Amore Coniugali

ancient roman marriage

Image via Wikipedia

Marital fidelity was held up as a State virtue in ancient Roman times. On the surface, it was so important that Gaius Julius Caesar divorced one of his wives because gossip had been spread that she was unfaithful– and still divorced her even though she was proven innocent. Despite all this public theater holding up marital fidelity as a Gods-required virtue, infidelity seems to have run rampant. Roman men had mistresses, sometimes set up in their own residences. Roman women had affairs.  Virtuous Gaius Julius Caesar had a natural son with Cleopatra. So why this public virtue of Amore Coniugali?

Amore Coniugali is a weapon of control set on women. In a patriarchal system that demands purity of genetic birthright, it’s the ultimate tool of authority.  In order for the State to be well ordered, in order for men to pass their family name and bloodline on, womens’ sex lives must be rigorously controlled. Proper parentage must be assured.  But the important virtue seems to have been “don’t get caught”. Getting caught in adultery could be serious peril for a woman, depending on how angry her family was about it and how deeply her husband’s family wanted to prosecute it. A woman with a powerful family of origin could theoretically get away with more (and demand more fidelity from her husband), but in reality any woman caught or suspected of adultery was in deep trouble indeed. Men’s penalties were both less severe and not as well enforced. A woman  might divorce an adulterous husband if her family (mostly her father or other male relatives) agreed, but it would require a wealthy and relatively powerful family to have this sort of protection.

Unlike the Greeks or later Christians, being an illegitimate child didn’t have a deep level of stigma in Ancient Rome. It was better to be a legitimate child of the house, but illegitimate children could still inherit property and be citizens if their birth circumstances allowed.  In itself, this is pretty enlightened as people can’t help who their parents are, but it points out once again that Amore Coniugali is more about controlling women than any other thing.

Where does that leave us with this as a modern pagan virtue? Most pagans have a more open and egalitarian outlook on marriage, even if they don’t practice “open” marriage of the polyamorous kind.  A spouse should be a deeply cherished person, but people are no longer possessions. We don’t have slaves and we don’t rule over our wives as chattel.  Any return to that, any guarding wives’ or daughters’ virtue as a possession of fathers and husbands, offends me deeply.

As modern pagan women, we should “belong” only to ourselves. Our virtues belong to us, not to the men in our lives.  If in our marital agreements we agree to be monogamous, then both husbands and wives should honor that. This isn’t a matter of sexual purity, which is itself a repulsive concept to me, but a matter of love, care and honoring one’s agreements.   As virtuous, enlightened pagan people, we should not need a separate virtue to ensure that we love and honor those we have promised to love and honor in front of our Gods. No “amore coniugali”, not for this pagan woman.


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