In the centuries right around the time of Christ's birth, what was the status of marriage in the Roman Empire? Rome, like all civilizations had some concept of marriage and family. We argue these stem from natural law and yet like all interpretations of General Revelation, its application by fallen man was flawed and imperfect.
Roman society had some different notions than we do today about what was private and what was public. Marriage is an interesting example. We often focus on the habits of the patrician class since they were the movers and shakers in the annals of the day. But what of free men, the common citizens? They had nothing equivalent to what we would call a marriage license, no ceremony before a justice of the peace, in fact nothing that civilly recognized the actual creation of a household, the joining of husband and wife. The state in no way sanctioned or regulated the marriage relationship. It was considered a private matter.
Instead, a man and woman following whatever national, local, or religious custom, or none at all, simply began to cohabitate. If a legal dispute arose, stemming from dowry, divorce, property, or whatever, the courts at that point would recognize the marriage or not recognize it. How was this done?
Witnesses were called who would attest that the husband referred to the woman as his wife in public. Who could verify this? Perhaps the baker, neighbours, shop-owners etc…
It could be proved they had lived together for a certain duration. Perhaps there were children resulting from the relationship. Of course their society though complex, was less so than ours. And in our modern setting when one considers hospital visitation, health benefits, etc… we recognize on some level the state has to be involved. Whether it's called marriage or union is not that important in a civil sense. Within the Church of course, we have a theology of marriage that drives us to understand the issue differently. Marriage on the one hand is a creational ordinance and thus non-holy, common to all cultures, and something that will cease at the Eschaton (the end) when Christ returns. On the other hand, for Christians, marriage takes on a different meaning, typifying the relationship between Christ and the Church as per Ephesians 5. We can try and make fallen society obey our rules, but in the end do their messages typify the Christ-Church relationship? I don't think so.
Divorce was also easy and common. How was it done? One party simply left…the marriage was over. If the man took up with a new woman, she could now be his wife. If he didn't live with her and simply met with her for other reasons…then she wasn't considered his actual spouse.
Contemporary writers attest to the fact that many families were what we today would call mixed or blended families. It was in some places unusual for all the children of the household to have the same father and mother. Though new to us, many of the present day issues are in fact as old as the hills.
Now don't misunderstand, people had ceremonies, vows, rituals, and so forth. Marriage was a big event, but it was considered private, that is to say, unregulated by the state.
I often think of this when I hear Evangelicals today cry out that we need to try and preserve 'traditional marriage,' and how homosexuals are destroying society. Don't misunderstand me. Homosexuality is sin, in fact an abomination. And its proliferation will adversely affect society, but I blame the proliferation on Sacralism. Society right now is experiencing a large scale pendulum swing. Like a teenager who is suddenly free from a repressive home and lets loose, so is American culture right now.
But I think of Roman society in the time of the early Church and I find it interesting the Church had a doctrine of marriage and pursued it. They didn't recognize the pagan model as a threat to their own, nor did they seem overly concerned with altering the societal norm.
What was their concern toward their unbelieving neighbours? Bringing them the gospel, proclaiming the Person and Work of Christ, this was their concern.
We're fooling ourselves if we think their society was either more moral than ours, or less moral. It was just as wicked, but slightly different. In some ways we're worse today, and in other ways they were worse. And this is just the centuries around the time of Christ. As you enter the middle ages it's the same thing, some things better than today, and some things worse. I've written of romanticism regarding the past. I think many who look to the Middle Ages with longing would be shocked if they scratched beneath the surface.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Pompeii, make sure you do so. It's like stepping back in time, time that stopped on 24 August in the year 79. You can walk down a Roman street, cut through alleys and feel what it was like to walk out into a coliseum or stand on the stage of an amphitheater. At one oddly angled intersection sits the famous brothel, with its restored frescoes, something like the pornography of the day. It's right out on one of the main streets. There were certainly Christians in Pompeii and it was no different than any other Roman city. I think of Christian mothers walking down the street holding their children's hands and having to walk by. I think of Christian men going out of their way, to avoid seeing what they didn't want to see.
Roman cities had slave markets where naked men and women would be paraded about. The Roman emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century was a flamboyant homosexual who placed busts and monuments to his paramour, Antinous, all over the cities of the empire. Imagine a president using tax dollars to do something like that! At least one of the Roman emperors married his homosexual partner. I also think of the Evangelical argument concerning the importance of integrity in our leadership. Are Christian's in France concerned that Sarkozy is a whoremonger? Does that affect the Church? But in America, Christians were undone over Bill Clinton's exploits. A wicked adulterer to be sure, but were they upset over what he did, or because he was president of the hallowed United States?
Many of the pagan temples practiced ritual prostitution, promiscuity in general was rampant, pederasty and pedophilia tolerated or at least winked at.
Is all of this starting to sound kind of familiar? I'm speaking primarily to the American audience. What do you think Christians thought as they walked down Roman streets and looked up to see the ubiquitous sculpture of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, the symbol of Rome's origins? Do you think they were stirred by feelings of patriotism as the average Roman was?
Considering the bulk of the first century Church was comprised of slaves, women, and the poor in general it doesn't seem likely. Was Rome something to them?
And yet how do we as Americans respond when we see the flag or our great goddess-idol standing in New York harbor? Do we think differently? Why?