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The Punishment of Wives

Punishment for adultery
(Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.23, 2nd cent. AD)

Sculpture of man and woman seatedAn excerpt from a speech by Marcus Cato on concerning a wife who committing adultery:

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.

Cato stated that husbands who caught their wives in adultery could kill them: 'The husband', he said, 'who divorces his wife is her judge, as though he were a censor. 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.'

As far as the right to kill, is was written '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.'

Punishment for drinking wine

Women are said to have drunk raisin wine, myrrh-flavoured wine and other sweet drinks that were not as strong in content as traditional wines, but were still alcoholic drinks nevertheless. Marcus Cato reports that women were not only judged but also punished by a judge as severely for drinking wine as for committing adultery.

Egnatius Metellus beat his wife to death with a cudgel because she had drunk some wine. Not only were no charges brought against him over her death, but he was exonerated of all blame. This was considered an excellent example of one who had paid the penalty for violating the laws of sobriety.

Grounds for divorce

Wall painting of two peopleGaius Sulpicius Gallus divorced his wife because he had seen her outdoors with her head uncovered:

'The law prescribes for you my eyes alone to which you may prove your beauty. For these eyes you should provide the ornaments of beauty, for these be lovely: entrust yourself to their more certain knowledge. If you, with needless provocation, invite the look of anyone else, you must be suspected of wrongdoing.'

Quintus Antistius Vetus divorced his wife because he had seen her in public having a private conversation with a common freedwoman. Acting not by an actual crime but, by the possibility one was about to be committed, he punished her, so that he might prevent the deed being performed,, rather than punish it afterwards.

Publius Sempronius Sophus divorced is wife merely because she dared attend the games without his knowledge.

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