Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Divorce, Roman Style

July 31st, 2009 · 2 Comments

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.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    I like this line of research and the concept of a Natural Rate of divorce. Do you get any insight by looking at places like the Philippines where divorce is illegal and looking at the number of people trying to skirt the law in various ways?

    I have heard the theory that the Hollywood divorce rate is closer to what it would be if everyone were rich and beautiful. The motivation to continue a marriage that is going badly if, a) you can afford to live in luxury on your own, and B) you have no problem finding other attractive partners, is somewhat less than for us poor and ugly types.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Hmmm, good idea re: looking at the Philippines. I didn’t realize that divorce still wasn’t legally copacetic over there.

    Re: natural rate–I’m sticking with 20 percent as my best guess. Little bit higher than those Roman aristocrats.

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