I and the family are on holidays in a lovely town called Coff's Harbour, about 6 hours north of Sydney. I'm writing this on a netbook tethered to an iPhone, so only the net.gods know how it's going to look when I'm finished. Anyway, here goes...
People who've been reading this blog for some time know that much of it is research overflow from my books. You can't put everything you know into a story. So as not to waste anything, I put the leftovers here. Given the title of this post you might therefore presume that in some future book, someone's going to get divorced.
In classical Athens, if a man wanted to divorce his wife, he needed only to say so. The wife was then required to leave the marriage home. She would have to go live with her closest male relative, who typically would be her father if he was still alive, or else a brother. But there was a kicker to this. Not only did the wife leave, but her dowry went with her. Every last drachma. Or if it was property, every last little bit of land. This was totally enforceable by law.
The Greek dowry system, you see, was like the ancient version of a trust fund in the lady's name, to be administered by her husband for her benefit. Obviously in the normal course of a happy married life it's all in the family, and when the wife dies her dowry would be inherited by her sons. But in the event of divorce the dowry does not belong to the husband. It's the woman's retirement fund, supplied by her father. This meant that the larger the dowry, the less likely an unhappy marriage was to break down. There was more than one man dependent on his wife's dowry property for most of his income.
Women too could declare a divorce, but the process for them was slightly different. An unhappy wife had to leave her home, walk to the agora, which in addition to being the marketplace was also where all the government offices were, find an archon (that's a city official), and tell him she wanted to divorce. Quite what happened during the conversation is unclear -- there's not a single surviving text to tell us -- I presume that at the least the archon would satisfy himself that the lady had a male relative to go to. But the archon would then agree, and at that instant the divorce was complete. She then left the home, with her dowry.
The divorce rate was much, much smaller than modern times. Also there was no such thing as gossip rags back then (we've definitely gone downhill on that one). Consequently there are only a handful of documented divorce cases. The cases however make it clear that women could divorce simply by seeing an archon.
This rule led to the most bizarre divorce case in the city's history.
There was a General and politician by the name of Alcibiades, whose wife Hipparete despaired of him because he constantly consorted with prostitutes. Unable to take it any more, she began the walk to the agora. Her husband Alcibiades got wind of this. He turned up just as she was crossing the agora, picked her up bodily, and carried her home. She never tried again.
Alcibiades' actions were far from the norm, so much so that people were still talking about it hundreds of years after it happened.
Now here's the converse: there's actually a case where a couple were sued in an ancient Athenian court to prove that their divorce was a sham. It seemed the husband was due to pay a large sum. But unfortunately for his debtors, almost all his property had come as his wife's dowry, and it just so happened that she had divorced him moments before the debt fell due. The debtors promptly sued, asking what archon had heard the wife's divorce (it turned out not a single archon had a record of talking to her), and pointing out that they were still living together. This scam is absolutely identical to the modern version, where a man about to go bankrupt, or be sued, transfers all his property into his wife's name to quarantine it from being taken. It seems like such a modern scam, but it was invented in classical Athens.