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Manus and marriage

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Aldobrandini Wedding
Aldobrandini Wedding

As is well known, women in ancient Rome had very limited rights, but their social position was much stronger than that of Greek women. Despite this, she still remained completely dependent on men – first her father and then her husband. Manus, or the passing of the wife under the authority of the husband, was closely related to the institution of marriage. If we combine the concepts of marriage and manus, this requires more explanation.

Initially, both activities were considered unambiguous: according to researchers, it was impossible to get married without passing under the authority of the husband1. Thus, the manus forms were mistakenly regarded as types of marriage. At that time, marriage was divided into conventio in manus and conventio in manum. However, this theory was wrong – there are no mentions of such a division in Roman sources. There was only one marriage with full effect (iustae nuptiae)2. Therefore, it should be stated that the conclusion of marriage and the passing of a wife under the authority of her husband is completely independent acts – they could complement each other, but they were undoubtedly different.

Gaius lists in Institutions three forms of coming under the power of a husband: “(..) they used to come under the power of a husband in three ways: by intercourse, by spelt, by binding by purchase”3, i.e. usus, confarreatio and coemptio. They were only a form of coming under the authority of the spouse, and not the marriage itself. This could take place on the occasion of the marriage, but it was not obligatory – it was possible to perform this action only after the marriage had already been concluded.

As the first form of coming under the power of the husband, Gaius mentions in Institutions entering by intercourse, or usus: “By intercourse she (woman) came under the power of her husband, who lasted in marriage for (a whole) year without a break, because (she) was acquired by usucaption as if she were an annual possession, (so) she came to her husband’s family and occupied the position of a daughter.”4. From this description, it can be seen that in the form usus a woman who came under her husband’s authority when she stayed in her husband’s house continuously for a year. Moreover, when a woman came under her husband’s authority, she received a status equivalent to that of a daughter. If a woman did not want to come under her husband’s authority, she deliberately left his house for three nights in a row. Information about this already appears in Almost Twelve Tables5. Gaius, on the other hand, writes as follows: “(..) if (a woman) did not want to come under the authority of her husband, she should be absent (at home) for three nights every year and thus stop intercourse (with her husband) in a given year (…) “6. It should be noted that this activity should be repeated by the woman every year, because the time since leaving counts anew. Thus, it can be seen that for the existence of this form manus, the sole agreement concluded between the spouses was not enough. The will to remain in the marriage (affectio maritalis) was also required – it allowed the usus form to be completed because without it it could not be completed. However, in order for a woman to effectively leave home, i.e. prevent her from coming under her husband’s authority, she had to meet one condition: the night preceding the day of marriage could not be the last of the three nights during which the woman was absent from her husband’s home7. This means that if a woman married a man on, say, July 20th, she had to leave the house on July 17th, because if she had done so on July 18th, six hours would have elapsed before the usus was terminated. There is no clear explanation why this particular form was given by the jurist first (as it was the institution that was probably created last)8. One of the concepts rooted in science says that this may have happened due to the importance of the very act of passing the woman under the power of her husband9. The second concept indicates that usus was the most widely available to the Roman population, as both confarreatio and coeptio were more demanding10 . This form of passing under the husband’s authority disappeared at the earliest. Gaius wrote that this was partly because of the laws, partly as a result of weaning from them11.

Next, Gaius lists coming under the power of her husband in the form confarreatio. It was a complicated act that required many steps to complete. In Gaius, this form is referred to as entry into power by spelt: “by spelt they (women) come under the power of their husband following the kind of sacrifice they make to Jupiter Spelled (…)”12. One of the elements of this act was the offering of wheat bread. Further, Gaius writes: “Many more are done for the observance of this law and the completion (of actions) with (using) definite and solemn words in the presence of ten witnesses”13. However, the jurist does not specifically present the formula uttered during the confarreatio. It could have been a kind of prayer that would be characteristic of the form of coming under the husband’s authority related to making a sacrifice to the gods. Gaius also mentions the witnesses of this event, but he does not say anything about the priests who would take part in this ceremony, which, however, can be taken as obvious, because confarreatio was associated with the cult14. An important aspect of this form is the fact that it was present only among the patricians. This can be explained by the need to choose the high priests of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus from among people born of a marriage in which there is a dependence of a woman on a man in the confarreatio act. Gaius also pointed out, however, that a woman was subject to her husband’s authority only in matters of worship, otherwise, she was to be treated as if she had not come under her husband’s authority15. During the principate period, however, it is difficult to name people from unions who joined under confarreatio. This is evidenced by the words of Tacitus describing the situation of the election of Servius Maluginesis as the successor of the priest of Jupiter. For his election, it was necessary to gather three patricians from families where the mother remained under the authority of the father in this form; of them, the appropriate one was indicated. However, no such number was found, and eventually, the son of the late Servius became a priest of Jupiter16. It can therefore be assumed that passing under the authority of a husband in the form of confarreatio in the history of Rome lasted the longest only because of the need to maintain the tradition of appointing appropriate people to the position of priests. However, even this was not a sufficient reason to hold confearreatio, as we already know from the example of Tacitus.

As the last form of coming under the power of her husband, Gaius mentions purchase, i.e. coemptio. Of these three forms, it is the most extensively described by him. Coemptio was probably introduced so that the act of coming under the authority of a woman could be done by plebeians17. Over time, this act spread among the patricians. Gaius presents this procedure as follows: “(…) by purchase, however, (women) come under the authority of their husband through the rite of grasping with the hand, that is, on the basis of some feigned sale, because having brought at least five witnesses, Roman citizens, in mature age, as daring, a man buys a woman under whom (she) comes under power”18. Thus, for this act, five witnesses were needed and a person with scales (libripens) made a kind of symbolic valuation of the woman. The husband was the buyer, and the seller was initially the father, and then the woman herself with his consent19. Gaius also pointed out that a woman can make a purchase not only with her husband but also with a stranger. In Institutions he wrote that a woman who performs this act with her spouse does so for the purposes of marriage (coemptio matrimonium causa)20. Gaius identifies two ways of coming under the power of a foreign man in the form coemptio (coemptio fiduciae causa). The first one was to change the guardian chosen by the woman[note id=”2″]. The second concerned the possibility of making a will by a woman22. However, as the jurist wrote, this form was repealed in Hadrian’s time. Comeptio was supposed to take place in the form of a symbolic payment when the man’s power over the woman was taken over. Like usus and confarreatio, it did not survive until the 2nd century CE, and its last attestation is the source Praise of Turia– funeral oration in honour of his wife when her husband said that Turia’s father had acquired power over her mother by coemptio23.

All the above-mentioned forms of the wife’s coming under the husband’s authority disappeared during the principate period. From the time of the late republic, marriages in which the woman came under the power of the man became increasingly rare. Therefore, the sine manum marriage prevailed, and the very act of passing the wife over to the husband’s authority occurred in a small circle, obliged to perform this act in the form of confarreatio.

Author: Sara Trojanowska (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  1. Winniczuk L., Ludzie, zwyczaje, obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, Warszawa 1983, s. 237-238.
  2. Rozwadowski W., Nowe badania nad istotą małżeństwa rzymskiego, Meander, 42, Warszawa 1987, s. 241.
  3. G. 1, 110.
  4. G. 1, 111.
  5. Ustawa XII Tablic, VI, 5.
  6. G. 1, 111.
  7. M. Chmielecka, Problematyka wejścia kobiety pod władzę męża w formie usus, Młody jurysta 3, Warszawa 2017, s. 114.
  8. Ibid., s. 108.
  9. H. Insadowski, Rzymskie prawo małżeńskie a chrześcijaństwo, Lublin 1935, s. 125.
  10. M. Chmielecka, op.cit., s. 109.
  11. G. 1, 111.
  12. G. 1, 112.
  13. G. 1, 112.
  14. H. Insadowski, op.cit., s. 115; Zabłocka M., Confarreatio w ustawodawstwie pierwszych cesarzy rzymskich,Prawo kanoniczne: kwartalnik prawno-historyczny 31, Warszawa 1988, s. 238.
  15. G. 1, 136.
  16. Tac. Ann., IV, 16.
  17. H. Insadowski, op.cit., s. 119.
  18. Cyt. za: G. 1, 113.
  19. G. 1, 195a.
  20. G. 1, 114.
  21. G. 1, 115.
  22. G. 1, 115a.
  23. In praise of Turia, 1, 15.

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