Polygamy ...

Last night Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about British Muslim men - and women - who are choosing to have multiple 'wives' under religious (not civil) law.

It is available on 4oD here.

Polygamy seems unnatural to us today, and goes against Christian mores, but it was not always so.

The powerful often had multiple wives even when society as a whole did not practice polygamy. A good example is the Macedonians and the various dynasties that succeeded them such as the Ptolemies. Although the documentary emphasizes the 'harmony' between the wives, this is not my experience of modern Saudi Arabia, and was certainly not the Macedonian experience.

In fact Philip II's multiple marriages - for he had numerous wives simultaneously rather than one wife after the other and concubines - led to what Duris of Samos called "the first war fought between women" as one Mrs P Olympias and Adea Eurydice his grand-daughter by another wife raised armies to fight for the throne.  That's why most of the royal candidates so far suggested for burial at Amphipolis are unlikely to have been buried there - most died as a result of internecine infighting, and were not given lavish tombs by the surviving victors.

 For an accessible summary to the various royals and dynasties that came after Alexander, I always recommend: Daniel Ogden, Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death: The Hellenistic Dynasties, Cardiff 2010: available in libraries, Amazon UK, Amazon US etc. Both the polygamy and the death it too often led to are in the title!

The Ptolemies also had multiple wives, and many of their children were born of the lesser wives which explains why their medical issues with incest were less destructive than the Hapsburgs' later ones. This may also have been the case with the Hecatominds, who also practiced sibling-marriage, but we do not know; the only recorded child of the third generation was born to Pixodaros and a woman who was not his sister; the children depicted on the Hecatomnus sarcophagus are not attested anywhere else.

Increasingly in the UK we are seeing multiple genetic issues with the children of some Asian Muslim families who marry close cousins. Both physical and mental genetic disabilities are not discussed when it comes to Saudi families, but my experience is that they are very common, and again are probably the result of their preference for marrying cousins.

Although the Catholic Church allowed the Hapsburg incest, it has discouraged polygamy in recent centuries; they turned a blind eye to the many wives of Charlemagne and the Franks, as they do to recent converts.

In Judaism polygamy was regularly practiced by those that could afford into Late Antiquity, and it is recognised to this day by the ceremony where a man refuses to enter into a Levirate Marriage with his brother's widow by performing the halizah - and is then spat upon by her!

Herod continued both the Biblical and the Hellenistic practice and was polygamous. Wives differed from concubines, but multiple wives were allowed. Rabbeinu Gershom outlawed both polygamy and divorcing a woman against her will in the early 11th century, by which time it was no longer considered acceptable by Ashkenazim. Sephardi Jews continued to practice it for some centuries, and a few still claim it is allowed, although the Sephardi Chief Rabbi and the State of Israel do not allow new polygamous marriages.

Making multiple alliances sealed through marriage and guaranteeing a greater chance of an heir were the main reasons for polygamy in the past, and for it in modern Saudi Arabia.

Another reason was that men can procreate in minutes, whilst women take nine months; multiple wives meant that a sparsely populated area such as Arabia could be peopled more quickly. The flip side is societies with little land practicing polyandry, for example in the Himalyas. 

The prophet Mohammed followed pre-Islamic Arabian practice and had many wives, although he limited his followers to four.

Should we make polygamy legal in the UK? Of course not. But if adult women chose to live in polygamous unions of their own free will, we should accept their choice to do so. Is it really any worse than some banker who trades one wife in for a younger model every decade?