While the origin of wedding rings isn’t one hundred percent certain, based on archeological evidence dating back 3000 years, historians have pointed back to ancient Egypt as the first culture to exchange rings to commemorate marriage. The rings were given by spouses to each other as a symbol of the love between them, but it wasn’t a part of any ceremony. It was a private gift shared between them. However, to find the origins of the tradition of metal wedding rings exchanged today, we look back to the ancient Romans. At that time and in that culture, marriages had to conform to Roman law and were categorized by social class. This included three different categories of weddings: Usus, Coemptio, and Confarreatio.
Ancient Wedding Rings Didn’t Always Represent Love
In plain English, the Usus was marriage for the lowest class. Today, we might compare it to what we call common-law marriage. The next "step up" was the Coemptio which involved purchasing the bride. Historians don’t totally agree on whether this was an actual purchase or a symbolic sale, but that’s what the ring in these marriages represented. Then there was the Confarreatio – the only “legal” marriage and it was reserved for the elite upper class. This marriage was presided over, and the groom presented his bride with a ring. Most of these rings were made of iron or gold which is what led to the tradition of metal wedding rings. Unlike the Egyptian rings which were symbols of love, historians believe the Romans looked at the metal wedding band as a symbol of possession. Thus, the wife belonged to the husband once that ring went on her finger.
Ancient Romans Owned Two Wedding Rings
As I mentioned, the ancient Roman wedding rings were made of iron or gold. What I didn’t mention is that the wealthy women in ancient Rome actually were presented with two wedding rings, an iron one and a gold one. The first was to be worn at home and thought to represent strength and permanence. The gold ring was worn in public to impress people. Laws actually prohibited those from the lower classes from wearing gold rings, but these laws were somewhat difficult to enforce, because historical evidence shows that even slaves plated their iron rings with gold if they could.
|Motif of the clasped hands, signified love, betrothal, and marriage. These rings are known as "fede rings," named after the Italian term for good faith and belief.|
Laws of Ancient Roman Marriage
Back in ancient Rome, couples had to have connubium which denoted the legal right to get married. Needless to say this was a requirement for marriage and it wasn’t a permission granted to people who were already married, eunuchs, and people who shared certain blood relationships. Parental consent also played a role with the minimum age for marriage set at age 12 for girls and age 14 for boys.