SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard explains that women were expected to get married (see quote below).
Roman marriage was, in essence, a simple and private business. Unlike in the modern world, the state played little part in it. In most cases a man and a woman were assumed to be married if they claimed that they were married, and they ceased to be married if they (or if one of them) claimed they no longer were. That, plus a party or two to celebrate the union, was probably all there was to it for the majority of ordinary Roman citizens. For the wealthier, there were often more formal and more expensive wedding ceremonies, featuring a relatively familiar line-up for such a rite of passage: special clothes (brides traditionally wore yellow), songs and processions and the new wife being carried over the threshold of the marital home. Considerations of property bulked larger for the rich too, in particular a dowry that the father of the bride provided, to be returned in the event of divorce.
The main purpose of marriage at Rome, as in all past cultures, was the production of legitimate children, who automatically inherited Roman citizen status if both parents were citizens or if they satisfied various conditions governing ‘intermarriage’ with outsiders.
Just as today, however, being married did not necessarily limit a woman’s freedom:
No less problematic is the competing image, prominent in the first century BCE, of a new style of liberated woman, who supposedly enjoyed a free social, sexual, often adulterous life, without much constraint from husband, family or the law. Some of these characters were conveniently dismissed as part of the demi-monde of actresses, showgirls, escorts and prostitutes, including one celebrity ex-slave, Volumnia Cytheris, who was said to have been the mistress at one time or another of both Brutus and Mark Antony, so sleeping with both Caesar’s assassin and his greatest supporter. But many of them were the wives or widows of high-ranking Roman senators. The most notorious of all was Clodia, the sister of Cicero’s great enemy Clodius, the wife of a senator who died in 59 BCE, and the lover of the poet Catullus, among a string of others. Terentia is rumoured to have had her suspicions about even Cicero’s relations with Clodius’ sister. She was alternately attacked and admired as a promiscuous temptress, scheming manipulator, idolised goddess and borderline criminal.
Women were not shut away:
Women also regularly dined with men, and not only the sex workers, escorts and entertainers who provided the female company at classical Athenian parties. In fact, one of the early misdeeds of Verres turned on this difference between Greek and Roman dining practices. In the 80s BCE, when he was serving in Asia Minor, more than a decade before his stint in Sicily, Verres and some of his staff engineered an invitation to dinner with an unfortunate Greek, and after a considerable quantity of alcohol had been consumed they asked the host if his daughter could join them. When the man explained that respectable Greek women did not dine in male company, the Romans refused to believe him and set out to find her. A brawl followed in which one of Verres’ bodyguards was killed and the host was drenched with boiling water; he was later executed for murder. Cicero paints the whole incident in extravagant terms, almost as a rerun of the rape of Lucretia. But it also involved a series of drunken misunderstandings about the conventions of female behaviour across the cultural boundaries of the empire. Some of the legal rules that governed marriage and women’s rights at this period reflect this relative freedom. There were, it is true, some hard lines claimed on paper. It may have been a nostalgic myth that once upon a time a man had the right to cudgel to death his wife for the ‘crime’ of drinking a glass of wine. But there is some evidence that the execution of a wife who was caught in adultery was technically within the husband’s legal power. There is, however, not a single known example of this ever happening, and most evidence points in a different direction. A woman did not take her husband’s name or fall entirely under his legal authority. After the death of her father, an adult woman could own property in her own right, buy and sell, inherit or make a will and free slaves – many of the rights that women in Britain did not gain till the 1870s.
The only restriction was the need for an appointed guardian (tutor) to approve whatever decision or transaction she made. Whether Cicero was being patronising or misogynistic or (as some critics generously think) having a joke when he put this rule down to women’s natural ‘weakness in judgement’ is impossible to tell. But there is certainly no sign that for his wife it was much of a handicap: whether she was selling a row of houses to raise funds for Cicero in exile or raking in the rents from her estates, no tutor is ever mentioned. In fact, one of the reforms of Augustus towards the end of the first century BCE or early in the next was to allow freeborn citizen women who had borne three children to be released from the requirement to have a guardian; ex-slaves had to have four to qualify. It was a clever piece of radical traditionalism: it allowed women new freedoms, provided they fulfilled their traditional role. Oddly, women had much less freedom when it came to the act of marriage itself. For a start, they had no real option whether to marry or not. The basic rule was that all freeborn women were to be married. There were no maiden aunts, and it was only special groups, such as the Vestal Virgins, who opted, or were compelled, to remain single.
Being a virgin might have been a wise career choice:
The production of children was a dangerous obligation. Childbirth was always the biggest killer of young adult women at Rome, from senators’ wives to slaves. Thousands of such deaths are recorded, from high-profile casualties such as Tullia and Pompey’s Julia to the ordinary women across the empire commemorated on tombstones by their grieving husbands and families. One man in North Africa remembered his wife, who ‘lived for thirty-six years and forty days. It was her tenth delivery. On the third day she died.’ Another, from what is now Croatia, put up a simple memorial to ‘his fellow slave’ (and probably his partner), who ‘suffered agonies to give birth for four days, and did not give birth, and so she died’. To put this in a wider perspective, statistics available from more recent historical periods suggest that at least one in fifty women were likely to die in childbirth, with a higher chance if they were very young.
most of their contraceptive efforts were defeated by the fact that ancient science claimed that the days after a woman ceased menstruating were her most fertile, when the truth is exactly the opposite.
The best estimate – based largely on figures from comparable later populations – is that half the children born would have died by the age of ten, from all kinds of sickness and infection, including the common childhood diseases that are no longer fatal. What this means is that, although average life expectancy at birth was probably as low as the mid twenties, a child who survived to the age of ten could expect a lifespan not wildly at variance from our own. According to the same figures, a ten-year-old would on average have another forty years of life left, and a fifty-year-old could reckon on fifteen more. The elderly were not as rare as you might think in ancient Rome. But the high death rate among the very young also had implications for women’s pregnancies and family size. Simply to maintain the existing population, each woman on average would have needed to bear five or six children. In practice, that rises to something closer to nine when other factors, such as sterility and widowhood, are taken into account. It was hardly a recipe for widespread women’s liberation.
More: read SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome