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


Roman Weddings

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

Marriages without 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 be criticized.18

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 decision.19 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 her.20

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.

Treggiari reports 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 children.

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 and craftswomen.24

Another determining 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:

In any 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 party.

The prospective 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 a relationship.

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.


Footnotes:
14. For more on matrimonium iustum, see Corbett, ch. 2.
15. 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 .
16. Gardner 1986, 31.
17. 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.
18. Treggiari 1991, 102-3.
19. 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 proper."
20. Treggiari 1991, 147.
21. For more on desirable qualities of a coniunx, see Treggiari 1991, ch. 3.
22. Treggiari 1991, 94.
23. ibid., 100-101.
24. ibid., 103.
25. ibid., 104.
26. 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."
27. ibid., 127.
28. 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.
29. Augustan laws forbade the paterfamilias from preventing the marriage of his daughter or refusing to give her a dowry.
30. The ring was thought to bind the nerve that ran from the finger to the heart, thereby capturing her heart.
31. For more on dowries and their legal ramifications, see Treggiari 1991, ch. 10, who admits "almost everything about Roman dowry is ambivalent."
32. 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.

 

Table of Contents > Roman Weddings: The Wedding Ceremony

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