Think no-fault divorce is a modern invention? Not so! Susan Treggiari, a Stanford classics professor and author of the book “Roman Marriage” explains that ancient Romans were the ultimate realists when it came to marriage. Over a mere few centuries, they developed divorce laws that in some respects are more liberal than many state divorce laws today.
In the early days of the empire, husbands had the right to divorce their wives for any number of offenses, from adultery to making copies of the household keys to drinking wine (no go, afternoon chardonnay sippers). Roman husbands could also dump their wives for not producing an heir. Notably, it was not necessarily deemed the wife’s fault if she didn’t bear a son. And if a husband wanted to leave his wife, he had to give back her dowry, so that she would be eligible to marry again. That’s right, she took away exactly what she brought to the marriage.
As time went on, the customs of marriage and divorce in ancient Rome evolved. Eventually, wives were given the power to initiate divorce, and by the first century B.C.E. the Roman version of the no-fault divorce emerged. Either spouse could choose to leave a marriage at any time, and for any reason, including the desire to simply no longer be married!
Because marriage was often a calculated tool for political gain, divorces were common among the upper class. Aristocrats often divorced and remarried according to the shifting political and economic landscape. Divorces were considered entirely a private affair, and neither party had to notify the state. Easy to imagine though that without any public records, discussion of divorce was a very public affair, and that the local gossips would have been busy keeping track of who was still married to whom.