Classically Inclined

January 10, 2013

Age asymmetric marriage in ancient Rome

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:09 am
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Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have spotted, just before the new year, an unscientific poll I undertook about what the average age difference between partners was among my followers’ peer groups; I asked the same question on Facebook as well. I was curious whether my perception of differences in ages was accurate – I had thought that most of my friends were within a five year gap, but Geoff countered that he thought among our peer group the difference was narrower, more like two years. What better way to check than to ask the internet?

The responses were quite interesting, not least because some people offered their thoughts about why the age gap looked like it did. In general, my sense that gaps of two, three and four years were most common seemed to be borne out, although more people than I was expecting said they felt the average among their peer group was a year or two years. People identified outliers (fifteen or twenty years difference), but tended to label them as outside the norm, either within the peer group or usual social patterns. Most people who offered suggestions about why this might be thought that socialisation had a lot to do with it – people had met partners at university, or alternatively had met through their university friends’ wider networks which tended to be roughly age-equivalent, hence the prevalence of one and two year gaps.

So why was this on my mind? Because of the Roman Life Course class I am teaching today, looking at age asymmetrical marriage in the Roman world. I’ve asked students to look through one of Plutarch’s Lives and think about what features of the life course can be traced through it; the class this evening will focus on what we can pick out about their marital habits from the texts. I spent most of my Christmas and New Year working through the Lives in question myself, and tracing the marital histories of Antony, Cicero and Pompey. Pompey is the particularly interesting example; he married five times, prolific even in a society that structured itself to encourage remarriage wherever possible. His early marriages appear to be fairly age-equal as far as these things go – for instance, his second wife (Sulla’s stepdaughter) would have been about eighteen and he would have been about 24 when they married, which is a bit wider than we’d normally see now but not unheard of.

However, his fourth and fifth marriages show a really interesting shift in perception. His fourth wife was Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar; she was about 24 and he was about 47, so there was a 23 year difference. Plutarch comments on Pompey dedicating himself to his young wife and being distracted from the political life of the state, but the impression is that this age gap at this stage is not unusual and other men have found themselves in the same situation. However, it’s a different story with his fifth wife, Cornelia Metella – while he’s about 55 when they marry, she’s only 21, making a whopping 34 years difference. Plutarch snidely observes that she would have been a more appropriate wife for a son of Pompey than for Pompey himself, suggesting that this time he’s gone just that bit too far in crossing the age boundary. The Romans can cope with a wide age difference, but there are limits; Pompey’s case demonstrates roughly where the unseen boundaries of acceptability lie.


  1. Do you think the possibility of having (or not having) children has anything to do with this, at least after the Augustan marriage laws? Disregarding high infant mortality for a moment, the larger the age gap between an older husband and younger wife, the more likely a child would be to grow up without its father, and this would be especially problematic for boys who would lack their fathers’ influence and example later in their lives. Reversing this, if a young man married a much older woman, he might have to be prepared to forgo biological children completely. I suppose adoption was fairly common and could address these problems.

    Perhaps it’s more to do with a perceived lack of self-control and dignity!

    Comment by Jane — January 10, 2013 @ 10:32 am | Reply

    • The interesting thing about the three Plutarch examples I’m teaching with this evening is that they’re all pre-Augustan marriage laws. However, I think the possibility of having children is definitely involved – I heard a great paper at Feminism & Classics VI by Angela Hug which was arguing for the construction of Roman society being optimal to ‘reproduce to replacement’, but it not quite working which highlighted the various ways in which Roman society was set up to optimise female fertility windows (hence younger wives). But even with Pompey, of his five wives, only his third gives him living children; Julia becomes pregnant but miscarries twice. So despite his oft-married state, his offspring look no different to those of peers who only marry once or twice.

      In terms of the fatherless boy example, this is where the system of remarriage comes in – the expectation of remarriage whilst fertile was in operation even before the Augustan marriage laws, and we can see that in the Pompey example too. His fifth wife had been widowed when her first husband was killed in Parthia (Crassus, yes, that Crassus), so I would have thought that her remarriage would have been inevitable; had she had young children, that would have meant they would have had a father figure.

      The other attendant problem on fathers living as long as adult sons, of course, is the issue of patria potestas and emancipation, and how much a living father means a son’s independence is frustrated – but that’s another subject for another day!

      Comment by lizgloyn — January 10, 2013 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  2. Interesting. There are distinct sub-populations in my padt and present social circles: Chartered Engineers (MechEng, Civils, Electricals) are high-functioning late-socialised geeks and the mean age difference in narriage is seven years – and I choose not to quote a median, as I have two outliers at 20+ years’ age difference. Five to ten years is typical among my own professional peer group of contractors and consultants in IT.

    Oddly enough, this holds true for both of the male civil partnerships in my sample group – but not for the female same-sex marriages.

    I’m excluding second marriages: I know of one or two that might be termed ‘trophy’ marriages among managerial types, and the half-dozen or so Thai (plus one Russian) brides who did not know their husbands a month before they married.

    Comment by Nile — January 10, 2013 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

  3. There are so many factors to consider.

    Whereas we now marry for love, the ancients had arranged marriages. And it is highly likely that an older powerful and successful man would have his pick of wives. Family, wealth, politics, and child-bearing would all contribute to the choice. Claudius is a good example as he was from a powerful family but due to his disabilities seen as an embarrassment. He married four times but before that had two engagements. He married his first wife Plautia Urgulanilla at the age of 19 (she was probably of a similar age and the daughter of the General Silvanus). He married his second wife Aelia Paetina at the age of 38 (she was about 30 and stepsister to Sejanus). He married his third wife Messalina when he was 48 and became Emperor (she was about 18 and a great-grandniece of Augustus (the link to the Julia gens more significant than her age). And he married his last wife Agrippina when he was 59 (she was 34 and his niece and once again of the Julia gens).

    An interesting modern comparison would be academics.

    Comment by Max Bini — January 11, 2013 @ 12:01 am | Reply

  4. Would you say that the difference is mostly that for Romans, the age gap is about authority?

    Looking at your examples, it seems to work like this: a paterfamilias ideally has the advantage of age as well as gender over his wife. Anything up to a generation older than her works fine for that. However, if a man is *more than* a generation older than his wife, then the family could acquire her through marriage to an older man in the next generation down, so his greater age ceases to be a necessary requirement and becomes an excess.

    Whereas our template seems to be that partners should be more or less equal. The gap of ‘up to a generation’ still sort of applies, in that it’s not considered excessively creepy, but it’s for the opposite reason: we want to *avoid* having the disparity in age being a cause of inequality, while the Romans, possibly, sought it out to reinforce inequality.

    Which might explain why the line is slightly different. For us, as a general rule (to which there are doubtless exceptions), a generation’s worth of difference is a cut-off point because one doesn’t want one partner to have the authority of a parent over the other one. For Romans, quasi-parental authority *was* what they wanted, and after a generation-and-a-bit’s worth of age difference, it would be criticised because it seemed like there was a better way to get it.

    Comment by kitwhitfieldield — January 15, 2013 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

    • Authority and age is definitely an interesting question in this context. One of the other life courses I gave students the option of dealing with was that of Antony, whose third wife was about fourteen years younger than him (as indeed was Cleopatra – they were both the same age, which is a bit odd). We don’t know the age of his first wife, but we do know his second wife, Fulvia, was born in the same year as him, making them the same age, which is particularly unusual. Plutarch’s comment on Fulvia is that “Cleopatra was indebted to her for teaching Antony to endure a woman’s sway, since she took him over quite tamed, and schooled at the outset to obey women’. I wonder whether part of that impression of the relationship comes from the age-equal nature of their marriage – although of course Antony begins his affair with Cleopatra while he is still married to Fulvia, and the age difference exists there (although arguably is neutralised by Cleopatra’s royal status).

      Comment by lizgloyn — January 17, 2013 @ 3:54 pm | Reply

  5. I have no idea of the age differences among my friends. The differences in my 3 marriages were 7, 10, 16 years, now back to 10 in a partnership.

    Comment by Diana Gilliland Wright — February 6, 2013 @ 1:41 am | Reply

  6. I think you need to define if you mean Roman as a resident of Rome, or Roman as an inhabitant of the Empire. In the various reaches of the empire all sorts of different patterns existed. In Roman Egypt for example, around 25% of marriages were brother-sister marriages.

    Comment by Paul Halsall — February 6, 2013 @ 11:34 am | Reply

    • In this particular case, we were thinking about patterns in the city of Rome itself (and potentially also urban Italy) rather than broader practices in the Empire – as you rightly point out, provincial patterns, particularly in places like Egypt, can look very different.

      Comment by lizgloyn — February 18, 2013 @ 11:36 am | Reply

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