Marriage and Adultery Laws of Emperor Augustus

Subject: History
Pages: 7
Words: 1710
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: College


Gaius Octavius, popularly known as Emperor Augustus, is considered one of the most important rulers of Rome. He is the individual credited with the founding of the Roman Empire in 27BC after the collapse of the Roman Republic. Augustus was able to overcome the social and political upheaval prevalent in Rome after the ruin of the republic and his reign is considered a pivotal moment in western history. Augustus held extraordinary powers and he was able to rule almost like a king. He embarked on a mission to restore the glory of the Roman state and achieved some considerable success. A major objective of Augustus’ reign was the restoration of traditional Roman values and morality in society. To achieve this goal, he personally introduced laws that were aimed at regulating marriage and sexual conduct among citizens. Before these laws were passed, individuals were at liberty to monitor and regulate their own moral conduct. The marriage and adultery legislation introduced by Augustus had an important impact on the social order in Roman society, which was at that time rife with moral corruption. The laws where enacted to deal with marriage avoidance, the preference for childless unions, marriage of lower class women by the Roman elite, and adultery, all of which threatened the continuity of the Roman aristocracy.

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Reasons for the Laws

At the time Emperor Augustus established the Roman Empire, the state was in disarray due to political upheaval and decades of civil war. Rome had experience political crisis that had led to wars between different groups. Augustus had managed to emerge victorious and establish an empire in place of the late republic (Cassius 13). However, the new government was in danger of falling since it faced some of the problems that had led to the collapse of the republic. Augustus was eager to restore the state and establish a powerful empire. The decline in moral conduct by Romans was seen as one of the main explanations for the political crisis that led to the demise of the Roman Republic. Dealing with the morality crisis that his empire faced was therefore a cornerstone of Augustus’ plan for state restoration.

Another reason for the implementation of the marriage legislation was the need to rehabilitate the marriage institute. When Augustus became Rome’s ruler, the marriage institute was experiencing a profound breakdown. This was especially evident among the elite who engaged in numerous extramarital affairs and divorced each other regularly (Miles 211). There was also a preference for bachelor lives by a number of the aristocrats or getting married but not having children. Augustus felt compelled to take action that would restore the integrity of the marriage institute and promote child bearing within the family setting.

In addition to this, Augustus was greatly troubled by the demographic patterns evident in his empire. At the time of the formation of the Roman Empire, the population of the upper class members of the society was considerably low. This was an issue of great significance since the elite played a key role in preserving the Roman Empire. According to Edmondson, the aristocratic held administrative positions and dominated the economic and political sphere of Roman society (252). The prosperity of Rome therefore depended on the existence of this class. Augustus was therefore concerned about the declining number of nobles within the State. The marriage and adultery laws were part of the social engineering program aimed at replenishing the dwindling number of the upper class.

Implementation of the Legislations

Augustus’ laws used a number of strategies to promote marriage in the Empire. Various rewards, punishments, and incentives were used to encourage people to marry and produce children within the marital context. To promote marriage, the laws imposed high taxes to unmarried people while low taxes were issued to the married couples. The Augustan laws made marriage compulsory for men from the ages of 25 to 60 and women from 25 to fifty (Miles 213). Most of the elite had chosen to remain unmarried in order to enjoy their wealth and freedom. The heavy taxation introduced as a result of Augustus’ laws removed this incentive since the unmarried lost significant wealth to the government through tax. Due to the financial pressure caused by the marriage laws, many elite bachelors chose to not only marry but also to do so at a younger age than they would have done without the tax burden imposed on them. Once in marriage, the laws tackled the problem of high divorce rates by imposing a minimum period that couples had to stay in the union before they could seek divorce (Suetonius 179).

The marriage laws addressed the problem of low population among the elite by encouraging child bearing. The laws stipulated that for a person to be eligible for appointment in certain senior public officer, he had to be a father. The number of children an aristocrat had affected his chances of being appointed to prestigious positions (McGinn 57). Men with three or more children gained priority in the competition for public office. Frier and McGinn observe that the childless married couples were barred from certain appointments (103). This situation pressured many ambitious administrators to have many children in order to increase their chances of acquiring senior appointments. In addition to these government rewards for children, Augustus’ laws included some financial incentives. The financial incentives were in the form of policies that influenced inheritance. Specifically, the legislation denied childless couples the right to receive inheritance. This was significant since most of the elites with modest finances relied on the generous inheritances from their rich relatives to maintain their lavish lifestyles and position in society. Without children, such elites would be denied their inheritance and this would have an adverse effect on their social status.

The laws led to the preservation of the integrity of the aristocracy by dictating who could join this group. While Emperor Augustus wanted to increase the number of the Roman elites, he also wanted to preserve the purity of the ruling class. This could only be achieved by encouraging the elite to marry within their own class. Frier and McGinn admit that the Augustan marriage laws were meant to create legal barriers to marriage (34). These barriers were based on social prejudice and they were meant to ensure the integrity of the ruling class by preventing certain people from joining this class through marriage. Miles documents that the laws discouraged senatorial men from marrying women outside their political order (213).

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The adultery laws sought to stabilize marriage by encouraging fidelity. Stiff penalties were imposed on anyone found to have engaged in marital infidelities. The penalties for adulterous wives were divorce and a loss of dowry. In addition to this, the women were ostracized and not allowed to remarry. Husbands could not ignore adultery on the part of their wives and they were legally obligated to report the matter to the authorities. The penalties for violating the marriage and adultery laws were strict and often imposed on members of the society in spite of their sociopolitical status. Suetonius reports that Augustus banished his own daughter, Julia, and later his granddaughter for alleged violation of the adultery law (223). While men were allowed to engage in affairs with unmarried women and slaves, any sexual relationship with a married woman led to stiff penalties. The penalties included a loss of property, imprisonment and even banishment to an island (Frier and McGinn 103).

Outcomes of Augustus’ Legislations

Augustus’ policies had a significant impact on the social life of Romans. The marriage laws were not simply enacted to enhance the welfare of individual Romans but to ensure the strength and continuity of the empire’s sociopolitical organization. The marriage laws increased state interference in matters of private conduct by society. According to Edmondson the laws represented a “profound attack on personal freedom and it brought the private life of all Romans under the heel of state oversight and regulation” (55). By doing this, the Augustus administration was able to improve the morality levels in the empire and therefore hasten the restoration of Roman prestige. This prestige had been damaged by the significant immorality of Romans in the decades leading to the collapse of the Republic. By having the legislation on morals and marriage central to his reign, Augustus was able to restore the traditional prestige that Rome had enjoyed in the glory days of the republic.

Augustus was able to increase his popularity and the level of support among his subjects through his legislations. The emperor promoted the laws as a way for the Romans to regain their prestige by reverting to their traditional values. The citizens were attracted to this leader who stood for the traditional values that the Romans cherished. Some historians argue that the laws were aimed at reinforcing the political power of the emperor by increasing his popular support base (Miles 213).

The population of the Roman elite increased as a direct result of the laws. As noted, the dwindling numbers of the aristocracy was one of the main motivations for implementing the marriage and adultery laws. Once the laws were in place, the upper-class members of the society were encouraged, through the government sanctioned incentives and penalties, to enter into marriage unions and bear children. Augustus’ policies achieved their demographic goals by promoting the increase in number of Roman elites. The success of the Empire was therefore assured during Augustus’ reign since his laws led to the increase in number of the ruling class.


This paper set out to discuss Emperor Augustus’ marriage and adultery legislations, which were a series of laws aimed at regulating social behavior among the Romans. The paper began by acknowledging the significance of Augustus’ reign in Roman History. It then expounded on the marriage laws and showed how they were meant to penalize sexual indulgence and promote child-bearing, especially among the elite. While the laws were an attack on the personal freedoms of Roman citizens, they fulfilled an important role in the society. The legislations were able to restore the prestige of the Roman Empire and promote the marriage institute in society. They also contributed to the increase in the population of the elite who were considered crucial to the continued success of the empire.

Works Cited

Cassius, Dio. The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus. Trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert. NY: Penguin Classics, 1987.

Edmondson, Jonathan. Augustus: His Contributions to the Development of the Roman State in the Early Imperial Period. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Print.

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Frier, Bruce and Thomas McGinn. A Casebook on Roman Family Law. Oxford University Press, 2004.

McGinn, Thomas. “The Social Policy of Emperor Constantine in Codex Theodosianus 4,6,3.” Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 67.1 (1999): 57-73. Web.

Miles, Gary. Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome. Cornell University Press, 1997.

Suetonius, Gaius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Trans. John Rolfe. NY: Loeb Classical Library, 1914. Print.

Source Analysis

Frier, Bruce and Thomas McGinn. A Casebook on Roman Family Law. NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

This secondary source will be used as a major resource for the term paper on the topic “The Marriage and Adultery Laws of Emperor Augustus”. I chose the particular resource for a number of reasons. To begin with, the information provided in the book can be assumed to be reliable since its two authors have well established credentials. Bruce Frier is an authority on the subject of Roman Family Law and is a professor of Classics and Roman Law while Thomas McGinn is an authority on the subject and is a professor of Classical Studies.

The book sets out to address the family law issues of the Roman Empire. It covers the period between 30BC and 250AD which means that years of the early Roman Empire are covered within the book. It offers a comprehensive review of some of the family law issues including marriage, divorce, inheritance, and children. The book presents numerous case studies from Roman legal sources to demonstrate how the Romans addressed various issues.

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This resource addresses the laws passed by Emperor Augustus in 18 – 17 BC to regulate social conduct of the Romans. The book provides information that gives the context within which Emperor Augustus’ policies where implemented. It highlights the moral corruption that Rome was facing and the need for legislation to regulate social behavior. The book explains the rationale behind Augustus’ legislation and goes on to show how they were implemented during his rule.

Using this source I will be able to provide compelling evidence to explain why Augustus felt the need to enact the marriage and adultery laws. I will also be able to assess the impacts of these laws on Roman Society.