In many ancient cultures, rulers not only had wives. Depending on the culture that they belonged to, they may have kept concubines as well. These were women who served many of the same purposes as wives but as concubines, they were unable to marry the men that they served for a variety of reasons. Many women who served as concubines were commoners or even slaves and, because of their lowly social status, it was impossible for them to marry the ruler that they served.
Often, the concubines were kept in seclusion and were not accessible to males other than the ruler whom they served. In Muslim cultures, this area was known as a harem. In some cultures, wives may have lived with the concubines. In other cultures, the legal wives may have lived separately from the concubines. Although Muslim harems are among some of the best known settings where concubines existed, the Muslims were not the only culture to keep women who filled this role.
In many stories, the concubines a ruler had were taken by force and sold into their life but this was not always the case. It was not uncommon in some cultures for poorer families to present their daughters to a ruler in order to see if they would be chosen as a concubine. This often served the dual purpose of getting rid of an extra mouth to feed as well as giving their daughter a life of comfort, privilege and protection.
One example of this was Consort Wu. She was the consort and favorite concubine of Emperor Zuanzong of China. Known for her beauty, she rose to the position of Huifei, the highest rank that a concubine could achieve. After the Emperor’s wife died in 724 CE, Consort Wu was treated like an Empress by all of the servants living in the palace. Although she was treated as a wife by the Emperor they were never formally wed.
Concubines often bore children to the rulers that they served. In some cases, these children were treated as legal offspring especially if the concubine or consort was an official one that was recognized by a court. Some concubines also enjoyed a measure of fame apart from their status as consort to a particular ruler.
While life could be good for a concubine, if they failed to bear children it often became less pleasant. In some cases, when the ruler that they served died, childless concubines were expected to die as well. In the case of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of a unified China, his Imperial consorts were sealed up in his tomb to serve him in the afterlife.
Concubines also appeared in the Bible as well. The Israelites often kept concubines in addition to their lawful wives and these women enjoyed the same rights and privileges as the legitimate wives did. In the Bible, wives had dowries but concubines did not and this was the chief method of distinguishing between the two social positions. One of the most famous keepers of concubines in the Bible was King Solomon, who lived from 1011 BCE to 931 BCE. According to Biblical records, he had three hundred concubines in addition to his seven hundred wives.