Marriage Laws – Examples from Ancient Rome and Modern Canada

In early November 2014, an article in The Toronto Star by Heather Mallick caught my attention, primarily because of the title: Stephen Harper Wants You To Get Married(accessed 8 Jan 2015, 19:14pm).

Prime Minister Harper had made an announcement that day that the federal government had initiated income splitting tax benefits for families where, if one spouse stayed home, or only worked occasionally, the other spouse could split their declared income and the family would receive a tax break. Seems pretty innocuous, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to stay home with their kids and gain the benefit of more income tax returned? And after the years of carefully managing finances after the economic collapse of 2008-2009, who doesn’t deserve a rebate on all their hard work? Mr. Harper also noted that this incentive is for families with children under the age of 18. Great! Everyone with dependent children can benefit, right?

So, to be clear: parents (plural and together) with dependent children can potentially take advantage of a tax break if one works and the other either works a great deal less or not at all. What new questions does this statement raise? What is the definition of ‘parents’? Do ‘parents’ have to be legally married or common law? Do ‘parents’ have to be together and live under the same roof as their dependent children? Do eligible dependents have to be both parents’ dependents in order for them to qualify? Why is there such a wide spread ($25,000) between incomes in order to qualify for this benefit? What will be the consequences of this kind of social initiative?

Let’s take a look at another example of a social policy based around the family, albeit families from rather a long time ago. In the first century BCE, as Augustus was consolidating his power as Imperator and Pater Patriae and Divus Filius, (all very lofty and yet humble at the same time), two pieces of legislation were brought forward to address “the rising tide of moral change” that had begun under the late Republic (Nagle, p.352). Suffice it to say, the Emperor did not consider such moral change positive.

The first, in 18 BCE, was the lex Julia. The second, in 9 BCE, the lex Papia-Poppaea. Between them, new rules were established for everything from the seat of power in a marriage  to incentives for women who bore three or more living children. Childlessness was penalized. The manumission of slaves was regulated and restricted. Limits on material excess and ostentation were established. And, “to extend the power of the state over the family, Augustus made the act [of adultery] a public crime to which severe penalties were attached” (Nagle, p.352). Quite right too! After the years and years of discord within the flailing Republic, and the (gasp!) affair between Marc Antony and that most ostentatious of monarchs, Pharaoh Cleopatra of Egypt, Augustus was bringing social, religious, and moral reform to the Roman people. Sound familiar?

What if someone was unable, or unwilling, to have children? In Ancient Rome, mortality rates for both mothers and children were much higher than they are today. What if someone could not afford children? What if someone could not find a partner with whom to raise a family? What if someone did not wish to marry at all? What if promiscuity (or, alternatively, a lack of monogamy) was as natural to some as breathing?

Mr. Harper is attempting to bring the social and moral centres of Canadians everywhere in line with his own (or his party’s) values. This is both unfair and very concerning. For one spouse to stay home and raise children, the other spouse must be making enough to support the whole family. Statistics and reports abound that declare how difficult this is, that most families desperately need two incomes in order to stay afloat. More than that, a $25,000 gap in income suggests that one partner has established a career over time and the other is more likely taking on part-time or occasional work in order to bolster the household income. One of the things that Mallick takes note of is that this may ultimately limit the number of foreign workers who come to Canada to work as nannies or au pairs because, if one parent is at home, and income is dependent on one parent, who would pay for a nanny? What immigration news was coming out around this same time last year?

It’s not the new rules themselves that bother me personally but the not-so-subtle manipulation that is – and has always been – a part of the Harper Government’s modus operandi. Get married, have children, and stay at home to raise them. That’s not everyone’s cup ‘o tea. But somehow this federal government has decided that it should be. And that is very not okay.


Buchan, John (Lord Tweedsmuir). Augustus. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 1937.

Nagle, D. Brendan. The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History. 5th edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc., 2002.

Shelton, Jo-Ann. As The Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s