Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian.

Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian. – book reviews

Keith Bradley

Susan Treggiari’s long-awaited book on Roman marriage is a major contribution to scholarship that confirms the author’s standing as a leading contemporary historian of Roman society. Its subject, the ideology and practical conventions of marriage in the central epoch of Rome’s history – what Treggiari calls “the Roman experience of marriage” – is of fundamental importance for understanding the nature of Roman society at large. Treggiari’s coverage is accordingly comprehensive, taking in the ways marriage in Rome was brought into being how society conceived of ideal conjugal behavior and success in marriage, the lived reality of married life (to the extent that it can be recovered), how family property was deployed to sustain marriage, and what happened when marriage came to an end through spousal death or divorce. Understandably, in view of the slanted character of the evidence (Treggiari’s command of which is dauntingly impressive), she emphasizes marriage in the upper sectors of Roman society

Treggiari writes with compassion and sympathy for the past, and this is responsible for the generally roseate view of Roman marriage her book conveys. The motives that led to marriage, she shows, could be intricate and complex, but affection and hopes of personal contentment were stronger elements than might be expected in a society where marriage by arrangement was conventional. Individuals had more control over the choice of their spouses than is often supposed, and during the betrothal period there was ample opportunity for intimacy between a man and a woman to develop. Roman marriage had a decidedly romantic quality. It was meant to be a genuine partnership that gave scope, among other things, for full sexual expression. Ideals of marital chastity – at least of female marital chastity – were very high (offending behavior was discouraged by law). The marital bond, moreover, was meant to be eternal, and it was with the married couple’s continued well-being over time in mind that family property was continually disposed and redisposed (through dowry arrangements, for example). Divorce, Treggiari notes, was easily accessible, but it was not undertaken lightly and its actual incidence was far lower than is usually alleged. Thus Roman marriage seems in many ways to have resembled modern marriage. The major difference was due to demography: “the relatively high probability that young people’s marriage would be broken within a few years by death and punctuated by the deaths of children.”

How does the well-documented case of the widow Pudentilla fit this picture? Given that many Roman women, remarrying women especially, enjoyed considerable personal freedom, Pudentilla may well have taken much of the initiative, as Treggiari suggests, when she married Apuleius, the man now best remembered as the author of The Golden Ass. Certainly by modern standards she was widowed early, as must often have been the case, and certainly she chose Apuleius herself from a pool of pressing suitors. But it is equally certain that after her first husband’s death Pudentilla was prevented from independently choosing a new partner by an unscrupulous father-in-law who threatened financial retribution against her sons unless she consented at once to marry one of her dead husband’s brothers. As a result she was forced into a betrothal that brought her both physical and emotional suffering rather than affection for her intended. Pudentilla was resourceful enough to put off the wedding indefinitely, but real freedom did not come until the father-in-law died some fourteen years later – in Roman demographic terms a “grande mortalis aevi spatium” indeed. Moreover, her eventual choice of Apuleius owed something to the matchmaking activities of her older adult son, and he had financial reasons of his own for bringing together his mother and a friend of his student days. Although provincial, therefore, if the case has any representative value at all, Roman marriage may well have had alien and historically distinct features to it as well as the more pleasing and familiar aspects associated with its modern counterpart, and it may not be entirely inappropriate to raise this possibility.

Treggiari relishes, and invites, debate. However, all future work on Roman marriage must now begin with the standard work she has written – standard in the sense that the book is at once the fundamental resource on its subject and simultaneously a model of patient scholarship for others to aspire to emulate. Full of good humor, rigorously empirical, and altogether sparing of theory (it is very much an Oxford book), Roman Marriage comes to life from its author’s essential humanity. It is a book that in the present age cannot be surpassed.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group