Marriage in Roman times began as a sacred institution. Divorce was unknown. Patricians married only patricians, and they were married in the stately form of marriage called confarreatio (the only legal form of marriage at the time). The patrician took his bride from her father's family into his own, with the direct consent of the gods (revealed by the auspices), in the presence of representatives of his gens. In this form, the wife passed in manum viri (under her husband's authority) and her husband would also become, in a way, her master. The ceremony involved the joining of hands of the bride and groom by the pronuba (a matron who had been married only once and was still living with there husband) in front of ten witnesses, representing the ten clans of the curia, an old patrician division of the people. The term confarriato came from the cake of far (spelt, an old variety of wheat), which was dedicated to Jupiter by the high priest and the priest of Jupiter.
Plebiens (free non-citizens), however, had their own form of marriage, called usus. In modern times, usus would be similar to our commonlaw marriages. Essentially it consisted of the living together of man and woman as husband and wife. There were probably other forms and ceremonies of which we know nothing. Paticians did not recognize plebian marriages because plebians were not citizens. Usus did not involve manus. A wife could remain a member of her father's family and hold whatever property her father allowed her by staying away from her husband for three nights in succession each year. If she did this, her husband could not control her property.
Another Roman form of marriage, coemptio, was ancient - but not so old as usus. Coemptio was a fictitious sale by which the pater familias of the woman, or her guardian if she had one, transferred her to the man in marriage. This form may have been a survival of the ancient custom of purchase of wives. Of course, it entailed manus, since in form it was a transfer of property. It seems to have been considered socially a better form than usus. Coemptio survived usus as a form of marriage with manus. For the ceremony, five witnesses were necessary. The purchase money was represented by a single coin laid in scales held by a scale-holder. The scales, scale-holder, and witnesses were all essential in the ceremony.
When plebians became citizens, their forms of marriage were legalized, but they still did not have the right of intermarriage (jus conubii) with patricians. This was mostly due to the patricians' religious objections. Since the gods of the State were their gods, auspices could be taken only by patricians, and therefore only marriages of patricians were sanctioned by the gods. Patrician orators protested that unions of plebeians were not justae nuptiae (legal marriages). Although many plebeian families were almost as ancient as patricians and many were rich and powerful, it was not until 445 B.C. that marriage between the two classes were formally sanctioned by law, at which point new conditions were fixed for justae nuptiae. Coemptio became the usual form of marriage when one party was pleveian. Marriage with manus became less common as patrician women realized the advantages of marriage without it. Taking the auspices before the ceremony became a mere form, and marriage gradually lost its sacramental character. Later, these changes resulted in a laxness in marriage and a freedom of divorce that seemed int he time of Augustus to threaten the life of the Roman commonwealth.
By Cicero's time marriage with manus was probably uncommon and consequently confarreatio and coemptio were not generally used. However, confarreatio never really died out because certain Roman priesthoods could only be held by men who had been married in this form. To induce women to be married by the confarreate ceremony, Augustus offered exemption from manus to a wife after she had three children. This proved not to be enough and under Tiberius manus was eliminated from confarreatio in order to fill even the few priestly offices.
In order for a marriage to be legal, a number of criteria had to be filled. The consent of both bride and groom, or that of the pater familias if both were in patria potestate, had to be given. In the time of Augustus a law was passed forbidding the pater familias from refusing his consent without showing valid reason. Both parties had to be adult (probably meaning fourteen for the groom and twelve for the bride). Both man and woman had to be unmarried (Rome never sanctioned polygamy). The contracting parties could not be closely related. Marriage was forbidden between ascendants and descendants, between other cognates within the sixth (later the fourth) degree, and between the nearer connections by marriage.
Other distinctions might affect the civil status of a couple's children. If all requirements were fulfilled and both parties were Roman citizens, the children were legitimate, and by birth possessed of all civil rights. If one of the parties to a marriage was a Roman citizen and the other a member of a community havin jus conubii but not full Roman citizenship, the children took the civil standing of their father. If the father was a citizen, so were the children; if not, they were foreigners like him. If either party was without jus conubii, the union, although legal, was an irregular marriage; the children were legitimate, but took the civil position of the parent of lower degree.
A formal betrothal before marriage was considered good form but not legally necessary; it carried with it no obligations that could be enforced by law. Betrothal involved the girl being promised in solemn form by her pater familias or guardian to the man if he was independent, or to the head of his house. The word spondeo was used for this promise, and the girl was henceforth sponsa (promised/engaged). The person making the promise had the right to cancel it at any time. This was usually done through a third person, a nuntius (messenger). The formal expression for breaking an engagement was repudium renuntiare (to send a rejection), or simply renuntiare.
A man almost always presented gifts to his betrothed, such as a ring or sometimes articles for personal use. The ring was worn on the third finger of the left hand because there was a belief in Roman times and for centuries later that a nerve or sinew ran directly from this finger to the heart. Engagements and wedding rings are still worn on this finger. Also the girl usually made a gift to her betrothed.
It was a point of honour with Romans for the bride to bring her husband a dowry (dos). If the girl was in patria potestate, this was provided by the head of her house. If she was independent, she supplied her own dowry, or if she had no property her relatives might help out (if they were unwilling, there was a process of law with which she could compel her parents or grandparents to furnish it).
Roman marriage required no license or state officials. The essential consent had to be shown by some act of personal union between the parties (marriage could not be entered into by letter, messenger, or proxy). This public act could consist of the joining of hands in the presence of witnesses, the bride's letting herself be escorted to her husband's house, or in later times, the signing of the marriage contract. Escorting a bride to her new home was a custom never omitted when those concerned had any social standing.
The choice of wedding day was a complicated one. The Kalends, Nones, and Ides of each moths, and the day following each one, were unlucky. So were all of May and the first half of June, because of certain religious ceremonies observed in these months, the memorial days (February 13-21), and the days when the entrance to the lower world was supposed to be open (August 24, October 5, and November 8). The great holidays, too, were avoided, because friends and relatives were sure to have many engagements then. A woman marrying for the second time might choose one of these holidays, so that her wedding would not be conspicuous.
On the evening before her wedding day, a bride dedicated to the lares of her father's house her bulla (locket), and if she was young, her childish toys. For the sake of a favorable omen, she tried on her wedding dress, the tunica recta (straight tunic), woven in one piece and falling to the feet. It was supposed to have taken the name recta from being woven in the old-fashioned way an upright loom.
On the morning of her wedding day a bride was dressed by her mother. The tunica recta was fastened around the waist with a band of wool tied in the knot of Hercules (probably because Hercules was the guardian of wedded life), which only the husband was privileged to untie. Over the tunic the bride wore a flame-coloured veil (so significant that nubere, to veil oneself, is the word regularly used for a woman's marriage). The bride's hair was divided into six locks by the point of a spear, or a comb of that shape (a practice surviving perhaps from the ancient custom of marriage by capture. These locks were coiled an held in position by ribbons. The Vestal Virgins wore their hair this way, so the style must have been an extremely early one. In addition, the bride wore a wreath made of flowers and sacred plants which she had gathered herself. The groom, wearing a toga, had a similar wreath of flowers on his head.
The actual wedding ceremonies depended on the particular form used, and varied considerably. Most weddings were probably simpler than those described by our chief authorities. The house of the bride's father, where the ceremony was performed, was decorated with flowers, boughs of trees, bands of wool, and tapestries. The omens had already been taken before sunrise. If the omens were pronounced favourable, the bride and the groom appeared in the atrium and the wedding began.
First came the marriage ceremony, varying according to the form used. Next came the wedding dinner, usually given at the house of the bride's father, sometimes very extravagant. After this, the bride was always formally escorted to her husband's house. This was the wedding procession. The marriage hymn was sung and the groom took the bride with a show of force from her mother's arms (seen by the Romans as a reference to the rape of the Sabines, but more likely an allusion to the tradition of marriage by capture). The bride, attended by three boys whose parents were both living, joined the procession. Two boys held her hands and one carried the wedding torch of hawthorne. Behind her walked the camillus, and someone carrying a distaff and spindle (emblems of domestic life). During the march rude songs called the versus Fescennini were sung. The crowd shouted the ancient marriage cry, whose origin is unknown. There are many variations of it, most of them sounding something like Talassius or Talassio. The bride had three coins with her, one of which she dropped as an offering to the gods of the crossroads, another of which she later gave to the groom as an emblem of the dowry she brought him, and the third she offered tot he lares of his house. The groom scattered nuts, sweetmeats, and sesame cakes through the crowd.
Upon arrival at the groom's house, the bride wound the doorposts with bands of wool (probably a symbol of her future work as mistress of the household), and anointed the door with oil and fat, emblems of plenty. She was then lifted carefully over the threshold (possibly in order to avoid such a bad omen as a slip of the foot on entering her new home for the first time, possibly another reminder of marriage by capture). In the atrium, the husband offered his wife fire and water in token of the life they were to live together. The bride kindled the hearth with the marriage torch (the torch as later tossed among the guests to be scrambled for as a lucky possession). The bride recited a prayer and was led by the pronuba to the wedding couch. On the following nights, there were other festivities and dinner parties.
After a woman was married, she was a person of incredibly high position. She was the absolute mistress of the house, overseeing education of her children as well as the slaves. She often helped with business. She had a place at public games, at theaters and at great religious ceremonies of state. She could testify in court and until late in the Republic, might even defend a case. Often she managed her own property. Her birthday was sacredly observed. The Roman Matronalia was very much like our own Mother's Day, celebrated on the kalends of first day of March. When a woman of a noble family died, she might be honoured with a public eulogy, delivered from the rostra in the Forum.