Marriages in matrimonium iustum (a legal union) had three requirements: both partners must have coniubium, and age and consent. A valid marriage was very important because it would affect the inheritance rights of both the children produced and husband to wife/wife to husband inheritance. Coniubium was the right to marry (described further in the following section). Age refers to the fact the couple is expected to have reached puberty. Also it was acceptable for a man to marry a girl young enough to be his daughter or even granddaughter, but it was dishonorable if a woman married a younger man. Consent refers to the fact the final decision was ultimately up to the paterfamilias, but he would often refer to the bride’s mother.
There were also details such as incsestum (marriage between close relative) was a crime. There should be no difference in social standing between husband and wife. Nobility and wealth could make up for other shortcomings in a partner. Marriage was commonly used for political alliances. Character was much more important than good looks.
There are several types of Roman marriage. Some marriages are legitimate, and others are just ways of life. Some are traditional (with coniubium and manus) and others are unconventional (without coniubium and manus). Both the husband and wife needed to have ius coniubium (the right to marry) for both the actual marriage and the children to be legitimate. Coniubium was granted in Roman citizenship as well as a special privilege for certain people. A Roman woman was usually under the guardianship of her paterfamilias her whole life.
Confarreatio was the most traditional type of marriage. It was limited to patricians only whose parents had the same type of marriage. Wedding ceremonies were very elaborate and ten witnesses were present. The woman passed directly from the manus of her paterfamilias to that of her new husband. Divorce (diffarreatio) was rare, and carried out with a special type of sacrifice.
Coemptio was another more common type of marriage. The groom paid nummus usus, a penny, and received a bride in exchange, representing a “bride purchase.” The ceremony was much less formal than confarreatio, and only five witnesses were required. However, the bride still passed to her husband’s manus.
Usus was an unusual but practical type of marriage. It required no wedding ceremony, but rather was a transfer to the manus of the husband after cohabition. The only requirement was that the man and woman lived together for a whole year before the woman passed into her husband’s manus. However, if the woman were away for three nights in a row that first year, she would not pass into her husband’s manus. This type of marriage was obsolete by the end of the republic.
There are a few marital unions that did not require the woman to pass into her husband’s manus. Free marriage was one such type. In free marriage, the wife would keep her independence as filiafamilias to her paterfamilias. Concubinatus was another type. A concubine (paelex) was a woman who had regular sexual relations with a married man. The man and his paelex would often live together. Children produced from such a relationship were not legitimate. Another way this marriage was practiced was by slaves. Slaves used this as a marital-like union until both partners could gain their freedom.
There were also a couple alternatives to marriage. Prostitution was one, but not for honorable women. Scortae, meretrices, or lupae (as they were often called) were usually foreigners who wore heavy makeup and flamboyant clothing. They registered with the aediles and paid taxes. They could work for a brothel owner (leno or lena) or work independently. Living as a courtesan was another alternative to marriage. Courtesans were mistresses that were usually of respectable Roman origin. They did not live with their lovers, but unlike prostitutes, only had one lover at a time.
Once a coniunx had been chosen, the couple and their patresfamilias arranged a betrothal. The bride’s paterfamilias would then give the formal betrothal and engagement party (sponsalia) with the prospective groom as the guest of honor. The betrothal was sealed with a kiss and would give arra, money, and an iron ring (anulus ponubis) to the bride. Dowry was then set and delivered in three payments after the wedding. The wedding would be planned for no more than a few days after the engagement. Weddings were not planned on days such as sacred periods, the dies religiosi, and dies festi.
A Roman bride needed to renounce her childhood before she could prepare to be a wife and mother. She surrendered her childhood toys and toga praetexta. She wore her hair in a special hairstyle called tutulus. Her bridal attire was worn only once for this occasion. The bride’s veil was flame-colored, oblong, transparent, and matched her shoes. It left her face uncovered. She wore a flowered wreath. Her gown was made of a white flannel or muslim tunic and a girdle. The dress had a knot at the waist.
The bride’s parents would hand the bride over to the groom if they thought all looked well. There would be some speech such as “Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia.” The wedding ceremony could take place even if the groom was not present. He would send a letter as his part of the verbal exchange. The pronuba (matron of honor) would join the couple’s hands. The new couple would offer up a sacrifice such as a pig. The marriage contract would then be signed by a number of witnesses. Wedding breakfast was eaten and gifts were given, and they planned the procession.
The procession would move from the bride’s home to the groom’s home. The couple and guests would first enact the scene of the seizure of the Sabines. Three boys who had both parents living would escort the bride while the other guests shouted “Talasio,” “hymen hymenaee,” and other obscenities and jokes. Walnuts thrown for fertility were just one of many of the wedding procession traditions. The procession would eventually separate in the uxorem ducere/duducere because the groom had to be back at his house before the bride.
After the procession they would end up at the groom’s house. The pronuba would lead the bride into the room with the marriage bed. The pronuba would help the bride undress, remove her jewelry, and put her in the bed. The groom would then enter. The pronuba would offer a sacrafice and then leave the two alone. The couple would play act a scene before consummating the marriage. The bride would pretend to be reluctant and the groom would comfort her, the end result being the bride and groom calling eachother “husband” and “wife.” Their first sexual union was a considered contract of fidelity between husband and wife. Fertility and child bearing was considered very important in these times. Parents actually would love their daughter more (or even hate their daughter less in some cases) when she became a respected wife. Usually the only way a woman could increase her status in society was by having many children.
The next morning the wife would emerge and become part of her husband’s family. A dinner and drinking party would occur later that day. Afterwards in life she was in charge of the keys of the house, the domestic staff, making the family’s clothing, and other such duties.