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Size and Form of the Family

How big was the Roman family?

This is a really important question, but a very difficult one to answer. For modern societies, we can answer that question because we have census returns. Rome also held a census, but it returned total population figures. We know that in 28 BC, Augustus and Agrippa counted 4,063,000 citizens in 28 BC. This figure rose to 4,233,000 in 8 BC and to 4,937,000 in AD 14 (Res Gestae 8). But we are not certain whether that figure includes just men, or men and women, or men, women and children. What we do know is that the Romans were concerned about population levels.

Romans thought that they had too few people. That concern can be traced back to at least 133 BC when Tiberius Gracchus sought to put more people back on the land so that they could have families and produce soldiers for the army.. It continued to be an issue with Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus giving a speech in 131 BC suggesting that it was every Roman’s duty to marry in order to produce the next generation of citizens (Livy, Periochae 59 [129]. That speech was dusted off and read by Augustus to drum up support for his legislation to encourage marriage (Suetonius, Augustus 89). By the time of Domitian, the emperors were sponsoring charitable funds to support boys and girls in Italian towns. We can see that there is concern over population over a period of about 250 years.

In Dio’s very long account (56.1-10) of Augustus’ speech to unmarried and childless, there is a concern that the Roman population, perhaps especially the aristocratic population, were not reproducing. He focuses primarily on men who were refusing to marry.

  • If Roman families were large, would there be so much concern over such a long period at a falling population?
  • Why would Roman men not want to marry?
  • What would be the effect of Roman men marrying later? Why is it an issue?

The age of men at marriage has a marginal effect on the fertility of the marriage. Demographers think that the key factor is the age of women. If women marry early it maximises the period in which they bear children.

The Romans married their girls off very early. The earliest legal age was 12. That seems to have unusually early, but more girls  married from 13 or 14. Perhaps up to 50% of girls were married by aged 15. Marriage seems to have almost universal for women and nearly all women were married or had been married before their early twenties.

In theory, such early marriages should have maximised female fertility. In some cultures, women did not remarry after widowhood or divorce, but in Rome, they did. One might expect that fertility among women would head close to what is called ‘natural fertility levels’, which means on average 8-10 live births per woman.

If that were the case and all those children reached adulthood, the Roman population would grow fourfold every generation. It didn’t. Many of those children died before reaching adulthood. Many women also died young. Mortality in the Roman was brutal and life expectancy was low, but probably not low enough to mean that a natural fertility regime would not produce rapidly increasing population.

Demography is a game of dice. Some families would be lucky and unlucky. A consequence of so many births should have a mix of large families with lots of children and families with no children.

What is the pattern of family size?

We have almost no evidence for lower class families. For upper class families, there is very little evidence for large families. In the mid second second century BC, Tiberius Gracchus and Cornelia had twelve children, three of whom survived to adulthood (Plutarch, Lives of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus 1). We find some evidence in the imperial household of large families: Germanicus and Agrippina had six children survive to adulthood. Julia and Agrippa had five children. But outside the imperial family, we look in vain for other similarly large families. If we look through Pliny’s Letters, the families who appear are mostly small, one or two children. Pliny himself was an only child. He seems to have had very little close family.

That would seem to be the pattern also of inscriptions (see a nicely explained collection here). These often list the heirs to the dead and these were often children. Very few of those inscriptions list three or more children (7%) and only 3% more than four. Such figures may under-represent daughters and do not account for those children who predeceased their parents.

But the pattern seem indicative. It looks as though large families were uncommon. The implication must be that families limited family size.

Why limit family size?

The Roman economy was predominantly agriculture, which means that most wealth was invested in land. That investment would not grow quickly. They also operated a partible inheritance system. This meant that the wealth of the parents was normally equally divided between the children. Since status was related to wealth, then two parents who passed their wealth to two children could expect those children to be of the same status. If you had three children, you needed to find more property somehow. If you had four children, their economic and social status would fall.

If you were poor, then having many children risked those children not being able to support their own families.

How did you limit family size? Methods of contraception were likely mostly ineffective. The choice was either to avoid sexual intercourse in forms that might lead to pregnancy or to expose the unwanted baby. We have no figures for exposure by which to assess the scale of the practice. It happened. We have a letter from Egypt which puts the decision in brutal terms. For men, not having sex with their wives did not mean not having sex: slaves and prostitutes were available.

Male Age at First Marriage

Marriage was a social and economic contract. A good father would assess the economic assets of a potential son-in-law before marriage. A rich son-in-law could expect a rich bride. A man, therefore, had an interest in delaying marriage until he could accumulate wealth. The point at which a man accumulated most wealth was when his parents died and he inherited. A rich orphaned male might want to marry early. A man with long-lived parents might marry late.

A son who wanted to marry probably needed a house for his new bride. He needed his father to release money so that he could have that house. The father might do that by dying, or by gift. But giving property to his son reduced a father’s estate (and social standing).

There were thus various reasons why men might marry late. One consequence of this was a significant age gap between spouses, perhaps normally ten or more years ( men start to marry from aged 25).

The Shape of the Family

If we assume that life expectancy was somewhere in the 30s, then very few men lived as late as sixty. If a man married at 25 and had a male child at aged thirty, he was likely dead by that time that child reached 25 and wanted to marry. Men were more likely to leave their younger wives as widows than themselves to be widowed. In consequence, few adult men would need to negotiate with an adult pater.

The Roman family was unlikely to be extended across several generations: people did not live that long. It looks as if the wealthy family had a great interest in being relatively small.

The evidence from inscriptions suggests very strongly that the nuclear, parents and a relatively small number of children, were the most common of family in the Roman West.

Here, we need to introduce a note of caution. The evidence from Italy is poor. The evidence from most of the provinces even poorer. But we do have evidence from Egypt. That shows a very different pattern of family formation. But there is good reason to believe that Egypt was indeed very different.

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