Julia's dilemma – Roman families, marriage and divorce in Late Antiquity

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

Our heroine Julia Bacausa’s problem in JULIA PRIMA is that she is caught between Roman law and Christian dogma; divorced legally under the first, but bound to her unpleasant (ex-) husband under the second.

The late Roman family inherited its basic form from the high empire. Monogamy was a strong cultural value, whatever the personal sexual behaviour of the spouses.

Late Roman law, following social practice, tended to recognise the nuclear family unit when considering the rules for marriage, guardianship and succession.

Christianity reinforced this but introduced two distinctive and revolutionary ideas: the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage and the ideal of sexually exclusive marriage.

The basics of Roman families

Familia in the Roman sense meant the legal group under the power of a paterfamilias, not only of biological descendants, but extended family including cousins, sometimes brothers, sisters, sons- and daughters-in-law, protégés and slaves. It was a complex organism, but the conjugal bond and parent–child relationships were at its core.

The marriage bond in classical Roman law was only lightly regulated by the state. Marriage was a relationship formed procreandorum liberorum causa (for the purpose of producing children); it required no formal ceremony or even property exchanges, only marital intent, consent from all those who were a party to the marriage (including the patres familias), and legal capacity to marry (age, degrees of separation, status and citizenship). Because mutual intent defined marriage in classical law, a marriage could be dissolved by either one of the spouses.

Family of Drusus (38 – 9BC), from the Ara Pacis, Rome. Author photo

By Late Antiquity, things had changed

Betrothals became increasingly formalised and enforced by public law; moreover, men began making a contribution similar to the dowry, the donatio ante nuptias, allotting part of their property as a donation to a conjugal fund. Already in the imperial period, men were known to have made engagement gifts to cement the process of contracting a marriage.

Third-century texts show that these gifts could be reclaimed by the man if the engagement was broken, unless he was responsible for breaking it off. At some point before AD 380, Roman legislators instituted a system in which betrothals were ensured by the exchange of earnest payments, called arrhae. Breaking the engagement entailed repayment of four times the arrhae.

Corbridge hoard, British Museum. Author photo

Whatever its origins, the practice of the donatio ante nuptias, the gift from groom to bride, extended rapidly over the fourth and fifth centuries. These gifts, which joined the dowry as part of the conjugal fund in the wife’s ownership, would be considered a form of insurance that was especially useful in situations where the man’s social position or social intentions were less than fully defined. The donatio functioned more like a safety deposit than a true exchange, since the property went to the wife rather than her natal family, thus remaining under the husband’s control unless he ended the marriage.

Constantine takes a step back (Quelle surprise!)

Bronze of Constantine’s head, Capitoline Museum, Rome. Author photo

Abandoning law and practice of centuries, Constantine issued his own regressive law restricting the grounds for divorce to the most heinous crimes. If a woman repudiated her husband for any other cause, she not only lost her dowry, but she was also deported.

Nevertheless, women could breathe a sigh of relief when during the later reign of Julian (AD 361–363), the classical regime of free, unilateral divorce was re-established. This is how Julia was able to divorce her unsatisfactory husband perfectly legally under Roman law. But it wouldn’t last…

Christianity’s enduring effect

However, the doctrine of indissolubility which prevailed in late Roman Christianity held that a marriage was the joining of two into one flesh which meant the early Christian Church strongly opposed both divorce and remarriage. Moreover, to discourage remarriage further, bishops could evoke the belief in an afterlife and insist that a couple joined on earth continued to exist after death. Divorce was therefore impossible, and remarriage would be considered bigamous, even for a widow or widower.

Elements of the traditional Roman marriage would go on to blend with Christian dogma, leading to the purpose of marriage being defined from Late Antiquity as ‘procreation, partnership, and preventing fornication’ (Isadore of Seville, Etymologiae c. 600-625). But easy divorce and the lack of need to have a blessing or sanction from the state or religious authorities vanished until the twentieth century.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

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6 comments to Julia’s dilemma – Roman families, marriage and divorce in Late Antiquity

  • Fascinating information. Thank you.
    I was unable to get your “like” button to work.

    • Alison

      I’m delighted you enjoyed the post. I think you may need to be logged into WordPress to activate the ‘Like’ button. But thank you for trying. 🙂

  • Helen Prochazka

    Very interesting Alison!

    • Alison

      I’m very glad you found it interesting. Marriage and family laws fluctuated quite a lot, especially from the third century onwards! Sometimes, it’s difficult to keep up.

  • Xaver Basora

    St Augustine put an end to opposition of widows/widowers remarrying after the death of the spouse. Also putting an end to divorce was salutary for the couple and society. By late antiquity if not before, divorce was abused and women suffered, especially the poor.
    When compared to Antiquity, the medieval society comes out better.

    • Alison

      Thank you for taking the time and trouble to comment. I think power practicalities and personal motivation of rulers, both spiritual and temporal, often caused the fluctuation between strict and liberal marriage, family and property rules and laws. I’m very content to be living now!

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