Yes, there is such thing as “forced divorce”

August 16, 2012 | By | 1 Comment

“Forced divorce.” It has a nice ring, maybe, but surely it’s an impossibility: no outsider can make a couple legally dissolve their marriage, right?

Not so fast, at least for those of us interested in time travel to ancient Rome. Then and there, forced divorce wasn’t as prevalent as arranged marriage, but it was a power tool brandished by the ruling classes – particularly by Octavian (63 AD -14 AD), later known as Augustus, the Roman Empire’s founder and ruler from 27 BC. Within his family, home-wrecking-as-power play resulted in family dynamics that were downright dizzying.

“Divorce for you equals power for me!” Image source: Till Nierman

Around 39 BC, Octavian divorced his second wife on the day she gave birth to their daughter, Julia; he then more or less forced Claudius Nero, an aristocrat who had supported Octavian’s rival Mark Antony, to divorce his wife, Livia (who was six months pregnant at the time!) so that he himself could have her and her powerful family connections. Three days after Livia gave birth to her second son by Claudius Nero, she and Octavian were married. (He was apparently in love with her, so we can only imagine that a three-days post-partum wedding night must have been, well, memorable.)

Decades later and after he became emperor, Octavian (now called Augustus) forced Livia’s first son by Claudius Nero, Tiberius (who was by now Augustus’ adopted son) to divorce his pregnant wife Vipsania and marry Augustus’ own daughter Julia, in essence consolidating power by marrying step-siblings. No matter that Julia had just given birth to her fourth child by her husband, who had just died and whom she was still mourning, and Tiberius was very much in love with Vipsania. Needless to say, heartache resulted:   As one contemporary historian noted, “The only time [Tiberius] chanced to see [Vipsania], he followed her with such an intent and tearful gaze that care was taken that she should never again come before his eyes.”

Flash forward to 1976…

This, of course, is the stuff of which awesome TV is made. Way back in 1976, the BBC produced a fantastic version of I, Claudius (a story told from the perspective of Livia’s second son, played by Derek Jacobi), and while it seem clunky to today’s viewers, if you take some time to settle in with it, it’s incredibly juicy…and young Patrick Stewart even has a role! Here’s a great bit in which Livia first dangles the idea of Julia before Tiberius, and he memorably retorts: “Mother, I’m a happily married man! Julia doesn’t interest me; she wouldn’t interest me if you hanged her naked on the ceiling above my bed…” (Skip ahead to 1:25 if you’re so inclined…)

(N.B. This is just a taste of the kink in I, Claudius  – there’s also the AWESOME moment when young Caligula shares 200-year-old gay porn with his elderly uncle Tiberius, and Tiberius says, “It was very thoughtful of you,” as if Caligula had brought him a warm peach pie.)

And then back to the first century AD…

Needless to say, Julia and Tiberius were not happy together, so it’s no surprise that they never produced an heir, which was kind of the point of the whole exercise. Julia was later accused of adultery and banished by Augustus to a desolate island. She is said to have written in her memoirs of that period, “My time here is horrid, there’s no wine to ease my stress and no lesser class people for me to make a ridicule of them.” She’s rumored to have been starved to death after her father died and Tiberius became emperor.

But under Augustus, forced divorce wasn’t just a game the whole family could play – it was policy for the populace. If a woman was discovered committing adultery, there was no “working it out” – her husband had to divorce her and she was punished with banishment to an island by the state, just like Julia was (no special privileges for women of the ruling class in that department). There was also no turning a blind eye – if a woman was a known adulteress and her husband didn’t prosecute her, not only did the state see to it that she was punished, but her husband would be charged with pandering. Basically, he was prosecuted as a pimp.

So you think forced divorce is a thing of the past?

I know you want to think that such a thing couldn’t possibly exist in this day and age, but it does, and one could argue that the U.S. healthcare system is our Emperor Augustus. When one spouse faces a health crisis that could wipe them out financially (or already has), more than a few couples have had to divorce so that the ill one can qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. In “Until Medical Bills Do Us Part,” New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about a woman he knew, (“M.”), who was advised by hospital staff and a social worker to divorce her very ill husband ASAP so her husband would be cut off from her assets and rendered destitute; then he could qualify for Medicaid. Only by divorcing her husband could this woman support him through the process of dying from dementia and not be left destitute herself. According to the article, 62 percent of bankruptcies are connected to medical bills, and what I call forced divorce are not unusual in situations like this.

Talk about heartbreak!

As Kristof wrote back when the article was published in 2009,“M. still helps her husband and, quietly, continues to live with him and care for him. But she worries that the authorities will come after her if they realize that they divorced not because of irreconcilable differences but because of irreconcilable medical bills. There were awkward questions from friends who saw the divorce announcement in the newspaper.”

You might think this is a stretch, comparing Octavian power plays from over 2,000 years ago with modern healthcare policy, and I’ll admit that maybe it is. But when you think about it, maybe our society is even worse than that of the Romans on this front, even though people aren’t forced to divorce the way the Romans were (for us it is at least technically elective). Tiberius and Vipsania were unusual in that their marriage (or at least his side of it) was rooted in love, but that was unusual. Presumably most marriages that were dissolved for political reasons then were arranged unions in the first place, so emotionally it was no great loss. But now, we live in an era that celebrates love marriages, so when they are dissolved because of the influence of an outside power like corporate healthcare, it’s far more of a violation and presumably results in far more heartbreak.

We’re so smug with respect to our antecedents; we, after all, do not cheer wildly as gladiators slaughter each other in the ring, nor is poisoning family members or political rivals the custom of the country. But maybe we shouldn’t be quite so righteous: 2,000 years after Tiberius and Vipsania, greed can still colonize love.

Filed in: Blog, history, The Little Book of Heartbreak | Tags: , , , ,

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Comments (1)

  1. DebZ

    Love the clip from I, Claudius. Love even more the link to the SUPER creepy porn scene. Poor Patrick Stewart….

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