Roman legal sources strongly indicate that women could not marry before age 12. This age restriction derived from general observation of female pubescence; women aged 12 were, as a rule, thought to have become physically capable of having regular sexual relations with men (viripotens) and of bearing children, and both regular sexual activity and childbearing were thought of as typically occurring within marriage, as a woman moved from virgo to mulier and thereby attained adulthood. Twelve will seem to us undesirably young, and indeed ancient doctors such as Soranus warned against the dangers of women becoming sexually active at so early an age. Most Roman women appear to have married later, from about 15 to 20. But the possibility of earlier marriage we know to have been actively pursued especially in upper-class families, where marriage often assisted dynastic alliances.
Against this background, a fairly considerable body of evidence indicates that girls who had not yet reached the legitimate age of marriage were nonetheless undergoing a form of marriage. Literary sources usually ignore the phenomenon, or speak of it in vague terms; a salient example is Plutarch (Lyc.-Numa 4.2), who vaguely describes the Romans as “giving girls in marriage at age 12 and younger” (τῶν Ῥωμαίων δωδεκαετεῖς καὶ νεωτέρας ἐκδιδόντων). Presumably the law was taken to define a norm of acceptable social behavior.
The Roman jurists, however, were unable to avoid dealing with the subject, mainly because, as an astonishingly large number of sources show, these underage marriages were often replete with full Roman weddings including the signing of dowry agreements, as well as the move of the new “wife” from her parental home to that of her “husband.” The ensuing legal problems centered on how to handle these arrangements, which were based on a “marriage” that the jurists seem, fairly uniformly, to condemn as void. One startling example is a passage of Ulpian (D. 184.108.40.206) describing an underage girl who had undergone a marriage ceremony and was residing in her “husband’s” home, where she had sexual relations with another man; the issue was whether, in light of the void marriage, the “husband” could accuse her of adultery. Ulpian rules that he can by suggesting that, although she is not married, she can be regarded as engaged (sponsa) and hence liable under the Severan extension of Augustus’ adultery law.
Romanists have not been slow to recognize the importance of such legal sources, but, until the publication of Isabella Piro’s book Spose Bambine in 2013, they were discussed mainly in terms of their implication for Roman marriage law, as in the flurry of articles set off by Marcel Durry’s radical thesis in 1955/1956. Piro widens the landscape by bringing in literary sources such as the wedding of Junia Arunculeia in Catullus (61) and the pseudo-wedding of the young girl Pannychis in Petronius (Sat. 25.1-3). These sources are sufficient to indicate that such underage marriages, although not legal in the eyes of the jurists, were probably not rare. The more important issue is what they say about the relationship between law and social conventions in the Roman world, and also about the legal protections afforded to young girls.