To us in the modern western world, marriage is an occasion for two people to publicly  proclaim their love for each other and their desire to build a life together. Since love had nothing to do with a Roman marriage we are entitled to ask what was its purpose in their eyes. Roman marriage existed for the production of legitimate children who would be heirs to their father’s property. Citizenship was a precious designation given only to those who were born of two citizens legally married to each other. Anyone born outside of a legitimate marriage between citizens was inferior in the eyes of the law. Men were well aware that no matter how important they were or how much they loved life, they were not going to live for ever, and while a rich man might have a bag of coins hidden in a hole in the wall of his basement there was no stock market and no corporate or government bonds producing a regular income with little or no effort on the part of the owner. Most real wealth was in the form of farm land or a commercial enterprise that produced an income only if some one paid attention to it, worked it and provided hands on management. Romans knew that, rich or poor, whatever capital they had accumulated would simply evaporate without an heir capable of not just spending but actually managing the estate. With or without wealth, of course, everyone wanted that all important son to provide the necessary care in old age, since there were no retirement homes or pension plans.         

A marriage needed the support of two families, and as such, it must offer something of value to both sides. Those at the bottom of the class ladder had little and expected even less so it is unlikely that they arranged marriages with the needs of the parents in mind, but certainly the upper classes did, and young girls were in no position to fight their parents even on something as important as the choice of a marriage partner. Over the years there was a gradual increase in women’s economic power and in their status in society, but a father’s right both in theory and in practice to choose at least the first husband of a daughter remained constant throughout the Republic and the Empire.

Marriage and betrothal were legally recognized conditions and both required consent. While fourteen was a normal age for a girl to get married it was not impossible that she was betrothed when she was only seven years old, [1] too young to even know what marriage was let alone be able to give informed consent, but either side was free to break the engagement at any time without giving a reason or incurring a penalty. A dowry was a common part of any marriage plan, particularly among the well-to-do. Nominally the wife’s property, it became part of the assets of the new household and was administered by the husband or his paterfamilias. A man might give his betrothed a ring to wear on the third finger of her left hand as a symbol of their engagement. Some care went into choosing the date of the marriage for there were days that were considered lucky and days that were considered unlucky. Even more important was deciding whether the new bride would enter into the manus of her husband or remain under the power of her father. For the last century or two of the Republic and throughout the Empire most marriages were “without manus.” That is to say, the wife remained under the authority of her father. If a woman had to be under someone’s control, a doting father living in another house was a much better bet than a husband.         

There was no marriage registry, nor was there any need for a state appointed person with the power to declare the couple to be married. Only four things were necessary: the bride and groom must be free citizens and be past the age of puberty; they must intend and consent to being husband and wife; and they must have the consent of any relevant guardian. [2] The bride must then be escorted into her new husband’s home, and it is this deed that completed the marriage. [3] Written documentation of a wedding was not necessary. Sleeping together did not make a marriage, [4] and separation did not break one up; [5] what counted was the intent of the individuals involved.

While the couple, not a priest or magistrate, declared themselves to be married, a ceremony involving friends and family much like our own was very common. If you stumbled by accident into a modern wedding ceremony, it would be easy to identify the cast of characters---bride, groom, bridesmaids, ushers, best man, parents--- even if they were all strangers, and you would certainly have no trouble knowing what had happened just before your unexpected arrival and what was about to happen next. A modern bride might have “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Roman weddings had a similar set of standard ingredients. The typical “bridal dress” was a hemless tunic (tunica recta) with a double knotted woolen girdle around her waist. A saffron colored cloak (palla) was worn over the tunic and her sandals were often dyed the same saffron color. Six pads of artificial hair (seni crines) separated by narrow bands protected her own hairdo. The outfit was completed by a flaming orange veil (flammenum) that covered her head and the upper part of her face.

The bride, surrounded by her family, welcomed the groom and his family and friends to her home and then she led them to the place of the ceremony. A pig or other animal was sacrificed. The auspex examined the entrails and asserted that the auspices were favorable and that the gods approved of the marriage. This unofficial position, whose duties began and ended with the one wedding, was held by a family friend who was expected to agree regardless of what he imagined seeing inside the sacrifice. If there was a marriage contract, the bride and groom signed it and ten witnesses chosen from the two families attached their seals to it. The couple then exchanged their vows.

Later, when night had fallen, there was a noisy procession from the home of the bride to the home of the groom, and, as noted above, this was the moment they legally became husband and wife. There might have been flute players and torch bearers. Three young boys led the bride while bridesmaids carried her distaff and spindle, symbols of her role as spinner and weaver for the new household. Very often the bride was carried across the doorstep of the groom’s house, for it was considered to be very unlucky if she tripped on her way in.

State appointed priests (called Flamens) of certain major gods like Jupiter had to have been born out of a marriage with confarreatio, a ceremony in which the bride and groom share a meal of emmer bread in front of ten witnesses, leaving the woman in the manus of her husband. Tacitus tells us that by the time of Tiberius the marriage rule had made it so difficult to find a suitable candidate for the priest of Jupiter that the rules had to be changed to allow his wife to be under his manus only in so far as religious rites were concerned. Otherwise she was to be considered like any other Roman wife. [6] 

When the Romans talked about marriage they were referring to one or the other of the two arrangements we have just looked at, but these were valid only if both parties were citizens. Though they lacked the full legal standing of marriage, other procedures were available to couples who wished to signify in some formal way their decision to build a life together. With their master’s permission slaves could establish a conjugal relationship known as a contubernium, and such unions seem to have been as stable as legitimate marriages. There were advantages to such arrangements for the owner, as contented slaves were more likely to work well and any resulting children were additional slaves that could be added to his workforce, but the relationship depended on the good will of the master and there was never any guarantee that one of the pair would not be sold.           

While concubines probably always existed, they did not acquire official recognition until the Empire when it became illegal for senators and their sons and grandsons to marry freedwomen. Since such relationships were going to continue anyway, the law came to acknowledge the concubine as occupying a place somewhere well above a harlot but not quite as high as a wife. A man could have one wife or he could have one concubine but he could not have both. If the woman were legally ineligible to be a wife or if she were of a lower class than the man she could be a concubine. This status gave her little legal protection, but it did imply society’s recognition of the permanence of the union and was similar to what in the modern western world is sometimes called a “common-law wife.” A widower might free a slave and take her as a concubine. Slaves who had legally been manumitted acquired Roman citizenship and could marry as long as they had their patron’s permission. While senators and their sons and grandsons could not marry freedwomen, men of other classes could, but often preferred to avoid marriage because of the difference in social class. Children born of a concubine would not be legitimate and would therefore bear the name of their mother. It is interesting to note that while divorce was fairly easy to achieve the freedwoman concubine of her patron was unable to separate without his permission. [7] This technicality was considered necessary to prevent slave women using the pretext of marriage just to get out of slavery. Freedwomen married to someone other than a previous owner were free to end the relationship as easily as any other wife.

Finally there were the many people who lived in the city of Rome or one of its provinces who were neither citizen nor slave. They worked and contributed to the economy but as long as they obeyed the law and kept out of trouble the Roman government took little interest in them. Such residents could not hold public office or participate in government in any way, but if they chose to live together and pretend to be married no one cared. Their “marriage” had no legal validity and would not be supported in court, and if the woman had an affair she could not be charged with the crime of adultery, but beyond that the relationship was probably no less real to the couple than an authentic marriage between citizens would have been.



[1] Ibid. 23.1.14

[2] Rules of Ulpian, 5.2

[3] Justinian, Digest, 23.2.5

[4] Ibid, 50.17.30

[5] Ibid,

[6] Tacitus, Annales, IV.16

[7] Justinian, Digest, 25.7.1






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