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‘Brother-Sister’ Marriage in Roman Egypt: a Curiosity of Humankind or a Widespread Family Strategy?*

  • Sabine R. Huebner (a1)

Scholars over the last few decades have been unable to find a convincing explanation for the widespread practice of brother-sister marriage among the common people in Roman Egypt, a social practice seemingly disregarding one of the most fundamental taboos. This paper now argues that these ‘incestuous’ marriages were in fact marriages between a biological child and an adopted one, a practice documented also for other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Due to the severe mortality regime before the demographic transition, up to 30 per cent of all fathers did not have a male heir, and therefore adopting the son-in-law was a common succession and inheritance strategy in many pre-modern societies.

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* This article grew out of a broader study on intergenerational relationships in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. I am deeply grateful to Roger Bagnall, Walter Ameling, and Walter Scheidel for their comments, criticism and encouragement. I would also like to express my gratitude to Alison Sharrock and the anonymous readers of JRS for their thoughtful comments and valuable suggestions. My special thanks go to David Ratzan without whose generous help this article never would have reached its present form. Any remaining errors are of course all mine.

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The Journal of Roman Studies
  • ISSN: 0075-4358
  • EISSN: 1753-528X
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-roman-studies
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