Over the centuries ancient Roman society has played a significant role in the creation of a common culture like our own. The material remains from ancient Rome have preserved valuable evidence for the status and accomplishments of the Roman people. Because so many aspects of ancient Roman civilization are respected and followed in society today, such as Roman art, Roman roads, and Roman law, it is important to understand the similarities and differences that ally within the two cultures. One aspect of Roman culture that I found interesting to focus on is the tradition of marriage. A traditional Roman marriage is completely different than a traditional marriage in our culture today, essentially because of the significant change in the role of women over time. Because Roman women had hardly any rights, their role in marriage was extremely limited.
Women in ancient Rome barely had any rights by law, so they had very few opportunities to live independently. Roman women were expected to marry at a young age, usually when they reached their teen years or early twenties. A Roman woman’s subordination in marriage began even before she became engaged, as it was tradition for a woman’s father, or legal guardian to arrange the marriage of their daughters. In her work on Roman Marriage, Susan Treggiari sites a preserved document of a Roman mother explaining the rules of engagement to her daughter: “When you become engaged to someone, your father, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself” (Treggiari, 125). The legal independence of women was also constrained by the institution of guardianship. If a woman outlived her father, it was required by law in Rome to have a guardian, or tutor. The legal sources about the reasons women needed guardians are specific, as they describe women as lacking judgment, were easily victimized, basically because they claimed women were fools.
Roman women were expected to be married, primarily because it was almost impossible for them to live independently, but also because single women, or maidens, were just not accepted in society. Most single women though were of the lower class, and had little opportunity to obtain a better life. “Free-born women continued to scratch our a living as laundresses, weavers, butchers, and fish-sellers, or in one of the occupations that are recorded on inscriptions at Pompeii: bean-dealer, nail-seller, brick-maker, even stonecutter. A number of poor women worked as waitresses in taverns, where they were probably expected, or obliged, to engage in prostitution on the side. In fact, for a lot of unskilled working class women, prostitution was the only to make a living, however inadequate” (Le Glay, 139). So although women had little control in their marriage, it seems as though they had even less control of their lives as single women in Rome.
In addition to Roman women being passed into the control of their husbands upon the day of their wedding, they were also expected to possess a worthy dowry that came from their father’s estate, and then became controlled by their husbands. During the time of Cicero’s reign in 62 BC, he clearly defined the meaning of the dowry: “When a woman enters the manus of a man, everything which belonged to her becomes the husband’s and is called dowry” (Treggiari, 325). This was especially unfortunate for women because they had little to no power in their marriage to begin with, and the only money or property that they possessed was handed over to their husbands. The more money a woman’s dowry was worth, the easier it was for her father to arrange her marriage. Thus it is important to note that many women of lower class were also much less likely to marry because it was difficult to negotiate marriage with no dowry to offer. “Marriage without dowry was undesirable and disreputable and that the transfer and acceptance of dos dowry indicated that legal marriage rather than concubinage was intended by both parties. How far the poorest members of the population could afford this sentiment, or afford to get married at all, is uncertain” (Treggiari, 323). Marriage contracts are common among the remains of Roman culture, as one dated from 13 BC states the content of one Roman woman’s dowry: “Thermion and Apollonius son of Ptolemaieus agree that they have come together to share a common life, and the said Apollonius acknowledges that he has received from Thermion by hand from the house a dowry of a pair of gold earrings weighing three quarters and… silver drachmas” (Lewis & Reinhold, 407).
The duties of Roman women in marriage are explicit and are somewhat similar to those of women in marriage in earlier times in our own culture, especially before the time of women suffrage in America. When a Roman woman married, she was immediately responsible for childbearing and household duties, such as cooking and cleaning, and she was forced to perform any duties by which her husband ordered. “The woman, because she must feed babies under cover and is more timid and therefore adapted to protecting produce indoors, is suited to working in the house…her duties – supervising servants and stores; making clothes; nursing sick slaves; teaching the maids to spin; training, disciplining, and rewarding the staff; keeping supplies, tools, kitchen and dining utensils, clothing, and footwear in good order- with an insistence on precision, discipline, and tidiness” (Treggiari, 186). A common marriage contract explains a wife’s duties: “and Thermion shall fulfill her duties toward her husband and the common life and shall not be absent herself from the house for a night or a day without the consent of Apollionius, nor dishonor nor injure their common home nor consort with another many, or she, if guilty of any of these actions, shall, after trial, be deprived of the dowry, and in addition the transgressing party shall be liable to the prescribed fine” (Lewis & Reinhold, p.407). So in addition to the various duties the Roman woman had within her marriage, she was also ordered by law to obey her husband and restricted any freedom unless her husband consented. “In law,…a woman’s place in the home was emphatically subordinate to that of the paterfamilias, the male head of the household, who possessed almost unlimited authority over everyone who lived in it…Those who were under his power (potestas) owned nothing in their own name; anything they acquired belonged to him” (Le Glay, 141).
Although women in ancient Rome were subjected to Roman law and to the traditional male dominated marriage, marriage life for many women was full of love and happiness. “Few Romans questioned the ideal model of a married couple united by mutual love and partnership. It appears as well in literary sources as in the inscriptions of the early empire. Matrimonial bliss was undoubtedly often attained, though not always, of course” (Arjava, 127). However, “co-operation, love, and mutual respect did not mean that the spouses were thought to be equal… it is clear that the husband was expected to be the dominant partner in marriage” ( Arjava, 128). Plutarch, a man who adopted the practices of both Greek and Roman culture in the second century AD, wrote his advice to young brides and grooms: “Whenever two notes are sounded in accord the tune is carried by the bass; and in like manner every activity in a virtuous household is carried on by both parties in agreement, but discloses the husband’s leadership and preferences” (Arjava, 129). The source of Plutarch’s document adds that this was a very common way to go about married life, that no one in Rome would object to this advice: “I doubt that anyone anywhere within the empire would have disagreed with his advice” (Arjava, 129).
Although many Roman marriages were full of love and admiration between the husband and wife, there is a lot of evidence of adultery and violence that existed within Roman marriages. Divorce was also a common conflict that resulted from failed marriages, often those where adultery and/or violence was prevalent. Lewis and Reinhold printed an excerpt from Marcus Cato’s oration titled “On the Dowry,” that provide much evidence of abusive husbands, some who committed adultery and were not punished or divorced from their wives, and some who killed their wives and remained unpunished, even unaccused. “When a husband divorces his wife, he judges the woman as a censor would, and has full powers if she has been guilty of any wrong or shameful act; she is severely punished if she had drunk wine; if she had done wrong with another man she is condemned to death” Marcus Cato moves on to declare that “If you should take your wife in adultery, you may with impunity put her to death without a trial; but if you should commit adultery of indecency, she must not presume to lay a finger on you, nor does the law permit it” (Lewis & Reinhold, 508). Marcus Cato’s document is a rather unfortunate piece of evidence that women in ancient Roman marriages had no rights by law, but moreover they were allowed to be brutally beaten and even murdered, while their attacker would go without punishment.
After careful research, I have come to the conclusion that the role of the woman in an ancient Roman marriage was extremely limited in all aspects of Roman society. As soon as she was set free of her father’s authority, she was handed over only to be controlled by her husband. When the woman married, all of her possessions, including property, was now controlled by her husband as well. Wives, under contracted law, were forced to perform all duties of the household and those desired by their husbands. In most cases, a Roman wife was responsible for childbearing, and if she was unable to perform this duty, her husband could legally divorce her. It was permitted under Roman law that a man could divorce and kill his wife if she committed adultery. Men also went unaccused for beating their wives. Fortunately, times have changed since the era of ancient Rome, and much progress has been made, especially with women and minorities. But over centuries, one thing has remained the same, which is the concept of marriage. Marriage is a human institution which has historically been linked with love and companionship, sexuality and the production and rearing of children. The Roman state defined narrowly the marriages which were valid for its citizens and which produced a new generation of citizens. A closely knit family and a devoted married couple remain the ideal from the first century BC to the third century AD and beyond.
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