The Babylonian Marriage Market: An Auction of Women in the Ancient World
In the 5 th century BC, Greek Historian Herodotus wrote about the customs and traditions he witnessed while in Babylon. One of the more controversial customs he reports on is the Babylonian marriage market in which young women were gathered up and an “auctioneer would get each of the women to stand up one by one, and he would put her up for sale”.
The writing of Herodotus inspired 19 th century British painter Edwin Long to produce his famous artwork ‘ The Babylonian Marriage Market’ . The painting took Long two years to complete and was unveiled at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1875. In the following year, it was sold for a sum of 6000 guineas, which, at that time, was the largest amount of money paid for a piece of work whose artist was still alive.
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The Babylonian Marriage Market depicts women being auctioned off as brides (as opposed to, for example, slaves). Long drew his inspiration for this painting from Herodotus’ Histories, more specifically, from ‘Book 1’ of that piece of writing. Towards the end of ‘Book 1’, Herodotus wrote:
“I now turn to their customs, the most sensible of which, in my opinion, is also practised, I hear, by the Illyrian tribe. Once a year, in every village, this is what they used to do. They used to collect all the young women who were old enough to be married and take the whole lot of them all at once to a certain place. A crowd of men would form a circle around them there. An auctioneer would get each of the women to stand up one by one, and he would put her up for sale. He used to start with the most attractive girl there, and then, once she had fetched a good price and been bought, he would go on to auction the next most attractive one. They were being sold to be wives, not slaves. All the well-off Babylonian men who wanted wives would outbid one another to buy the good-looking young women, while the commoners who wanted wives and were not interested in good looks used to end up with some money as well as the less attractive women.”
Fragment from Herodotus' Histories ( Public Domain )
Franklin Edson Belden in ‘Historic Men and Scenes’ (1898) writes:
“The Babylonians became avaricious to an overwhelming degree. Whatever would bring money was for sale. Even domestic virtues were flung recklessly away for financial gratification. Every woman must once in her life appear in public before the temple of Beltis, as by this means crowds of strangers were drawn to the city. And on regular occasions maidens were brought in large numbers and sold at auction in order that the wealthy princes and libertines of surrounding nations might be drawn to their unscrupulous market. Fathers and brothers with their daughters and sisters stood ready to barter for money the pleasures due only to love. Everything that ministered to the craze for adornment, appetite, and sensualism was supplied and indulged to the highest degree possible. The palace halls were nothing less than harems of polygamy.”
Apart from Herodotus’ writings, Long also consulted ancient artifacts in order to paint his masterpiece. During that time, archaeological expeditions were being carried out in Mesopotamia, and artifacts from that region were being brought back to London. As the painter was able to gain access to the Assyrian collections of the British Museum, he could incorporate a huge amount of detail from those objects into his artwork. This allowed Long to produce something that was closer to what the real Babylon would have looked like, as compared to his predecessors.
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This piece of painting may be interpreted in several ways. For example, it has been suggested that the painting may be read as a subtle reflection of the Victorians’ own version of the marriage market. It has been pointed out that the time of the year that saw the opening of the exhibition was also the period when the British ‘marriage market’ was in action. During this time, people are said to attend social gatherings, during which many matches were made. The painting is currently kept by Royal Holloway College, and another way to interpret this piece of artwork, from the perspective of an educational institution that began as an all-women college, is that it was meant “to act as the stimulus for debate about women’s new role in society, their legal status and whether or not to marry.”
Thomas Holloway, 19th century philanthropist. ( Public Domain )
Top image: Edwin Long’s The Babylonian Marriage Market. Photo source: ( Public Domain )
By Wu Mingren
Gilmartin, S., 2008. For Sale in London, Paris and Babylon: Edwin Long’s The Babylonian Marriage Market. [Online]
Available at: https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/files/1853272/babylon.pdf
Herodotus, The Histories
[Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories . Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
myweb.tiscali.co.uk, 2016. Edwin Long RA (1829-1891). [Online]
Available at: http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/speel/paint/long.htm
Royal Holloway, University of London, 2016. Babylonian Marriage Market. [Online]
Available at: https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/aboutus/artcollectionandpicturegallery/explore/babylonianmarriagemarket.aspx
Seymour, M., 2014. Babylon: Legend, History and the Ancient City. London: I. B. Taurus & Co Ltd.