Looking back on marriage in Roman times we will be able to see the changes that have taken place and the traditions that we still have symbolically in our marriage symbols, laws and ceremonies today.
In the Italian law today the bride retains her surname and the two spouses have the same rights and duties one towards the other (we remind you that we have several solutions for wedding in Rome). But in ancient Rome the rules and traditions were very different from the current ceremony.
Marriage symbols: name
Let’s look at the ‘name’; the Roman man had three names, the first called “gens”, or the name of his family, the second was the father’s name and then the first name, which today would now be our proper name. The woman instead had only the family name with the feminine declination ‘a’ attached to it, i.e. Giuli-a, Flavi-a, Prisc-a, Corneli-a etc. and therefore a great deal of repetitions of the family name with the consequential confusion on the female side of the family.
Marriage symbols: hand
Roman marriages in the first tradition took place only “cum Manu”; which meant the father had the legal right to life and death of his family members. This right was passed on to the future son-in-law symbolically by placing the daughter’s hand in that of her groom. The woman therefore always depended on a man, firstly her father, then her husband, and then her first-born son if she became a widow, or in the event of there being no family member a male tutor was appointed.
Marriages were often arranged as patrimonial contracts linked to the dowry of the girl and were indissoluble. The pact was sealed with a ring on the bride’s ring finger another marriage symbol.
Later on there was also the possibility of “handless” marriage. The right to life and death still remained in the hands of the father, but it became possible to divorce and the ceremony was not religious.
The purpose of marriage is to create the conjugal society, for the constitution of which the only will of the spouses is sufficient. The “conventio” instead is the transfer of the parental authority of the woman from the father to the husband. Hence the difference that marriage once the mutual will has lapsed can be split up, while for the conventio in manu it is a whole other matter.
Validity of a marriage
In order for the marriage to be valid, it was necessary in addition to the continuous and reciprocal will to be united in marriage permanently, the age prescribed 12 years for women and 14 for men and conubium, the recognized capacity to constitute a legally valid conjugal union.
The confirmation of the union, in the first case was for “use” that is for the cohabitation of the couple for a year; in the second case for “coemptio” that is for purchase or for ”confarreatio”, and for this form a cake was eaten together. The last form was reserved for patricians (noble families or rather the ancient and first nucleus of Romans) and required a solemn religious ceremony, with songs and parades.
Marriage symbols: wedding day
For the marriage the two families met with friends, servants and clients in the bride’s house and from there they headed for the groom’s house, with music singing, and allusive jokes. When the procession reached its destination, the groom from behind the door asked: “Qui es?” “who are you?” and the bride said:“Ubi tu Gaius ego Gaia” “where you are Gaius, there I am Gaia”.
Then the groom lifted her in his arms and presented her the house keys, and they both passed under a yoke as a symbol that they subjected themselves to this marriage bond.
The divorce, which was introduced later, was allowed only if the woman was declared adulteress meanwhile the man was free to have other women. Rules and traditions became a lot laxer during the imperial time, when adultery, lovers and divorce was the normal and routine part of life.
Marletta Paola V. Il fidanzamento e il matrimonio nell’antica Roma, Gruppo Storico Romano
Montanelli Indro Storia di Roma, 1969
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