O little ring that art going to encircle my fair mistress’s finger, thou that no value hast save the giver’s love that goes with thee, be charming in her sight. May she with delight receive thee and straightway slip thee on her finger. May thou fit her, as well as she fits me; and may thy circle, nor over-tight nor yet too loose, softly gird her finger.
Happy ring, thou wilt be touched by her I love. Ah me, already I begin to envy my own gift’s happy lot…Go forth, little gift, upon thy way, and may my mistress see in thee the symbol of my changeless love.
~Ovid (43 BC–AD 17/18)
Excerpt from Amores, Book II, Elegy XV
(Translated by J. Lewis May, 1930)
Wedding ring traditions in Rome continued—to some extent—the established customs of the Egyptians and Greeks. However, the Romans were the first to institute detailed legal requirements for prenuptial agreements, weddings, and divorce. A Roman marriage was called Justae Nuptiae, Justum Matrionium, or Ligitimum Matrimonium because it conformed to Roman law.
To marry in ancient Rome, you had to have a legal right to marry, or connubium. If you were already married, or if you wished to marry within the bounds of certain blood and legal relationships, you did not have connubium. If you were a eunuch or person who, for some reason, would or could not achieve puberty, you would not be allowed to marry. Any couple wishing to marry must have their parents consent. The bride had to be at least 12 years of age, the groom 14.
It is in pursuance of this custom that even at the present day, an iron ring is sent by way of present to a woman when betrothed.
~Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79)
Wedding agreements or contracts were serious matters to the Romans. Once an agreement was made, failure to follow through could have severe consequences. The agreement was frequently cemented when the groom gave money or an iron ring to his intended. This ring was called the annulus pronubus or engagement ring.
After the parties had agreed to marry…a meeting of friends was sometimes held at the house of the maiden for the purpose of settling the marriage-contract…written on tablets, and signed by both parties…it appears that, at least during the imperial period, the man put a ring on the finger of his betrothed, as a pledge of his fidelity.
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1859)
Although iron was not valued as highly as gold, an iron ring was no trifle to the Romans. Sumptuary laws also prohibited the lower classes from wearing gold rings although the laws were difficult to enforce. According to Pliny, even slaves were known to plate their iron rings with gold.
The Romans were fascinated with the phenomenon of magnetism. According to Pliny, iron rings were frequently magnetized prior to the betrothal ceremony. He also expounded on the protective and healing properties of iron: “For if a circle is traced with iron…it will preserve both infant and adult from all noxious influences…Water in which iron has been plunged at a white heat, is useful, as a potion, in many diseases, dysentery more particularly.”
On occasion, the iron wedding ring would also be set with a lodestone—an oxide of iron and a natural magnet—which symbolized the love that bound the couple together. Pliny details the wonder of the lodestone and its action on iron: “What is there in existence more inert than a piece of rigid stone? And yet, behold! Nature has here endowed stone with both sense and hands. What is there more stubborn than hard iron? Nature has, in this instance, bestowed upon it both feet and intelligence. It allows itself, in fact, to be attracted by the magnet, and, itself a metal which subdues all other elements, it precipitates itself towards the source of an influence at once mysterious and unseen. The moment the metal comes near it, it springs towards the magnet, and, as it clasps it, is held fast in the magnet’s embraces.”
Over time, Roman wedding rings became increasingly elaborate. They were fabricated from gold and other precious metals, set with gemstones, and decorated with different symbols or motifs. A man and a woman, representing the betrothed couple, might be engraved on the ring. If a ship motif was used, it signified happiness or good fortune. Sometimes the rings featured engraved motifs such as the gods Mars and Venus or their son, Cupid.
The Romans, like the Egyptians and Greeks before them, wore their love or betrothal rings on the third finger of the left hand. This is because they believed this finger held a special vein, called the vena amoris, or vein of love, which was linked directly to the heart. This same finger was also called the digitus medicinalis, and it was used to stir potions and medicines in the belief that the heart would be alerted if there was poison in the mix.
The ancient Egyptians used an exceptionally strong knot created by two intertwined ropes as a healing and fertility charm. The Greeks referred to them as Heracles knots because of their affiliation with the Greek hero known for his strength, virility, and courage. The Greeks used Heracles knots as a motif in love and friendship rings, not marriage rings per se.
The Heracles (Hercules in Latin) knot was adopted by the Romans—first as a talisman and then as a wedding symbol. It was used in both wedding rings and the bride’s belt or girdle. In ancient Rome, the bride’s girdle was securely fastened with knots—a representation of her virginity. It was common for the groom to untie the knots in the post-wedding ceremony. This tradition has given us the phrase tying the knot.
On the wedding-day, which in the early times was never fixed upon without consulting the auspices, the bride was dressed in a long white robe with a purple fringe or adorned with ribands. This dress was called tunica recta, and was bound round the waist with a girdle, which the husband had to untie in the evening.
The bride was conducted to the house of her husband in the evening…When the procession arrived at the house of the bridegroom, the door of which was adorned with garlands and flowers, the bride was carried across the threshold by pronubi, i.e., men who had only been married to one woman, that she might not knock against it with her foot, which would have been an evil omen.
After she had entered the house…she was placed upon a sheep-skin, and here the keys of the house were delivered into her hands.
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1859)
If the wedding ring was costly, the bride did not wear it every day. An iron ring served as the daily substitute. Many of these iron rings featured small protrusions in the shape of keys. Although some believe the keys unlocked tiny jewel boxes, these rings were probably not functional. More likely, it symbolized a woman’s control over the keys, and therefore the valuables, of the household.
- Gemstone Origins: Part II
- Gemstone Treatments: A Historical Perspective