Rome’s Julian Laws

Me in Greek TempleContrary to popular belief, I had nothing to do with Rome’s Julian Laws. They were promulgated by the Emperor Augustus some two thousand years ago. Augustus was concerned that the ruling class had few children and those who did stayed married only long enough to legitimize an heir. Rome was losing its national characteristics because foreigners and freed slaves were holding most positions of authority. The Roman Senate rarely met and when it did, many of the Senators would not bother to show up.

Augustus stood in front of the Senate, near the center of the Forum, to address the people’s assembly. Augustus was there to obtain the approval of the people for new moral laws, what many were calling the Julian Laws after his clan name. This was difficult for Augustus not only because of his notoriety in regard to his own personal sexual morals, but also because there were few religious standards of correct moral behavior. The gods of Greece and Rome condoned immorality and in fact engaged in it themselves.

In attempting to secure the people’s approval of the Julian Laws being proposed, Augustus first explained how adultery, divorce, abortion and the subsequent reduction in the Italian population affected Rome’s security and health. Without a significant population from which to draw imperial soldiers and administrators, Rome faced a diluted and weak future. Its wealth would be diminished.

To solve this dilemma Augustus proposed several changes in the law. First, a woman’s adultery became a public crime requiring her husband to divorce her and take her to a special court. If the special court found her guilty, the court could banish the adulteress from Rome. Moreover, she would never be allowed to marry a free-born citizen in the future. Her male lover could have half his property confiscated. He could also be banished, but not with the woman.

Another law charged divorcees and widows to remarry within a specific amount of time. Male celibates were also expected to marry within a fixed time limit. If they refused to marry, they could be barred from receiving most inheritance rights.

To encourage procreation, Augustus proposed that a father could stand for public office a year earlier than a childless male. Those who sired three male children in Rome were exempted from certain legal duties. If living outside Rome but in Italy, four male children were required and if in the provinces, five male children exempted the father from these duties.

To reduce the influence of freed slaves who became full Roman citizens with voting rights, Augustus made the manumission process more time consuming. To offset the lengthy process, he created a new class of citizenship—one without voting rights. This new class carried no other penalties. Except for a few owners and slaves the absence of voting privileges meant little compared to the speedy gift of freedom. To Augustus it meant that freed slaves no longer diluted Italian voting privileges.

After Augustus addressed the proposed changes in the center of the Forum, the citizens voted by voice for and against the new laws. Those who cheered were paid to be there cheering. Those who were silent, probably didn’t understand what it all meant for these laws were aimed at the upper classes—those who would someday rule Rome and their offspring. These patricians knew what it meant; it was an attempt to place some limitation on instant gratification in their personal lives for the long-term good of the empire. The people’s assembly approved the new laws, thanks to large amounts of largess bestowed on them by Augustus.

One has to wonder whether there are any lessons to be learned in the progressive liberalism of  ancient Rome. Do certain “rights” carry with them the destruction of society? Does one generation carry with it the obligation to limit its excesses so that the next generation enjoys the benefits of family and security? What do you think?