Marriage in ancient Rome
Marriage in ancient Rome was a strictly monogamous institution: a Roman citizen by law could have only one spouse at a time. The practice of monogamy distinguished the Greeks and Romans from other ancient civilizations, in which elite males typically had multiple wives. Greco-Roman monogamy may have arisen from the egalitarianism of the democratic and republican political systems of the city-states. It is one aspect of ancient Roman culture that was embraced by early Christianity, which in turn perpetuated it as an ideal in later Western culture.
Marriage had mythical precedents, starting with the abduction of the Sabine Women, which may reflect the archaic custom of bride abduction. Romulus and his band of male immigrants were rejected conubium, the legal right to intermarriage, from the Sabines. According to Livy, Romulus and his men abducted the Sabine maidens, but promised them an honorable marriage, in which they would enjoy the benefits of property, citizenship, and children. These three benefits seem to define the purpose of marriage in ancient Rome.
The word matrimonium, the root for the English word "matrimony," defines the institution's main function. Involving the mater (mother), it carries with it the implication of the man taking a woman in marriage to have children. It is the idea conventionally shared by Romans as to the purpose of marriage, which would be to produce legitimate children; citizens producing new citizens.
Consortium is a word used for the sharing of property, usually used in a technical sense for the property held by heirs, but could also be used in the context of marriage. Such usage was commonly seen in Christian writings. However, the sharing of water and fire (aquae et ignis communiciatio) was symbolically more important. It refers to the sharing of natural resources. Worldly possessions transferred automatically from the wife to the husband in archaic times, whereas the classical marriage kept the wife's property separate.
In order for the union of a man and woman to be legitimate, there needed to be consent legally and morally. Both parties had to be willing and intend to marry, and both needed their fathers' consent. If all other legal conditions were met, a marriage was made.
- 1 Conventions of Roman marriage
- 2 Divorce
- 3 Remarriage and Widowhood
- 4 Concubinage
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Bibliography
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Conventions of Roman marriage
The lives of elite Roman women were essentially determined by their marriages. We are best informed about families with both wealth and political standing, whose largely inherited money would follow both their sons and their daughters. In the earliest periods of Roman history, Manus Marriage meant that a married woman would be subjugated by her husband, but that custom had died out by the 1st century BCE, in favor of Free Marriage which did not grant a husband any rights over his wife or have any changing effect on a woman's status.
Elite young men would usually marry in their mid-twenties, after a year or more of military service and some initial experience attending cases and even pleading in the criminal or civil courts. Their brides, however, would be markedly younger women, between fifteen and twenty years of age. This was in part because the family felt no need to retain the daughter at home in order to give her a full education, and partly from fear that once into the flush of adolescence the girl might throw away her virginity or lose the reputation for chastity, which was a prerequisite for marriage. The higher the social position of the girl, the sooner betrothal tended to follow puberty, since marriages were arranged for political reasons. The actual marriage, however, was usually postponed until she was physically mature enough to carry a healthy pregnancy or survive the high risks of childbirth. The young wife would learn some of the complexities of running a large household by observing her mother, and her training would be supplemented by the slave staff of her new household.
The more prominent her family, the less it was likely that the girl would have much choice in the age, appearance or character of her first husband. Through high status marriages (even imperial ones), women were able to gain associative power from their husbands' prominent positions in society. Women who gained power in this way could even then legitimize the power positions of their sons (such as with Livia and Tiberius) as their symbolic status influenced Roman society.
While upper class girls married very young, lower class women – plebeians, freedwomen etc. – in practice would marry during their late teens to men in their late twenties. Women were not seen as likely to marry after thirty. Marriage for them was not about economic or political gain, so it was not as urgent.
In a sense, the lives of all women in antiquity were defined around their expectation and achievement of marriage: first as young girls, then as wives and, if all went well, as mothers. In their later years, it was statistically probable that they would survive their husbands and live as widows. From day to day, on a larger scale, their obligations and opportunities depended on the man or men to whom they were married.
Fathers of legitimate children alone had patria potestas over their children. Patria potestas was often a lifelong subjugation of a child to his or her father's will and, to the horror of the Greeks and other outside observers of the time, applied to sons as much as daughters.
A man or woman who was subject to patria potestas required his or her father's consent for marriage. No paternal consent was required for illegitimate children or those whose fathers had died. This gave the father of legitimate children a very substantial say in at least the first marriage of his children. He had no right to prevent a divorce by one of his children. Though a father could deny the right to marriage by refusing a prospective son- or daughter-in-law, he could not legally force his children into marriage.
Engagement and ceremony
The nuptiae was often begun with a celebration, combining legal, religious, and social features. It brings the two households together, new property is introduced, and there is the underlying promise of children. The wedding ceremony no doubt included various customs and religious rites, but it cannot be assumed such rituals were static or widespread throughout the centuries.
The typical upperclass wedding in the classical period tended to be a lavish affair. The expense of the wedding was normally the bride's family's responsibility. The day was carefully chosen, with various religious reasons as to why certain days should be avoided. During engagement ceremonies, which typically took place before the wedding ceremonies, the groom would often hand his future wife an iron ring. During wedding ceremonies the bride and groom often sacrificed an animal and asked the gods for a blessing. Gifts were given to family and friends, and sometimes the bride and groom exchanged presents of money before the wedding. On the wedding day, the bride went with a procession to her new home, while the bridegroom went ahead of the bride to receive her. With her, the bride brought a torch lit from her family's hearth, and was offered another torch and water, symbolizing the aquae et ignis communicatio. She was then carried over the threshold by her attendants, not her husband. The words "Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia" may have been exchanged at this point. The actual consummation of the marriage took place in the bedroom, supposedly in the dark. The day after the wedding, the groom would hold a dinner party at his house, and it was at this time that the bride made an offering to the gods of her new home. All of this was part of publicizing the marriage.
The verbal consent between the bride and groom fulfilled the legal expectations, the sharing of the water and fire and, perhaps, the clasping of their right hands (dextrarum iunctio), the religious, and the actual ceremony and celebration fulfilled the social.
One of the most important aspects of the practical and business-like arrangement of Roman marriage was the dowry. The dowry was a contribution made by the wife’s family to the husband to cover the expenses of the household. It was more customary than compulsory. Ancient papyrus texts show that dowries typically included land and slaves but could also include jewelry, toilet articles (used to make women more attractive, such as mirrors), and clothing. These items were connected with legacy and if the wife died early in the marriage, the dowry could be returned to her family and buried with her to give a more elaborate burial than was typical for the time, however that was not always the case.
The dowry was also how Roman families maintained their social status relative to each other. It was important to ensure that upon the end of a marriage, the dowry was returned to either the wife or her family. This was done in order to improve her chances of remarriage as well as to maintain the family resources. In ancient Rome, the dowry became the husband’s full legal property. In actuality, however, the purpose of the dowry often affected the husband’s freedom to use the dowry. For example, if the dowry was given to help in the maintenance of the wife, or if a legal provision was made for the wife or her family to reclaim the dowry should the marriage dissolve, the husband was restricted as to how he could make use of the dowry.
The fate of the dowry at the end of a marriage depended on its original source. A dowry of dos recepticia was one in which agreements were made in advance about its disposal. The agreement made beforehand determined how this dowry would be recovered. One of dos profecticia was a dowry given by the father of the bride. This type of dowry could be recovered by the donor or by a divorced daughter if her pater died. A dowry of dos adventicia was given by the daughter herself, though it came from her pater. This dowry usually came in non-traditional forms, for example, in lieu of a debt settlement, instead of being given as a direct charge on the pater’s estate. The wife usually recovered this dowry. However, if she died, the husband retained this dowry.
Old age and marriage
The evidence for rules of age in Augustus’ marriage legislation will be applied to the information we have in regard to the age of menopause in women in classical times, and similarly the age up to which males were considered capable of fathering children. Under the terms of the lex Iulia, unmarried persons, caelibes (unmarried as defined by laws), were incapable of taking either inheritances or legacies. Married persons who had no children, orbi, could take no more than one-half of either inheritances or legacies. Originally, this basic principle seems to have applied only to those of a certain age, namely to men between the ages of 25 and 59 years, and to women of 20 to 49 years of age. Apart from questions of age, others were also exempted from the limitations imposed on the capacity to inherit, namely relatives, cognati, to the sixth (and in certain cases to the seventh) degree, as well as those in the manus or potestas of such relatives. Under the Augustan legislation a husband and wife could enjoy complete capacity to inherit if, apart from the rules of age, they were otherwise related to within the sixth degree, or the husband was absent for a certain period of time (a temporary privilege), or the couple had a living communis child or a certain number of children who had survived to certain ages, or they had otherwise been granted the ius liberorum. If the married couple could not claim under any of these conditions, then they were normally capable of taking only one-tenth of the estate of the other.
Augustan marriage laws
Following the collapse of the Republic and the rise of Augustus as sole ruler, moral legislation became part of the new political order. As Rome's first emperor, Augustus turned his attention in 18 BC to social reforms. Laws pertaining to marriage, parenting, and adultery were part of his program to restore the mos maiorum, traditional social norms, while consolidating his political authority and codifying a more rigid social hierarchy in the wake of the recent civil wars. The appeal to old-fashioned values cloaked the radical overthrow of the Republic's participatory political institutions by top-down, one-man rule.
Among the upper classes, marriage was less frequent, and many couples who did marry failed to produce offspring. Augustus implemented a series of laws pertaining to marriage and family life, aimed at increasing the population of native Italians in Italy, encouraging marriage and having children, and punishing adultery as a crime (see Adultery below). Heavier taxes were assessed on unmarried men and women without husbands, but privileges and recognition were granted for marriage and childbearing (see Jus trium liberorum).
These new laws from Augustus were badly received and were modified in AD 9 by the Lex Papia Poppaea, named after the two bachelor consuls of that year. The earlier and later laws are often referred to in juristic sources as the lex Julia et Papia. In part as a result of Christian opposition to such policies, the laws were eventually nearly all repealed or fell into disuse under Constantine and later emperors, including Justinian.
Adultery was a sexual offense committed by a man with a woman who was neither his wife nor a permissible partner such as a prostitute or slave. A married man committed adultery mainly when his female partner was another man's wife or unmarried daughter. The punishment varied at different periods of Roman history and depending on the circumstances.
Although prohibitions against adultery and harsh punishments are mentioned during the Republic (509–27 BC), historical sources suggest that they were regarded as archaic survivals, and should not be interpreted as accurate representations of behavior. Adultery was normally considered a private matter for families to deal with, not a serious criminal offense requiring the attention of the courts, though there were some cases when adultery and sexual transgressions by women had been brought to the aediles for judgment. According to Cato (2nd century BC), a husband had an ancient right (ius) to kill his wife if he caught her in the act of adultery. The existence of this "right" has been questioned; if it did exist, it was a matter of custom and not statute law, and probably only applied to those in the manus form of marriage, which had become vanishingly rare by the Late Republic (147–27 BC), when a married woman always remained legally a part of her own family. No source records the justified killing of a woman for adultery by either a father or husband during the Republic. Adultery was sufficient grounds for divorce, however, and if the wife was at fault, the wronged husband got to keep a portion of her dowry, though not much more than if he had repudiated her for less serious forms of misconduct.
As part of the moral legislation of Augustus in 18 BC, the Lex Iulia de adulteriis ("Julian Law concerning acts of adultery") was directed at punishing married women who engaged in extra-marital affairs. The implementation of punishment was the responsibility of the paterfamilias, the male head of household to whose legal and moral authority the adulterous party was subject. If a father discovered that his married daughter was committing adultery in either his own house or the house of his son-in-law, he was entitled to kill both the woman and her lover; if he killed only one of the adulterers, he could be charged with murder. While advertising the father's power, the extremity of the sentence seems to have led to its judicious implementation, since cases in which this sentence was carried out are infrequently recorded — most notoriously, by Augustus himself against his own daughter.
A wronged husband was entitled to kill his wife's lover if the man was either a slave or infamis, a person who, though perhaps technically free, was excluded from the normal legal protections extended to Roman citizens. Among the infames were convicted criminals, entertainers such as actors and dancers, prostitutes and pimps, and gladiators. He was not allowed to kill his wife, who was not under his legal authority. If he chose to kill the lover, however, the husband was required to divorce his wife within three days and to have her formally charged with adultery. If a husband was aware of the affair and did nothing, he himself could be charged with pandering (lenocinium, from leno, "pimp").
If no death penalty was carried out and charges for adultery were brought, both the married woman and her lover were subject to criminal penalties, usually including the confiscation of one-half of the adulterer’s property, along with one third of the woman’s property and half her dowry; any property brought by a wife to the marriage or gained during marriage normally remained in her possession following a divorce. A woman convicted of adultery was barred from remarrying.
Scholars have often assumed that the Lex Iulia was meant to address a virulent outbreak of adultery in the Late Republic. An androcentric perspective in the early 20th century held that the Lex Iulia had been "a very necessary check upon the growing independence and recklessness of women." A more sympathetic view in the late 20th to early 21st century saw love affairs as a way for the intelligent, independent women of the elite to form emotionally meaningful relationships outside marriages arranged for political purposes. It is possible, however, that no such epidemic of adultery even existed; the law should perhaps be understood not as addressing a real problem that threatened society, but as one of the instruments of social control exercised by Augustus that cast the state, and by extension himself, in the role of paterfamilias to all Rome. Humiliating or violent punishments for adultery are prescribed by law and described by poets, but are absent in the works of Roman historians or the letters of Cicero: "The men who people the pages of Cicero and Tacitus do not burst into their wives' bedrooms to take violent revenge (even when license was granted by the law)." Augustus himself, however, had frequent recourse to his moral laws in choosing to banish potential enemies and rivals from Rome, and the effect of the legislation seems to have been primarily political.
Divorce from Manus Marriage
Divorce, like marriage, changed and evolved throughout Roman history. As the centuries passed and ancient Rome became more diversified, the laws and customs of divorce also changed and became more diversified to include the customs and beliefs of all the different people. Divorce had always been a common occurrence in Rome and from the beginning of ancient law in Rome men had the possibility of divorcing their wives. Although this custom was usually reserved for serious marital faults, such as adultery, making copies of the household keys, consuming wine, or infertility, it could be employed by a husband at any time. For many centuries only husbands had this privilege but wives were finally included in this process and given permission to divorce their husbands as Rome entered into the classical age.
Since marriage was often used as a political tool in ancient Rome, especially in the upper classes, divorces were common when new political opportunities presented themselves. When a new opportunity arose, a man or woman might divorce their current spouse and marry a new one. A man or woman could form valuable family ties through their various marriages and divorces to different families. A motivated man or woman might marry and divorce a couple times in their lifetime if they thought it to their advantage.
One of the main reasons for divorce, besides serious marital fault, was a desire to no longer remain married to a spouse. Since one of the defining characteristics of marriage was a will to be married and an attitude of regarding one another as husband or wife, the marriage ended when the will or attitude ended. A husband or wife would notify their spouse that they no longer desired to be married and the marriage would end. It is interesting to note that only one spouse’s will was required for a divorce and that a divorce was still final even if the other spouse did not receive the notice of divorce. All that mattered was that one spouse wanted it to end, and it ended.
Divorce in ancient Rome was usually a private affair and only the parties involved were notified of it. A divorce did not have to be recognized or ratified by the church or state and no public record was kept of a divorce. The lack of divorce records often led to some confusion with the numerous marriages and divorces going on.
One of the main components of a marriage was the exchange of the dowry between the husband and the wife or the wife’s guardian. This would sometimes lead to disputes when the marriage ended because both parties wanted to claim the dowry. It became an established custom that if the wife were not at fault for the ending of the marriage, then she was able to reclaim her dowry. This would often happen if the husband had committed offenses during the marriage, such as adultery. Since either a husband or a wife could initiate a divorce, it became understood that if the wife wanted the divorce and there were children involved, then a husband could have some claim on the dowry based on the children.
Divorce from Free Marriage
The Manus Marriage custom ended in the 1st century BCE and the Free Marriage divorce emerged. With this, the reasons for any divorce became irrelevant. Either spouse could leave a marriage at any point. Property during a marriage was kept separate under Roman Law, and this left only the dowry in common. In cases of adultery, husbands got to keep a portion of the dowry, but without the involvement of adultery women would take most if not all of their dowry with them, as well as their personal property. However, the woman had to get permission from the government to have a divorce, while the man did not.
Remarriage and Widowhood
Remarriage was very common in ancient Roman society and many men and women were usually married at least twice in their lifetimes. This was due to the high death rate and low average life expectancy in ancient Rome. This high mortality rate plus the high divorce rate, common in ancient Rome, led to many instances of remarriage. Since children were expected in marriage, each spouse usually brought at least one child to the new marriage. Remarriages thus created a new blending of the family in ancient Roman society, where children were influenced by stepparents and some instances where stepmothers were younger than their stepchildren.
Most wives were encouraged to remarry after either the death of the husband or a divorce. Ancient physicians believed that a woman was liable to get very sick if she was deprived of sexual activity and it could even lead to a woman getting ‘'hysteric uterine constriction.’' There was even legislation passed during the rule of Augustus that required widows and widowers to remarry to be able to fully inherit from people outside of their immediate family.
Concubinage (Latin: contubernium; concubine=concubina, considered milder than paelex) was the institution practiced in ancient Rome that allowed men to enter into certain illegal relationships without repercussions, with the exception of involvement with prostitutes. This de facto polygamy – for Roman citizens could not legally marry or cohabit with a concubine while also having a legal wife – was “tolerated to the degree that it did not threaten the religious and legal integrity of the family”. The title of concubine was not considered derogatory (as it may be considered today) in ancient Rome, and was often inscribed on tombstones.
Emperor Augustus’ Leges Juliae gave the first legal recognition of concubinage, defining it as cohabitation without marital status. Concubinage came to define many relationships and marriages considered unsuitable under Roman law, such a senator’s desire to marry a freedwoman, or his cohabitation with a former prostitute. While a man could live in concubinage with any woman of his choice rather than marrying her, he was compelled to give notice to authorities. This type of cohabitation varied little from actual marriage, except that heirs from this union were not considered legitimate. Often this was the reason that men of high rank would live with a woman in concubinage after the death of their first wife, so that the claims of their children from this first marriage would not be challenged by the children from this later union.
Concerning the difference between a concubine and a wife, the jurist Julius Paulus wrote in his Opinions that “a concubine differs from a wife only in the regard in which she is held,” meaning that a concubine was not considered a social equal to her patron, as his wife was. While the official Roman law declared that a man could not have a concubine at the same time he had a wife, there are various notable occurrences of this, including the famous cases of the emperors Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, and Vespasian. Suetonius wrote that Augustus “put Scribonia [his second wife] away because she was too free in complaining about the influence of his concubine”. Often, in return for payment, concubines would relay appeals to their emperor.
Concubines did not receive much protection under the law, aside from the legal recognition of their social stature. They largely relied upon their patrons to provide for them. Early Roman law sought to differentiate between the status of concubinage and legal marriage, as demonstrated in a law attributed to Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, circa 716-673 BCE: “A concubine shall not touch the altar of Juno. If she touches it, she shall sacrifice, with her hair unbound, a ewe lamb to Juno”; this fragment gives evidence that concubines existed early in the Roman monarchy, but also notes the banning of their involvement in the worship of Juno, the goddess of marriage. Later the jurist Ulpian wrote on the Lex Julia et Papia, “Only those women with whom intercourse is not unlawful can be kept in concubinage without the fear of committing a crime”. He also said that “anyone can keep a concubine of any age unless she is less than twelve years old.”
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- Catharine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 34ff., 41–42 et passim; and "Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome," in Roman Sexualities (Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 67, 89–90 et passim.
- Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, Women's life in Greece and Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 102.
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- Martha C. Nussbaum, "The Incomplete Feminism of Musonius Rufus, Platonist, Stoic, and Roman," in The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome (University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 305.
- Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, pp. 34–35; Nussbaum, "The Incomplete Feminism of Musonius Rufus," p. 305, noting that custom "allowed much latitude for personal negotiation and gradual social change."
- Susan Dixon, The Roman Family (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 79.
- Dixon, The Roman Family, p. 202.
- Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, p. 41.
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- Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, p. 38, citing the jurist Paulus, Sententiae 2.26.4.
- Edwards, The Politics of Immorality, p. 38.
- Edwards, The Politics of Immorality, pp. 38–39.
- Edwards, The Politics of Immorality, p. 39, citing Ulpian, Digest 18.104.22.168; 22.214.171.124.
- McGinn, "Concubinage and the Lex Iulia on Adultery," p. 341.
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- Edwards, The Politics of Immorality, pp. 34–36.
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- Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (Kegan Paul International) 2000:50.
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- Lefkowitz & Fant, Women's Life in Greece and Rome (Johns Hopkins University Press) 2005:110.
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- Bradley, K.R. 1991. "Remarriage and the Structure of the Upper-Class Roman Family", In Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome, eds. Beryl Rawson, 79-98. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-814918-2
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