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Structure of the Roman Family: Power of the Paterfamilias
As The Roman Republic developed politically, militarily, and
geographically, customs of society, including marriage and family changed
too, but many aspects remained static. There were three major periods in
Roman History that evoked change: the Early Republic 500-300 B.C.E., the
Punic Wars’ Era 200-100 B.C.E., and the beginning of the Empire when
Caesar Augustus began his reign as emperor in 27 B.C.E. after the end of
the Civil Wars that began with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E.
Augustus when he was given the name First Prince and the imperial
transformation was inaugurated. In 44 B.C.E. Roman society ties within the
family were especially strong. Governing the family was the paterfamilias,
oldest dominant male that was usually the father. Through most of Roman
history the paterfamilias had absolute legal authority and power over his
wife, children and slaves as long as he lived. He was autocratic like the
legendary godfather. For many centuries he could legally kill his wife for
adultery or divorce her at will. He could have his children killed by exposure
or infanticide. Until the father died his sons could not legally own property.
Despite his immense power, the paterfamilias did not necessarily act alone
or arbitrarily. To deal with important family matters he usually called a
council of the adult males. They had the opportunity to give their support to
the paterfamilias or to dissuade him from harsh decisions. A new member of
the household whether newborn, bride, new servant or slave had to gain his
acceptance. When the infant was born, the baby was laid on the ground in
front of the paterfamilias. If he picked the baby up, sprinkled his head with
water, and gave him a name, then the child was allowed to live, otherwise,
the infant was exposed.
Social Changes as a Result of the Punic Wars
As a result of the Punic Wars in the third and second centuries B.C.E.
changes occurred in Roman families. During those many years of war,
women inevitably assumed more responsibilities, and found some freedom
from usual control by their husbands and fathers. As Rome conquered more
land and people, more wealth was produced, and conspicuous consumption
and domestic intrigue became notorious, at least in the upper classes. More
emphasis on obtaining the consent of the bride and groom was shown in
prospective marriages, as the lack of adequate population was hindering
Rome. There were also more unmarried adults both male and female, and
married wives became more independent, thus divorce became more
frequent. In general marriage and family were less stable. With the coming
to power of Caesar Augustus when Julius Caesar was killed in 44 B.C.E.,
Octavian or Augustus wanted to go back to more stable social times. He
compelled men and women in the upper classes to marry and have children.
He restricted inheritance rights if this did not happen. Laws were passed
that unmarried men between the ages of twenty to sixty, and unmarried
women whether widowed or divorced between the ages of eighteen to fifty,
were not allowed to inherit. Widows were expected to remarry within a
year, and if a divorcee to remarry within six months. The Roman State was
made responsible for policing the chastity of Roman women. Family and
neighbors were compelled to turn in adulterers or face charges of aiding and
abetting their actions.
Marriage Customs
There was no legal minimal age for betrothal vows. In fact,
sometimes the prospective mates could be betrothed from the cradle. There
are many stories of men in ancient Rome avoiding pressure to marry and
father children by deliberately betrothing themselves to babies. Roman law
governed who could and could not marry. A patrician could not marry a
freed slave, and the lower classes or plebeians could marry freed slaves.
Roman law even allowed marriages between two men, formalizing what was
informal in Greece. It is thought that the Emperor Nero himself twice
married another man. It was important for the bride to bring her husband a
dowry, and it became the property of him or his paterfamilias. Weddings
took place usually when the girls were between the ages of twelve to fifteen,
and the boys were considerably older like in ancient Greece. When the
marriage ceremony was carried out it took place at the bride’s house. Other
wedding customs that the Romans followed have interesting antecedents for
the West’s wedding customs. As Juno was the mother of the deities, and the
month of June was named for her, most weddings took place in June in
ancient Rome. The bride wore a white gown and red veil. At the betrothal
ceremony, at the end of the ceremony, the young man placed an iron ring
on the third finger of left hand of his fiancée’s. Romans thought that a vein
ran from that particular finger directly to the heart.
After the ceremony, the
guests showered the couple with cracked walnuts. After the feast the
husband carried his bride over the threshold of their home because it was
deemed bad luck to the doorway god Janus if she tripped.
Divorce Customs
Although divorce was uncommon in the early centuries of Roman
history, it was permissible on specific grounds, all of which involved an
offense committed by one of the partners, but there were always more
reasons a husband could obtain a divorce than a wife. Husbands could get a
divorce for the following reasons: a wife’s attempt to poison him, excessive
drinking by his wife, his wife counterfeiting the household keys, and the
wife’s adultery.1 In fact, if a wife committed adultery, divorce was obligatory,
otherwise the husband was considered to condone the act as well as making
himself liable to prosecution as his wife’s pimp. In some cases the Julian
Law of 17 B.C.E. permitted the father of an unfaithful daughter who had
committed adultery to kill both his daughter and her lover. The husband
The wine was locked up and the wife did not have keys to the wine cellar. Planting a kiss on either cheek became
a common greeting to check if a wife had been drinking, a custom generally followed today in Europe.
was not permitted to kill his wife, but he might kill her lover. Barrenness of
the wife was another reason a husband could get a divorce as infertility was
always considered the woman’s fault, except in obvious cases of male
impotency. Divorce was not as easy for the wife, but it was achievable. If
her husband deserted her, she could get a divorce, or if he was convicted of
certain crimes or made a prisoner of war, then divorce was possible. By the
second century B.C.E. divorce had ceased to be a rare occurrence, and by
the Augustan Age it had become a public scandal, especially in the upper
classes. Julius Caesar and Marcus Cicero both divorced twice and married
three times. Seneca, a Roman writer of the times, said that women of his
day counted their years not by the consuls (highest official of the Roman
government), but by their husbands. Tertullian, a Christian father living in
the 2nd and third centuries C.E. is credited with the epigram: “Divorce was
now looked upon as one of the fruits of marriage.” By the first century C.E.
divorce was not only common, but procedurally easy to obtain.
The Status of Women: Customs & Costumes
Women were always subject to male authority by their fathers until
they married and then by their husbands, but this relaxed as the Republic
was transformed into the Empire. There is a famous statement by Cato the
Censor who said: “All men rule over women, We Romans rule over all men,
and our wives rule over us.” Respectable women were to do nothing,
however, to draw attention to themselves. They were not supposed to use
cosmetics, perfume or hairpieces to entice their husbands, but they did.
Extant are numerous paintings and statues of women wearing jewelry, using
makeup and wearing their hair in a non-matron fashion. A mosaic showing
women in bikinis, lifting weights and working out is a contraction of the
rules. A leather bikini has been found in a well in England that dates back to
the Roman rule there. Sumptuary laws were enacted at times to regulate
the spending of money, which was regarded as a threat to morality.
Republican values for the Romans meant that spending on luxuries implied
decadence and moral depravity. In wartime, it was thought necessary to
economize. A good example of this dilemma was during the Punic wars, the
Oppian Law was passed in 216 B.C.E., after the Romans were defeated by
Hannibal and the Carthaginians. This law forbade women to wear their
jewels, purple or gold embroidery or to drive in carriages in the city. Men
had similar restrictions. After Rome defeated the Carthaginians in 202
B.C.E., the law was cancelled for the Roman men but not for the women, so
the women marched on the Senate to seek repeal. This repeal of the law
was won when after debate, a tribune stated” “Give the women their
babbles, these will satisfy their trivial minds, and keep them from interfering
in more serious matters.” In Rome and the Near East when a woman left
home she was to wear a veil or hood. During the Republic a man could
divorce a wife who went out with her head uncovered. A veil or a hood
constituted a warning. It signified the wearer was a respectable woman and
that no man would dare to approach her without risking grave penalties. A
upper class woman, who went out in servant’s dress and unveiled, forfeited
the protection of Roman law against possible attackers, who were entitled to
plead extenuating circumstances. This practice continued at the urging of
Paul in early Christianity: 1 Corinthians 11:10. Lower classes of women did
contribute regularly to the economic viability of Roman society, and again
there are enough visual images that attest to their presence in the market
place selling various goods, engaging in prostitution, and serving as
Roman Concubinage
Sometimes there was a murky line between a wife and a concubine,
but in many respects the Concubinage arrangement was similar to our
common law relationship today. However, a Roman man could legally have
only one concubine at a time. It was expected that young boys at the age of
fourteen or so, would start a Concubinage relationship, but then when they
married years later, they were to become monogamous. It was also usual
for one to have a concubine relationship with someone when a valid
marriage was not possible like between a Senator and a freed slave or when
a girl’s family could not raise the cost of a dowry. Concubines’ children were
illegitimate, and they had no rights to the father’s inheritance.
Purpose of Marriage was Procreation
Roman law defined the purpose of marriage as procreation. A midwife
was sent to the prospective wife to give her a pelvic examination to offer
assurances to the groom’s family that his bride-to-be would be fertile. If
barren, some Romans felt that it was caused by their enemies’ recourse to
black magic. Pliny the Elder related that “Urine could be used medicinally to
counteract sorcery that prevented fertility and especially the urine of
eunuchs.” When the Republic was changed to the Empire the only way a
woman could free herself from male guardianship was to bear at least three
children. Emperors offered this inducement to have large families, because
of the continual devastating wars of the Romans. When Caesar Augustus
got this law passed in the Senate it also included the provision that mothers
of three children also got to wear a special dress of honor, the stola.
Risks of Childbirth for Women
Childbirth was extremely risky for women, as for centuries one in five
women died giving birth. Here is an epitaph for a Roman woman that
poignantly portrays this risk: “Here I lie, a matron named Veturia, my
father was Veturius. My husband was Fortunatus. I lived for twenty-seven
years, and I was married for sixteen years to the same man. After I gave
birth to six children, only one of whom is still alive, I died. Titus Julius
Fortunatus, a soldier of Auxiliary Legion II, provided this memorial for his
wife, who was incomparable and showed outstanding devotion to him.”
Birth Control Practices
We know some of the birth control practices of the ancient Romans.
Various herbal ointments were used like wool soaked in honey, alum, white
lead or olive oil as these were generally spermicidal ingredients. Historians
of the history of birth control regularly attest to the efficacy of the ancient
Roman and Greek contraceptives. Abortion and infanticide were also
considered forms of birth control. In Roman law the fetus did not have a
soul or individuality and therefore its destruction was not murder. Abortion
was an accepted form of birth control in fashionable circles in Rome. By the
end of the second century C.E., under the Emperor Septimius Serverus a law
was passed which punished a wife who aborted without her husband’s
consent. Infanticide or the practice of exposure of unwanted children was
practiced from the early years of Rome. Even Romulus, the legendary
founder of Rome, had been exposed with his twin brother Remus, and
rescued by a she-wolf. They were fathered by the war god who left them to
die. Some scholars suggest that the infanticide rate for girls was as high as
20%. A letter from a Roman provincial in Egypt that he wrote to his
pregnant wife, illustrates this point: “Be careful of the child . . . if it is a
male, let it be, if a female, expose it.’ Romans also exposed or drowned
malformed infants. Seneca, the famous Roman writer wrote: “What is good
must be set apart from what is good for nothing.” The Romans also exposed
the children of their daughters who had gone astray, and probably the
majority of infants who were exposed or abandoned were the children of the
poor. By the late fourth century C.E. due to the influence of Christianity, the
practice of exposure was outlawed in Rome. An alternative method to
infanticide was also practiced by the ancient Romans. This was adoption.
There was usually a regular street in a city where unwanted children were
left that people who were looking for a child to adopt could take one. More
girls than boys were placed here, and brothel owners frequently came by to
collect baby girls. People wanting household slaves picked out babies. It
was rumored that more well-to-do matrons picked up babies instead of
ruining their figures. Rescued foundlings in Roman Egypt often were given
the name Kopreus, which means “off the dunghill” in remembrance of their
retrieval place.
Naming of Children
Another custom that was changed over time in Roman history was the
practice of naming children. During the Republic Roman women had only
one name, the family name. There were no specific girl names for Romans.
The Masculine endings of a boy’s name were changed to female endings. If
more than one girl in the family then she was distinguished from her sisters
by the use of terms such as the elder or the younger, or prima and secunda.
By the time of the Empire, Roman women had acquired two names, with the
first being the family name and the second taken from her father’s name.
For example, Fabia Honorata was the daughter of Fabius Honoratus, and
Aurelia Victorina, was the daughter of Aurelius Victor. Roman boys had
three names if they were a Roman citizen. Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was
the famous orator and lawyer, had Marcus showing his official tribe, Tullius
as his personal name, and Cicero as his family’s name.
Roman Adoption
There always existed in Rome a custom that allowed great families,
threatened with extinction for lack of male descendants to buy a son and
adopt him. Usually this was done from one great family to another one.
The Ancestral cult of the family was thus perpetuated. Even an emperor
would adopt one or several young men capable of succeeding him.
Roman Slavery
One of the other intriguing and complex practices in ancient Rome was
slavery. Over the course of Rome’s many conquests, it became a slave
society. By the fourth to the third centuries B.C.E. slavery was endemic and
at least one-third of the population, at least in Rome, were slaves. As might
be said, the grandeur of Rome was based on the exploitation of a large part
of the population. Slaves produced practically all of the nation’s food supply.
Over the course of ancient Roman History, large farms became more
representative of the agricultural economy, and here plantation slaves were
changed at night so they would not run away. At least 80% of workers
employed in shops were slaves or former slaves, as the Roman patricians did
not think that engaging in business was worthy of their status. Household
slaves were better treated, but didactic literature of the time was to withhold
adequate food as it was not an inherent right. Archaeologists excavating
Herculaneum have found terrible bone diseases and other illnesses of slaves.
They were malnourished and worked too hard. Almost all the citizens except
the poorest owned at least a few slaves, and the wealthiest owned
hundreds. Like Greek slaves, the Roman slaves were captured people
during conquest or they were debtors. A successful general would bring
back thousands of captives to be sold to slave dealers for his own profit.
Romans were known to treat their slaves more harshly than the Greeks, and
this was probably due to the fact that most Roman slaves were non-Roman,
where Greek slaves were usually Greeks. When there was a proposal from
the Senate that slaves should wear distinctive clothing, it was voted down as
it was said the slaves would “see how few we are.” By the first to the
second centuries C.E. essentially everyone in Rome was related to a former
slave. Many slaves had iron collars welded around their necks with the
name and address of the owner, similar to our modern dog collars. There
were professional slave catchers who were quite successful.
Slave Revolts
How many slave revolts were there? Not many, but there were
several severe ones. The famous Third Servile War 73-73 B.C.E. saw
70,000 slaves in the Italian peninsula revolt. Led by an astute Greek slave
who was training to be a Roman gladiator, Spartacus, he was able to lead
his group of slaves against one Roman force after another, and defeat them.
This terrifying revolt went on for three years, but was finally successfully put
down. Spartacus was not able to control his men as they looted and pillaged,
and then broke away into smaller groups. Spartacus was finally defeated
and killed when someone turned traitor against him. Six thousand of
Spartacus’ followers were crucified and their bodies left to rot along the one
hundred and thirty mile Appian Way.2 The Senate then passed a law that if
one slave murdered his master, then the rest of the slaves in the household,
even if hundreds of them would be killed also. There was no further slave
Roman Law
There is general agreement that one of the most important legacies to
future generations was the Roman system of law. Roman law is the
foundation of civil law of almost all modern European nations. While Rome
was a republic their law codes were founded on what is referred to as the
Twelve Tables and Laws for Provinces, 450 B.C.E. These were augmented
by edicts of praetors, magistrates who had authority to define and interpret
the law, and then issue instructions to the jury for a decision of the case.
Later in Roman history eminent jurists had the right to deliver opinions on
legal issues of cases under trial in the courts. Opinions from these juries
Kirk Douglas played an awesome Spartacus in the movie of the same name years ago.
came to embody Roman jurisprudence. Roman Law as it developed under
the influence of these jurists was comprised of two great branches or
division: Civil Law and Natural Law. Civil Law was for Rome and its citizens.
Roman law was held to be common to all regardless of nationality. Such
things as contract, partnerships, and real estate law came under this. Most
interesting and in many ways the most important branch of Roman Law was
its natural law. It was a product not of judicial practice, but of philosophy.
Stoics had developed the idea of rational order of nature, which is the
embodiment of justice and right. They had affirmed that all men by nature
were equal, and entitled to certain basic rights. Marcus Cicero is considered
the “Father of the Law of Nature” and his great work is On The Laws. His
fundamental concept was that all free men were equal before the law. Other
important features were a man was innocent until proven guilty, the accused
was given the right to face his accusers, and the accused had the right of
appeal. Lawyers were also an important component of the justice or legal
system for ancient Rome, and this presence and power of lawyers continued
for centuries, to today.
Roman Education
Roman education is another major legacy. The purpose of Roman
education was not intellectual attainment nor promise of better job skills, but
for the molding of character and one’s conduct. Originally all education took
place at home. The wealthy families bought educated Greek slaves to be
their sons’ tutors. All cultured Romans prided themselves on the mastery of
Greek including some patrician women. In the late Republic sons were sent
to schools, but not daughters, who were still taught at home. There was no
system of free public education. Only children of wealthy parents were
given this choice. The Romans developed the seven Liberal Arts, where the
Latin word for book is liber. This system of education continued on into the
Middle Ages, and even to today. First the students learned the Trivium,
which was composed of Grammar, basic reading and writing, Rhetoric, the
art of speaking well which was important for Roman politics and law, and
Logic, which was the ability to reasons and argue effectively. To gain these
skills Greek philosophy, drama, and poetry were used. Over time the Roman
writers added works in Latin. Virgil was commissioned by the emperor
Caesar Augustus to write Rome’s own epic tale to compete with Homer’s
Iliad and Odyssey. This was the Aeneid, a story of Aeneas, a Trojan who
escaped the destruction of Troy during the Trojan War, and founded Rome.
The other part that made up the 7 Liberal Arts was the Quadrivium:
arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Music was the emphasis on
the relationships between notes, and was studied as a form of mathematics
rather than as a performing art.
Astronomy (also called astrology) was
both the observation of the stars’ movements, plus using them as signs and
portents. It was possible in ancient Rome to develop additional skills in
three areas: Medicine, Architecture, and Law. Training for Roman medicine
was composed primarily from studying and memorizing the Greek texts on
anatomy. Architecture was learning about the Greeks’ mastery of columns
and temples, and then adding knowledge about the value of the arch and