-Roman Egypt was that there was no law against close-kin marriages. In fact, brothers and sisters often married as was practiced throughout the previous generations. Evidence for this came from the Roman period through papyri and census returns. It was believed that before the Roman period, women were the inheritors of the land and in order to keep it in the family, the inheritor would have had to marry her brother.The Romans prohibited this custom and would often confiscate the estate if such a marriage took place. However, this law did not apply for Egyptians.

For many societies today, it is considered normal to avoid sexual relationships between full brother and sister. However, in the Mediterranean world, such as in the Greek and Roman societies, close kin marriages such as cousin-cousin or even uncle-niece marriages were accepted and encouraged.

Brother-Sister marriages originated from the Egyptian tradition of “Royal incest” which was practised in Egypt by the Pharaohs as far back as 2000BC. According to anthropologist Černy, brother-sister marriages in the royal family were very frequent. For example, the marriage of brother and sister, Isis and Osiris, was seen as divine incest to avoid outsiders. Other Royal marriage amongst brother and sister was that during the Ptolemy Era in Egypt. Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIV were married and she did bore his offspring. It is believed one of the explanations for these Royal marriages was a “strategy to avoid splitting up of property”or to maintain “ethnic political status” of the Greeks in Egypt. Although marriage between brother-sister was frequent within the royal family and in Graeco Roman Egypt during the second century CE, it was common for husbands to call their wives ‘sister'. This is however not strong enough evidence to certify brother-sister marriage.

The laws for marrying brothers and sisters were different in each country.
In Ancient Greece, Athenians were allowed to marry half siblings if they were from the same father but different mother whereas Spartans were allowed to marry half siblings from the same mother but different father.
In Egypt it is argued to be customary to marry brother and sister. Greek King Ptolemy II continued this custom and married his sister Arsinoe which violated his native Macedonian custom. This started a ‘trend' as the next seven of the eleven Greek kings of Egypt married their sisters.

Full brother and sister marriage or “incestuous marriages” is believed to be a regular practise in Graeco Roman Egypt and it took place mainly amongst the elite population. The marriages were genuine, not just for bureaucratic reasons. Many sociologists find this hard to comprehend without returning to the taboo on incest.

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Evidence of the marriages was first noticed in papyri dating from as early as the first century CE. Although brother-sister marriage would be deemed incestuous today, evidence appearing in papyri shows that brother-sister marriages were socially and legally accepted at the time. This can be seen from official census returns which shows that a large percentage of the marriages were between brother and sister.However, as stated before, attention should be taken when interpreting the papyri. Private letters which were amongst the papyri found in the Fayyum area of Egypt, showed the terms ‘brother' and ‘sister' in letters between husbands and wives. This nevertheless, should not be taken as literally. Most of the papyri documenting these marriages originate from the Fayyum and according to Hopkins; the women are documented as being “wife and sister from the same father and the same mother” which “leaves little room for ambiguity”.

Perhaps brother-sister marriage can be due to a restriction of choice. In Roman Egypt, marriages were most likely to have been arranged and therefore, many young women ended up marrying older men or men pre-arranged through family. For Greeks and Romans in Egypt, the choice was very limited as there was the political and social status to consider. Many Greeks did marry Egyptian women however, certain laws applied when it came to status regarding children. Marrying brother and sister was seen as the ideal solution to some Greek families as it overcame the issue of a dowry or the division of family property. Inter family marriages also overcame issues of Greek racism. Sociologist Brent Shaw suggests that Greek settlers in Egypt married within the family to separate themselves from the Egyptian population and to also keep a pure blood ancestry so to avoid tax disadvantages.

Despite all these reasons, most scholars agree that although practised, it is known that both Greek and Roman societies prohibited any sexual relationship between siblings. However, in most cases, Greek traditions of endogamy were pushed to the limit. It is also believed amongst scholars that although practised throughout lower and upper Egypt, in the bigger towns rather than villages, inter family marriages were more common amongst the Greek than the Egyptians.

This phenomenon of endogamy in Graeco Roman Egypt could be traced to Greek Oedipal mythology, which leads us to the subject of incest.

Is Brother-Sister Marriage Considered Incest?

Incest refers to sexual activity between two family members and is very much a cultural taboo in most societies and holds heavy penalties. Whilst parent-children or sibling-sibling relations are illegal, other relations such as cousin-cousin may be acceptable in other societies and cultures.
The practice of brother-sister marriage has never been common among any other society apart from the Graeco-Roman Egyptian society. Full brother and sister marriage was practised throughout the first three centuries after Christ.

Incestuous marriage was widespread during Graeco-Roman Egypt and the evidence for this show in numerous papyri and household census returns. Anthropologist Brent Shaw states that, “the word incest is linked to moral, social and legal norms established in Graeco-Roman antiquity.” The Latin word for incest- incestum means to be ‘unclean' or ‘not pure' which refers more specifically to committing a forbidden act between family members.

In Graeco-Roman antiquity, there was a difference as to what was considered acceptable behaviour. Roman law and social practices regarding incestuous marriage was far more intolerable than those of Greek law and practices. Shaw states that the Greeks did not have a word similar to the Latin ‘incestum'until the arrival of Christianity to the society. This shows the differences in attitude towards brother-sister and other close kin marriages.In Greek society, close kin marriage was more acceptable and practised than it was in Roman society. This attitude shows in the story of Oedipus and other stories of the same nature. This attitude was brought over to Egypt and even continued and encouraged. Marriage between cousins and half brother/sister marriages were accepted and became the norm for the Greek population in Egypt. This caused a clash with the Roman society's ‘stringent' rules towards incest. Marriages between ethnicities, for example Greek or Roman-Egyptian were however frowned upon.

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It is not certain whether these marriages can be considered ‘incestuous' as a long history of sibling marriage existed throughout the society. To them, this was regarded as the norm and it even existed amongst Egyptian Royalty. The addition of myths and stories justified that brother-sister marriage was accepted and that incest was doubtful.

Potential Theories for Inter-Marriage

In Egypt, this practice was common amongst the Royal family; however it was still considered a taboo. There are no real explanations as to why they adopted these practices but sociologist Hopkins believes that there are four theories behind inter-family marriage. One factor being the high rate of mortality. Research into the demography of Graeco Roman Egypt at the time, shows that the gap between surviving siblings is so high that the “son looking for a mate must go outside the family.” Therefore, the only way to solve this was to marry within the family.

However, according to the “indifference theory” by J.R. Fox, belief was that “boys and girls living and playing together from childhood showed an absence of erotic feeling towards each other”. The main point behind this theory is that “boys and girls brought up together show no desire for incest.” However in contradiction to this, there were instances of incest between siblings which links to Sigmund Freud's theory of “suppression” where “incestuous desires come from the subconscious”.This again, relates to the influences of Greek myths such as Oedipus and stories of Egyptian Gods Isis and Osiris who were brother and sister as well as husband and wife.

Social Class

Social status may play a part in brother-sister marriages. Those with status liked to maintain “racial purity” and this was maintained through means of close-kin marriages.

The social class in Graeco-Roman Egypt was divided. The Romans and Greeks lived privileged lives whereas the Egyptians remained poor. Therefore, marriages remained within the respective societies.

With respect to inheritance, sibling marriages were favoured as any land was to be distributed equally among the children. However in regards to women in Graeco-Roman Egypt, property and land was secured by marriage contracts therefore being financially protected in the event of divorce of death of a husband. Those who still inherited land were not subject to the Roman tax poll. Women who married out of the family had to take along with her property that she had inherited. Therefore, the only way to keep property within the family, even if the marriage ended in divorce or death was to marry a brother. According to Greek practices the father had the power to choose a spouse for his daughter and so, the ideal solution was to arrange brother-sister marriages so that the family will not lose property as land was very important for social status and mobility, and was used for financial gain. As girls married young in Graeco-Roman Egypt, it was fairly easy to influence these marriages.

Papyri Evidence of Brother-Sister Marriage

Evidence for such marriages comes from the census household returns. However, the evidence can be seen as biased to the richer population as their papers would have been better preserved compared to those of the poor Egyptians.

The census was conducted every 14 years between the years 19 C.E. and 257 C.E. Out of 172 of the legible census returns, between 15-21 per cent was marriage between brother and sister. 12 per cent of these marriages were between full brother and sister.

Here are the papyri evidence for brother-sister marriage, which comes in the form of letters, wedding invitations, marriage contracts and birth registrations:

Registering the birth of a son

P.Oxy 2858

To Agathodaimon and Herakleides...scribes of the metropolis, from Kephalas son of Heron son of Theon and from his wife who is sister of the same father and of the same mother,Didume...we register the son born to us, Didumos. We deposit a notification of his birth.

This is a document registering the birth of a son. The parents are citizens of the Metropolis Arsinoe. This was a privileged status and their reference of being husband and wife as well as brother and sister was necessary to identify themselves.

Here is another example of a brother-sister couple registering the birth of their child:

Apynchis and Tapasis, his sister-wife, registering their eight year old daughter 14 February 185 AD

To Hermophilos, royal scribe of the Arsinoite nome. Herakleides division, from Aphynchis, son of an unknown father and his mother Tapholemis, and from his sister Tapasis, born from the same mother who is also his wife...we register our daughter Taesis, who was born to us both and is now eight years old...

The next papyri source comes from two parents who were also children of a brother-sister marriage. This papyri shows two generations of brother-sister marriages, therefore proving that it did occur and that it was common and accepted in society.

P.Tebt.320

To Sarapion...and Serenus...examining magistrates, from Eudaimon, son of Heron son of Souchas, his mother being Heron's sister Thermoutharion and from his wife Sarapias who is his sister of the same father and of the same mother, both of metropolitan status...

Hopkins suggests that brother-sister marriage was due to parents wanting to save the expense of their daughter's dowry. However, he also states that this was not an advantage in means of wealth as outside marriages could potentially bring in the same amount of wealth in terms of inheritance. Some Egyptians just chose to believe that brother-sister marriage would result in an economical advantage.

This papyri is an example of a marriage settlement between brother and sister, where a dowry was specified. This proves that as well as this being a brother-sister marriage, the brother/husband also received a dowry from her, perhaps paid by their father.

(BGU 183; Mitteis, Chrestomathie 313)

Horos son of Tesenophis...aged about forty three years with a scar on the left calf agrees with his own sister by the same father and the same mother who is also his wife, Eriea, aged about thirty five years with a scar...that he as party to agreement has hereby received from her...a dowry of silver...to the value of twenty drachmae.

Let the married pair live together without recrimination just as they have done before, and Horos is to provide all necessities and clothing befitting to a wedded wife...If Horos leaves her, then he as party to the agreement is to return the dowry within thirty days of being asked for it...

Other evidence of brother-sister marriage comes in the form of a divorce contract. Even though the couple are brother and sister, sometimes, the marriage does not work out, and therefore ends in divorce. Here is an example of this:

(P.Mil.Vogl.85, AD 138

Copy of a contract;...Kronion son of Kronion aged about 54 years with a scar on his left forearm and his ex wife Taorsenouphis, who is also his sister of the same father and of the same mother, aged 50 years without distinguishing marks...agree with each other that their life together has been brought to an end...and it is agreed that each of them may administer his own affairs as he chooses and Taorsenouphis can live together with another man without reprisal of any kind...

Brother-Sister marriages were seen as common and not abnormal, therefore they were celebrated openly and guests were invited by invitation:

(P.Oxy.524)

Dionysius invites you to dinner at the marriage of his own children (teknôn)...tomorrow, that is the 30th at the 9th hour

(P.Oxy. III)

Herais invites you to dinner at the marriage of her children at home tomorrow, that is the fifth, at the 9th hour.

These wedding invitations clearly show that brother-sister marriage was in fact common and accepted by society. They also provide proof that such practices did occur. Invitations were usually delivered by hand the day before the wedding.>

Private letters between husbands and wives may provide evidence of brother-sister marriage, but they cannot be seen as sufficient proof as calling someone ‘brother' or ‘sister' was seen as a term of endearment. There are archives of letters between husband and wife using these terms of endearment, however, the next source is of a letter from a husband to his wife and sister:

(P.Oxy.528)

Serenus to Isidora, his sister and wife, many greetings. Before all else I pray that you are well...I want you to know that ever since you left me I have been grieving, weeping by night and lamenting by day...You sent me letters which would have moved a stone, so much did your words affect me. Do let me know if you are coming back or not.

This letter shows that although they were brother and sister, they were also affectionate as husband and wife. Love was an evident emotion in brother-sister marriage as well as in outside marriage. This goes to show that perhaps the children were not forced to marry but chose to marry out of love for their sibling. Evidence for love, comes in the form of this love letter, perhaps from a wife to her husband:

(P.Oxy.3059)

Didyme to Apollonius, her brother and sun greetings.
Know that I do not see the sun,
Since I do not see you;
I have no sun but you...

The archive of Apollonios the strategos and Aline, AD 113-120
This was an archive of over 200 Greek papyri, belonging to the wealthy Apollonios family who were landowners in the Hermopolite nome. Apollonios the strategos was part of the highest office in the bureaucracy of Graeco-Roman Egypt. Apollonios was married to Aline who was believed to also be his sister. The couple frequently wrote letters as Apollonios spent most of his time away from his family, addressing each other as ‘brother' and ‘sister'.>

Aline to Apollonios

C.Pap.Jud.II 436 (September AD 115)

Aline to Apollonios her brother, many greetings. I am very worried about you, because of events that are said to be taking place and because you left me suddenly...Please, then, keep yourself safe and do not put yourself in danger...To Apollonios my brother.

This could be proof that they were brother and sister, as well as husband and wife. However, due to the frequent use of ‘brother' and ‘sister' during the time, it is not certain whether this can be used as real evidence.

We now return to the question being posed of this paper; “Was it common to find brother-sister marriages in Graeco-Roman Egypt?” The answer is indeed, yes, it was common to find these marriages. Brother-sister marriages were considered a norm for Graeco-Roman Egypt as it was practised* by ancestors before them. We also know that these marriages were sanctioned in traditional myths such as, the brother-sister marriage of Isis and Osiris. The Oedipus myth also allowed this practise to be justified. These marriages were not classed as ‘incestuous' as it was very normal and traditional to marry within the family. Inheriting land and property also played a part in making these marriages common, as families wanted their land to be kept within the family.
From the surviving evidence, we can see that people openly stated in letters and documents that they were ‘husband and wife of the same father and of the same mother.' And wedding invitations were even sent to guests, inviting them to celebrate the family wedding. It is fair to say that these marriages were accepted.
Brother-sister marriages were more common amongst the Greeks and Egyptians rather than the Roman citizens, as it was customary in Greek and Egyptian cultures. The genetic effects amongst offspring of these marriages are un-known as nothing in papyri states that family marriages links to this. However, considering some families only married within the family for several generations, it may be safe to say that there is no direct link between sibling marriage and genetic defects, which is probably why it was more acceptable during that period.

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Endogamy-marriage within a particular society or tribe or ancestry

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Hopkins, K. (1980) “Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt” Comparative Studies in Society and History

Parker, S. (1996) “Full Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt: Another Look” Cultural Anthropology, Vol.11, No.3, pp362-376(American Anthropological Association)

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