The bill to legalise same-sex marriage has passed the Senate, with 43 voting yes, 12 no votes, with some senators abstaining from casting a vote. The bill was passed without amendment, and will not move to the House of Representatives for further debate. 

How did a convention that seems so closely aligned with individual freedom, become a project of the state?

“Marriage has always been political,” said Dr Wallis. He points to marriage laws enacted in 18 and 17BCE by the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, that compelled certain groups to marry, while prohibiting others, with benefits for those who conformed and punitive measures for transgressors.

Conservatism, then and now

Augustus came to power at a time of political instability after decades of civil power struggles. This was also a time of increasing diversity in the Roman state in terms of ethnicity and mixing of classes. Rome’s ruling upper classes risked becoming a minority.

The Augustan political ideology was ‘restoration’. Augustus appealed to an old-fashioned and austere sense of morality, and embedded this in his marriage legislation.

This was conservatism, Roman style. 

“Augustus’ narrative would also have regarded this as an era of licentiousness and loss of respect for the tradition of marriage,” said Dr Wallis. 

Augustus wanted to compel the Roman upper classes to reproduce themselves, and used the laws to verify and affirm the ideal family unit.  While same-sex relationships were common, there was no question of marriage for same-sex couples.

“Marriage under these laws was not about love. This was anti-love legislation in the sense that it was trying to curtail relationships based on desire. Instead it was using marriage to define relationships that were advantageous in political terms.

Clear parallels

Although a comparison with Australia’s current same-sex marriage debate may seem counterintuitive, Dr Wallis explains how the similarities are clear.

“In some sense today with the postal survey, we have the opposite of the Augustan project. Today we are on the point of granting universal access to marriage, whereas the Roman law was about compelling particular classes of people to marry.”

“The point of synergy seems to me to be the way we have enshrined in legislation a restrictive definition of marriage – a certain ideal family – and conferred benefits on that.”

Two thousand years after these Roman marriage laws were enacted, we are still using marriage as a political symbol of inclusion and exclusion.

Lessons from the Romans

Did the Roman marriage laws have the desired effect? Dr Wallis explains that Romans played cat-and-mouse games to get around them, they were much protested, and eventually watered down.

“The lesson for the Romans – and for us – was that restrictive moral legislation doesn’t work,” said Dr Wallis. 

“Attempts to legislate views on marriage and strictly define marriage don’t work. And yet marriage continues to be used as a political tool.”

Image: The portrait of Paquius Proculo is a fresco depicting a pair of middle-class Pompeians, almost certainly husband and wife.

Deepen your understanding of the present by exploring the ancient past. Study Latin, Ancient Greek or Ancient Civilisations at the University of Tasmania.

Current students can explore Roman views on love and relationships through the elective unit, Desire and Disorder in the Erotic Text.

About Dr Jonathan Wallis

Dr Wallis gained his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2008 and joined the University of Tasmania as Lecturer in Classics in History & Classics in the School of Humanities in July 2009.

View Dr Jonathan Wallis's full researcher profile