Glancing towards the past of the old Roman Republic and the Roman Empire we are more than often charmed by and idealized view of the Roman family life adhering to the principles of virtus, dignitas, auctorias, gloria, pietas, and gravitas.1 As Beryl Rawson would argue in her essay on Roman family, this view is limited to that of the patrician class and the plentiful literature surrounding it
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.2 Furthermore, this outlook does not adequately account for core features of any social study of family such as the process of socialization of children, the extent of their education, specific gender roles, family structure, relationship between members, inheritance, and also does not incorporate the description of a Roman family within the context of other social classes. In order to get an ample insight of Roman society all the aspects previously enumerated need to be analyzed. The general Roman family structure, by common consensus, was believed to be a small nuclear unit, yet the term of familia used in the period could have been much larger. Thus, the family consisted of the wedded couple plus the household dependents such as their unmarried children, slaves, and in some case freedmen and foster-children according to the research of Jerome Carcopino in the Daily Life in Ancient Rome.
3 At the head of the household was the oldest surviving male ascendant whose authority was recognized legally over his descendants and lasted until his death, known as the paterfamilias. Furthermore, the term familia could refer to all persons and property under the control ( patria potestas) of the paterfamilias, but more than often it was referred to the nuclear families household
4. Based on wealth or social class the size of the nuclear family varied greatly. However, during the period of the Roman Republic and then the Roman Empire the average size of the nuclear family was relatively small, ranging from the conjugal couple and about two to three children according to Rawson.
5 Under the hegemony of the paterfamilias, women and grown children would have a very inferior legal status. The head of the family having “power of life and death over his legitimate children, […], and full rights over property, including anything they might acquire. Daughters were removed from the father’s power when he gave them in marriage into a control of a husband.”
6 The act of marriage was regarded in ancient Rome more as a financial and political alliance than as a romantic association, especially in the upper classes. In any social class the primary purpose for marriage was to produce children. Since the life expectancy was so low in ancient Rome women married very early, fathers usually began seeking husbands for their daughters when these reached an age between twelve and fourteen. The husband was usually older than the bride between mid to late twenties.
7 The two official types of marriages were: with manus and without manus. The marriage with manus was the typical upper-class wedding and tended to be a lavish affair which incorporated a religious rights ceremony in the presence of the pontefix maximus
8. The marriage without manus was largely a more plebian affair in which there were no religious rights and the father emancipated his daughter to the husband. The third form of marriage was called the usus where after a year of cohabitation between a man and a woman they were by law considered married.
9 In order for a manus union of a man and woman to be legitimate, there needed to be consent legally and morally. Both parties had to be willing and intend to marry, and both needed their fathers’ consent. One of the most important aspects of the practical and business-like arrangement of Roman marriage was the dowry. The dowry was a contribution made by the wife’s family to the husband to cover the expenses of the household. The dowry was also how Roman families maintained their social status relative to each other. It was important to ensure that upon the end of a marriage, the dowry was returned to either the wife or her family. This was done in order to improve her chances of remarriage as well as to maintain the family resources. In ancient Rome, the dowry became the husband’s full legal property. In actuality, however, the purpose of the dowry often affected the husband’s freedom to use the dowry. In the case the dowry was given to help in the maintenance of the wife, or if a legal provision was made for the wife or her family to reclaim the dowry should the marriage dissolve, the husband was restricted as to how he could make use of the dowry. In the case of marriages without manus since the bride was emancipated she retained her property rights although her property came under control of the husband while she was married.
10 As previously mentioned political status held a place of honor within Roman society. Nobility or the rank of patrician was not simply bestowed upon an individual. It was gradually built up or torn down by a family thus the importance of a nomen or family name. In this sense legitimate children belonged to their father’s family and bore his family name. Illegitimate children belonged to their mothers and bore her family name. There were also cases where the paterfamilias had no children or none of his children survived adulthood. In this instance the head of the household could compensate by adopting a son who would oversee the family after his death and thus he would have an heir. As far as inheritance is concerned, when the head of the family dies the patria potestas goes to the designated heir which in most cases he was a male form the line of the husband. The only case when women and men were equal in inheritance is if you have a brother and sister of approximately the same age. If the mother dies her dowry and holdings go directly to the designated heir. The only situation when married women had priority of inheritance was the respect of patria potestas of her mother’s brother.
11 The custom of divorce was usually reserved for serious marital faults, such as adultery, and could be employed by a husband at any time. Since marriage was often used as a political tool in ancient Rome, especially in the upper classes, divorces were common when new political opportunities presented themselves. If the wife was not at fault for the ending of the marriage, then she was able to reclaim her dowry. If the wife committed adultery, husbands got to keep a portion of the dowry.
12 When regarding women roles in society and family during the transition period of 133-43 B.C.E. , they were completely dependent of man, not being able to speak in public or to sell property or buy it without the consent of the males of the family. Legally at this time and era they were treated with inferiority to men
13. Gradually the current was changing towards the late period of the Republic as we can notice in the letter of Cicero to his wife Terentia and her actions as well as in Hortensia’s Speech.
14 Furthermore in this period, a Roman wife was generally understood as her husband’s companion and helper. She was next to him at banquets and parties and shared his authority over the children, slaves and the household. Roman wives were no longer expected to live secluded lives. They could freely receive visitors, leave the house, visit other households, or leave to go shopping to list some examples
.15 . While the nature of Rome’s patriarchal society persisted throughout the Imperial period equality within the conjugal couple with the end of the Roman Republic. The Roman family was the mold in which the character of the Roman was formed, much as the polis formed the character of the Athenian. Every Roman looked with pride upon his family and the deeds of his ancestors; and it was regarded as a great calamity for the family worship to become extinct and so do we as historians need to carefully preserve its history and understand their society by analyzing every piece of its puzzle.
Bradley, Keith. Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. London: The Folio Society, 2004. Crook, John. The Roman Family. The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. Edited by Beryl Rawson. Ithaca, New York : Cornell University Press, 1986. Hughes, Sarah, and Brady Hughes. Women in World History. Readings from Prehistory to 1500. Vol. 2. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. Rawson, Beryl. The Roman Family. The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. Edited by Beryl Rawson. Ithaca, New York : Cornell University Press, 1986.