Weddings in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds – Part 2 — TammyJo Eckhart, PhD
Welcome back to Part 2 of TammyJo’s blog on weddings and marriage in Ancient Times. If you missed Part 1, you’ll find it right below this one.
What we would call a wedding ceremony was a three-day event in Athens. On the first day, the bride and her father made sacrifices to the gods, including her childhood toys, and then the bride and groom would bathe in sacred water (probably separately, but that’s unclear). On the second day the bride’s father held a banquet, after which all who attended (and some who were hired) escorted the bride from her father’s house to the groom’s (or groom’s father’s) house, accompanied by singing and dancing. On the third day, people visited the bride and brought her gifts for the new household. For most of us in the U.S. today the religious wedding ceremony is generally 30-60 minutes, while a civil ceremony is often less than 30 minutes long. Whether a judge or a religious leader officiates, it is common to host a reception or party either immediately after the wedding ceremony or at some later date.
Compare the Athenian ceremony with what most of us do. If we are religious, we might incorporate a ritual, though generally not a sacrifice; we had prayers and communion at my wedding back in 1992. Both bride and groom probably do bathe and physically prepare for the ceremony. If we have a banquet it is generally after the wedding ceremony proper and often at a rented location or religious building, not the father of the bride’s house. The same goes for any dancing we might do to celebrate. Gifts are indeed exchanged, and the burden of writing thank you notes still tends to fall on the bride. However, we exchange gifts not only after the wedding ceremonies but also during “showers” for the bride, and increasingly for the groom as well. I had three showers before I got married; my husband was at one of them, and his friends gave him a separate party as well.
Roman marriage ceremonies were similar to Athenian and modern Western traditions in several ways. As in Athens, there were feasting, parades of attendees, a sacrifice at the temple, and an exchange of gifts. The bride moved into the groom’s house at the end of the ceremonies in Rome.
But Rome gives us several unique traditions and legal requirements as well. The most important of these is the requirement for both the bride and groom to give their legal consent; the parents were not supposed to be able to force a marriage. Roman wedding ceremonies were primarily religious, overseen by a priest and/or priestess, though they did not have to happen at temples. At the end of the ceremony, seeds were tossed over the new bride, possibly as an appeal to the gods for fertility. We had rice thrown over both of us as we left the church, but today many couples are using birdseed, flower petals, or nothing as a way to be more environmentally cautious. The Roman bride’s head, but not her face, was veiled during the ceremony. Red was the proper color in Rome, while for most brides today the color would be white, at least for a first wedding.
The final aspect of Roman wedding ceremony depended on the legal type. There were two basic types of marriage in Rome. For a marriage with manus, the ceremony had to be overseen by the Pontifex Maximus (the highest ranking priest in the city) and his wife, who was a priestess. During that ceremony the couple split apart a small spelt cake and ate it together. Some historians think this may be where we get the idea of the wedding cake. This would have been a solemn moment and not disrupted by smashing cake into each other’s faces.
So there you have it, a very basic description of wedding ceremonies in Classical Athens and ancient Rome. If you’d like to learn more about marriage in either of these cultures, let Donna Schlachter know by commenting, and perhaps I’ll write another guest blog and give some more information. If you’d like to learn more about my non-fiction and fiction writing, check out my website.
Works Consulted for this Essay:
Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece.
Blundell, Sue. Women in Classical Athens.
Cantarella, Eva. Pandora’s Daughters.
Gardner, Jane F. Women in Roman Law and Society.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.
Reflections of Women in Antiquity, Edited by Helene P. Foley.
Women’s Life in Greece & Roman: A source book in translation, Edited by Lefkowitz and Fant.