There were five methods through which a Roman woman could legally enter matrimonium. By living with the man continuously for a period of one year; be exchanged for money symbolic of sale; marry in a religious ceremony; go into marriage while permanently remaining under the legal authority of her father (sina-manu); or enter into a free marriage.
Most marriages during the Republic Era were of the manus type. The male was the head of the household and held complete power over his wife, reducing her to the legal equivalent of a daughter.
The word manus means ‘hand’ in Latin. A manus marriage ceremony was not complete until the father gave the bride’s right hand to the groom. This was the physical expression of being passed from the protection of her father into that of her husband’s.
Often within the manus wedding ceremony was an implicit dowry from the bride’s family. Among the rich, this amount could be up to one million sesterces, the equivalent minimum wealth qualification for a senator. Dowries were usually paid in three annual installments.
There were three categories in manus marriage. In the coemptio type of marriage, after accepting the bride’s dowry, the groom simply bought the bride through monetary payment to the father.
In the second manus category, usus, the man and woman lived together continuously for one year. The woman then automatically passed into a manus marriage, being under the complete control of her husband. This civil form of marriage was quite common among the middle and lower classes, and the bond was somewhat relaxed. The woman was not legally bound to nuptiae if she spent three nights a year away from her husband.
The third manus category was the confarreatio marriage. This was an elaborate ceremony conducted by the 2 highest ranking Roman priests, and required at least 10-witnesses. Only children of parents married confarreatio were eligible, and it was a binding lifetime contract. The couple would partake of a special wedding cake made of the grain farreum. Hence the name confarreatio.
Although rare in the Republic Era, free marriages were quite common during the Empire Era. The woman was not under the control of her husband or father, and she retained all of her property. If they divorced, the wife could take her possessions with her.
Though a ring was optional, an engagement band was a common practice. Typically made of iron or gold, it was worn on the third finger of the left hand. Roman surgeons believed that the ‘love’ vein, vena amoris, ran from this finger directly to the heart.
In preparation for the wedding ceremony, a bride’s hair was sectioned into six strands using a bent iron spearhead; ideally one that had been used to kill a gladiator. Regarded as a symbol of virility, it was hoped to insure a fertile union.
The parted hair was braided and piled on top of her head in a complicated cone shape. Over this was placed a veil of transparent bright orange, red, or yellow fabric which matched her shoes. This was followed by a wreath of fresh flowers or marjoram. In later years, rosemary and orange blossoms became fashionable. The bride’s gown was a long white tunic cinched with a Herculean knotted belt. See First Century Life: Tie the Knot.
As the bride and groom left the ceremony, guests threw nuts and shouted “talassio!” Talassius was the Roman god of weddings, and yelling out his name was considered a form of congratulation. The act of throwing nuts represented the release of childhood toys.
When the couple arrived at the groom’s house, the wife was carried over the threshold, and the special wedding torch was thrown amid the wedding procession. The surprised recipient could anticipate a happy and prosperous life.
In 18 B.C. Emperor Augustus passed a marriage reform act called the lex Julia. Within twenty years freed slaves were allowed to marry anyone; with the exception of a senator. It required both parties be Roman citizens, unless they had been granted special permission called conubium. The law banned citizens from marrying prostitutes or actresses, and it was illegal for provincial officials to wed local women. Matrimony between close relatives was prohibited, and until A.D. 197, serving soldiers could not enter into a legally recognized marriage. Based on frontier epitaphs, it is estimated that up to 60% took common law wives.
Augustus made divorce as clear-cut as marriage. The act of announcing a divorce in front of seven witnesses simply made it so. If the divorcée was between the age of 20 and 50, she was required to remarry within 6-months. Being widowed allowed her an extension of up to one year.
No regulations applied to the divorced man; however, unmarried men and women did pay higher taxes. By law, a Roman citizen could have only one spouse at a time.
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Excerpt from Ancient Minutus