BMCR 2005.07.14

Women and Law in the Roman Empire. A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce and Widowhood

, Women and the law in the Roman Empire : a sourcebook on marriage, divorce and widowhood. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 1 online resource (xxiv, 349 pages). ISBN 0203442520. $36.95 (pb).

In this volume, Prof. J. Evans Grubbs, who is an acknowledged expert on laws affecting women,1 presents a remarkable collection of ancient sources from the Roman imperial period illustrating the rights women held under Roman law. As indicated in the book-title, the subjects of marriage, divorce and widowhood are centre-stage. The sourcebook draws heavily on the major legal texts of the Roman Empire (the Digest, the Institutes of Gaius, the Code of Justinian and the Theodosian Code) but also includes the Spanish Lex Irnitana and several non-legal documentary sources like various papyri and some literary Christian sources, which are less familiar or accessible to the general reader.

As Grubbs points out in the preface, the book is intended primarily for students and teachers in the fields of women’s studies, classics, ancient and medieval history and history of the family. Regarding this, Grubbs did an excellent job. Also, contra Grubbs’ opinion (cf. p. xiv), specialists in Roman law will derive benefit from the book, since the material is not only well arranged but the commentary and the annotations also contain many details which should be of interest even to some professional researchers.

The book begins with a preface, where the chronological limitation and the selection of the sources are explained with good care. The following glossary of Latin legal terms is rather small, but very useful for non-specialists. In the introduction the reader will find a compact but thorough summary of the legal sources and the connection between the social structure and the legal system of Rome.

The source-material is divided into five sections:

In section 1, The status of Women in Roman law, Grubbs first provides sources which describe forms of legal power within the Roman familia. Then examples of stereotypes of women’s abilities and behavior are offered. After that, sources on restrictions, rights and responsibilities of women in court and in public life are provided in subsections.

Sections 2, 3 and 4 are divided into two major subsections defined by period (classical and late Roman law). Sections 2 and 4 also contain a third subsection, documenting sources from Egypt or the Near East. Each major subsection is divided into several subthemes.

Section 2, Marriage in Roman law and society, first deals with the purpose and nature of marriage After that the Augustan marriage legislation is documented. Further subjects are the preliminaries of marriage: age, betrothal and consent as well as the aspects of dowry, gifts and property. The following subsection (marriage in late Roman law) focuses on the repeal of the Augustan penalties on celibacy, on the aspect of paternal power as well as gifts and dowries in late Roman law. Section 2 is completed by an interesting collection of marriage contracts and agreements from Roman Egypt, the Babatha archive at the Dead Sea and Dura Europos.

The sources in section 3, Prohibited and non-legal unions, show the different types of and the various reasons for prohibitions. A second main subject of this section is non-marital unions and their social background. Additionally the aspect of forced marriages is dealt with.

Section 4, Divorce and its consequences, lists several aspects, giving a survey of the legal background and the procedure of divorce. While the subsection on divorce in late Roman law is rather short, several sources from Egypt and the Near East in the third subsection complete the picture of divorce in the Roman Empire.

After providing material on the subject of remarriage, section 5, widows and their children, focuses mainly on the problem of the legal status of widows and on their rights and restrictions regarding the guardianship of their children. Parallel to the Near Eastern sources, another subsection contains texts from the Greek East on the topic of children and their children. The whole section closes with a study of the legal status of pregnant widows and their unborn children.

All sources are presented in clear and up to date English translations and supplied with unobtrusive, learned and well focused linking commentaries, which highlight the substantial aspects of the texts without being redundant. Additionally, each section begins with a brief introduction to the subject.

After a bibliography, the sourcebook ends with a very helpful source index and a (rather brief) general index, which make it easy to find one’s way to special sources or topics.

All in all it is hard to find quibbles. Of course one could criticize that Grubbs left out the riches of Cicero’s Republic and Justinian’s Novellae, or that she excluded Syriac, Coptic and Aramaic sources when focussing on Egypt and the ancient Near East. One could also comment that the sourcebook does not cover women in business and how business law might impact on their activities and social roles. But that would all be beyond the scope of this book, which is defined in the subtitle as a sourcebook on marriage, divorce and widowhood, and which explicitly wants to serve as a complement to existing sourcebooks and the works of Jane Gardner and Antti Arjava.2 And within this scope, the volume fits very well.

To sum it up: Women and Law in the Roman Empire is an interesting anthology for anybody interested in the history of the Roman family and a boon for scholars and students alike. Exceptionally useful as a core text as well as a reference guide it will be a valuable part of all teaching and research collections devoted of the study of women and the family in antiquity.


1. E.g. Law and Family in Late Antiquity: The Emperor Constantine’s Legislation on Marriage, Oxford 1995.

2. Cf. p. xiv. Besides the works of Gardner and Arjava, noted in the bibliography, Grubbs refers to Mary Lefkowitz, Maureen Fant (edd.), Women’s Life in Greek and Roma, 2nd ed. Baltimore 1992 (3rd ed. London 2005), and Jane Rowlandson (ed.), Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt, Cambridge 1998.