Roman Marriage Lecture Shows Cultural Connections Between Paganism and Christianity


By: Delia Titzell and Bridgette Brunk

On Wednesday, April 11, St. Mary’s College of Maryland welcomed Dr. Judith Evan-Grubbs, Professor of Roman History at Emory College, in presenting a lecture entitled ‘Marriage and the Family in Ancient Rome, from Pagan to Christianity’. Dr. Evan-Grubbs is currently working on a new book, “Children Without Fathers in Ancient Rome.”

The lecture explained that some the main primary resources for marriage information in the time period were grave epitaphs. The inclusions on grave stones gave some ideas into the values of a good marriage, especially since these kinds of notes were only made if a person had done something of note, or had been of exemplary character. One of the most notable symbols of marital union at the depiction of ‘dextrarum iunctio’, or ‘the joining of hands,’ typically accompanied by the goddess Juno standing between husband and wife. As the goddess of matrimony, Juno’s presence in the picture represents a strong, fortunate marriage.

The key principles of marriage in the time were ones of reciprocity and harmony. The values meeting a spouse in duties and affection, and of working to bring balance and avoiding discord were held in high regard. This is why being matched to an appropriate spouse was an important part of coming of age in upper class families. Men were given the responsibility of custody over their wives, but women were given a dowry to bring with them upon their marriage.

Dowries were insurance for a woman’s well being, since the dowry or its equal sum would have to be returned to the house of the bride’s father in the event of a divorce, in which case the father of the bride would regain custody of his daughter. In order for a marriage to take place, the paterfamilias (male head of the house) of each family would have to agree to it. The two parties entering in to the marriage also had to consent, but objections based on personal dislike were not often tolerated.

Slaves in Roman society did not have the right to marry. Upon being freed from slavery however, a person entered a higher caste of society as a freedmen, and were allowed to marry within their own rank. Freedmen often commemorated their marriages on their tombstones and a sign of their freed status.

Different eras meant different rules of marriage for Romans. In the time of Augustus, having many children could increase your rights within your place in society. Adultery was considered a state crime, punishable by exile or confiscation of property. These laws did not apply to men, except in certain cases. However, women who discovered proof of adultery on the part of their spouse had the right to a divorce.

Later, Constantine would repeal Augustus’ punishments and make the penalties harsher for acts of adultery and crimes within a marriage. Divorce became much more restricted during his reign, and the ideal of virginity and aversion to remarriage became more commonplace. These changes marked the beginning of Christian values overtaking pagan cultural values. By the time of Justinian, marriage laws in the Holy Roman Empire were fully Chritianized, and the mention of the Judeo-Christian God became commonplace in marriage laws.

The most interesting part of the transition from pagan to Christian overall is the lasting influence of one on the other. Although Christianity may have been the chief influence on marriage values by the end of the Empire, pieces of paganism remained. This was illustrated by an image of a Byzantine wedding ring, an object reflective of Christian marriage rituals, inscribed with the image of the couple holding hands, the dextrarum iunctio.

In the place of Juno is the image of Jesus Christ joining the couple together. Even in Christian Rome, the symbols and values of reciprocity and harmony existed, adapted for the time and religion, demonstrating the cultural connections between Pagan and Christian Rome as they formed the unions that would serve as the biggest part of their everyday lives in Rome, as they do today.