The secret life of an ancient concubine
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.