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The Roman Family: Basics

How do we understand the Roman family? The best way would be to go back in time, talk to people, and live among the Romans. That’s a bit difficult. As historians, we have to use what is available to us.

When historians started thinking about this topic, they were looking for the ‘normal’ family. They thought that the most obvious place to find that was in law. Law might be thought to lay the norms of society and behaviour, its social rule book. That’s a questionable assumption: how often does your family think about law in its every day business? But it is a place to start.


Romans invested considerably authority in the pater (father). The father held power (potestas) over members of his family. The members of his family were those who were descended from him (his children and grandchildren). This was a fundamental principle of Roman law from which much else flows. Although a father having power over his children is common to many societies. The Roman system seems to have taken this to an extreme.

  • Paternal power meant that all family property was under the control of the pater. The age or gender of children had no effect on this right. A man of fifty who had a living father might not be able to hold property in his own right, unless arrangements had been made.
  • Paternal power included rights over children which extended to physical punishment. In an extreme circumstance, a father might kill a child under his power as a punishment. This is a power explicitly reinforced under Augustus when a father’s right to kill a daughter caught in adultery. To be adulterous, a woman would need to be married and adult.
  • The law meant that children were possessions and could be treated as such. The legal status of a child under paternal authority was not dissimilar to that of a slave. Indeed, the word familia could be used to designate all those under paternal authority, including the slaves of the household.

That this was a strange and extreme position was recognised by Roman lawyers. One of earliest legal text books, Gaius, Institutes 1.55 remarks:

Also our children, who are born to in legal marriage, are in our power. This right is special to Roman citizens, for there are almost no other peoples who have such power over their children as we have over ours.

This power could be given up. The father could go through a legal process by which he freed his children so that they were under their own authority (sui iuris). It was a similar process by which a slave was freed. A father could also agree to have his children adopted, so that they joined another family.

Wives, Daughters and Women

A woman remained under the authority of her father until her father died.

In exceptional circumstances, a woman might be transferred from the authority of her father to the authority of her husband. This would happen if the marriage was ‘cum manu‘ (with power), But this appears to have been irregular and archaic. In most instances, a woman remained under the authority of her father, even though she resided with her husband.

A woman had no rights over her children. They belonged to their father.

On marriage, a dowry was given by the father to the husband. This was property held in trust by the husband for the support of the wife. If the marriage was dissolved by the death of the husband or divorced, that property returned to the father.

On the death of the father, a woman would inherit equally with her male siblings. That property would be held by the woman, not her husband. The woman became sui iuris (under her own authority) as did her brothers. In most circumstances, a woman required a tutor to make agreements concerning her property. The tutor was obliged to act in the interests of the woman. A tutor who would not do what a woman requested could be removed. A tutor operated to protect the woman’s interests, not to tell her what to do. For women who had three of four children, the tutor was not required.

Marriage was a contractual matter. There were religious ceremonies and celebrations, but it normally involved the passing of a dowry and the change of residence of the woman. Divorce was an ending of that contractual relationship and required the separation of the couple and the return of the dowry. It was undoubtedly easier for a man to achieve, but a woman could divorce and expect her dowry to be returned.

A wife was not a member of her husband’s familia in strict legal terms. She was something of a stranger in her husband’s house.

Practices and Implications

The word ‘patriarchy’ is sometimes used to describe a society in which men take a dominant role. But the words in its original meaning refers to rule by the father. The Roman legal situation was an extreme patriarchy.

One imagines that such a structure would be extremely hierarchic and oppressive for those unlucky enough to fall under paternal authority. One might imagine it was a recipe for considerable friction if an adult child had to continually defer to an aged father.

But law is one thing, life another.

In practice, in the day-to-day activities of family life, there is every reason to believe that power of the father was moderated. In the case of children, they were clearly not treated as slaves. In the case of wives, they were clearly contributors to their husband’s household and influential therein. We have examples from the imperial family of woman such as Livia, Julia, Agrippina, her daughter Agrippina, Messalina, who were major political figures and openly influential on their husbands. Although the extent of their power was extreme, the fact that they had social power was probably not unusual.

Nevertheless, even if behaviour was far more reasonable than in law, Rome was a patriarchal society. Fathers had expectations of authority. It seems that they exercised considerable economic and social power of their children. Wives were subordinate and undoubtedly vulnerable.


Households, Families, Men and Women          Household and Family: Concepts                  Family Size and Shape


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