There were several ways a divorce could go. The husband could simply declare the marriage over and send his wife away. No justification was required, but he did have to either return the dowry or pay 18 percent interest on it to his ex-wife’s guardian, which could prove a significant financial burden. The political and social consequences that might result from angering a wife’s family also made many men think twice. Women with less influential families might not have that protection. In a amicable divorce, the soon-to-be-ex-husband would often arrange his wife’s next marriage, so she would spend little to no time unmarried.*
A wife could also divorce her husband, though not so easily. She had to appear before the archon with a male relative and ask for the divorce. The one example we have was not successful. The wife, Hipparete, was seized by her husband, Alcibiades, and dragged back to his house. Women who appealed to their male relatives to negotiate a divorce generally had more luck. A wife with an influential family or with a big dowry could hold a fair amount of power in her husband’s house.
There were two other ways a divorce could go. A husband whose wife committed adultery or was raped was legally required to divorce her. She then lost the right to participate in religious festivals and usually could not leave her family’s house at all. The possibility of remarriage was not lost to her,** but it was unlikely.
There was also the case of the epikleros. A married woman who became an heiress might be required to divorce and marry one of her kinsmen. A married man who had the opportunity to marry an heiress was quite likely to do so.
A divorce might happen for any of several reasons including an inability to get along, childlessness, possibility of increased inheritance, or adultery, to name a few. Though it could be as simple as a man sending his wife away, negotiation between families generally played a major part in the proceedings.
*Being unmarried was considered a terrible fate for a citizen woman in Athens.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York: Schocken, 1995.
Powell, Anton. Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2001.
Tetlow, Elizabeth Meier. Women, Crime and Punishment in Ancient Law: Volume 2 Ancient Greece. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.
Cohn-Haft, Louis. "Divorce in Classical Athens." The Journal of Hellenic Studies 115 (1995): 1-14.