Wedding Traditions of Ancient Rome
Wedding traditions of the ancient Romans illustrate a variety of opinions, practices and customs around the marriage bond. From the extravagant to the austere, these rites evolved over centuries and continue to influence wedding celebrations today. Decorative symbols of fertility, such as the traditional wedding bouquet and cake, arose from these influences.
Secluded weddings, with only close family members attending, were a sign of respect and modesty. Couples were commonly between 12 and 20 years of age. The wedding procession would often take the bride to her groom’s home, where he would be waiting with family, friends and religious figures to preside over the ceremony. The bride was addressed with a special rite in which her garments were blessed with cocoa and wine before being led to her husband’s bed.
Matrimony began with the couple participating in rituals that sought to confirm the union as divinely approved. A series of sacrifices and ceremonies, including a communal feast and the bride wearing a veil or crown, followed. The bride then symbolically allowed herself to be carried over a threshold in a gesture known as the “confarreatio,” which was thought to have had a magical power to sanctify the union.
Money, property and other assets all played a part in the confirmation and legality of the union. If the bride was a Roman citizen and the groom an outsider, a public “coemptio” was necessary in which a witness represented the couple in the eyes of the law.
The Wedding Reception
The milestone of the wedding day was the wedding reception as the ceremony was often held in the middle of the day. This was an important event as it was the first official gathering of both sides of the families. The bride and groom normally sat at the head of the event, while other guests feasted around them. Furthermore, special foods were prepared according to the couple’s family traditions. Entrees were often made with fish and legumes or dishes with eggs, cheese and pastries. Typically, the bride would be expected to serve the wedding cake.
At the end of the feast, a traditional dance would be performed that involved the bride andy. Bride and groom would often break into a chaotic march around the tables in a ritual known as the “circus.” The spectacle was complete when the guests joined in and a chorus was heard in surroundings illuminated by torches.
The Significance of Symbols
The significance of symbols and traditional objects of antiquity remains in many wedding traditions today. For instance, a flower garland, made of aromatic herbs, is used to adorn the bride and symbolize joy and fidelity. Similarly, wheat and shafts of grain, traditionally tied together, are placed in baskets around the reception as a sign of abundance.
The well-known tradition of throwing confetti, dates back to ancient Rome when servants would greet the newlyweds with a shower of rose petals, nuts and grains. These symbolic gestures would bring upon the couple luck and longevity in marriage. The tying of the knot evolved from the exchanging of “lucky knots” in the form of ivory bracelets with gemstones.
Other Wedding Practices
The week prior to the wedding saw the bride conduct a series of rituals such as washing her head in brine and donning a special robe. She also had to abstain from drinking wine and eat only one daytime meal. These practices were seen as essential to achieving a chaste and pious union.
The guests’ engagement with the couple was very important as well. Ancient tradition stated that the guests should bring presents or give monetary donations at the reception. It was the duty of the father to honor the arrangements of pre-nuptials and acknowledge all wedding gifts.
Roman weddings were conducted with extraordinary respect for divine power, which was sought to sanction marital life. A traditional priest performed the Roman wedding ceremony, invoking the gods of love and marriage to witness the union.
The priest would oblate incense and wine to the gods during a ritual intended to enchant brides with clear voices, good character and tenderness. The couple’s hands would be bound together (or the groom would sometimes crown the bride) to signify that their bond was divinely sanctioned.
Finally, although the practice of dowry was fading, it was still necessary in some of the upper classes. A token called “praetorium” was given to the groom as a pledge of the bride’s fidelity.
Legally Binding Document
The newly married couple would also draw up a legally binding document outlining their rights and obligations. This could include details about their assets and the bride’s dowry, as well as the groom’s promise to maintain his wife’s living quarters in his home. The document and the wedding ceremony seemed to represent a reconciliation between the patriarchal husband and the autonomous wife.
Another important symbol of the ceremonies was the flame, a symbol of immortality and worship. Its light was said to make the union unbreakable, strengthening the bond between the couple for life. This scope of the power of fire symbol was supported in culture with extravagant fire feasts, which remain a popular choice in wedding receptions today.
Wedding Robes and Colors
Wedding robes in Ancient Rome varied in style and color. The bride commonly wore a bright veil with a finely-woven dress in white, symbolizing purity and virginity. The color of these garments also suggested the qualities of modesty and elegance.
The groom, on the other hand, was expected to wear a plain white toga embellished with gold trimmings. He often carried a short staff and wore a wreath of leaves in the shape of a crescent moon on his head. This was to signify his rank in society.
Marriage was not only a union of two people, but a contractual bond established between two households as well. A marriage between two powerful families would form a powerful alliance, known as a “domestic alliance”, or slightly different in meaning ‘domestic league’ or ‘domestic coalition’. This ensured that the families’ wealth and assets were kept far away from creditors or any other person looking to steal their assets.
The ‘domestic alliance’ also made marriages more meaningful because with the unity of two families, more and bigger treaties were born. This also affected the wedding ceremonies, as the practice of honoring gods and goddesses took precedence. This increased the importance of ceremonies and solemnity of the whole wedding and associated religious rituals.
Preserving the Ancient Customs
Rome was certainly a major influence in the evolution of wedding customs over the centuries. The modern adapted large chunks of their traditions in the form of cultural and religious symbols. This includes cultural dances, the bride’s garland and veils, elaborate wedding cakes, and the commonly served Roman dishes at wedding banquets.
These symbols of antiquity tell us a lot about the couple, their commitment to each other, and the expectations of society, but not all of it necessary lines up with our modern values. Nonetheless, the traditions of ancient Rome are still very much alive, even while they have evolved over time.