Pausing on Confarreation
Bill Long 11/8/08
At times I just want to exposit words that have been lost, if they give us an insight to society and human practices at another time. To that end, I will begin with farreation or, as it was more usually known, confarreation. It was a certain kind of marriage celebrated in ancient Rome, but the practice died out by Imperial times. English translations of Tacitus, who makes mention of it in Book IV of the Annals, used to use the word "confarreation" to describe it but more recent translations don't even use the term. Thus, we have to dig through layers of material even to find the word, a word that was even outdated at the time that Tacitus himself wrote.
Let's do it, however, just to show that we can. I begin with the OED for farreate. "Of persons: United in marriage by the offering of spelt-bread (see confarreation)." Well, the only attestation to this spelling of the word is from an 1880 translation of the Institutes of Gaius, a four-book legal digest from the celebrated 2nd century CE Roman jurist. In I.112 Gaius has, "No person is elected to office..unless born of farreate parents." I always chuckle a little bit when I read legal documents, for in these documents are the layers of Western civilization history even as they try to describe a legal transaction from the present-day. So, Gaius' Institutes contain "layers" of laws/practices no longer in view--one of which was farreate marriage.
Moving to Confarreation
The more usual term for it was confarreation, derived from the Latin word meaning "united in marriage by the offering of bread." Farreus is "spelt, corn, grain." The OED tells us that confarreation is/was "the highest and most solemn form of marriage among the ancient Romans, made in the presence of the Pontifex Maximus or the Flamen Dialis and ten witnesses, and marked by the offering of a cake of spelt." Pliny knew of the practice: "There was nothing reputed more religious than the bond of Confarration, in knitting up of marriages." But the only ancient author I ran into that has more than a passing reference to it is Tacitus (1st cent. CE), in Book IV of the Annals. A "modern" translation (i.e., 20th cent.) of the passage under consideration (IV.16) runs:
"About the same time the emperor spoke on the subject of electing a priest of Jupiter in the room of Servius Maluginensis, deceased, and of the enactment of a new law. 'It was,' he said, 'the old custom to nominate together three patricians, sons of parents wedded according to the primitive ceremony, and of these one was to be chosen. Now however there was not the same choice as formerly, the primitive form of marriage having been given up or being observed only by a few persons.'"
But let's go back to an early 19th century translation of the Annals for this passage:
"About this time the office of high priest of Jupiter became vacant by the death of Servius Maluginensis. Tiberius, in a speech to the senate, proposed that they should proceed to the choice of a successor, and at the same time pass a new law to regulate that business for the future. The custom had been to name three patricians, descended from a marriage, contracted according to the rites of confarreation. Out of the number so proposed, one was to be elected. But this mode was no longer in use. The ceremony of confarreation was grown obsolete, or, if observed, it was by a few families only."
Then, as so often is the case in these older editions of classical works, there is a note on Roman marriage. The relevant words are:
"Three forms of contracting marriage prevailed at Rome. 1. When a woman cohabited with one man for the space of a year. 2. When the marriage was a kind of bargain and sale between the parties, which was called coemptio. 3. When the chief pontiff, distributing flour in the presence of ten witnesses, joined the bride and bridegroom. This was called marriage by Confarreation. Other marriages were easily dissolved; but that by confarreation required the same formalities (Diffarreatio) to divorce the parties.."
So our super-duper modern translation, though reading a bit more smoothly, actually obscures a matter that would, for the diligent student, make him/her pause and wonder. S/he would run across the word confarreation (as in the older translation) and then ask: "Hm. What precisely did this ceremony consist of? Why would it have been done? What is so significant about the bread shared? [An article on the history of Russian law that I looked at in this regard mentions confarreation as a way for couples to mimic home life--sharing a meal together] Why did it fall out of favor? So many questions are provoked as you read if you have the real or classical terms before you. They serve as a constant reminder that one isn't to bring one's own "world" to bear on another's world. Thus, rather than breezing through our reading at 100 miles per hour, as we are "supposed" to read today (since everyone is so "busy" and all reading as well as other activity must be purposive--towards a purpose that is opposite to simple discovery of the world in front of us), the presence of the word confarreation in a translation makes us pause and begin to ask questions. It "distracts" us, to be sure, but as we saw, it takes us to a small understanding of the various forms of marriage in ancient Rome; it gives us a reference to Gaius; it anchors us a little more precisely in another world; it stimulates us humbly to seek clarification of this thing; it makes us attentive in all our reading for hints dropped into the text that might give us great insight about ourselves and the world.
Thus, confarreation made my day today--not because of any "practical" significance of it for me, not because it will help me or anyone who reads this essay make more money, but simply because it makes us stop and learn. I can think of few things better than that.
And, because you have been so good in reading this essay, I will reward you with a near-neighbor of confarreation in the OED: confasciation. We see the Latin word "fasces" underneath--a bundle of rods carried by the lictor. So, confasciation, used only in an 18th century translation of Swedenborg's works, means "a binding or bundling together." I think I will use the word....
Oops...found another term I want to tell you about--but that will await the next essay.