The language of Roman adultery

  • Jessica Dixon

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis uses the language of adultery to examine the relationship between law and society in ancient Rome. In particular, questions will be asked about the ways in which this exchange functioned - do social norms determine law or vice versa? To begin, the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis will be contextualised within Augustus' wider programme of moral reform, and definitions will be given for adulterium and stuprum, the terms which the law used to classify the actions it penalised. The thesis will use these two terms as a lens through which to investigate changes in attitudes to adultery following the introduction of the lex Iulia. A survey of the use of adulterium and stuprum, including their derivatives and the borrowed Greek form moechus, will be made within Latin literature from the 2nd century BC until the 2nd century AD. It will be argued that changes in the use and meaning of the terms following the introduction of the lex Iulia are indicative of changes in attitudes to adultery within the Roman male elite. This in turn will show that law can and does impact on society and it can be used as a positive force to change society's conception of a given behaviour. Chapter two looks closely at the punishment of adultery in the republic in order to provide a framework through which to understand the lex Iulia as an innovative piece of legislation. The provisions of the law will then be recreated using the juristic texts of the sixth century legal compilations and the chapter will conclude by looking at the attempts to revive the lex Iulia by later emperors and the changes that were made to the law. The focus of chapters three and four is the use of the terms adulterium and stuprum in prose and verse literature. A selection of authors has been chosen to provide a sample that covers the chronological period in question and to include a wide range of genres. It will be shown that in the republic stuprum was the more frequent term as it could be used to refer to sexual transgression in general, including adultery. However, following the introduction of the adultery law, adulterium is found with much greater frequency and its use reflects the new legal definition of adultery and the need to qualify accusations in terms of the law. Moreover, whereas previously stuprum had been conceived of as the more damaging and disgraceful concept, adulterium became to be of greater concern. The legal significance which the lex Iulia gave to adultery and the terms used to describe it are also evident. Overall, it is the aim of this thesis to show how the introduction of the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis shaped and altered attitudes to adultery within Roman society. Nevertheless, the validity of using law to control morality continued to be questioned by some of the authors studied and there were negative effects on ideas of marital fidelity and sexual morality as a result of the law.
Date of Award1 Aug 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorTim Parkin (Supervisor) & Roy Gibson (Supervisor)


  • Adultery
  • Roman law
  • Society

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