Ancient History & Civilisation

No fault, no fees, no attorneys!

Even though marriage in those long-ago centuries could be challenging, divorce, by comparison, was a breeze. Divorce proceedings today often resemble an arena in which blood is spilled and combatants are scarred; in contrast, the Romans restricted most of their bloodshed to the gladiatorial amphitheatre.

Romans tended to be anal and legalistic in many regards, but they treated divorce in a casual, almost informal way. Although men—and a tiny handful of women—studied law, there were no lawyers (divorce attorneys or otherwise) for hire as we think of them. Marriage therapists and family counselers? Nope.

Although sources disagree on the year, the first recorded divorce in Roman history probably occurred around the year 230 B.C., when a certain Spurius Carvilius divorced his wife. The reason given? She was unable to have children. Infertility (even though it might have been the old man who was sterile) was the only legal reason for divorce given in the Twelve Tables, Rome’s oldest written code of laws. The original tables, destroyed by the barbarian invasion and burning of Rome in 390 B.C., have only survived in jumbled, incomplete form.

Over time, three other “serious marital faults” besides infertility became justifications for Roman men to divorce their wives: adultery; consuming wine; and most heinous of all, making copies of the household keys.

Eventually women got to sue for divorce as well.

The actual “ceremony” was unceremonious. After a couple declared their intent to live apart in front of witnesses, they were divorced. In some cases, if the husband had initiated the divorce, he simply took away her household keys and turned her out.

The most outlandish aspect of Roman divorce? Unless the wife could prove that her hubby was worthless, he generally got to keep the kids.

From the second century B.C. on, husbands and wives kept their property separate during marriage, so “community property” became an oxymoron. Besides her dowry, a well-to-do woman or an heiress might own rental property or a business; generally, however, she didn’t have a hands-on role in her investments or business transactions. Her male guardian (her father, brother, husband, or other male kin in the background) did.

The wife and her dowry (except in the case of adultery) would return to her father’s household, who as pater potestas, all-powerful dad, had an obligation to find her a new husband. When it came to remarriage, though, Daddy’s domineering hand was not the final word—hers was.

When it came to the Greeks, separation was a far likelier scenario than divorce, especially if infertility seemed to be the cause. In causes of abuse, the wife had some legal protection—although in high-status marriages, look out. (See the entry on Alkibiades for an ill-fated attempt to divorce.)

If a Greek wife committed adultery and was found out, and if upon discovering it, her husband did not murder her or her lover in so-called justifiable homicide, Athenian law prohibited the couple to continue to live together. So in essence, the couple was already divorced. If a Greek husband committed adultery, what then? Didn’t count, of course.

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