Different cultures have a different conceptions of what it means to be a family. In some societies, the typical family is structured as a small nuclear family unit. In others, the family refers to a larger group of cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, etc. Some cultures consider entire neighborhoods or villages to be a close-knit family group, while others include only blood relatives of the matrilineal or patrilineal line. The ancient Romans were no different in this respect. They had a unique family structure, known as the "familia," with its own cultural, social, and legal nuances. Learning about the structure of the Roman familia can help us better understand the ancient Romans as people, and it can add perspective and clarity to many Roman works of art and literature.
The Familia and the Roman State
The ideal Roman household, or familia, was meant to function as a miniature model of the Roman state. Unlike the modern conception of the family, the Roman familia referred to the entire household, including the slaves and servants. The familia included “those under the legal control of the head of household, the paterfamilias."1 Like the Senate of Rome, the familia had an absolute power in which all final authority was invested. This figure was the male head of household, the paterfamilias.
Role of the Paterfamilias
The paterfamilias was an adult male citizen with his own household. By law, the paterfamilias had complete control over every aspect of the household. His patria potestas or “power of the father” extended even to committing murder. “Stated at its most dramatic, the power of the paterfamilias was absolute: the power of life and death over his familia, that is his legitimate children, his slaves, and his wife if married in a form that transferred paternal control to the husband."1 This extreme patria potestas carried a strong sense of social pride for the Romans, but in practice it was not so absolute.
Role of the Matrona
Although she often remained under the legal control of her paterfamilias (her father), the wife was a central figure to the familia of her husband as well. In either capacity, she was expected to be subservient to the governing male figures in her life. It was her social and familial duty to present the image of “materfamilias to her family, and matrona, respected married woman in her long skirts, to the outside world."1 But the matrona enjoyed some unexpected freedoms as well. A materfamilias owned property and often functioned as her own familial unit upon the death of her husband: “for the vast majority of wives of mature years whose fathers had died and who had become independent, their property was their own."1 A matrona also had the option of divorce available to her, though it was usually seen as a last resort. But if a husband mistreated his wife or disgraced her, she could indeed divorce him, thereby necessitating the return of her dowry to her father.1
Children in the Familia
Married couples, especially those of the upper classes and elite, were encouraged to produce children.2 The children, along with slaves, freedmen, and the materfamilias, were under the absolute legal control of the paterfamilias. However, upon marriage, both male and female children left the household of their father to begin one of their own. A male child would marry and become a paterfamilias of his own household. A female child, upon marriage, could be transferred to the legal control of her husband, or be kept under the legal control of her father, depending on the specifics of the marriage agreement, but she was always expected to physically reside with her husband.1
Slaves and the Familia
Slaves were also members of the familia under the total and complete control of the paterfamilias. However, due to the fact that they were considered property, less was expected of them socially. While a matrona or unmarried daughter of the familia would not be permitted to go about in public unchaperoned by a paterfamilias or male family member, slaves were free to interact with people at all levels of society. Slaves also had more freedom in gender relations. They weren't expected to maintain an air of seemliness or propriety, which meant the genders mixed more freely both in public and within the home.1
Slaves and Skilled Labor
Slaves could gain considerable freedom and power within the familia by learning a specialized skill. Specialized slaves took more training and were therefore in greater demand, more expensive, and more difficult to replace. Educated slaves often handled the family's accounts and financial transactions, read and wrote correspondence for the paterfamilias, and educated the family's children in history, writing, literature, etc.1 If they served the family well, such slaves could often hope to become freedmen. Once freed, a slave owed allegiance to his former master's house, but he was free to begin a household of hid own, and his children could even become Roman citizens.1
Flexibility of the Familia Structure
At a cursory glance, the structure of the Roman familia appears to be one of rigid, male-dominated control where women, children, and slaves are held under the absolute, despotic rule of the paterfamilias. However, upon closer inspection, the system was a fairly flexible one with a number of checks and balances on the power of the paterfamilias. Wives could appeal to their fathers to intercede in their marital troubles, and could even divorce husbands who refused to shape up. Women maintained absolute control over personal possessions such as clothing, jewelry, cosmetic items, etc, and could often use the return of their dowry as a manipulation tactic. Slaves could socialize more freely, and those with an education oversaw many important household tasks, making them valuable employees and giving them leverage with the paterfamilias.
It is important to remember that although the socially-defined roles of the members of the familia may seem rigid to us, the familia was still a household family unit. For the most part, they felt genuine affection, warmth, and love for each other. Slaves loved the children they helped raise and educate. Husbands and wives loved one another and their children. Children respected and loved their slave tutors and nannies. It was the warmth and flexibility that allowed the unit of the familia to function successfully for over 1,000 years.
- Jones, Peter and Keith Sidwell. The World of Rome: An Introduction to Roman Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1997.
- Rawson, Beryl. The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. New York: Cornell University Press. 1992
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 05, 2016:
Thoughtfully written and presented. It is so interesting to read of the dynamics of family, then and now
Angels are on the way to you ps
Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on July 04, 2016:
This is a really interesting insight into the structure of the Roman 'family' Christy, which - as you indicate - helps to clarify the social relationships to be found in depictions of Roman life in art, literature and also, I might add, in the more sincere TV and film portrayals of the Roman era. Intriguing that slaves in some respects had more social freedoms than wives and daughters! :) Shared, Alun.
Christy Kirwan (author) from San Francisco on June 11, 2013:
Hi Ashley E,
the plays of Plautus are good primary sources that often play on relationships within the familia for humor and drama. They're fictional, of course, but many of the everyday details are useful.
The World of Pompeii (eds. Pedar Foss and John D. Dobbins) is a good source as well. It's about the archaeology of the Bay of Naples in particular, but some of the chapters on domestic spaces and social contexts are relevant. I hope that helps!
Ashley E on June 11, 2013:
I am currently writing my Master's Dissertation on the Roman Familia looking at the individuals within it as well as the distinguishable features of it etc & I was wondering if you had any other sources you would suggest I could look at? Your article is very useful as an overview but for 20,000 words min I need to go a little more in depth. I'll look at the sources you used but if you have any other suggestions, as it can be somewhat difficult to find such detailed sources, it would be greatly appreciated! Thanks so much!
Christy Kirwan (author) from San Francisco on June 09, 2013:
Haha, I write it myself. I studied history in college. The sources I used are great if you're writing a paper. I'd recommend checking them out at your local library. :)
Tisapotato on June 09, 2013:
Holy crap. Do you write all of this yourself? Or do you have writers?
Anyway, very helpful article, great job.
Hope this will help me get an excellence score.
Christy Kirwan (author) from San Francisco on December 30, 2012:
Thanks! I studied a lot of Roman history in college, so I had a lot of fun writing this.
Mary Craig from New York on December 30, 2012:
You've surely done the Roman Familia justice in this hub. What a bang up job! You've provided details about the whole level of family in Rome. So much we THINK we know but don't!
Voted up and interesting.