Michigan Today . . . March 1994

By Laura Betzig

Have you heard the one about JFK? FDR? Nelson Rockefeller? For some reason, powerful people seem to lie seamy side up, out-of-doors, at around high noon. By which I mean to say: We are obsessed with the private lives of public men. We always have been–for at least the last few thousand years. We interrogate them; we investigate them; we label them; we slander them–though it isn't always clear to the interrogators, investigators, slanderers or labelers why we should care.

illustration of  the Queen of Sheba in copurt of King SolomonWhere to begin? We could begin with civilization, nearly 6,000 years ago at Sumer. New years in Sumer are supposed to have started with a sacred rite. The King played Damuzi (a.k.a. Tammuz), the fertility god, opposite Inanna (a.k.a. Ishtar), the fertility goddess. He wore splendid headgear; she wore two gold finger rings, two silver earrings, six ivory breast ornaments, one "golden vulva" (I quote the authority, H.W.F. Suggs) and so on. They had sex in a temple, and made the land fertile. Purely apocryphal, probably. But Mesopotamian kings at Sumer, and later at Assyria and Babylon are guessed to have had sexual access to wives, concubines and hundreds–maybe thousands–of slaves.

illustration from the base of Egyptian Queen Tiy's throneA little later, in Egypt, Amenophis III, father of Akhenaten, started a harem with Tiy, his one Great Wife. He added two Syrian princesses, two Babylonian princesses, one Arzawa princess, "droves" of Egyptian women, and two princesses from Mitanni, one of whom alone brought along 317 ladies-in-waiting. Egyptian kings, like other kings, are said – by Donald Redford - to have made a "constant demand" of provincial governors for more beautiful servant girls.

Women–particularly beautiful women–have probably been requisitioned as tribute wherever tribute has been requisitioned. Descriptions tend to be rough, but uniform. Take, for instance, R.H. van Gulik's survey, Sexual Life in China. He says that by the 8th century BC, kings kept one queen (hou), three consorts (fu-jen), nine wives of second rank (pin), 27 wives of third rank (shih-fu), and 81 concubines (yu-chi). That was the tip of the iceberg: imperial harems numbered in the thousands. Lesser men kept fewer women. Great princes kept hundreds; minor princes, 30; upper middle-class men might have six to 12; middle class men might have three or four. Van Gulik is explicit about how women were picked, cared for and copulated with. By Tang times, kings had meticulous books kept on the hour of every insemination, the date of every menstruation and the first signs of every conception.

I could go on. In India, a Jataka (an account of the Buddha's birth) estimates the size of the royal seraglio at 16,000 in the 5th century BC; that's the record-holder as far as I'm aware. Big harems were common until remarkably recently. According to his friend and eye-witness, Diwan Jarmani Dass, His Highness Maharaja Sir Bhupinder Singh, friend to Mussolini and George V, died with a harem of 332 women–and liked to float them on ice blocks in transparent clothes. As in the Old World, so in the New. In Mexico, according to Franciscans who wrote about Aztecs after the conquest, Montezuma II, who met Cortes, kept 4000 "concubines"; every member of the Aztec nobility is supposed to have had as many consorts as he could afford–counted by the scores among lesser, by the hundreds among greater lords. And in Peru, according to Garcilaso de la Vega – who was born of a Spanish governor and an Incan princess–kings kept "houses of virgins," with 1,500 women in each, in every principal province.


Fresh out of two failed careers, at Edinburgh and Cambridge, first as a family doctor, second as a clergyman, Charles Darwin set sail as a naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle, at the age of 22, in 1831. In five years he watched, among other things: Galapagos Islands finches, Pacific atolls and lots of "primitive" people. In the late 19th century, authorities like J.F. McLennan, Lewis Henry Morgan and Friedrich Engels pushed a theory of "primitive promiscuity." As far as they were concerned, access to women–like access to everything else–was once communally held. Darwin demurred. As he put it in 1871, in The Descent of Man, "The licentiousness of many savages is no doubt astonishing," but as a rule "the strongest and most vigorous men would succeed in rearing a greater average number of offspring"–taking privileged, if not exclusive, sexual access to "the most attractive women."

Darwin was vindicated, in part, in Edward Westermarck's History of Human Marriage 20 years later; he's been more or less vindicated ever since. Power paralleled polygyny, once. Good hunters on the Kalahari got two or three, not just one, wife. In the Amazon, headmen had as many as 10 "wives"–more than anybody else. In Polynesia–on Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti–chiefs typically kept on the order of a hundred women. And in "pristine" states like Sumer, Egypt, India, China, Aztec Mexico and Inca Peru–as in secondary states from Africa to Asia to the Americas – kings' harems numbered in the thousands. The correlations are consistent–and statistically significant–any way I've cut them.

illustration of  17th-century Mughal haremBut why? Because if Darwin was right about natural (and sexual) selection, the whole point of competition is reproduction. To put it plainly, the point of politics is sex. Why do red deer have big antlers? Why are elephant seals so fat? Why do jungle fowl wear spurs on their heels? The better to butt/shove/jab you, my dear; the better to take a harem myself. Why is every man with a big harem a despot? Because collecting women–like tribute, like labor, like homage–tends to require force. People (red deer, elephant seals, jungle fowl and so on) tend to cede favors on two accounts. One is, they get a favor back; the other is, they get beat up if they don't. There are, in short, positive and negative sanctions. Negative sanctions appear to have been necessary, often.

I don't want to bore you with the grisly history of human politics, but I'll offer a few examples. At Sumer, about which we know relatively little, we know at least that kings derived power from Enlil, who symbolized compulsion by force. In India and China, punishment by torture was highly refined, and systematically biased to exempt the rich. In Aztec Mexico, kings killed singers who sang out of tune, as well as anybody guilty of "insubordination"–always broadly defined. In Inca Peru, Garcilaso, a sympathetic observer, says the death penalty could follow most infractions; and in particular, for violating any woman in a nobleman's harem, the guilty man's wife, children, servants, kin, friends and flocks were killed, his village was pulled down, and the site strewn with stones. As another sympathizer, Poma de Ayala, put it: "All was truth and good and justice and law."


We live by another law now. Once every state was a polygynous despotism. Now most seem to be relatively monogamous democracies. When, where and why did things change? That is, I think, a critical question. Answering it has become an obsession. I'll tell you what I've found.

photo of Mao Tse-tung, with quote from his physician that Mao's taste for women was like his eating habits?when he liked a vegetable, he'd have a lot of it; when he got bored he'd have another I've found that things change, roughly, with the rise of industry. Karl Marx was convinced that from around the 16th century, the division of labor and spread of capital greatly increased the exploitation of the subordinate class. In, for instance, his notes on Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, he wrote:

It is of course easy to imagine a powerful, physically superior person who first captures animals and then captures men in order to make them catch animals for him; in brief, one who uses man as a naturally occurring condition for his reproduction like any other living thing; his own labour being exhausted in the act of domination. But such a view is stupid, though it may be correct from the point of view of a given tribal or community entity; for it takes the isolated man as its starting-point. But man is only individualized through the process of history.
It is this "stupid view" that I back. And I would argue that the switch began around the 16th century–with the division of labor and the mobility of a money economy–was less a switch from primitive communism to exploitation, than from despotism to democracy.

But, as everybody knows, Europeans have been strictly monogamous–and fairly democratic–for millennia. Maybe yes; maybe no. Peter Garnsey, author of Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire, showed that bias in Roman law codes, as in legal texts since Hammurabi's Babylon of the 18th century BC, was systematically graded according to status. In Rome, lowly offenders got aggravated forms of the death penalty–exposure to wild beasts, crucifixion, burning alive. Exalted offenders got exile and expulsion from office.

But the grisliest evidence of Roman despotism comes straight from the Latins. Suetonius says Augustus, the first emperor, did in a Roman night for "taking too close an interest" in one of his speeches; drove a consul-elect to suicide after a "spiteful comment" provoked his threats; and had a praetor tortured and sentenced to death for hiding writing tablets under his toga. Later emperors were even nastier.


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