CHAPTER XVI. THE WOMEN: MARRIAGE, THE ROMAN MATRON, AND HER DRESS

We will assume that Silius is a married man, and that his wife is a typical Roman dame worthy of his station in life. Her name shall be Marcia, or, if she possesses more than one, Marcia Sabina. Marriage does not confer upon her the name of her husband, and if she requires further identification in connection with him, she will be referred to as "Silius's Marcia." At an earlier date a woman owned but a single name, but already practical convenience and pride of descent had combined to make it desirable that she should bear a second, which might be taken from the family either of her father or of her mother. Thus if Silius and Marcia themselves have a daughter, she may in her turn perhaps be called Silia Bassa, perhaps Silia Marcia.

If now we proceed to describe the position of Marcia in her conjugal and family relations, to speak of her way of life, and to suggest her probable character, it must be understood that the description would by no means necessarily fit every Roman matron. Women are said to be infinitely various, and in this respect the ancient world was precisely like the modern. And not only has it further to be borne in mind that there were several strata of Roman society, and that city life differed widely from country life; there was also an actual difference in the legal position of a wife, according to the terms upon which she had chosen to enter the state of wedlock. In other words, there were two forms of matrimony. According to the old-fashioned style a wife passed into the power of the husband; her legal position - though not, of course, her domestic standing - was the same as that of his daughter. Once on a time he had even possessed the right of putting her to death, but at our date that privilege no longer existed. It was enough that she should be subject to his authority. In that position she managed the home and family, and often managed him as well. How far this time-honoured style of marriage was still maintained among the lower classes of Roman society it is impossible to tell; our information is almost entirely restricted to the higher, or at least the wealthier, orders. It is, however, probable that among the artisans and labourers, where the dowry of a wife cannot have amounted to anything very considerable, this more stringent state of matrimony was the rule. Paterfamilias was the head and lord of the house, while materfamilias held in practice much the same position as she did in Anglo-Saxon households of two or three generations ago.

Meanwhile among the upper classes, but in no way legally limited to them, an alternative and easier form of marriage had become increasingly popular. It was one which gave to both parties the greatest amount of freedom of which a conjugal union could reasonably allow. The woman did not pass into the power of the man, and, short of actual infidelity, she lived her own life in her own way, although naturally conforming to certain recognised etiquette as a partner in a respectable Roman menage. If neither affection nor moral suasion could preserve harmony or proper courses, either party might formally repudiate the contract, and, after a short interval, seek better fortune in some other quarter. There was, of course, a public sentiment to be considered; there was family influence; there was the characteristic Roman pride; there was often a fair measure of mutual esteem and even affection; and there were obvious joint interests which made for stability; but beyond these considerations there was nothing to hamper the inclination of either husband or wife. Yet it is a grave mistake to imagine, because there was much, and sometimes appalling, looseness of life under a Nero, that the race of noble and virtuous Roman matrons - the Cornelias and Valerias and Volumnias - was extinct; and it is equally a mistake to suppose that Rome no longer produced its honourable gentlemen filled with a sense of their responsibilities to family and state. The satirist should not here, nor elsewhere, be our chief, much less our only, guide. The England of Charles II is not to be judged in its entirety by the comedies of the time nor by the Memoirs of Grammont. On this matter, however, it will be more convenient to touch in a later paragraph. It will be best to deal first with the system in vogue, and then to consider the sort of woman whom it produced.