Ancient Roman Legal Marriages

When people get married today it usually involves lots of planning and money and where the wedding is going to take place.  We never really think of is this wedding going to be legal or illegal.  This was definitely an issue during the late Republic and into the Imperial period in Rome.  Marriages required no formal ceremony to be valid.  Cohabitation between eligible partners basically created marriage.  Most historians today would agree that marriages within village or ethnic units, social classes and status groups were common in the communities that constituted Roman society   Slaves could not legally get married but all Roman citizens could whether they be freeborn or freed, could marry another Roman citizen of the opposite sex unless disqualified by not meeting certain conditions before a legal marriage could be contracted.

  • Girls must be at least twelve years old, boys must be fourteen, at the time of marriage.
  • Freeborn citizens could not marry persons associated with “unsavory occupations” for example: prostitution, acting, tavern keeping, and women who had been convicted of adultery.
  • Too close a degree of relationship could prohibit marriage.
  • Soldiers could not marry during their term.
  •  Governors could not marry women resident in their provinces during their governorship.
  • From the second century A.D. guardians could not marry their wards.
  • In addition to the above restrictions, members of senatorial families couldn’t marry persons of freed status.

Both parties involved in the marriage must be adults.  There could be no marriages between children.  Both man and woman had to be unmarried and polygamy was never practiced in Rome.  The two getting married couldn’t be closely related and in general marriage was absolutely forbidden between ascendants and descendants.  If all of these conditions were met between man and woman they might legally be married.  Certain distinctions might affect the civil status of their children.  If all requirements were fulfilled and both were Roman citizens the marriage was legal and the children by birth were legitimate with all civil rights.  If one of the parties in the marriage was a Roman citizen and the other member did not have full Roman citizenship, the marriage was still legal.  The children always took the civil standing of their father.

Roman citizens then had to live up to these requirements to be classified as a legal marriage.  The Christian church era of Rome changed a few of these rules as time went on.  At least now days we don’t have to worry about some of these things but the stress is still there.


Brent D. Shaw and Richard P. Saller, Close-Kin Marriage in Roman Society?, Man, New Series, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Sep., 1984), pp. 432-444

Beryl Rawson, Roman Consubinage and Other De Facto Marriages, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974). Vol. 104 (1974), pp. 279-305

Mary Johnston, Roman Life: Successor to Private Life of the Romans, (Scott, Foresman and Company, Chicago, 1957) pp. 129-130



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2 responses to “Ancient Roman Legal Marriages

  1. Wow, it is definitely easier to get married by today’s standards. All I could think of while reading your blog was that if you fell into one of the unsavory lot categories, you were basically doomed to living either a single life, or not having your union recognized. Did your research ever say what happened to the children born from illegial unions? I thought that it was interesting that Rome outlawed men from marrying their wards when you can look throughout history and see cases where men did just that in later societies.

  2. hadrian73

    So the insanity of judging one’s social stance dates to the “decadent” time of Rome. The belief that if a person is in the wrong job and is unfit for marriage still holds true today. So what punishment’s could be dolled out for breaking the rules? “Soldiers could not marry during their term,” this I could not agree with more!

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