BMCR 2002.06.41

The Marriage of Roman Soldiers (13 BC-AD 235): Law and Family in the Imperial Army

, The marriage of Roman soldiers (13 B.C.-A.D. 235) : law and family in the imperial army. Columbia studies in the classical tradition ; v. 24. Leiden: Brill, 2001. vi, 470 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004121552. $110.88.

Recently we have witnessed images of soldiers returning home from foreign assignments to embrace wives or husbands, children, and other relations. The juxtaposition between the role of the soldier in the military versus his or her role in the family may strike some viewers as odd, others as commonplace. Images of or references to family life in the military are conspicuous enough today, but were these images ingrained in the minds of individuals living in the Roman world?1 After one reads Sara Elise Phang’s monograph on the varied relationships of soldiers in the Roman empire, the answer to this question will become readily apparent.

This study, a revised version of her dissertation completed at Columbia in 2000, appears in the Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition.2 Unfortunately, the work still reflects a structural rigidity common to a dissertation. Phang divides the work into three main parts (“The Evidence,” “Law and Life,” and “Policy”) and in turn subdivides them into twelve chapters. To document her claims the author draws her evidence from a variety of textual sources, viz., literary, legal, epigraphic, and papyrological. In so doing her work is “not strictly a legal monograph…which are mostly only read by Romanists, whose approach has been confined (traditionally) to Roman law as a self-contained discipline” (Phang, 8).

Part I, “The Evidence,” chapters 1-5, surveys how widespread the effects of a marriage ban for soldiers were. Before setting out to accomplish this, she clearly maps out certain methodological problems inherent in such a study. For instance, Phang is very careful to define her terms. She places words like wife and marriage within quotation marks to flag that they are problematic in their meanings. A soldier for example can take on a partner, live with her, and have offspring with her, yet her status as “wife,” not to mention their children, may not be legally recognized in Roman society. The author then provides her reader with an overview of the literary sources that are in her opinion “most valuable” for determining the widespread effects of the marriage ban. The best include third and fourth century authors such as Cassius Dio, Herodian, and Libianus. Phang readily admits these are not without their limitations since “Elite literary authors were not concerned with the family life of common soldiers; such authors are more likely to focus on details of administration that concerned the upper orders and the city of Rome” (Phang, 16). The author subsequently turns her attention to more reliable evidence, the papyri. Phang concentrates especially on the Egyptian Cattaoui papyrus (the provenance is unfortunately unknown) written in Greek in the early second century. She states from the ouset that her job is not to provide another commentary on this published papyrus (the Greek text and its translation appear in an appendix on pages 395-402), but rather to show how it provides concrete evidence for a marriage ban in the Roman world. The Cattaoui papyrus sheds light on seven case summaries of trials held between A.D. 114 and 142. The common thread that weaves these cases together is that a marriage ban was in effect at this time in the provinces. As a result of the ban, prefects deemed illegitimate the marriages of soldiers who had partners and offspring while engaged in service.

In Part II, chapters 6 through 10, “Law and Life” the author looks at the varied social relationships of soldiers. Phang emphasizes that modern scholars all too often have looked at contemporary military issues as a way to explain soldiers’ relationships (Phang, 137). In so doing scholarship has glossed over same sex relationships, slavery, and prostitution as sources for companionship, relationships that Phang analyses in her own study. Phang maintains that two major lacunae exist in previous epigraphic studies on the subject. First, scholars have failed to date the inscriptions and second, they have not accounted for a soldier’s average age of marriage (Phang, 148).

Phang draws upon funerary epitaphs to show the types of relationships that existed amongst soldiers. Her statistical analysis, clearly illustrated with graphs, indicates that soldiers who did marry, did so later in their lives (mid thirties). When marriage did occur, soldiers chose freedwomen, sisters, or family of military comrades as their partners. Phang boldly claims, however, that soldiers did not seem to have lasting relationships with women. To some this point may seem slightly overstated especially in view of traditional approaches to the study of Roman family that emphasize agnatic relationships and the role of the paterfamilias.3

In this section Phang emphasizes that context is important for the analysis of the inscriptions. Granted, the author has chosen geographical boundaries (e.g., Africa, Danubian provinces), chronological factors (epigraphic clues that date the reliefs), and social considerations (e.g., military rank) to organize her data, but there appears to be a lack of commitment to stating the provenance of her data. Does the possibility exist that an individual was commemorated on another epitaph elsewhere? Moreover, might local traditions or social factors affect the manner in which an individual is commemorated? The discussion then turns to the various relationships that soldiers had. First she investigates the social ramifications of a marriage deemed illegitimate, especially from the standpoint of children. Phang traces the various developments that occurred with inheritance and concludes that under Hadrian children of illegitimate marriages claimed rights to intestate wills, yet the later emperors created limitations for inheritance. Then Phang brings in a fresh approach by looking at alternative relationships; namely slave, prostitute, and same sex. The most intriguing argument lies in her discussion of same sex relations. Despite bans against homosexual relationships in the Republic, the author set out to show how relationships between soldiers and slaves or prostitutes (both male and female) were acceptable in later periods (Phang, 263). Phang attributes this to the imperial soldier’s lack of citizenship and low social standing and elite indifference to the soldier’s private tastes (Phang, 295).

In part III, “Policy,” chapters 11 and 12, Phang contextualizes the reasons behind the implementation of the marriage ban. First she dispels the notion that marriage bans were put in place for the purposes of generating recruitment within the family. In the past those who have supported this idea essentially have used two pieces of evidence to corroborate their claims: military diplomas and soldiers’ unions with peregrine women. For some, military diplomas indicate that once a praetorian was discharged, any offspring produced while he was in service was deemed legitimate.4 The legitimate son would be a likely candidate to serve in the army. Others believe that another form of recruitment was evident in a soldier’s marriage to women of peregrine status. After 140, the army enticed sons of peregrine status to join the army to obtain Roman citizenship (Phang, 333). Using the epigraphic and papyrological analyses presented earlier Phang soundly counters these claims. Regarding the military diplomas, she shows how men entered into marriage at a later age, thereby limiting the possibilities for producing future offspring. So even though retired soldiers had the right to have legitimate children, many did not because of their age. Second, most women were not of peregrine status. Phang quickly turns the reader’s attention back to the evidence that she presented earlier indicating that there is not enough evidence to suggest that these women were of peregrine status. Moreover, if peregrine relations did exist, there were simply not enough children produced from these relations to create a ready supply for the army.

We are left to wonder then how marriage did figure into the Roman military. To get at the “reality” Phang provides a new approach to the problem: the military did not advocate marriages, which were symbols of luxury and excess. She produces evidence in select Roman authors to show that the Roman elite advocated a particular lifestyle for the roles of soldiers and their partners.5 One questions, however, why Phang has chosen these specific authors in her introductory paragraph to “‘unpack’ the cultural baggage in the literary sources that moralize upon soldiers’ marriages” (Phang 344). Later on she does refer to other authors not mentioned in the introduction. In this chapter, the author also investigates Augustus’ marriage ban as a precedent-setting policy to purge the feminization of the army. Moreover, the ban allowed the army to maintain fiscal (no wage hikes to feed a family) and legal restraints (prevent a backlog of cases dealing with family issues). It is easy to see that a marriage ban existed in the time span Phang is working within, but one can question the overall effectiveness of the implemented ban. Illegitimate marriage still did take place, and Roman authors still wrote rhetorical exposés about the feminization of the army.

All in all, this is a very well researched and thought-provoking study that contributes to our understanding of Roman family, law, and military.6 Particularly appealing is the author’s aim to counter traditional views taken by scholars in Roman military history.


1. Phang notes, however, that in 1993 a commander of the U.S. Marines attempted to place a ban on enlisting married men or women (Phang, 2).

2. This series commits itself to publishing the works of faculty and former students of Columbia University.

3. For remarks on traditional views of the Roman family, see Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore and London 1992), 55-58.

4. Here Phang cites J.B. Campbell, The Emperor and the Roman Army: 31 B.C.-A.D. 235 (Oxford 1984), 442.

5. For example, Caesar, Bell.Civ. 3.110; Horace, Odes 3.5.5-12 and Epodes 9.11-16; Herodian 3.85 and Libanius Or. 2.39-40.

6. A minor criticism: despite Phang’s initial translation of technical Latin terms, an inexperienced reader may be forced to search for terms untranslated elsewhere. A glossary would have been beneficial.