Love was irrelevant to the success of a marriage in Roman eyes.
Marriage was there in order to provide children. Loved was a welcome thing, but by no means necessary. And in many ways it was seen as somewheat ridiculous. It diminished once ability for rational thought. And so being in love was not something to be envied.
In any case, just as it was deemed socially unacceptible to talk about sex, so too was it thought indecent to indulge in any public displays of loving affection. And so married couples would not kiss in public – not even a simple kiss on the cheek.
There are examples of Roman attitudes for love. Pompey’s devotion to his young wife Julia (Caesar’s daughter) was only seen as effeminate weakness. Old Cato’s affection for the slave girl he eventually married was seen as the pathetic lustings of a lecherous old dodderer.
The bed in the atrium of Roman houses was a symbolic reminder of the very reason of marriage, -children. And so, it is believed, Roman marriages were largely contractual affairs, devoid of love. Hence sexual relations between husband and wife would most likely be kept to a minimum and then purely for the purpose of producing offspring.
Social traditions had pregnant wives abstain from sex altogether. And after birth they would continue to do so for a peroid of perhaps two to three years, as they continued to breast feed the child.
And so marital love in Rome was merely another form of fides – loyalty.
It was the wife’s duty to seek to produce offspring with her husband, just as it was her duty not to betray him to political opponents or to embarass him by behaving inappropriately in public. She was a partner not in love, but in life.
Her role, should he die, was clearly defined to. She woudl wail and cry and scratch her cheeks in a public display of distraughtness. His household would weep and so would she.
The fides of the Roman wife showed itself perhaps most clearly if she failed to produce any children, due to infertility. If possible, she would step aside and seek divorce, returning to the household of her father, so that her husband sould remarry and produce an heir. If this was not possible it was seen as proper for her to allow him to have concubines and to show no jealousy against them.
All in all, the Roman wife comes across as a love starved creature which hungers for any sign of affection by her husband, who in turn tries his very best not to do so.
The reputation of those famous men who did truly show their love, men such as Pompey or Mark Antony, shows just how fround upon their beahviour was. For to fall in love, to be spell bound by a woman, was to be in her power. And the image of the henpecked husband was a thing any Roman would seek to avoid at any cost.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.