Marriage in Roman Times   Sextilli (Clive Hewitt)

Adapted from an article by Prof.L.Pennino with data from other sources.

Throughout the Classical Period marriage was a sacred union between a man and a woman, a partnership and communion of lives and compliance with divine and secular laws. It was an institution of the greatest importance, based on binding religious and legal principles and formed the foundation of the family with the purpose of legitimate procreation and the continuance of the family line. Because of its importance, it was ruled by Ius Connubii - a special branch of the law - which began by specifying the requirements for the marriage to be valid with legal obligations and consequences if they were not met.

The "Fitness to Marry" of both parties had to be confirmed. This meant that there was no legal impediment to the marriage, a state of being able and willing to enter into marriage and a serious and lasting intent to live together as man and wife. Amongst the impediments, especially at earlier times, were restrictions that prevented, or nullified, marriages between citizens and foreigners and, for a time, between patricians and plebs; even when it was no longer forbidden such marriages were severely frowned upon. Senators and their children could not marry actresses or freed slaves nor could guardians marry their wards. Until about the time of Hadrian soldiers were forbidden wives; but were allowed to use a form of cohabitation called 'Uxorio' which became a legal marriage on discharge, when any children were legally recognised. In essence the army turned a blind eye to cohabitation because the offspring of such arrangements were either a useful source of recruits or possible future wives. After this time a formal marriage was allowed.

Another 'second class' marriage was between slaves; known as 'Contubernia' it was, widely recognised, although not legal, they had to be owned by the same master, as any offspring became his property.

Fully legitimate marriage "In manus", especially in the earlier times, existed in many forms and whilst they were all celebrated with sacred rites of some kind, the legal standing varied. Confarreatio the most "solemn" type, reserved for patricians only, was celebrated in the presence of the "Pontifex Maximus" and ten (10) witnesses. In their presence the couple, after sacrificing to Jove, sat next to each other on stools covered with the skin of a previously sacrificed sheep, split, and ate a flat loaf made from the grain 'Spelt'.

Originally, a Plebeian marriage form, but becoming widespread in time, involved a 'Contract of Sale' drawn up between the brides' father and her future husband. It required five (5) witnesses before whom the agreed 'bride price' was paid to the father. With time this became mere formality and a symbolic coin was used.

A further form was when the couple registered the fact that they were living together sine manu and explicitly declared their intention to marry. They had to have been living together continuously for a year and could legally enter into the marriage. Over time this reduced to the fact that it was sufficient for the couple to live together openly with the consent of both parties; although there was a 'get out' in that if they separated for three days during the year the relationship legally started again, it also meant that the woman retained control of her assets on the death of her father. This kind of 'free marriage' remained in use until the end of the Empire and had the advantage that it could easily be terminated. To dissolve the marriage it was sufficient for the couple to separate and for one partner to issue a formal injunction to the other to 'Take back his/her possessions'. This was a ritual formula that had to be spoken by one partner to the other, or sent in writing or by a messenger.

Apart from the legal formalities, marriage had certain ceremonial elements intended to mark the occasion in the eyes of the participants and others in the community. These rites were passed down the generations and remained unaltered for a long time. Firstly, and usually celebrated in private, there was the ceremony of the engagement - not infrequently when the couple were children and many years before the marriage - and consisted of both sets of parents promising their children in a betrothal (sponsio). The betrothal was accompanied by the gift of a ring, initially in iron but later in gold, by the fiancé to his fiancée. At this time contracts containing financial agreements were sometimes signed, these had moral not legal standing and could be annulled. They could include the provision of a 'Dowry'.

The choice of a wedding day was hedged with problems. It must be a favourable day, which excluded the periods from 13th to 27th Feb, the first half of March, all of May and the first half of June, the Calends, Nones & Ides during each month; although widows who remarried weren't thought to be affected by this. The period considered the most suitable was the second half of June.

On the appointed day, the bride's home would be decorated with garlands of flowers, myrtle, and laurel, multi-coloured drapes, and rugs. The bride, who had consecrated her childhood dolls and toys to a protective deity the day before, would be dressed in a special way and have her hair done in a specific manner. Her 'Wedding Dress' would consist of a long white tunic woven with the thread running vertically, i.e. not cross cut, gathered at the waist with a woven belt tied in a knot. Over the tunic would be a saffron coloured cloak, her shoes would be the same colour, and a reddish-orange veil, secured with a small wreath of flowers, which would hang over her face. Her hair would be arranged, in a similar manner to that of the Vestal Virgins, in the Seni-crines consisting of six horizontal plaits, adorned with ribbons and optional hairpieces wrapped around her head.

The groom would wear the formal dress of the Toga of his rank, possibly with the formal Tunica Recta. The morning would be spent in religious rites, consulting the augurs and sacrificing a lamb to the gods. Afterwards and in the presence of the witnesses, the couple would express their consent and sign the marriage contract. With the help of the Pronubia (Matron of Honour) - who must only have been married once - the couple joined their right hands in what was the most solemn part of the ceremony. Other rites followed that were important in the 'Solemn' form of wedding but fell out of use.

A sumptuous banquet would then be held in the house of the bride's father; the celebrations ended, after a ritual 'kidnapping' of the bride from her mother, with the bride being led to her husbands house in a procession led by flute players and torchbearers. The bride would carry with her a spindle and distaff as the symbols of her new status as 'Matron' of the family; in this she would be accompanied by three (3) young girls whose parents were still alive. Two of these would walk alongside her, with the third in front, waving a hawthorn torch lit from the hearth of her father. The firebrands that fell were collected and, as they were considered lucky, would be distributed amongst the guests.

Relatives and friends would accompany the bride cheering and making a noise and wishing her well, most importantly making salacious quips and allusive comments. On reaching her destination the bride would oil the door hinges of her new home and wipe them with a piece of woollen cloth; then she would be carried over the threshold - stumbling at that point was considered bad luck - and placed next to her husband who had preceded her. He would welcome her by offering her fire and water, the symbols of domesticity, the couple then went into the bed chamber were the pronubia would seat her on the edge of the bed and say the customary prayers to the deities of the new house. The procession would now depart and the couple would be left alone. The following day the bride would offer a banquet to her relatives and would, for the first time, offer a sacrifice to the deities of her husbands' family. This act sanctioned her entry into her new family and confirmed her mistress of the house.

Many of these customs, little modified by time and religious differences, are followed today. You can see some of the 21st century elements peeking out from the Roman: Engagement rings, Special dress, Special hair-do, Wedding feast, being carried over the threshold etc

Sextilli 2006


A.C.Carpiceci and L.Pennino. The cities buried by Vesuvius. Pompeii and Herculaneum today and 2000 years ago
Matonti. Salerno. Publication date and ISBN: Not found

Stobart. J.C. The Grandeur that was Rome. 4th edition
Sidgwick & Jackson via Book Club Associates. London 1971.

J.Huskinson, Ed. Experiencing Rome. Routledge [London] and The Open University [Milton Keynes]. 2000

©RMRS 2010