Matrimonium: Types of Roman Marriage

Roman marble sarcophagus with relief depicting marriage

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Living together, prenuptial agreements, divorce, religious wedding ceremonies, and legal commitments all had a place in ancient Rome. The Romans were unlike other Mediterranean people in that they made marriage a union between social equals instead of valuing submissiveness in women.

Motives for Marriage

In ancient Rome, if you planned to run for office, you could increase your chances of winning by creating a political alliance through the marriage of your children. Parents arranged marriages to produce descendants to tend the ancestral spirits. The name "matrimonium" with its root mater (mother) shows the principle objective of the institution, namely the creation of children. Marriage could also improve social status and wealth. Some Romans even married for love, an uncommon thing for the historical time period.

The Legal Status of Marriage

Marriage was not a state affair—at least it wasn't until Augustus made it his business. Before that the rite was a private matter discussed only between husband and wife and their families. Nonetheless, there were legal requirements so it wasn't automatic. People getting married had to have the right to marry, or the connubium.

"Connubium is defined by Ulpian (Frag. v.3) to be 'uxoris jure ducendae facultas', or the faculty by which a man may make a woman his lawful wife."

Who Had the Right to Marry?

Generally, all Roman citizens and some non-citizen Latins had connubium. However, there was no connubium between patricians and plebeians until the Lex Canuleia (445 B.C.). The consent of both patres familias (patriarchs) was required. Bride and groom must have reached puberty. Over time, examination to determine puberty gave way to standardization at age 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Eunuchs, who would never reach puberty, were not permitted to marry. Monogamy was the rule, so an existing marriage precluded connubium as did certain blood and legal relationships.

The Betrothal, Dowry, and Engagement Rings

Engagements and engagement parties were optional, but if an engagement were made and then backed out of, breach of contract would have had financial consequences. The bride's family would give the engagement party and formal betrothal (sponsalia) between the groom and the bride-to-be (who was now sponsa). Dowry, to be paid after the marriage, was decided on. The groom might give his fiancé an iron ring (anulus pronubis) or some money (arra).

How Roman Matrimonium Differed from Modern Western Marriage

It is in terms of property ownership that Roman marriage sounds most unfamiliar. Communal property was not part of marriage, and the children were their father's. If a wife died, the husband was entitled to keep one fifth of her dowry for each child, but the rest would be returned to her family. A wife was treated as a daughter of the pater familias to whom she belonged, whether that was her father or the family into which she married.

Distinctions Between Marriage Types

Who had control of the bride depended on the type of marriage. A marriage in manum conferred the bride on the groom's family along with all her property. One not in manum meant the bride was still under the control of her pater familias. She was required to be faithful to her husband as long as she cohabited with him, or face divorce. Laws regarding dowry were probably created to deal with such marriages. A marriage ​in manum made her the equivalent of a daughter (filiae loco) in her husband's household.

There were three types of marriages in manum:

  • Confarreatio - Confarreatio was an elaborate religious ceremony with ten witnesses, the flamen dialis (himself married confarreatio), and pontifex maximus in attendance. Only the children of parents married confarreatio were eligible. The grain far was baked into a special wedding cake (farreum) for the occasion, hence the name confarreatio.
  • Coemptio - In coemptio, the wife carried a dowry into the marriage, but was ceremoniously bought by her husband in front of at least five witnesses. She and her possessions then belonged to her husband. This was the type of marriage in which, according to Cicero, it is thought the wife declared ubi tu gaius, ego gaia, usually thought to mean "where you [are] Gaius, I [am] Gaia," although gaius and gaia need not be praenomina or nomina.
  • Usus - After a year's cohabitation, the woman came under her husband's manum, unless she stayed away for three nights (trinoctium abesse). Since she wasn't living with her paterfamilias, and since she wasn't under the hand of her husband, she acquired some freedom.

Sine manu (not in manum) marriages, wherein a bride stayed within the legal control of her natal family, began in the third century B.C. and became the most popular by the first century A.D. In this popular model, the woman could own property and manage her own affairs if her father died.

There was also a marital arrangement for enslaved people (contuberium) and between freedmen and enslaved people (concubinatus).


  • "'Ubi tu gaius, ego gaia'. New Light on an Old Roman Legal Saw," by Gary Forsythe; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte Bd. 45, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1996), pp. 240-241.
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Gill, N.S. "Matrimonium: Types of Roman Marriage." ThoughtCo, Aug. 30, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 30). Matrimonium: Types of Roman Marriage. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Matrimonium: Types of Roman Marriage." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).