BMCR 2011.03.62

The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity

, The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xii, 341. ISBN 9780521124270. $27.99 (pb).


Hersch presents us with a modern, up-to-date study of the Roman wedding which is almost exclusively based on literary sources, since the primary artistic source, biographical Roman sarcophagi, do not show an actual moment from the ceremony per se, but figures from a wedding. The wide-ranging nature of these literary sources and the problems of using them to reconstruct the Roman wedding, along with a review of the modern scholarship on the Roman wedding and an outline of the chapters of the book, form the core of the book’s Introduction. The former includes the fact that because there is no single complete description of a true Roman wedding, we are forced to reconstruct the ceremony from a pastiche of sources ranging in type, date and locale in the Roman world, and that different levels of society held different versions of the ceremony.

Chapter 1 focuses on the laws connected with marriage and the wedding. We learn, among many other things, that to be a legal marriage, the couple needed to have consented to the marriage and fulfilled the requirements of conubium : that is, they must be Roman citizens, be of sufficient age and share no close blood relationship. There are also three main types of partnerships that existed outside of the law: a marriage that was not legal ( matrimonium iniustum), a union in which one of the partners did not desire to be man and wife ( concubinatus), and a union of two slaves ( contubernium). The betrothal ( sponsalia) was an oral contract between the groom and the bride’s father. Engagement parties were normal for wealthy Romans, often marked by the bride-to-be receiving a ring. Starting at least as early as the time of Constantine the engagement could also be marked by the giving of a kiss. There were no special days in the Roman calendar for weddings, but December and January were the most popular months followed by May.

The next chapter focuses on the bride, primarily her preparations for the ceremony and the preparatory rites for when she is lead to the groom’s house ( domum deductio). A study of the garments comprising the bride’s costume forms the heart of the chapter. The two most visible elements are shown to be the veil known as the flammeum and the hairstyle known as the sex crines. A good and convincing discussion about the color of the former comes to the conclusion that it was a distinctive yellow. The author is also most likely correct when she posits that the flammeum normally covered the head, for there are depictions of Greek brides whose heads, less the area around and containing their eyes, are completely covered by their veils. Here and in a few other places the author might have done better in keeping the Greek ceremony in mind. So also, for example, the bridal shoes mentioned in Catullus are surely not a native Roman element, but a Greek, for their bridal footwear was known as nymphides, and there is no other mention of special Roman bridal footwear besides that in Catullus. A nice overview of the symbolic meaning of the bride’s wedding garments complements the discussion of the individual elements. Many garments are connected with the bride’s virginity, others with fertility, wifely fidelity and the bride’s ability to take on the role of matrona. Completing the chapter is a review of other events at the house of the bride, including the taking of auspices, nuptial sacrifices, and marriage and dowry contracts ( tabulae or tabellae).

The third chapter opens by considering the groom to whom the ancient sources pay far less attention than the bride. The bulk of the chapter examines the various elements of the main ritual of the wedding, the procession to the groom’s house. These elements include wedding cries and songs (e.g. Talasio and Fescenni versus), bridal attendants and the objects that they carried (wool baskets, spindles, etc.), the throwing of nuts, and the most visible part of the procession, the carrying of torches. The procession was the most crucial part of the ceremony for it placed the bride in public for scrutiny, insured the community’s participation in the event, and transmitted Roman values and ideals.

Upon arrival of the procession at the groom’s house, whose doorpost had been smeared with fat and decorated with wool, the couple entered and the bride received fire and water. She was at some point carried across a threshold, although it is unclear if this was the threshold of the house or bedroom. It is also uncertain whether a pronuba oversaw the couple’s joining of hands ( dextrarum iunctio), a motif very popular in Roman art. The author’s long, reasoned, and excellent review of the evidence, both literary and artistic, connected with this controversy suggests that the act is a modern invention. The chapter concludes with a look at the wedding feast, whose location and place in the ceremony is uncertain – either at the bride’s parent’s house or at the groom’s –, the wedding night, and the repotia, a party at the groom’s house on the day after the wedding. The last two were post-wedding events and not part of the ceremony.

The gods and priestesses associated with the wedding are the subject of chapter four. Many gods were necessary for a Roman wedding, and the author reviews the evidence thoroughly for each. Most prominent in the literary and artistic sources are Venus, Cupid, Concordia, and Hymenaeus. A long section about the last interprets him as the god whose protection was sought during the procession from the house of the bride’s father to the groom’s. The household gods, particularly the Lares, were the most significant recipients of wedding offerings and prayers, which, as the author notes, should not be a surprise, since the Romans sought their blessings daily and the deities also helped to bind the family together. Interestingly brides, Vestal Virgins and the Flaminica Dialis shared a number of customs, such as the bridal attire that they all wore.

The final chapter is a conclusion that summarizes much already presented in the earlier chapters, including the fact that the bride was the focal point of the ceremony. A touching comparison of the Roman wedding to a modern American one reminds the reader of how we still have much in common with antiquity: these include the importance of bridal dress, bridal attendants of various ages, and wedding feast often replete with bawdy songs and speeches. Both we and the ancient Romans valued the ceremony because it allowed the couple to come before their family and friends to proclaim a lasting partnership. What is most surprising, however, is that weddings in Roman literature, less the epithalamia, are for the most part dreadful affairs characterized by perversions of normality – a very different picture than normally presented today when weddings tend to be idealized.

The book concludes with a bibliography, general index, and six pages of images. The sarcophagi shown on the latter are reproduced at too small a scale, so that details are often difficult or impossible to see. An index of ancient passages cited should have been included. But these are minor quibbles and should not distract from the very high quality text that Hersch has given us. All interested in Roman daily life, from student to scholar, will benefit from this excellent book.