What Was The Punishment For Adultery In Ancient Rome


As one of the world’s oldest societies and first established super powers, Ancient Rome had an expansive legal framework in place to manage and mediate all manner of legal matters. This can be evidenced by their legal system, which was broken down in to twelve primary classes known as the twelve tables. Though originally written by the plebians in 450BCE, this system was later formulated and codified by the Roman Senate. Adultery, or ‘stuprum’, was a punishable offence in Ancient Rome, offering severe punishments that were applicable to both men and women.

Legal Framework

In its earliest form, Roman law pertaining to adultery was grounded in the principle that a woman was an extension of her husband. According to this notion, adultery committed against a man was considered personal injury against him and therefore his legal right to seek retribution. This “absolutist” viewpoint placed women in a subordinate position and dealt an extremely harsh punishment – death – for those accused of adultery. The punishment of death was “off the table” by the second century BCE and instead replaced by other forms of financial penalties or exile.

Punishment for Men

For men, the punishment for adultery could range from fines, confiscation of their goods, public shame, exile, or slavery. Though unlike women, men were able to avoid punishment by divorcing the wife they were accused of wrongfully bedding. Male offenders were also capable of redeeming themselves in some instances, if they could prove to the courts their partner was already adulterous before they became involved.

Punishment for Women

Women however, even if innocent of the charge, were left with fewer options. Most women were subjected to a public ceremony where the accused was made to parade around town wearing a what is known as a ‘stigma’, a garment with the word “Adulterer” or “Adulteress” written on it.
Aside from the stigma, if the woman was either married or of lesser social ranking than the male, she would be punished by death or slavery. If the woman was a prostitute, she was dealt a death sentence.


From what we can gather, the punishments for adultery (or ‘stuprum’) varied depending on the gender, class, and marital status of the accused. The punishments for men were comparatively more lenient than for women; which may have been a byproduct of ancient Rome’s patriarchal values. That being said, it is noteworthy that in Ancient Rome, seeking retribution as a “wronged partner” was a legal practice within their framework. This suggested that adultery was recognised as a serious wrongdoing, with hefty punishments for those found guilty.

Comparison to Today

The punishments for adultery in Ancient Rome are drastically different from those found in many countries today. Though there may be certain regulations that restrict or forbid adultery in some places, punishments usually carry no harsh legal term and settle as a civil penalty or can often be very simply, absolved by an apology or and a promise not to repeat the same mistake. Considering the modern view of personal freedom, the ancient structure of Roman law serves as a measure of how far our society has progressed.

Expert Opinion

An expert on the matter, S.P. Oakley, an Professor of Ancient History at the London School of Economics, commented on the subject on an interview, declaring that “The punishments for adultery in Ancient Rome would be seen as very harsh and oppressive by modern standards. That being said, this was representative of a time where the structure of society was more patriarchal and dictated that a woman’s behaviour reflect directly of the social standing of her husband.”

Cultural Legacy of Roman Law

Roman law has had a lasting influence on many legal frameworks across the world. While modern day legal systems have mostly evolved past the rigid structure of Roman law, its remnants remain buried in the various facets and facets of the contemporary legal system. It is therefore of critical importance that we analyse and understand the elements of Roman law before they are entirely forgotten and lost to time.

Conclusion of Adultery Laws

In conclusion, adultery was a punishable offence in Ancient Rome and it was expected that all citizens of the empire, regardless of gender or social rank, follow through with the punishments when necessary. These punishments ranged from fines to slavery and death, and were often much stricter for women than men. Though the laws of adultery are now largely a thing of the past, there is still much to be learned from analysing these ancient systems of punishment.

Modern Day Adultery Laws

In modern day, adultery laws vary from country to country, and even within states in countries. In the United States, adultery is considered a criminal offense in only a few States, namely Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Minnesota. These States view adultery as a misdemeanor, with a maximum punishment of up to a year in jail, a fine of up to $1000, or both. In other States, adultery is considered a ground for divorce, but may not necessarily be punishable with a jail term or a fine.

Consequences of Adultery Today

Though it is no longer illegal, adultery can still have serious consequences, particularly on a marriage. Common consequences of adultery include loss of trust and respect in the relationship, as well as strain in communication and other areas of the relationship. This can often lead to the eventual breakdown of the marriage, with one or both partners moving to end the relationship as a consequence of the infidelity.

Cultural Attitudes Towards Adultery

Cultural attitudes towards adultery have largely changed from Ancient Roman times. In the Western world particularly, there is a shift in the understanding that adultery can often be a source of conflict within a marriage and marriage counselling is sometimes erected as a solution to quell the problem.

International Attitudes Towards Adultery

Attitudes towards adultery are often different between countries, with different forms of punishment being meted out. In most Islamic countries, adultery is considered illegal, and often times carries a substantial penalty or even a death sentence. Even in countries where it is not illegal, social attitudes can often be very hostile towards those accused of infidelity.

Potential Solutions to Adultery Issues

In today’s society, adultery is increasingly recognized as a serious issue that can arise during a relationship. Solutions for those dealing with infidelity can range from counselling and therapy, to simply taking a step back and considering the underlying issues that may have led to the adultery, such as a breakdown in communication or a waning of the relationship. Irrespective of the approach taken, adultery must be addressed and resolved if a relationship is to survive in the long term.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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