During the days of the empire, marriage came to be looked upon as a mere civil contract, entered into for the happiness of the contracting parties. Either party might dissolve it at will, and the dissolution gave both parties a right to remarry. This system treated the obligations of marriage with levity, and almost contempt. Cicero repudiated his wife Teterentia, because he wanted a new dowry. Teterentia had brought him a considerable fortune, but this having been expended, the easiest way to get more seemed to be to marry a new wife.
Maecenus, the great statesman and patron of literature, was continually changing his wives.
Sempronius Sophus repudiated his wife because she had once been to the public games without his knowledge.
Paulus Emilius put away his wife without giving any reason, simply saying, “My shoes are new and well made, but no one knows where they pinch me.”
Roman women were as much lost to shame as the men. Seneca the philosopher said there were women who reckoned their years by their husbands and not by the consuls. Martial speaks of a woman who had come to her tenth husband. Juvenal tells of a woman who had eight husbands in five years. St. Jerome declared that there was a woman in Rome who was married to her twenty-third husband, she herself being his twenty-first wife. Augustus compelled the husband of Livia to repudiate her, that he might marry him herself. Cato gave his wife, with the consent of her father, to his friend Hortensius, and remarried her after his death.
There were faithful wives and lifelong marriages and pure love and happy households, but these examples show the base depths to which public opinion and moral conditions had fallen.
As a somewhat natural result of loose and frequent marriages, or no marriages at all, infanticide was fearfully prevalent. There are illustrations in Latin literature of the prevalence of killing or exposing newborn babes. In one of Terence’s plays he represents a father, upon going away, charging the mother to destroy the babe if it proved to be a girl. The mother in the pity of her heart gives it to an old woman to be exposed, in the hope that someone might take it. Upon the father’s return he upbraids the wife for not only being disobedient, but unreasonable, for she has consigned her daughter to a life of shame.
The fact is, many of the exposed children died, but at length they became so numerous that they were systematically gathered up and sold by speculators to be educated as slaves or prostitutes. Some were maimed and trained as professional beggars whose gains went to the purses of their vile owners.
We shrink from looking deeper into the awful pit of Roman iniquity. We cannot wonder that Rome fell. The marvel is that the rotten structure stood so long.
Strange as it may seem, the morals of the barbarians who conquered Rome were vastly superior to those of the Romans. The Teutonic sentiment in woman’s favor is seen in very stern legislation attempts on her chastity.
A law of the Spanish Visigoths prohibited a surgeon from bleeding any free woman except in the presence of her husband or some near relative or other properly appointed person.
A Salic law imposed a fine of fifteen pieces of gold upon anyone who improperly pressed a woman’s hand.
Slavery was a prolific source of Rome’s degradation. As we have seen elsewhere, about fifty million of Rome’s population were in bondage. Wealthy men counted their slaves by hundreds or thousands. Many of these were Greeks and highly educated, though they brought Greek vices with them. There were slaves for every department of work in the houses of wealthy Romans. Each was a specialist, whether cook, waiter, or scribe. Horace, the Roman poet, boasts of the simplicity of his bachelor life, that he was waited on at a table by only three slaves.
The theatrical performances with which the Romans amused themselves were degrading beyond description. Scenes were introduced from the licentious stories of Greek mythology. The pantomime finally came to be the favorite and almost exclusive stage amusement. It was gross and often obscene.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.