The re-appearance of our brother Artisanal Toad has me reading some of his original work on polygamy. Toad’s contention, that polygamy is prescribed by religious scriptures, isn’t something I have standing to challenge. Maybe he’s right. Even so, I thought I’d put down some brief attempts to argue that it’s a bad idea anyway.
Where did marital monogamy originate? The smart peeps contend that it was an idea that took hold in classical antiquity.
Meanwhile, what is arguably the single most striking feature of Greco-Roman marriage has failed to raise any curiosity at all – the fact that Greeks (after Homer’s heroes) and Romans were strictly (serially) monogamous regardless of their socio-economic status, just like modern westerners but unlike most other early civilizations. While our own experience might tempt us to take this for granted, we must ask how this principle came to be so firmly established even among (customarily polygynous) elites – the egalitarian ethos of the city-state is a plausible candidate –, how it co-existed with de facto polygyny facilitated by sexual congress with chattel slaves (Scheidel forthcoming c), and how it became entrenched in Christian doctrine that survived the fall of the Roman state and ensured its survival and spread in later European (and subsequently world) history. In this strangely neglected area, ancient history has a vital contribution to make to our understanding of the global evolution of marriage.
It’s worth noting that matrimonivm – the Roman word for marriage, is coherent with a monogamous standard. The singular mater is the root, rather than a plural or indefinite matres.
In a popular lecture, Gregory Aldrete alludes to the possibility that monogamy became codified in the Roman monarchy, and revived in the late republic, as an attempt to maximize the output of labor (Aldrete). This makes intuitive sense. If the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, as Scheidel implies, it was likely because they had an example of monogamy, and knew that it worked well in this regard.
Consider the case of the soldier, who is asked to leave his wife and children to go on a long ocean voyage, and fight in the Punic wars. Would that man be more or less likely to obey orders, knowing that he might return to find himself responsible for a bunch of children, sired by other men? We can imagine that he would have taken at least a small amount of comfort in an implicit contract.
If your wife fucks Chad while you’re away, the state will kill them both, and we’ll hold Chad’s fortune, which becomes yours upon your return…
In times of peace, the duty to pass and execute sentence was up to the paterfamilias. If a man found his wife or daughter (be the daughter married or simply eligible) banging a playa, then he could choose to kill or pardon. One hitch: he had to apply the law to both parties. (Edwards)
The efficiency argument has a contemporary example. Consider the output of my kin, who live on the collective farm. What has been the relative results of polygamous society in Colorado City, comparable to other, similar communities? Most of them live on welfare, and a large number of the children of polygamous unions are afflicted by terrible, rare genetic diseases.
Colorado City is a dismal failure, for the same reason Rome was an unparalleled success. These are the end results of polygamy and monogamy.