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What is a Concubine?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A concubine is a woman who lives with a man in a situation that is similar to marriage, although without all of the privileges of marriage. The term can refer simply to a woman who lives with a man without being married, although it usually specifically refers to a contracted state that establishes the woman as a lesser member of a household, which may already include other wives. Many cultures have a long history of concubinage and multiple wives, and this practice continues to be used in some parts of the world today.

The term comes from the Latin prefix com-, which means “with,” and cubara, “to lie down.” Both the Ancient Greeks and Romans had concubines, and concubinage also appears in the Christian Bible. These lesser wives were also widely found in Asia and the Middle East, and such relationships can still be found in some of these regions, although they may be restricted by law.

Generally, only men of high social status have concubines. Additional wives require more wealth, especially since a well-outfitted one elevates a man's social status, while an obviously neglected one would reflect poorly upon him. Many in Ancient China, for example, had their own homes along with numerous valuable possessions, including elegant clothing and jewelry. Although these women did not enjoy the high status of the first wife of the household, they were still figures of respect, and major life events like childbirth and death were celebrated with lavish ceremonies.

Typically, the children of a concubine are recognized as official offspring of the woman's partner, although they may not have access to the same privileges as the children of the first wife. The female children could be given in marriage to high ranking members of society to forge allegiances, or they could be kept around the family compound to serve the higher status wives and children. Male children might be encouraged to become civil servants or to take up positions as merchants. Like their mothers, these children would traditionally have been well cared for, since they were dependents of the head of the household.

The history of concubinage and its legal status is quite complex. In cultures where such relationships were socially acceptable, the status of the women was often dictated by various laws and social codes. These codes were designed to make the position of the women and their children clear, and in some cases, the laws also protected them from blatant abuse. Some famous examples of historical concubines include Hagar, Sarah's handmaiden, who was given to Abraham in the Bible so that Sarah and Abraham could have a child, and the Fragrant Concubine, a legendary Chinese woman.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon316161 — On Jan 27, 2013

Just last night, I read in Genesis about concubines and wanted to know the definition, so this explains completely. Thanks.

By anon267025 — On May 08, 2012

I'm an American who lived in Latin America and moved to Florida 10 years ago. I've been since in Latin America living with a divorced man. Do I have inheritance rights from him? He has two sons.

By anon263344 — On Apr 24, 2012

In some cases, it is the upper class wife who sends her husband out to find a concubine (called a sugar baby today). She has produced his heirs and the children are grown. She is likely postmenopausal and lacking anything resembling a sex drive (many women do not lose their sex drive after menopause, but quite a few do).

She tells him to get off of her, and go find a bit of fluff to keep his carnal lusts satisfied, but she warns he had better be discreet or she and her lawyers will rape him in the divorce. She pays more attention to her show jumping horses than she does to him, so off he goes and finds a sugar baby. Or three.

By anon199359 — On Jul 23, 2011

what of a married woman who allows her husband a concubine as long as he allows her to be both a wife and a concubine to someone else simultaneously? you know, equal play.

By anon136955 — On Dec 25, 2010

Thank you because I was surely about to be an angry woman when my live in boyfriend allowed his friend to call me a concubine, but since I have understood the real meaning of this word, I can now relax!

By anon134675 — On Dec 15, 2010

What is a man called who lives with a woman and is not married to her?

By anon110446 — On Sep 12, 2010

Poster 1 is the most correct. The Western tradition of concubinage did reach its height of equality with the Roman Empire. The concept of whore means a person who trades temporary sexual favors for money. A whore is not a concubine.

Concubines did not (and do not) "consume with no expectations" by definition. They were (and are) like wives, sometimes without the same privileges, sometimes with the same privileges, depending on the culture and the arrangement. Concubine women are not always victims, nor do they always victimize. Truthfully, the rate of victimization in multiple partner relationships is no different than victimization in monogamous relationships. Abusers will abuse and users will use, no matter how many partners are involved. Is serial monogamy better than multiple partner relationships? It still means sexual relations with more than one person.

So, if you've slept with more than one person your entire life, you're not monogamous, either. What's the real difference between a serial monogamist and a polyamorist? Not much.

References: History aficionado and educator; Long-time counselor; First-hand experience with modern-day concubinage.

Assumptions the reader should not make about me:

That I am male. That I am a concubine. (I have one, I am not one.) My concubine has complete and equal privileges. My society does not allow polygamist unions, therefore she is a concubine, instead of a wife.

By anon80166 — On Apr 26, 2010

what is the MLA format of this article? Its great! Or author?

By anon59427 — On Jan 08, 2010

Truth is a rare commodity. A concubine is another word for a woman who does nothing but consume, with no expectations. It is a semi- princess syndrome, who expects all the benefits of the household and to be taken care of: a kept woman. Long word that can be brief, just say whore.

By anon58740 — On Jan 04, 2010

The closest association to the word i can find in my opinion would be the term 'de facto', although i can see the difference with a concubine as being associated to a wealthy individual, the similarities probably just end at both not being in a married partnership.

By anon48652 — On Oct 14, 2009

So why don't we revive the term as there are so many women who accept this relationship willingly. Instead of "fiancee" (usually not really the truth), concubine would be an accurate discription.

By anon28423 — On Mar 16, 2009

The top concubine has a name?

Is it bas cadone?

By somerset — On May 04, 2008

During Roman Empire, there were two types on concubinage, permanent and temporary. Temporary was considered immoral, but permanent was accepted as a valid and legitimate union, even though civil law did not fully recognize it, as it did regular marriage. However, there was no illegitimacy associated with it.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, and the loss of knowledge of Roman Law, the meaning of a concubine changed. It eventually concubinage came to imply an illicit and immoral union. The Church was against it and eventually prohibited it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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