what did the romans ever do for us?

apart from bequeathing the world a handful of languages, some philosophical ideas and legal traditions, a bunch of fr*cking awesome ruins, a few really straight roads, and the wine, what did the romans ever do for us?

well, i think we (northern europeans) may have gotten the idea to avoid cousin marriage from them!

here from “Agnatio, Cognation, Consanguinitas: Kinship and Blood in Ancient Rome” in Blood and Kinship: Matter for Metaphor from Ancient Rome to the Present [pgs. 24-26]:

The early republican system of structuring marriage…essentially prevented agnatic *familiae* from remaining exclusive family units…. Neither agnates, nor cognates, were allowed to enter marriage within the sixth degree, i.e. the fourth degree by modern reckoning [third cousins or closer-h.chick]. Such alliances were considered *incestus* and *nefas*, defiled and contrary to divine law, and were forbidden.[29] Marriages to stepchildren, children-in-law, and parents-in-law were also prohibited, even after the spouse who had brought *adfinitas* had died.[30] In contrast, in classical Athens, members of the *anchisteia*, the legally defined kinship group including first cousins once removed, were the preferred marriage partners. In order to protect the continuity of the household (*oikos*), even marriage between half-siblings was allowed. The Greek practice of endogamy has been interpreted as an attempt to strengthen the *oikos* and to guarantee that its property was transmitted intact. This family strategy is most notorious in the case of the daughter as heiress, the *epikleros*. Usually women were not able to inherit or hold property, but when an Athenian died without male issue, his property was attached to his daughter, who then had to marry the closest agnate, often an uncle or first cousin. In this way the *oikos* remained linked to the agnatic lineage.[31]

Roman society, in a strategy unique in antiquity, proscribed familial endogamy, opting instead for exogamy and the building of large kinship groups, even if this meant that property was diffused and the agnatic lineage thus weakened. Prescriptive marriage regulations were never developed, but Romans still knew perfectly well the boundaries distinguishing acceptable marriages alliances from misalliances. Familial exogamy was combined with social endogamy. Though it was forbidden legally to choose marriage partners from among agnatic or cognatic kin, it was nevertheless expected that spouses would be selected from a specific social group: matrimonial matches were judged on these grounds as *dignus* (worthy), *splendissimus* (most spendid), *par* (of equals) or *impar* (of unequals), or even *sordidus* (sordid).[32] Unlike aristocrats in early Greece, who married beyond the limits of their *patris*, Roman aristocrats concentrated on Rome. Given the limited number of appropriate families and the strict marriage regulations, the options of a Roman aristocrat seeking a marriage alliance were rather few. This ‘merry-go-round’ within the peer group led to the building up of a complext network of intertwined familial relations and ultimately to the creation of one overwhelmingly aristocratic family….

“Strains on aristocratic cohesion, however, as well as the beginning of the disintegration of the Roman elite during the third and second centuries BCE, coincided with changes in Roman marriage regulations. There is not enough source material to reconstruct precisely the relationship between changes in the building of kinship groups and in socio-political structures during the Roman Republic, but it is known that during the third century BCE, marriage restrictions were relaxed up to the fourth degree, thereby allowing first cousins to marry. Kinship groups could thus become more exclusive and refuse intermarriage with other families…. The most famous examples of this practice can be found within Rome’s most illustrious family, the Cornelii Scipiones, where the daughter of Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal, married her first cousin once removed; and Scipio’s adoptive grandson, Aemilianus, married his first cousin, Sempronia, herself a granddaughter of the famous general. Despite such examples, however, marriage between cousins never became frequent within the Roman aristocracy.

“[29.] Cf. Gaius ‘Institutiones’ l.59-64; Paul ‘Digest’ See also Tacitus ‘Annales’ 12.6. During the second half of the third century, marriage between cousins became possible; see Livy, fragment 12, in Livy, ‘History of Rome, vol. 14, Summaries. Fragments. Julius Obsequens. General Index’, trans. A.C. Schlesinger (London and Cambridge, MA, 1959). On Livy, see Maurizio Bettini, ‘Familie und Verwandschaft im antiken Rom’ (Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1992), 164-54; Philippe Moreau, ‘Incestus et prohibitae nuptiae. L’inceste a Rome’ (Paris, 2002), 181-86; Carla Fayer, ‘La familia Romana, vol. 2, Aspetti giuridici ed antiquari, sponsalia, matrimonio, dote’ (Rome, 2005), 393n216; Harders, ‘Soror’, 23-25.

“[30.] Gaius, ‘Institutiones’ l.63; Gaius ‘Digest’ 38.4.3-7. During the fourth century CE, marriage prohibitions were extended to collateral affinal kin of the first degree, i.e., the brother’s wife or the wife’s sister; family exogamy was thus enforced (‘Codex Theodosianus 3.12.2’).

“[31.] Though endogamy was practiced, there is no evidence of prescriptive marriage regulations concerning cousin marriage in Athens. On the *epikleros*, see Cheryl A. Cox, ‘Household Interests: Property, Marriage Strategies, and Family Dynamics in Ancient Athens (Princeton, NJ, 1998), 95-99; on marriage between cousins, see Wesley E. Thompson, ‘The Marriage of First Cousins in Athenian Society,’ Phoenix 21 (1967): 273-82.”

so the romans avoided close cousin marriage, established a republic based on democratic principles, had a legal system founded upon universalistic principles, expanded their polity into a vast and one of the world’s most impressive empires (iow, invaded the world), eventually extended roman citizenship to non-romans and allowed barbarians to come live inside the empire (iow, invited the world), and, then, well…oops! *ahem*

why the romans ever decided to avoid cousin marriage in the first place is another question altogether, though. one for another day. perhaps. if it’s even answerable at all.

anyway, there is a direct link between ancient rome’s and medieval/modern northern europe’s cousin marriage avoidance. that link is quite obviously the catholic church which adopted all sorts of roman institutional structures and practices; but more specifically i’m referring to several of the church fathers, the earliest of whom lived in the roman empire itself and who, no doubt, were very aware of the roman avoidance of cousin marriage and very likely, having been raised “in rome,” had even internalized the idea as a natural and good one.

here, in sequence, are the guys that i think passed the romans’ notion of avoiding close marriage down to us (by introducing the idea into canon law):

st. ambrose (d.397) – while it’s not clear whether or not ambrose disapproved of cousin marriage, he did frown upon other forms of close marriage as illustrated in this letter of his [pg. 351] from 393. ambrose was, of course, the mentor of…

st. augustine (d.430) – as shown in the previous post, augustine was very much opposed to cousin marriage. one of augustine’s students, or at least someone who was heavily influenced by augustine, was…

julianus pomerius – pomerius was a priest in fifth century gaul, and one of his students was…

caesarius of arles (d.542) – who was a BIG fan of st. augustine — in fact, many of his sermons (he was renowned as a preacher, apparently — here’s volume 1 in a collection of his surviving sermons) were based directly on augustine’s writings. it was the then bishop caesarius who presided over the council of agde in 506 which issued the earliest (known) church ban on cousin marriage. this was very much a local ban that only applied to roman catholics in the very south of france (at the time controlled by the arian visigoths), but this idea to ban cousin marriages would be picked up soon afterwards by other church councils further to the north in “france” by merovingian bishops (in fact, i think caesarius may have been in attendance at one or two of those councils). i’ll be posting more on this history soon.

the notion of banning cousin marriage eventually spread across the channel into kent first (pretty sure) and then to the rest of england and later across central europe during the ostsiedlung, etc., etc. at some point, the idea was picked up by the popes in rome, too. not sure exactly when that occurred. i’ll work on finding that out. gregory the great (d.604) was one of the major proponents of the cousin marriage bans, so it was definitely well established in hq back in rome by the late 500s.

so, if you’re one of those westerners who goes ewwww! at the thought of cousins marrying, you can thank the romans!

p.s. – here from caesarius of arles’ “Sermon 19 – Preaching of St. Augustine to the People” [pg. 101]:

“…No one should dare to marry his aunt or cousin or his wife’s sister, for it would be wrong for us to perish through evil dissipation arising from diabolical pleasure….”

previously: st. augustine on outbreeding and happy council of agde day!

(note: comments do not require an email. what have the romans ever done for us?)



  1. YAY!! Thank you, this is really fascinating.

    “Invaded the world” understates their impressiveness. They competently administered the world for several centuries, with a startlingly modern bureaucratic government. Lots of peoples (several flavors of central Asian nomads) successfully invaded the world, but no else before the modern colonial era has held and managed it.


  2. @hbd chick “Usually women were not able to inherit or hold property, but when an Athenian died …” Hmm. So the right of women to own property correlated with marrying in in ancient Greece. Funny. Women could own land in 18th century England, and this correlated with high births among the wealthy and the Industrial Revolution. Makes you kind of wonder. You don’t suppose Roman political institution kept collapsing and being reestablished using the same name, do you?


  3. The ancient Greeks were in-breeders — and yet they still excelled in intelligence. That’s a bit of a conundrum: why no apparent inbreeding depression?


  4. “Women could own land in 18th century England”: in some constituencies they even had the vote, if head of household. That wasn’t swept away until the Great Reform Act of 1832, in the name of standardisation across the country. Of course a different standardisation would have been possible, eh?


  5. @whyvert – “The ancient Greeks were in-breeders — and yet they still excelled in intelligence. That’s a bit of a conundrum: why no apparent inbreeding depression?”

    inbreeding depression is an interesting phenomenon, one that i still haven’t fully wrapped my head around. i mean — okay — inbreeding depression. but thoroughbreds? inbreeding depression. but the darwin-galton-wedgwood clan? seems to me that, yeah, inbreeding depression is a thing, and it might be bad, but if you start off with some good genes and/or have the “right” selection pressures (like in china?), you might not have to worry about inbreeding depression. quite the reverse really!

    anyway…wrt the ancient greeks, you’ll note that in the text i quoted above, the author also said this:

    “Unlike aristocrats in early Greece, who married beyond the limits of their *patris*….”

    i thought that actually might confuse people given that the author had already said that the greeks were inbreeders, but i was too lazy to explain it.

    what i think was going on with the ancient greeks is that the archaic greeks were outbreeders, but then the classical athenians increasingly inbred over time. mind you, i’m basing this on pretty scant evidence, but the historians (like the one above) seem to be thinking along the same lines. so, the flowering of classical athens might actually be due (at least in part, if the theory’s correct) to the outbreeding that happened in the preceding archaic period. a sort of delayed reaction thing. like the renaissance/enlightenment following the outbreeding in medieval europe.

    see these two posts: renaissances and archaic greek mating patterns and kinship terms.



  6. I would agree with the above comment in that the inbreeding of the later Athenians may have been used to keep and consolidate wealth and trade relations as familial ties will be more likely to survive the upheavals of wars, which were many. My theory of the “golden age” of Athens is different than most. I think the so-called golden age is actually one of decline in which resources which would otherwise be used in an outward manner such as trade expansion and improvement of the domestic economy by increased freedom of commerce were turned inward toward the building of walls and monuments, and that much of the wealth used to do so was taken out of economic circulation by taxation and the theft of the treasury of the Delian League (iow, the golden age was Potemkin villages all the way down).


  7. You can see the difference in inbreeding depression and thoroughbreds in cattle. Mongrel inbred tend to go wild, the structure of their lower back changes to 30′ – 40′ angle, rather then being nice and straight, less meat and tougher texture, possibly adapting to harsher conditions with less help from farmers. Pure breeds look relatively the same, till you cut up the carcass, then you find the genetics for a higher yeild, which can mean $3 – 4 grand more per carcass. It’s why genetics and artificial insemination is booming in agriculture today.

    Pigs is another interesting phenomenon in colonial places, where pink domestic pigs were introduced then went wild. These however look like traditional bores today. Epigenetics, environment and no domesticated farmer intervention, seems to encourage a regression to the wild.

    Another thing NW European family formation and out breeding evidence could go back further in some regions, you just have to look for the evidence I guess. Being Australian Aboriginals have a traditional “Skin system” , where skin names are orally recorded by the elders, so no bad skins are made from bad marriages, Bad = inbred. So if hunter gathers have a culture to prevent cousin marriage for 10000 – 40000 years(Not sure which Australid wave bought the culture, there were 4 waves), it could be highly possible for hunter gathers that existed in Europe and Asia to have had an out-breeding system too.

    Come on it’s not hard to see the evidence of dysgenic inbreeding in humane populations, if your grand children or children were being born deformed, I’m pretty sure marriage patterns would of become very prominent in some peoples minds, no matter what era the people come from. Though a relationship to harsh environments seems to be a highly contributing factor.


  8. The aristocratic Romans were heavily influenced by the non-Indo European-speaking Etruscans. The IE name pattern (either just a single name X or extended to X-son-of-Y) was given up in favour of the aristocratic Etruscan system: praenomens, cognomens, and so on. Completely different.

    I wonder how else the Romans were influenced by the Etruscans? They (Etruscans) were eventually assimilated into the empire and don’t survive as a distinct group.

    Little is known about the non-IE speakers of early Europe. To this day, Basque cannot be definitively to any other modern language.


    1. @Frau Katze:

      The Basques appear to be a remnant of the Early European Farmers, that (mostly) resisted Indo-Europeanization.


  9. @Whyvert

    To add to the other comments maybe

    archaic outbreeding -> successful republic -> wealth -> aristocracy -> inbreeding to protect the wealth


  10. There is plenty of evidence that the Romans were not physically robust people, despite being anatomically modern. Their policy of taking slaves through military conquest was a necessity due to the problem of their gene pool lacking physically fit workers. This could be explained through excessive endogamy.

    There is also evidence that the Egyptians were not a physically robust people, and that for millennia before the Romans the Egyptians had the same model for building their empire. The same empire the Romans admired and eventually conquered. Incest and endogamy is well documented in the Egyptian royalty, suggesting it was widely practiced in the general population. This explains the general degradation of the Egyptian gene pool and their need to import workers. In one well known blunder, the foreign Hyksos took over the entire nation including the royalty.

    This suggests that excessive endogamy produces a population lacking in adaptation and vigor while telling themselves they are the aristocracy. That both the Egyptians and the later Romans suffered from just that affliction from the top down, in much the same way that syphilis was a disease of the aristocracy and worked its way downward to the peasantry. I believe this was a major cause of both empires collapsing.


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