Ancient Concubines

The secret life of an ancient concubine

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In many ancient cultures and religious traditions, rulers and elite members of society not only had wives, they also had concubines. Concubines normally served a dual purpose – to increase a man’s prestige through his capacity to produce children and, of course, limitless opportunities to indulge in sexual desires.  Most people associate concubines with ancient China where Emperors were known to have kept thousands of concubines, however, the practice of taking concubines is certainly not exclusive to China.

The practice of taking a concubine goes back thousands of years to the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia and Babylonia where the elite members of society took concubines, many of whom were slaves, however, the first wife always retained a place of primacy in the family. In some city-states, women served as priestesses and held a very high social rank.  Generally, these women did not marry.  In some Mesopotamian cultures, men would visit these women as prostitutes, which society not only condoned, but considered an honourable fulfilment of religious duty, regardless of the marital status of the man.

Concubines and religion

Concubines appeared in the Bible as well. The Israelites often kept concubines in addition to their wives. Wives had dowries but concubines did not and this was the chief method of distinguishing between the two social positions. One of the most famous keepers of concubines in the Bible was King Solomon (1011 – 931 BC), who was said to have three hundred concubines in addition to his seven hundred wives. While concubinage is not acceptable in Christianity today, some Bible commentators have suggested that God allowed men to have more than one wife or several concubines during the period from the Great Flood until the Old Covenant in order to build up the world's population.

In Judaism, concubines are referred to by the Hebrew term pilegesh meaning "a mistress staying in house". According to the Babylonian Talmud, the difference between a concubine and a full wife was that the latter received a marriage contract and her marriage was preceded by a formal betrothal. Neither was the case for a concubine.  Certain Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, believed that concubines were strictly reserved for kings, and thus that a commoner may not have a concubine. Indeed, such thinkers argued that commoners may not engage in any type of sexual relations outside of a marriage.

In Islam, taking a concubine was also permitted. Chapter four, verse three of the Quran states that a man may be married to a maximum of four women if he can treat them with justice, and if he is unable to be just among plural wives, he may marry only one woman or depend on his slave woman. Concubinage was considered acceptable as a social need only under certain guidelines.  In ancient times, two sources for concubines were permitted under an Islamic regime. Primarily, non-Muslim women taken as prisoners of war were made concubines as happened after the Battle of Bani Qariza.  Alternately, in ancient (Pagan/Pre-Islamic) times, sale and purchase of human slaves was a socially legal exercise. However, on embracing Islam, it was encouraged to free slave women or bring them into formal marriage.

The historian Al-Tabari calculated that the Prophet Muhammad married a total of fifteen women, though only ever eleven at one time, and had at least four concubines.  All of Muhammad’s concubines were his slaves. According to records, Muhammad used to visit all eleven of his wives in one night.

Concubines around the world

In Ancient Greece, the practice of keeping a slave concubine was little recorded but appears throughout Athenian history. Law prescribed that a man could kill another man caught attempting a relationship with his concubine for the production of free children, which suggests that a concubine's children were not granted citizenship. 

Under Roman law, concubinage was tolerated as the relationship was durable and exclusive. The practice allowed a Roman man to enter into an informal but recognized relationship with a woman who was not his wife, most often a woman whose lower social status was an obstacle to marriage. It was not considered derogatory to be called a concubina, as the title was often inscribed on tombstones.  A concubinus was a young male slave chosen by his master as a sexual partner. Romans did not mark same-sex relations as "homosexual" if an adult male used a slave or prostitute, characteristically a youth, as his passive partner. These relations, however, were expected to play a secondary role in marriage, within which institution an adult male demonstrated his masculine authority as head of the household.


Main difference between wives and concubines is that the children of the wife are legally allowed to inherit from their ‘father’s estate’. Children of the concubine have no such legal recourse. 

In the Bible, the children of  Abraham are bitterly opposed to each other because the elder is born of a concubine and the younger is born from the legitimate wife.  

Kings and Emperors (and prophets too) are mortal men and can’t have sex with all their wives and concubines every night. Men visited their ‘favourite’ wives more than others. Concubines would be invited to the man’s bedchamber as and when he desired. (another difference between wives and concubines).  As a result, most women in the harem of the great and the good were perpetually waiting for THE MAN’s arrival and more often than not, they were disappointed when he did not arrive / invite. As there was only one man who could legitimately have sex with them, most women in the harem were ‘sex-starved’. There were intrigues to try and unearth the ‘real father’ of children that were born and many men had to keep an official diary of who they slept with on which night to make sure there was no controversy as to who conceived the child. 

All this so that the ‘legitimate heir’ can inherit all the wealth and power unopposed !



Bhagwat Shah

luvartifacts1's picture

Learned a lot here. Well researched, comprehensive and informative.

Lewis Hales


GINA, and SARAHYOO you two protest too much. Does this word mean anything to you? Zawaj

Zawaj merely 'legalizes' what people have been doing since the dawn of time: getting together for intercourse, with no long-term commitments. Zawaj legitimizes intercourse in a permissible (halaal) manner.

It is a fake & temporary marriage. So yes when you say there is no sex permitted outside marriage... somewhat true- but really the marriage in question is a legal/religious loophole.

The world knows what it is --> a license to 'go have fun'.

One word can change the meaning of something. Concubine is completely different from a wife.Secondly, zawaj became impermissible as decreed by Allah and his prophet Muhammad centuries ago. Just because some muslims are choosing to revive it does not make it a recognizable marriage. Some muslims also believe another prophet came after Muhammad even though he is clearly the last prophet. Just because they believe does not make it right. Please educate yourself there is too much misinformation on Islam and you have proven that.

This article has too much false and misleading information . You contradict the same information that you state your self . First you claim Islam permits 4 wives as long as they can all be treated justly, if the man cannot then he is allowed only 1. This was backed up by evidence , you then however falsely insinuate that if the man is unable to take care of all 4 wives equally then he us permitted to have concubine . PLEASE go back into the Quran and quote this part for us . I would like you state the verse and chapter in which you gained this knowledge

Also please provide the evidence in which you found the prophet Mohammed pbh to have concubines.

This is total FALSE information as Islam does not and has never condoned any affairs outside of marriage :

It is stated in the Quran Chapter 17 Surah Isra verse 32: Do not even go near zina (fornication and/or adultery), for it is a very indecent thing and a very evil way

The most confusing part is how you contradicted yourself again in stating enslaving women used to occur pre Islam/ pagan time However,(in you'r words ) on embracing Islam, it was encouraged to free slave women or bring them into formal marriage.

Does this not contract you saying allowed the practice of having concubines???

How then can the leader and teacher of Islam Mohamed who I'm sure must have been the messenger in ruling out freeing the slaves in bringing them into formal marriage have "concubines"

Please try information , this article has too much false information that doesn't even make sense


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