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Marriage and love life in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman tombstone of a married couple
Roman tombstone of a married couple
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There was a stereotype of a Roman man at the time – commander of the world, women, slaves, bed and many others. On the other hand, wives, sons, freedmen or private slaves, were only parts of his life. Awareness of being cheated on made the citizen a bad one which also meant being a bad master. How could he deal with the army during the battle if he was not able to deal with his own wife? Thus, there is a significant implication between political and military matters.

Master, on the other hand, could take his slaves and do with them whatever he wanted. Deflowering and homosexual practices were common. If a married man had children with his slave, no one could know that. Officially it was a secret, but in fact, everybody knew.

Roman marriage

Married couple (portrait from the 1st century CE).

Marriage in ancient Rome was considered to be a duty whose main aim was to provide new citizens. Affection between two young people did not bond their relationship. Fathers’ political estimates, hopes to get rich or to upgrade their social status were the only things that mattered. Such relationships were very often simple deals focused on procreation. They were set on fathering a descendant and any signs of particular attention were seen as something highly extravagant. However, Roman women did not know how to entice their husbands. They were excellently prepared for the role of a mother and hostess but not a lover. They lived by the common rules.

A groom in ancient Rome had to reach the age of 14, a bride – 12 in order to be able to get married. Women were dressed in a long tunic and white robe without any ornaments, on her head she had a short red veil and a crown made out of flowers she had picked. Over time a new custom caught on and the groom’s head was also dressed with a floral wreath – myrtle or bay. As it was in Greece, on her way to the husband’s house a bride was accompanied by the bridal procession.

Generally, there were three types of marriage in ancient Rome:

  • coemptio – literally “purchase”. It was the eldest known form of marriage. The only thing needed to confirm the marriage was the presence of an official and five adult witnesses. The ceremony had a character of a business transaction – a couple stood in front of the official holding a pound and a scale in their hands. The woman agreed on selling herself and coming to her husband’s household.
  • usus – literally “usage”. It was an archaic type of marriage, based on the customs – a man was intimate with a woman for the whole year. If the woman did not leave the man for the next three nights, she came into the man’s power. Otherwise, the relationship was also considered valid, but the wife then stayed with her family and had a better position in case of divorce.
  • confarreatio – official wedding ceremony, which – on the contrary to those previously mentioned had a religious character. Here there was the present both legal and sacral basis. The main patron of the ceremony was Iovi Farreo who took care of grain crops – he was being given a spelt bread (popular in Italy). Then the bread was consumed by the married couple and their guests. Confirmation of the marriage took place in front of two priests and ten witnesses.

From the reign of Tiberius traditional wedding customs began to disappear and a ceremony similar to the modern one occurred instead. From this derives all the modern customs, including Christians. For the first time in the European culture, both sites were joined in matrimony voluntarily, as they stated their will in front of the priest and witnesses. The basis of marriage was a declaration of will, not purchase or legalization of cohabitation1.

Independently from the form of the wedding which both families considered proper, marriage was preceded by engagement – sponsalia, the same as it was in ancient Greece. However, there was a significant difference that confirmed the bigger freedom of Roman women. In Greece – on behalf of a girl – a father or protector agreed for the marriage, whereas in Rome the couple (aware of their decisions) took the marriage vows. Of course, they also had to get their parents approval first.

A day before marriage fiancée offered a sacrifice from her childhood toys and clothes. During the ceremony, she wore a white robe and flammeum on her head – a yellow veil which was the most important part of the bride’s dress. Her hairstyle was made in imitation of the vestals. The engagement was preceded by divination and sacrifices given to the deities of Earth and fertility. Sponsus – fiancé handed a coin to his future wife as a symbol of a contract made by their parents (it might have been also an iron or gold ring which she wore on her left hand’s ring finger)2. Sometimes he even gave the bride a gift. A vow is taken during the ceremony obliged to marry only for procreational purposes.

After the ceremony, a wedding feast began. Then the bride went to the groom’s house accompanied by a wedding procession, full of broad jokes. On the threshold waited for her future husband whom she greeted with the famous words: Ubi tu, Caius, ibi ego, Caia (“where you are Gaius, I am Gaia”). After anointing the door with animal fat, the bride was carried over the threshold by the attendants of the wedding procession. It was believed to protect her from a trip that could mean bad luck for their future together. In front of the door to the bedroom, the husband gave his wife water and fire and then introduced her to the chamber. When he was undoing her robe, the guests discreetly left the room.

What’s interesting, before the consummation of a Roman woman had to go through the process of deflowering. In order to do that she sat on the phallus of Mutinous Tutunus, marriage deity. Thus she was successfully deflowered and she was able to have intercourse with her husband. This strange custom supposedly derives from Roman beliefs. They thought that first penetration with the deity would guarantee fertility and healthy children.

In the Republic, there was a custom saying that if the bride is a virgin, her husband should only sleep with her, without having sex, for at least one night. The aim of that was to give women a chance to get used to a new situation. Unfortunately, this practice degenerated – some men forced their wives either to Greek or French love. Then the custom disappeared and everybody agreed on the intercourse during the wedding night.

Mutual understanding in marriage was tasteful, which is symbolically presented on the sarcophagi where the spouses hold each other hands. There is also often an inscription like that: “I lived with my wife for 25 years, without any quarrels and reasons to complain”. The wife’s duty was fidelity, the same as the husband’s, at least according to the “official morality”. In reality, marriage was not so simple. The wife was very often beaten, treated well only if she had a rich and influential father or large dowry. For a Roman, she was just an additional slave, whose job was to provide offspring and add the fortune (with her dowry). But the woman had one privilege that distinguished her from the other slaves – he could always divorce her husband as there was no particular marriage contract (at most only about the dowry). Invoking Seneca, Messalina, Claudius’ wife divorced him and married again without his knowledge. Of course, men had similar rights.

Sexual intercourse (fresco).

Contrary to appearances, women had quite a freedom – they could even demand payment from their husbands for being wives. It was popular among men to look for a rich widow (building up a wife’s fortune was the husband’s duty). On the other hand, a married Roman could easily find a woman from a lower social class and have an official relationship with her, including having children. Such cohabitations were widely approved. The only difference between marriage and cohabitation was the fact that children from such relationships were not full citizens and did not inherit their father’s money. Thus began a dilemma: better to get married and provide the country with new full citizens, but also have an easy time of it with a group of slaves or to stay with a favourite one, who was very often a freed slave woman?

Self-respecting husbands could not wink at their wives’ infidelity as it meant general condemnation. Betrayed husbands were laughed at and called bad commanders. Wife’s betrayal meant for the lover – at best – being poured over with the slaves’ urine or – at worst – being castrated. If it comes to the husband – he was free to do everything he wanted with the slaves. During gladiator fights and chariot races the number of betrayals was the highest as the spectators – independently from their age and marital status – attended brothels en masse. Seneca was supposed to say “you visit your wife out of duty, a brothel – out of pleasure”. There were no age limits – even a ten-year-old (if he was able to), could use prostitutes’ services.

In general Romans, without any obstacles, could use such services. Women’s situation was slightly different as they could commune with potential lovers only in their imagination. Plautus wrote about it in the 2nd century BCE:

I’ faith, the women do live upon hard terms, and, wretched creatures, on much more unjust ones than the men. For if a husband has been keeping a mistress without the knowledge of his wife, if the wife comes to know it, the husband gets off with impunity; if, unknown to the husband, the wife goes from the house out of doors, a pretext arises for the husband, the marriage is dissolved1. I wish the law was the same for the husband as for the wife; for the wife that is a good one, is content with one husband; why, any the less, should the husband be content with one wife? By my troth, I’d give cause, if men were punished in the same way (if any one should be keeping a mistress unknown to his wife), as those women are repudiated who are guilty of a slip, that there should be more divorced men than there are women now.

Plautus, Mercator

Women could be sexually neglected, but they could not help it. Cato said: “If you catch your wife in adultery, you can kill her with impunity; she, however, cannot dare to lay a finger on you if you commit adultery, nor is it the law”. This way developed marriage morals. If women had no social assent for adulterous relationships, men had. It does not wonder, as men made the law, not women.

The main basis of this model was a secondary role that was given to women in political, social and economic realms. They were responsible for giving birth to children, taking care of the house and family. It was not a wife’s job to satisfy her husband needs. Young (very young from our viewpoint) age of women getting married did not give them any chance to become real partners for their husbands, even in the matter of their businesses. It was rare for the Romans to see their wives naked. Sexual intercourse and women inaction in bed became such a routine for men that they were not satisfied with it. Martial’s epigram takes a peek at this matter:

Wife, out of my house, or conform to my ways; I am no Curius or Numa or Tatius, I like nights drawn out by cups that cheer: you drink water and hasten sour-faced from the table. You love the dark: I prefer to sport with a lamp for witness and to admit the daylight when I’m bursting my loins. You hide yourself with a brassiere and a tunic and an obscuring robe: but no girl lies naked enough for me. I am captivated by kisses that copy blandishing doves: you give me such as you give your grandmother of a morning. You don’t deign to help the business along by movement or voice or fingers, as through you were preparing incense and wine. The Phrygian slaves used to masturbate behind the door whenever Hector’s wife sat her horse, and although the Ithaca was snoring, chaste Penelope always used to keep her hand there. You won’t let me sodomize: Cornelia used to do that favor for Gracchus, and Julia for Pompey, and Porcia, Brutus for you. Before the Darwinian page mixed their sweet cups, Juno was Jupiter’s Ganymede. If grave manners please you, you may be Lucretia all day: at night I want Lais.

Martial, Epigrams

Plautus also says:

The idea of this person being busy in the senate or with his clients, and then snoring the whole night, worn out by his work there! He comes to me at night, worn out by his work there! He comes to me at night, worn out from doing business outside. He’s ploughing someone else’s field and leaves his own uncultivated. And this corrupt person then corrupts his son.

Plautus, Amphitryon. The Comedy of Asses


Relief on sarcophagus from the 4th century CE depicting Roman couple holding each other hands.
Autor: Ad Meskens | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

In the beginning marriages used to be permanent and hard to dissolve. But it began to change during late Republic. Basically, there were two ways for the spouses to separate, however, both of them did not require participation of the court or any other state authority. The first one was divortium, second – repudium.

Divortium was understood as a kind of mutual agreement on which basis the couple decided to end their relationship (this way of dissolving the marriage is known also nowadays in some countries).

Repudium – “rejection”, was a one-sided decision about breaking the relationship which caused dissolving the marriage. Usually, the right to do repudium belonged only to the husband-wife could use it only exceptionally, if she had not been subordinate to her husband ( manus). Declaration concerning dissolving the marriage was usually announced to the other site with a messenger, from the beginning of the 3rd century BCE also with a special letter, called libellus repudii.

Supposedly, the first divorce in the history of ancient Rome and the whole world (divorce was a Roman idea) was initiated by Carvilius Ruga who was disappointed with his wife’s infertility. According to the law husband had to say a formula: “Take your things and get out”. Husband’s decision must have been approved by the tribunal. Another reason for divorce could be adultery or abortion, which was a sensitive matter among Romans. Rome needed new citizens and it was good for a Roman matron to have a few children. Any abortion practices, including drinking wine (which was considered to have a contraceptive effect) were forbidden and the woman caught in the act was punished. It is for sure the reason for the custom of greeting the hostess with a kiss in the lips. This way it could be checked whether she had drunk wine or not.

We know the sources describing other ridiculous divorces initiated by Sulpicius Gallus and Publics Sempronius. The first one accused his wife of a mysterious head covering, the second – of watching funeral games without his permission (funeral games were organized to commemorate the late person). According to husbands, those were sufficient reasons to get a divorce.

Generally, despite the ease of getting married, the number of divorces was rather low. It was the effect of two things. Firstly, once in five years particularly merited senators became censors and judged the society morally. This way, for example, one of the citizens was removed from the Senate as he had divorced his wife for a trivial reason. The second reason for the low divorce rate was the fact that Romans were truly religious and serious in their attitude towards relationships. They realized that it is their duty towards the country and gods to have wife and children.

In the case when the spouses were conflicted and close to the divorce, they were sometimes ordered to make up and get back to normal. In the aim to that husband and wife attended the temple of Viriplaca (the goddess who soothes the anger of man) and spent the night there, confessing all their faults and claims in the fort of the altar. Apparently, such purification in the temple resulted in salutary effects and guaranteed the return of the normal state of things.

However, the divorce rate raised in the 2nd century BCE when women got the right to apply for divorce. Wife’s situation was particularly comfortable if she was not under her husband’s power. If so, she just moved out of her husband’s house and got back to her family. Although in the case when a woman belonged to her husband, the situation needed to be regulated legally, but there is no evidence that she was whenever forced to get back to her husband’s house. New law stroke at the Roman paternalistic society. Over time women began to be less submissive and started to participate actively in the country’s social and political life. Cato the Elder, censor of Roman behavior, claimed that such revolutionary changes may cause in Rome the same thing that they had caused in the certain island – the extinction of men.

When in the begging of the Empire women were allowed to decide about their marriages and there were less traditional marriages, also women’s divorce rights changed. First divorces initiated by women took place during the late Republic. A number of divorces initiated by both sexes evened. It became so common that Augustus wanted to prevent another divorce. In order to discourage people, he passed a law stating that a left spouse could keep a part of the fortune brought by a person applying for a divorce. Usually, this spouse was more wealthy, that is why Augustus came up with such an idea, to give a left person a chance to start a new family.

Noblewomen sometimes pursued new marriages, just to enrich their sexual life. There is evidence that one patrician had eight husbands in five years. It was being mocked that Roman women counted the years not with consuls’ names, but their husbands’.

Love and sex

Featser and prostitute (fresco in Herculaneum).

Love did not have any significant meaning for the Romans. Real soldier (Roman) did not experience such feelings, only poets could. A man subjected to woman’s influence was a molly, not able to fight. It may be thus suggested that poets and seducers were not in the army’s estimation.
Man’s pleasure was treated as his weakness and did not attach any importance to that. Woman’s pleasure, on the other hand, was perceived as something evil, if it was not intended for procreational purposes in marriage. Romans also preferred sexual intercourses at night as they believed that the sun ma is profaned during the day. In effect, they did not care about that and made love during the day. However, it is worth mentioning that any self-respecting Roman citizen should see his wife naked (covering breast was a common practice), at most in a bath. Thus Romans saw their wives naked very rarely. Therefore, sexual life became such a routine that along with the women’s inaction did not satisfy men.

Ovid – Roman poet, most famous from his works concerning love – wrote about this matter:

Away, ye babblers, from her silent rites!
No pomp her mysteries attend, no noise!
No sounding brass proclaims the latent joys!
With folded arms the happy pair possess,
Nor should the fond betraying tongue confess
Those raptures, which no language can express.
When naked Venus casts her robes aside,
The parts obscene her hands extended hide;
No girl on propagating beasts will gaze,
But hangs her head, and turns away her face. (…)
Report, and what it wishes true, believe.
With care conceal whatever defects you find,
To all her faults seem like a lover blind.
Naked Andromeda when Perseus view’d,
He saw her faults, but yet pronounc’d them good.
Andromache was tall, 18 yet some report
Her Hector was so blind he thought her short.
At first what’s nauseous lessens by degrees;
Young loves are nice, and difficult to please.
The infant plant that bears a tender rind,
Reels to and fro with ev’ry breath of wind;
But shooting upward to a tree at last,
It stems the storm, and braves the strongest blast
Time will defects and blemishes endear,
And make them lovely to your eyes appear:
Unusual scents at first may give offence;
Time reconciles them to the vanquish’d sense.
Her vices soften with some kinder phrase;
If she is swarthy as the negro’s face,
Call it a graceful brown, and that complexion praise.

Ovid, Ars amatoria

As a true commander, a man should be on top also in bed – he could not allow himself kissing women’s sexual organs as it meant compliance, giving her pleasure and disgrace. There was three odiousness for a Roman – intercourse with own sister, vestal and anal sex (willingly attached to disliked caesars such as Nero or Caligula).

Groom encourages bride to sexual intercourse before servant’s eyes. Fresco from c. 19 BCE.

Legal restrictions

The first significant change happened c. 200 CE when the restrictions were tightened. Things which had been so far laughed at, became condemned, and those which had been condemned became punished. Abortions and abandoning children, which had been common, started to be unwelcome.

From the year 394 CE began the repressions of so-called “others”, ergo mass slaughters of Jews, homosexuals and male prostitutes. Then in 313 CE Constantine the Great legalized Christianity. New religion took over many Romans’ asexual ideas, which soon resulted in the evident conflict between religion and human sexual nature.


Reproductiveness was crucial in the Roman world. The Empire had to have many recruits and nobility and equites had to provide substitution of generations and survival of elites. Augustus’ legislation led up to the improvement of morality. He was anxious about the lowering reproductiveness rate of the upper class and about the rising popularity of contraception. Nobles’ marriages brought only one child or were childless. Even the caesars themselves had difficulties with fathering a son. Tiberius, for example, and Caligula had only one child, and Nero died without having children.

The situation got worse during the reign of Antonine dynasty in the 2nd century CE. The first three rulers: Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian did not have any male offspring and had to appointed chosen Romans in aim to provide the succession. Only Marcus Aurelius had a son who succeeded to the throne, Commodus (however, it turned out not to be the best option). What is worth mentioning is that the trouble with reproductiveness occurred also in the 2nd century CE among the patricians. The Roman woman who gave birth to three children was an exception – she was the subject of poems, but had no privileges from the country. Although during the Secular Games a woman who gave birth to five sons was marked twice.

  1. Koper Sławomir, Życie prywatne i erotyczne w starożytnej Grecji i Rzymie, Warszawa 1998, p.233.
  2. There are other versions claiming that the ring was being worn on the ring finger of the right hand. Nowadays the way of wearing engagement ring depends on the country. In Poland engagement ring is customarily worn on the right finger, in the Western countries - on the left. Sławomir Koper in his book about life in ancient Greece and Rome writes that Romans used to wear it on their right hands.
  • Bataille Georges, Erotyzm, Gdańsk 1999
  • Deborah F. Sawyer, Kobiety i religie w początkach naszej ery, Wrocław 1999
  • Grimal Pierre, Miłość w starożytnym Rzymie, Warszawa 2005
  • Prostytucja w starożytnym Rzymie, "", 22 July 2007
  • Koper Sławomir, Miłość i polityka. Kobiety świata antycznego, Warszawa 1997
  • Kultys Julian A., Moralność a seks (w wybranych kulturach), Słupsk 1999
  • Kuryłowicz Marek, Prawo i obyczaje w starożytnym Rzymie, Lublin 1997
  • Plautus, The Comedies
  • Sebesta Judith Lynn, Bonfante Larissa, The world of Roman costume, 2001

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