1. The Family
  2. Roman Names
  3. Marriage and Women
  4. Children and Education
  5. Slaves and Dependents
  6. The House and Furniture
  7. Dress and Ornaments
  8. Food and Meals
  9. Amusements
  10. Travel and Correspondence
  11. Sources of Income
  12. Farming and Country Life
  13. Town Life
  14. Funeral Customs
  15. The Roman Religion
  16. The Water Supply of Rome

The Private Life of the Romans
by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston
Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932)


Table of contents


Chapter 1: THE FAMILY

REFERENCES: Marquardt, 1-6; Blümner, 301-302; Becker-Göll, II, 1-4, 61-65, 187; Pauly-Wissowa, under adfīnitās, agnātiō, cognātiō, familia, gēns; Daremberg-Saglio, under adoptiō, adrogātiō, affīnitās, agnātiō, cognātī, cognātiō, familia, gēns, patria potestās; Walters, under adoptiō, cognātiō; McDaniel, 23-26; Showerman, 66-68. Look up the word familia, in Harpers’ Latin Dictionary, and notice carefully its range of meanings. See, also, Sherman, II, 44-116, and the article “Roman Law” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, eleventh edition, XXIII, 529-531, 540-542, 565, 566, 573, fourteenth edition, XIX, 451-452.

The Househould (§17)

Other Meanings of Familia (§18-19)

Patria Potestās (§20)

Limitations (§21-22)

Manus (§23-24)

Dominica Potestās (§25-26)

The Splitting Up of a House (§27-28)

Extinction of the Potestās (§29)

Agnātī (§30-31)

Cognātī (§32)

Adfīnēs (§33)

The Family Cult (§34-36)

Adoption (§37)

   17. The Househould. If by our word “family” we understand a group consisting of husband, wife, and children, we may acknowledge at once that it does not correspond exactly to any meanings of the Latin familia, varied as the dictionaries show these to be. Husband, wife, and children did not necessarily constitute an independent family among the Romans, and were not necessarily members even of the same family. The Roman familia, in the sense nearest to that of the English word “family,” was made up of those persons who were subject to the authority of the same Head of the House (pater familiās). These persons might make a host in themselves: wife, unmarried daughters, sons, adopted sons, married or unmarried, with their wives, sons, unmarried daughters, and even remoter descendants (always through males), yet they made but one familia in the eyes of the Romans. The Head of such a familia—“household” or “house” is the nearest English word—was always suī iūris (“his own master,” “independent”), while the others were aliēno iūrī subiectī (“subject to another's authority,” “dependent”).

FIG. 7
Part of a relief from the Ara Pacis of Augustus, now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

   18. Other Meanings of Familia. The word familia was also very commonly used in a slightly wider sense to include, in addition to the persons named above (§17), all the slaves and clients (§§176-182) and all the property real and personal belonging to the pater familiās, or acquired and used by the persons under his potestās. The word was also used of the slaves alone, and, rarely, of the property alone. In a still wider and more important sense the word was applied to a larger group of related persons, the gēns, consisting of all the “households” (familiae in the sense of §17) that derived their descent through males from a common ancestor. This remote ancestor, could his life have lasted through all the intervening centuries, would have been the pater familiās of all the persons included in the gēns, and all would have been subject to his potestās. Membership in the gēns was proved by the possession of the nōmen (§§46-47), the second of the three names that every citizen of the Republic regularly had (§38).

   19. Theoretically this gēns had been in prehistoric times one of the familiae, “households,” whose union for political purposes had formed the State. Theoretically its pater familiās had been one of the Heads of Houses from whom, in the days of the kings, had been chosen the patrēs, or assembly of old men (senātus). The splitting up of this prehistoric household in the manner explained in
§27, a process repeated generation after generation, was believed to account for the numerous familiae that, in later times, claimed connection with the great gentēs. There came to be, of course, gentēs of later origin that imitated the organization of the older gentēs. The gēns had an organization of which little is known. It passed resolutions binding upon its members; it furnished guardians for minor children, and curators for the insane and spendthrifts. When a member died without leaving heirs, the gēns succeeded to such property as he did not dispose of by will and administered it for the common good of all its members. These members were called gentīlēs, were bound to take part in the religious services of the gēns (sacra gentīlīcia), had a claim to the common property, and might, if they chose, be laid to rest in a common burial ground, if the gēns maintained one.

   Finally, the word familia was often applied to certain branches of a gēns whose members had the same cognōmen (§§48-50), the last of the three names mentioned in §38. For this sense of familia a more accurate word is stirps.

   20. Patria Potestās. The authority of the pater familiās over his descendants was called usually patria potestās, but also patria maiestās, patrium iūs, and imperium paternum. It was carried to a greater length by the Romans than by any other people, so that, in its original and unmodified form, the patria potestās seems to us excessive and cruel. As they understood it, the pater familiās, in theory, had absolute power over his children and other agnatic descendants (
§30). He decided whether or not the new-born child should be reared; he punished what he regarded as misconduct with penalties as severe as banishment, slavery, and death; he alone could own and exchange property—all that those subject to him earned or acquired in any way was his; according to the letter of the law they were little better than his chattels. If his right to one of them was disputed, he vindicated it by the same form of action that he used in order to maintain his right to a house or a horse; if one of them was stolen, he proceeded against the abductor by the ordinary action for theft; if for any reason he wished to transfer one of them to a third person, it was done by the same form of conveyance that he employed to transfer inanimate things. The jurists boasted that these powers were enjoyed by Roman citizens only.

   21. Limitations. But however stern this authority was theoretically, it was greatly modified in practice, under the Republic by custom, under the Empire by law. King Romulus was said to have ordained that all sons and all first-born daughters should be reared, and that no child should be put to death until its third year, unless it was grievously deformed. This at least secured life for the child, though the pater familiās still decided whether it should be admitted to his household, with the resultant social and religious privileges, or be disowned and become an outcast. King Numa was said to have forbidden the sale into slavery of a son who had married with the consent of his father. But of much greater importance was the check put by custom upon arbitrary and cruel punishments. Custom, not law, obliged the pater familiās to call a council of relatives and friends (iūdicium domesticum) when he contemplated inflicting severe punishment upon his children, and public opinion obliged him to abide by its verdict. Even in the comparatively few cases when tradition tells us that the death penalty was actually inflicted, we usually find that the father acted in the capacity of a magistrate happening to be in office when the offense was committed, or that the penalties of the ordinary law were merely anticipated, perhaps to avoid the disgrace of a public trial and execution.

   22. So, too, in regard to the ownership of property the conditions were not really so hard as the strict letter of the law makes them appear to us. It was customary for the Head of the House to assign to his children property, pecūlium (“cattle of their own”), for them to manage for their own benefit. Furthermore, although the pater familiās theoretically held legal title to all their acquisitions (
§20), yet practically all property was acquired for and belonged to the household as a whole, and the pater familiās was, in effect, little more than a trustee to hold and administer it for the common benefit. This is shown by the fact that there was no graver offense against public morals, no fouler blot on private character, than to prove untrue to this trust (patrimōnium prōfundere). Besides this, the long continuance of the potestās is in itself a proof that its rigor was more apparent than real.

   23. Manus. The subject of marriage will be considered later; at this point it is necessary only to define the power over the wife possessed by the husband in its most extreme form, called by the Romans manus. By the oldest and most solemn form of marriage the wife was separated entirely from her father's family (
§35) and passed into her husband's power or “hand” (conventiō in manum). This assumes, of course, that he was suī iūris; if he was not, then she was, though nominally in his "hand," really subject, as he was, to his pater familiās. Any property she had of her own—and to have had any she must have been independent before her marriage—passed to her husband's father as a matter of course. If she had none, her pater familiās furnished a dowry (dōs), which shared the same fate, though it must be returned if she should be divorced. Whatever she acquired by her industry or otherwise while the marriage lasted also became her husband's (subject to the patria potestās under which he lived). So far, therefore, as property rights were concerned, manus differed in no respect from the patria potestās: the wife was in locō fīliae, and on the husband's death took a daughter's share in his estate.

   24. In other respects manus conferred more limited powers. The husband was required by law, not merely obliged by custom, to refer alleged misconduct of his wide to the iūdicium domesticum (
§21), and this was composed in part of her cognates (§32). He could put her away for certain grave offenses only; Romulus was said to have ordained that, if he divorced her without good cause, he should be punished with the loss of all his property. He could not sell her at all. In short, public opinion and custom operated even more strongly for her protection than for that of her children. It must be noticed, therefore, that the chief distinction between manus and patria potestās lay in the fact that the former was a legal relationship based upon the consent of the weaker party, while the latter was a natural relationship independent of all law and choice.

   25. Dominica Potestās. Whereas the authority of the pater familiās over his descendants was called patria potestās, his authority over his chattels was called dominica potestās. So long as he lived and retained his citizenship, these powers could be terminated only by his own deliberate act. He could dispose of his property by gift or sale as freely as we do now. He might “emancipate” his sons, a very formal proceeding (ēmancipātiō) by which they became each the Head of a new House, even if they were childless themselves or unmarried or mere children. He might also emancipate an unmarried daughter, who thus in her own self became an independent familia, or he might give her in marriage to another Roman citizen, an act by which she passed, according to early usage (§§
23, 35, 62), into the House of which her husband was Head, if he was suī iūris (§ 17), or into that of which he was a member, if he was still aliēnō iūrī subiectus. It must be noticed, on the other hand, that the marriage of a son did not make him a pater familiās or relieve him in any degree from the patria potestās: he and his wife and their children were subject to the Head of his House as he had been before his marriage. On the other hand, the Head of the House could not number in his familia his daughter’s children; legitimate children were under the same patria potestās as their father, while an illegitimate child was from the moment of birth in himself or herself an independent familia.

   26. The right of a pater familiās to ownership in his property (dominica potestās) was complete and absolute. This ownership included slaves as well as inanimate things, for slaves, as well as inanimate things, were mere chattels in the eyes of the law. The influence of custom and public opinion, so far as these tended to mitigate the horrors of their condition, will be discussed later (§§
156-158, 162-163). It will be sufficient to say here that, until imperial times, there was nothing to which the slave could appeal from the judgment of his master. That judgment was final and absolute.

   27. The Splitting Up of a House. Emancipation was not very common, and it usually happened that the household was dissolved only by the death of its Head. When this occurred, as many new households were formed as there were persons directly subjected to his potestās at the moment of his death: wife, sons, unmarried daughters, widowed daughters-in-law, and children of a deceased son. The children of a surviving son, it must be noticed, merely passed from the potestās of their grandfather to that of their father. A son under age or an unmarried daughter was put under the care of a guardian (tūtor), selected from the same gēns, very often an older brother, if there was one. The following diagram
1 will make this clearer:

   28. It is assumed that Gaius was a widower who had had five children, three sons and two daughters. Of the sons, Aulus and Appius had married and each had two children; Appius then died. Of the daughters, Terentia Minor had married Marcus and become the mother of two children. When Gaius died, Publius and Terentia were unmarried. Gaius had emancipated none of his children. The following points should be noticed:

     (1) The living descendants of Gaius were ten (3, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16); his son Appius was dead.

     (2) Subject to his potestās were nine (3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14).

     (3) His daughter Terentia Minor (10) had passed out of his potestās by her marriage with Marcus (9), and her children (15, 16) alone out of all the descendants of Gaius had not been subject to him.

     (4) At his death were formed six independent familiae, one consisting of four persons (3, 4, 11, 12), the others of one person each (6, 7, 8, 13, 14).

     (5) Titus and Tiberius (11, 12) merely passed out of the potestās of their grandfather, Gaius, to come under that of their father, Aulus.

     (6) If Quintus (13) and Sextus (14) were minors, guardians were appointed for them, as stated above (
§ 27).

   29. Extinction of the Potestās. The patria potestās was extinguished in various ways:

     (1) By the death of the pater familiās, as has been explained in
§ 27.

     (2) By the emancipation of a son or a daughter.

      (3) By the loss of citizenship of a son or a daughter.

     (4) If the son became a Flāmen Diālis or the daughter a virgō vestālis.

     (5) If either father or child was adopted by a third party.

     (6) If the daughter passed by formal marriage into the power (in manum) of a husband, though this did not essentially change her dependent condition (§§ 23, 35).

     (7) If the son became a public magistrate. In this case the potestās was suspended during the period of office, but, after it expired, the father might hold the son accountable for his acts, public or private, while he held the magistracy.

   30. Agnātī. It has been remarked (
§ 25) that the children of a daughter could not be included in the familia of her father, and (§ 18) that membership in the larger organization known as the gēns was limited to those who could trace their descent through males to a common ancestor, in whose potestās they would be were he alive. All persons related to one another by such descent were called agnātī, “agnates.” Agnātiō was the closest tie of relationship known to the Romans. In the list of agnātī were included two classes of persons who would seem by the definition to be excluded. These were (1) the wife, who passed by manus into the family of her husband (§§ 23, 25), becoming by law his agnate and the agnate of all his agnates, and (2) the adopted son. On the other hand a son who had been emancipated (§ 25) was excluded from agnātiō with his father and his father’s agnates, and could have no agnates of his own until he married or was adopted into another familia. The following diagram will make this clear:

   31. It is supposed that Gaius and Gaia have five children (Aulus, Appius, Publius, Terentia, and Terentia Minor), and six grandsons (Titus and Tiberius, the sons of Aulus, Quintus and Sextus, the sons of Appius, and Servius and Decimus, the sons of Terentia Minor). Gaius has emancipated two of his sons, Appius and Publius, and has adopted his grandson Servius, who had previously been emancipated by his father, Marcus. There are four sets of agnātī:

     (1) Gaius, his wife, and those whose pater familiās he is: Aulus, Tullia, the wife of Aulus, Terentia, Titus, Tiberius, and Servius, a son by adoption (1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 11, 12, 15).

      (2) Appius, his wife, and their two sons (5, 6, 13, 14).

     (3) Publius, who is himself a pater familiās, but has no agnātī at all.

     (4) Marcus, his wife, Terentia Minor, and their child Decimus (9, 10, 16). Notice that the other child, Servius (15), having been emancipated by Marcus, is no longer agnate to his father, mother, or brother, but has become one of the group of agnātī mentioned above, under (1).

FIG. 11
From a grave relief, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

   32. Cognātī. Cognātī, on the other hand, were what we call blood relations, no matter whether they traced their relationship through males or through females, and regardless of what potestās had been over them. The only barrier in the eyes of the law was loss of citizenship (§ 29), and even this was not always regarded. Thus, in the table last given, Gaius, Aulus, Appius, Publius, Terentia, Terentia Minor, Titus, Tiberius, Quintus, Sextus, Servius, and Decimus are all cognates with one another. So, too, is Gaia with all her descendants mentioned. So also are Tullia, Titus, and Tiberius; Licinia, Quintus, and Sextus; Marcus, Servius, and Decimus. But husband and wife (Gaius and Gaia, Aulus and Tullia, Appius and Licinia, Marcus and Terentia Minor) are not cognates by virtue of their marriage, though that made them agnates. Public opinion strongly discountenanced the marriage of cognates within the sixth (later the fourth) degree, and persons within this degree were said to have the iūs ōsculī, “the right to kiss.” The degree was calculated by counting from one of the interested parties through the common kinsman to the other. The matter may be understood from this table in Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities under cognātī, or from the one given here (Fig. 12) Cognates did not form an organic body in the State as the agnates formed the gēns (§§ 18-19), but the twenty-second of February was set aside to commemorate the tie of blood (cāra cognātiō. On this day presents were exchanged and family reunions were probably held. It must be understood, however, that cognātiō gave no legal rights or claims under the Republic.

Fig. 12

   33. Adfīnēs. Persons connected by marriage only, as a wife with her husband’s cognates and he with hers, were called adfīnēs. There were no formal degrees of adfīnitās, as there were of cognātiō. Those adfīnēs for whom distinctive names were in common use were gener, son-in-law; nurus, daughter-in-law; socer, father-in-law; socrus, mother-in-law; prīvignus, prīvigna, step-son, step-daughter; vitricus, step-father; noverca, step-mother. If we compare these names with the awkward compounds that do duty for them in English, we shall have additional proof of the stress laid by the Romans on family ties; two women who married brothers were called iānitrīcēs, a relationship for which we do not have even a compound. The names of blood relations tell the same story; a glance at the table of cognates (Fig. 12) will show how strong the Latin is here, how weak the English. We have “uncle,” “aunt,” and “cousin,” but between avunculus and patruus, mātertera and amita, patruēlis and cōnsōbrīnus we can distinguish only by descriptive phrases. For atavus and tritavus we have merely the indefinite “forefathers.” In the same way the Latin language testifies to the headship of the father. We speak of the “mother-country” and “mother-tongue,” but to the Roman these were patria and sermō patrius. As the pater stood to the fīlius, so stood the patrōnus to the cliēns (§§ 175, 177-180), the patriciī to the plēbēiī, the patrēs (senators) to the rest of the citizens, and Iuppiter (Jove the Father) to the other gods.

   34. The Family Cult. It has been said (
§ 30) that agnātiō was the closest tie known to the Romans. The importance they attached to the agnatic group is largely explained by their ideas of the future life. They believed that the souls of men had an existence apart from the body, but they did not originally think that the souls were in a separate spiritland. They conceived of the souls as hovering around the place of burial and requiring for its peace and happiness that offerings of food and drink be made to it regularly. Should the offerings be discontinued, the soul, they thought, would cease to be happy, and might even become a spirit of evil to bring harm upon those who had neglected the proper rites. The maintenance of these rites and ceremonies devolved naturally upon the descendants from generation to generation, whom the spirits in turn would guide and guard. Contact with Etruscan and Greek art and myth later brought in such ideas of a place of torment or possible happiness as Vergil gathers up in Book VI of the Aeneid.

   35. The Roman was bound, therefore, to perform these acts of affection and piety so long as he himself lived, and was bound no less to provide for their performance after his death by perpetuating his race and the family cult. A curse was believed to rest upon the childless man. Marriage was, therefore, a solemn religious duty, entered into only with the approval of the gods, ascertained by the auspices. In taking a wife to himself the Roman made her a partaker of his family mysteries, a service that brooked no divided allegiance. He therefore separated her entirely from her father’s family, and was ready in turn to surrender his daughter without reserve to the husband with whom she was to minister at another altar (§§
23, 25, 62). The pater familiās was the priest of the household; those subject to his potestās assisted in the prayers and offerings, the sacra familiāria.

   36. But it might be that a marriage was fruitless, or that the Head of the House saw his sons die before him. In this case he had to face the prospect of the extinction of his family, and his own descent to the grave with no posterity to make him blessed. One of two alternatives was open to him to avert such a calamity. He might give himself in adoption and pass into another family in which the perpetuation of the family cult seemed certain, or he might adopt a son and thus perpetuate his own family. He usually followed the latter course, because it secured peace for the souls of his ancestors no less than for his own.

   37. Adoption. The person adopted was sometimes a pater familiās himself; more usually he was a fīlius familiās. In the case of the latter the process was called adoptiō and was a somewhat complicated proceeding by which the natural parent conveyed his son to the adopter, the effect being to transfer the adopted person from one family to the other. The adoption of a pater familiās was a much more serious matter, for it involved the extinction of one family (
§ 36) in order to prevent the extinction of another. This was called adrogātiō and was an affair of the state. It had to be sanctioned by the pontificēs, the highest officers of religion, who had probably to make sure that the adrogātus had brothers enough to attend to the interests of ancestors who cult he was renouncing. If the pontificēs gave their consent, the adrogātiō had still to be sanctioned by the comitia cūriāta, as the act might deprive the gēns of its succession to the property of the childless man (§ 19). If the comitia gave consent, the adrogātus sank from the position of Head of a House to that of a fīlius familiās in the household of his adoptive father. If he had a wife and children, they passed with him into the new family, and so did all his property. Over him the adoptive father had potestās as over a son of his own, and looked upon him as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. We can have at best only a feeble and inadequate notion of what adoption meant to the Romans.

1The sign = means “married”; the sign † means “deceased.”


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