During his reign, Augustus (r. 31 BCE-14 CE) instituted and amended several laws that encouraged marriage and the cultivation of large families in the Roman Empire. Most importantly, the Lex Papia Poppaea was enacted in 9 CE, which revised the preexisting Lex Julia laws. These pieces of legislation gave married men with large families certain exemptions from state obligations, and also gave fathers of many children preferential treatment in disputes over inheritance and even in promotions to state and military positions. Unmarried and childless Romans, on the other hand, received none of the aforementioned benefits, faced punitive fines, and were barred from certain celebrations.
The Lex Papia Poppaea did, however, give some leeway to certain groups, such as widows, bachelors and childless couples. Regarding the last two categories of people, the law declared that adopting children was a viable way to receive benefits from the state. For bachelors, too, the law stated that betrothals (contracts to marry at a later date) would amount to the same benefits as that of a full marriage.
Despite the state-sponsored drive for marriage and parenting, many ambitious Romans were not interested in marriage or child rearing. These determined Romans began using bizarre and unsettling loopholes to gain the benefits provided by the laws, while still not committing to a family life.
According to the historian, Cassius Dio (c. 163-235), betrothals were the first system that Romans exploited in order to bypass the marriage laws. Dio reported that men realized they could become betrothed to infant girls in order to attain the status of a married man in the eyes the law. They were given all of the state-sponsored benefits entitle to a married man in Rome, but did not have to worry about marrying their bride for many years to come. Augustus eventually regulated this loophole by decreeing that betrothals were only valid if the marriage was scheduled to occur within two years. Yet, even with this revision, girls as young as ten were still eligible to be betrothed.
Ambitious Romans who had no intention of having children also found loopholes to bypass the penalties against childlessness. While the Lex Papia Poppaea supported adoption, it did not penalize those who disowned the adopted. Therefore, according to the historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), childless people that ran for elected positions or governorships would often adopt children in order to receive the status and privilege granted to prolific fathers. Once they won their position, however, the adoptions were revoked. This practice persisted for decades, only ending in the reign of Nero (r. 54-68). By then, these fictitious adoptions, as Tacitus called them, came under criticism for not only being unethical (depending on the age of who was adopted), but also unfair to devoted parents who were spending time and money to authentically raise their children. Around the year 62, Nero and the Senate closed the loophole by decreeing that fake adoptions would no longer give any benefits or privileges to participants in inheritance disputes or elections to government offices.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Wall painting of a feast, c. 79 CE or earlier, located in Pompeii, photographed by Theodore H. Feder, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.
- The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.