The Law that Led to Roman Honor Killings, and Other Extreme Roman Marriage Laws
A common theme in the news today is how it is becoming increasingly common for the younger generations to snub the tradition of getting married and having children. This has led to scare stories about population shrinkage and the problem of aging populations. This phenomenon isn’t all that new, however. In 18 BC Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, tasked himself with tackling a similar problem. Especially in the upper classes of Rome, fewer and fewer people were getting married and having children. His solution was to bring in a range of powerful new laws that encouraged marriage and traditional Roman values. One of them, Lex Julia De Adulteriis Coercendis, even allowed Roman fathers to kill their daughters if they were unfaithful, leading to the rise of honor killings in Ancient Rome.
Serious penalties for those involved in an extra-marital affair, under Lex Julia de Maritandis Ordinibus (Public Domain)
The Lex Julia de Maritandis Ordinibus
The first of Augustus’ marriage laws were brought in in 18 BC. While these laws are most commonly remembered for their harsh treatment of women, and how they led to Roman honor killings, some of the laws were aimed squarely at men.
The Lex Julia de Maritandis Ordinibus was a law that Augustus brought in that forced Roman men of a certain age and social group to marry and have children. Its aim was to ensure the continuation of Rome’s “native” population and to reinforce social hierarchy.
By law, Roman men of the senatorial or equestrian class (the two highest classes in Rome), aged between 25 and 60, had to marry women of appropriate social status. After marriage, they had to have children within a certain amount of time.
The law came with serious penalties for those who broke it. Men who failed to comply could be hit with hefty fines, the loss of certain privileges and, in extreme cases, could be stripped of their Roman citizenship.
There are some important caveats, however. The law didn’t apply to all men in Rome, and even for those who it did, there were many loopholes and exceptions. On top of this, the law wasn’t always strictly enforced and despite the harsh-sounding penalties, in reality, men were more likely just to get a slap on the wrist.
The Lex Julia de Repudiatione et Divortiis
Around the same time that Augustus enacted his law forcing men to marry, he brought in another that governed how they could get a divorce. Under it, divorce proceedings could only be initiated by the husband.
Since these laws were meant to encourage marriage, the husband needed to provide a valid reason for the dissolution of his marriage. The grounds for getting a divorce included adultery, infertility, and “other serious breaches of marital fidelity or duty.” If this sounds vague, it’s because it was.
Adultery in ancient Rome. Those involved were heavily punished. (Erica Guilane-Nachez/ Adobe Stock)
The law didn’t lay out a comprehensive list of reasons for divorce. It was widely considered that things like physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and abandonment counted as serious breaches of marital duty. If the husband wished to divorce his wife for reasons other than adultery, he was required to return her dowry in full.
The law also introduced a divorce waiting period. Before any divorce was finalized, the couple had to go through a 6-month waiting period. During this time, they had to attempt reconciliation. If the couple was unable to reconcile during this period, the divorce could proceed.
While it was required that the couples try to reconcile, this wasn’t actually enforced under the law. It didn’t specify any penalties if a couple didn’t make an attempt at reconciliation. It’s likely this requirement was more of a guideline intended to encourage couples to work through their differences and to prevent hasty or impulsive divorces, rather than to impose a specific outcome on the reconciliation process.
If it seems like women got the raw end of the deal with this law, there’s more. Divorced men could remarry as quickly as they liked but divorced women had to wait at least 6 months before doing the same (presumably in case their ex changed his mind). The law also imposed penalties on women who remarried too quickly or without proper permission.
The Lex Julia de Repudiatione et Divortiis was one of several marriage laws enacted by Augustus in an attempt to promote family values and stabilize Roman society. While the law was controversial at the time, it remained in force for centuries and had a significant impact on the regulation of marriage and divorce in ancient Rome.
The Lex Julia de Adulteriis Coercendis
Of all Augustus’ marriage laws, this one was the most extreme. Introduced in 17 BC, it made adultery a criminal offense and imposed penalties on those who engaged in extramarital affairs. Some of those penalties were more than a little harsh.
Patrician family of ancient Rome. Under Roman law, father could kill the man who was having an affair with his daughter. (Erica Guilane-Nachez/Adobe Stock)
For example, if a father caught someone having an affair with his daughter, no matter either party’s social class or rank, he was allowed to kill the man. It also stated that the father was allowed to kill his daughter in this situation (even though it was usually not permitted). Some believe this is evidence that the Romans allowed honor killings.
It wasn’t just the fathers who could get in on the killing action. If a husband caught his wife with another man, he was allowed to kill him, with caveats. Firstly, he was only allowed to do so if the man was a known criminal, prostitute, or slave. Secondly, he was only allowed to kill the adulterer if he had caught them with his wife in his own home.
If a husband caught his wife with someone he wasn’t allowed to kill, his options were limited. The law stated the husband was allowed to lock the two in a room for up to 20 hours while he found witnesses. He was then required to start divorce proceedings, using his witness statements as evidence.
If he didn’t divorce his cheating wife, he would be prosecuted as a pimp. Killing a cheating wife wasn’t an option and was still seen as murder. However, the law did state that in such a case the husband should be treated more leniently.
It didn’t stop there either. The law made adultery a criminal offense, meaning divorce was only the beginning. Women who were convicted of adultery lost half of their dowry and a third of all their possessions. They were then banished to an island. The other party lost half of his property and was also exiled to live on an island. The law made it very clear that they had to be sent to different islands.
Not long after its start, the Lex Julia de Adulteriis Coercendis was expanded to cover other types of sexual activity. Same-sex acts were prohibited, and those who engaged in them could face severe penalties, including banishment and loss of citizenship. The rape of a free male was punishable by death.
Emperor Augustus repudiating his daughter Julia. Augustus decided on his daughter, Julia's exile, when she was arrested for adultery. Engraving from "Storia di Roma" by Francesco Bertolini. (Public Domain)
The rape of women wasn’t really mentioned. The rape of slaves was fine unless it caused lasting damage to the slave which hampered their ability to work. In this case, the owner of the slave was to be compensated as their property had been damaged.
Finally, the law covered incest. Any man found guilty of incest was to be deported to an island. Surprisingly, women could not be prosecuted under this law unless their incest was also adulterous in nature. It was also the only way a Roman husband could be punished for adultery.
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The Lex Papia Poppaea
Augustus wasn’t done with his marriage laws though. In 9 AD he brought in another set of laws aimed at promoting marriage and childbirth in Rome. With the Lex Papia Poppaea, he took a carrot rather than a stick approach by offering various financial and legal incentives to anyone who married and had children.
Under this law, couples who had three or more children were given special legal privileges. These included exemptions from certain taxes and the ability to receive inheritance without legal guardians. Married people with children were also given priority in legal disputes and were granted special privileges in the allocation of public resources.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows though. This being Rome, there was still a stick, this time in the shape of penalties for those who chose to remain unmarried or childless. Unmarried men over the age of 25 and unmarried women over the age of 20 were hit with special taxes and could not inherit from their relatives.
While the Lex Julia de Maritandis Ordinibus had only applied to high-class men, these new laws affected everyone. Even those who were married but did not have children were not granted the same legal privileges as those who did have children.
Preservation of matrimony and promoting strong families were the measures taken by Augustus. (Erica Guilane-Nachez/Adobe Stock)
Why Were the Laws So Extreme?
These laws may seem extreme by today’s standards, but they also represented a major departure from the Roman approach to family and marriage at the time. Simply put, many Romans also felt the laws were a bit extreme.
So why did Augustus go to such lengths and risk upsetting so many Romans? Well, the way Augustus saw things, desperate times meant desperate measures. He was not only responding to a declining birthrate and a high mortality rate, but what he saw as widespread social and moral decay.
Augustus was a conservative and believed that promoting marriage and family values was essential to reversing these trends and ensuring the continued success and stability of the Roman Empire. In his mind, the family was the foundation of Roman society. By promoting strong families, he believed he was maintaining social order, promoting loyalty to the state, and ensuring the continuation of his great empire.
Augustus saw marriage and family as central to his vision of a prosperous and stable Roman Empire. He also believed that regulating marriage and family could help him achieve his political goals, including promoting social order and stability and consolidating his own power as emperor. While some of the laws may seem extreme by modern standards, they were seen as necessary by many at the time to address the challenges facing Roman society.
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Were They Popular?
We can’t know for sure exactly how popular Augustus' marriage laws and policies were, as there is limited information on how widely they were accepted or enforced. However, it seems pretty clear from the historical record that they had a significant impact on Roman society and that some of the measures were more than a little controversial.
The least popular was the Lex Papia Poppaea. It was criticized by some as being unfair to unmarried people and those who were unable to bear children. The Lex Julia de Maritandis Ordinibus was unpopular for similar reasons and faced opposition from some quarters.
Other measures proved to be more popular. Both the Lex Julia de Adulteriis Coercendis and Lex Julia de Repudiatione et Divortiis were generally well-received and remained in force for centuries. This is likely because they punished people who were seen as doing something wrong, whereas the other laws were an overreach into people’s personal lives.
The idea of the family had always been central to the Roman ideal. Adultery had always been frowned upon so Lex Julia de Adulteriis Coercendis wasn’t really a shock. While it only stigmatized female adultery it must be remembered that cheating husbands were usually tried in the court of public opinion (which is arguably still preferable to being sent to live on an island).
Did The Laws Work?
It’s still up for debate as to how effective Augustus’ marriage laws and policies really were. Some argue that these measures were successful in promoting marriage and family values, stabilizing Roman society, and contributing to a period of relative peace and prosperity known as the Pax Romana.
Others disagree. Some historians have pointed out that the Lex Julia de Maritandis Ordinibus was pretty ineffectual. It was only aimed at an exceedingly small proportion of Roman society and had so many loopholes that it was pretty much unenforceable.
The Lex Papia Poppaea on the other hand may have succeeded in increasing the birth rate and encouraging more marriages in Rome, but at what cost? It also had unintended consequences such as encouraging couples to have large families regardless of their ability to provide for them, which contributed to overpopulation and economic strain in the later years of the Roman Empire.
Then there’s the general unfairness of many of the laws. Particularly how they reinforced existing gender and class inequalities within Roman society, rather than addressing them. Women in particular got the short end of the stick. The Lex Julia de Adulteriis Coercendis imposed incredibly harsh penalties on women who committed adultery while the husbands got off scot-free. This is akin to banning speeding to increase road safety and then only charging women.
The marriage and family laws enacted under the reign of Augustus in ancient Rome reflected his desire to establish traditional Roman values and strengthen the social fabric of the empire. While some of these laws were successful in achieving their intended goals, others had unintended consequences that affected the empire in ways that Augustus could not have foreseen.
Some have argued that Lex Julia de Adulteriis Coercendis gave rise to honor killings in Rome. While it is true that the law allowed a father to kill his cheating daughter, there is little evidence that this became commonplace.
The legacy of Augustus' reforms still resonates today. As societies continue to grapple with issues of marriage, family, and population growth, and the balance between promoting traditional values and respecting individual autonomy we continue to see similar laws enacted today, from China abandoning its one-child rule to developed nations handing out tax breaks to married people with children.
Top image: Detail of Tapestry Depicting the Marriage of Contantine I and Fausta by Peter Paul Rubens 1623-1625 . Source: Mary Harrsch /CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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Editor. 2023. THE JULIAN MARRIAGE LAWS. Available at: https://www.unrv.com/government/julianmarriage.php
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