History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
Women in Ancient Rome: Affairs 
Chaste Woman
Venus.  Marble, Roman. Getty Villa


Affairs outside of marriage for the elite were mostly tolerated. The reign of the Emperor Augustus changed this.

* Chastity meant political loyalty to one's husband, not necessarily faithfulness. But, extra-marital affairs must not upend the marriage contract. The contract governed the family's inheritance and property.

* The Roman gods and Roman religion appear uninterested in the morality of affairs.

Notable Affairs : Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar was considered one of the greatest lovers of his time. Clearly, some women were willing to take the risks of adultery. To his three wives, add many lovers from the patrician elite.


Caesar's second wife, divorced by him. Caesar allegedly said:  "The wife of Caesar must be above suspicion." What had she done? Pompeia took her own lover, Clodius, also a patrician.


Some Roman attitudes toward affairs would strike us as puzzling. Tertulla was the wife of Caesar's co-ruler, Crassus.  Did Crassus, one of the richest men in world history, hold their affair against Caesar? Or against Tertulla? Not that we can tell.


On the other hand the family of Servilia, Caesar's lover of twenty years, was actively opposed to Caesar. Servilia's son, Brutus, led the assassination gang that murdered Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC. ("Et tu, Brutus?")


Cleopatra VII

Cleopatria and Caesar not only had an affair, they had a son, Caesarion. Gliding into Rome, she was installed in Caesar's private villa, but the one across the Tiber, somewhat out of sight and out of mind. 

Though famous to us, she, the "foreign queen," lacked Roman citizenship. Caesar did not even mention his illegitimate son in his will, instead leaving his political inheritance and wealth to a nephew, Octavius (later Augustus).

Only later, with her affair with Marc Anthony, did Cleopatra become a true threat to Rome. Octavius (later the Emperor Augustus)  wanted to make sure Cleopatra and her son were dispensed with. Cleopatra foiled him, committing suicide first.

Affairs in Ancient Rome

Since matrimony was not "holy," affairs outside marriage were not frowned upon on religious grounds. The Roman gods appear not to have cared. Consequences for husbands who had affairs were few.

For wives, it could  be a different story. For many of the male writers of Rome, the ideal female was  a woman of rank, married, virtuous and chaste, like our female pictured left.

Roman society during the Republic was ruled by a very narrow, male oligarchy. To maintain their power, the Roman elite needed clear lines of inheritance. There could be no confusion about who fathered the baby. A model Roman wife should be above suspicion.

This left the adulteress wife as the one who might be punished. Often it was the wife's family, not the husband's, for upsetting the terms of the marriage contract.

A Roman elite man could have all the affairs he wanted, with men or with women of any class, as long as he was the dominant partner.

Cleopatra VII
Cleopatra VII. Coin, Egyptian, 1st c BC. (c) The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2012

You may contact me, Nancy Padgett, at NJPadgett@gmail.com