How Marriages Affected Women in Ancient Rome

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Being a woman in the ancient society was not a walk in the park. While some women left a mark in history through their extraordinary achievements, most spent their lives under the domination of their fathers, husbands, and other male members of their families. This was especially true of Roman women, who were betrothed at a very young age.

An image showing a wedding ceremony in ancient Rome
In ancient Rome, a wedding would usually take place in the bride’s home. (Image: Hein Nouwens/Shutterstock)

Types of Marriages in Ancient Rome

Two types of marriages existed in ancient Rome — ‘with the hand and ‘without the hand’. In a ‘with the hand’ marriage, women did not have any legal rights. Their properties were transferred to their husbands in the form of a dowry, and their husbands, in theory, had the power of life and death over them.

In a ‘without the hand’ marriage, there was no dowry and women had some extent of freedom compared to those in a ‘with the hand’ marriage. Their husbands did not control them completely; instead, they remained under the control of their nearest ascendant male relative.

And, from the 1st century A.D. onward, these ‘without the hand’ marriages became more popular, partly because they conferred more independence on women.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now on The Great Courses Plus.

Love Marriages in Ancient Rome

Even though many Roman marriages were arranged, there was no shortage of love marriages. For instance, Julius Caesar’s daughter, Julia, and her husband, Pompey, were devoted to each other. Pompey was heartbroken when Julia died in childbirth.

Another popular example of a love marriage in ancient Rome is that of Marcus Brutus—one of Caesar’s assassins—and his wife Porcia. Brutus, who was smitten with Porcia, even revealed to her the plot against Caesar’s life.

Musonius Rufus, a stoic philosopher of the 1st century A.D., wrote, “Neither riches nor beauty nor nobility can add anything more to a marriage than can concordia.” Etymologically, the word ‘concord’ means ‘hearts together’, or as one might say, ‘two hearts beating as one’.

However, nothing proves this better than an inscription written on a tombstone found in Rome. The freedwoman Furia Spes erected this memorial to her dearly beloved husband:

“When he and I were children, we fell in love as soon as we met. My life with him was all too brief. A cruel destiny separated us when we should have continued living in happiness. I beg you, most holy manes [the spirits of the dead] to look after my beloved, whom I have entrusted to you, and that you be attentive and watchful over him during the hours of darkness, so that I may see him, and so that he may persuade fate to let me come to him softly and soon.”

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Customs of a Roman Wedding

Image showing an ancient Roman wedding.
The bride and the groom did not exchange vows in ancient Roman marriages. (Image: Massimo Todaro/Shutterstock)

A Roman wedding took place in the bride’s home, probably in the atrium—the most important part of the house. The bride would wear a white woolen dress with her hair parted in six locks tied together with woolen ribbons. She would then declare before the assembled company, “I now belong to your family,” after which she was officially married.

The bride and the groom did not have to exchange vows, as that had all been attended to in the marriage contract signed by both families. This was similar to a pre-nuptial agreement that is commonly seen in present times.

A Marriage Contract?

In all probability, in the contract, the groom would have promised not to mistreat his wife or throw her out of the house or bring another woman home, while his wife, in turn, would have agreed not to be away from home for more than one night without her husband’s permission and not to have sexual relations with any other man.

If either party failed to honor the deal, the consequences would have been spelled out—a financial penalty for the offending party.

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A Roman Wedding Party

After a woman had stated that she belonged to her husband’s family, a pig or a sheep was sacrificed and, after the Gods have been given their share, the rest was divided among all those present.

Toward the evening, the whole wedding party would set off in a torchlight procession to the bridegroom’s house, singing hymns to Hymen—the God of marriage. An example of the kind of hymn that was sung was written by the poet Catullus: “You who dwell on Mount Helicon, you who are the son of Urania, you who give to a husband a tender virgin…without your blessing no home can have offspring.”

Image showing a bride being taken to her new house.
After the ceremony, the whole wedding party would set off in a torchlight procession to the groom’s house. (Image: Massimo Todaro/Shutterstock)

As the wedding procession moved, nuts were strewed among the crowd and the wedding guests also shouted obscenities as they went on their way. These seem to have been intended in part to avert evil fortune. At the door of the house, the groom picked up the bride and carried her over the threshold to prevent her from stumbling, which would have been ill-omen—a ritual that continues till this day.

He would then present his wife with fire and water, to indicate her formal incorporation within the home. The guests would accompany them both to the bedroom, singing songs. From then on, a wife’s primary duty was to provide her husband with children, preferably boys.

Common Questions about Ancient Roman Weddings

Q: What were the types of marriages that existed in ancient Rome?

There were two types of marriages in ancient Rome — ‘with the hand’ and ‘without the hand’.

Q: Where did a Roman wedding take place?

A Roman wedding took place in the bride’s home, probably in the atrium—the most important part of the house.

Q: Why did the wedding guests shout out obscenities as they went toward the bridegroom’s house?

During a Roman wedding, the guests shouted obscenities as they went toward the bridegroom’s house to avert evil fortune.

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