Familia Domus and its
Roles in ancient Roman Society
History 101: Roman Republic &
February 6, 2006
M, W 5:30 pm - 6:45 pm
The Latin term “domus”, a derivative from the word domicile meaning family household, was considered by historians to be the bedrock institution of Roman society. Due to factors of life expectancy and the normal social stratifications throughout the centuries, the family has greatly changed in many aspects between Roman domus and our households of today. What is about to be discussed is the organization of the family households of ancient Rome, its members and their respective roles, and lastly what purposes it has served in the operation of the Roman state and society. However, between one day and the next there are changes in one’s lifestyle, which brings us to the discussion in the clear differentiation of how the Romans have changed between the early beginnings of ancient Roman households and almost four to five hundred years later, as well as the continuity in them over time.
The Roman family household has been an institution in which modern day families expanded off of and have used to begin a basis of their own households. We have used a series of their ideas between architecturally and politically, however our families have been strongly derived from the Roman beginnings. The families were very different in ancient Rome than they are today, especially due to the severe decline of life expectancy being only about twenty-seven years, causing people to die in what is now considered the “prime” of life. Family members could not expect to see their children live through childhood; they could not expect to live to see their children become adults, and in turn children would not expect to have more than one parents watch them mature. With this large uncertainty of who was going to live and for how long, the members in which resided in the house began to vary and have a vast series of members living in it. Romans were fortunate enough to survive at least until they had reached middle ages of their lives. The individuals which were proven to be propitious at this point in their lives became a part of a series of “blended families”, consisting of step-families and half-sibling relationships, which do not stray too far from our divorced-spouse family households of today. According to the course text of “As the Romans Did”, page sixteen, the people of ancient Rome were considered to be “pragmatic”. They consistently performed familial ties allowing them to create a web of mutual-assistance obligations. This was a society with a low life expectancy, and no inclusive community-sponsored welfare system, which made it possible as well as allowed these family members to depend on one another. With the dependence of the familia domus as a whole, there are separate parts of who to depend on in the household. Each and every member of the family had their own respective roles, which will be discussed next.
The fathers of these household were very prominent in upholding their titles as “paterfamilias” which indicates that he is the head of the familia. (ARD, 17). This term, “paterfamilias”, also denotes to us a derivative from “pater”, which is therefore often synonymous with the word “father”. This generalization of the father being the head of the household was one that contained perpetuation and was not easily broken. These men took much pride in their role of the household, and had several other roles within this title to carry out. A Roman father managed all the financial assets of the family, he had the legal right to expose a newborn child; he arranged marriages for his children and could force them to divorce spouses without a care; he could disown a child, sell a child into slavery, or even kill a child whose behavior caused him to act ill or discontent. The strict and severe temperament (or lack there of) of the father controlled his power and decisions, as well as the thoughts and feelings of the other family members and the community, too. This fatherly role was proven to be less popular than others, specifically arranged marriages. For example, as late as sixty-three B.C. a senator named Aulus Fulvius had his adult son executed because he was involved in a plot with four other individuals to overthrow the government. (ARD, 16). According to a passage from (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.26-27), “Romulus granted to the Roman father absolute power over his son…Romulus even allowed the Roman father to sell his son into slavery”, which indicates to us the origin of these practices and personally I think that it suggests the almost refusal to change with time, and to grow with the years. These civilians of ancient Rome appeared adamant in their belief to preserve and sustain the strong, authoritative leader figure and all of his roles throughout time. These fathers had quite harsh terms of reasoning with their children; however in reality most fathers were concerned about the well-being and success of their offspring. As these fathers upheld the set of laws throughout the familia domus, the mothers upheld their own specific roles as well.
In view of the fact that we only have mostly legendary-historical evidence of the activities of these civilians, there is very limited information in which we are exposed to, and that in which we do have access to strictly through the readings that writers of this period would develop stories, rarely describing their mothers, or more commonly known as a “matrona”. These women were known to be virtuous, strong, self-sacrificing, and devoted to the education and political advancement of her family, however it is known they seem to worship their children from a distance and maintained a relationship which possessed somewhat of a lack of warmth. Often this relationship was caused by the high percentage of women, whom died during child birth, or even died just young in general. Many children never even had the pleasure of knowing their mothers, which meant that they would be raised by their grand-mothers or stepmothers. The primary caretakers of these children were not only their mothers, but found in families with more of a disposable income would be someone with the ability to perform routine physical care such as a lower-class citizen or sometimes a slave. During times of divorce, the children would be legally given to the father, and fully taken care of by the woman in his life. Mothers of ancient Rome were not there to recall personal and highly individual memories of maternal youth, which led most to describe their mothers as more of a generalized caretaker. For example, the mother of Agricola was Julia Procilla, and he “spent his boyhood and adolescence close by her side being gently trained in every aspect of honorable achievement” (ARD, Article 19.) This shows the changing in ways to more of a warm-hearted relationship between the child and the mother throughout time, given that Gnaeus Julius Agricola was alive between A.D. 40 and A.D. 93. These memories of warm moments proved the changing elements of a very important member, the mother, of the familia domus.
The ancient Roman state and society had a very close link to the family. In fact, the ancient Roman state was ruled by the hierarchal, wealthier, families. These families made the rules, collected the taxes, and obtained all the luxurious benefits of a leader. The families made up the Roman society, making it the main basis of all families and governmental decisions in the future.
Whether the father was arranging a marriage, killing his son, a mother was an acclaimed “cold-hearted” caretaker, or the family itself ruled the ancient Roman empires and their governments, in every way shape and form we have taken after the ancient Roman tasks and mannerisms in at least one way. This civilization has been able to provide many examples and paths for many generations to come to follow.