Marriage was regarded as a duty and a means of preserving families. Most marriage were arranged by fathers and set up as alliances between families with producing "legitimate" children as the primary goal. Roman men held marriage in low regard and when they married produced few children. Girls were often forced to marry when they were fourteen. It was not uncommon for a man to marry and divorce several time for his family to work their way up the social ladder. This contempt for marriage kept the population of Rome relatively low while the population of non-Romans and Christians grew.

The marriage customs comprised, first, the ceremony of betrothal (sponsalia), which included the formal consent of the bride’s father, and an announcement in the form of a festival or the presentation of the betrothal ring; secondly, the marriage ceremony, which might be either a religious ceremony, in which a consecrated cake was eaten in the presence of the priest (confarreatio), or a secular ceremony, in which the. father gave away his daughter by the forms of a legal sale (coemptio). In the time of the empire it was customary for persons to be married without these ceremonies, by their simple consent, During this time, also, divorces became common and the general morals of society became corrupt. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Marriages were sometimes conducted with a great deal of pomp and ceremony but they were not recognized by the state or a religious body. The only legal matter was that children be "legitimate" to inherit property. The legal-minded Romans developed sophisticated marriage certificates that spelled out the terms of the dowry and how property would be divide in case of divorce or death. The oldest known marriage certificate was a Jewish one found in Egypt and dated to the forth century B.C. It was a contract for an exchange of six cows for a 14-year-old girl.

Most people married young: Girls were regarded as ready when they turned 12 and boys when they were 14. Men who were 25 and women who were 20 and still single were penalized. Brides were expected to be virgins. Grooms were expected to have already had some experience with prostitute or slaves. Some children were betrothed at infancy.

Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “ Roman marriages were quick and easy and most didn’t flower from romance but from two agreements. The first would be between the couple’s families, who eyeballed each other to see if the proposed spouse’s wealth and social status were acceptable. If satisfied, a formal betrothal took place where a written agreement was signed and the couple kissed. Unlike modern times, the wedding day didn’t cement a lawful institution (marriage had no legal power) but showed the couple’s intent to live together. A Roman citizen couldn’t marry his favorite prostitute, cousin, or, for the most part, non-Romans. A divorce was granted when the couple declared their intention to separate before seven witnesses. If a divorce carried the accusation that the wife had been unfaithful, she could never marry again. A guilty husband received no such penalty.”[Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Types of Marriage in Early Ancient Rome

Pompeii couple

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Polygamy was never sanctioned at Rome, and we are told that for five centuries after the founding of the city divorce was entirely unknown. Up to the time of the Servian constitution (traditional date, sixth century B.C.) patricians were the only citizens and intermarried only with patricians and with members of surrounding communities having like social standing. The only form of marriage known to them was called confarreatio. With the consent of the gods, while the pontifices celebrated the solemn rites, in the presence of the accredited representatives of his gens, the patrician took his wife from her father’s family into his own, to be a mater familias, to bear him children who should conserve the family mysteries, perpetuate his ancient race, and extend the power of Rome. By this, the one legal form of marriage of the time, the wife passed in manum viri, and the husband acquired over her practically the same rights as he would have over his own children and other dependent members of his family. Such a marriage was said to be cum conventione uxoris in manum viri. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“During this period, too, the free non-citizens, the plebeians, had been busy in marrying and giving in marriage. There is little doubt that their unions had been as sacred in their eyes, their family ties as strictly regarded and as pure as those of the patricians, but these unions were unhallowed by the national gods and unrecognized by the civil law, simply because the plebeians were not yet citizens. Their form of marriage, called usus, consisted essentially in the living together continuously of the man and woman as husband and wife, though there were probably conventional forms and observances, about which we know absolutely nothing. The plebeian husband might acquire the same rights over the person and property of his wife as the patrician, but the form of marriage did not in itself involve manus. The wife might remain a member of her father’s family and retain such property as he allowed her by merely absenting herself from her husband for the space of a trinoctium, that is, three nights in succession, each year.1 If she did this, the marriage was sine conventione in manum, and the husband had no control over her property; if she did not, the marriage, like that of the patricians, was cum conventione in manum. |+|

“Another Roman form of marriage goes at least as far back as the time of Servius. This was also plebeian, though not so ancient as usus. It was called coemptio and was a fictitious sale, by which the pater familias of the woman, or her tutor, if she was subject to one, transferred her to the man matrimonii causa. This form must have been a survival of the old custom of purchase and sale of wives, but we do not know when it was introduced among the Romans. It carried manus with it as a matter of course, and seems to have been regarded socially as better form than usus. The two existed for centuries side by side, but coemptio survived usus as a form of marriage cum conventione in manum.” |+|

Love in Ancient Rome

Jason and Medea

In the view of C.S. Lewis and some other scholars, romantic love did not emerge until relatively late, surfacing in the poems of French and Italian troubadours in the 11th and 12th centuries. But this theory does not seem to be born in evidence from Rome, where lovers were often described in myths and many poems and pieces of graffiti were expressions of love. One graffiti message went: “ ”Lovers, like bees, lead a honeyed life.”

The most famous love poets in Rome were the naughty Catulus, the romantics Tibullus and Propertius, the epic Virgil and the love laborer Ovid.

Many pieces of love-related graffiti seem to have been written by love-struck young men. “ ”Girl,” reads an inscription found in a Pompeii bedroom, “ ”you’re beautiful I’ve been sent to you by one who is yours.” Others express missing a loved one in timeless fashion. “ ”Vibius Restitutus slept here alone, longing for Urbana.” Others expressed urgency. “ ”Driver,” one said. “ ”If you could feel the fires of love, you would hurry more to enjoy the pleasures of Venus. I love a younger charmer, please spur on the horses, let’s get on.”

Erotic love was seen by some Greeks and Romans it seems as an accursed thing that attacked its victims in painful, suffering way...and could even kill them. . The A.D. 2nd century physician Galen spent a great amount of time, refuting a popular idea that erotic seizures are caused by the attack of a god who holds burning torches to the victim.”

Ovid and Love

Ovid is regarded as the premier Roman love poet. Brought up in the province to an equestrian family, he moved to Rome as a teenager and wrote about the sensuous life he enjoyed in upper class Roman society. Famed as a kind of Roman Casanova, he married three times, had a great many lovers and was involved in a highly-publicized sex scandal.

Ovid once wrote, "Offered a sexless heaven, I'd say no thank you, women are such sweet hell." He wrote that he learned about love from the mysterious Corinna who he rhapsodized about in his early “ Loves” . As a teenager he wrote they were "two adolescents, exploring a booby-trapped world of adult passions and temptations, and playing private games, first with their society, then — “ liaisons dangeruses” “ ”with one another."

Ovid was also a great storyteller. His “Metamorphosis” told the story of the Greek gods in a Roman context. He also poked fun of them. His irreverence helped led to the tossing of the Greek gods and replacing them with Roman ones. Ovid originated many versions of the myth stories we know today such as the King Midas, golden touch tale.

  In the “Art of Love”, a carefully crafted "seducer's manual," Ovid wrote:

” Love is a kind of war, and no assignment for cowards.
Where those banners fly, heroes are always on guard.
Soft, those barracks? They know long marches, terrible weather.
Night and winter and storm, grief and excessive fatigue.
Often the rain pelts down from the drenching cloudbursts of heaven.
Often you lie on the ground, wrapped in a mantle of cold.

If you are ever caught, no matter how well you've concealed it.
Though it is clear as the day, swear up and down it's a lie.
Don't be too abject, and don't be too unduly attentive.
That would establish your guilt far beyond anything else.
Wear yourself out if you must, and prove, in her bed, that you could not
Possibly be that good, coming from some other girl.

Love Between Husband and Wife in Ancient Rome

One wife wrote her husband, who was away: "Send for me — if you don't I'll die without seeing you daily. How I wish I could fly and come to see you...It tortures me not to see you."

Another wife, whose husband had entered a sanctuary wrote him: "When I received your which you announce that you have become a recluse in the Sarapis temple at Memphis, I immediately thanked the gods that you are well, but you are not coming here when all other recluses have come home, I do not like this one bit.”

David Konstan, a classic professor at Brown University, told U.S. News and World Report: “ ”It was taken for granted that if the husband and wife treated each other properly, love would develop and emerge, and by the end of their lives it would be a deep, mutual feeling.” Displays of affection however were regarded with soem scorn. One senator was stripped of his seat because he embraced his wife in public.

On one epitaph a man wrote to his wife, apparently thanking her for help escaping capture for some crime: “You furnished most ample means for my escape. With your jewels you aided me when you took off all the gold and pearls from your person, and gave them over to me. And promptly, with slaves, money, and provisions, having cleverly deceived the enemies’ guards, you enriched my absence.”

Ius Conubii: Rules of Marriage Between Patricians and Plebians

Between Venus and Bacchus
by Alma-Tadema
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: Though the Servian constitution made the plebeians citizens and thereby legalized their forms of marriage, it did not give them the right of intermarriage with the patricians. Many of the plebeian families were hardly less ancient than the patricians, many were rich and powerful, but it was not until 445 B.C. that marriages between the two Orders were formally sanctioned by the civil law. The objection on the part of the patricians was largely a religious one: the gods of the State were gods of the patricians, the auspices could be taken by patricians only, the marriages of patricians only were sanctioned by heaven. Their orators protested that the unions of the plebeians were not marriages at all, not iustae nuptiae; the plebeian wife, they insisted, was only taken in matrimonium: she was at best only an uxor, not a mater familias; her offspring were “mother’s children,” not patricii. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Much of this was class exaggeration, but it is true that for a long time the gens was not so highly valued by the plebeians as by the patricians, and that the plebeians assigned to cognates certain duties and privileges that devolved upon the patrician gentiles. With the extension of the ius conubii many of these points of difference disappeared. New conditions were fixed for iustae nuptiae; coemptio by a sort of compromise became the usual form of marriage when one of the parties was a plebeian; and the stigma disappeared from the word matrimonium. On the other hand, patrician women learned to understand the advantages of a marriage sine conventione in manum, and marriage with manus grew less frequent, the taking of the auspices before the ceremony came to be considered a mere form, and marriage began to lose its sacramental character. With these changes came later the laxness in the marital relation and the freedom of divorce that seemed in the time of Augustus to threaten the very life of the commonwealth. |+|

“It is probable that by the time of Cicero marriage with manus was uncommon, and consequently that confarreatio and coemptio had gone out of general use. To a limited extent, however, the former was retained into Christian times, because certain priestly offices (those of the flamines maiores and the reges sacrorum) could be filled only by persons whose parents had been married by the confarreate ceremony, the sacramental form, and who had themselves been married by the same form. Augustus offered exemption from manus to mothers of three children, but this was not enough, for so great became the reluctance of women to submit to manus that in order to fill even these few priestly offices it was found necessary under Tiberius to eliminate manus from the confarreate ceremony. |+|

Requirements for a Legal Marriage in Ancient Rome


Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “There were certain conditions that had to be satisfied before a legal marriage could be contracted even by citizens. The requirements were as follows: 1) The consent of both parties should be given, or that of the pater familias if one or both were in patria potestate. Under Augustus it was provided that the pater familias should not withhold his consent unless he could show valid reasons for doing so.

2) Both of the parties should be puberes; there could be no marriage between children. Although no precise age was fixed by law, it is probable that fourteen and twelve were the lowest limit for the man and the woman respectively. 3) Both man and woman should be unmarried. Polygamy was never sanctioned at Rome. 4) The parties should not be nearly related. The restrictions in this direction were fixed by public opinion rather than by law and varied greatly at different times, becoming gradually less severe. In general it may be said that marriage was absolutely forbidden between ascendants and descendants, between other cognates within the sixth (later the fourth) degree, and between the nearer adfines. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“If the parties could satisfy these conditions, they might be legally married, but distinctions were still made that affected the civil status of the children, although no doubt was cast upon their legitimacy or upon the moral character of their parents. If the conditions were fulfilled and the husband and wife were both Roman citizens, their marriage was called iustae nuptiae, which we may translate by “regular marriage.” The children of such a marriage were iusti liberi and were by birth cives optimo iure, “possessed of all civil rights.”

“If one of the parties was a Roman citizen and the other a member of a community having the ius conubii but not full Roman civitas, the marriage was still called iustae nuptiae, but the children took the civil standing of the father. This means that, if the father was a citizen and the mother a foreigner, the children were citizens, but, if the father was a foreigner and the mother a citizen, the children were foreigners (peregrini), as was their father. |+|

“But if either of the parties was without the ius conubii, the marriage, though still legal, was called iniustae nuptiae or iniustum matrimonium, “an irregular marriage,” and the children, though legitimate, took the civil position of the parent of lower degree. We seem to have something analogous to this today in the loss of social standing which usually follows the marriage of one person with another of distinctly inferior position.” |+|

Marriage Laws in the Roman Empire

20120225-Pompeji silver.jpg
Pompeii silver
In attempt to boost the declining birth rate Augustus, in the A.D. 1st century, offered tax breaks for large families and cracked down on abortion. He imposed strict marriage laws and changed adultery from an act of indecency to an act of sedition, decreeing that a man who discovered his wife's infidelity must turn her in or face charges himself. Adulterous couples could have their property confiscated, be exiled to different parts of the empire and be prohibited from marrying one another. Augustus passed the reforms because he believed that too many men spent their energy with prostitutes and concubines and had nothing for their wives, causing population declines.

Under Augustus, women had the right to divorce. Husbands could see prostitutes but not keep mistresses, widows were obligated to remarry within two years, divorcees within 18 months. Parents with three or more children were given rewards, property, job promotions, and childless couples and single men were looked down upon and penalized . The end result of the reforms was a skyrocketing divorce rate.

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “Roman law developed as a mixture of laws, senatorial consults, imperial decrees, case law, and opinions issued by jurists. One of the most long lasting of actions” of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian' (A.D. 482-566) “was the gathering of these materials in the 530s into a single collection, later known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis [The Code of Civil Law]. The texts here address the issue of marriage, and date back particularly to the time of Augustus [ruled 27 B.C. - A.D. 14] who was very concerned about family matters and ensuring a large population. In the selections that follow the first part comes from the Digest and contain the opinions on marriage law of famous lawyers - Marcianus, Paulus, Terentius Clemens, Celsus, Modestinus, Gaius, Papinianus, Marcellus, Ulpianus, and Macer. Note that the most important were Papinianus (executed by the Emperor Caracalla in 212), who excelled at setting forth legal problems arising from cases, and Ulpianus (d. 223), who wrote a commentary on Roman law in his era. All these were legal scholars of the Roman imperial period whose works were considered important enough to keep in the Digest. [Source: “The Civil Law”, translated by S.P. Scott (Cincinnatis: The Central Trust, 1932), reprinted in Richard M. Golden and Thomas Kuehn, eds., “Western Societies: Primary Sources in Social History,” Vol I, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), with indication that this text is not under copyright on p. 329]

1) Gaius, On the Lex Julia et Papia, Book II: “A pretended marriage is of no force or effect....? 2) Modestinus, On the Rite of Marriage. In unions of the sexes, it should always be considered not only what is legal, but also what is decent. 3) Modestinus, On the Rite of Marriage. If the daughter, granddaughter, or great-granddaughter of a senator should marry a freedman, or a man who practices the profession of an actor, or whose father or mother did so, the marriage will be void. [Lex Julia is an ancient Roman law that was introduced by any member of the Julian family. Most often it refers to moral legislation introduced by Augustus in 23 B.C., or to a law from the dictatorship of Julius Caesar]

Papinianus, Opinions, Book IV: 1) Where a general commission has been given to a man by someone to seek husband for his daughter, this is not sufficient ground for the conclusion a marriage. Therefore it is necessary that the person selected should be introduced to the father, and that he should consent to the marriage, order for it to be legally contracted....2) Marriage can be contracted between stepchildren, even though the have a common brother, the issue of the new marriage of their parents. 3) Where the daughter of a senator marries a freedman, this unfortanate act of her father does not render her a wife, for children should not be deprived of their rank on account of an offence of their parent....

Celsus, Digest, Book XXX: It is provided by the Lex Papia that all freeborn men, except senators an their children, can marry freedwomen. Modestinus, Rules, Book II. A son who has been emancipated can marry without the consent of his father, and any son that he may have will be his heir. Marcianus, Institutes, Book X: A patron cannot marry his freedwoman against her consent. [Source: “The Civil Law”, translated by S.P. Scott (Cincinnatis: The Central Trust, 1932), reprinted in Richard M. Golden and Thomas Kuehn, eds., “Western Societies: Primary Sources in Social History,” Vol I, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), with indication that this text is not under copyright on p. 329]

Ulpianus, On the Lex Julia et Papia, Book III: In that law which provides that where a freedwoman has been married to her patron, after separation from him she cannot marry another without his consent; we understand the patron to be one who has bought a female slave under the condition of manumitting her (as is stated in the Rescript of our Emperor and his father), because, after having been manumitted, she becomes the freedwoman of the purchaser....

Laws on Marriage and Children


Marcianus, Institutes, Book XVI: In the Thirty-fifth Section of the Lex Julia [a law of Augustus in 18BCE which made marriage a duty for Roman patricians], persons who wrongfully prevent their children, who are subject to their authority, to marry, or who refuse to endow them, are compelled by the proconsuls or governors of provinces, under a Constitution of the Divine Severus [r. 193-211] and Antoninus [ie Caracalla, r. 212-217], to marry or endow their said children. They are also held to prevent their marriage where they do not seek to promote it. [Source: “The Civil Law”, translated by S.P. Scott (Cincinnatis: The Central Trust, 1932), reprinted in Richard M. Golden and Thomas Kuehn, eds., “Western Societies: Primary Sources in Social History,” Vol I, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), with indication that this text is not under copyright on p. 329] [Lex Julia is an ancient Roman law that was introduced by any member of the Julian family. Most often it refers to moral legislation introduced by Augustus in 23 B.C., or to a law from the dictatorship of Julius Caesar]

Paulus, On the Rescript of the Divine Severus and Commodus [r. 180-192]: It must be remembered that it is not one of the functions of a curator [legal guardian for a minor] to see that his ward is married, or not; because his duties only relate to the transaction of business. This Severus and Antoninus stated in a Rescript [a response to legal questions from officials] in the following words: "It is the duty of a curator to manage the affairs of his ward, but the ward can marry, or not, as she pleases.

Terentius Clemens, On the Lex Julia et Papia, Book III. [The Lex Papia of 9CE was treated with the Lex Julia. It tried to make Romans marry within their class]: A son under paternal control cannot be forced to marry.

Celsus, Digest, Book XV: Where a son, being compelled by his father, marries a woman whom would not have married if he had been left to the exercise of his own free will, the marriage will, nevertheless, legally be contracted; because it was not solemnized against the consent of the parties, and the son is held t have preferred to take this course.”

Betrothals and Dowries in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Formal betrothal (sponsalia) as a preliminary to marriage was considered good form but was not legally necessary and carried with it no obligations that could be enforced by law. In the sponsalia the maiden was promised to the man as his bride with “words of style,” that is, in solemn form. The promise was made, not by the maiden herself, but by her pater familias, or by her tutor if she was not in patria potestate. In the same way, the promise was made to the man directly only in case he was sui iuris; otherwise it was made to the Head of his House, who had asked for him the maiden in marriage. The “words of style” were probably something like this:
“Spondesne Gaïam, tuam filiam (or, if she was a ward, Gaïam, Lucii filiam), mihi (or filio meo) uxorem dari?”
"Di bene vortant! Spondeo."
"Di bene vortant!” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“At any rate, the word spondeo was technically used of the promise, and the maiden was henceforth sponsa. The person who made the promise had always the right to cancel it. This was usually done through an intermediary (nuntius); hence the formal expression for breaking an engagement was repudium renuntiare, or simply renuntiare. While the contract was entirely one-sided, it should be noticed that a man was liable to infamia if he formed two engagements at the same time, and that he could not recover any presents made with a view to a future marriage if he himself broke the engagement. Such presents were almost always made. Though we find that articles for personal use, the toilet, etc., were common, a ring was usually given. The ring was worn on the third finger of the left hand, because it was believed that a nerve (or sinew) ran directly from this finger to the heart. It was also usual for the sponsa to make a present to her betrothed. |+|

“It was a point of honor with the Romans, as it is now with some European peoples, for the bride to bring to her husband a dowry (dos, Modem French dot). In the case of a girl in patria potestate this would be furnished by the Head of her House; in the case of one sui iuris it was furnished from her own property, or, if she had none, was contributed by her relatives. It seems that if they were reluctant she might by process of law compel her ascendants at least to furnish it. In early times, when marriage cum conventione prevailed, all the property brought by the bride became the property of her husband, or of his pater familias, but in later times, when manus was less common, and especially after divorce had become of frequent occurrence, a distinction was made. A part of the bride’s possessions was reserved for her own exclusive use, and a part was made over to the groom under the technical name of dos. The relative proportions varied, of course, with circumstances.” |+|

Marriage Formalities in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “There were really no legal forms necessary for the solemnization of a marriage; there was no license to be procured from the civil authorities; the ceremonies, simple or elaborate, did not have to be performed by persons authorized by the State. The one thing necessary was the consent of both parties, if they were sui iuris, or of their patres familias, if they were in patria potestate. It has been remarked that the pater familias could refuse his consent for valid reasons only; on the other hand, he could command the consent of persons subject to him. Parental and filial affection (pietas) made this hardship much less rigorous than it now seems to us. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“But, though this consent was the only condition for a legal marriage, it had to be shown by some act of personal union between the parties, that is, the marriage could not be entered into by letter or by messenger or by proxy. Such a public act was the joining of hands (dextrarum iunctio) in the presence of witnesses, or the bride’s act in letting herself be escorted to her husband’s house, never omitted when the parties had any social standing, or, in later times, the signing of the marriage contract. It was never necessary to a valid marriage that the parties should live together as man and wife, though, as we have seen, this living together of itself constituted a legal marriage. |+|

Weddings in Ancient Rome

The Roman wedding ceremony incorporated as a series of divine and human rituals. The bride wore an orange veil, which symbolized dawn, and a white or orange dress with a belt or girdle tied into the "knot of Hercules," which the husband untied on their wedding night. The expression "tie the knot" is a reference to this belt. The custom of a June wedding is linked to Juno, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, after which the month of June was named.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: It will be noticed that superstition played an important part in the arrangements for a wedding two thousand years ago, as it does now. Especial pains had to be taken to secure a lucky day. The Kalends, Nones, and Ides of each month, and the day following each of them, were unlucky. So was all of May and the first half of June, on account of certain religious ceremonies observed in these months, in May the Argean offerings and the Lemuria, in June the dies religiosi connected with Vesta. Besides these, the dies parentales, February 13-21, and the days when the entrance to the lower world was supposed to be open, August 24, October 5, and November 8, were carefully avoided.

One-third of the year, therefore, was absolutely barred. The great holidays, too, and these were legion, were avoided, not because they were unlucky, but because on these days friends and relatives were sure to have other engagements. Women being married for the second time chose these very holidays to make their weddings less conspicuous. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Wedding Clothes in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “On the eve of her wedding day the bride dedicated to the Lares of her father's house her bulla and toga praetexta, which married women did not wear, and also, if she was not much over twelve years of age, her childish playthings. For the sake of the omen she put on before going to sleep the tunica recta, or tunica regilla, woven in one piece and falling to the feet. It was said to have derived the name recta from being woven in the old fashioned way at an upright loom, though some authorities have thought it so called because it hung straight, not being bloused over at the belt. This same tunic was worn at the wedding. |+|

“On the morning of the wedding day the bride was dressed for the ceremony by her mother. Roman poets show unusual tenderness as they describe the mother’s solicitude. The chief article of dress was the tunica recta already mentioned, which was fastened around the waist with a band of wool tied in the knot of Hercules (nodus Herculaneus), probably because Hercules was the guardian of wedded life. This knot the husband only was privileged to untie. Over the tunic was worn the bridal veil, the flame-colored veil (flammeum). So important was the veil of the bride that nubere, “to veil oneself,” is the word regularly used for the marriage of a woman. |+|

“Especial attention was given to the arrangement of the hair. It was divided into six locks by the point of a spear, or comb of that shape, a practice surviving, probably, from ancient marriage by capture; these locks, perhaps braided, were kept in position by ribbons (vittae). As the Vestals wore the hair thus arranged, it must have been an extremely early fashion, at any rate. The bride had also a wreath of flowers and sacred plants gathered by herself. The groom wore, of course, the toga and had a similar wreath of flowers on his head. He was accompanied to the home of the bride at the proper time by relatives, friends, and clients, who were bound to do him every honor on his wedding day. |+|

Wedding Ceremony in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: In connection with the marriage ceremonies it must be remembered that only the consent was necessary, with the act expressing the consent, and that all other forms and ceremonies were nonessential and variable. Something depended upon the particular form used, but more upon the wealth and social position of the families interested. It is probable that most weddings were a good deal simpler than those described by our chief authorities. The house of the bride’s father, where the ceremony was performed, was decked with flowers, boughs of trees, bands of wool, and tapestries. The guests arrived before the hour of sunrise, but even then the omens had been already taken. In the ancient confarreate ceremony these were taken by the public augur, but in later times, no matter what the ceremony, the haruspices merely consulted the entrails of a sheep which had been killed in sacrifice. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“After the omens had been pronounced favorable, the bride and groom appeared in the atrium , the public room of the house, and the wedding began. This consisted of two parts: 1) The ceremony proper, varying according to the form used (confarreatio, coemptio, or usus), the essential part being the consent before witnesses. 2) The festivities, including the feast at the bride’s home, the taking of the bride with a show of force from her mother’s arms, the escorting of the bride to her new home (the essential part), and her reception there. |+|

“The confarreate ceremony began with the dextrarum iunctio. The bride and groom were brought together by the pronuba, a matron but once married and living with her husband in undisturbed wedlock. They joined hands in the presence of ten witnesses representing the ten gentes of the curia. These are shown on an ancient sarcophagus found at Naples. Then followed the words of consent spoken by the bride: Quando tu Gaïus, ego Gaïa. The words mean, “When (and where) you are Gaius, then (and there) I am Gaia,” i.e., “I am bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh.” The formula was unchanged, no matter what the names of the bride and groom, and goes back to a time when Gaïus was a nomen, not a praenomen. It implied that the bride was actually entering the gens of the groom, and was probably chosen for the lucky meaning of the names Gaïus and Gaïa. Even in marriages sine conventione the old formula came to be used, its import having been lost in lapse of time. The bride and groom then took their places side by side at the left of the altar and facing it, sitting on stools covered with the pelt of the sheep slain for the sacrifice. |+|

“A bloodless offering was made to Jupiter by the Pontifex Maximus and the Flamen Dialis, consisting of the cake of spelt (farreum libum) from which the ceremony got the name confarreatio. Then the cake was eaten by the bride and groom. With the offering to Jupiter a prayer was recited by the Flamen to Juno as the goddess of marriage, and to Tellus, Picumnus, and Pilumnus, deities of the country and its fruits. The utensils necessary for the offering were carried in a covered basket (cumera) by a boy called camillus, whose parents must both be living at the time (i.e., he must be patrimus et matrimus). Then followed the congratulations, the guests using the word feliciter. |+|

“The coemptio began with the fictitious sale, carried out in the presence of no fewer than five witnesses. The purchase money, represented by a single coin, was laid in the scales held by a libripens. The scales, scaleholder, coin, an witnesses were all necessary for this kind of marriage. Then followed the dextrarum iuctio and the words of consent, borrowed, as has been said, from the confarreate ceremony. Originally the groom had asked the bride an sibi mater familias esse vellet. She assented, and put to him a similar question, an sibi pater familias esse vellet. To this he too gave an affirmative answer. A prayer was then recited and sometimes, perhaps, a sacrifice was offered, after which came the congratulations, as in the other and more elaborate ceremony. |+|

“The third form, that is, the ceremonies preliminary to usus, probably admitted of more variation than either of the others, but no description has come down to us. We may be sure that the hands were clasped, the words of consent spoken, and congratulations offered, but we know of no special customs or usages. It was almost inevitable that the three forms should become more or less alike in the course of time, though the cake of spelt could not be borrowed from the confarreate ceremony by either of the others, or the scales and their holder from the ceremony of coemptio. |+|

Roman Wedding Feast

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “After the conclusion of the ceremony came the wedding feast (cena nuptialis), lasting in early times until evening. There can be no doubt that this was regularly given at the house of the bride’s father and that the few cases when, as we know, it was given at the groom’s house were exceptional and due to special circumstances which might cause a similar change today. The feast seems to have concluded with the distribution among the guests of pieces of the wedding cake (mustaceum2). There came to be so much extravagance at these feasts and at the repotia mentioned in that under Augustus it was proposed to limit their cost by law to one thousand sesterces (fifty dollars). His efforts to limit such expenditures were, however, fruitless. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“In Roman law unbroken possession (usus) of movable things for one year gave full title to ownership of them. If the possession was broken (interrupted). the time of the usus had to begin to run afresh (i.e. the previous possession, or usus, was regarded as canceled). Cato gives the recipe for this cake: “Sprinkle a peck of flour with must. Add anise, cumin, bay leaves, two pounds of lard, and a pound of cheese. Knead well and bake on bay leaves.” |+|

Often a pig was sacrificed and people sang bawdy songs. A special wedding cake baked from wheat or barley was broken over the bride's head to symbolize her fertility. Crumbs from the cake were eaten by the couple and were thrown and fought over by the guests like a bouquet and then finally thrown at the bride. Guests also threw grain, which symbolized a good harvest and fertility.

Bridal Procession in Roman Wedding

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “After the wedding feast the bride was formally taken to her husband's house. This ceremony was called deductio, and, since it was essential to validity of the marriage, it was never omitted. It was a public function, that is, anyone might join the procession and take part in the merriment that distinguished it; we are told that persons of rank did not scruple to wait in the street to see a bride. As evening approached, the procession was formed before the bride’s house with torch-bearers and flute-players at its head. When all was ready, the marriage hymn (hymenaeus) was sung and the groom took the bride with a show of force from the arms of her mother. The Romans saw in this custom a reminiscence of the rape of the Sabines, but it probably goes far back beyond the founding of Rome to the custom of marriage by capture that prevailed among many peoples. The bride then took her place in the procession. She was attended by three boys, patrimi et matrimi; two of these walked beside her, each holding one of her hands, while the other carried before her the wedding torch of white thorn (spina alba). Behind the bride were carried the distaff and spindle, emblems of domestic life. The camillus with his cumera also walked in the procession. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

wedding carpentum

“During the march were sung the versus Fescennini, abounding in coarse jests and personalities. The crowd also shouted the ancient marriage cry, the significance of which the Romans themselves did not understand. We find it in at least five forms, all variations of Talassius or Talassio, the name, probably, of a Sabine divinity, whose functions, however, are unknown. Livy derives it from the supposed name of a senator in the time of Romulus. On the way the bride, by dropping one of three coins which she carried, made an offering to the Lares Compitales, the gods of the crossroads; of the other two she gave one to the groom as an emblem of the dowry she brought him, and one to the Lares of his house. The groom meanwhile scattered nuts through the crowd. This is explained by Catullus that the groom had become a man and had put away childish things, but the nuts were rather a symbol of fruitfulness. The custom survives in the throwing of rice in modem times. |+|

“When the procession reached the groom’s house, the bride wound the door posts with bands of wool, probably a symbol of her own work as mistress of the household, and anointed the door with oil and fat, emblems of plenty. She was then lifted carefully over the threshold, in order, some say, to avoid the chance of so bad an omen as a slip of the foot on entering the house for the first time. Others, however, see in the custom another survival of marriage by capture. She then pronounced again the words of consent: Ubi tu Gaïus, ego Gaïa, and the doors were closed against the general crowd; only the invited guests entered with the newly-married pair. |+|

“The husband met his wife in the atrium and offered her fire and water in token of the life they were to live together and of her part in the home. Upon the hearth was ready the wood for a fire; this the bride kindled with the marriage torch, which had been carried before her. The torch was afterwards thrown among the guests to be scrambled for as a lucky possession. A prayer was then recited by the bride and she was placed by the pronuba on the lectus genialis, which always stood in the atrium on the wedding night. Here it afterwards remained as a piece of ornamental furniture only. On the next day there was given in the new home the second wedding feast (repotia) to the friends and relatives, and at this feast the bride made her first offering to the gods as a matrona. A series of feasts followed, given in honor of the newly-wedded pair by those in whose social circles they moved. |+|

The husband had at some point slipped away from the procession and gone to his home, there to await the coming of the bride.” |+|

Roman Wedding Customs and Rings

Roman wedding ring

A Roman man received the "the hand" of his bride as a symbol of her innermost self and the touching of hands symbolized the union of hearts. After the ceremony there was a reception with toasts to the newlyweds and the carrying of the bride over the threshold for good luck. The often bride greased the door posts before being carried across the threshold.

Although Egyptians may have worn wedding rings, Greeks came up with idea of the ring finger and Romans popularized the custom of wearing rings on the ring finger. Aulus Gelliu explained: "When the human body is cut open as the Egyptians did and when dissections...are practiced on it, a very delicate nerve is found which starts from the [ring] finger and travels to the heart. It is therefore, thought seemly to give to this finger in preference to all others the honor of the ring, on account of the loose connection which links it with the principal organ."

Gold wedding rings were highly prized by the Romans. One Christian chronicler wrote in the 2nd century A.D." "most women know nothing of gold except the single marriage ring placed on one finger." Many Roman women wore gold rings in public and iron ones at home. Diamond wedding rings appeared in Rome in the A.D. 3rd century. Engagements were sometimes sealed by the placing an iron ring on the bride's middle finger.

Many Roman customs were adopted by early Christians and were passed down over the centuries and are still featured in modern weddings today.

Wedding Night and Marital Sex in Ancient Rome

Describing a Roman wedding night, social historian Paul Veyne wrote: "The wedding night took the form of a legal rape from which the woman emerged “ ”offended with her husband” who, accustomed to using his slave women as he pleased, found it difficult to distinguish between raping a woman and taking the initiative in sexual relations. It was customary for the groom to forego deflowering his wife on the first night, out of concern for her timidity; but he made up for his forbearance by sodomizing her."

Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “Things in the Roman bedroom weren’t exactly even. While women were expected to produce sons, uphold chastity, and remain loyal to their husbands, married men were allowed to wander. He even had a rule book. It was fine to have extramarital sex with partners of both genders, but it had to be with slaves, prostitutes, or a concubine/mistress. Wives could do nothing about it since it was socially acceptable and even expected from a man. [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016]

“While undoubtedly there were married couples who used passion as an expression of affection for one another, the general unsympathetic view was that women tied the knot to have children and not to enjoy a great sex life. That was for the husband to savor, and some savored it a little too much—slaves had no rights over their own bodies, so the rape of a slave was not legally recognized.”

Divorce in Ancient Rome

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Divorce was a relatively simple procedure. If a man decided he wanted a divorce he went to a local magistrate to obtain a bill of divorce. There are no records of divorce being denied or a women getting a divorce. Under Augustus, women had the right to divorce.

Divorces were fairly common in ancient Greece and Rome. Providing legal grounds for divorce was not necessary. A man could divorce his wife simply if he didn't like her anymore. All that was required for a divorce in Rome according to civil law ( usus ) , the least binding of the three types of marriage, was to send a note by messenger, saying "Take your things away." One man reportedly divorced his wife became she went out once without telling him. [Source: People Almanac II]

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 B.C. 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 B.C. thus expelled him from the Senate for moral turpitude. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Elsewhere, however, it is claimed that the first divorce took place only in 230 B.C., 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 B.C., 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.[43] 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 A.D. 449. +

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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