Tomorrow is, as I’m sure everyone knows, the finale of this season of The Bachelor. It’s the moment when our intrepid single man will choose to settle down with his one-and-only for the rest of his life (or until Dancing with the Stars comes calling, whichever is soonest). But until this point Ben Higgins has dated no fewer than 20 women simultaneously, both with their consent and also with the approval of a captivated public. It’s an unconventional modern love story but it is hardly novel: this 21st-century reality show is in some ways just the latest example of a romantic arrangement available to high-status men for thousands of years.
The harem—as opposed to polygamy or run-of-the-mill adultery—almost exclusively involves the wealthy and powerful. The most famous example is the Grand Seraglio of the Ottoman Sultans. The sultan’s mother, along with his wives, female attendants, and servants all lived together in the harem. (The actual word is Arabic and means “the place of the women”; it was originally used to denote any area of a house that was reserved for the use of women and children. The scantily clad women of Orientalist fantasies being strictly optional).
Life in the harem was difficult. Women were not there by choice, having been captured in war, sold by their fathers or acquired as part of a dowry. The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman empire included more than 400 rooms and, according to some, was guarded by nearly 800 eunuchs. Life within its walls life was strictly hierarchical. The Valide Sultan, mother of the Sultan, ruled the roost and had almost absolute power over the concubines. No one could leave or enter the harem without her permission. Things were even more dangerous for the concubine who dared to insult her liege. According to legend, Ashoka, emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty in modern-day India, had his entire harem burned alive when a small group of them offended him.