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Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus/lex Papia Poppaea

Lex Iulia on the Ordering of Marriage/Lex Papia Poppaea

This lex Iulia was likely passed in 18 BC. The lex Papia Poppaea of AD 9 modified the earlier law. The law was likely reworked in response to popular process reported for AD 9 (Dio, 56.1-10).

The changing of the law after nearly twenty years shows that it remained an issue of political contention. It was one of the few areas in which we can confidently detect opposition to Augustus in the later years of his reign. One must assume that it affected the lives of ordinary Roman citizens and that in spite of its representation as a simple reinforcement of normal moral values, it was highly contentious and bitterly disputed.

All our legal sources are much later and most are interested in the practical application of the laws  in their own day. Those sources tend to amalgamate the two laws and we are often not certain which rules were passed when and whether they were modified later.

The law focused on two issues: marriage between persons of different status and the regulation of marital status and child-bearing.

The law

  • Banned marriage between probosae (people who were registered immoral [[prostitutes, those living off prostitution, actors, and adulterers) and Roman citizens.
  • Banned marriage between senators, children of senators, and freed.
  • Set an expectation on reproduction for men at age 25 and for women at aged 20.

The law encouraged marriage and reproduction by:

  • Giving special privileges to women and elite men who had multiple children.
  • Placing a tax on unmarried women.
  • Restricting the ability of the childless to inherit property.
  • Preventing the unmarried from attending theatrical events.

There were some loopholes. Women were allowed not to be married if

  • it was within six months of divorce.
  • it was within twelve months of being widowed.

The lex Papia Poppaea extended that grace period by six months or perhaps to two years in the case of the death of a spouse.

The laws were limited to those thought to be of reproductive age, though women over a certain age, and thus unable to bear more children, may have been prevented from inheriting.

Men appear to have been to lay claim to being married even if they were only betrothed. Augustus seems to have later restricted this loophole. Betrothals were limited to two years. Girls below the age of ten could not be betrothed. It seems that the legal minimum age for female marriage was 12.


This law related to the process of family formation.

But the law generated considerable opposition. Why? Why would men not want to marry?

  • The literature suggests that men were reluctant to marry because that would restrict their behaviors: it was more fun not to be married.
  • Marrying was a major social commitment. The husband would want to secure a bride with a suitable dowry. The bride’s family would want a husband of the right status. There was considerable negotiation involved. A man might delay marriage until he had accumulated the wealth to get the right bride.
  • Since marriage was a way of binding together two families, those families might hope and plan for a marriage for years. If there was a suitable groom, they might have to wait for a suitable bride. Girls could be betrothed from a very early age with the intention of cementing a pre-existing social relationship between the families. Early and long betrothals were not necessarily an attempt to evade the law. Putting pressure on men to marry might disrupted these long-formed plans.
  • Marriage was to produce children. Since the major source of wealth for the elite was inheritance and the major source of inherited property was one’s parents, there was a financial interest in limiting the number of children in the next generation. Getting married early might lead to having too many children.

Negotiations about marriage were an important and delicate familial matter. Some men might have chosen not to marry for familial reasons. Augustan intervention was probably deeply unwelcome.

Roman Marriage Sarcophagus 2nd c

Sarcophagus showing Roman marriage ceremony (second century CE) (British Museum)

There appears to have been an expectation that every woman would marry. The legislation does not suggest that women who had been divorced or widowed would have had a particular issue in finding a new husband.

There appears to have been a preference among Roman men for girls who had not previously married and there was praise for women who had known only one husband. But divorce did not lead to a taint on the character of a woman. The law does not suggest that women who remained faithful to dead spouse were particularly to be admired: indeed, they would be punished under this law.

Marriage was seen in instrumental terms. Marriage was for procreation. It was the duty of Roman men and women to procreate. It was not impossible for there to be marital love, but it was a necessary requirement. The provisions of the law are notable in lacking sentiment. A woman who was divorced was expected to immediately begin the process of remarrying. A woman who was widowed was allowed a little longer for grief. Marriage was a primarily social arrangement. Changing one’s marital partner was also a social act.

The laws encouraged proper behavior through financial incentives. Restricting the rights to inherit was a powerful influence on Romans. Wealth was accumulated through inheritance. One did not just inherit down the direct family line. Rich Romans would leave legacies to their friends and more distant relations. Over time, the younger generation (at least among the wealthier classes) would acquire wealth from numerous legacies. That wealth would allow a better marriage. Cutting off that source of wealth was a bitter blow.

Purposes of the Legislation

Augustan representations set the law in a moral framework, but  marriage was always an issue of practicality. Understanding the law requires a focus on practicality.

The primary function of the law appears to have been related to raising the population. In Res Gestae 8, Augustus links the rising population figures to his moral reforms. In Cassius Dio’s account (56.1-10) of demonstrations against the law in AD 9, Augustus emphasised the importance of producing the next generation of Roman citizens. In the face of opposition, Augustus read a speech of 131 BC by Quintus Metellus On Increasing the Population . There is no ambiguity.

One element of the law related to marriage between citizens and probosae. This reflects a moral judgement on those prevented from marrying, though one has to wonder whether there was a real problem that was being addressed. How many senators might marry freedwomen? How many senators’ daughters might marry freedmen? Was marrying actors a serious social threat? The issue here is likely to have been the proper formation of households. A senatorial household would be expected to be formed around a couple of similar status.

It is in the context of household formation that the regulations on wealth make sense. Romans viewed wealth, especially land, not as a source of consumption (something to spend)  but a source of status that would allow the reproduction of the household from one generation to the next. In an agricultural economy, what mattered was not the income one had (which could be dispersed quickly), but one’s assets which would produce variable levels of income year on year and would pass down to one’s children. Controlling the flow of assets then ensured that families for whom there was a next generation would be able to reinforce their status. It put wealth to productive purpose in maintaining the social order and the population whereas wealth in the hands of those without children could only be frittered away in expenditure.

Did the legislation work?

Were the incentives enough to change behavior? The two consuls who modified the law in AD 9 were both unmarried. Their behavior had not been changed. Those protesting in AD 9 were presumably not those who had changed their marital plans. Roman population figures do rise quite dramatically in the Augustan period, but can that be attributed to these laws? In the Tiberian period, some impoverished senators were to claim that they had more children because of the legislation, but they were making a bid for imperial financial support and are not necessarily reliable witnesses.

How likely is it that people made the decision to marry based on these incentives?


Augustus         Reform and Order       Moral Reforms      Lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis  The New Age        Households, Families, Men and Women        Lex Fufia Caninia and Lex Aelia Sentia


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