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Adultery in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Woman on Roman mosaic
Woman on Roman mosaic

A married Roman woman who had intercourse with someone other than her husband had committed adultery under Roman law. According to ancient accounts, if she was caught red-handed, her husband or father had the right to kill the woman.

Cato the Elder mentions that the betrayed husband had the right (ius) to kill his unfaithful wife if he caught her red-handed. It is true, however, that there was no such law – we have no evidence of that. Certainly, however, treason was considered an undeniable premise for divorce, and the husband kept part of her dowry at the time.

In 18 BCE the Lex Iulia de adulteriis was issued, a law that imposed the punishment of an unfaithful woman on paterfamilias. If the father discovered that the daughter was cheating on his home or her husband’s house, he had the right to kill the lovers. Interestingly, if he only killed one person, he could be charged with murder. Little information about the execution of this sentence has survived to our times.

A betrayed husband had the right to kill his wife’s lover if he was a slave or infamis, i.e. a citizen who lost his rights (e.g. convicted criminal, actor, dancer, prostitute, pimper, gladiator). However, he was not allowed to kill his unfaithful wife, unless she was under his lawful authority. If the cheated husband knew about his wife’s affairs and did nothing about it, he was accused of pimping (lenocinium).

If a caught wife and her lover were not killed, usually half of the lover’s property, one-third of the woman’s property, and half of her dowry was confiscated. Moreover, the woman was forbidden to marry again for life.

Lex Iulia it was an extremely strict law that was intended to discourage extramarital affairs and restore the morality of society in the late republic. Its originator was Emperor Octavian Augustus.

The betrayal aspect of the husband was different. His unfaithfulness was not considered adultery until he had sex with a virgin or a married woman. Moreover, he could have intercourse with female slaves or prostitutes – which was also often done. Such behavior was tolerated in Roman society until it “endangered the religious and legal integrity of the family”1. Having a concubine was not a disgrace and was often mentioned on the tombstones.

Footnotes
  1. Pierre Grimal, Love in Ancient Rome
Sources
  • Susan Dixon, The Roman Family
  • Catharine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, 1993

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