A Quantitative Analysis of Elite Marital Alliances in the Late Republic
- “Marriage was one of the most important means of allying the small number of great political families that controlled Rome…2 other famous examples will suffice.” –S. Dixon, “The Marriage Alliance In the Roman Elite” , Journal of Family History, 10:4 (1985:Winter): 353.
- “Marriage or adoption might retrieve the waning fortunes of a noble family.” –R. Syme, The Roman Revolution, (Oxford, 1939) (3 examples follow.)
- “The marriage alliance was still a political act.” –E. Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, (Berkeley, 1974) (3 examples follow.)
- “The same narrow ring of Republican women are used as exempla in secondary works again and again, often with no source criticism.” –T. Corey Brennan (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) 365
Database Terms and Demographics:
- Successful political career: A Roman Republican politician as one which ultimately achieved the office of consul, dictator, or censor.
- Husbands: 53.5% in database. 32% reached the rank of consul, 7.5% reached the rank of censor, and 13.8% reached the rank of dictator or triumvir, for a total of 83 successful husbands in the database.
- Fathers-in-law: 49.7% successful: (78)
- Unsuccessful political career: Praetors, aediles, quaestors, senators, tribunes of the plebs, or otherwise politically undistinguished men.
- Husbands: 46.5% in the database, or 74 unsuccessful husbands.
- Fathers-in-law: 50.3% unsuccessful (79)
- Serial Polygamy:
- 17 serially polygynous men, averaging 2.7 marriages each; dictators and triumvirs averaged 5 wives each.
- 7 serially polyandrous women, averaging 2.3 husbands each.
- Patricians vs Plebeians:
- Husbands: 38 patrician husbands in marriages, (24%) 119 plebeian husbands (76%)
- Fathers-in-law: 62 patrician (39.4&), 95 plebeian (60.5%).
- Nobiles families (recent consular, historically consular (but not father or grandfather) vs Novi (New Men)
- Husbands: 109 (75%) from recent consular families, 9 historically consular families (6%), 27 Novi (18.6%), rest undetermined.
- Fathers-in-Law: 116 (75%) from recent consular families, 6 historically consular (4%), 32 Novi (20.7%) .
- Endogamous Marriages (within Pat/Pleb or Consular/Novi) Categories vs Exogamous Marriages
- 124 (79%) endogamous marriages within either all consular marriages or all Novi marriages.
- 65 (45%) endogamous marriages within either patrician-patrician couples (19) or plebeian-plebian couples (46), 78 (55%) mixed exogamous marriages (patrician-plebeian or plebeian-patrician)
Various Measures of Success
It is a truism frequently acknowledged that elite Roman men during the Republic married for political advantage and in order to create alliances with other powerful families. However, since the work of Friedrich Münzer (Münzer 1920), there has been no major systematic study of the evidence for such claims or any analysis of the effectiveness of such unions. By uniting traditional prosopography and modern quantitative and statistical analysis, I analyze evidence from one hundred and fifty-nine Roman Republican elite marriages in order to investigate the effects and significance of marital alliances upon Roman men’s political careers.
When considering one of this conference’s central questions, whether, in fact, “the late Roman Republic was in practice a manifestly oligarchic sociopolitical system” (Noreña 2020), I want to address today three common social and familial tropes of oligarchies with regard to the late Roman Republic. My database can establish proof of these tropes for this era. First, oligarchies are generally characterized by predominantly endogamous marriages (Winters 2011). Secondly, while most oligarchies allow for some entry by extraordinarily competent and lucky outsiders into their ranks, a far more common pattern is the presence of what I will call the “Failson Principle” – that it is extremely uncommon for incompetent and untalented members of oligarchic families to fail to reach high office or status, due to the strong safety net provided by their oligarchic network (Morris et al 1997). Finally, there frequently exist subgroups and inner social hierarchies within oligarchic societies that are not as readily perceivable to outside observers, such as the Dutch families in the New York 400 of the late 19th century or, for the late Republic, the persistence of patrician families. By examining the political success or lack of success of the men in my dataset, I can test out each of these particular tropes to determine its applicability to the middle and late Roman Republic.
This paper seeks to blend the frequently isolated subfields of ancient political science and ancient gender history. The study of ancient gender and sexuality has predominantly relied on cultural historical approaches or, when possible, the use of archaeological evidence. This project borrows methodologies from political science and quantitative studies in order to provide a new perspective on this area of research.
The hypothesis that Roman elite families during the middle and late Republic married for political advantage has been widely accepted among scholars. However, it is usually only supported by a few persistent examples, such as the marriage of Julius Caesar’s daughter Julia to his ally Gn. Pompeius Magnus in 59 BCE. Previous detailed studies of the political effects of Roman marriages have focused either primarily on the legal evidence, a few specific cases, or the period of the Principate (e.g. Corbier 1987, Dixon 1992, Raepsaet-Charlier 1987, Treggiari 1993, Haley 1985, Hallett 1984).
My work gathers and analyzes a large data set of historical evidence about actual marriages in order to further reveal the internal structures and hierarchies of the Roman elite during this period. To test this hypothesis more rigorously and broadly, I have developed a database of all known elite marriages during the middle and late Roman Republic in which we know the name of the husband, the highest political office he achieved, the name of the wife, and the highest political office achieved by her father. Such categories necessarily leave out a very large number of known Roman male politicians and a smaller number of known elite Roman women. We lack the familial ancestry and even the names of many Roman wives. However, the one hundred and fifty-nine documented examples in my database still significantly increase our understanding of Roman Republican elite marital alliances and their political effects.
Since the focus of my study is specifically on how marital alliances affected elite male political careers in the Roman Republic, I have chosen to only consider marriages dating from 300 BCE to 44 BCE. Some of my spouses were born before 300 BCE or died after 44 BCE, but all the marriages considered began within that time period. The dynamics of marriages during the later Roman civil wars and the Principate form a distinct and separate concern, one largely focused on proximity to the triumviral or imperial families rather than to a larger oligarchic group. Meanwhile, the prosopographical aspects of early Principate marriages have also already been fully analyzed by Raepsaet-Charlier.
In particular, I focus upon marriages between Roman women of consular status and their spouses, especially novi or New Men, examining what potential effect such advantageous alliances might have had for the political careers of the novi. I also examine the patrician and plebeian status of the individuals in these marriages to further establish whether these status markers were still relevant at various periods in the middle and late Republic or whether nobiles had indeed fully replaced patricians as the elite class.
Such a study has its limitations, naturally; we know far more about the marriages of particularly prominent Roman men than random consuls in uneventful years. The data is necessarily both limited and skewed. By closely examining and measuring all the available data in quantitative form, however, I am able to draw some firmer conclusions about the nature and structure of Roman political careers during this period. By analyzing the men whom young elite Roman women married, we can also glimpse how Roman elites themselves viewed status differentials within their society. It also offers a glimpse of both upward and downward social mobility; given the social and religious consequences, why would a patrician woman or her family choose to marry a plebeian man? Furthermore, this data indicates which familial or marital factors increased elite male success in the cursus honorum, as well as which factors were largely irrelevant.
In the process, we may also gain some small glimpse into the lives and choices of elite Roman women during the Republic. While we will never know the interior familial dynamics of these women and men, we can at least begin to understand some of the patterns underlying the most fundamental choice determining the path of an ancient woman’s life: her spouse. We can also assess the larger nature of Roman elite social networks and determine to what extent they constituted an aristocratic oligarchy.
 This database remains a work in progress based on available sources to date; if further data is discovered I will update it and my results accordingly. My primary evidence for this database has come from Münzer (1920), Wiseman (1971), Broughton (1984) and Zmeskal (2009), as well as the relevant primary sources and epigraphic data. I am in the process currently of incorporating all of the very valuable material from romanrepublic.co.uk.
Brennan, T. Corey.. “Perceptions of Women’s Power in the Late Republic: Terentia, Fulvia, and the Generation of 63 BCE.” In A companion to women in the ancient world James, Sharon L., and Sheila Dillon, eds. (John Wiley & Sons, 2012): 354-366.
Broughton, Thomas Robert S. The magistrates of the Roman Republic. Philological monographs: American Philological Association. (1984).
Corbier, M. “Les comportements familiaux de l’aristocratie romaine (IIe siècle avant J.-C.-IIIe siècle après J.-C.).” Annales (1987): 1267-1285.
Dixon, S. The Roman Family (JHU Press, 1992)
Dixon, S. “The Marriage Alliance In the Roman Elite,”Journal of Family History 10:4 (1985:Winter).
Gruen, E. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, (Berkeley, 1974) 60.
Haley, Shelley P. “The Five Wives of Pompey the Great” Greece & Rome (Second Series) 32 (01): 49–59
Hallett, J. Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family; (Princeton University Press, 1984)
Morris, Michael H., Roy O. Williams, Jeffrey A. Allen, and Ramon A. Avila. “Correlates of success in family business transitions.” Journal of business venturing 12, no. 5 (1997): 385-401.
Münzer, F. Römische Adelsparteien und Adelsfamilien (J. B. Metzler, 1920).
Raepsaet-Charlier, M-T. Prosopographie des femmes de l’ordre sénatorial (Ier–IIe siècles. (Louvain, 1987)
Rollinger, Christian. “Social network analysis and Republican Rome.” The Power of Networks: Prospects of Historical Network Research (2020).
Treggiari, S. Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Clarendon Press, 1993).
Syme, R. The Roman Revolution, (Oxford, 1939).
Winters, Jeffrey A. Oligarchy. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Wiseman, Timothy Peter. New men in the Roman senate, 139 BC-AD 14. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Zmeskal, Klaus. Adfinitas: the relationships of the senatorial leadership of the Roman Republic from 218-31 BC Chr . Vol. 1. Stutz, 2009.