THE AUGUSTAN REFORMATION

 

Augustus became the ruler of Rome and its empire at the end of a long and bitter civil war.  A competent general (he was the only one standing at the end of the war), he transformed himself into a brilliant statesman and created political institutions that would rule Rome for centuries.

His political and economic reforms were very successful and earned him the gratitude of the Roman people;  however, as Will Durant in The Story of Civilization said, "He destroyed his own happiness by trying to make people good as well as happy; it was an imposition that Rome never forgave..."

The extension of citizenship as a means of gaining support for political reforms; the increasing tendency to emancipate slaves whose children automatically acquired Roman citizenship; the low marriage and birth rates among native Romans---all of these things were causing a major shift in the racial balance.  Augustus was convinced that Rome's success depended on the self discipline, morality , and dedication that could be found only in the native born, aristocratic Roman:  this class had declined considerably in number, and, in his view, scorned marriage and allowed its women far too much freedom.

 Augustus passed two laws to encourage marriage, promote childbirth and discourage adultery. Responding to loud protests, particularly from the Senatorial class, he passed a third law a few years later relaxing some of the more onerous provisions. With a few alterations by later emperors the legislation remained in force for several centuries. The terms are known to us indirectly and it is impossible to tell which rule goes with which of the three original enactments, known to us today as the Lex Julia et Papia-Poppaea, or more simply as the Augustan Marriage Laws.

Men between the ages of twenty-five and sixty, and women between twenty and fifty had to be married. If a womanís husband died she had two, perhaps three, years in which to remarry; a divorced woman was only allowed eighteen months in which to get a new husband. Single people were restricted in their ability to inherit. This, of course, was important only to people who expected an inheritance, but Augustus was concerned mostly with the wealthy, upper-classes, for the Empire could not survive if they failed to reproduce themselves. Married men were given priority in government hiring and women with three or more children were no longer required to have a tutor. Couples with three or more children were released from the limit of bequeathing each other more than ten percent of an estate.

Members of the Senatorial Class (Senators, their sons and grandsons) could not marry freedwomen, actresses, pimps, prostitutes or adulteresses.

Adultery was defined as elsewhere in the Ancient World as a sexual relationship between a married woman and a man not her husband. The marital status of the man was irrelevant. So serious was the act that a man who came upon such an outrage might deserve to be forgiven if he got carried away in the heat of the moment and responded with violence. A man who caught his daughter in such circumstances in his own home was allowed to kill her lover. In a similar situation a husband could kill the man only if he was infamous. The law said that he could not kill his wife, but that if he did so he should be punished less severely. These provisions were not new with Augustus. He was simply taking what had been a long standing right in Roman practice, codifying it and putting on some limits. For example, there was no right to kill unless a man actually witnessed the act of adultery and it happened in his own home. What was new with Augustus was taking what had once been a civil matter and turning it into a criminal matter.

A husband was required to divorce an adulterous wife or face charges of pimping.

A woman convicted of adultery lost half of her dowry and a third of any other property she possessed and was then banished to an island.

These laws were certainly unpopular and were probably failures as well.  Tacitus, writing a century later, certainly thought so, and even Augustus in the end bemoaned the inability of his generation to come up to the ancient standards.  There is no sign of women complaining about the new legislation, but the protests from men were certainly loud and clear, and devious methods were soon found to circumvent the law. Those who needed a wife to collect an inheritance married quickly and then divorced just as quickly. Some men got betrothed to girls so young that it would be years before they were old enough to marry. There was little Augustus could do about the marriage today, divorce tomorrow, routine to collect a legacy but he could and did limit the age at which betrothal was possible to seven and shorten the maximum legal length of a betrothal to two years, probably offering some benefit to the girls and women who were the victims of these practices. It is impossible to say if the marriage reforms had any actual impact on Romeís birthrate.

An interesting victim of the anti-adultery law was the Emperor's own daughter, Julia, who was banished as an example to all.

 

 

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