As in ancient Greece, the family was the most important social unit throughout the history of ancient Rome. However, Greek and Roman families differed in many important ways. While the husband ruled the family in ancient Greece, the Roman family was a much more equal partnership between husband and wife.

Marriage in Ancient Rome. The Romans had two chief types of marriage. The purpose of one of these types was to place a wife formally under her husband’s control, known as manus. Manus went beyond mere physical control. Until her marriage, a Roman woman was under the authority of her paterfamilias, who was her father or other male head of household. Manus meant that, when a Roman woman married, she passed into the control of her husband. If her husband died without leaving a formal will, she was entitled to inherit his property equally with his children.

The other type of marriage was marriage without manus, or free marriage, which became the most common form by the 200s B.C., if not before. Free marriage was simpler than manus, since it did not alter a woman’s legal status. A woman in a free marriage was still considered part of her original family until her paterfamilias either died or freed her from his authority. Divorce was also simpler in a free marriage, and a divorced woman in such a marriage was entitled to reclaim her dowry* from her husband. However, a wife in a free marriage had no claim on his property when he died.

Requirements for Marriage. The two basic requirements for marriage were consent and capacity. Unlike a Greek marriage, in which a woman was simply given by her father to her future husband, the Roman marriage required the consent of both the groom and the bride. Even couples who had been married a long time had to exhibit consent, which was defined as their expressed intention to remain married and their acceptance of each other as legal partners. Either the husband or wife could divorce simply by withdrawing his or her consent.

The capacity requirement involved age, family relationship, and other factors. The minimum legal age for a girl to wed was 12, while a boy could legally marry when he was given permission by his paterfamilias at about age 14. Most girls married by their early teens, and it was rare to find a girl who was unmarried by her late teens, especially among the upper classes. A boy usually did not marry until he had reached legal adulthood, around 16 or 17. Romans were forbidden to marry close relatives (parents and children, brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews) or certain in-laws. Such marriages were considered incestuous* and were not legally recognized.

* dowry money or property that a woman brings to the man she marries


Augustus, the first Roman emperor, believed strongly in traditional Roman values, especially the importance of the family. He passed a series of laws to strengthen marriage and encourage the production of legitimate children. Incentives under the laws could be powerful. For each child a man sired, the minimum age required for him to serve in any public office was reduced by one year. Penalties for breaking some laws were also severe—a married woman convicted of adultery could be banished from Rome and lose half her property. In fact, Augustus banished both his daughter and his granddaughter for breaking the law against adultery.

Conubium, the right of two people to marry, was also necessary for a legal marriage. Roman citizens had this right with each other, but restrictions were placed on ordinary soldiers (who could not marry while in service) and on noncitizens, except those granted conubium by a decree of state. Conubium ensured that children were legitimate so that they could become citizens and legally inherit their fathers’ property. Like the Greeks, the Romans considered the production of legitimate heirs to be the primary reason for marriage. Marriages between Romans and non-Romans often produced problems concerning inheritance because of the uncertain legal status of the children. As citizenship was extended to more and more people during the Roman Empire, such mixed marriages became less frequent.

Although not a legal requirement, a dowry presented to the husband was a common practice. A dowry guaranteed that, should the marriage end, the woman would have enough to live on or to remarry. A dowry was returned to the wife upon her husband’s death or their divorce, and Roman law provided several different formulas for determining how much she could recover, depending on the circumstances of the divorce and the number of children. Roman law tried to be fair in the attempts by wives to recover their dowries.

Roles of Husbands and Wives. The most striking difference between Greek and Roman families was the extent of independence exercised by Roman wives. While women in Greece were restricted to the home, Roman women played an active role outside the house. Although Roman women still took care of domestic matters, they also were active in financial, social, religious, and even legal affairs to a degree that Greek women could never imagine. While Greek women covered themselves in their rare appearances in public, Roman women were known for their sociability and elegant appearance. Not only did they move freely in public, they mixed in men’s company as well, attending dinner parties with their husbands and even on rare occasions speaking publicly in the forum* or in the courts, although speech-making bordered on the unacceptable.

The ideal Roman man strove to achieve virtus, the glory of serving Rome by winning public office or participating in public or military service. For this reason, women were forbidden to serve in the army or to hold public office, although many wives of magistrates and even emperors exerted influence on their husbands.

What virtus was for a Roman man, pudicitia was for a Roman woman. Pudicitia included the virtues of chastity*, fidelity*, modesty, affection for one’s relatives, and devotion to the family. Modesty and chastity were seen as essential to the survival of the state, since a system based on legitimate inheritance could not survive if adultery was tolerated. Wives were also expected to defer to their husbands—the opposite of the Roman ideal was the bossy and domineering wife. Loyalty and devotion to one’s husband were also very important values attached to the idea of pudicitia.

* incestuous referring to sexual intercourse between family members

* forum in ancient Rome, the public square or marketplace, often used for public assemblies and judicial proceedings

* chastity purity in conduct and intention; abstention from sexual intercourse

* fidelity loyalty and faithfulness

In the partnership between Roman husband and wife, the husband was still the senior partner, but the Roman family was much more like a modern Western one than was the Greek family. While women operated under many official and unofficial restrictions, they had opportunities to become active members of society and active partners in marriage. (See also Family, Greek; Marriage and Divorce; Social Life, Roman; Women, Greek; Women, Roman.)

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