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Structure of Roman family

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Bas-relief showing the Roman family
Bas-relief showing the Roman family

A typical Roman familia consisted of all family members and their slaves slaves. To put it in legal matters, everyone who was subject to the legal control of the head of the house belonged to the family – paterfamilias.

Literally “father of the family” could only be a male Roman citizen, without age restrictions, not subject to the paternal power of another paterfamilias – he was, therefore, a sui iuris person. In relation to his family members, he had a number of rights (the right to life and death), which were referred to as patria potestas (“father’s power”). He had authority over the children called patria potestas , over his wife manus, and over slaves dominica potestas. In theory, the head of the family had enormous rights, but in practice it looked less restrictive.

In the Roman home, it was appropriate for a matron to stay under the control of paterfamilias. It was expected that the woman would be an exemplary wife for the head of the family and would be “servile” to look after male members of the house. Matrona also had to take care of her good image as materfamilia, and leave the house to wear long dresses, emphasizing her dignity. It is worth noting, however, that in practice the matron could exercise her rights. In the event of her husband’s death, she took over the ownership of the house and in practice became independent. Moreover, the wife had the right to divorce mainly in the event of betrayal or abuse of her husband. In this case, the husband returned the dowry brought by the woman’s father.

Women from higher social spheres were expected to give birth to children and increase the population. The state has often joined this matter – including Octavian August imposed the obligation to have children. In fact, giving birth to children was the most important function of women in birth and the husband could even divorce when she did not give him a child. Children who grew up and got married started their own households. The male descendant after marriage automatically became paterfamilias of his home. A woman who was married, in accordance with the agreement concluded before the wedding, either came under the legal protection of her husband or remained under the control of her father. Regardless of the choice, the Roman woman should have been with her husband.

Slaves naturally also belonged to the family and paterfamilias. In practice, the slave was of little more value than material things and no outstanding social behaviour was expected of them.

  • Peter Jones, Keith Sidwell, The World of Rome: An Introduction to Roman Culture, 1997
  • Beryl Rawson, The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives, 1992

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