Moral laws in ancient Rome: Instead of fleeting affairs: How Emperor Augustus wanted to force his subjects into marriage

Always just data, but nothing permanent.

Moral laws in ancient Rome: Instead of fleeting affairs: How Emperor Augustus wanted to force his subjects into marriage

Always just data, but nothing permanent. This is a well-known phenomenon in the age of dating apps, but the Romans already had to struggle with it. After the end of the civil wars and the transition from republic to empire, the victorious Augustus Octavian proclaimed an era of peace. He, who had played a key role in these wars, allowed himself to be styled as the bringer and guarantor of peace and prosperity.

In the emperor's mind, families played a central role in his flourishing empire. The Romans were supposed to marry and produce as many legitimate children as possible. At least the need was there, because Octavian's wars and the systematic murder of political opponents had left wide gaps in the upper class. Octavian de facto introduced a form of monarchy. However, he disguised the plan as a restoration of the republic. The good old customs of the ancients played a central role.

But after the end of the wars, the young couples did not strive for marriage. On the contrary, a certain marital fatigue was spreading. The end of eternal battles and systematic persecutions led to prosperity. The mentalities couldn't be more opposite. The men around the emperor had necessarily become professional military men, trained in war and murder. Even the emperor's wife had to fear for her life as a young woman and wandered penniless through Italy, pursued by her future husband's henchmen. And on the other hand, the younger generation now wanted to enjoy the “Dolce Vita”.

Extramarital relationships became widespread. The Romans developed a taste for decadent entertainment, and the strict modesty of their ancestors fell out of fashion. There were also tangible factors. In principle, women were still the “property” of the head of the family, who could marry them off at will. In practice, this form of radical patriarchy was no longer practiced. In addition, it could be in the family's interest not to officially marry the daughters in order to preserve property and inheritance for the clan.

The emperor wanted to do away with these newfangled conditions. With a whole bunch of laws he wanted to strengthen morals and make marriage the standard again. The whole package was called "Lex Iulia et Papia". As always, Augustus was not squeamish in his choice of methods. Anyone who didn't want to get married should feel his wrath. All men between 25 and 60 and all women between 20 and 50 had to prove that they were married. Anyone who couldn't do that was punished.

Those weary of marriage were excluded from all public entertainment. They were not allowed to attend theaters or other games. At that time it was a serious impairment. However, anyone who fathered three legitimate children could look forward to VIP seats. And why should someone inherit who didn't want to bring legitimate children into the world? So long-term singles were excluded from the inheritance. In addition, there were punitive taxes and a stop to promotion in the official career. Adultery was severely punished. Cuckolded husbands were forced to divorce. This was intended to combat the “pestilence of adultery, which defiles the decent home through fornication,” according to the “state poet” Horace.

Although these laws remained in force for 500 years, they did not have any measurable effect. Even if the Roman upper class did not die out. There were already enough die-hard singles in the Augustus area. And Octavian himself was a bad role model. His own marriage remained childless. Actually a case for forced divorce. Then he stole the wife Terentia from Gaius Maecenas - his friend and confidant since his youth. A mistake in general, because her adoptive brother later tried to kill the emperor. Augustus himself was fond of being unfaithful and forced forced marriages and forced divorces on his family, just as his political calculations demanded. In addition, under his rule a less than pleasant custom arose in the imperial family. In order to pave the way to the throne for one's own descendants, the murder of rivals became the hallmark of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

In fact, the moral laws were primarily intended to propagate the ideal of a dutiful Roman life. Even if marriage was not enforced by force, the laws clearly reminded Romans of what the state demanded of them. People who were not particularly concerned about modesty were well advised to act discreetly and not to display their debauchery in public. Especially not in the capital. Ovid, for example, achieved great fame with his erotic poems. He openly mocked old-fashioned customs. “What kind of country bumpkins must they be who get upset just because their wife is cheating on them.”

But the licentious verses also reached the emperor's ears. And he banished the popular poet to Tomis on the Black Sea, then a sad hole at the end of the world. Ovid was probably also involved in the debauchery of the emperor's daughter, Julia. Their orgies weren't just about (group) sex and rebellion against their overpowering father. She and her lovers are said to have planned an uprising. Be that as it may, the emperor called his daughter a "boil" and banished her to an island. For years, Julia was the capital's It girl, but now she was wasting away in a barren fishing village. A clear warning to everyone else not to go too wild.

Neither Ovid nor Juliet was ever forgiven. Even Augustus Octavian's successor, Emperor Tiberius, did not lift the banishment of the poet, who ultimately died in resignation in Tomis. Julia was allowed to leave the island, but then she starved to death on the streets. For fear of the terrible Tiberius, no one dared to help the emperor's daughter.