In 8 BC, Rome prospered under Romulus’ rule. Unfortunately, due to the lack of women and rejection by Rome’s neighbours for inter-marriage, Romulus abducted the Sabine maidens. His actions later on encapsulated the purpose of marriage in Ancient Rome - benefits and procreation. These remained unchanged even after Rome had established a republic.
Marriage in Ancient Rome wasn't as simple as just falling in love and tying the knot. Not only was there more than one type of marriage, women were seen solely as child-bearing machines due to procreation being the main purpose of marriage then. Sadly, the law did not regard women with equal status as men and was biased towards the latter. Life of women in a male-dominated Ancient Roman world was significantly ill-fated.
Two types of marriages
First of all, there were 2 types of marriage - Cum Conventione in Manum (or Cum Manu) and Sine Conventione (or Sine Manu). Simply put, in Cum Manu (more traditional and ancient), the wife is subjected to her husband’s legal control, losing all of her inheritance rights from her maternal family. In contrast, for the latter (Sine Manu aka free marriage), the wife remained under her father’s legal control, retaining her original inheritance rights. Such marriages were common among the upper-class whereby a mutual agreement occurred between two households. So was the annulment. There are hardly any stories of marriages as a result of love that existed between both the wife and the husband. Sine Manu was more dominant during the Roman Republican period (509-50 BCE).
Marriage in most modern societies today is very much similar to Sine Manu. The wife would still be able to withhold her original inheritance rights. As for legal control, marriage is no longer the deciding factor as to whether a woman remains under the legal control of either her father or husband. As long as she reaches the age of 21, she becomes legally independent, free from either party’s legal control.
Marriage was ALL about procreation
Interestingly, marriage was not considered full consummation until the first child was born. More importantly, there was an unreasonable rule that the child had to be born INSIDE the house, as procreation was of utmost importance during that time. Coupled with the high infant mortality rate since the 1st century AD, the bride needed to have at least 3 children (4 for former slaves) beyond the age of 10, in order to be well-respected and legally independent. Brides were eager to fulfil this requirement, otherwise, they would be humiliatingly deemed as a “rejected good”. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, excessive childbirth contributed to the numerous deaths of these women.
Slaves were also succumbed to a similar fate. Through Cum Manu, female slaves were “motivated” to bear offspring since it ensured freedom of their children accompanied by legal protection. Upon deeper consideration, if both Roman females and slaves held the same fate, doesn't that then make the former equivalent to a slave? Slaves of childbirth, it would seem.
After close to 523 years (743-231 BC) of stable marriages, Spurius Caruilius broke the trend by being the first to file for divorce with his wife’s infertility as his reason, inevitably inviting criticism from the public. Consequently, by the 2nd century BC, in addition to the countless deaths of women due to childbirth, it didn't help the situation that there was still a severe lack of children. Hence, divorces and remarriages of fertile ladies became increasingly prevalent. For instance, if the wife had proven herself to be fertile and capable of giving birth to many offspring, her husband was allowed to divorce her and make her marry another man of another household, whose previous wife was proven to be infertile. This act of “transferring wives” goes to show how insignificant the status of a wife or women in general was. This also meant that the job of a woman was to procreate till death. There was no way out of it, unless they were able to meet the requirement mentioned above.
However, with such high infant mortality rates which may have been due to the lack of appropriate medical knowledge, how many offspring were women expected to have given birth to for it to finally be enough?! Were they just purely child-bearing machines? Women are after all, humans! This is a true indication that they had no rights in Rome. Indeed, it was a tough struggle to gain respect and independence in their society.
Evidently, some support the idea of a divorce purely on the basis of infertility and the idea of remarriages solely based on the notion of carrying on the family line. On the other hand, others may find it unacceptable that women were defenseless against their husbands’ requests of divorce due to only the aforementioned reason, and had to be put through such humiliation.
Law did not recognise adultery by husbands
Indeed, Rome was very much dominated by men. Under the Julian Law, Quaestio, which is somewhat similar to a trial in modern day terms, was directed to the wife only. There were no laws that recognised adultery committed by the husband. According to The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, should a husband catch his wife with another man (especially of lower status - slave or infamis), he was allowed to kill his spouse’s lover. Such people of lower social statuses did not retain the rights of a Roman citizen (legal protection).
Personally, we feel that such double standards seem absolutely unfair to the wives. Putting aside the fact that having an affair isn't acceptable and wrong in itself, how could only the wives be punished for such wrongdoings while the husbands could be condoned? As the saying goes, “it takes two hands to clap”, if one party has an affair, surely it means that there is a problem in the marriage of both parties and it is definitely the responsibility of both of them to rectify it. Regardless of whether it is the wife or the husband who has the affair, it is ultimately still an act of unfaithfulness being committed and hence they should be punished for their act, with no discrimination of gender.
Women were in no positions to refuse requests for a divorce on the grounds of infertility. In addition, husbands were not punishable by law for adultery. Clearly, women were constantly at the losing end in the marriage. All they could do was to suffer in silence, especially when even the law, which was supposed to protect the people, wasn't working in their favour. Tragically, women were most significantly valued ONLY as ill-fated child-bearing machines in Ancient Roman society.