How Ancient Romans Viewed Family

Published December 16, 2020
Roman Family

Ancient Romans viewed family as most important for the continuity of the society and republic of Rome. Ancient Roman families understood their moral duties to the family, community, and the Roman Empire.

Ancient Romans Family Values

The Ancient roman family culture placed the oldest male of the household was the head of the family. The immediate family and members of the extended family often resided in the same house.

Family Life in Ancient Rome

The Ancient Roman family nucleus (mother, father, children) was known as the familia. In addition, there was often a mix of extended family members, freed slaves, and slaves owned by the family that resided in the home. These non-nuclear family members were known as domus.

Paterfamilias and What It Means

Paterfamilias (pater familias) is Latin for father of the family. This title was held by the oldest male living in the household. The paterfamilias was considered the head of the family and had autocracy over the family clan. This authority also included the extended family.

Vintage engraving of Hannibal's vow

Ancient Romans and Paterfamilias Control of Family

Whatever the paterfamilias decreed as the rule of law for his family wasn't negotiable. All family members obeyed his rules and did as he commanded. He was literally the king of his castle or in this case, his home/household. Legally, the paterfamilias had to be a Roman citizen. As such, he owned the family estate and all of the family wealth to do with it as he deemed necessary. He was also the priest of the family and led the worshipping practices of the household.

Duties of the Paterfamilias

Some of the most important duties of the paterfamilias revolved around the rearing of the children in the household, especially his own. That obligation meant providing a healthy lifestyle and comfortable/safe home for the children. He was expected to provide the children, his wife, and the domus with food, clothing, and healthcare if they became ill. The paterfamilias along with the materfamilias (mother) instilled the values of the mos maiorum to their children. That included a high morality, social propriety, and a deep respect of the individual responsibility for the honor of being a Roman citizen. His control over his children only ceased upon his death.

Role of Materfamilias

The materfamilias's role was to oversee the running of the household. Most women were in charge of the household budget and managing the slaves. In more affluent households, the woman worked to advance her husband's career and social status. The wives of senators and other politicians were very adept in the social mores of the political class.

Moral Code of Ancient Rome

While no family member could challenge their paterfamilias or contest his rights over the household, this was only true as long as he did so according to the mos maiorum. The mos maiorum was the unwritten moral code that all Ancient Romans followed. These societal moral laws extended beyond the Ancient Roman family and controlled politics, the military, businesses, and all facets of Ancient Roman life. While the paterfamilias's power was absolute, he was expected to be even-handed when ruling over his family.

Continuity of Ancient Roman Families

The mos maiorum ensured that the Republic continued to survive since all the citizens were raised with the same moral code and duty to Rome. For a paterfamilias to do anything less would bring shame and dishonor to his household and family name. It would be an affront to the family, their ancestors, and the gods they worshipped. If a paterfamilias became a tyrant to his family, there were laws in place to prevent any abuse of his powers and control over the familia and domus. However, he held the life of everyone in his household in his control.

Family Obligation to Serve Rome

Through the social mores of the mos maiorum, all Roman citizens felt an obligation to serve Rome in whatever capacity they could. The wealthy families pursued political positions, while poorer families supported communities with a business, such as a livery, bakery, clothier, and so on.

Life of a Child in Ancient Roman Families

If a child was born into a family, it was the paterfamilias who decided if the child would become part of the family. According to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), not all children were accepted into the family for a number of reasons, such as deformity or financial burden. The baby was placed on the floor, and the paterfamilias had to pick up the infant if he accepted it into the family. If the paterfamilias ignored the baby and walked away, then it was exposed, which was a nice way of saying it was abandoned to the streets. It was assumed that someone would take the baby and raise it in slavery. PBS states that the death rate of children in the first century was extremely high, with 50% dying before the age of 10 years old.

Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, with her Sons

Legitimate Children of the Paterfamilias

The legitimate children of the paterfamilias were raised by a wet-nurse and other house servants/slaves. However, both parents were actively involved in their children's lives as they grew up. Ancient Roman parents were affectionate, and it appears their parent/child relationships were long lasting with strong close bonds.

Slave Children

The fate of slave children rested in the hands of the paterfamilias. They may be allowed to remain with their parent or sold at the whim of the paterfamilias. However, if the children were the paterfamilias's offspring, he might give them special treatment. Wet-nurses were often part of the household to care for the slave and non-slave children. In many households, there was no difference made between the illegitimate and legitimate children of the paterfamilias.

Adoption in Ancient Rome

Ancient Romans believed in adoption. They saw this as a way to form alliances with other family to solidify their social and political standings. For examples, Senators engaged in adoption more than the lower classes. This practice allowed them to arrange marriages with other influential families. It also provided them with heirs so the family estate/fortune could be passed on to the next generation.

Continuity of Family and Inheritance

Ancient Romans believed in wills to stipulate the division of their estate. Until the death of paterfamilias, the sons and sometimes daughters survived on a stipend or allowance. When the paterfamilias died, the inheritance would go to the children named in his will. The inheritance never went to his spouse. The estate, wealth and debt were divided among the children as the paterfamilias wanted. The materfamilias became the responsibility of the children unless she was legally independent.

Holding an ancient scroll

Marriage in Ancient Rome

Each household worshipped their respective gods and goddesses and had varying family rituals. Some Roman marriage normals included the bridal procession by torch to the groom's home for the ceremony and feast. In The Roman Family, author Suzanne Dixon writes that marriages were arranged by the older generation of the family along with friends of the family. However, the paterfamilias had the final say and unless he approved of the marriage, it wasn't valid.

Age of Marriage in Ancient Roman Families

It was a common practice for wives to be younger than their husbands. The age of marriage were very young in Ancient Rome when compared to modern society. Girls 12 years old to mid-teens were considered marrying age, while boys were 14 years old and older.

Legal Independence for Women

Since the goal was to grow the citizenship of Rome to ensure the Republic expanded and thrived, the earlier government granted women legal independence when she had given birth to three babies that were live births. A female slave was granted her freedom when she birthed four live babies. This independence meant the woman no longer answered to the paterfamilias of her household. With her independence, she became responsible for all areas of her life.

Ancient Romans and Family Structure

It's easy to see the patriarchal structure of Ancient romans. The nuclear family was the glue that held the Republic together.

How Ancient Romans Viewed Family