Under Construction

MATRIMONIUM

Families of Antoninus Pius
Concordia of the Imperial Family
Julia with her sons
Julia Augusti with her Sons
roundel of couple
Wedding Salutation

Marriage was a core institution of Roman culture, closely linked to the origins and well-being of the state as Rome's early legends attest: the marriage of Trojan Aeneas to Lavinia, princess of Latium, that was destined to establish the Roman race (Livy, AUC I.1; Vergil, Aeneid VI.760 ff., VII.254 ff.), the encounter of the Alban priestess Rhea Silvia with the god Mars that produced Rome's founders, the twins Romulus and Remus (Livy, AUC I.4; Vergil, Aeneid I.273-277), and the abduction of the Sabine women that secured for Rome citizen wives and children (Livy, AUC I.13). Not at all a romantic pairing of vir and femina, the intention of iustum matrimonium was the production of new citizens for Rome. To this end the state offered qualified adults civic and social privileges to encourage legal marriage, as well as re-marriage upon the death of a spouse — common, given the regularity of war and the dangers of childbirth and disease — or after divorce, to which wives had equal access from the last half of the first century BCE. Recent philological, historical and archaeological scholarship has re-evaluated ancient literary and material evidence about marriage, increasing our appreciation of both the institution and its significance in Roman life.

Definition

There is no definition of Roman marriage in the surviving laws. The section on marriage in Justinian's Corpus Iuris Civilis opens with a conceptualization of marriage by the early 3rd century CE jurist Herennius Modestinus:

Nuptiae sunt coniunctio maris et feminae et consortium omnis vitae, divini et humani iuris communicatio (Digest 23.2.1)
Marriage is a union of male and female and a partnership of all life, a sharing of divine and human law.

The concept of Roman marriage as a partnership may have originated in an early law, as Livy incorporates that aspect into Romulus's speech to the Sabine women, though perhaps anachronistically:

docebatque . . . illas tamen in matrimonio, in societate fortunarum omnium civitatisque et quo nihil carius humano generi sit liberum fore (AUC I.9.14)
and he was informing them . . . that nevertheless they would be in matrimonium, in partnership [with their husbands] in the successes of all and of the state and in their children -- than which there was nothing dearer to the human race.

Purpose

Matrimonium, the word deriving from mater, is the term surviving texts use almost solely in reference to the marriage of women. It suggests that the Romans understood the institution to be essentially an instrument for transforming unmarried women into mothers. Nuptiae, another word used for marriage, refers to the ceremony which the nupta, the virginal bride, attended with her head veiled. While the word coniugium is also used to refer to marriage, it does not refer solely to marital union, as do matrimonium and nuptiae.The purpose of marriage may have been written into early Roman law and lost but not forgotten, for some form of the phrase liberorum procreandorum causa ("for the purpose of producing children") appears regularly in Latin literature from the 3rd century BCE in Ennius (Andromeda 126), to Plautus (Captivi 889), to the classical authors C. Suetonius (Divus Iulius 52.3 ) and Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae XVII.21.44), and to Ulpian (Regulae 3.3) and the Edict of Probus (Codex Justinianus V.4.9). The function of the materfamilias was to produce legitimate, freeborn children (ingenui/ae) who would become full Roman citizens, assume their father's nomen and claim inheritance from him. While women were expected to be content with the goal of producing children, it was assumed that men would have their sexual needs satisfied by concubinae, meretrices and slaves.

Requirements for a Valid Roman Marriage

Rather than define iustum matrimonium (Regulae Ulpiani 5.2), ancient texts list its prerequisites: possession of conubium, consent of both spouses and, if they are not independent, that of their patresfamiliarum (Digesta 50.17.30). Further, spouses had to be within an acceptable degree of kinship (see Justinian, Institutes I.10.1-11), to have reached sexual maturity (by the end of the Republic viri potens for girls was established at the age of 12 and pubes for boys at age 14), and to be unmarried. The jurist Ulpian also claimed that that neither contracts nor documents nor cohabitation made a marriage (Digesta 20.1.4), but rather affectio maritalis ("the desire to be married"; Digesta 24.1.32.13).
Ancient sources define conubium as uxoris ducendae facultas, "the right to lead a wife in marriage" (Regulae Ulpiani 5.3). Although phrased as a male prerogative, the jurist Julian asserted that the requirement applied to women as well ("the masculine sex always contains also the feminine": Digesta 32.62). Only those persons who had Roman citizenship had conubium; foreigners, except in special circumstances, and slaves did not (Regulae Ulpiani 5.4-5).
While iniusta matrimonia were not illegal, they did not enjoy the privileges of a valid marriage, most importantly the right of inheritance.

The Status of Women Before the Law

Patria Potestas: in early Roman law all citizens were under the absolute authority (ius vitae necisque) of their paterfamilias (Gaius, Institutes I.54) until he died or made them independent (sui iuris). This authority, which the jurist Gaius termed distinctive to Roman culture (Institutes I.55), was held by each head of family over his dependents (for Ulpian's definition of familia, see Digesta 50.16.195.2). A son (filius familias) who was independent by reason of the death of or emancipation from his paterfamilias, became a paterfamilias himself upon marriage and possessed of patria potestas. Until that time, he was under the potestas of the oldest living head of his family (his father/grandfather/great grandfather). A daughter (filia familias) was subject to the patria potestas of her father until she entered a manus marriage, was emancipated by her father's death, or, rarely, was emancipated by him. In the latter two events, she entered tutela mulierum, a form of male guardianship which became less controlling by the end of the Republic (see Regulae Ulpiani 11.1; Gaius records that women were traditionally required to have male guardians because of their animi levitas [Institutiones I.144], an opinion he did not share [Institutiones I.190]; for a full explanation of tutela, see tutor).
Manus: a woman entered marriage either in manum, the most common legal arrangement before the 1st century BCE, or sine manu, a modern term for the alternative legal status which became the norm from the end of the 1st century BCE. Manus defined a married woman before the law as separated from the patria potestas of her paterfamilias (as well as all rights of inheritance from him), but subject to the legal control of her husband (if he was sui iuris), her position before the law similar to that of their children in respect to inheritance from her husband. If her husband was not independent (sui iuris), then she was legally subject, together with her husband, to his paterfamilias. Marriage sine manu was advantageous to the bride's natal family in that her property, including her dowry, after her marriage remained legally the possession of her paterfamilias; thus husband had only the use of her dowry as long as the marriage lasted and his wife lived.
In his commentary to the laws, Gaius writes that only a woman entered manus (Institutiones I.109) and that she did so upon marriage in one of three ways ( Institutiones I.110), the first being automatic, the second and third requiring action to be taken:
Usus:   A woman who retained her position as a married woman for an uninterrupted year came into manus by usus; for the reason that, as if she was obtained by possession for a year (usucapio), she transferred into the household of her husband and took the place of a daughter. Accordingly, it was decreed by the Law of the Twelve Tables that if a woman was unwilling to come into the manus of her husband in this way, she should be absent every year for three successive nights, and in this manner she would interrupt the usus of each year. But this whole law has been partly abolished by statutes, and partly cancelled by its very disuse. (Gaius, Institutiones I.111)
Confarreatio:   Women come into manus by farreum, through some kind of sacrifice which is made to Jupiter Farreus, in which emmer wheat bread is employed, whence also it is called confarreatio; in addition, for the purpose of regulating this law, many other things are done and happen, with fixed solemn words, with ten witnesses present. This law is still in use in our time, for the principal flamines, that is priests of Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, likewise kings of the sacred rites, are not chosen unless they are born of those married by confarreatio. And not even they themselves indeed can hold the priesthood without confarreatio. (Gaius, Institutiones I.112; Tacitus, in Annales IV.16, describes the Emperor Tiberius' discovery in 23 CE of the lapse of this form of manus marriage, which he modifies in order to salvage)
Coemptio:   In truth, women come into manus by coemptio through mancipatio (the ceremony of transference of property), that is, through a certain fictitious sale. For the husband buys his wife, whose manus she enters in the presence of not less than five witnesses, adult Roman citizens, likewise of a libripens (one who holds the scales in a ceremony of mancipium).
Moreover, a woman can make a coemptio not only with her husband, but also with someone not in the family; obviously a coemptio is said to have been done on account of either matrimonium or of fiducia (trust); for a woman who makes a coemptio with her husband so that she lives with him as a daughter is said to have made a coemptio for the sake of matrimonium; but she who makes a coemptio for another reason, either with her husband or with someone not in the family, as for example for the sake of avoiding tutela (guardianship), she is said to have made a coemptio for the sake of fiducia. (Gaius, Institutiones I.113-114)

Roman Laws of Marriage: A Timeline

It is impossible to construct an accurate picture of Roman marriage at any one time, as surviving evidence is random, scattered over every period of Roman literature, and appears in genres as disparate as Greek and Roman history, satire, comedy, elegy, philosophy, letters, commentaries, compendia, law, and material culture. Although the importance of iustum matrimonium never diminished, it was modified by statute, often driven by social realities, in broken succession over the long course of Roman history.

Ancient Sources for Roman Laws of Marriage

In the absence of many of the laws relating to marriage, surviving handbooks (institutiones) and commentaries (commentarii, sententiae), written by leading jurists who quoted, interpreted or gave opinions on the laws, are invaluable for reconstructing their content.


NUPTIAE

wedding relief
Aldobrandini Wedding Fresco: large wall fresco of the late 1st century BCE from a Roman house on the Esquiline hill. Vatican Museum

While Roman marriage arrangements were traditionally dominated by men, the wedding ceremony centered around women, especially the nova nupta — her preparations, her appearance, her transfer to her new domus. The wedding ceremony was primarily a social event, although it had legal and religious aspects as well. Not every bride experienced a wedding ceremony, as nuptiae neither defined nor were required for a iustum matrimonium. Elite families may have found it imperative socially to make public the transfer of the virgin bride from her natal family to the groom's family and home and to have relatives and friends present at the signing of the dotal contract. It is likely, however, that lower-class marriages took place with little or no ceremony, although wealthy freedmen during the Empire may have sought to imitate aristocratic practice in regard to weddings as in other areas of their social life.

Latin terms associated with marriage suggest that the flammeum, the bride's flame-colored veil, and the deductio domum, the procession of the accompanied bride to her new home, were key aspects of the wedding ceremony. The bride was said to "put on a veil for her husband" (nubere viro), the groom to "lead a wife" (ducere uxorem), and the couple to "be united" in marriage (iungere, coniunx, coniugium). Whether the scene of dextrarum iunctio, the clasping of right hands by the bridal pair that is so prominently displayed on the tombstones of freedpersons and even of slaves during the Empire, was included in the actual wedding ceremony is currently under debate by scholars.

Hairstyle and Costume of the Roman Bride: video recreation researched and reenacted by Janet Stephens (2013).  

 

wedding relief
Dextrarum Iunctio
A veiled nupta with a female attendant clasps right hands with her husband before an altar
Marble relief. Vatican Museum

Works Consulted: K. Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride (Cambridge, London1996); J.F. Gardner, Family and Familia in Roman Law and Life (Oxford 1998); J.E. Grubbs, Women and the Law in the Roman Empire (London, New York 2002); K. Hersch, The Roman Wedding (Cambridge 2010); S. Treggiari, Roman Marriage (Oxford 1991), "Digna condicio," Echos du Monde Classique/Classical Views 28.3 (1984) 419-51, "Putting the Bride to Bed," ibid. 38.13 (1994) 311-31.