Polygamy: how does the math work?

The answer I gave is valid for polygamy qua polygamy. (It does not inherently create a math problem).

I am aware that throughout history, “polygamy” has mostly meant “polygyny” if not outright female sexual slavery and/or forced concubinage of the females of conquered tribes etc. So? Throughout history it’s been a patriarchy.

There may be something intrinsic to human nature (or to male versus female sexual nature or whatever) that means polygamy would intrinsically amount to polygyny — there exist people who would say that for the inevitability of patriarchy as well — but in both cases if it is so it’s not readily apparent in a self-explanatory, non-debateworthy sense.

Just to clarify, my question is about whether this was:
a) An intentional effect by the empire’s leaders (i.e., they thought, “You know, if we prevent local girls from marrying local boys, the local boys will be a lot more willing to fight our expansionist wars!”), and/or
b) A motive for the local boys to join the army, or (in cases of conscription) not to desert the army.

You may have been saying yes to this, but I just wanted to make sure. :slight_smile: It seems like such an effect would require that a significant percentage of women in a society were members of polygynous marriages, for example, and I’m not sure if that was ever the case.


Generally both sides took losses in wars, so there were fewer surviving men in the winning side, too. Let’s not forget about eunuchs, either, as this was another way to reduce the number of men who were entitled to marry.

Polygamy has never been the norm where it is allowed. Only the rich can afford it, except when they simply abandon prior wives, which boils down to the same thing as serial monogamy.

Well, it isn’t an expansionist war or an army, but I remember reading a talk by an early Mormon leader wherein he complained that the missionaries they were sending to Europe and other places were taking all the pretty girls for themselves and leaving only the dried-up old hags for the local leaders, and that thenceforth they should not take any wives in the field but should bring the whole passel of 'em back so the local leaders can have first shot.

Now, a large number of missionaries isn’t exactly an army fighting an expansionist war, but it’s kind of a parallel, and it makes it sound like some of the missionaries were focusing less on “spreading the gospel” than on “spreading my genes.”

But really, I kind of doubt that the primary motivation for any polygamous culture was to encourage the young boys to go fight for their cause. I mean, wouldn’t “I’m a male, therefore I looooooove the ladies” be a more likely explanation, with a bunch of surplus young men you can boss around just being a bonus?

Ain’t organized religion grand? What’s the tenet here? “I got mine?”

Speculation B seems more likely to me, certainly–but there have been plenty of weird social systems set up to encourage kids to join the army :).


I don’t think anyone ever set up the marriage rules with the intention of boosting army recruiting. I think it was more a case of “I am too poor to support a wife, or even a mistress. Cato wants to declare war on Carthage. Hmmm, if we looted Carthage, I might become rich. Then I could feed a wife, several mistresses, and lots of slaves. I’m voting for Cato.”

b) “You know, if we prevent the girls from marrying boys until the boys have done stuff for us resulting in them having wealth that we’ve bestowed upon them, the boys will be a lot more willing to fight our expansionist wars AND do shitty backbreaking labor and tolerate being ordered around by us, instead of giving us a bunch of backtalk”

c) “You know, it’s amazing how much of this we could accomplish pretty easily if we make it so the girls can’t help getting pregnant whenever they have sex. Go call my religion honchos in, I’ve got an idea here…”
Naaah. :wink:

Caveat: When a huge share of the male population dies off (as in Paraguay, after they fought against 3 of their neighbors) polygamy can be the result. There are similar proposals for Chechnya.

In some societies where only the rich practice polygyny it was fairly common to “import” wives or concubines. For the kings of Siam and for the Kahns of China, for example, concubines/wives were a common form of tribute from foreign alliances (and not just Rita Moreno). Wealthy Arabs and Hindus used to advertise for foreign women as well. (While sordid pulp fiction tales of white slavery abounded and I’m sure may have happened upon occasion, most such arrangements were consentual.) Since working class men (always 90%+ of the country) couldn’t afford such fees anyway this helped keep the supply of women more or less fair to them.

In Utah it was joked that with the markup on all manufactured goods (most of which had to be imported at considerable expense) Brigham Young was the only man who could afford to have multiple wives. This wasn’t the case, thousands of men practiced polygamy in the 19th century, but that was still a small minority of men and there were a lot of female converts to Mormonism. Also, a man with several wives may count among them older women who needed a man to look out for them (not being chauvinistic- this is a time when women were second class citizens [in fact they had more rights in Utah Territory than most states, including voting]) so they weren’t really women in circulation. (Young, for example, was married to several of his own mothers-in-law and several older women; while he is usually credited at anywhere between 2 dozen and hundreds of wives there were probably “only” about 20 he actually had sex with [this estimated from the fact 16 bore him children and of the remainders a few were young when they wed him but evidently infertile or didn’t share his bed enough]).
Young’s 20 or so “active duty” wives was by far and away an exception even for church leaders. As Young was rich (and notoriously stingy) he was able to provide for his wives and his 4 dozen surviving children, but most simply couldn’t do that. (Orson Pratt, a very important man in the history of Mormonism and the owner of much more property and revenues than most Mormons, had 10 wives and about 3 dozen surviving children and lived most of his life in poverty because his considerable resources were stretched so thin.) The majority of Mormon polygamists rarely had more than 2 wives and the vast majority of Mormon men were monogamists, so it’s the example above of 1 man in 1000 with 5 wives/1 man in 25 with 2 wives.
With Warren Jeffs, the Allreds, the Kingstons and other apostate sects, however, polygamy became the rule rather than the exception for most members. In the Jeffs cult a man must take 3 wives if he wishes to be assured of an entry to heaven. It’s generally more assumed than not that a member in good standing who is 40 or more has more than one wife, Jeffs himself has dozens and dozens of wives and his brothers and lieutenants frequently have a dozen or more.
Hence hundreds of young men have been driven out on the flimsiest of excuses while a girl will almost never be evicted from the compound; she’ll just be wed.

I’ve read a similar thing was happening in the upper echelons of the Taliban. With M. Omar and bin Laden and most other high-ups all maxed out at 4 wives there was a problem in some of their strongholds for eligible women. According to some reports one of Omar’s wives is one of Osama’s daughters and one of Osama’s wives is one of Omar’s daughters, hence the sons of these marriages are the both the uncles and nephews of the other set of children, which brings up the other major problem of polygamy in a relatively closed environment: inbreeding begins to reach critical mass much quicker when its possible for a man to have dozens of children and when families are so nebulously interwoven. (In Colorado City there is a cemetery just for babies as so many are born with birth defects due to double/triple doses of hereditary defects [this inbreeding has been going on for a century] and uncles have married nieces [permitted by the Bible], sometimes unknowingly.