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The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Weddings, Marriages & Divorce
 
Roman Wedding
Unlike the romantic weddings of today, marriage in ancient Rome was an arrangement between two families. Like much of Roman society, it was highly structured but also logical and, in some ways, even modern.

Marriage in Roman times was often not at all romantic. Rather, it was an agreement between families. Men would usually marry in their mid-twenties, while women married while they were still in their early teens. As they reached these ages, their parents would consult with friends to find suitable partners that could improve the family’s wealth or class.

Governed by law

For this reason, there were specific laws governing marriage. A proper Roman marriage could not take place unless bride and groom were Roman citizens, or had been granted special permission, called “conubium.”

At one point in Roman history, freed slaves had been forbidden to marry citizens. This restriction was relaxed by Emperor Augustus who passed a reform in 18 BC called the lex Julia so that, by the first century, freed slaves were only prohibited from marrying senators.

Augustus insisted on other restrictions on marriage. Citizens were not allowed to marry prostitutes or actresses and provincial officials were not allowed to marry the local women. Soldiers were only allowed to marry in certain circumstances and marriages to close relatives were forbidden. Finally, unfaithful wives divorced by their husbands could not remarry [expert].

Sealed with a kiss

Assuming that a proposed wedding satisfied these demands, the process itself was simple. The prospective bride and groom were committed to marry each other at the betrothal, a formal ceremony between the two families. Gifts would be exchanged and the dowry agreed. A written agreement would be signed and the deal sealed with a kiss.

The date of the wedding itself would be chosen carefully: some dates were seen as better than others. In general, June was the most popular month, although weddings took place throughout the year.

Wedding traditions


Unlike today, marriage had no legal force of its own but was rather a personal agreement between the bride and groom. As a result, the wedding itself was a mere formality to prove that the couple intended to live together, known as “affectio maritalis.”

On the wedding day, the groom would lead a procession to his bride's family home, where the bride would be escorted by her bridesmaids to meet her future husband. She would be wearing a tunica recta — a white woven tunic — belted with an elaborate "Knot of Hercules.” She would have carefully arranged hair and would be wearing an orange wedding veil and orange shoes. After the marriage contract had been signed, there would be an enormous feast. The day ended with a noisy procession to the couple's new home, where the bride was carried over threshold so she wouldn't trip — an especially bad omen.

Divorce

Roman divorce was as simple as marriage. Just as marriage was only a declaration of intent to live together, divorce was just a declaration of a couple’s intent not to live together. All that the law required was that they declare their wish to divorce before seven witnesses.

Because marriages could be ended so easily, divorce was common, particularly in the upper classes. When she divorced, a wife could expect to receive her dowry back in full and would then return to patria potestas – the protection of her father. If she had been independent before her wedding, she would regain her independence upon divorce.

Under the lex Julia, a wife found guilty of adultery in a special court – known as the “quaestio” – might sacrifice the return of half her dowry. However, the law did not recognize adultery by husbands. Roman society was very much a man’s world.


Where to next:

Life in Roman Times – Family Life
Religion in Ancient Rome – Roman Worship


 
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The Roman Empire - In The First Century