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Marriage in ancient Rome had mythical beginnings, starting with the abduction of the Sabine Women. 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 abduct the Sabine maidens, but promise them an honorable marriage, in which they will enjoy the benefits of property, citizenship, and children. These three things seem to define the purpose of marriage in ancient Rome.[1]

The word matrimonium, the root for our own word for marriage, matrimony, defines the institution's main function. Involving the mater (mother), it carries with it the implication of the man taking to 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.[1]

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.[1]

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.


Age and Conventions of Roman Marriage

A group portrait depicted on glass, dating from c.250 A.D., showing a mother, son and daughter. It was once considered to be a depiction of the family of Valentinian III.

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 [2].

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, but their brides would be markedly younger women, between fifteen and twenty. 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. So betrothal tended to follow as soon as possible after puberty, even when the girl’s physique suggested postponement of consummation in marriage, because she seemed insufficiently developed to carry a healthy pregnancy or survive the high risks of child birth. 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.[3]

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.[3] 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, there is evidence that lower class women – plebeians, freedwomen etc – often married in their late teens or early twenties. Women were not seen as likely to marry after thirty. Marriage for them was not about economic and political gain in the cut throat world of Roman politics, 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.[3]

Patria Potestas

Fathers of legitimate children alone had patria potestas over their children. Patria Potestas was the 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 whose legitimate father was still alive required his 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 celebration, combining the legal, religious, and social features. It brings 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.[1]

However, 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 all sort of religious reasons as to why certain days should be avoided. 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.[1]

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, the religious, and the actual ceremony and celebration fulfilled the social.[1]


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.[citation needed]

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.[4] 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 hi 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.[5]

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.[6]

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 les 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.[7]

Adultery and Julian Marriage Laws

Portrait of Augustus wearing a gorgoneion on a three layered sardonyx cameo, AD 14–20

In 18 BC, the Emperor Augustus turned his attention to social problems at Rome. Extravagance and adultery were widespread. Among the upper classes, marriage was increasingly infrequent and many couples who did marry failed to produce offspring. Augustus, who hoped to thereby elevate both morals and the numbers of upper classes in Rome and to increase the population of native Italians in Italy, enacted laws to encourage marriage and having children, including provisions establishing adultery as a crime. The law against adultery made the offence a crime punishable by exile and confiscation of property.[8] Augustus assessed heavier taxes on unmarried men and women without husbands, and by contrast offered awards for marriage and childbearing.

The Augustan adultery law permitted a father to kill his daughter and her adulterer only if he caught them in his own domus (house) or that of the daughter’s husband and the husband can kill an adulterer of low status if discovered in the husband’s house. The language of pollution and violation underlines the sacred nature of the domus and the honorable duty to protect it.

Less serious offenses than adultery and rape could diminish the honor of the household.[9] Domus in the sense of human households, as well as physical house was a focus of honor for Romans: the honor of the paterfamilias (father of the family) depended on his ability to protect his household, and in turn the virtue of the household contributed to his prestige.[9] Augustus himself was obliged to invoke the law against his own daughter, Julia, and relegated her to the island of Pandateria.

The Augustan social laws 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.[8]

Divorce from Manus Marriage

Area under Roman control      Roman Republic      Roman Empire      Western Empire      Eastern Empire      Inheriting countries of the Byzantine Empire

Divorce, like marraige, 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 have always had the possibility of divorcing their wives.[10] 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.[11] 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.[10]

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. Anytime a new opportunity arouse, a man or woman would 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.[11] A motivated man or woman might marry and divorce a couple times in their lifetime if they thought it to their advantage.[11]

One of the main reasons for divorce, besides serious marital fault, was a desire to no longer remain married to a spouse.[10] 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.[10] 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.[10] All that mattered was that one spouse wanted it to end and then 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.[10] Many times there were not even any private records kept of the divorce and this often led to some confusion with the numerous marriages and divorces going on.[10] Sometimes all that was required of a divorce was a verbal saying that the marriage was over and that was it.

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 often lead to some confusion 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.[10] 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.[10]

Divorce from Free Marriage

Following the complete end of Manus Marriage in the 1st century BCE and the emergence of Free Marriage Divorce ceased needing any reason, and 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 leaving only the Dowry to resolve. In cases of Adultery husbands got to keep a portion of the Dowry, but without Adultery women would take most if not all of their Dowry with them, as well as the property they owned which wouldn't be in Dowry.

Remarriage and Widowhood

Remarriage was very common in ancient Rome society and many men and women were usually married at least twice in their lifetimes.[12] This is due to the fact that there was a high infant mortality rate, high death rate, and low average life expectancy in ancient Rome. Men and women did not live very long. This high mortality rate plus the high divorce rate, common in ancient Rome, lead to many instances of remarriage.[12] 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.[12]

Since the death rate during this period was so high for men and women, due to premature death in warfare and childbirth respectively, remarriage after the death of a spouse was more common than remarriage after a divorce.[12] In many instances remarriage after a divorce was voluntary but remarriage after widowhood was imposed by society.[13] This policy of remarriage after widowhood led to the high rate of marriages expected per lifetime.

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 women getting ‘hysteric uterine constriction’.[13] There was even legislation passed during the rule of Augustus that required widows to remarry to be able to fully inherit.[13]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Treggiari, Susan. Roman Marriage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  2. ^ Duby,Perrot,and Pantel A History of Women Volume 1, pg. 133
  3. ^ a b c Elaine Fantham, Julia August: the Emperor's Daughter: Women in the Ancient World,Routledge, 2006
  4. ^ Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 97.
  5. ^ Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 102.
  6. ^ Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 105.
  7. ^ Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History, The John Hopkins University Press, 2003.
  8. ^ a b Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, Women's life in Greece and Rome (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 102.
  9. ^ a b Richard P. Saller, Patriarchy, Property, and Death in the Roman Family(New York:Cambridge University Press, 1994), 94.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i Susan Treggiari, "Divorce Roman Style: How Easy and how Frequent was it?" in Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome,eds. Beryl Rawson,31-46 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
  11. ^ a b c Barbara Holland and Lane Yerkes,"The long good-bye", Smithsonian 28, no. 12 (March 1998):86.
  12. ^ a b c d K. R. Bradley, "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, 1991).
  13. ^ a b c Mireille Corbier, "Divorce and Adoption as Roman Familial Strategies." in Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome,eds. Beryl Rawson, 47-78 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).


  • Corbier, Mireille. 1991. "Divorce and Adoption as Roman Familial Strategies", In Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome, eds. Beryl Rawson, 47-78. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 01-98-14918-2
  • 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 01-98-14918-2
  • Treggiari, Susan. 1991. "Divorce Roman Style: How easy and how Frequent was it?" In Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome, eds. Beryl Rawson, 31-46. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 01-98-14918-2
  • Holland, Barbara, and Lane Yerkes. "The long good-bye." Smithsonian 28, no. 12 (March 1998):86.
  • Gardner, Jane F. 1991. Women in Roman Law and Society,Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. ISBN 02-53-20635-9
  • Parkin, Tim G. 2003. Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. ISBN 08-01-87128-X
  • Fantham, Elaine. 2006. Julia Augusti: the Emperor's Daughter: Women in the Ancient World, New York: Routledge. ISBN 04-15-33146-3
  • Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Fant, Maureen B. 2005. Women's Life in Greece and Rome, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. ISBN 08-01-84474-6
  • Saller, Richard P. 1994. Patriarchy, Property, and Death in the Roman Family, New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 05-21-32603-6
  • Treggiari, Susan. Roman Marriage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-19-814890-9

Further reading

  • Debating Roman Demography Walter Scheidel (ed.) Brill Academic Publishers, 2000. ISBN 90-04-11525-0
  • Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time) by Richard P. Saller. Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-521-59978-4
  • I Clavdia II: Women in Roman Art and Society. Edited by Diana E. E. Kleiner and Susan B. Matheson Yale University Art Gallery. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

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