The Sacredness of Marriage: A Lesson from the Pagans

When the press falsely quoted Cardinal Raymond Burke last May as stating that the Irish were “worse” than the pagans for having passed a referendum recognizing same-sex “marriage,” they missed an opportunity to offer a valuable lesson in history. What His Eminence actually said—namely, that while the “pagans may have tolerated homosexual behaviors, they never dared to say this was marriage”—is absolutely true. Not only did the Greeks and Romans restrict legal marriage to an agreement between a man and a woman, they also distinguished themselves from other ancient cultures by upholding monogamy as the only valid form of marriage.

The significance of Cardinal Burke’s remark returned full force last week as the Italian Senate passed a bill granting legal status to same-sex couples. And, irony of ironies, they did so only days before an ancient Roman festival called the Matronalia, a day when pagans prayed to Juno for happy marriages, fertility, healthy pregnancies, and safe childbirth.

We indeed have become more pagan than the pagans.

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The Matronalia were observed on March 1, the first day of the Roman calendar. Women processed solemnly to the temple of Juno Lucina on the Esquiline Hill to offer sacrifices, singing “tu nobis lucem, Lucina, dedisti … tu vota parturientis ades (you have given us light, O Lucina … you attend to the prayers of a women about to give birth).” They wore loose clothing and let down their hair to “open” themselves to the divine power that would enable them to conceive; or, as Ovid writes (Fasti, III), if they were already pregnant, to assist them in labor:

siqua tamen gravida est, resoluto crine precetur
ut solvat partus molliter illa suos.

(Whoever is with child, let her pray with loose hair,
so that Juno might ease her delivery.)

One of the origins of the feast according to Ovid was the intervention of the Sabine women to prevent war between the Romans and their neighbors for the right of conubium, or intermarriage between tribes. Simply put, the Romans needed to produce more children and they needed women to do so. The Sabine women, caught between loyalty to their fathers and their future husbands, essentially sided with the latter, opting for motherhood at the risk of losing their fathers. Happily, their plea is heard and husbands and father-in-laws embrace and make peace, paving the way for the republic to come:

tela viris animique cadunt, gladiisque remotis
dant soceri generis accipiuntque manus.

(The men release their anger, drop their spears, sheath their swords
and shake hands with their fathers-in-law.)

It is hard for us to grasp the importance of marriage for social stability in the ancient world, and how essential offspring were to a nation’s future. The ancients were much more attuned to intergenerational bonds, as Virgil’s Aeneas illustrates, inseparably tying the fates of his father Anchises and his son Ascanius with his own. The fierce battle Aeneas ultimately fights against Turnus is indeed for a bride, Lavinia: a marriage with her will be the only assurance of peace and stability between rival races.

Although Christians refer to the “sacredness” of marriage and often do so to distinguish their view from that of the rest of the world, the pagans were no less accustomed to holding marriage as “sacred.” Of course, this is not to deny the transformation of the meaning of marriage by Christ and its elevation to a sacrament, but it does support the idea that marriage between a man and a women, and indeed monogamy itself, are contained in the natural law. Divorce, or course, is a different story: it was licit in ancient Rome and aristocrats often availed themselves of it, a practice separating them from their Christian contemporaries.

The importance of procreation in marriage is highlighted by the ancient Roman custom of referring to a union as “consummated” only after the wife gave birth to her first child, thus sealing her motherhood (thenceforth called a mater) and putting an end to her virginity (no longer called a virgo).

The importance of procreation is further accentuated by Caesar Augustus’s measures to raise the Empire’s dangerously sinking birth rate among the gentry. The ius trium liberorum, special rights and privileges granted to couples with at least three sons, is a far cry from China’s draconian “one-child” policy.

For the pagans, the naturalness of procreation determined the legal status of marriage. Today, it is completely the opposite. We first determine the legal status of marriage, then worry about the status of “children.” Indeed, it was the removal of norms for legal adoption by homosexual couples—a removal lauded by the Italian Episcopal Conference—that effected the compromise needed for the same-sex union bill to pass the upper chamber of the Italian Parliament, the seat of which is a short walk from where the Temple of Juno Lucina once stood.

But now another temple stands on the Esquiline Hill: the Church of Saint Mary Major, one of Rome’s four major basilicas, an ancient architectural gem dedicated to “Our Lady of the Snows.” It is hardly a coincidence that the first day of the Christian New Year is dedicated to the Mother of God while the first day of the Roman New Year was dedicated to the mother of Mars, Vulcan, and Minerva.

Mary’s shrine has replaced Juno’s on the Esquiline Hill, commemorating Christianity’s victory over paganism in the long arc of history. But recent Italian legislation forces us to ponder once gain Cardinal Burke’s valuable lesson in history. A pagan society was capable of enshrining heterosexual, monogamous marriage in its hallowed laws. A presumably Christian society is not only abandoning the heterosexuality of marriage, but is on course to abandon monogamy as well—often under the banner of “Christian” compassion, tolerance, and love.

Perhaps the Calends of March are the perfect time for a solemn New Year’s procession to the shrine of Saint Mary Major… 

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Proposal” painted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1892.


  • Daniel B. Gallagher

    Daniel B. Gallagher is the Ralph and Jeanne Kanders Senior Lecturer in Latin at Cornell University. He previously served as Latin Secretary to Popes Benedict XVI and Francis at the Vatican.

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