Continuing on with our recent divorce obsession, a reader comment inspired us to look at the split rate in ancient Rome. We recall that the union between Emperor Augustus and Livia came about only after the two lovebirds divorced their first spouses. (Livia’s husband, Nero, actually approved of the maneuver, and attended the ensuing wedding banquet.) But how common was such marital tumult? Susan Treggiari offered a guess in the book Marriage, Divorce and Children in Ancient Rome:
I suggest that many of those who think the Roman incidence high may have in mind something like the English rate between the Great War and the Divorce Law Reform Act of 1969 for the senatorial class in general, although they might think (as I would) that the most ambitious dynasts and members of Augustus’ family would be nearer the current American rate. Statistical probabilities are beyond our reach. The nearest I would venture to a guess is that ordinary senators and equestrians might bet there was about one chance in six of a first marriage being dissolved by divorce within the first decade and about the same chance of its being dissolved by death.
That may be peanuts compared to the rate in West Java circa 1950. But it’s also worth noting that the latter-day Romans turned against divorce with a vengeance at some point; the practice was actually illegal in modern Italy until 1970.