The Julian marriage laws
In 18 B.C., the Emperor Augustus turned his attention to social problems at
Rome. Extravagance and adultery were widespread. Among the upper classes, marriage
was increasingly infrequent and, many couples who did marry failed to produce
offspring. Augustus, who hoped thereby to elevate both the morals and the numbers
of the upper classes in Rome, and to increase the population of native Italians
in Italy, enacted laws to encourage marriage and having children (lex Julia
de maritandis ordinibus), including provisions establishing adultery as a crime.
The law against adultery made the offence a crime punishable by exile and confiscation
of property. Fathers were permitted to kill daughters and their partners in
adultery. Husbands could kill the partners under certain circumstances and were
required to divorce adulterous wives. Augustus himself was obliged to invoke
the law against his own daughter, Julia, and relegated her to the island of
The Augustan social laws were badly received and were modified in A.D. 9 by
the lex Papia Poppaea, named for the two bachelor consuls of that year. The
earlier and later laws are often referred to in juristic sources as the lex
Julia et Papia.
The first three of the texts that follow do not come from the Roman jurists
but give background for the passing of the laws. The remaining texts in this
section are from legal works interpreting the provisions of this legislation
by a number of jurists. The juristic sources are also our best source for the
actual provisions of the laws.
121. Prizes for marriage and having children. Rome, 1st cent. A.D. (Dio Cassius,
History of Rome 54.16.1-1. Early 3rd cent. A.D. G)
[Augustus] assessed heavier taxes on unmarried men and women without husbands,
and by contrast offered awards for marriage and childbearing. And since there
were more males than females among the nobility, he permitted anyone who wished
(except for senators) to marry freedwomen, and decreed that children of such
marriages be legitimate.
123. The consequences of adultery (Paul, Opinions 2.26.1-8, 10-12, 14-17. L)
- 2.26 (1) In the second chapter of the lex Julia concerning adultery, either
an adoptive or a natural father is permitted to kill with his own hands an adulterer
caught in the act with his daughter in his own house or in that of his son-in-law,
no matter what his rank may be.
- (3) Again, it is provided in the fifth chapter of the lex Julia that it is
permitted to detain an adulterer who has been caught in the act for twenty hours,
calling neighbours to witness.
- (4) A husband cannot kill anyone taken in adultery except persons who are infamous,
and those who sell their bodies for gain, as well as slaves. His wife, however,
is excepted, and he is forbidden to kill her.
- (5) It has been decided that a husband who kills his wife when caught with
an adulterer should be punished more leniently, for the reason that he committed
the act through impatience caused by just suffering.
- (6) After having killed the adulterer, the husband should at once dismiss his
wife, and publicly declare within the next three days with what adulterer, and
in what place he found his wife.
- (7) A husband who surprises his wife in adultery can only kill the adulterer
when he catches him in his own house.
- (8) It has been decided that a husband who does not at once dismiss his wife
whom he has taken in adultery can be prosecuted as a pimp.
- (10) It should be noted that two adulterers can be accused at the same time
with the wife, but more than that number cannot be.
- (11) It has been decided that adultery cannot be committed with women who have
charge of any business or shop. 
- (12) Anyone who has sexual relations with a free male without his consent shall
be punished with death.
- (14) It has been held that women convicted of adultery shall be punished with
the loss of half of their dowry and the third of their goods, and by relegation
to an island. The adulterer, however, shall be deprived of half his property,
and shall also be punished by relegation to an island; provided the parties
are exiled to different islands.
- (16) Sexual intercourse with female slaves is not considered