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Why is marrying-for-love so obvious to us today? There are of course many historical factors. But I wonder whether one of the most important ones isn’t a letter written many years ago.
Why do we marry for love nowadays? The peculiarity of this now pervasive social arrangement struck me as I read a fascinating historical novel this month, Augustus by John Williams. Set in the Ancient Roman world, the novel traces the life of Rome’s first emperor. And one of the themes it explores is the nature of love.
In the novel, as in much of what took place in that time, many characters do not marry for love. They marry for power, position, and status. Marriage is a political alliance forged for the advancement of the families involved. Augustus has even a friend divorce his wife, Livia, so Livia can become Augustus’ second wife. Livia, in turn, has her son Tiberius divorce his wife so he can marry the daughter of Augustus’ first marriage, Giulia, in a plot to have the power couple succeed Augustus in governing Rome. Tiberius despises Giulia, Giulia hates Tiberius, but that doesn’t stop them from marrying.
As Giulia reflects in her journal,
In the world from which I came, all was power … One even loved for power; and the end of love became not its own joy, but the myriad joys of power.
Similarly, the novel includes also a letter from the poet Horace to Augustus, in which he writes:
In the circles in which you move, and which I observe, copulation has become an act designed to obtain power, either social or political; an adulterer may be more dangerous than a conspirator, both to your person and his country; and that act whose natural end is affectionate pleasure has become a dangerous means toward ambition.
It seemed to me like a strange old world, far removed from the triumph of romantic love as the pervasive motivation for marriage today. Why? – I found myself thinking. Why is marrying-for-love so obvious to us today? There are of course many historical factors. But I wonder whether one of the most important ones isn’t a letter written not many years after Augustus. It taught a radically different ethic:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
How praiseworthy do these words sound to us today. But how new must they have sounded to the Roman world back then. Love your wife? Isn’t she a means to give me heirs? And love her like I love myself – more, like Christ gave his life for us?
That is one lofty ethic. But that’s an ethic I want. It is born not out of human power exalting itself to make all of life serve its logic, but out of God who emptied himself of his power to become man and give his life for us. And if the center of the universe – God – is love and acts out of love, love becomes central. As Bernard of Clairvaux put it in the Middle Ages, love:
… is its own merit, its own reward. Love has no cause or fruit beyond itself: its fruit is its use. I love because I love. I love that I may love.
For those of us who get our understanding of reality from Christ, we love because Christ loved us. And we marry to give of ourselves and make a woman flourish like Christ did for us.
René Breuel is a pastor in Rome. He is editor of Wondering Fair.
 John Williams, Augustus (New York: New York Review Books, 1972), 198.
 Ibid., 197.
 Ephesians 4:25-28
 Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 199.