FRESCO FROM HERCULANEUM
A YOUNG woman, half-naked, is showing her lover a quince-tree leaf, as if to excite him to take what she still refuses him. The youth amorously presses his mistress's neck and shoulders, and looks anxiously at the leaf which the latter holds in her hand, and which doubtless the painter considered as the symbol of a virginity ready to be plucked.
It was the custom at Rome to give the bride a quince to eat before conducting her to the nuptial bed. We may therefore consider this fresco as a representation of the first private intercourse between a young married pair.
The figures are perfectly well preserved; but -the same thing cannot be said of the background of the fresco. In its present state, the actors look as if they were seated on banks of stone; but we are inclined to think they were originally seen seated on cushions, in a chamber covered with drapery. The youth's legs are concealed by a red mantle, and those of the young woman by the flammeum, a garment of gold-coloured silk, set apart for brides. Still, in order completely to set aside all doubt as to the subject of
this plate, the girdle or belt is wanting which Roman virgins left their husbands to untie on the bridal night.
The flower, leaf, and fruit of the quince-tree were all dedicated by the Greeks to the phallus, and by the Indians to the lingam.
We are indebted to the learned German historian Niebuhr for some valuable details as to the manner in which marriage was celebrated among the Romans.
The first solemnity was the confarreation. It took place in the presence of ten witnesses, and with the intervention of the pontiffs. The farreum, or sacred cake, was offered to the betrothed pair; five torches were lighted in their presence; the betrothed woman touched water and fire, and performed other ceremonies equally symbolical. After this solemnity, the woman was in the hands and power of the man who had become her husband: she took his name, and became his presumptive heiress, concurrently with her children.
This ceremony did not take place for free marriage, a sort of union which did not confer on the wife the name of her husband or the right of inheritance, and which, on the other hand, gave him no power over her. These are what are still called in Germany left-handed marriages.
A woman who came under the absolute power of her husband might be condemned by him to the penalty of death for certain offences more or less grave, among which may be remarked that of drinking wine. The use of this beverage was generally forbidden to women, under the severest penalties: this was a law of the Twelve Tables.
But a woman was not under her husband's power until they had passed a year together beneath the conjugal roof, and she could break through the prescription by absenting herself every year for three nights.
After the betrothal, the man gave his future mate a metal ring and a
kiss. On the appointed day, the relations and friends of the married pair conducted them to the temple with great pomp; the procession was led by young children who carried a work-basket, a distaff it torch, and a branch of hawthorn. joyous cries might be heard, among which that of Thalossio, was distinguished; instrumental players joined the procession, and accompanied it as far as the temple. There the pontiffs celebrated the union. after consulting the auspices.
Then the young wife was conducted with the same pomp to her husband's abode. On reaching the threshold of the door, she sprinkled it with an odoriferous oil, and her companions immediately seized her and lifted her across the threshold in their arms. Then came, as in our own day, the famous marriage-feast, so coveted by all the guests, and so tedious for the newly-married pair, the cynosure of every eye, and the mark for every stale and worn-out jest,
Finally, the young wife, clad, as we have said, in the flammeum, crowned with lemon-flower, and, above all, adorned with the precious virginal zone, was led by her relations and companions to the conjugal chamber, where it quince was given her to eat, and every one immediately retired, leaving her alone with her husband and the cubicular slave. The latter also withdrew, after bringing his mistress's shoes, carefully shut up in a precious casket, and placed himself as a sentinel behind the door, attentively watching that no inquisitive intruder came to disturb the mysteries of the nuptial bed.