Marriage in Roman times – an Important Affair

Roman marriages were not always based on love, but instead were agreements between families. When males reached their mid-twenties and females their early teens, spouses were usually chosen by the parents who always looked forward to improving the family’s financial status.1

The father of the family had the power to organize his children’s marriages, a social order known as paterfamilias. However, for the marriage to be legal, the son or daughter had to approve the chosen marriage. Before a couple could agree to getting married, the father had to make sure that they were not too closely related and were not engaged to others. In marriages, a Roman man always considered money because the family of the bride paid her husband a dowry. Also, marriages formed political and economic alliances between families; therefore, it was usually important for a younger man to find a bride who came from an old politician family.

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The most important principle of the marriage was matrimonium-to build a family and produce children. Getting married and having children strengthened the family’s honor and increased its capability of contributing to the state. Because of this purpose, young people could not marry until they reached puberty; yet, couples could be engaged earlier.

After the agreement to engagement by the father, there was usually a party that was called sposalia. It was a tradition for the bride to receive a piece of jewelry from the groom such as a ring.

Before a Roman bride could properly prepare for her life as a wife and a mother, she had to give up her childhood. She would first surrender. The night before a girl’s wedding she would surrender all of her childhood toys, her toga praetexta, as well as her bulla.2

For the wedding ceremony, the bride would have a hairstyle that was unique to brides-tumulus. It was divided into six locks and was secured with vittae, fillets, on the top of her head in a meta, cone. Her hair was parted with a hasta recurva, bent iron spearhead. An explanation for this tradition hairstyle is unknown, but it may have believed that it would drive out the evil spirits thought to be living in the hair.3

The bride was dressed in a white ankle-length tunic (tunica recta). It was made from a single piece of cloth woven from top to bottom and belted at the waist with a complex knot called Knot of Hercules. This knot was meant to avert ill fortune. Her shoes (lutei socci-orange slippers) matched the veil. They could also be made of white leather covered with pearls. On her head she wore a bright flame colored veil, flammeum, sometimes of silk and it carried an enormous value. The veil was held in place with a ring of flowers picked by the bride and woven among the flowers were sacred verbena herbs.4 Roman brides wore a veil to show that they intent to remain married for life. It was thought to be one of the most important symbols of marriage.

There were four different forms of Roman marriage. The most common form of marriage was usus. A woman would reside with a wan for a year and was then regard as being his wife. In agricultural communities time was given to the couple for them to decide whether or not their coming together was fertile. This time also gave the bride’s family to collect money for her dowry. If the couple decided not to celebrate, the bride would just spend three nights – trinoctium – out of the year away from her husband. They would reunite for another year, and could decide to separate.

In the noble elite of Rome, the wedding ceremony, called confarreatio, was directed by the Pontifex Maximus or Flamen Dialis. Ten male citizens were required to be eyewitnesses. The sharing a cake of far (a form of wheat) completed the marriage and was an important act. Complex religious rites (confarreatio) were essential in this form of marriage.

The third form of marriage is called coemptio. It is a more official ceremony, and the bride comes into her new husband’s control through purchase. This symbolic sale takes place before five Roman male citizens. A marriage ceremony did not necessary take place, or the couple could celebrate after they’ve been together for some time. At the coemptio, the couple could have also pretended to buy each other with a coin, a demonstration that was meant to show that the bride was freed from her father’s authority and was now under the her husband’s control.

The other form of marriage was called dextrarum iunction. This ceremony began with a priest asking the gods if it was a lucky day for the wedding. If so, the ceremony continued. The bride and groom signed the marriage register in front of several witnesses. The matron of honor took the right hands of the bride and groom and joined them together. As they held hands, the couple prayed that their marriage would be happy. The bride promised “Wherever you go husband, there go I”- “Ubi Gaius, Ego Gaia” if the husband’s praenomen were Gaius. The ceremony ended with a sacrifice to the gods. If one did not marry in June, the wife remained the property of her father even though she lived with her husband.5

At the wedding ceremony the bride was attended by a pronuba. She was a woman who had been married only once and whose husband was alive. Most of the time pronubae were either the bride’s mother or another female relative. The broom had not attendants. Male friends acted as eyewitnesses to the sealing of the marriage contract. This is very similar to today’s prenuptial agreement. Another friend also asked to seek and record the omens on the wedding day. This was done by examining the entrails of an animal that was sacrificed for the wedding. He might have also seeked omens by watching the sky, especially for birds and their movements.

The groom placed an iron ring on the third finger of the bride’s left hand. It was believed that from that finger ran a vein to the heart which had to be captured. The couple then gave their consent to the wedding and held their right hands together.