Customs, laws, social implications and rites. Ancient Roman weddings began in the morning. A lamb was sacrificed and the augurs consulted. As with modern weddings there was an exchange of gifts, a ring which at first was of iron but later of gold, and a contract in the presence of a number of witnesses and the Pontifex Maximus or other high-ranking priest.
The Roman Wedding Ceremony
Ancient Roman weddings had aspects of religious ceremony, superstitions, social structure, and legal implications. The act of marriage for women was called ‘nubere‘ which meant “to take the (flammeum) veil”.
Roman marital law was highly developed through time. A specific branch of law was called ‘ius connubii‘ enabled a structured approach to aspects such as property, rights as well as social structure. Generally speaking, Roman law placed women under the control of their husband, similarly to children. Slaves could not marry though their union and offspring were recognised in law such that, for example, later laws were passed protecting slave families and prohibiting their division.
Other examples of Roman ius connubii:
- one of the earliest laws, the Lex Canuleia around 450BC regulated the marriage between Patricians and Plebeians.
- At the time of Emperor Augustus the “Lex Marita” imposed a fine on Bachelors and magistrates were ranked according to the number of children they had…. Some of the marital laws had been established since earlier antiquity:
- The same Augustus had to get special legal dispensation from a law that had been struck 700 years earlier which forbade widows to remarry earlier than 10months of mourning had passed.
Taking property of the wife: As in modern times there were laws regulating the passage of wealth and indeed foresaw the possibility of pre-matrimonial contracts. Any agreements would be captured in the “tabulae nuptiales”. In fact the wife herself was being considered as an object of wealth and a marriage could be “cum manu” or “sine manu” (taking in hand or not taking in hand). Sine manu implied that the wife and her wealth would remain under the legal control of her father. This limited the groom’s rights over his spouse, for example he would not be allowed to kill her in cases of infidelity.
Other laws dictated how different classes could marry or not – for example Patricians couldn’t marry Plebeians, but this limitation was later relaxed to forbidding Slave marriages…
Choosing a wedding date and preparing for marriage
Before the marriage there would be a period of betrothal known as the Sponsalia during which parents and relatives would be made aware of the forthcoming wedding. Romans were very superstitious and had days and periods during which it would be preferable to marry rather than others. Late Spring/June were good. May was bad as were the Ides of March.
It was customary for brides to no longer wear the “toga praetexta” which she would gift to the goddess Fortuna Virginalis. The night before the wedding she would wear a dress called “regilla” – pure white, held together with a clasp called ‘gingillum’ and tied at the waist. Her hair would be held together by a broad net-like covering called ‘reticulum’ of ‘luteum’ colour – orange/red like that of flames.
On the day of the wedding the bride would fist bathe in some special propitious water brought in by the house slaves. Once bathed her hair would be done up into the shape typically used by the Vestal virgins including 6 braids, symbols of purity and chastity. Traditionally the separation of the hair to create the braids was done with the point of a spear.
she would wear a white tunic called the “tunica recta” which was tendentially white but could be very ornate, tied at the waist with a woolen belt tied with a special knot called “nodus herculaneus” (knot of Hercules) which supposedly would bring lunck. It was a well known fact that Hercules had had over 70 chidlren (!)
A crown would be worn on top of her hair, as a symbol of he bride’s victory, guarding her virginity: In the early days this was made of Marjoram and Verbena herbs, later changed to Myrtle and possibly Orange blossoms during the empire. It would be held down by pins/jewelry.
Over her head she would place a long veil called “flammeum“of the same luteum/flame colour as worn the night before. It was likely an imitation of the flammeum worn by the wife of the Flamen Dialis, high priest to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Possibly implying that like the Flaminia Dialis, the marriage would be lasting and she would not divorce.
The groom would wear traditional “toga virilis”
Upper class marriages were often arranged and the bride might be aged around 15 whilst her husband far older, possibly as old as her own father.
This high patrician marriage ceremony was known as “confarreatio” and until the fifth century BC constituted a defining point of Roman practice, also within a legal context. Those who were not born of such a (legitimate) wedding were not allowed to “take auspices” ie assume positions of high government.
Julius Caesar broke the rules? An unclear point is how the confarreatio rule played out for Julius Caesar, since his mother was Plebeian and hence his parents would not have been able to marry through confarreatio. This suggests that Caesar could not, or should not, have been able to take on the role of Flamen Dialis as has been suggested by some historians of the time.
Weddings would be attended at the bride’s house, by friends and relatives, and a high priest of the Flamen Dialis. 10 non-family citizens would also have to attend as witnesses.
- The high priest of the Flamen Dialis would ensure there was no reason for which the couple might be prohibited from contracting marriage and would ask them to make certain of their intentions.
- The tabulae nuptialis would be signed with a seal by both bride and groom
- A ram was killed and sacrificed to the gods.
- Prayers said by the Flamen to Jupiter and to the goddess Juno
- A “pronuba” (like a god mother, a matron who had only been married once) brought bride and groom to an altar/flame, and the bride would remove the veil, which may then be placed over the pair. They would join their hands in a ritual handshake.
- The couple would hold right hands sit together with the sacrificial lamb’s skin laid out across their knees or actually on top of the skin. They would then eat a loaf of bread made of Spelt (primitive un-selected Wheat) prepared by the bride especially for the occasion.
The wedding ceremony was followed by a dinner at the bride’s father’s home complete with lavish food and drink. They would also sing songs to the god of marriage Thalasius, called “thalaossi” to music played on flutes and other instruments.
Enacting the rape of the Sabine women and procession through the streets: After the dinner, the bride would embrace her mother and the guests would go to take her away. This was a way of symbolically remembering the rape of the Sabine women by the early Romans. The bride would be accompanied to her husband’s new home by their guests in jolly procession and shouts of “feliciter!” A lit torch would be taken from the father’s home to light the hearth of their new abode. On the way and into the new house the company and bridegroom would throw walnuts in sign of their leaving childish things behind (nuts being a very common child’s game). Virgil gives us an echo of this with “Sparge, marite, nuces…” (spread, my husband, the nuts….).
The bride would oil the door’s hinges with melted tallow to keep out sorcery. In the earliest times this would be wolf fat but later this was changed to pig fat or olive oil. Following this the bride would hang some woolen drapes on the door in symbol of her taking over the traditional duty of weaving wool. The groom would ask the bride to say his name, and she would respond along the lines of “wherever you (groom’s name) go, I shall go (groom’s name in feminine form”. Eg Ubi Gaius ego Gaia
Inside their new home: The groom’s friends would lift the bride over the threshold and into the house’s atrium. This was probably something to do with the threshold being sacred to Vesta or possibly in remembrance of when the early Romans abducted the Sabine virgins, but most certainly it avoided the bride from stumbling over it, which would have been a very bad omen. All the guests would leave the wedded couple alone, possibly singing licentious songs and Fescennian verses in jest.
Once inside the new home The groom would hence offer his bride the keys to the door as well as water and fire, possibly as symbols of purity and chastity. He would then proceed to take her to the nuptial bed, which would have been strewn with crocus petals by the ‘pronuba’ who had aided them in the marriage ceremony. Crocus was considered an aphrodisiac. The pronuba and the bride prepared for what was to come next, saying the necessary prayers, also including those to the god of fecundity Priapus. All jewelry that could be used as a weapon by the bride would be removed, also including hairpins, bracelets, rings and necklaces. The young wife would probably be extremely scared, particularly given the difference in ages between them. At this point the groom could untie that special knot of the bride’s belt and the rest is left to the imagination…
The following morning everybody was invited back to the new home for lunch. At this time the bride formally became a member of her new family with her first sacrifice to her husband’s family spirits (Lares). On the same day the groom would engage his friends on a drinking match called “repotia” during which Horace tells us a rule maker would be elected called the “arbiter bibendi“.
Roman Weddings for Plebeians
The Plebeian class resorted to a simpler form of marriage focused around a contract between father of the bride and the groom, known as “Coemptio“. In the earliest days this went as far as involving weighing up and documenting the dowry which was being handed over to the groom. Later this became more a formality than an actual exercise of marriage. Dining and lunching was probably much the same as that of the traditional wedding.
Recognising the status of couples living together
The simplest form of marriage consisted of recognition of marriage by registering a full year’s living together. This was quite frequent, even because of the ease of divorce that it allowed. This was defined “Usus“, whereby the couple provided proof of free mutual consent and of cohabitation over a suitable period of time