A contubernium was a quasi-marital relationship in ancient Rome between a free citizen and a slave or between two slaves.[1][2] A slave involved in such relationship was called contubernalis.[3]

The term describes a wide range of situations, from outright sexual slavery to quasi-marriage. For instance, according to Suetonius, Caenis, a slave and secretary of Antonia Minor, was Vespasian's wife "in all but name", until her death in AD 74. It was also not uncommon for slaves to create family-like unions, allowed but not protected by the law.

In Roman law

In the Roman legal system, a slave did not have a family. If a slave man entered into a contubernium with a free woman, the children were born free "iure gentium". If instead the man was free but the woman was a slave, the children were born slaves. The law also allowed a slave-owner to free the slave and enter into a concubinage or a regular marriage.[4]

A Roman could exploit his own slaves for sex, but was not entitled to compel any enslaved person he chose to have sex, since the owner had the right to control his own property. In the pursuit of sex with a slave who belonged to someone else, persuasion or threats might be employed.[5] A contubernium was allowed also between two slaves that belonged to two different owners.[6] However, it was contestable between a free woman and another citizen's male slave.[7] The Senatus consultum Claudianum established in fact that if after three warnings from the slave's owner the free woman did not cease her sexual relationship with their slave she would become a slave to the same owner too.[8][9] The purpose of this law was not that of regulating the free woman's morality, but that of protecting private property and maximizing the male slave's productivity.[10]

Since a slave lacked the legal standing that protected a citizen's body, a charge of rape could not be brought against a free citizen who forced another citizen's slave to have sex; however the slave owner could prosecute the rapist under the Lex Aquilia, a law pertaining to property damage.[11]

If a quasi-marital relationship did not involve slaves but only free citizens it was called concubinage (concubinatus) and benefited of some protection from the law. Among free citizens concubinage seems to have been prevalent in couples in which one member was a freed citizen more often than in couples where both members were freeborn citizens.[12] Among couples where both members were freeborn citizens regular marriage remained the prevalent institution.


It is impossible to know with certainty how many slaves were involved, at least once, in their lives in a contubernium. According to a sample of 260 recorded contubernia, excluding the cases were both persons were slaves, there was a neat prevalence of relationships where the woman was the free citizen and the man was the slave.[13] As noticed by the author of the study,[6]

For a free woman of a certain class (e.g. the daughter of an imperial freedman) to marry an upwardly-mobile slave civil servant was to her advantage. A woman slave had no status connected with her job which would attract a free husband. (Women in the familia Caesaris usually married fellow slaves.) Secondly, there was a grave disadvantage of a slave wife. If a slave man "married" a free woman, the children were born free iure gentium (with exceptions introduced by the Senatus consultum Claudianum and sometimes applied). But a slave woman with a free husband (with a few exceptions) bore slave children.

Famous contubernales

See also


  1. Oxford Classical Dictionary 1949.
  2. Stocquart 1907, p. 305.
  3. Treggiari 1981, p. 43: "In literature, contubernalis is vox propria for a slave ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ in Columella and Petronius; this is also the usual sense in the jurists and the commonest sense in the inscriptions. But contubernium is also a quasi-marital relationship involving one slave partner rather than two. The Elder Seneca has this sense, as do the jurists."
  4. Treggiari 1981, p. 53: "If he is of respectable social status, he should free her and make her his concubina: again, she will not be contubernalis. If his status is not so respectable, he could even free her and marry her."
  5. Hubbard 2003, p. 13.
  6. Treggiari 1981, p. 54.
  7. Cantarella 1992, p. 103.
  8. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities 1875.
  9. Harper 2010.
  10. Cantarella 2015.
  11. McGinn 1998, p. 314.
  12. Rawson 1974, p. 288: "Concubinage seems to have been most frequent amongst freed persons."
  13. Treggiari 1981, p. 45.


  • Finley, M. I.; Keith, Emile (1949). "Contubernium". Oxford Classical Dictionary. OUP. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.013.1803. S2CID 165984407. Retrieved 2020-09-16.
  • Stocquart, Emile (March 1907). Sherman, Charles Phineas (ed.). Translated by Bierkan, Andrew T. "Marriage in Roman law". Yale Law Journal. 16 (5): 303–327. doi:10.2307/785389. JSTOR 785389. Retrieved 2020-09-15.
  • Treggiari, Susan (1981). "Contubernales". Phoenix. CAC. 35 (1): 42–69. doi:10.2307/1087137. JSTOR 1087137.
  • Grubbs, Judith Evans (2002). Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce and Widowhood. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 9781134743926.
  • Cantarella, Eva (2015). Istituzioni di diritto romano [Institutions of Roman law] (in Italian). Mondadori. ISBN 978-8800746083.
  • Rawson, Beryl (1974). "Roman Concubinage and Other De Facto Marriages". Transactions of the American Philological Association. JHUP. 104: 279–305. doi:10.2307/2936094. JSTOR 2936094.
  • Finley, M. I. (1875). "Senatusconsultum Claudianum". A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139794602. ISBN 9781139794602. Retrieved 2020-09-18.
  • Harper, Kyle (December 2010). "The SC Claudianum in the codex Theodosianus: Social history and legal texts". The Classical Quarterly. CUP. 60 (2): 610–638. doi:10.1017/S0009838810000108. S2CID 162980885.
  • Cantarella, Eva (1992). Bisexuality in the Ancient World. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-04844-5.
  • McGinn, Thomas A.J. (1998). Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law in Ancient Rome. Oxford University Press.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K. (2003). Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. University of California Press.
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