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  • The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity by Karen K. Hersch
  • Beth Severy-Hoven
The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity. By Karen K. Hersch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. 341. $99.00 (cloth); $29.99 (paper); $24.00 (ebook).

In The Roman Wedding, Karen Hersch surveys in detail surviving evidence for this ritual in Roman society from ca. 200 BCE to 200 CE. The first chapter establishes the relationship of the wedding to marriage: a wedding was not required for a couple to become wed, and some couples who could not legally marry nevertheless celebrated weddings. The second and third chapters take us through the events of the ceremony as far as our sources allow, including costuming and other preparations of the bride, taking auspices and offering sacrifices, the groom’s attire, leading the bride to the house of the groom, her possible attendants and accoutrements, songs sung, ceremonies of arrival at the groom’s home, the banquet, and the wedding night. A fourth chapter goes back through the evidence to survey the gods invoked or represented, including Hymenaeus, Juno, Venus, and household gods, among others, and observes associations among Roman brides and two prominent state priestesses, the Vestals and the Flaminica Dialis. A discursive essay exploring the functions of the Roman wedding in social life and in literature concludes the book.

Throughout, Hersch maintains a certain focus on the question of when in the ceremony the couple was considered to have become wed (shortly after the bride’s arrival at the groom’s home, she concludes), but other [End Page 129] useful contributions are made along the way. Hersch demonstrates that the bride’s bright yellow-orange veil, the flammeum, was such a prominent and consistent feature across the centuries that it could be used as shorthand for the bride and the wedding itself. The torch-bearing procession to the groom’s house, the domum deductio, proves similarly significant. In contrast, Hersch argues convincingly that the image of a man and woman holding right hands (dextrarum iunctio), common in funerary relief in the second century CE, does not derive from the wedding ritual itself but signifies instead the concord desired in marriage and perhaps experienced by the deceased (200–205). Her careful investigation of modern scholarship reveals sources of some misconceptions, such as that the bride wore a towered crown (92). She also persuades in arguing that our evidence reveals no one ubiquitous god of weddings but that an array of divinities were invoked by authors or celebrants for their individual purposes. Finally, the discussion of the way our sources link the costumes and rituals of brides with those of priestesses is suggestive, but, as is characteristic of the book, little analysis is offered.

This thinness of analysis sometimes frustrates. For example, the book opens with a quotation from Victor Turner about weddings among the Ndembu, but it engages only sparingly with anthropological and other theory. Hersch introduces early on the notion of the wedding as a rite of passage for women and in concluding draws the inference that “unmarried” and “married” were more significant categories for females than “girl” and “woman.” Hersch does not sustain this line of inquiry, however, despite opportunities. Although both she and our ancient sources frequently observe the similarity of the Roman wedding procession to that of the funeral, Hersch does not engage with this as death imagery from the liminal phase of a rite de passage. Similarly, despite a few notes pointing to scholars like Eric Hobsbawm, she tends to accept the explanations of Roman authors for elements of ritual. So, for example, although Hersch observes that only a few antiquarians report that the wedding cry “Talassio” commemorated the legendary abduction of the Sabine women, she does not pause to consider whether this association was invented and, if so, what motivated authors from a particular historical moment to do so (148–49).

In turn, in her engaging conclusion, Hersch pointedly compares ancient Roman and modern American couples who celebrate weddings even though they cannot form marriages recognized by the state. Thus this work not only is timely but also demonstrates that marriage is culturally constructed, and Hersch...


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