Sarah Bond: Sealed with a Roman Kiss: A Valentine's Day Post

Constantine was nothing if not incredibly (some might say obsessively) concerned with the rites, rituals, and laws surrounding marriage. A law of 335 written to the Vicar of Spain (CTh. 3.5.6) expounded on a topic already addressed numerous times: betrothal gifts. If a betrothed couple had already engaged in the osculo interveniente ('exchanged kiss') and one died before the actual marriage could take place, then half of the gifts given by the male betrothed would go to the surviving partner and the other half to the family of the deceased.  If there had been no kiss? The gifts would go back to the givers or his heirs (Evans-Grubbs, 67). The turn of phrase "sealed with a kiss" came about because kisses could in fact create a binding contract. Moreover, kisses were a potent social currency that Americans today regularly underestimate.

Polyphemus and Galatea Kissing
(Pompeii fresco)
Romans had different types of kisses, just as we do. We would never french kiss our mother or a platonic friend, and likewise, there were certain kisses due for certain people and occasions. There were oscula, basia, and savia. Usually, oscula were for public displays and those with whom there was not an underlying passionate or erotic love. The ius osculi regulated this kind of kissing, and dictated to what familial degree a man could kiss a woman. The other two types were a more romantic love, with basia being deeper kisses on the lips (Cat. 5.7) and savia being the deep kisses of passion. I suppose I am a bit more interested in the public and legal use of kissing than what Romans were doing behind closed doors. Sorry to disappoint.

As Constantine's law exemplifies, mutual agreements were often sealed with a kiss. This didn't just go for marriage contracts, it also went for much larger diplomatic agreements. Before a large crowd, Sulla and Mithridates embraced and sealed the Peace of Dardanus with an osculum pacis ('kiss of peace'). As Adrienne Mayor has noted, it is interesting to try and reconstruct what the Eastern king Mithridates must have been thinking as he was kissed on the cheek by Sulla. Persians kissed social equals straight on the mouth, but received kisses on the cheek from social inferiors (Mayor, 226). The kiss signalled the conclusion of the negotiations and the fact that a new relationship had been formed, but did Mithridates find it a bit strange he was being kissed on the cheek? Likely.

Judas' kiss given to Christ
(Ravenna, Saint Apollinare Nuovo, 6th c.)
Within Roman culture, kisses were a common yet potent part of social relations. New members of voluntary associations were ushered in with a kiss, and politicians often used hand kisses while canvassing for votes. During the empire, the daily kissing that occurred at receptions of court was so detested by the emperor Tiberius that he tried to ban the ritual. It was a way of showing deference, even though it may have unwittingly contributed to transmitting some diseases (Toner, 135); moreover, who and where you kissed could say a great deal. Judas indicated his friendship with Jesus by kissing him--and thus tipping off the Roman soldiers and officers as to who he was. Senators themselves desired the honor of the imperial kiss, but whether they got one was often telling of the relationship between the emperor and the Senate. Following the death of Tiberius, Caligula fashioned himself more of a man of the people. While he openly gave kisses to actors (Dio 59.5.3), senators were forced to kiss his feet and hands (Dio 59.27.1-2). Nero denied senators a kiss upon his return from Greece, and in so doing advertised his displeasure with them (Suet. Ner. 37). Other social movements were also reflected in the placement of a kiss. The figurative distance of the Roman people from the emperor only increased in Late Antiquity, a fact reflected in the areas where people could kiss him. By the later empire, one kissed only the very hem of his cloak. In order to do this, one essentially had to lay on the floor.

Obama kisses Aung San Suu Kyi at her residence -
The Daily Mail called this "another example of his
hands-on diplomacy" 

There is indeed much more to say about Roman kisses and the use of the act in law or as a social glue, but perhaps this will provide a little insight into the potestas of the kiss not only between those in love, but also between our friends, co-workers, and new acquaintances. Americans are notorious for their love of personal space and, unlike our European counterparts, have largely done away with the amicial kiss. To many, the act has become too personal a ritual to share with anyone but our immediate family and partner, but I for one would like to resurrect the art of the diplomatic osculum.

Further Reading: 

Judith Evans-Grubbs, "Marrying and Its Documentation in Later Roman Law," in To Have and To Hold: Marrying and Its Documentation in Western Christendom, 400-1600 (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 43-94.

Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press, 2010).

J.P. Toner, Popular Culture in Ancient Rome (Polity Press, 2009),

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