Social Life During the Roman Republic


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In order to appreciate the position of women of various types in the society we are examining, it is necessary to make it clear what Roman marriage originally and ideally meant. In any society, it will be found that the position and influence of woman can be fairly well discerned from the nature of the marriage ceremony and the conditions under which it is carried out. At Rome, in all periods of her history, a iustum matrimonium, i.e. a marriage sanctioned by law and religion, and therefore entirely legal in all its results, was a matter of great moment, not to be achieved without many forms and ceremonies. The reason for this elaboration is obvious, at any rate to any one who has some acquaintance with ancient life in Greece or Italy. As we shall see later on, the house was a residence for the divine members of the family, as well as the human; the entrance, therefore, of a bride into the household,--of one, that is, who had no part nor lot in that family life--meant some straining of the relation between the divine and human members. The human part of the family brings in a new member, but it has to be assured that the divine part is willing to accept her before the step taken can be regarded as complete. She has to enter the family in such a way as to be able to share in its sacra, i.e. in the worship of the household spirits, the ancestors in their tombs, or in any special cult attached to the family. In order to secure this eligibility, she was in the earliest times subjected to a ceremony which was clearly of a sacramental character, and which had as its effect the transference of the bride from the hand (manus) of her father, i.e. from absolute subjection to him as the head of her own family, to the hand of her husband, i.e. to absolute subjection to him as the head of her new family.

This sacramental ceremony was called confarreatio, because a sacred cake, made of the old Italian grain called far, and offered to Jupiter Farreus,[205] was partaken of by bride and bridegroom, in the presence of the Pontifex Maximus, the Flamen Dialis, and ten other witnesses. At such a ceremony the auspices had of course been taken, and apparently a victim was also slain, and offered probably to Ceres, the skin of which was stretched over two seats (sellae), on which the bride and bridegroom had to sit.[206] These details of the early form of patrician marriage are only mentioned here to make the religious character of the Roman idea of the rite quite plain; in other words, to prove that the entrance of a bride into a family from outside was a matter of very great difficulty and seriousness, not to be achieved without special aid and the intervention of the gods. We may even go so far as to say that the new materfamilias was in some sort a priestess of the household, and that she must undergo a solemn initiation before assuming that position. And we may still further illustrate the mystical religious nature of the whole rite, if we remember that throughout Roman history no one could hold the priesthood of Jupiter (flaminium diale), or that of Mars or Quirinus, or of the Rex sacrorum, who had not been born of parents wedded by confarreatio, and that in each case the priest himself must be married by the same ceremony.[207] This last mentioned fact may also serve to remind us that it was not only the family and its sacra, its life and its maintenance, that called for the ceremonies making up a iustum matrimonium, but also the State and its sacra, its life and its maintenance.[208] As confarreatio had as its immediate object the providing of a materfamilias fully qualified in all her various functions, and as its further object the providing of persons legally qualified to perform the most important sacra of the state; so marriage, in whatever form, had as its object at once the maintenance of the family and its sacra and the production of men able to serve the State in peace and war. To be a Roman citizen you must be the product of a iustum matrimonium. From this initial fact flow all the iura or rights which together make up citizenship; whether the private rights, which enable you to hold and transfer and to inherit property under the shelter of the Roman law,[209] or the public rights, which protect your person against violence and murder, and enable you to give your vote in the public assembly and to seek election to magistracies.[210]

Marriage then was a matter of the utmost importance in Roman life, and in all the forms of it we find this importance marked by due solemnity of ritual. In two other forms, besides confarreatio, the bride could be brought under the hand of her husband, viz., coemptio and usus, with which we are not here specially concerned; for long before the last century of the Republic all three methods had become practically obsolete, or were only occasionally used for particular purposes. In the course of time it had been found more convenient for a woman to remain after her marriage in the hand of her father, or if he were dead, in the "tutela" of a guardian (tutor), than to pass into that of her husband; for in the latter case her property became absolutely his. The natural tendency to escape from the restrictions of marital manus may be illustrated by a case such as the following: a woman under the tutela of a guardian wishes to marry; if she does so, and passes under the manus of her husband, her tutor loses all control over her property, which may probably be of great importance for the family she is leaving; he therefore naturally objects to such a marriage, and urges that she should be married without manus.[211] In fact the interests of her own family would often clash with those of the one she was about to enter, and a compromise could be effected by the abandonment of marriage cum manu.

Now this, the abandonment of marriage cum manu, means simply that certain legal consequences of the marriage ceremony were dropped, and with them just those parts of the ceremony which produced these consequences. Otherwise the marriage was absolutely as valid for all purposes private and public as it could be made even by confarreatio itself. The sacramental part was absent, and the survival of the features of marriage by purchase, which we may see in the form of coemptio, was also absent; but in all other respects the marriage ceremony was the same as in marriage cum manu. It retained all essential religious features, losing only a part of its legal character. It will be as well briefly to describe a Roman wedding of the type common in the last two centuries of the Republic.

To begin with, the boy and girl--for such they were, as we should look on them, even at the time of marriage--have been betrothed, in all probability, long before. Cicero tells us that he betrothed his daughter Tullia to Calpurnius Piso Frugi early in 66 B.C.; the marriage took place in 63. Tullia seems to have been born in 76, so that she was ten years old at the time of betrothal and thirteen at that of marriage. This is probably typical of what usually happened; and it shows that the matter was really entirely in the hands of the parents. It was a family arrangement, a mariage de convenance, as has been and is the practice among many peoples, ancient and modern.[212] The betrothal was indeed a promise rather than a definite contract, and might be broken off without illegality; and thus if there were a strong dislike on the part of either girl or boy a way of escape could be found.[213] However this may be, we may be sure that the idea of the marriage was not that of a union for love, though it was distinguished from concubinage by an "affectio maritalis" as well as by legal forms, and though a true attachment might, and often did, as in modern times in like circumstances, arise out of it. It was the idea of the service of the family and the State that lay at the root of the union. This is well illustrated, like so many other Roman ideas, in the Aeneid of Virgil. Those who persist in looking on Aeneas with modern eyes, and convict him of perfidy towards Dido, forget that his passion for Dido was a sudden one, not sanctioned by the gods or by favourable auspices, and that the ultimate union with Lavinia, for whom he forms no such attachment, was one which would recommend itself to every Roman as justified by the advantage to the State. The poet, it is true, betrays his own intense humanity in his treatment of the fate of Dido, but he does so in spite of his theme,--the duty of every Roman to his family and the State. A Roman would no doubt fall in love, like a youth of any other nation, but his passion had nothing to do with his life of duty as a Roman. This idea of marriage had serious consequences, to which we shall return later on.

When the day for the wedding arrives, our bride assumes her bridal dress, laying aside the toga praetexta of her childhood and dedicating her dolls to the Lar of her family; and wearing the reddish veil (flammeum) and the woollen girdle fastened with a knot called the knot of Hercules,[214] she awaits the arrival of the bridegroom in her father's house. Meanwhile the auspices are being taken;[215] in earlier times this was done by observing the flight of birds, but now by examination of the entrails of a victim, apparently a sheep. If this is satisfactory the youthful pair declare their consent to the union and join their right hands as directed by a pronuba, i.e. a married woman, who acts as a kind of priestess. Then after another sacrifice and a wedding feast, the bride is conducted from her old home to that of her husband, accompanied by three boys, sons of living parents, one carrying a torch while the other two lead her by either hand; flute-players go before, and nuts are thrown to the boys. This deductio, charmingly described in the beautiful sixty-fifth poem of Catullus, is full of interesting detail which must be omitted here. When the bridegroom's house is reached, the bride smears the doorposts with fat and oil and ties a woollen fillet round each: she is then lifted over the threshold, is taken by her husband into the partnership of fire and water--the essentials of domestic life--and passes into the atrium. The morrow will find her a materfamilias, sitting among her maids in that atrium, or in the more private apartments behind it:

Claudite ostia, virgines
Lusimus satis. At boni
Coniuges, bene vivite, et
Munere assiduo valentem
Exercete iuventam.

Even the dissipated Catullus could not but treat the subject of marriage with dignity and tenderness, and in this last stanza of his poem he alludes to the duties of a married pair in language which would have satisfied the strictest Roman. He has also touched another chord which would echo in the heart of every good citizen, in the delicious lines which just precede those quoted, and anticipate the child--a son of course--that is to be born, and that will lie in his mother's arms holding out his little hands, and smiling on his father.[216] Nothing can better illustrate the contrast in the mind of the Roman between passionate love and serious marriage than a comparison of this lovely poem with those which tell the sordid tale of the poet's intrigues with Lesbia (Clodia). The beauty and gravitas of married life as it used to be are still felt and still found, but the depths of human feeling are not stirred by them. Love lies beyond, is a fact outside the pale of the ordered life of the family or the State.

No one who studies this ceremonial of Roman marriage, in the light of the ideas which it indicates and reflects, can avoid the conclusion that the position of the married woman must have been one of substantial dignity, calling for and calling out a corresponding type of character. Beyond doubt the position of the Roman materfamilias was a much more dignified one than that of the Greek wife. She was far indeed from being a mere drudge or squaw; she shared with her husband in all the duties of the household, including those of religion, and within the house itself she was practically supreme.[217] She lived in the atrium, and was not shut away in a women's chamber; she nursed her own children and brought them up; she had entire control of the female slaves who were her maids; she took her meals with her husband, but sitting, not reclining, and abstaining from wine; in all practical matters she was consulted, and only on questions political or intellectual was she expected to be silent. When she went out arrayed in the graceful stola matronalis, she was treated with respect, and the passers-by made way for her; but it is characteristic of her position that she did not as a rule leave the house without the knowledge of her husband, or without an escort.[218]

In keeping with this dignified position was the ideal character of the materfamilias. Ideal we must call it, for it does not in all respects coincide with the tradition of Roman women even in early times; but we must remember that at all periods of Roman history the woman whose memory survives is apt to be the woman who is not the ideal matron, but one who forces herself into notice by violating the traditions of womanhood. The typical matron would assuredly never dream of playing a part in history; her influence was behind the scenes, and therefore proportionally powerful. The legendary mother of Coriolanus (the Volumnia of Shakespeare), Cornelia the mother of the Gracchi, Aurelia, Caesar's mother, and Julia his daughter, did indirectly play a far greater part in public life than the loud and vicious ladies who have left behind them names famous or infamous; but they never claimed the recognition of their power.

This peculiar character of the Roman matron, a combination of dignity, industry, and practical wisdom, was exactly suited to attract the attention of a gentle philosopher like Plutarch, who loved, with genuine moral fervour, all that was noble and honest in human nature. Not only does he constantly refer to the Roman ladies and their character in his Lives and his Morals, but in his series of more than a hundred "Roman questions" the first nine, as well as many others, are concerned with marriage and the household life; and in his treatise called Coniugalia praecepta he reflects many of the features of the Roman matron. From him, in Sir Thomas North's translation, Shakespeare drew the inspiration which enabled him to produce on the Elizabethan stage at least one such typical matron. In Coriolanus he has followed Plutarch so closely that the reader may almost be referred to him as an authority; and in the contrast between the austere and dignified Volumnia and the passionate and voluptuous Cleopatra of the later play, the poet's imagination seems to have been guided by a true historical instinct.

We need not doubt that the austere matron of the old type survived into the age we are specially concerned with; but we hardly come across her in the literature of the time, just because she was living her own useful life, and did not seek publicity. Chance has indeed preserved for us on stone the story of a wonderful lady, whose early years of married life were spent in the trying time of the civil wars of 49-43 B.C., and who, if a devoted husband's praises are to be trusted, as indeed they may be, was a woman of the finest Roman cast, and endowed with such a combination of practical virtues as we should hardly have expected even in a Roman matron. But we shall return to this inscription later on.

The ladies whom we meet with in Cicero's letters and in the other literature of the last age of the Republic are not of this type. Since the second Punic war the Roman lady has changed, like everything else Roman. It is not possible here to trace the history of the change in detail, but we may note that it seems to have begun within the household, in matters of dress and expense, and later on affected the life and bearing of women in society and politics. Marriages cum manu became unusual: the wife remained in the potestas of her father, who in most cases, doubtless, ceased to trouble himself about her, and as her property did not pass to her husband, she could not but obtain a new position of independence. Women began to be rich, and in the year 169 B.C. a law was passed (lex Voconia) forbidding women of the highest census[219] (who alone would probably be concerned) to inherit legacies. Even before the end of the great war, and when private luxury would seem out of place, it had been proposed to abolish the Oppian law, which placed restrictions on the ornaments and apparel of women; and in spite of the vehement opposition of Cato, then a young man, the proposal was successful.[220] At the same time divorce, which had probably never been impossible though it must have been rare,[221] began to be a common practice. We find to our surprise that the virtuous Aemilius Paullus, in other respects a model paterfamilias, put away his wife, and when asked why he did so, replied that a woman might be excellent in the eyes of her neighbours, but that only a husband could tell where the shoe pinched.[222] And in estimating the changed position of women within the family we must not forget the fact that in the course of the long and unceasing wars of the second century B.C., husbands were away from home for years together, and in innumerable cases must have perished by the sword or pestilence, or fallen into the hands of an enemy and been enslaved. It was inevitable that as the male population diminished, as it undoubtedly did in that century, the importance of woman should proportionately have increased. Unfortunately too, even when the husbands were at home, their wives sometimes seem to have wished to be rid of them. In 180 B.C. the consul Piso was believed to have been murdered by his wife, and whether the story be true or not, the suspicion is at least significant.[223] In 154 two noble ladies, wives of consulares, were accused of poisoning their husbands and put to death by a council of their own relations.[224] Though the evidence in these cases is not by any means satisfactory, yet we can hardly doubt that there was a tendency among women of the highest rank to give way to passion and excitement; the evidence for the Bacchanalian conspiracy of 186 B.C., in which women played a very prominent part, is explicit, and shows that there was a "new woman" even then, who had ceased to be satisfied with the austere life of the family and with the mental comfort supplied by the old religion, and was ready to break out into recklessness even in matters which were the concern of the State.[225] That they had already begun to exercise an undue influence over their husbands in public affairs seems suggested by old Cato's famous dictum that "all men rule over women, we Romans rule over all men, and our wives rule over us."[226]

But it would be a great mistake to suppose that the men themselves were not equally to blame. Wives do not poison their husbands without some reason for hating them, and the reason is not difficult to guess. It is a fact beyond doubt that in spite of the charm of family life as it has been described above, neither law nor custom exacted conjugal faithfulness from a husband.[227] Old Cato represents fairly well the old idea of Roman virtue, yet it is clear enough, both from Plutarch's Life of him (e.g. ch. xxiv.) and from fragments of his own writings, that his view of the conjugal relation was a coarse one,--that he looked on the wife rather as a necessary agent for providing the State with children than as a helpmeet to be tended and revered. And this being so, we are not surprised to find that men are already beginning to dislike and avoid marriage; a most dangerous symptom, with which a century later Augustus found it impossible to cope. In the year 131, just after Tiberius Gracchus had been trying to revive the population of Italy by his agrarian law, Metellus Macedonicus the censor did what he could to induce men to marry "liberorum creandorum causa"; and a fragment of a speech of his on this subject became famous afterwards, as quoted by Augustus with the same object. It is equally characteristic of Roman humour and Roman hardness. "If we could do without wives," he said to the people, "we should be rid of that nuisance: but since nature has decreed that we can neither live comfortably with them nor live at all without them, we must e'en look rather to our permanent interests than to a passing pleasure."[228]

Now if we take into account these tendencies, on the part both of men and women in the married state, and further consider the stormy and revolutionary character of the half century that succeeded the Gracchi,--the Social and Civil Wars, the proscriptions of Marius and Sulla,--we shall be prepared to find the ladies of Cicero's time by no means simply feminine in charm or homely in disposition. Most of them are indeed mere names to us, and we have to be careful in weighing what is said of them by later writers. But of two or three of them we do in fact know a good deal.

The one of whom we really know most is the wife of Cicero, Terentia: an ordinary lady, of no particular ability or interest, who may stand as representative of the quieter type of married woman. She lived with her husband about thirty years, and until towards the end of that period, a long one for the age, we find nothing substantial against her. If we had nothing but Cicero's letters to her, more than twenty in number, and his allusions to her in other letters, we should conclude that she was a faithful and on the whole a sensible wife. But more than once he writes of her delicate health,[229] and as the poor lady had at various times a great deal of trouble to go through, it is quite possible that as she grew older she became short in her temper, or trying in other ways to a husband so excitable and vacillating. We find stories of her in Plutarch and elsewhere which represent her as shrewish, too careful of her own money, and so on;[230] but facts are of more account than the gossip of the day, and there is not a sign in the letters that Cicero disliked or mistrusted her until the year 47. Had there really been cause for mistrust it would have slipped out in some letter to Atticus. Then, after his absence during the war, he seems to have believed that she had neglected himself and his interests: his letters to her grow colder and colder, and the last is one which, as has been truly said, a gentleman would not write to his housekeeper. The pity of it is that Cicero, after divorcing her, married a young and rich wife, and does not seem to have behaved very well to her. In a letter to Atticus (xii. 32) he writes that Publilia wanted to come to him with her mother, when he was at Astura devoting himself to grief for his daughter, and that he had answered that he wished to be let alone. The letter shows Cicero at his worst, for once heartless and discourteous; and if he could be so to a young lady who wished to do her duty by him, what may he not have been to Terentia? I suspect that Terentia was quite as much sinned against as sinning; and may we not believe that of the innumerable married women who were divorced at this time some at least were the victims of their husbands' callousness rather than of their own shortcomings?

The wife of Cicero's brother Quintus does, however, seem to have been a difficult person to get on with. She was a sister of Atticus, but she did not share her brother's tact and universal good-will. Marcus Cicero has recorded (ad Att. v. I) a scene in which her ill-temper was so ludicrous that the divorce which took place afterwards needs no explanation. The two brothers were travelling together, and Pomponia was with them; something had irritated her. When they stopped to lunch at a place belonging to Quintus at Arcanum, he asked his wife to invite the ladies of the party in. "Nothing, as I thought, could be more courteous, and that too not only in the actual words, but in his intention and the expression of his face. But she, in the hearing of us all, exclaimed, 'I am only a stranger here!'" Apparently she had not been asked by her husband to see after the luncheon; this had been done by a freedman, and she was annoyed. "There," said Quintus, "that is what I have to put up with every day!" When he sent her dishes from the triclinium, where the gentlemen were having their meal, she would not taste them. This little domestic contretemps is too good to be neglected, but we must turn to women of greater note and character.

Terentia and Pomponia and their kind seem to have had nothing in the way of "higher education," nor do their husbands seem to have expected from them any desire to share in their own intellectual interests. Not once does Cicero allude to any pleasant social intercourse in which his wife took part; and, to say the truth, he would probably have avoided marriage with a woman of taste and knowledge. There were such women, as we shall see, probably many of them; ever since the incoming of wealth and of Greek education, of theatres and amusements and all the pleasant out-of-door life of the city, what was now coming to be called cultus had occupied the minds and affected the habits of Roman ladies as well as men. Unfortunately it was seldom that it was found compatible with the old Roman ideal of the materfamilias and her duties. The invasion of new manners was too sudden, as was the corresponding invasion of wealth; such a lady as Cornelia, the famous mother of the Gracchi, "who knew what education really meant, who had learned men about her and could write well herself, and yet could combine with these qualities the careful discharge of the duties of wife and mother,"[231]--such ladies must have been rare, and in Cicero's time hardly to be found. More and more the notion gained ground that a clever woman who wished to make a figure in society, to be the centre of her own monde, could not well realise her ambition simply as a married woman. She would probably marry, play fast and loose with the married state, neglect her children if she had any, and after one or two divorces, die or disappear. So powerfully did this idea of the incompatibility of culture and wifehood gain possession of the Roman mind in the last century B.C., that Augustus found his struggle with it the most difficult task he had to face; in vain he exiled Ovid for publishing a work in which married women are most frankly and explicitly left out of account, while all that is attractive in the other sex to a man of taste and education is assumed to be found only among those who have, so far at least, eschewed the duties and burdens of married life. The culta puella and the cultus puer of Ovid's fascinating yet repulsive poem[232] are the products of a society which looks on pleasure, not reason or duty, as the main end of life,--not indeed pleasure simply of the grosser type, but the gratification of one's own wish for enjoyment and excitement, without a thought of the misery all around, or any sense of the self-respect that comes of active well-doing.

The most notable example of a woman of cultus in Cicero's day was the famous Clodia, the Lesbia (as we may now almost assume) who fascinated Catullus and then threw him over. She had been married to a man of family and high station, Metellus Celer, who had died, strange to say, without divorcing her. She must have been a woman of great beauty and charm, for she seems to have attracted round her a little côterie of clever young men and poets, to whom she could lend money or accord praise as suited the moment. Whether Cicero himself had once come within reach of her attractions, and perhaps suffered by them, is an open question, and depends chiefly on statements of Plutarch which may (as has been said above) have no better foundation than the gossip of society. But we know how two typical young men of the time, Caelius and Catullus, flew into the candle and were singed; we know how fiercely she turned on Caelius, exposing herself and him without a moment's hesitation in a public court; and we know how cruelly she treated the poet, who hated her for it even while he still loved her:[233]

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris; Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

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Social Life in Roman Empire