Augustus’ Policies Regulating Marriage and Adultery


The Roman Empire is considered one of the most successful empires in ancient civilization. This empire was established in 27BC following the decline of the Roman Republic, which had existed for half a millennium. Emperor Augustus, who was born Gaius Octavius, is regarded as the founder and one of the most celebrated rulers of the Roman Empire. This ruler is credited with bringing political and social order to a Rome that was experiencing great strife and the threat of disintegration due to political and moral corruption. Augustus attempted to restore order in Roman society by enacting laws that regulated marriage and adultery in society. These laws had significant impacts on the lives of the Roman elite and are considered a legacy of Augustus’ rule. This paper will discuss the Augustan policies on marriage and adultery. It will set out to highlight the major reasons why Augustan implemented the Marriage and Adultery legislation in the Roman Empire.

The Augustan Laws Regulating Marriage and Adultery

Augustus founded the Roman Empire after his defeat of the two other military dictators of the Roman Republic, Marcus Lepidus, and Mark Antony. At the time of the establishment of the Roman Empire, the Roman marriage institute was fragmented. The integrity of marriage had been affected by the violent political disorders of the late Republic (Miles 213). There were a large number of extramarital liaisons by the aristocrats and divorce rates were high. At the same time, most elite Romans preferred to lead either life as a bachelor or enjoy childless marriages.

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Emperor Augustus saw the need to take measures to correct this situation. He did this by introducing marriage and adultery legislations. Augustan presented his Marriage and Adultery legislations as reforms that would return the State to the moral customs and conduct of its past. The Augustan policies on marriage and adultery were first introduced to the senate in 18 BC (Edwards 24). While presenting the legislation, Augustus emphasized on his aim to engage in a widespread reformation of morality within Rome.

Major Purposes of Augustus’ Policies

The Augustan laws on marriage and adultery were structured to deal with the sexual independence and the excesses of the upper class in Rome. The laws aimed to serve a number of specific purposes in Roman society.

Marriage and Childbirth Promotion

The first major goal of the policies was the promotion of marriage and childbearing among Roman citizens. At the time of enacting these legislations, there was a trend towards marriage avoidance by many Romans. At the same time, the majority of those who chose to marry did not reproduce any children. To encourage marriage and childbearing, the Augustan policies made use of rewards and punishments and incentives (Severy 56). The government exerted heavy taxes on young unmarried people. In contrast to this, married men and women were taxed lightly.

The government offered rewards in the form of senior appointments to married citizens who had children. Appointment to the prestigious magistracy position was dependent on the number of children that the individual had (McGinn 57). Childless couples did not have a chance at being appointed to such positions. Ambitious government employees were therefore pressured to get many children in order to achieve their career objectives. The connection between marriage and children can be seen from the fact that the government introduced penalties for those who were unmarried and without children while no penalties were imposed on those who were unmarried but had children.

The legislation also created great financial incentives for getting children. It did this by affecting the inheritance rights of childless individuals and couples. The legislation stated that if a married couple was childless, they were not eligible for inheritance from their distant relatives. This had major repercussions for the upper-class couples who had limited resources and relied on the inheritance from rich relatives to cement their social position (Severy 55). For such couples, not having children would mean that they could not inherit and this would jeopardize their upper-class status.

In addition to increasing the number of legitimate marriages, Augustus’ laws also aimed to increase the duration of these marriages. Historians document that at the onset of Augustus’ rule, divorce rates among the Roman upper class were prevalent. Miles documents that the rapidly shifting political alliances during the civil wars had led to the high incidence of divorce and remarriage (213). This high rate of divorce had led to a significant decrease in the fertility rate of the elite since couples split up before children could be born. The laws stipulated the minimum number of years that a marriage could last therefore limiting divorces.

Due to the social benefits of marriage and the pressure of the financial penalties imposed on bachelors by Augustus’ legislation, upper-class men were prompted to marry earlier than they would have done without any external pressure. This led to an increase in the number of marriages and the duration of individual unions among Roman citizens.

Promote the Continuity of the Upper Class

A primary motivation for Augustus’ policies was to foster an increase in the number of aristocrats. Some scholars maintain that the marriage and adultery legislations were demographic legislations whose major goal was to catalyze the growth of the Roman population (Jenkins 11). The laws were structured to encourage the population growth of the Roman elite who were regarded as the backbone of the Augustan state. Dunstan confirms that Augustus reformed the laws to encourage marriage in the Senatorial and Equestrian Orders and incentives were offered for having children (243). This demonstrates that a key goal of the Augustan Legislation was to preserve the integrity of the Roman Upper class. Severy notes that while Augustus pretended to rule under a democracy, his regime took steps to reassert the clear divisions between the principal ranks or “orders” of Roman society (52).

The devastating wars in the Republican period as well as the civil wars that Rome had experienced during the early days of Augustus’ rule had greatly decreased the number of the Roman ruling class. For Augustus, ensuring that the upper echelons of society existed in large numbers was crucial to preserving the Roman Empire (Bourvrie 100). These elites were the pillar of Roman society since this group was charged with administering the empire. This minority class dominated the economic and political aspects of society. Davis confirms that Augustus feared that if the population of the Elite declined dramatically, the future of the State could not be guaranteed (Davis 26).

By imposing the Marriage law, Augustus ensured that the status of the upper class was sustained. McGinn documents that the legislation effectively stopped certain groups from being allowed to join the elite class through marriage (58). The legislation banned senators and their family members from marrying people who were regarded as morally inferior to the ruling class in Rome. Specifically, the senators and their descendants could not marry former slaves, prostitutes, actors, or children of any of these types of women. It was argued that by marrying any of these morally inferior people, the Roman elite would not be able to hold high office in society. McGinn asserts that Augustus’ policies effectively denied the possibility of legitimizing children produced by unions with certain types of women (57). The transfer of property to such children was also prohibited thereby ensuring that the wealth of the upper class remained within the Elite families.

The eugenic nature of the legislation can be seen from the fact that it was exclusively aimed at the upper echelons of society. These ruling classes were given incentives to have larger families while no incentives were offered to ordinary citizens.

Morality Improvement

The marriage and adultery legislation was aimed at improving the morality of what was considered to be a decadent society. Historians record that the period of the decline and eventual collapse of the Roman Republic was marked by significant sexual corruption. This situation made many Romans conclude that sexual immorality was strongly linked to the political disorder experienced by a State (Parker 565). Augustus himself regarded this legislation as a step towards moralizing society and restoring it to its traditional values.

Some historians argue that part of the motivation for Augustus pursuing this moralizing law was to increase his own popularity since people were likely to be more attracted to a leader who purported to uphold and value the traditional values of Rome (Severy 53). The adultery legislation, known as the lex Iulia de adulteries, of 18BC criminalized sexual relations between unwed people and installed stringent penalties for violations of the law (Bourvrie 98). Adultery had previously been considered a domestic offense that individuals dealt with as they saw fit. However, Augustus legislation reformed this and in subsequent years, criminal trials for adultery charges were held.

For the Augustan regime, adultery by the Roman elite had dire implications for the entire nation. Edwards confirms that following the collapse of the Roman Republic, there was a general belief that adultery among the elite members of the society was a “telling symptom of disease in the body politic making it a matter of public concern” (34). Augustus was keen to restore the moral integrity of the people and the traditional Roman values. He felt that the moral corruption being experienced in the State had led to the loss of the revered Roman cultural identity and it was his goal to facilitate moral regeneration (Jenkins 11). By forcing the Romans to abstain from immoral conduct, Augustus contributed to the restoration of the prestige of Rome.

Stiff penalties were imposed on anyone who was found guilty of adultery. A woman who engaged in adultery had to be divorced by his husband within five years of the crime and then charged in a court. If the husband failed to divorce his adulterous wife and subsequently charge her with adultery, he could be charged with pandering (Miles 213). Pandering carried the same stringent penalties as adultery and for this reason, husbands were incentivized to report their wives if they found them committing adultery. In addition to this, the adulterous woman was not allowed to remarry and half of her dowry was taken away (Dunstan 243). For the man found engaging in illicit sex with a married woman, the punishment entailed the loss of property, being exiled, and a loss of citizenship.

Women who were considered to lack sexual honor and social status were not eligible to marry the elite since they were not regarded as respectable marriage partners. McGinn observes that such women were immune from the penalties of the adultery law, reinforcing the notion that this law expressly targeted the upper-class members of society (69).


The legislation passed by Augustus was not popular since they inhibited the freedoms of the social elite. The unpopularity of the laws can be seen from the massive protest held by the Senators in 16BC (Miles 215). These elites demanded an amendment to the restrictive laws. However, the laws remained in place for over 2 centuries. There is no concrete evidence demonstrating if the laws were effective in increasing the population of the Elite. The lack of conclusive evidence is caused by the fact that the census carried out did not distinguish Romans based on their social class. However, the laws were very effective in promoting morality among the upper echelon of society. The stringent penalties for adultery led to a marked improvement in mortality.


The paper began by noting that Augustus’ policies were in response to the prevalent social ills in Roman society. By imposing these legislations, Augustus hoped to promote marriage and childbearing among Roman elites. The Augustan regulations led to stiff penalties being issued for childlessness and refusing to marry. The paper has shown that the laws also promoted morality by decreasing adultery rates in the Empires. Augustus was therefore successful in restoring moral conduct among Romans and promoting the family unit. However, this paper has shown that it is unclear whether the laws led to a significant increase in the population of the upper class.

Works Cited

Bourvrie, Synn. “Augustus’ legislation on morals which morals and what aims?” Symbolae Osloenses 5.1 (2008): 93-113. Web.

Davis, William. Influence of Wealth in Imperial Rome. Manhattan: Biblo and Tannen Publishers, 1998. Print.

Dunstan, William. Ancient Rome. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010. Print.

Edwards, Catherines. The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.

Jenkins, Thomas. “Livia the Princeps: Gender and Ideology in the Consolatio ad Liviam.” Helios 36.1 (2009): 1-25. Web.

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. NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. Print.

Parker, Holt. “Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State.” The American Journal of Philology 125.4 (2004): 563- 601. Web.

Severy, Beth. Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire. NY: Routledge, 2003. Print.

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