Marriage was a fundamental institution of Roman society and as such was always venerated as something sacrosanct. It also had strong legal aspects essentially passing the woman onto her husband as a property, unless the marriage was without hand. This page provides a quick overview of ancient roman marriage and provides access to deeper details of the Roman wedding ceremony and clothing.
Through marriage the Roman woman left her father’s household and family in order to enter that of her new husband. Once married she became almost equal to her husband in the household although not of the same legal standing as far as the state was concerned. Unlike their Greek counterpart, Roman women were free to go about the city as they wished, go shopping, visit the public baths or their friends in very much the same way they would do today.
The most conventional and traditional form reserved for Patricians was called “Confarreatio“. It was presided by the Flamen Dialis and involved eating of a wheat (spell) bread loaf as part of the ceremony. The ceremony transferred the father’s authority over the bride across to her new husband.
Then there was the “coemptio” form of marriage which involved a contract. An example of such a contract is given below.
The third means of marriage was called “Usus” (use) which was equivalent to the man taking possession of the woman after they had spent an uninterrupted year living together.
Later in time, a fourth form of marriage developed which essentially left the authority over the bride with her father (“patria potestas“). This type of marriage essentially freed the bride once her father died and although at first the authority over her passed to the husband this increasingly weakened until it essentially gave women freedom to act as they wished with their own property. Divorce became correspondingly more frequent.
These three forms of marriage gave different degrees of rights and correspondingly different degrees of difficulty in divorce. The last of the three, Usus (very appropriately named!) was particularly common among the plebeians.
Once married, Roman women would be in charge of the Roman household and its slaves, look after the education of the children, particularly the girls, and manage the family treasury. Fathers would often look after the education of their sons, particularly in the early ages up to the Roman Republic.
The purpose of marriage was quite plainly that of ensuring the family’s descendency and the solidity of the family nucleus and hence of Roman society itself. As such the Romans were at great pains to regulate marriage through a specific section of law called “ius connubii“, marital law.
Marital law regulated a variety of aspects. For example since the earliest days of the city it established who was and wasn’t allowed to marry. More is said in the law pages…..
Arranging the Ancient Roman Marriage
As with funerals, the ancient roman marriage ceremony differed according to class and rank. The full shebang was a privilege of the noble Patricians.
In these cases, rather like arranged marriages of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the betrothed might be publicly promised to one another at a very tender age, several years before the actual wedding would take place. The age at which marriage could be undertaken could be as young as 7 but in any case the persons involved had to be capable of understanding what they were doing. The more usual age for marriage was at the age of 11 for women and of 14 for men.
Suetonius tells us that Augustus added a rule which nullified marriages where there was no hanky panky within two years of being contracted. I dread to think how you would prove it.
The wedding day would be picked with care as different periods of the calendar could be more or less propitious. The Kalends, Nones and Ides of every month were especially bad. Ovid tells us that the feast of the Parentalia (in February) was no good either. I guess a little like Christians not marrying during the period of Lent. Plutarch tells us that May wasn’t a good time either. The second half of June, after “the sacred ides” as Ovid tells us, was especially good (for the weather I expect).
Roman Wedding Dress
In terms of clothing the bride would wear a particular hair-do, possibly a wig, much in the style of the Vestal Virgins. The hair was split into six bunches each of which was plaited. The splitting of the bunches had to be done with a spear, possibly as a symbol of the warrior culture into which the bride was marrying. She also wore a long white dress and a veil with garlands of flowers. The dress was tied at the waist with a special knot. The groom would wear formal dress: a plain Toga.