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.