How did Romans choose a husband? Pliny’s Letters 1.14 gives us a good idea of the process.
To Junius Mauricus
You ask me to look out for a husband for your brother’s daughter, and you do well to select me for such a commission. For you know how I looked up to him, and what an affection I had for his splendid qualities; you know, too, what good advice he gave me in my early years, and how by his warm praises he actually made it appear that I deserved them. You could not have given me a more important commission or one that I should be better pleased to undertake, and there is no charge that I could possibly accept as a greater compliment to myself than that of being set to choose a young man worthy of being the father of grandchildren to Arulenus Rusticus. I should have had to look carefully and long, had it not been that Minucius Acilianus was ready to hand, – one might almost say that Providence had prepared him for the purpose. He has for me the close and affectionate regard of one young man for another – for he is only a few years younger than myself – yet at the same time he pays me the deference due to a man of years, for he is as anxious that I should mould and form his character as I used to be that you and your son should mould mine. His native place is Brixia, a part of that Italy of ours which still retains and preserves much of the old-fashioned courtesy, frugality and even rusticity. His father, Minucius Macrinus, was one of the leaders of the equestrian order, because he did not wish to attain higher rank; he was admitted by the divine Vespasian to praetorian rank, * and to the end of his days preferred this modest and honourable distinction to the – what shall I say? – ambitions or dignities for which we strive. His grandmother on his mother’s side was Serrana Procula, who belonged to the township of Patavium. You know the character of that place – well, Serrana was a model of austere living even to the people of Patavium. His uncle was Publius Acilius, a man of almost unique weight, judgment, and honour. In short, you will find nothing in the whole of his family which will fail to please you as much as if the family were your own.
As for Acilianus himself, he is an energetic and untiring worker, and the very pink of courtesy. He has already acquitted himself with great credit in the quaestorship, tribunate, and praetorship, and so he has thus spared you the trouble of having to canvass in his behalf. He has a frank, open countenance, fresh-coloured and blooming; a handsome, well-made figure, and an air that would become a senator. These are points which, in my opinion, are not to be neglected, for I regard them as just rewards to a girl for her chastity. I don’t know whether I should add that his father is a well-to-do man, for when I think of you and your brother for whom we are looking out for a son-in-law, I feel disinclined to speak of money. On the other hand, when I consider the prevailing tendencies of the day and the laws of the state which lay such prominent stress upon the matter of income, I think it right not to overlook the point. Moreover, when I remember the possible issue of the marriage, I feel that in choosing a bridegroom one must take his income into account. Perhaps you will imagine that I have let my affection run away with me, and that I have exaggerated my friend’s merits beyond their due. But I pledge you my word of honour that you will find his virtues to be far in excess of my description of them. I have the most intense affection for the young man, and he deserves my love, but it is one of the proofs of a lover that you do not overburden the object of your regard with praise. Farewell
Junius Mauricus and his brother were opposition figures under the emperor Domitian. His brother died and left Mauricus in charge of his niece. The niece has reached marriageable age and Mauricus is looking for a husband for her. He writes to his friends for help and Pliny recommends Minucius Acilianus.
The girl is likely to have been around 15 years old, perhaps younger. It was her first marriage.
Mauricus must have had a wide social circle. But he has not got an obvious candidate for husband to his niece. The girl herself has not been consulted, but Pliny has. If his suggestion works, he will have facilitated a major family arrangement for Mauricus and Acilianus. This would further enhance his friendship with these men.
What qualities did Pliny see in Acilianus that would make him the ideal husband?
- He is a friend of Piny and he holds Pliny in great affection, treating him with respect.
- Acilianus is five years younger than Pliny. But how old is Pliny? The letters were probably written c. 97-98. Pliny would be about 36-37. That makes Acilianus about 31-32. See also point 6.
- He comes from North Italy, like Pliny’s family and Mauricus’ family.
- His family was distinguished, including his father and his uncle and maternal grandmother. Strangely enough, when I married, no one asked after the moral reputation of my maternal grandmother (spotless of course).
- The character of the groom: he is hard-working.
- He has had a senatorial career and has performed the first three posts in the senatorial ladder of office: quaestor, tribune, praetor. The Augustan reforms of the senate meant that men became praetor about the age of 30 or 31, confirming the age guessed at under point 2. He never seems to have reached the consulship.
- He is good looking.
- Although we shouldn’t talk about money, he is rich. That will be important for the children.
We have to remember that the letter was published and there was a certain care taken in the selection of the letters. Pliny is unlikely to have published such a letter if the marriage had not happened.
There are some oddities here.
- Pliny almost certainly explains things in the published letter that were perhaps unnecessary in the original. It seems very unlikely that Mauricus was not aware of the family.
- In a modern context, such a letter would be labelled ‘confidential’ at the very least. Do we want to know who advises on such delicate matters and the criteria at stake? For Pliny and his friends, the matter is one in which everyone emerges with credit. Finding a spouse is an act of a friend, but is also of public benefit.
- One assumes that Acilianus is depicted as the ideal husband, that this is the ideal letter of recommendation, and that writing to your friends to in such circumstances is the approved convention
What makes an ideal arrangement?
- This is an arrangement between men. The girl is exchanged to make a familial alliance.
- The moral reputation of the family going back three generations.
- His ambition and the stage of his career.
What is not important?
She was to marry a man 15 or more years her senior. Indeed, since he is treated as a young man, who needs guidance from the wise Pliny, one assumes that an even older man might have been a possibility. He was a man she had not met. He was a friend of a friend of her uncle. There is no consideration of the age difference. She is to love him because that is her duty.
A marriage of equals?
The prospective husband was certainly her senior. But she came from a distinguished family. She would presumably have brought a large dowry. She would likely have had considerable property of her own. She would certainly have made a contribution to the household of her spouse.