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Ancient Weddings
by Jennifer Goodall Powers, SUNY Albany
Original text © 1997 Jennifer Goodall Powers

Roman Weddings

excitusque hilari die,
nuptialia concinens
uoce carmina tinnula,
pelle humum pedibus, manu
pineam quate taedam.

... and excited for a fortunate day,
singing wedding songs
with ringing voice,
beat the ground with feet, with a hand
shake the pine torch.1


Like a Greek woman, a Roman woman was usually under the guardianship, manus, of her paterfamilias, male guardian, her whole life. However, during the end of the Roman Republic and at the time of the elegiac poets, women tended to have more freedom:

both in ostensibly factual texts and in imaginative writing a new kind of women appears precisely at the time of Cicero and Caesar: a woman in high position, who nevertheless claims for herself the indulgence in sexuality of a woman of pleasure.2

This 'new woman' both affected and was affected by a new attitude towards marriage, the beginnings of which are seen in Catullus' poems.3 This section will examine the traditional Roman marriage4 and the transition to a different kind of relationship at the time of the elegists.

Roman marriages could either be traditional, with coniubium and manus, or unconventional, without coniubium and manus.5 In order for a marriage and the children resulting from the union to be legitimate, both partners needed to have ius coniubium, the right to marry. This right was both inherent in Roman citizenship and bestowed upon certain people as a special privilege. Under Augustus' laws, if a couple had a sexual union, but did not have coniubium, the union was considered stuprum and the couple was subject to penalties. There were certain unions, however, that allowed people without coniubium to have a marital like union.6

Types of Marriage

The first and most traditional type of marriage was called confarreatio.7 This was a marriage limited to patricians whose parents were also married with confarreatio. The wedding was an elaborate ceremony with the Flamen Dialis and Pontifex Maximus presiding, as well as ten witnesses present. The woman passed directly from the manus of her paterfamilias to that of her new husband. Divorce for confarreatio marriages, diffarreatio, was a difficult process and therefore rare. Not much is known about how diffarreatio was carried out except that there was a special type of sacrifice that caused the dissolution of the relationship between the man and woman. She would then pass back into the manus of her paterfamilias.

The second and more common type of marriage with manus was called coemptio. It represented a "bride purchase," as the groom paid nummus usus, a penny, and received the bride in exchange. While this purchase was not a real sale, it symbolized the traditional bride purchases of earlier societies. Only five witnesses were required and the wedding ceremony was much less formal8 than confarreatio, but the bride still passed to her husband's manus.

A third type of marriage is a bit more unusual and was obsolete by the end of the Republic. Usus was a practical marriage that did not require an actual wedding ceremony; it was a transfer to the manus of the husband by default after cohabitation. There was probably some honorable intention stated at the beginning of the cohabitation, an adfectus maritalis. The only requirement for an usus marriage was that the man and woman cohabitate for one full year. The woman would then pass into her husband's manus. There was one loophole, however. If, within that year, the woman was away for three consecutive nights, she would not pass into the manus of her husband.

There were also marital unions that did not require the women to pass into her husband's manus. One, for instance, was free marriage.9 The wife would retain her independence as filiafamilias to her paterfamilias. If the father was dead, and had so stipulated in his will, she would be suae iuris, responsible for herself. She, under suae iuris, could then manage her own property and even initiate a divorce. Concubinatus was another alternative to marriage.10 A concubine, or paelex, was a woman who had regular sexual relations with a married man. Often the man and his paelex would live together, but without the adfectus maritalis that characterized usus marriages. Children of this type of union were not legitimate, indicating that the relationship was not itself legitimate. If, however, the couple did have adfectus maritalis and there were no legal disqualifications to marriage, the relationship could become a matrimonium. Like Greek concubinage, concubinatus was an acceptable alternative unless the paterfamilias gave the woman as a concubine because he could not afford a dowry for her (in which case it was an embarrassment). While not an actual marriage, contubernium was a marital-like union often practiced by slaves.111 Again the defining factor was cohabitation. This situation was not a permanent one, but existed only until both partners gained their freedom.

Prostitution was an alternative to marriage, though not for honorable women.12 Prostitutes were called scortae, meretrices, or lupae, but did not have the same status in Roman society as hetarai did in Greek society. Like their Greek counterparts, they were usually foreigners and were easy to identify with their make-up and flamboyant attire that contrasted sharply with the austere look of the matronae. They registered with the aediles and later were required to pay taxes. As is the case today, prostitutes could work independently or for a brothel owner, the leno or lena.

Closer to the Greek hetarai were the courtesans, doctae puellae. Often these mistresses would live with their mothers and sisters, under a lena, or in an apartment provided by their lovers.13 Unlike prostitutes, courtesans were usually of respectable Roman origin, although some were freedwomen. They did not live with their lovers, but, unlike prostitutes, usually had only one lover at a time.

1. Catullus, carmen 61, lines 211-15, the Wedding of Junia and Manlius. The translation is my own.
2. Fantham, Elaine, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H. Alan Shapiro. 1994. Women in the Classical World. New York and Oxford, 280.
3. For more on women during the time of the elegists, see Wyke, Maria. 1989. "Mistress and Metaphor in Augustan Elegy," Helios 16.1: 25-49.
4. For a comprehensive overview of Roman marriage, see Treggiari, Susan. 1991. Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian. Oxford.
5. For more on all marital options, see Corbett, Percy Ellwood. 1969. The Roman Law of Marriage. Oxford, chs. 3 & 4.
6. Concubinatus and contubernium are two examples of marital options for people without ius coniubium.
7. For more on the first three types of Roman marriage (confarreatio, coemptio, and usus), see Cantarella, Eva. 1987. Pandora's Daughters: The Role and Status of Women in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Baltimore, 116-118 and Grimal, Pierre. 1986. Love in Ancient Rome. Translated from French by Arthur Train, Jr. Norman, OK, 57-62.
8. The Flamen Dialis and Pontifex Maximus, for instance, were not required at the wedding ceremony for coemptio marriages.
9. For more on free marriage, see Grimal, 62.
10. For more on concubinage, see Grimal, 89 and Gardner, Jane F. 1986. Women in Roman Law & Society. Bloomington, 56-59.
11. For more on contubernium, see Gardner 1986, 59-60.
12. For more on prostitution, see Lilja, Saara. 1965. The Roman Elegists' Attitude to Women. Helsinki, 35ff.
13. See Plautus' Mostellaria, l. 230 for the cost of keeping a courtesan. Philolaches says "... By gods, I'll not see you in wanton poverty as long as I live. I'd sooner sell my father, if it comes to that." Watling translation.


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