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.
Under early Roman law, the head of a family pater familias had absolute authority (patria potestas) over his children and, to a lesser extent, his wife. His household was thus understood to be under his manus (literally, "hand"). He had the right and duty to seek a good and useful match for his children, and might arrange a child's betrothal long before he or she came of age. To further the interests of their birth families, sons of the elite should follow their fathers into public life. and daughters should marry into respectable families. If a daughter could prove the proposed husband to be of bad character, she could legitimately refuse the match.,
The age of lawful consent to a marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Most Roman women seem to have married in their late teens to early twenties, but noble women married younger than those of the lower classes, and an aristocratic girl was expected to be virgin until her first marriage.
Roman mores idealised a married daughter's relationship to her father as deferential and obedient, even at her husband's expense. "Deference" was not always absolute. After arranging his daughter's first two marriages, Cicero disapproved — rightly, as it turned out — of her choice to marry Dolabella, but found himself unable to prevent it. A daughter kept her own birth-family name (nomen) for life; and although children usually took the father's name, some might take their mother's family name as part of theirs. In the early Empire, the legal standing of daughters differed little, if at all, from that of sons; either could inherit a share of the family estate if their father died intestate.
Early Roman law recognised three kinds of marriage: confarreatio, symbolized by the sharing of spelt bread (panis farreus); coemptio, "by purchase"; and by usus (habitual cohabitation). Patricians always married by confarreatio, while plebeians married by coemptio or usus: in the latter, a woman could avoid her husband's legal control simply by being absent from their shared home for three consecutive nights, once a year. Among elite families of the early Republic, manus marriage was the norm; the bride passed from the manus ("hand") of her father to the manus of her husband, remaining under one or another form of male potestas (power).
Manus marriage was an institutionally unequal relationship. By the time of Julius Caesar, it was largely abandoned in favour of "free" marriage; when a wife moved into her husband's home, she remained under her father's lawful authority; but she did not conduct her daily life under his direct scrutiny. and her husband had no legal power over her. This was one of the factors in the independence Roman women enjoyed, relative to those of many other ancient cultures and up to the modern period: Free marriage usually involved two citizens of equal or near-equal status, or a citizen and a person who held Latin rights. In the later Imperial period and with official permission, soldier-citizens and non-citizens could marry. So total was the law's separation of property that gifts between spouses were recognised as conditional loans; if a couple divorced or even lived apart, the giver could reclaim the gift.
Following the collapse of the Republic, laws pertaining to marriage, parenting, and adultery were part of Augustus' program to restore the mos maiorum (traditional social norms), while consolidating his power as princeps and paterfamilias of the Roman state. Marriage and remarriage had become less frequent; and the citizen birth-rate had fallen, particularly among the wealthier, more leisured classes. Augustan law pertaining to marriage and family life encouraged marriage and having children, and punished adultery as a crime. The new legislation formalised and enforced what had been considered a traditional, moral duty to family and the State; all men between 25 and 60 years of age, and all women between 20 and 50 were to marry and have children, or pay extra tax in proportion to their wealth. Members of the upper classes thus faced had most to lose. Citizens who had already produced three children, and freed persons who had produced four, were exempt. Marriages between senators and freed women, and slaves and citizens, were declared legally void. Children born to such liaisons were illegitimate, non-citizen and unable to inherit. A married woman who bore three children or more could be granted legal independence under the ius liberorum. These laws were badly received; they were modified in AD 9 by the Lex Papia Poppaea;[clarification needed] eventually they were nearly all repealed or fell into disuse under Constantine and later emperors, including Justinian.
A confarreatio wedding ceremony was a rare event, reserved for the highest echelons of Rome's elite. The Flamen Dialis and Pontifex Maximus presided, with ten witnesses present, and the bride and bridegroom shared a cake of spelt (in Latin far or panis farreus), hence the rite's name.
A more typical upper-middle class wedding in the classical period was less prestigious than a confarreatio, but could be equally lavish. It would have been carefully planned. Some dates were auspicious for weddings but others were avoided as unlucky. Traditionally, high-caste brides were supposed to weave and sew their own wedding garments; a white woolen dress which was very like that of a Vestal Virgin, and a translucent, flame-yellow veil, symbolising chastity and ritual purity. Sometimes the bride and groom exchanged gifts before the wedding.
The night before her wedding, the bride-to-be gave her childhood costume and playthings to her family Lares, to signify her imminent coming of age. On the day of her marriage, she donned her wedding dress, and loosely belted it at the waist. She put on a floral wreath or crown, then covered her head with her flame-yellow veil. A young boy lit a "torch of Ceres" at her sacred household fire, and led the bridal procession to the house of the husband-to-be; En route, the bride gave a copper coin to her groom's neighbourhood Lares (Lares Compitalici), as an acknowledgement that she would soon be part of his community.
When the procession reached the groom's house, water and another torch, lit at the groom's household fire, were brought out to greet it, with the words aquae et ignis communicatio ("I give you water and fire"). The bride's female attendants carried her over the threshold, where she greeted her groom; "ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia" ("where you are Gaius, I am Gaia"), to which he would reply "ubi tu Gaia, ego Gaius". A wedding sacrifice was offered to Tellus; a sow is the most likely victim. The witnesses, the verbal consent of bride and groom, the sharing of the water and fire and, perhaps, the clasping of their right hands (dextrarum iunctio) testified that the marriage had taken place. It was consummated in the bedroom, supposedly in the dark. The day after the wedding, the husband would hold a dinner party, and the bride made an offering to the Lares and other domestic deities of her new home.
Dowry (Latin dos, a gift) was the payment made by a wife’s family to her husband, nominally to cover the expenses of their household. It was more customary than compulsory. Ancient papyrus texts show that dowries typically included land and slaves but could also include jewelry, toiletries, mirrors, and clothing.
While a marriage lasted, the dowry was the husband's property but his use of it was restricted; if the marriage ended through divorce, it was returned to either the wife or her family. If the husband committed offenses which led to divorce, he lost claim to any share in the dowry. If a wife was blameless for the ending of her marriage, the dowry was restored to her. If a wife or husband with children initiated a divorce, their partner could claim a share of dowry on behalf of the children, to meet their needs and later inheritance.
A dowry of dos recepticia was one in which agreements were made in advance about its disposal and recovery. A dowry of dos profecticia was one given by the bride's father or her paterfamilias; it could be recovered by the donor or by the divorced woman herself. A dowry of dos adventicia was more flexible; it might be given by the wife, though it came from her father, and used to settle a debt incurred by the husband. If she divorced, a wife could reclaim this dowry; if she died, the husband kept it.
Lawful divorce was relatively informal; the wife simply took back her dowry and left her husband's house. Roman men had always held the right to divorce their wives; a pater familias could order the divorce of any couple under his manus. According to the historian Valerius Maximus, divorces were taking place by 604 BCE or earlier, and the early Republican law code of the Twelve Tables provided for it. Divorce was socially acceptable if carried out within social norms (mos maiorum). By the time of Cicero and Julius Caesar, divorce was relatively common and "shame-free," the subject of gossip rather than a social disgrace. Valerius says that Lucius Annius was disapproved of because he divorced his wife without consulting his friends; that is, he undertook the action for his own purposes and without considering its effects on his social network (amicitia and clientela). The censors of 307 BCE thus expelled him from the Senate for moral turpitude.
Elsewhere, however, it is claimed that the first divorce took place only in 230 BCE, at which time Dionysius of Halicarnassus notes that "Spurius Carvilius, a man of distinction, was the first to divorce his wife" on grounds of infertility. This was most likely the Spurius Carvilius Maximus Ruga who was consul in 234 and 228 BCE. The evidence is confused. A man could also divorce his wife for adultery, drunkenness, or making copies of the household keys. Around the 2nd century, married women gained the right to divorce their husbands.
Divorce by either party severed the lawful family alliance that had been formed through the marriage; and remarriage might create an entirely new set of economically or politically useful alliances. Among the elite, husbands and wives might remarry several times. Only one spouse’s will was required for any divorce, even if the divorced party was not informed. A spouse who had entered marriage sane and healthy, but became incapable of sound judgment (insane) was not competent and could not divorce their partner; they could be divorced without their knowledge or legal notice. Divorce, like marriage, was considered a family affair. It was discussed and agreed in private, in an informal family gathering of the parties most affected; the husband, wife, and senior members of both families. No public record was kept of the proceedings. Official registration of divorce was not required until 449 CE.
The frequency of remarriage among the elite was high. Speedy remarriage was not unusual, and perhaps even customary, for aristocratic Romans after the death of a spouse. While no formal waiting period was dictated for a widower, it was customary for a woman to remain in mourning for ten months before remarrying. The duration may allow for pregnancy: if a woman had become pregnant just before her husband's death, the period of ten months ensures that no question of paternity, which might affect the child's social status and inheritance, would attach to the birth. No law prohibited pregnant women from marrying, and there are well-known instances: Augustus married Livia when she was carrying her former husband's child, and the College of Pontiffs ruled that it was permissible as long as the child's father was determined first. Livia's previous husband even attended the wedding.
Because elite marriages often occurred for reasons of politics or property, a widow or divorcée with assets in these areas faced few obstacles to remarrying. She was far more likely to be legally emancipated than a first-time bride, and to have a say in the choice of husband. The marriages of Fulvia, who commanded troops during the last civil war of the Republic and who was the first Roman woman to have her face on a coin, are thought to indicate her own political sympathies and ambitions: she was married first to the popularist champion Clodius Pulcher, who was murdered in the street after a long feud with Cicero; then to Scribonius Curio, a figure of less ideological certitude who at the time of his death had come over to Julius Caesar; and finally to Mark Antony, the last opponent to the republican oligarchs and to Rome's future first emperor.
Most wives were encouraged to remarry after either the death of the husband or a divorce; and a high death rate, low average life expectancy and high divorce rate meant frequent or multiple remarriages. 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. 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.
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 gynocentric 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.
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.”