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Staging Morality: Augustan Adultery Law and Public Spectacle

Mary Deminion

The lex Iulia de adulteriis of 18 BCE, which for the first time made adultery a criminal offence and created a standing court, the quaestio perpetua de adulteriis, was touted by the Augustus as a return to the moral customs of the Republican past (Res gestae 8.5). However, the reform in fact represented a significant shift away from the traditional authority of the Roman paterfamilias to punish transgressions privately at his discretion and towards the legal power of the emperor to define and regulate morality on a public scale. Using a variety of primary source evidence, I explore the provisions of the adultery law and place the resulting criminal trials within the context of public staging of the Roman aristocracy. In this way, the adultery law forms part of a larger trend of elite moral regulation becoming public spectacle.             

Though many prominent Romans were tried, convicted, and punished under the new law, ancient historians such as Tacitus report that it did not succeed in increasing the number of marriages or legitimate children. On the adultery law, Tacitus remarked that households were now undermined by delatores and that “just as society had previously suffered from outrages, so it did now from laws (Annals III. 25.1). Later, Tertullian would write that the laws of the Augustan moral programme as a whole, including the adultery law, were empty and ineffectual (vanissimae leges, Apologia 4).

Despite the inefficacy of the adultery law in curbing immorality and promoting marriage and childbearing among elites, the law itself and the quaestio were remarkably long-lived. Jurists in the Severan age continued to write monographs about the lex Iulia de adulteriis and there is evidence from Cassius Dio that the quaestio de adulteriis was still operating in full force with more than 3000 cases pending at the time he was consul, more than two hundred years after the law was introduced. If the law was not serving some purpose, it is difficult to understand its longevity.         

Work by Leanne Bablitz has identified the Roman courtroom as one of a number of public “stages” which contained “strong elements of performance and spectacle” and where “Romans of elite class or those wishing to attain some measure of fame could promote and advertise themselves” (2007, p. 1). The quaestio perpetua de adulteriis and the court of the Roman Senate can be examined within this framework as environments in which these elements of staging and promotion were certainly present. But who was being “staged” and who, or what, was being advertised and promoted in an adultery trial?

During the period of the Roman Republic, the aristocracy dominated society economically, politically, and socially. With the advent of the Principate, Rome witnessed significant changes in its sociopolitical order as power increasingly became concentrated in the hands of one man, the emperor. Matthew Roller’s work in Constructing Autocracy (2001) focused on the relationship between this social change and the accompanying conceptual shift as it was expressed in the writings of Roman aristocrats. Roller finds that moral discourse was perceived by aristocrats as “malfunctioning, or functioning in ways disadvantageous to the aristocracy at large, in the sociopolitical order of the Principate” (p.10). Roller neglects to address adultery or the lex Iulia specifically, but both are nevertheless relevant to discussion of how the emperor’s authority was constructed. The lex Iulia de adulteriis thus involves shifts in political and legal power, as well as in moral discourse, towards the authority of the emperor, to the detriment of the aristocracy whose morality is now to be judged openly on the public stage the Roman court. The public staging of Roman elites demanded by the lex Iulia de adulteriis and its trials assured that anxieties surrounding sexual immorality, and underlying fears about the insecurity of the political situation of the state, could be exposed and played out in the form of spectacle for the people and promotion for the emperor.


Session/Panel Title:

Roman Imperial Ideology and Authority

Session/Paper Number

51.4

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