Goodall Powers, SUNY Albany
© 1997 Jennifer Goodall Powers
Preparing for a Wedding
The primary concern
in arranging a marriage was that it be a matrimonium iustum,
a legal union.14
Incestum, marriage between close relatives, for instance,
was a crime.15
Matrimonium iustum had three requirements: both partners
must have coniubium as described above, and age and consent,
as described below.16
one or more of these requirements, concubinage, for instance,
were matrimonia iniusta. The validity of a marriage would
later affect the inheritance rights of any children produced
by the marriage as well as the inheritance rights from husband
to wife and vice versa.
In order to marry,
the couple was expected to have reached puberty, thought to be
14 years old for boys and 12 for girls.17 However, the ages of the
partners sometimes complicated the union. One scholar points
out that: considerations of compatibility in age are not emphasized
in the sources. Although Terentia apparently criticized Cicero
for marrying a young girl, the matching of a man with a woman
young enough to be his daughter or even granddaughter was generally
accepted ... For a man to marry a woman who was much older than
himself was discreditable. A couple who were both old might also
While there are
many examples in Roman history of older men marrying young girls,
it was the decision of the paterfamilias and not the girl.
This raises the
other consideration in choosing a husband: consent. Though the
final decision was ultimately up to the paterfamilias,
he usually consulted the bride's mother before making a final
Treggiari explains the daughter's potential role, which depended
on her mother's intervention: A daughter who compelled her paterfamilias
to consent to her marriage need not have been acting alone: her
mother may well have taken the initiative in making a match for
However, the only
consent needed for a matrimonium iustum was that of the
paterfamilias of the girl and the groom or his paterfamilias
if he had not reached puberty yet. So too was a marriage matrimonium
iniustum if the paterfamilias did not consent. In
choosing a coniunx, marriage partner, for his filiafamilias,
a man would evaluate certain personal characteristics and qualities
of potential sons in-law.21
The first was birth. It was very important that there be no disparity
between the social standing of husband and wife. Defined by having
at least one male ancestor of curule rank, and the more ancestors
that met this condition the better, nobilitas could make
up for other shortcomings in a partner. As a man moved up the
cursus honorum, the better a prospective husband he made.
Marriage was commonly used for political alliances.
Wealth too could
compensate for other shortcomings in a prospective partner, such
as low birth. A man who needed money for his own political career,
for instance, could seek a dotata uxor, well endowed wife.
In this situation, however, the bride's family would have to
have been convinced that her new husband could ensure that she
would live in the manner to which she was accustomed.22 In some instances, personal
qualities would play a role in choosing a coniunx.
that while "... the convention that all brides are lovely
will naturally reign in epithalamia ... again, the bridegroom's
looks will naturally be praised in epithalamia,"
good looks were just one of many considerations.23 When they were considered
at all, it was not usually the attraction to one another that
good looks sparked, but instead the genetic potential for healthy
Character was probably
a more important consideration than good looks, but still not
nearly as important as rank or wealth. For women, pudicitia,
chastity, was a quality that was revered and respected above
all others. Furthermore, a woman's character was often determined
by the characters of her relatives:
A wife should be
chosen for her virtues and those of her paterfamilias and, particularly,
her mother, who would have had more influence on her. The suitor
should determine whether she imitated her parents and had not
been over indulged. The philosopher [Antipater the Stoic] authorized
him to search out all sources of information, slaves and free
people from both inside and outside her household, neighbors,
guests and other visitors, cooks, seamstresses, and other craftsmen
factor would be how a woman would interact with her husband.
Treggiari offers a brief look at qualities most valued in a potential
wife: "the virtuous wife was kind, compliant, loving, steady,
faithful, and subordinate, but the lack of vices receives more
emphasis than positive qualities."25 There is not much recorded,
however, about the moral character of men influencing potential
fathers-in-law in ancient sources.26
There were, of course,
political reasons for marrying off a daughter, affinitas, for
instance. A family connection could then secure a bond between
son-in-law and father-in-law, as the relationship between Pompey
and Caesar was strengthened by Pompey's marriage to Julia. Similar
to the Greek motive also, in certain cases, marriage within the
family was encouraged. As children were usually betrothed young
in these situations, affection was expected to grow as they matured.
Affection between family members would also give cause for a
marriage. Treggiari concludes:
case, the search by both parties or their families will often
have been tedious and complicated. For the girl's family, it
was important to have a husband ready to marry her at that short-lived
and not precisely predictable moment when she was 'ripe'. A family's
anxiety is neatly illustrated by Cicero's story of one Caecilia,
who was eager to make a match for her sister's daughter. She
took the girl to visit a shrine and obtain an omen, and succeeded
in uttering ominous words which meant that, after her own unexpected
death, the girl would marry her widower.27
Deciding on which
man will be the husband of his filiafamilias was not an easy
process, as the paterfamilias had a personal stake in
whom his daughter married. Once a coniunx had been chosen, the
couple and their patresfamilias arranged a betrothal.28 The children had to be
old enough to be aware of what was being said, i.e. seven years
old. It was unusual, however, for a boy to be engaged before
he took the toga virilis. Though the betrothal became
less formal over time, there were formal steps to the procedure.
During the early Republic, a stipulatio , verbal contract,
was required of marriages with manus. Marriages without
manus did not require stipulatio because the bride
or her paterfamilias could terminate the union.
In the first century
B.C., there was no need for stipulatio for any marriages,
only the dowry arrangements were necessary. The girl was then
called pacta, betrothed. The bride's paterfamilias
gave the sponsalia, the formal betrothal and engagement
son-in-law was the guest of honor. The couple or their patresfamilias
would give their consent to the union.29 While there were no legal
forms to validate the betrothal, it was sealed with a kiss and
the groom would give arra, money, and anulus pronubis,
an iron ring, to the bride.30
The amount of the dowry was set at this time and paid in three
annual installments after the wedding.31 The dowry was returned
if the marriage ended. If the wife died, the husband could keep
one-fifth of the dowry for each child produced by the union.
In cases of divorce, the wife and her paterfamilias could
sue for the return of the dowry. Unlike Greek marriages, Roman
marriages were valid even without the transfer of a dowry.
While the time between
this formal engagement and the wedding could be no more than
a few days, not much is known today about the relationship of
an engaged couple. Only under certain circumstances (including
death, political reasons, unhappy prospects, or learning that
the marriage is ineligible) would the paterfamilias or
the prospective husband be able affinitatem renuntiare, to renounce
After a coniunx
had been found and the betrothal arrangements made, it was necessary
to start planning the actual wedding. Typical of Roman events,
the day of the wedding needed to be auspicious, especially for
first marriages since more people would attend these than second
weddings. Inauspicious days included sacred periods, the dies
religiosi, when battles and judicial activities were also
avoided, and dies festi on which religious festivals were
held. Furthermore, the Kalends, Nones, and Ides of each month
were avoided. Hilaris dies, on the other hand, were especially
popular during the second half of June and during harvest time.
Curiously, the bride and groom could not be summoned to court
on their wedding day. A wedding invitation from the third century
A.D. reads: "Herais requests your company at dinner in celebration
of the marriage of her children at her house tomorrow, the fifth,
at nine o'clock."32
It was an officium, duty, for those invited to attend
the wedding, so weddings were usually well attended.
For more on matrimonium iustum, see Corbett, ch. 2.
The definition of close relatives is debateable. At one point,
second cousins were considered too close, but at other times
a marriage between close relatives was a matrimonium iustum .
Gardner 1986, 31.
For more on the age of Roman brides, see Shaw, Brent. 1987. "The
Age of Roman Girls at Marriage: Some Reconsiderations."
Journal of Roman Studies 77: 30-46.
Treggiari 1991, 102-3.
Balsdon, J.P.V.D. 1963. Roman Women: Their History and Habits.
New York, 174, citing L. 38, 57, 7, tells a story of the betrothal
of Cornelia to Tiberius Gracchus: "...when Scipio [Cornelia's
father] returned home and told his wife that he had arranged
a marriage for his daughter, 'she was angry, as only a woman
can be, because he had not consulted her about the girl, who
was her daughter as much as his. She said that even if he was
marrying the girl to Tiberius Gracchus, she, as a mother, ought
to have been consulted.'... The ... story is certainly untrue
... But the sentiment ... was, by Roman standards, right and
Treggiari 1991, 147.
For more on desirable qualities of a coniunx, see Treggiari 1991,
Treggiari 1991, 94.
ibid., 104-5, offers a brief view of qualities desired of men:
"Pliny of course gave a testimonial to the energy, industry,
and modesty of Acilianus as a candidate. Similarly, he congratulates
Servianus (the husband of Hadrian's sister) on the selection
of Fuscus Salinator for their daughter. Personal qualities appear
on the list of advantages: 'His house is patrician, his father
of the highest standing, his mother of equal repute; he himself
is a literary scholar and eloquent, a boy for innocence, a young
man for charm, and an old man for seriousness.' Fronto commends
his chosen son-in-law Aufidius Victorinus ... for mores and eloquence
... In general terms, fathers and others no doubt considered
the personal character of their daughters' future husbands."
For more on betrothal, see Treggiari 1991, ch. 4. Here she outlines
who was involved and what was done during the time between negotiation
and engagement. For instance, Treggiari uses the third engagement
of Tullia, Cicero's daughter, as an example of what happened.
Augustan laws forbade the paterfamilias from preventing the marriage
of his daughter or refusing to give her a dowry.
The ring was thought to bind the nerve that ran from the finger
to the heart, thereby capturing her heart.
For more on dowries and their legal ramifications, see Treggiari
1991, ch. 10, who admits "almost everything about Roman
dowry is ambivalent."
Oxyrhynchus, 3rd cent. A.D.; Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Maureen B.
Fant. 1982. "Roman Wedding Invitation" in Women's
Life in Greece and Rome. Baltimore, 243.