Marriage in ancient Rome

Ancient Roman marriage was often regarded more as a financial and political alliance than as a romantic association, especially in the upper classes.

In more high profile arrangements, Roman fathers usually began seeking husbands for their daughters when they reached an age between twelve and fourteen. The husband was almost always older than the bride; he might be two years older or three times her age. She was expected to give little or no objection in the bargaining between families - although there is proof that some daughters had more say in their choice of husbands than we might expect. (Cicero's daughter and wife planned the daughter's husband, all the time assuming that Cicero would just say yes - and he did). Through high status marriages (even imperial ones), women were able to gain associative power from their husbands' prominent positions in society. Women who gained power in this way could even then legitimize the power positions of their sons (such as with Livia and Tiberius) as their symbolic status influenced Roman society.

While upper class girls married very young, there is evidence that lower class women - plebeians, freedwomen etc - often married in their late teens or early twenties. Women were not seen as likely to marry after thirty. Marriage for them was not about economic and political gain in the cut throat world of Roman politics, so it was not as urgent. Marriage was the result of cohabitation in ancient Rome. When a man and a woman shared a home, it became a lawful marriage. Roman marriage was based on an oral compact that indicated consent, but did not require a written contract and there was no religious ceremony.

Friends and family attended an engagement ceremony before the wedding. Here the father was asked whether he promised to give his daughter ("Spondesne?") and he was expected to say he did ("Spondeo"). The bride-to-be then received financial gifts including a ring to wear on her ring finger, which many believed contained a nerve that ran straight to the heart.

Men conducted much of the business and held most of the power within a Roman marriage. Patria potestas was the law under which Roman women were subject to the control of their fathers and given to their husbands. Once with their husbands as freewomen, they were able to own property but could not conduct business with it without guardian consent of their husbands until Augustus legislated ius trium liberorum in which freeborn women with three children could administer the property they owned.

One of the most important aspects of the practical and business-like arrangement of Roman marriage was the dowry. Ancient papyrus texts show that dowries typically included land and slaves but could also include jewelry, toilet articles (used to make women more attractive, such as mirrors), and clothing. These items were connected with legacy and if the wife died early in the marriage, the dowry would be returned to her family and buried with her to give a more elaborate burial than was typical for the time.

Widows, especially young widows, were encouraged to remarry. Reasons for this ranged from medical to financial to virtuous. Ancient medical practitioners claimed that a woman who was formerly sexually active in marriage will be plagued by uterine displacements causing serious health problems if she becomes abstinent. To avoid gaining a bad reputation and becoming the target of gossip, a woman should remarry to save her health and to project the respectable image of a woman as a wife and mother in the home.

Roman censuses draw no distinction between women being single as a result from a husband's death or from a divorce. Either way, the end of a marriage often left Roman women helpless without a man in her life and she found herself relying on special treatment from authorities and the support from her kin (especially from male relatives who provided protection and a more respectable home). Returning the dowry and caring for the children were the two most important issues surrounding the end of a marriage. A dowry was the one main component of a Roman woman's life that gave her more choices as it also increased her attractiveness to new suitors, which provided the hope of remarrying to gain a higher social status.


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