In Book One of The Histories Herodotus describes many a Babylonian custom.[1] One of the most charming descriptions concerns the way Babylonians matched couples for marriage. According to Herodotus:

In every village once a year all the girls of marriageable age used to be collected together in one place, while the men stood round them in a circle; an auctioneer then called each one in turn to stand up and offered her for sale, beginning with the best-looking and going on to the second best as soon as the first had been sold for a good price. Marriage was the object of the transaction.[2]

Before we proceed, it is interesting to consider one of the ramifications of the problem of ranking the women in terms of beauty (or ugliness, for that matter): the auctioneer had to be not only a discriminating and just person, but a person very much in tune with the mores of the Babylonian community. Imagine the embarrassment of a situation where a woman ranked lower by the auctioneer fetched a higher price at the auction! Therefore, the choice of the auctioneer, not described in this account, must have been a rather difficult one. Let us return to Herodotus:

The rich men who wanted wives bid against each other for the prettiest girls, while the humbler folk, who had no use for good looks in a wife, were actually paid to take the ugly ones, for when the auctioneer had got through all the pretty girls he would call upon the plainest, or even perhaps a crippled one, to stand up, and then ask who was willing to take the least money to marry her—and she was knocked down to whoever accepted the smallest sum. The money came from the sale of beauties, who in this way provided dowries for their ugly or misshapen sisters.[3]

At a risk of insulting the reader’s intelligence, I feel compelled to comment in passing on the vague but compassionate notion of a community of women, a sisterhood, that Herodotus brings up in the last sentence. Of course, there was another community there, which remained completely hidden to Herodotus: the community of men. So, on the one hand we have a sisterhood of beautiful and ugly women; on the other, a brotherhood of rich and poor men. In fact, the dowries are better understood as transfers of wealth from the rich men to their poor and downtrodden brothers. But let us return to Herodotus once again, for a few concluding remarks on the Babylonian marriage market:

It was illegal for a man to marry his daughter to anyone he happened to fancy, and no one could take home a girl he had bought without first finding a backer to guarantee his intention of marrying her. In cases of disagreement between husband and wife the law allowed the return of the purchase money. Anyone who wished could come even from a different village to buy a wife.[4]

Herodotus reports that “this admirable practice” fell into disuse before his time, and he laments the loss.[5] It is interesting to contemplate the reasons for the disappearance of this Babylonian custom, which Herodotus fails to discuss. As an economist, I will briefly focus on three problems I see with the very market mechanism described by Herodotus. Although it is possible that these problems were less important than others, of which I am ignorant at present, they undoubtedly contributed to the demise of the Babylonian marriage market.

First, what happened when there were too many ugly women offered for sale, that is, too few beautiful ones to generate the requisite dowries? Similarly, what happened when there were too few rich men to bid against one another, that is, too many poor men—who had no use for pretty wives? In both cases the market would not clear and some couples would remain unmatched until the next year. Of course, waiting for a full year would not help the beautiful women, let alone the ugly ones.

Second, it is unclear who would return the purchase money to a disappointed rich husband, but it is evident that a special fund would be needed for this purpose because the proceeds of sale went to the poor men in search of ugly wives and dowries. It is most likely that it was the auctioneer who had to keep a portion of the proceeds of sale of the beauties, which means that this portion could not be used for dowries. It should be added here that it is even more unclear what happened in the case of collapse of a marriage between a poor man and an ugly woman, but it is conceivable that the dowry received at the market had to be returned to the auctioneer, who could then use it to replenish the reserve fund. As it is less likely that a poor man would return a dowry than that a rich man would demand his money back, the reserve fund must have placed a heavy burden on the marriage market.

Third, it appears that the market was asymmetrical from the point of view of participants from other villages, because a man could not offer for sale his ugly daughter outside their village. More specifically, rich men from other villages could outbid the local ones in their quest for pretty women, and poor men from other villages could get good dowries for their ugly new wives, but ugly women could not benefit from the abundance of good dowries in any village except their own.


1. Herodotus, The Histories, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972 (This translation first published in 1954).

2. Op. cit., p. 120.

3. Op. cit., pp. 120-121.

4. Op. cit., p. 121.

5. Loc. cit.