By Jackie James - Volunteer Guide

Rings, preceeding engagement, white dress, ceremony, making of vows, signing a wedding certificate, confetti, throwing a bouquet; all constituents of 21st century weddings. One would be forgiven for assuming that Roman weddings were very different but, like so many aspects of modern life, at least some of these customs have roots in Ancient Rome.

Background & the law

Marriage, the ceremonial union between two people, is first recorded around 2350 BC in Ancient Mesopotamia (1) and in Ancient Rome was regulated by law well before formation of the Republic (509 BC). Laws attributed to Romulus, the mythological founder of Rome (753 BC) refer to female prudence, orderly conduct of women within marriage, divorce and the death penalty for adulterous women. Female consumption of wine also carried the death penalty perhaps because alcohol might enhance female sexual infidelity. Roman men, on the other hand, were allowed to fraternise and imbibe at will (2).

‘The Law of the Twelve Tables’ (450 - 449 BC) subsequently formed the basis of Roman law for over a thousand years. The Tables served as a mechanism for ensuring peace and equality and detailed the civil rights and duties of Roman citizens. Inscribed on bronze tablets, they were displayed in the forum for all to read and covered judicial court procedures, capital crime, homicide, treason, perjury, judicial corruption and slander. Three sections, V, VI and X, dealt with the legal status and position of women in society, including marriage (2,3).

In 18 BC, the Emperor Augustus (born 63 BC, Emperor from 27 BC, died 14 AD), in an attempt to raise the steadily falling moral standards within Rome, enacted laws to encourage marriage and childbearing. The Lex Julia de Maritandis and other moral legislation also prohibited senatorial marriage with near relatives, freedwomen, convicted adulterers and those of dubious profession such as actors. Penalties for adultery were specified and a divorce court was established. Soldiers below a certain seniority were forbidden to marry (although many in the provinces did marry local women) until 197 AD when the law was relaxed by the then Emperor Septimus Severus (2,4).

Perhaps shocking to modern sensibilities is the notion that a Roman female was someone else’s property throughout her life. Initially she belonged to her father, then her husband and on his death, her son/sons or the closest male relative on the paternal side, her guardian. In the early Republic Roman women married into a state of manus; dependence before the law, a state of subordination with little chance of initiating divorce, no rights over property and no jurisdiction over children, who became the property of her husband’s family if he predeceased her. (4)

Class Issues

Rome had a rigid and patriarchal class system and ideal marriages took place between those of the same ancestral class: patrician to patrician and plebian to plebian. However, interclass marriages could be advantageous and in 445 BC the ‘Twelve Table law’ prohibiting marriage between patrician and plebian was repealed. Union between wealthy plebian families and impoverished patricians would confer a rise in status for the plebian side and cash for the patrician element. Children of such a union inherited the social status of the father. The famous Roman general, Gaius Marius (157 BC - 86 BC) was born into a wealthy equestrian family (a rank defined by wealth rather than ancestry) and was thus considered novus homo or a new man. Marriage into the impoverished patrician Julian family, to Julia, the aunt of Julius Caesar, gave him respectability and gave the Julians much need money. (4,5)

Betrothal (4,5)

The paterfamilias (the male head of a Roman family or household) would seek a suitor, of good character, who could bring not only wealth but political and social advantage to the bride’s family. The wishes of the bride were irrelevant as were those of her mother although, then as now, many a paterfamilias would have ignored the mother of the bride at his own risk. Julius Caesar arranged the marriage of his 20-year-old daughter Julia to the 47 year old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to cement the unofficial military-political alliance of 60 BC between Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus known as the First Triumvirate.

Once an agreement was reached the betrothal could be announced. This constituted an informal promise to marry or stipulatio; the groom’s family promised to take the bride into marriage and the bride’s family promised to deliver their daughter into the groom’s manus and, at least amongst the wealthier classes, provide a dowry. In the early empire, the dowry could be as much as 1 million sesterces payable in three annual instalments and became the groom’s property but was reclaimed by the bride’s family on divorce or if the groom died after the death of the bride’s father. Betrothal was marked with a kiss and the bride-to-be was presented with a ring, to be worn on the 3rd finger of her left hand - thought to be connected to the heart. Despite this romantic notion, love between bride and groom, such as developed between Julia and Pompey, was unusual. Marital harmony and wifely deference were sufficient. Wifely beauty was a bonus.

Jet betrothal medallion from the Vindolanda collection

Twelve was considered the marriageable age for Roman girls, hence as menarche usually occurred between thirteen and fourteen years of age some marriages, particularly in the upper classes who tended to marry earlier than Plebians, were prepubescent. Fourteen was the marriageable age for Roman boys and it was not uncommon for the groom to be significantly older than his bride or for an older man, whose wife had died or been divorced, to take a significantly younger bride. Neither was it uncommon for a man to divorce his wife to make a more politically advantageous match.

Wedding Superstitions and Practicalities (4,5)

Superstition, practicalities, religion: all played a part in Roman weddings.

Within the Roman calendar some days were considered unlucky therefore it was imperative that a marriage take place on a happy/lucky day, hilaris dies.

Dates to be avoided were:

  • What




    1st of each month

     Bad luck


    roughly in the middle of each month: 15th of March, May, July and October and 13th of other months

     Bad luck


    the 9th day before the Ides: 7th of March, May, July and October and 5th of other months

     Bad luck


    18th - 21st February

    festival in honour of family ancestors


    1st, 9th and 23rd March

    or leaping priests of Mars were moving the shields, celebrated by a procession around Rome


    9th, 11th and 13th May

    the festival of the dead

    Farming and cleaning of the Temple of Vesta

    May and early June

    a time of year when farming of the land took priority and cleaning of the Temple of Vesta by the Vestal Virgins took place

    gates of Hades opened

    24th August

    ghosts were afoot

    gates of Hades opened

    5th October

    ghosts were afoot

    gates of Hades opened

    8th November

    ghosts were afoot

More generally February and May were considered unlucky months and June, named after Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, was most favoured. As the saying goes ‘when you marry in June you’re a bride all your life’.

For a marriage to be permitted and legal three main conditions had to be fulfilled: conubium or a legal right to marry - slaves for example had no connubium, neither was there conubium between a Roman citizen and a foreigner. The betrothed had to have attained marriageable age (for the bride 12, for the groom 14) and there had to be consent from both parties. The patriarchal Romans assumed that non-objection on the part of the bride indicated consent and only dubious moral integrity on the part of the groom provided cause for refusal.

A marriage ceremony was commonly held although there was no legal requirement for such. In law, all that was required was for the bride to be led to the groom’s house; the groom did not even have to show up and could be wed in absentia via a letter of intent or via a messenger slave.

The Wedding Day (4,5)

On the day of the wedding the bride dispensed with her childhood clothes and toys and donned a floor length, one-piece white dress encircled by a knotted belt woven on a vintage loom. This Knot of Hercules was only to be untied by the groom. The hair of middle and upper class brides was parted into 6 locks by a ceremonial iron spearhead, piled onto the top of her head, tutulus, and covered by a flame red veil, flammeum. Matching shoes adorned her feet.

The groom, his family and guests would gather at the bride’s family home for the ceremony. After the auspices were taken, the words of consent were spoken: Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia (where you are Gaius, I am Gaia; Gaius being a name associated with luck) and the couple’s right hands were joined by the matron of honour. This was followed by the sacrifice of a pig or perhaps a cake to Jupiter and, although not invariably, the presentation and signing of a marriage contract. The first instalment of the bride’s dowry was handed over. The guests cried feliciter (good luck) and the feasting began. This latter provided an opportunity for the groom and/or his family to show their wealth and largesse - outward symbols important to the gravitas of the Roman male - the Emperor Augustus limited such expenditure to 1000 sesterces.

With full stomachs and probably a degree of intoxication, the company would then process through the streets to the groom’s house. The procession, which symbolised the ritual transfer of authority from the paterfamilias to the groom, was led by the bride accompanied by three boys (whose parents had to be still living); one boy on her right, one on her left and one in front carrying a torch lit from the paterfamilias hearth and symbolising his authority. The procession likely grew larger en route as members of the public, throwing nuts which were a symbol of fertility, joined in. Reaching the entrance of the groom’s home the torch was thrown into the assembled crowd, the bride would smear the doorway with oil, fat and sheep’s wool then was carried over the threshold by the groom. The bride would then touch fire and water and having done as much as possible to ward off ill omens, was led to the ceremoniously decorated marriage bed where, it was expected, that consummation would take place.

Adultery (4,5)

As previously mentioned, adultery on the part of the husband was acceptable - the Emperor Augustus divorced his second wife, Scribonia, because she was intolerant of his affairs whereas his third wife, Livia, was tolerant hence despite her childlessness remained married to Augustus for over fifty years. An adulterous wife, on the other hand, could be killed with impunity by her husband. If spared, she joined the group of stigmatised women namely prostitutes, actors, dancing girls and criminals who were forbidden to marry freeborn Roman citizens and could not testify in a court of law or inherit.

Divorce (4,5)

In the early Republic divorce, the prerogative of the Roman male, was generally reserved for such misdemeanours as poisoning the children, stealing the house keys or wine consumption. Divorce for infertility - always assumed to be the fault of the woman - was valid given that the bearing of children was one of the main aims of marriage. Political advancement was another valid reason for divorce; in the late Republic Cato the Younger divorced his wife, Marcia, so that she could marry and he could forge links with the orator, Quintus Hortensius. Cato loved Marcia and missed her deeply so when Hortensius died a few years later, Cato remarried his now very rich ex-wife.

Roman divorce was a less complicated affair than nowadays; the husband had only to say to his wife ‘I divorce you’ and that was it - out of the door with no redress although, no doubt, much wailing and gnashing of teeth!

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project


  1. The Origins of Marriage. Jan 1 2007. The Week
  2. Legal Status in the Roman World, pages 94 - 103. Women’s Life in Greece & Rome, 3rd edition 2005. Mary R. Lefkowitz & Maureen B. Fant
  3. Twelve Tables. Wikipedia
  4. Betrothal, Marriage, The Wedding, pages 38 - 53. Women in Ancient Rome 2003. Paul Chrystal
  5. A History of Rome Wedding, Episode 69 September 2009. The History of Rome Podcast. Mike Duncan