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

Roman Weddings

The Wedding Ceremony

As with Greek marriages, an actual wedding ceremony was not needed to legalize a marriage. A couple could live together and have adfectus maritalis, in order for a marriage to be valid.33 For most aristocratic Roman couples, however, the ceremony was a visible-and practical-rite.

Like the Greek bride, the Roman bride needed to renounce her childhood before she could properly prepare for her life as wife and mother. To do this, she began by surrendering her childhood toys and toga praetexta. The bride's hairstyle was unique to brides, called tutulus. It was divided into sex crines, six locks, and was fastened with vittae, fillets, on the top of her head in a meta, cone. Her hair was parted with a hasta recurva or hasta caelibaris, bent iron spearhead. It is not really known why this ritual was practiced, except that the Romans may have believed that this would drive out the evil spirits thought to be living in the hair.

The bride's attire, like that of today, was special and worn only once. Her flammeum, flame colored veil, was probably the most symbolic thing she wore:

It continued as one of the main symbols and components of the wedding ceremony, routinely mentioned by many authors. Indeed, the verb used of the woman marrying, nubo, is related to nubes, a cloud, and means literally 'I veil myself'. From this come nupta, a married woman, nova nupta, a bride, and nuptiae, the wedding. The event turns on the bride and her veiling.34

The veil was oblong, transparent and matched her lutei socci, shoes. The veil left her face uncovered. She also wore an amaracus wreath. Her gown consisted of a tunica recta, a white flannel or muslim tunic that had been made on an old-fashioned upright loom, and a cingulum, girdle. There was a knot at the waist of her dress to avert ill fortune. The first part of the ceremony took place at the house of the bride's paterfamilias. The bride's parents would, of course, watch for omens and if all looked well, they would hand over the bride to the groom. There would be some verbal exchange to the effect of "Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia," "Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia." The ceremony could take place even if the groom was not able to be present. In that event, he would send a letter with his part of the verbal exchange. The pronuba, matron of honor, would then join the couple's hands.35 The new couple would offer up a sacrifice, usually a pig. The tabulae nuptiales, marriage contract, which had been drawn up beforehand, would be presented by the auspex, who was both priest and best man, and then the contract would be signed by the required number of witnesses.36 The cena, wedding breakfast, paid for by the groom, was eaten; gifts were given; and preparations for the procession were made.

The deductio in domum mariti or pompa, procession, moved from the bride's home to the groom's home, like the Greek wedding procession. First, the couple and guests would enact the scene of the seizure of the Sabines: the bride would clutch her mother's arms, but be ripped away by the groom. Three boys with both parents living, patrimi et matrimi, escorted the bride while the other guests shouted "Talasio," "hymen hymenaee," and other obscenities and jokes. One of these boys would carry a spina alba, a special wooded torch lit from the bride's hearth. Walnuts were thrown, symbolizing the hoped-for fertility of the bride. The bride or her attendant would carry a spindle and distaff, again symbolizing her role as weaving wife. The groom took part in singing the Fescennine verses and lighting the torches. Since the groom had to be at his house before the bride arrived in order to greet her there, the procession itself split. The separate processions form a procedure called the uxorem ducere/deducere.

When the procession arrived at the groom's house, the torches were traditionally thrown away.37 Next, the bride rubbed the doorway with fat and oil and wreathed it with wool, reinforcing her role as domestic wife. She then crossed the threshold very carefully or was even carried over in some instances since it was unlucky to step on it or trip on her way into her new house. "Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia" might have been uttered at this point if not before. The bride touched water and fire, aquae et ignis communicatio, elements that were essential to life through cooking and washing. There was a lavishly decorated mini-marriage bed in the hallway for the couple's spirits: the husband's genius and the wife's juno. Epithalamia were sung at this point to encourage the couple to consummate the marriage.

As marriage was a basis for the procreation of children, it would follow that consummation and the first sexual union of the new couple would be an important part of the ceremony.38 The marriage chamber was decorated with symbols of fertility, such as flowers, greenery, and fruit.39 As mentioned above, the lectus genialis, a miniature wedding bed, was in the hallway of the main part of the house for the couple's spirits. The marriage bed itself, the torus genialis, was where the couple normally slept and made love.40 The bride's parents handed their daughter over to her husband's manus for the final time. The pronuba led the bride into the bedroom. Playing an important role in the entire wedding ceremony, this woman was "a married woman who had only been married once and whose husband was alive - the incarnation of the faithful wife and thus auspicious - in pointing out the bride's duty."41 Throughout the preparations and ceremony itself she was responsible for encouraging and guiding the bride. She was also a leader in wishing the couple perpetual harmony. Having led the bride into the bedroom, the pronuba prayed with her for a blessing on the marriage, helped her undress and remove her jewelry and then put her into the bed. Only then would the groom enter, either alone or escorted by others. The pronuba would offer a sacrifice and then leave. For the first time that day, and maybe ever, the couple was alone, though the revelry would continue outside the room.

Before consummating the marriage, the couple would play act: the bride would pretend to be reluctant; the groom would try to conciliate her by calling her his "wife"; the bride would continue to weep and maybe turn away, but then call him "husband" and speak to him with loving words. The groom would then untie the complicated knot at the waist of his wife's girdle. While consummation was not actually necessary for a Roman marriage to be legal, it was expected to happen on the wedding night because of the Roman emphasis of bearing children in marriages. This first sexual union was also considered a foedus lecti, contract of fidelity, between husband and wife.42 The next morning, the bride emerged from the bedroom a matrona. She was part of a new family now and would take part in their religious cult. Later that day, there would be a repotia, dinner and drinking party.

33. Gardner 1986, 47.
34. Treggiari 1991, 163.
35. For more on the pronuba see below, pp. 67-68.
36. Ten for confarreatio and five for coemptio, as noted above.
37. This ceremony resembles our contemporary practice of throwing the bridal bouquet of flowers, with whomever catching it blessed with luck. There was also some folklore as well about what the couple could do with the torches if they wanted the marriage to end quickly. For instance, if the bride put the torch out and left it under the marriage bed, rapid death would afflict the groom. On the other hand, the groom could cause the rapid death of the bride by leaving it on a tomb to burn itself out.
38. For more on bedding the bride, see Treggiari, Susan. 1994. "Putting the Bride to Bed." Echos du Monde/Classical Views 38.3: 311-31.
39. See Sappho frr. 93, 94 and Cat. c. 61.87-9, 186-8 for literary representations of these fertility symbols in the bridal chamber.
40. There is a full discussion of beds and privacy in Roman households in Treggiari 1994. She suggests that the bed in the atrium may have been used by the couple. She also discusses other uses for the miniature bed.
41. ibid., 314.
42. This is a phrase that will be examined at length in the following chapter, as Catullus uses it frequently in his poetry.


Table of Contents > Roman Weddings: Ideal Marriage

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