Were Couples Allowed To Legally Divorce During The Byzantine Empire?

Marriage has been an institution associated with almost every advanced society in written history, and some extreme thinkers even believe that the breakdown of that institution directly relates to the destruction of those societies (hint: they have little to do with one another, as the Native Americans can teach us). Obviously, the Christian faith grew during the years of the Byzantine Empire — but does that mean divorce was legal, or illegal?

First, it’s important to realize that the Byzantine Empire — or the Eastern Roman Empire, much like the Western Roman Empire before it — was divided into many different cultural regions that held their own beliefs and customs. That meant that marriage and divorce, along with religious practices, would sometimes be distinct depending on where a citizen lived. But much of the empire was rooted in Christianity, so that’s where we will focus.

Byzantine women performed different roles than men, although many shared business interests and aspirations. She held a certain amount of power because of this, but in the church she was usually relegated to a minor role like clerk. Some would become nuns. Women married young and were even sometimes considered the “head” of the Byzantine family — which is certainly different from the Puritan American values most of us know. Byzantine women were also granted access to basic education. 

One might think that the prospect of divorce in the ancient world was impossible, or at least penalized much in the same way as it is in countries located in the Middle East — where divorce is only granted for reasons like adultery, when the wife is most often accused and put to death as a result. In the Byzantine Empire, adultery was still a primary reason for divorce. But the punishments were very different. The adulterer wasn’t necessarily put to death. Instead, the adulterer might be tarred, lashed, or humiliated.

For a man to be successfully accused of adultery by his wife, the act had to be committed with a married woman. This was a difficult thing to prove — it’s not like these women had access to the modern day divorce attorney, although a trial system did exist.

Another question arises when we consider the somewhat more common occurrence of widowhood in the ancient world. Were women allowed to remarry? Technically, yes — but if she did, she would lose access to her dead husband’s estate in many circumstances. In cases where the woman was young when the husband died, she might return to her father’s home without inheritance. 

Upper-class women had additional rights. For example, they were required to wait a full year before remarrying to properly mourn the deaths of their husbands, but they could indeed remarry. 

The takeaways? Both divorce and remarrying were legally allowed, but there was a social stigma attached. That stigma exists today, of course, but it was certainly much stronger back in the many centuries during which the Byzantine Empire thrived.