Roman Marriage Age Revisited

From William A. Percy
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We stand by our findings, which are based primarily on literary texts preserved in the medieval manuscript tradition, that twenty-eight and nineteen are erroneous figures for the ages of first marriages for the senatorial class and privileged equestrians. Our data overwhelmingly reaffirms the categories established by Friedlander and Hopkins: of approximately 18 or 19 for elite males and about 14 for females. This difference of about five years between spouses is evident in the earliest available records, from the late third century BC all the way to the Christian era. The extensive epigraphic evidence collected by Saller and Shaw, if correctly interpreted, does not invalidate our conclusion in any way.

Percy would apply our data to indicate that fathers, who were – as long as they lived – the designated dedicators of their sons’ epitaphs, on average died when their sons reached 28 years of age. After that, the widows, who normally achieved a certain amount of emancipation and control of property, became the principal dedicators of their husbands. Likewise until 19 years of age, a female’s father was her typical dedicator, because her dowry reverted to him on her death. But after 19 the widower replaced the father, because by this time she normally had a living offspring, and therefore her husband kept the dowry.

However, the epigraphic evidence that was age specific, which had been compiled by Hopkins, was mainly if not exclusively concerned with the middle class, individuals too insignificant to be mentioned by literary texts. We don’t believe that we have an age specific epitaph of a single member of the senatorial class. Middle class fathers commemorated sons only until the sons reached 28, after which their widows became the principal commemorators. Middle class fathers commemorated their daughters until 18, when the widowers began to predominate as dedicators. Senators, we can assume, lived longer than middle-class males because one had to live longer and do more over time and thus be stronger than the average middle class male to become a senator.

Verstraete, on the other hand, deduced that upwardly mobile males of the middle class usually wanted to marry in their mid-twenties (i.e. about 24) to females of about 14, with an approximate 10-year difference in the age of spouses. From this class of people, he guesses that the determination of the dedicator for both husband and wife rested principally on the survival of at least one child of the couple. Therefore after five years of marriage, there would likely be living issue, and thus the widower would keep the dowry and the widow, inheriting most of the husband’s estate under free marriage, which greatly outnumbered manu marriage (the old fashioned type in which the wife became the property of the husband’s father). The widow therefore received the duty and privilege, as well as the means, to commemorate her spouse. By these criteria, the age of marriage of middle class males is lowered by Verstraete from 28 to 24.

In a notice on his website dated in November of 2005, Walter Scheidel thanked us for persuading him to abandon the high of age of marriage for males, which the work of Saller had previously convinced him to endorse enthusiastically. Moreover, Luuk de Ligt, who reviewed our book in the summer of 2005 in a Dutch language journal, based his conclusion on the evidence provided by Latin Christian epitaphs. DeLigt’s computation yielded an AAFM for males at 23, but he remained uncertain about that for females. He does not state why, or for that matter how many examples he had for each sex. Some previous scholars had speculated that early Christians, bearing in mind the condemnation of lust by Saint Paul, might have delayed, if they could not avoid, marriage “Better to marry than to burn [with lust].” One could speculate also that overwhelmed with hormones, as youth always are, some hastened to marry to avoid damnation, keeping the average virtually steady with those pagan groups that were commemorated on specific epitaphs, i.e. the middle class, disagreeing with Saller.

Another class surprisingly frequently represented among epitaphs is freed people. They apparently took great pride in their changed status and proclaim their deaths as full citizens for posterity. Their emancipation, at least that of males, which presumably occurred fairly late in life, can be presumed to have delayed their marriage, and even that of females (if the wife had also been emancipated because presumably most slaves couldn’t marry), although some may have married as slaves.

Finally, we believe that the vast majority of Latin speakers did not ever bother with any formal marriage but simply cohabitated because property of any significance was not involved, at least by the time that epitaphs became common after 200B.C. Certainly the nuclear family was not the primary unit for organizing society. Familia mean something quite different from our concept of family. By this time, Rome controlled not only all of Italy, but also, Provence, Spain, and the great islands of the western Mediterranean, from Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, to the Balearics, as well as outposts on the Dalmatian coast, in all of which there were at least some Latin speakers. The census-takers recorded such people as proletarians, that is those prolific with children but possessing nothing else.

The law, however little enforced among the proletarians, did permit males to marry at 14 and females at 12, a provision later adopted by the Canon Law and later still by the English Common Law. It still to this very day, amazing as it may seem, prevails in the state of Georgia. In Roman law, as in Canon and Common, consent was supposedly required; however, at such tender ages, youth of either sex could hardly be expected often to defy the will of the pater familias, whatever Saller thinks of that “archaic relic,” the patria potestas, or even of a strong-willed matron, whether widowed or not.

Although this law supposedly applied to all classes, the provisions of the Alimenta may provide a more accurate prognosticator of the age of marriage, or at least of cohabitation, actually expected of the poor. According to the Alimenta, males were released from state custody at 16, by which time they were presumed able to earn a living; females at 14, with the obvious expectation that they would marry or at least cohabitate. Males could in all probability earn an honest living, with so many options open to them, from joining the military, for example to migrating abroad. These newly emancipated males would normally wait until they could support a woman before cohabitating, and the job market would have varied from period to period and from area to area. However, females at 14 could hardly have been expected to find honest employment. Naturally, brothel keepers and pimps would have liked to hire them, but the upper classes normally had slaves for house servants. Thus opportunity for honest female employment would have been extremely limited and the presumption would have been that they would marry. Of course, the number of females taken into the Alimenta system was much smaller than that of males, and they began to be enrolled in it at a later date, if only because females were less likely, then as now, to end up on the street than males.

As Latin spread throughout the western provinces, accompanied after a spell by the spread of citizenship in these provinces (we are not considering the east, where Latin never became significant as the primary language, nor did Latin marriage patterns become significant either), some presumably adopted Latin marriage patterns and family customs; except of course for slaves, representing a declining percentage of the population with the passing of time, and the absence of wars of conquest. Other things being equal, slaves do not reproduce as rapidly as free people, and the decline of foreign and civil wars, the main sources of new slaves, drastically diminished under the Pax Romana. Some slaves doubtless cohabitated and may even have married before and after Christianization, but determining the ages at which they did, and indeed at which the lower classes in general free or freed male or females did, is beyond any statistical analysis. We believe that such fluctuations depended upon the economic opportunities of such males who have usually preferred young if not virgin brides.

Infanticide, and in particular female infanticide, at least among non-Christians has varied with economic fluctuations, among other things. Upon recommendation from the greatest expert, Walter Scheidel, we too are becoming more nuanced, skeptical, and cautious about a subject so central to demography and thus to all Roman studies. With such inadequate and disparate statistics, which of course only apply to the Latin speaking areas of the empire, from which Egypt and the east are largely inapplicable, any attempt to use those detailed demographic tables for the whole of the Roman Empire would in our opinion be rash, if not absolutely futile.

We hope and trust that other major journals will still follow the Bryn Mawr Classical Review in its rather late review of our book by Walter McCall, and notice that the Anneé Philologique and Mouseion have finally promised us to post a notice of our monograph.

By William A. Percy & Beert Verstraete

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