Marriage in Ancient Rome

The word 'matrimony' comes from the Latin 'matrimonium' which has the root 'mater' for 'mother'. The principle objective of marriage for the Roman was to produce offspring, which is evident in the etymology of the word.
  • Matchmaking was done mostly for pecuniary/political reasons. The father (or uncle or brother or whatever male relative 'owned' the girl) was in control of finding a suitable mate for the girl.
  • Girls married at the end of puberty while men waited until they were established in society. We know this from tombstones that show the marriage dates.
  • Women were used for childbearing in order to preserve families. During Augustus' time, the noble birthrate was declining and privileges were bestowed upon families with many children.
  • The dowry was used as "insurance" against divorce or to sustain the woman during her new life. The husband was only given the dowry after the marriage, in case the arrangement was broken off at the last minute. If the woman died, the man was entitled to keep one fifth of the dowry for every child they had.
  • Sometimes young men tried to marry older women for money -- it was fairly common for a young man to be with an older, many-times divorced woman.

    Wedding Ceremonies
  • The first Roman marriage was recorded by Livy in Ab Urbe Condita. This incident is known as "The Rape of the Sabine Women." It was used as a way to preserve the fledgling Roman race through forcibly taking brides from their enemies.
  • Manus: keyword for the power the father/male gaurdian has over the woman. Ceremony transferred this power to the husband, but some were less formal and did not include this. A marriage not in manum meant that the bride still legally belonged to her father. Women who did not have this power transferred to the husband were allowed to own property in special situations. Manus is the Latin word for hand, so it signifies who wields his hand over the woman.
  • Confarreatio: a very formal religious ceremony for the rich and noble. This type of marriage was in manum, required ten witnesses, and only children of those married in Confarreatio were eligible. A special cake was eaten at this ceremony baked with the grain far. Confarreatio means 'with far'.
  • Coemptio: the wife carried a dowry into to marriage, but she and her possessions belonged to her husband. Required five witnesses.
  • Usus: A woman came under her husband's manum after one year of living together unless she spent three nights away from home. Because she wasn't living with her father or under her husband's manum she acquired a little freedom.
  • The marriage of slaves was called contuberium and between freedmen and slaves was concubinatus. Sine manu (not in manum) marriages began in the third century B.C. and became the most popular by the first century A.D.
  • It was considered unlucky to be married on the Calens, Nones, or Ides or any month or in the months of May or February. The latter half of June was considered a lucky time.
  • At the wedding, the wife said her vows "Wherever Gaius is, there I am""Ubi Gaius, Ego Gaia" using the names of the first man and woman, Gaius and Gaia, to show her devotion and loyalty to the husband.
  • The wedding ring, usually made out of iron, was put on the third finger of the left hand because the Romans believed there was a nerve running from this finger directly to the heart.
  • The new wife was carried over the threshold as she entered her home for the first time as a precaution against her tripping. Her falling into the home she and her husband would live and raise a family would be the worst of omens. (and I'm sure no Roman man ever tripped in his entire life!)

    Marriage Laws
  • Most of these laws were set up by Augustus in order to "reform" the state back to focusing on family values.
  • A legal marriage required conumium - the right to marry - which was awarded upon legal citizenship of the couple, age of the couple, and lack of close familial relations to each other. A legal marriage secured Roman citizenship for the children of the union. Lex Canuleia was a law that allowed plebians and patricians to marry.
  • No outside citizenship marriages were allowed without special permission. This meant a citizen could not marry a slave.
  • After death, women where allowed a one year period of mourning, a six month period after a divorce.
  • Incest was against the law.
  • Senators were not allowed to marry freedwomen or actresses (an actress in Ancient Rome was almost always a prostitute).

    Husband/Wife Relationships
  • After starting a family, the wife was known as the mater familias, female head of the family.
  • Sometimes arranged marriages were known for their lack of love matches, while others (Pompey and Julia or Augustus and Livia) were known for an abundance of love within the marriage.
  • Fidelity was stressed, though not so much on the men as on the women. It was not against the law for the husband to have sex with slavegirls or prostitutes. Women were held to higher standards.
  • We know from writers of the day (Catullus, Ovid, etc) that affairs were frequent and were known more for true love than arranged marriages.
  • There are accounts of high strung women controlling the relationship (Cicero and Terentia), though traditionally the male held all the power over the household.
  • Married couples were expected to not show affection in public. There is an account of Cato expelling a man from the Senate who kissed his wife in front of their daughter.

  • While there were many laws regarding marriage, the marriage itself was not made with any legally binding power. It was simply an agreement between the husband and wife (and the wife's family) that the couple should live together and raise a family. This made divorce relatively easy as it was just an agreement not to live together anymore.
  • Augustan reforms dictated that a divorce must have seven witnesses.
  • Causes include adultery, political connections, or monetary issues.
  • A woman's dowry was paid back to her (her father) upon divorce and she was returned to the patria potestas (family protection) of her father.
  • Divorce was very commonplace in the high Senatorial rank, where shifting political alliances resulted in shifting political marriages.
Sterling's notes made for the Hink. Thanks for letting me use your report as a foundation Sterling.

Confarreate marriage

In the write up on Roman Marriage mention was made of a mode of marriage called by the Romans confarreatio.  This was a highly formal marriage which served a very particular purpose within the system of Roman family, organised religion and the state.  Although it is likely that at the beginning of the development of the Roman colony on or around the seven hills that would later become Rome, all marriages were concluded in this highly ritualistic and formal way, by the time Gaius wrote his textbook on Roman law, the Institutiones in the first century of the common era, he mentions the ritual only in passing and gives no detail.  It is accepted among scholars of Roman law that this particular form of marriage had fallen into desuetude by the first century of the common era, and indeed, that it was likely that no woman married into the marital power (manus = “the hand”) of her husband after the time of Caligula.1

Besides marrying by way of confarreatio, a woman2 could also come under manus by way of usus (“use”, i.e. due to effluxion of time, by cohabiting with a man for longer than one year without interruption), or coemptio (“sale”, i.e. by way of a fictitious sale of the bride to the husband, using the formal procedure of mancipatio).3  Elsewhere (see marital power) we will look at ways in which a woman could avoid falling under her husband’s manus.

The importance of the marriage confarreatio never disappeared, for various reasons.  Most importantly, only men born from confarreatio could become the chief priest (= flamen) of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus (formal name of Romulus in his guise as god).  Similarly, the Vestal virgins also had to be born from the marriage confarreatio.  In ancient times, before the institution of the office of pontifex maximus (= supreme pontiff, chief priest, head of the college of priests), the rex sacrorum (= king sacrificer) also had to be born from confarreatio.  All other priests (except the Vestals who remained unmarried for as long as they served the sacred fire of Vesta) furthermore had to be married by confarreatio in order to be appointed priests.  Only persons born from confarreate marriage could conclude a confarreate marriage.

During the ceremony, officiated over by the pontifex maximus and one of the senior priests, probably the flamen Dialis (= high priest of Jupiter), and the other two flamines maiores (major high priests) also being present',  sacrifice was made to Jupiter Farreus (= in his guise as chief deity that provides all bounty, symbolised by the spelt, far),4 and a spelt cake was broken, the pieces exchanged between the marital couple, amid various formulae being spoken and mutual promises being made.  The ritual was performed in the presence of ten witnesses, all being male and above the age of puberty, citizens in good standing. 

The bride wore an orange coloured gown and the groom had to carry her over the threshold of the marital home, the woman then binding herself to her husband with the words "ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia" (= "where you go, Gaius, I, Gaia, go").  The marriage was immediately then consummated, and the next morning the bed sheet was publicly displayed to prove that he marriage had indeed been consummated.

Confarreatio was available only to patricians, as the religious offices that required men (and the Vestals) to be born from marriage confarreatio, were in any event only accessible to patricians.  Not surprisingly, as time went by and more privileges became available to plebeians and knights, who during the Republic also attained the highest offices of state, the distinction between patrician and pleb became less rigid and lost much of its importance.  Similarly, the notion of confarreate marriage also lost its importance, as is obvious from the senatusconsultum adopted during the reign of Tiberius Caesar which effectively relegated confarreatio to a symbolic institution.5

1 See for example Buckland, A Textbook of Roman Law, Cambridge 1932, 119.  Indeed, already during the reign of Tiberius he decreed that a woman married to the flamen Dialis was only regarded as being in manu quoad sacra (= for the purpose of religious matters and not economically).  See Gaius, Institutiones I: 136.

2 Only women could fall under the manus, not men.

3 A woman could also bind herself by way of coemptio to someone not her husband, e.g. for fiduciary purposes, such as guaranteeing repayment of a loan made to her husband.

4 Farreus = made of spelt, a sort of primitive grain (now being cultivated again in parts of Europe).

5 See footnote 1 above.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.