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Explaining Incest: Brother-Sister Marriage in Graeco-Roman Egypt

Brent D. Shaw
Man
New Series, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Jun., 1992), pp. 267-299
DOI: 10.2307/2804054
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2804054
Page Count: 33
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Explaining Incest: Brother-Sister Marriage in Graeco-Roman Egypt
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Abstract

Formally accepted types of incestual union present one of the most problematic and yet potentially revealing fields in the study of basic human relationships. Attested historical instances, however, are rather scarce. For that reason alone, the society of Graeco-Roman Egypt (from c.300 B.C. to A.D. 300), which provides an unusually well-documented case, is of considerable interest. For a period of about three centuries, a significant proportion of all marriages noted in official Roman census declarations were between full brothers and sisters. An analysis of these data, and of the precise historical and social context of the persons mentioned in them, supports the argument that there were special circumstances that led those concerned to override `normal' inhibitions against close-kin marriages and sexual relationships. The reasons for thier doing so were specific to their social situation and cannot be invoked loosely in arguments concerning strategic differences in kinship and marriage patterns between the eastern and western Mediterranean regions.

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