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A Brief History of Divorce: Ancient Rome


Continuing our survey of the history of divorce in different cultures, we will now take a look into one of greatest ancient civilizations, ancient Rome. Divorce, like marriage in ancient times, slowly became diversified over time. Contrary to popular modern belief, divorce was a common occurrence in ancient Rome. Beginning with ancient pagan laws, men always had the power to end the marriage. Although this was usually reserved for more serious marital faults, such as adultery, other rules, such as making copies of the household keys, consuming wine, and infertility, could be used by the husband for divorce. For many centuries only husbands had this privilege, but wives were finally included to this process and given permission to divorce their husbands as Rome entered into the classical age.

Politics as Usual

Marriages in ancient Rome were often commonly used as a political tool by the upper classes; similarly, divorces were common when new political opportunities presented themselves. Anytime a new a situation arose, a man or woman would divorce their current spouse and marry a new one. A man or woman could form valuable family ties through their various marriages and divorces to different families.A motivated man or woman could,and would, marry and divorce a couple times in their lifetime if they thought they could continue to climb the political and social ladder.

Just Not Willing

An interesting yet obvious reason for divorce, besides serious marital fault, was the desire to no longer remain married to a spouse. In ancient Rome one of the intricate characteristics that defined marriage was the will to be married and an attitude of mind in regarding one another as husband or wife.  The marriage was considered to have ended when the will or attitude ended.A husband or wife could notify their spouse of their intent that they no longer desired to be married and the marriage would have considered to be ended.

Subsequently, divorce in ancient Rome was commonly a private affair and only the parties involved were aware of the situation. At no point did a divorce have to be recognized or ratified by either the church (in latter Rome) or state. Also, no public records were kept; the lack of any divorce records sometimes led to some confusion with the numerous marriages and divorces going on simultaneously.

Ancient Roman society and culture is so interesting in part because of how long the empire lasted and in part because of the paradigm shift in beliefs from the beginning of the empire until its fall near the 4th century. Beginning as a deeply rooted pagan culture, mostly borrowed from the earlier Greeks, Roman society, law, and most religion went through a transformation with the introduction and adoption of Christianity. The custom of marriage was always held sacred, but to our surprise, divorce was common and the laws surrounding it come off as lax when compared even to later culture in Europe. The lesson, as always, is where there is marriage, there is divorce.

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