Sex and marriage in Roma Nova

Author photo, Venus and Mars, House of Mars And Venus, Pompeii, Naples Museum

Well, yes to sex – they are Romans – but not so much marriage, more informal family arrangements.

Marriage in the majority of cultures has meant one man and one woman, with the woman leaving her father’s family and joining the man’s family, often taking his name. Her property rights would, until recently, be transferred from her father to the new husband, the head of household; in law and practice she would be regarded as an adjunct to the husband. Organised religion reinforced this, often fiercely, sometimes punitively. This is not a political statement, just fact through most of history.

In Roma Novan society there has never been any automatic right of men taking precedence. Indeed, although basically egalitarian it’s tilted the other way with women leading. They inherit first, they choose their sexual and marriage partners, if they marry, the husband takes the wife’s family name and their children belong to the women’s families.

How has this happened?
Firstly, as Roma Novans were steadfast pagans from AD 395, worshipping the traditional Roman goddesses and gods, no incursion of paternalistic monotheistic religions was permitted despite strong efforts by the early Christians and later Ottomans.

Secondly, in the early history of the Colonia Apuliensis Roma Nova in the fraught period of the late 4th and early 5th centuries men of all ages took up their traditional role and defended the borders  Attackers who succeeded in reaching  the  mountain valleys of Roma Nova met the ferocious, well trained and disciplined troops, to their cost.

Photo courtesy of Britannia

But soon young women had to fight with the men to protect the colonia. It was purely a matter of numbers; there were not enough men to patrol, fight and defend Roma Nova, so daughters and sisters had to strap on armour and heft a gladius alongside their fathers and brothers. Such defence was needed for centuries, particularly during the Great Migrations of peoples across Europe. Fighting danger side-by-side with their menfolk reinforced women’s status and roles and they never looked back.

Thirdly, as men and young women were away most of the time, older women worked in the fields, or as artisans and conducted trade.They adjudicated family squabbles, negotiated marriages and ensured their children of both sexes were literate and physically fit. They spoke at public meetings, represented their families and neighbourhood groups and formed trading alliances. In practical terms, they developed social, economic and political networks to keep the small country functioning.

Lastly, founder Apulius had four strong daughters born and bred by Julia Bacausa, a Celtic chief’s daughter from Noricum where women managed property, took decisions in the political process and, when necessary, hefted a blade. Julia’s hair burned bright red; so did her spirit and temper.

But where did all this history and fighting leave Roma Novan women?
The families and households of Romans who trekked out of Italy to found the new colony only numbered around four hundred so marriage partnerships were inherently tricky. Many ties and links already bound the twelve senatorial families who made up the bulk of the population. Senior women in each family started keeping precise records so that a girl didn’t marry her half-brother, nephew, uncle or double cousin. Whatever past emperors had done, these traditional patricians, even though transformed into materially poor pioneers, couldn’t stomach that idea.

Roma Nova desperately needed children to increase the new settlement’s population, a priority encountered by all new colonies. The only way to widen the gene pool (although it wasn’t called that for many centuries), was for Roman women to take foreign partners. Anxious to maintain its society’s essential Roman-ness, or romanitas, the new council allowed women to dispense with formal marriage, even to the extent of temporary liaisons. If foreign partners wished to stay in Roma Nova and become part of the community, then well and good.

Ancient Romans regarded sex and fertility differently from later civilisations and were an immensely practical people who used marriage (and divorce) as an economic and political tool rather than an emotional tie. However, many stories of devotion between spouses are obvious from Ancient Roman funerary monuments and historical accounts.

Detail from 2nd century sarcophagus © Trustees of the British Museum

Detail from 2nd century sarcophagus © Trustees of the British Museum

In Roma Nova, Apulius’s daughters led the way, although the eldest, Galla, did marry in the traditional Roman way and stayed faithful to her husband to his death. Her sisters not so. This freedom was accepted because of the need for children. Moreover, the older women who were now running the families supported these arrangements. Their council agreed that families would be the mainstay of their new society, but that women would head them as they had done in practice since the start of the new colony.

Apulius was the first and last imperator, or emperor, of Roma Nova. His eldest daughter, Galla, succeeded him as imperatrix and as a gesture to his status as founder kept his name. Descent and property transfer went through the female line from that point on. As Galla Apulia remarked, “You always know who a child’s mother is. The father is not always obvious.”

Of course, there were protests, even the occasional case of fathers slitting a daughter’s throat before allowing such an arrangement, but the punishment was harsh – execution. Other female children in the affected family were placed under the protection of the Twelve Families Council, the group supporting the ruling Apulians.

Children were and are treasured in Roma Nova and their care prioritised, unlike in some other countries. Roma Nova’s collective nightmare is not only losing the children they love but their society collapsing through lack of population. Rape of both women and men, and violence against children, are severely punished. If the parents separate, then the mother has to make provision for the children. If married, women pay a statutory divorce settlement to their ex-husband.

Outsiders were bewildered and sometimes angered over the succeeding centuries by having to  deal with women as war leaders, counsellors and ambassadors.

In my story for the anthology about alternative outcomes of the Norman Conquest, 1066 Turned Upside Down, a Roma Novan counsellor with her own problems at home is sent to stop William of Normandy and is met by anger, admiration and scorn in equal amounts, although she does find love.

By the time of Aurelia as a young woman in the late 1960s and Carina in the 2010s, the rest of the world has nearly caught up with the idea of more open relationships.

Nevertheless, in INCEPTIO Carina, still Karen, brought up in the patriarchal society of the Eastern United States, feels deceived by Conrad’s lack of honesty about his relationship with Silvia:

[Conrad speaks to Karen] ‘It was a families’ arrangement. She needed children, heirs. Her husband was infertile from the cancer. He’d died a couple of years before and she couldn’t face another marriage.’ He shrugged. ‘Lots of families make arrangements like that. It’s normal for us. Despite Caius Tellus’s treachery, the imperatrix trusted the Tellus family.’ His voice dropped. ‘I thought it would be so foreign to you.’ He paused, his face drained. ‘I thought you would be repelled.’

By PERFIDITAS, six years later, Carina is far more integrated in Roma Nova values and culture and faces an emotional and sexual dilemma of her own. While she is attempting to sort out her own feelings and wishes, Conrad admits:

‘I’m not asking if you slept with him. Your choice,’ his voice rasped. I could see he hated saying that. Like he was eating funeral ash straight from the pyre. In a society that put the procreation of the tribe first and sexual fidelity low, we were an unusual pairing – we had contracted for life. But he was Roma Novan enough to concede my freedom of choice.

Aurelia, forty years before, made an arrangement with a partner with the object of producing an heir. She is attracted to him, has fun with him, their daughter Marina is born, but they don’t marry or ‘contract’ as Roma Novans call it.

When she meets her life’s love a few years later, the idea of marriage doesn’t enter her head until…

But you’ll have to read RETALIO to find out how Aurelia was married but unmarried…. 😉




Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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