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Legal Status in the Roman World


111. Punishment for adultery. Rome, 2nd cent. B.C. (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.23, 2nd cent. A.D. L)

An excerpt from a speech of Marcus Cato [11] on the life and customs of women of long ago and on the right of the husband to kill a wife caught committing adultery.

(1) Those who have written about the life and culture of the Roman people say that women in Rome and Latium 'lived an abstemious life', which is to say that they abstained altogether from wine, called temetum in the early language and that it was the custom for them to kiss their relatives so they could tell by the smell whether they had been drinking. [12] Women, however, are said to have drunk the wine of the second press, raisin wine, myrrh-flavoured wine and that sort of sweet drink. This things are found in these books, as I said, but Marcus Cato reports that women were not only judged but also punished by a judge as severely for drinking wine as for committing adultery.

I have copied Cato's words from a speech called On the Dowry, in which it is stated that husbands who caught their wives in adultery could kill them: 'The husband', he says, 'who divorces his wife is her judge, as though he were a censor; [13] he has power if she has done something perverse and awful; if she has drunk wine she is punished; if she has done wrong with another man, she is condemned to death.' It is also written, regarding the right to kill: 'If you catch your wife in adultery, you can kill her with impunity; she, however, cannot dare to lay a finger on you if you commit adultery, nor is it the law.'


Notes

11. Marcus Porcius Cato 'Censorius'-Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.). He was the quintessential conservative and champion of traditional morality. Among his acts as censor in 184 B.C. was the taxation of luxury. He deplored and fought vainly against the acceptance of anything Greek into Roman life.

12. On the prohibition see [Bettini, Forthcoming #136].

13. The magistrate whose jurisdiction include public morals and the leasing of public buildings and spaces.