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"A fine custom of the Samnites"

The Samnites had a most unusual set of marriage laws that have been recorded and passed down through the ages, despite the destruction of the vast majority of the Samnite population by the Roman army in 82 BC, under the Roman emperor Sulla, after hundreds of years of warfare.

Although the surviving Samnites were sold into slavery or soon became thoroughly Romanized, some of their history and customs were recorded for posterity. By far the most interesting of these were recorded by Stobaeus in a work entitled Morum Mirabilum Collectio (A Collection of Extraordinary/Astonishing Customs, would be its English title); this work was largely lost over the years, but the bit that Stobeaus recorded about the Samnites was preserved in citations by Nicholas of Damascus, whose works survives in fragments which, in turn, were saved by some monk.

Thus, down the dark and treacherous path of history came the custom by which all the young Samnites were percieved by their elder statesmen; the women judged according to their beauty, the men according to their wealth (my, my, how little has changed!).

The most beautiful of the women were auctioned off to the highest bidders as wives. As the auction proceeded, and after all of the rich and beautiful had been “married,” the unfortunate – the ugly and the poor – were dealt with in a different manner. In their case, the government took the money that they had made from the previous “weddings” and began to reverse-auction the remaining girls to the remaining boys as wives. That is, the poor boys would be offered money to take, as wives, the girls that the rich men did not want.

In The Spirit of the Laws, the political philosopher Montesquieu wrote a chapter entitled “A fine custom of the Samnites” in which he praises this as a fine example of a law that is able to simultaneously achieve two goals that are important for every state/government: it ensures that everyone is married while at the same time redistributing wealth. Today, of course, civil rights groups would have a hissy-fit over the mere mentioning of a law like this one, and for good reason; Montesquieu himself stated that the freedom of a nation can be judged by the freedom that its women possess. His main point, however, was to show how a good legislator can multi-task with witty legislation; besides, of course, providing all of us with a little tidbit to drop at cocktail parties.

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