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Exploring the Ancient Past

Roman weddings and Marriage

By Natasha Sheldon

Marriage in ancient Rome was not about uniting two people. Rather it was about uniting two families and to create a strong social and economic bond.

 

But the legalities of a wedding were often accompanied by various archaic rituals which were designed to ensure a favourable union and bless and purify the bride and groom. Many elements of Roman weddings, from the bride’s veil, to crossing the threshold survive in modern western wedding traditions of today.

Types of Marriage in Rome

There were various types of marriage in ancient Rome which catered for the different social classes and their requirements from matrimony. The included:

 

Usus. The simplest form of marriage, this simply required a couple to live together constantly for one year.

Coemptio. This slightly more binding union involved a symbolic purchase of the bride by her husband.

Confarreati .This was the strictest form of marriage which was required by the Roman priesthood and in normal for the upper classes in republican times. A wife was fully absorbed by her husband's family and totally under his control or manus.

 

During the Roman Empire, the forms of marriage relaxed. It became possible for wives to achieve more independence and so retain some control of their lives.  

 

Setting the Date.

 

Whatever the form of marriage, it was essential that the day of formalising the union was chosen with care. Certain times of the year were taboo. Marriage was forbidden during festivals to appease the dead, notably during February and May whilst April and June were regarded as favourable. 

 

The Bridal Outfit.

 

There were also certain traditions regarding the bride’s outfit.

 

The wedding ceremony severed the bride from her father’s house, leaving her outside the protection of her families household gods. But as she had not yet joined her husband’s family, she was not protected by his families’ deities either, leaving her in a spiritual no man’s land. So her wedding outfit was not designed to protect her.

 

Traditionally, the bridal outfit were very simple. During imperial times, materials used and jewellery worn would have become more luxurious but ornate. The basic design of the outfit however was adhered to. Many of its elements survive in the Christian tradition.

 

 The traditional Roman ‘wedding dress’ consisted of a plain white woollen tunica recta overlaid by a white stola. Wool was chosen as a lucky fabric that repelled evil. About her waist was a woollen sash, tied with a Hercules knot, again to ward off evil.

 

Traditional ornamentation of the bride was also simple and protective. Her hair was dressed simple, having been parted with iron spears. It was completed with a flora headdress of traditional, luck flowers and herbs such as marjoram.

 

The only elements of colour came from the flammeum or flame coloured veil which covered the bride’s head and her saffron coloured shoes.

 

The Wedding Ceremony.

 

Before the wedding took place, it was necessary to seek the approval of the gods. The auspex or haruspexices was called upon to perform this duty. A cross between a priest and a best man, he was an essential part of a confarreatio marriage where the omens were read in the entrails of a sheep sacrificed before the ceremony began.

 

 Then the ceremony would commence. In a strict form marriage, the gods were first of all called upon; Janus,  the god of thresholds, openings and closings, Juno Pronuba as goddess of matrimony, and Jupiter the father god, Tellus, the earth and Hymen Hymenaeus the god of matrimony.

 

The bride was not given away by her father. This was the province of the pronuba who was the bride's mother or some other female relative who had only been married once and had a living husband. The handing over of the bride would have been accomplished with some appropriate words of advice.

 

The bride and groom then took vows to each other whilst clasping each other's right hands which were tied together by the officiating priest. Rings would have been exchanged and placed on the finger next to the little finger of the left hand. Despite the pragmatic purpose of the ceremony, this finger was believed to be directly connected to the heart.

 

At the end of the ceremony, a sacrifice- generally of a pig would have been made, possibly to ensure the fertility of the couple.

 

The Wedding Procession.

 

The bride now needed safe conduct to her husband’s house and the renewed protection of household gods. So, she was accompanied on her journey by a rowdy crowd of torch bearing crowd of well wishers.

Three boys, who had both sets of parents living, guarded her front and sides. The one at the front carried a torch of whitethorn, a lucky material. The other two each held an arm. The bride herself carried not flowers but a distaff and spindle.

 

The other wedding guests told bawdy jokes to keep ill omens at bay and shouted ‘talassio’, an age-old wedding cry whose meaning was lost even to the Romans. Nuts would be thrown to ensure fertility-much like the modern rice or confetti.

 

Crossing the Threshold.

 

 By arriving at her new home the bride became a full domina or matron and once again acquired the protection of gods. But firstly she had to cross the threshold safely.

 

At the entrance of her husband’s house, the bride would anoint the doorway with fat or oil. Traditionally, wolf fat was used but later this became pig’s fat or olive oil. She then tied woollen fillets about the door to ensure good luck.

Then she could enter the house but not by herself. Two male attendants had to lift her to ensure she did not trip.  This would have been unlucky as evil spirits were believed to lurk at thresholds, places that were neither within nor outside of the house.

 

But once inside, the bride was safe.  She would touch fire and water to purify herself and wash away her strangeness and any remains of the numen or spirit of her father's house as well as any bad influences she may have picked up upon the way.

 

 She would then offer a coin to her husband and in return receive the keys to the house. A wedding feast would follow, as well as consummation, and various ceremonies in the days that followed but it was at this point that the bride was considered to have joined her new family and become a wife.

 

Picture Credit: Aranzuisor (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. c/o Wikimedia)