Arranged Marriages, Solemn Promises: Etymologies of Spondere

From De Lingua Latina, 6. 69-70

Spondere is to say spondeo,”I promise”, related to sponte, something done willingly—this has the same force as a voluntate, “with personal inclination”. This is why Lucilius writes about the woman from Crete that she came to his bedroom willingly, that she tossed off her clothes of her own desire. Terence intends the same willingness when he says that it is better: “to do something right because of your own correct desire rather than fear of another.”

From the same sponte on which spondere is based, are derived the words despondet  (“he pledges”) and respondet  (“he promises in return, answers”), desponsor  (“promiser”), and sponsa (“promised bride”), and many others that are similar. For one spondet (“solemnly swears”) when he says sponte (“willingly”) spondeo (“I pledge”).  He who has promised (spondidit) is thus a sponsor. He who is by “formal promise” (sponsus) bound to keep a pledge to another person is called a cosponsus.

This is what Naevius is thinking when he says consponsi. If money or a daughter “were promised” (spondebatur) as part of a marriage arrangement, both the money and the girl who was promised (desponsa) would be called sponsa (“pledged”). The money which had been agreed upon under the engagement agreement (sponsu) was called a sponsio (“guarantee”); the man to whom the things were promised would be called a sponsus (“betrothed”) and the day of the agreement would be called “betrothal day” (sponsalis).


Spondere est dicere spondeo, a sponte: nam id idem valet et a voluntate. Itaque Lucilius scribit de Cretaea, cum ad se cubitum venerit sua voluntate, sponte ipsam suapte adductam, ut tunicam et cetera reiceret. Eandem uoluntatem Terentius significat, cum ait satius esse

Sua sponte recte facere quam alieno metu.

Ab eadem sponte, a qua dictum spondere, declinatum despondet et respondet et desponsor et sponsa, item sic alia. Spondet enim qui dicit a sua sponte “spondeo”; qui spopondit, est sponsor; qui idem ut faciat obligatur sponsu, consponsus.

Hoc Naevius significat cum ait “consponsi.” Si spondebatur pecunia aut filia nuptiarum causa, appellabatur et pecunia et quae desponsa erat sponsa; quae pecunia inter se contra sponsu rogata erat, dicta sponsio; cui desponsa quae erat, sponsus; quo die sponsum erat, sponsalis.



5 thoughts on “Arranged Marriages, Solemn Promises: Etymologies of Spondere

  1. If I may digress a bit…. He alludes to a very early, and long-lasting way of doing contracts, stipulatio. Originally it was the only way, and stricti iuris. You could have the con tract be “In return for 20 Quatloos, you will let me quarry a wagonload of marble for my temple to Stercutius.” One person would say “spondesne?” And the other would say “spondeo.” And is done. BUT: it only allows what’s in the contract. So I can wua rry the mrable, load it, and you can apperar and say “I agreed to let you quarry the marble. I didn’t agree that you could take it away.” Tilt!!!

    In a small community, that would never happen; if it did, you would have just made a very bad enemy of your neighbor. But in a larger town, it could. Hence the Consual Contracts arose, which automatically had rules about delivery, etc.

    But Stipulatio was quick, easy and dirty. So it hung aound, and the stipulatios could be quite lengthy. Great if you’re of the persuasion”kill all the lawyers.” And after Caracalla’s citizenship edict, stipulatios didn’t even have to be in Latin. So, oddly enough, a very early form of contrac t became a major vehicle of Romanization.

    I think my readers have had enough….

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