Augustus Gaius Octavius and the Lex Iulia et Papia Poppaea

Statue known as Augustus of Primaporta located in the Braccio Nuovo of the Vatican Museums

Statue known as Augustus of Primaporta located in the Braccio Nuovo of the Vatican Museums

”If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance; but since nature has so decreed that we cannot manage comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our lasting preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure.” Augustus in a speech to the Senate in 17 B.C.

Augusts Gaius Octavius, also known as Gaius Octavius and Augustus Gaius Julius Octavius, was emperor of the Roman Empire from January 16, 27 B.C. until his death on August 19, 14 A.D. The famous Julius Caesar had adopted Gaius Octavius and named him heir to the throne, but with the fall of Caesar came the fall of kings in Rome, making Augustus the first Emperor to ever rule the Roman Empire.

When Augustus arrived to rule the empire, laws and rules had been in place but he had believed that the laws were not quite what they should have been, especially concerning marriage and adultery. At the time, the Roman Empire was facing population depletion and moral corruption due to the declining number of married people within the upper classes. A result of the marriage decline was that there were more children being born illegitimately than legitimately, leaving lands and properties unclaimed for no illegitimate person could own either. Augustus sought to combat these issues to increase moral, to encourage and reward those who were married and had children, and to punish those who had committed adultery. These laws are known today as Lex Iulia et Papia Poppaea.

There were three different legislations that Augustus implemented, and throughout history we have lost the ability to determine what changes were made with each specific law. What we are left with are the names of the legislation and the modifications as a whole. The first legislation that was put into place was named Lex Iulia de Maritandis Ordinibus, which is roughly translated to marriage laws. The Maritandis Ordinibus was implemented in 18 B.C. and was the most strict of the three and caused much dissent among the people of the Roman Empire. As a way to try and appease his people, Augustus made a second legislation in 17 B.C. called Lex Iulia de Adulteriis Coercendis, which is aptly about the illegality of adultery. Some leniencies were also attended to in the adultery laws from the previous legislation on marriage laws. The Maritandis Ordinibus and the Adulteriis Coercendis were left in place until 9 A.D. when Augustus again modified the laws; this was named Lex Iulia et Papia Poppaea and is what we today refer to all of the marriage laws during Augustan rule.
It is agreed that Augustus was known to be brutal and cruel when he was young and also when he first began his rule but he softened his edge throughout the course of his life. Some say it was because he knew that his place as ruler was safe so he no longer needed to be cruel to hold his position. He never completely lost his ruthlessness though and was forced to rule with an iron fist even at an old age.

Some of the laws that were implemented through the Lex Iulia et Papia Poppaea include:

Men between the ages of 25 and 60 and women between the ages of 20 and 50 had to be married. If the person was not married, they had to pay high taxes to try to encourage marriage amongst the people.

There were exceptions to the unmarried tax law and these were heavily modified with each new reform. If a person was divorced they were given 6 months to find a new spouse, if a spouse had died the widower was given 1 year, and if a person was to turn down a proposal to marriage they were given 18 months to marry. As part of the newer legislations, both in 17 B.C. and 9 A.D., changes were made to the marriage laws; if a person was divorced, they were given 18 months to find a new spouse instead of the 6 months allotted previously. If a person’s spouse had died, they were given 3 years to find a spouse instead of the previous law stating that they had only 6 months.

Bust of Augustus located in Musei Capitolini, Rome

Bust of Augustus located in Musei Capitolini, Rome

Anyone, besides senators, could marry freedwomen and their children would be legitimate. A freedwoman was a woman who had previous been a slave but had been freed. Marriage to a slave or a former slave would result in illegitimate offspring until this law was put into place.

Men were forbidden to marry underage girls, which became a problem after the marriage tax law was implemented. Men were turning to young girls for marriage just to avoid the taxes and there was no restriction on what age a person could marry at. The new law stated that a woman of 12 was of legal age to marry because it was the official age of female puberty. Even though the age of marriage for women was 12, they could be betrothed as young as 10 for a period of 2 years, so as to secure the marriage for the future.

Men with 3 or more children were given priority in government positions, while women with 3 or more children were no longer required to have a guardian with her.

People born of illegitimate birth were not permitted to be on the official registers. This was an attempt at decreasing the number of persons born illegitimately and to cast shame on those who were considered not of legitimate birth. As a couple with 3 or more children, both individuals were no longer required to leave more than 10 percent of an estate to one another.

Fathers of daughters who had committed adultery were permitted, but not forced, to kill them, as well as their partners. There were no exceptions to the killing of the daughter under this law but the father could only kill the partner if he was physically in the father’s house or in the son-in-law’s house. Husbands were also given the permission to kill the partner with whom their wives has committed adultery with as long as he was infamous. After both people were found guilty of adultery, a woman was forced to give up half of her dowry and a third of any property she owned and then banished to an island. The man, if still alive, was deprived of half his property and was also banished to an island but a different one from the one in which the woman was sent. Women faced harsher penalties under adultery because it was not illegal for men to cheat on their wives. A husband was then forced to divorce the wife or face the penalties of being a pimp.