What happened after marriage in ancient Rome? What of divorcing? Or lending out your wife to another so that she might bear a child for him also? This article is a short overview of marital relationships in ancient Rome and about lending and borrowing wives, divorce and adoption.
Divorce in ancient Rome
Failure to produce descendants could have a number of different results. Not so unusual was divorce and returning of the wife to her father or brother. Relatively well known to us is for a husband to divorce his own wife and take on that of a friend, although in the Roman case it would generally be with the friend’s permission. Admittedly in our own times it is unlikely to be motivated by reasons of family succession.
Sharing your wife
It is difficult to get a clear understanding as to how licentious things might have become in terms of wife swapping and lending out one’s own wife. There’s one anecdote which has the Christians being laughed at for sharing all their belongings and the Christians laughing back for sharing everything except their wives. Tertullian (Apology chpt. 39) writes a fairly explicit account of the practice and singles out Socrates and Cato as freely lending out their wives to their friends.
There was however a law which demanded a penalty of husbands who hired out their wives for money so we can guess that wife swapping fell short of actual prostitution.
Strabo gives the following account: “…that it is counted lawful among them (the Tapyrians) to give away their wives to other men after they have had two or three children by them: As Cato in our time, upon the request of Hortensius, gave him his wife Marcia, according to the old custom of the Romans“.
This in fact refers to the marrying of Marcia to Hortensius rather than actually loaning her out. It should be noted also that when Hortensius died he left his patrimony to Marcia who was then duly re-wedded to Cato.
In extreme cases the wife being acquired or married over from one’s friend might already be pregnant so that the child, although conceived by one father, would be born and bear the name of another. A sort of early adoption mixed with surrogate conception.
I think an example of this was Emperor Augustus‘ marriage to Livia when she was already pregnant with the future Emperor Tiberius. Livia’s previous husband, Tiberius’ natural father, also attended the wedding. Wow.
Adoption of an adult
Adoption was a common solution although for the Romans it was also possible to adopt an adult so that he might bear the adoptive family name into the future. Augustus is again an example: he was adopted at an early age by Julius Caesar. In this case their names would be added together. In this way Augustus, whose real name was Octavian, acquired the full name of Caius Iulius Caesar Octavianus. The old family name of Octavius (in this example) would be changed to Octavianus following adoption.
I think a similar adult adoption situation happens to Charlton Heston in the film “Ben Hur”.
Extra Marital Affairs in ancient Rome
Extra marital affairs have gone on in all ages and in all societies. The same applies to Rome. I take the opportunity to repeat an earlier quote from Horace who lived around the year 0 as the Roman Republic became an Empire, comments (book 3, ode VI) and makes satire of the manners of the age.
“A marriageable virgin rejoices to be taught Ionic Dances…and meditates from her very infancy on unchaste amours. Soon after marriage, she seeks after younger men…”
Both men and women enjoyed their extra marital affairs. As I mentioned earlier on, Roman women might not enjoy equality to their husbands in the eyes of the law but they did enjoy an almost equal freedom and liberty of movement in society.
Julius Caesar was successful with women of which he married four and had innumerable others as lovers. Suetonius enjoyed writing down a list of them and their luckless husbands. His soldiers lovingly referred to him as the “bald adulterer”. He was pointedly referred to as “the husband of all wives and the wife of all husbands”, but this seems to have done little to dishonour him although it did little to render him popular with the Senators who’s wives he took. He was an able politician and the infamy this might have carried was best born by Julius Caesar the triumphant soldier.
Julius Caesar never bore grudges either and it appears that he was able to forget personal injury of this type if it was to his own personal benefit. His own (third) wife Pompea was a priestess of the goddess Bona. She was charged with having introduced her lover Clodius into the temple, dressed as a woman. It was true, but JC divorced his wife, saved her in court, had the whole thing hushed up and then proceeded to make Clodius his political ally (whilst it suited him).
Messalina, the wife of Emperor Claudius is equally well remembered for her amorous affairs. According to Juvenal (Satires) she would wear a cloak and blond wig in order leave the palace as soon as her husband was asleep and make haste to a house of disrepute in the most infamous area of Rome called the Suburra (a sort of Soho in London). Here, under the false name of Licisca, she would offer herself to her male clients until closing time, after which she would make her way back to the palace with her cheeks blackened with smoke and smelling of her place of work; she was tired but as yet dissatisfied.
I don’t think Juvenal thought much of Messalina’s marital vowes.