When the Romans Tried to Save Marriage

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by W.F. Price on February 24, 2013

I’ve been reading up on ancient law and religious texts regarding marriage and sexual relations, so I revisited the Lex Iulia enacted by Emperor Augustus to restore marriage and fertility to Rome.

By the end of the Republic Rome was not all that different from the contemporary US. Men were loathe to marry, all manner of licentiousness prevailed, and the fertility rate was abysmally low.

To rectify the situation, in 18-17 BC Augustus promulgated laws intended to strengthen marriage and morals, and eventually added more to encourage childbearing. First, he introduced stricter punishments for adultery, seduction and male-on-male rape, then a couple decades later in 9AD, with the Lex Papia Poppaea (ironically named after two bachelor consuls), added incentives to have children. There are echoes of the Lex Iulia et Papia in Stalin’s natalist and moral policies of the 30s and 40s WWII, and even Chairman Mao’s Weida Muqin (great mother) campaign of the 50s and 60s.

In introducing the laws, Augustus quoted a 2nd century BC speech by censor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, who had tried to pass similar natalist laws. In this speech, Macedonius said that although men may not relish the idea of marriage, it was a necessity nonetheless:

If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance; but since nature has so decreed that we cannot manage comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our lasting preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure.

The original “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” line, and spoken so long ago. Some things never change…

Excerpts from the Lex Iulia:

(1) In the second chapter of the lex Julia concerning adultery, either an adoptive or a natural father is permitted to kill with his own hands an adulterer caught in the act with his daughter in his own house or in that of his son-in-law, no matter what his rank may be.

(2) If a son under paternal power, who is the father, should surprise his daughter in the act of adultery, while it is inferred from the words of the law that he cannot kill her, still, he ought to be permitted to do so.

(3) Again, it is provided in the fifth chapter of the lex Julia that it is permitted to detain an adulterer who has been caught in the act for twenty hours, calling neighbours to witness.

(4) A husband cannot kill anyone taken in adultery except persons who are infamous, and those who sell their bodies for gain, as well as slaves. His wife, however, is excepted, and he is forbidden to kill her.


(8) It has been decided that a husband who does not at once dismiss his wife whom he has taken in adultery can be prosecuted as a pimp.

(10) It should be noted that two adulterers can be accused at the same time with the wife, but more than that number cannot be.

(11) It has been decided that adultery cannot be committed with women who have charge of any business or shop.

Augustus took these laws quite seriously — so seriously that he exiled his daughter Julia to an island for committing adultery.

In the Lex Papia, penalties were introduced to discourage bachelorhood and celibacy, while incentives were provided to have children. Freed slaves who had four or more children were released from any obligations to their patrons, and inheritance taxes were lowered for those giving to children (as opposed to spouses).

The laws were decidedly unpopular. Romans had grown accustomed to living relatively unrestricted lives, and disliked the idea of being tied down to one person (sound familiar?). However, it was the Christians who finally overturned the laws through consistent pressure. Christians resented being punished for celibacy, which was held to be ideal in the early church, and probably opposed the divorce mandate for adultery.

In any event, the laws do not appear to have had much of an effect on either fertility or sexual morality. If anything, they may have mitigated some of the decadence of Rome, but as we know it is very difficult to legislate public morality; laws cannot make up for a lack of will.

I find the laws interesting as a potential model for what some future authoritarian government may try to introduce in the West. Western birthrates are so low and public morality so besmirched that it’s only a matter of time before governments try to turn things around for their survival. Filling up a country with foreigners is not a viable solution for elite self-preservation in the long term, so I expect to see glimmerings of natalism emerge in the West within the next decade or so. First, of course, they’ll try “maternity leave” and the like to dress it up as a feminist, progressive cause, but when that inevitably fails they’ll change their tune and start trying to resurrect the heteronormative family. It will be interesting to see how that goes down given what an about face it will require.

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