BMCR 1992.03.19

Roman Marriage. Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the time of Ulpian

, Roman marriage : iusti coniuges from the time of Cicero to the time of Ulpian. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. xv, 578 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780198148906 $125.00 (hb).

There are a number of ways to study marriage in the Roman world. Peter Brown has shown, with impressive success, how to get inside the bedroom and study marital relations in the context of ancient attitudes towards sexuality. What can be described as the “Cambridge school,” best represented by Richard Saller and Brent Shaw, has sought to derive broad patterns of marriage and familial relations from documents, moving away from the upper classes to the middling level of society (or upper-middling). Susan Treggiari, with her superb command of the literary and legal sources, now offers us a grand vision of attitudes towards marriage in law and practice among the upper classes. Her inspiration is Crook’s Law and Life of Rome 90 B.C.-A.D. 212, and her intention is to describe the institution of marriage at Rome. The result is a massive book that (as the title suggests) draws together an enormous amount of information from legal sources as well as from literary and epigraphic quarters. The excellent index and clear sign-posting within chapters will make this a book that all teaching Roman social history will want.

The book is organized in accordance with the pattern of marriage: engagement, marriage, children, and separation. The second section includes long discussion of what might be described as ancient marriage counseling and sex. The third section is concerned with married life. T. begins with property: the status of the dowry and the property of husband and wife. Then she moves on to deal with life in the household: mortality, fertility (a very good, balanced section), 1 and the patterns of married life. The final section of the book is concerned with divorce and death. Six appendices treat alleged adultery, adultery prosecutions or sentences under the Julio-Claudians, “philosophers on sexuality,” magistrates from 60-50 BC with identified wives, and attested divorces in the Republic and early principate.

T. is not interested in discovering a pattern of Roman marriage in her period. For her, “the study of marriage, as in that of, for instance, politics, the fascination lies in seeing the interplay of individuals in a given context” (p. 504). As a result, the approach is very conservative. Foucault is notable for his absence as a defining force in any argument (he is replaced by Desmond Morris in a discussion of sexuality on p. 318-9) and Laqueur’s “Orgasm, Generation and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,”Representations 14 (1986), 1-41, does not even make it into the bibliography. What we do get is much comparative material, especially English, used in suggestive and interesting ways, but this is not the same as a deep structural analysis of sexual relations within the total context of social activity that is offered by Brown or the contributors to a volume such as Before Sexuality (D. Halperin, J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin eds., Princeton, 1990). Not everyone will be upset by this, for every approach has its own virtues as well as its vices. T.’s book is the place to look for the basic external workings of Roman marriage. Those who want to know how an engagement was made or broken, how a marriage was defined, what the status of a dowry was, how property was divided between husband and wife, and what we really know about divorce or adultery, will want to turn to this book first; and when they do, they will probably feel that they need turn nowhere else.

The large number of useful individual studies in this book that have implications for issues great and small well beyond T.’s subject make this volume even more important, and despite her admitted interest in the particular, some of the conclusions that she reaches are of fundamental importance for understanding the development of the Roman institution of matrimonium and relations between the sexes in the Roman world. Thus, for example, the demonstration that matrimonium in manu continued to be practiced more frequently and at later dates than has conventionally been assumed (see p. 31), or social constraints upon the exercise of patria potestas within marriage are both extremely valuable. The average father really could not force an unwilling son or daughter into marriage, nor could he prevent a divorce (see esp. p. 461). This makes the conduct of Augustus towards his children all the more remarkable. So too, the discussion of divorce includes a good discussion of the oddity of Messalina’s wedding with Silius. There is also much discussion of the value of Latin literature, especially comedy, as evidence for marital behavior. Anyone interested, for instance, in the question of how Plautus adapted Greek plays to the Roman stage cannot afford to miss what T. has to say on a number of points.

The extended discussion of the ideals of married life, based on literary and epigraphic evidence, argues that, ideally, husbands and wives loved each other. This should serve as a corrective to P. Veyne, who argues that Roman marriage was conceived only as a civic duty, and that conjugal affection was not a significant feature of the arrangement. 2 The point is especially important as T. shows that the basic definition of matrimonium encompassed conubium, the capacity to marry a Roman citizen, and affectio maritalis, the intention to live as husband and wife: non enim coitus matrimonium facit, sed maritalis affectio (D Ulpian). If two people had the legal right to matrimonium, then demonstration of marital affection was sufficient to establish the married state (see esp. p. 43-57). T. is also very good on the alternatives, concubinatus and contubernium, the former being when one partner (the man) clearly did not intend to establish a iustum matrimonium even though he might indeed love the partner, the latter resulting from the legal incapacity of one partner to enter into the state. 3 Some further discussion of the way that these unions were formed may still be needed for cases such as that of Vespasian and Antonia Caenis, since we do not need to think that all the women whom members of the aristocracy might meet on the fringes of their society were demimondaine courtesans, but issues of this sort are not integral to T.’s theme. The final section of the chapter on divorce reinforces T.’s main point, arguing that, “on balance, the divorce-rate seems much less rapid and the habit of divorce less widespread than has commonly been thought” (p. 482). There are some very interesting remarks on the potential emotional effects of divorce upon relationships between parents and children as well as upon the former partners (p. 470-1).

Whenever T. moves beyond ideology and law into the dynamics of relationships between iusti coniuges, her discussions are extremely interesting, whetting the appetite for more. T. would, I suspect, say that this is not possible on the basis of the evidence that we have. Nonetheless, work by Richard Saller on the role of slaves in the aristocratic family has gone somewhat further. He shows that slaves could act as buffers between husbands and wives, or that they could comfort single men who already had children to inherit and thus, while desiring a mate, did not want legitimate offspring. This sort of study reveals strategies for reducing family tensions, and difficulties between parents and their children that do not often figure in this book. 4 Even if we do not want to accept Veyne’s picture (and in the wake of this book few will want to) it does seem that very few of the best known Romans of the late Republic and early empire seem to have enjoyed entirely blissful private lives: how did Calpurnia feel about Cleopatra when she came to Rome to see Caesar? Tiberius clearly loved Vipsania, but his adoptive father forced him to divorce her while she was pregnant and to marry a woman he loathed, and who loathed him, for political reasons. His subsequent sexual career appears to have been notorious, as was hers; she also seems to have hated her father enough to conspire against him. Trajan lived with an overbearing sister as well as a wife who plainly had a very strong personality: he took to wine and boys. What did Sabina think of Hadrian and Antinoos? As T. points out in her discussion of the patterns of daily life, there was a “very marked division of social activities for husband and wife for much or most of their time” (p. 424), and it is clear that the daughters of the rich and famous were not always happy to sit at home and spin wool. Wealth opened the door to public life in the imperial period, as Ramsay MacMullen and Riet Van Bremen have shown in some valuable articles. 5 T. acknowledges the point, but the implications are not explored.

As T. would admit, it is hard to reach below the social level that produced this evidence to get an idea of what the attitude was among those of lesser standing than members of the senatorial and equestrian order, it is also hard to determine just how important Roman marriage laws and patterns were outside of Roman Italy. T. adduces the interesting case of a Palmyrene who married his freedwoman from Colchester: “what could better exemplify the meeting of the two ends of the empire?” (p. 411) But, as she goes on to point out, such texts are rare. Saller has argued that the evidence of inscriptions suggests that Roman families for which we have evidence from funerary inscriptions from seven regions of the empire in the course of the second-third centuries (just under 900, a staggeringly small number) conformed to the “Mediterranean pattern,” where a man in his mid-twenties married a woman in her teens. 6 T. moves on from this study to suggest that one result of the Augustan marriage legislation was to change this gap so that men and women were closer in age when they wed—a novel and interesting idea (402-3)—but it is very hard to know how this affected the vast majority of people who were not members of the upper classes. In another interesting section, on the epigraphic evidence for marital affection (243-9), T. shows that the philosophic ideas about marriage evident in literature show up on stone as well, evidence, perhaps, for the downward spread of the ideology of the dominant socio-political class (not an improbable assumption). But, again, just how far does this take us? Is not the class of people who erected these texts (including rich freedmen) the local aristocracy of the empire or freedmen who had absorbed the value systems of their wealthy masters? T. has done the best that can be hoped for with the evidence that she uses, but it simply does not take us very far. 7 Moreover, we do not have a very powerful model to describe the way that ideas could be passed from the upper classes to the lower levels of society, or a clear idea of what message was considered important enough to spread through the available but awkward media of mass communication (art work and public spectacle). It is only with the growth of Christianity that our evidence becomes plentiful for the communication of basic ideas about how to live one’s life outside of an urban, upper-class context. T.’s polytheistic aristocracy lacked the interest or the capacity to communicate though a select body of texts were available for regular interpretation to the lower orders. 8 Indeed, one of the problems with the use of legal sources for social history is that we cannot know how seriously people who were not jurists took many of the situations that they envision. The essential work on the way that the lower classes came into contact with the world of the jurists still needs to be done, and it is only then that we can hope to move beyond studies of the life-style of the wealthy.

Quibbles aside, T. has raised the study of Roman marriage to a new plateau within the limits that she has set for this study. This is a most impressive achievement. It is therefore all the more disturbing that the Oxford University Press has attached a price to this book that puts it out of the reach of most scholars who will want to use it. The pricing policy of this press (now also a joke in one work of popular fiction that I know of) 9 has become an active impediment to the communication of ideas, and that is a very sad thing.

  • [1] On p. 403-5 T. does seem to be a bit confused (as is the work she cites) about a demographic measure known as the Gross Fertility Rate which gives the number of children a woman will bear if she lives to fifty. For discussion of these models see C. Newell, Methods and Models in Demography (New York, 1988), 35-49. I owe this observation to Bruce Frier who discusses the issue further in his review of this book for CP. [2] P. Veyne, A History of Private Life from Pagan Rome to Byzantium, tr. A. Goldhammer (Cambridge, 1987), especially statements such as “love in marriage was a stroke of good fortune; it was not the basis of the institution” (p. 40). [3] For more on concubines see now T. McGinn, “Concubinage and the lex Julia on Adultery,”TAPA 121 (1991), 335-75. For the dynamics of these relationships where slaves were involved see the article by R. Saller cited below. [4] R. Saller, “Slavery and the Roman Family,” in M.I. Finley, ed., Classical Slavery (London, 1987), 65-87. [5] R. MacMullen, “Women in Public in the Roman Empire,”Historia 29 (1980), 208-18 = Changes in the Roman Empire, 162-8; R. Van Bremen, “Women and Wealth,” A. Cameron & A. Kuhrt, eds., Images of Women in Antiquity (Detroit, 1983), 223-42. [6] R.P. Saller, “Men’s Age at Marriage and Its Consequences in the Roman Family,”CP 82 (1987), 21-34. [7] There are some studies that move in this direction, such as Brent Shaw’s illuminating “The Cultural Meaning of Death: Age and Gender in the Roman Family” in D.I. Kertzer & R. Saller, eds., The Family in Italy from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven, 1991), 66-91 on the evidence for testamentary practise in Egypt. Shaw shows how the evidence of western funerary inscriptions reflects changing family values among the urban lower classes in the first six centuries AD. In the case of testamentary practice, it appears that the constitutio Antoniniana created a mass of Roman testators, “unfamiliar with Roman culture and the rigid legal formalisms of the Roman will,” who “worked profound changes on nature of the will itself,” E.J. Champlin, Final Judgements. Duty and Emotion in Roman Wills 200 B.C.-A.D. 250 (Berkeley, 1991), 36. I am indebted to Cliff Ando of the Department of Classical Studies at Michigan for drawing this to my attention. [8] T. often cites the evidence of Christian authors of the fourth century for evidence about Roman attitudes towards marriage. Her view seems to be in all cases that it reflects conventional polytheist attitudes (she only makes this point once in passing that I noticed), though, as she shows in her discussion of Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum 1.46 on p. 216, she recognizes that there are some problems here. It would have been a good idea if she had spelled out her thoughts on the use of this evidence, and its implications for our understanding of the development of Christian marriage. [9] C. Dexter, The Wench is Dead (London, 1989), 72.