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Family, Names and Social Evolution

Family history used to be thought of with a progressive model. The idea was that families progressed through stages.


They began with clans dominated by lead males (fathers/patres). The authority of the clan would extend over many different familial units which under their control. In Rome, the clan is sometimes seen in the middle part of the Roman name, the gentilicium (names such Julius, Junius, Sempronius, Tullius), which reflected membership of gentes. The trouble is that there is almost no reliable evidence that the clans of Rome shared anything other than a name and perhaps a very remote ancestor. By the time we get proper records, no one thinks in terms of gentes.


The next stage is the extended family. This was a family which formed around an ancestor, a pater. The family would might include several generations. The Roman legal structures might be seen as providing for such a structure in that they reinforced the authority of a pater. There is some evidence that such families did exist in Rome.

Roman names progressed down the family. The first-born male child of a Lucius Terentius Varro would be called Lucius Terentius Varro (2); his sister would be Terentia, their next brother something Gaius Terentius Varro (1). In the next generation, one might get another Lucius Terentius Varro (3), son of number 2, but he might have a brother, whom we shall call Gaius Terentius Varro (2) and a cousin Gaius Terentius Varro (3). Nor is Terentia lost to the family. If her husband was so minded, or there was a particular reason, he might add a fourth name to his son’s names, Terentianus, to show a connection with the Terentii. Just to make things even closer, cousins might marry to cement family bonds. What comes out of such an arrangement is a network of family bonds, few of whom would cohabit, but all of whom would be part of a social network.

In Latin, you’d call such a group familiares, those descended from a single relative. The word could further extend to mean something like ‘close friends’. In English, you’d talk about the ‘relations’. In slightly more old-fashioned social environments, you might talk about ‘kin’.

Such a group would be a social group, but might they be more than that? There is no obvious leader in such a group and no shared financial interest. In the case of in which a Roman died without heir and without will, property might move to these relative in archaic Roman law, but it seems that nearly every Roman with property made a will in any case. Connections were probably significant, but loose.


I think it is possible to imagine a further group between the familiares and the familia. We know that Marcus Tullius Cicero was close to his brother Quintus Tullius Cicero. Quintus married Pomponia, the sister of Cicero’s best friend, Atticus. He was clearly also close to his new (also Quintus). This group did not live together. So how should we describe them? This comes to be more of an issue when we see the development of the imperial household.


The domus augustana on the Ara Pacis (Alston)

Augustus managed his extensive family to create a close-knit circle of friends and relations. In the Augustan case, the extended familial group became the domus. The group certainly included the women, who took an active part in the workings of the domus augustana. With friends like Agrippa at its heart, the domus could be considered the ruling institution of Augustan Rome.

If there was a domus augustana, would there be other similar family structures for less distinguished families? It seems to me to be very likely.


The familia dominated by the pater is a unit with which we are more familiar. The familia  was evidently the most important legal unit and the smallest of the familial groups. It was through this group that property was dispersed to the children. It was probably the primary unit of consumption (the household). Given that it was composed of pater, spouse and the pater‘s children, it looks more like the small modern families.

Social Evolution

In the nineteenth century, when people started getting interested in the history of families, they assumed that families went through these stages as their society developed. The stages came to be associated with economic stages of development. Primitive societies worked with clans (gentes), farmer societies with extended families (medieval) (familiares), and economically developed societies with small families (familiae) (modern).

The characteristics of the familiae were more equality within the family, relations of affection between family members, high status for women and a protective environment. The assumption was that the status and treatment of women gradually improved over the Roman period.

The problems with such a model are:

  • It assumes a single universal path to development which the history of the West exemplifies.
  • It assumes that social developments are the workings of nature. We don’t think about underlying factors which might lead to societies changing the way in which families operated.
  • It is based on limited or no evidence
    • We have to work very hard to understand either the operation of families or the treatment of status of women in the Roman imperial period. For periods before 100 BC, the evidence base is tiny.
  • Historians of late medieval Britain and Italy have shown conclusively that the model does not apply. In rural England and in Tuscany in the medieval period, small nuclear families were the norm. Larger extended families are very difficult to see.

What this tells us that we have to be very careful when thinking about the Roman family. We cannot make assumptions and certainly cannot think there was only one way of organising a family. Like our families, Roman families were likely diverse and when they said family or used a word we might translate as family, what they were talking about and who was in the group almost certainly varied depending on the context.


Households, Families, Men and Women              The Roman Family: Basics            Size and Form of the Family

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